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‘Voyager’ (PG-13)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 27, 1992

In Volker Schloendorff's "Voyager," Sam Shepard's lanky frame is bent into a melancholy curve from the weight of existential pressures. His character is an American engineer named Faber, a wanderer whose travels have brought him to an Athens airport where, soul-sick, he mulls over the tragic path of his life.

Faber is the sort of mysterious, emblematic type that Shepard often plays; he is not so much a real person as a collection of associations, a skeleton on which the flesh of myth is hung. In this case, the iconography comes from the '50s, in which most of the story is set, the decade of Sartre and Camus; when Shepard tugs on the brim of his gray fedora, he's slipping into the familiar costume of the loner plagued with spiritual doubt and intellectual fatigue. It's as if he had a copy of "The Stranger" pinned to his lapel.

The problem with "Voyager" is that it never amounts to anything more than a philosophical fashion show, with Shepard as its stylish mannequin. Based on the novel "Homo Faber" by Max Frisch (and adapted by Rudi Wurlitzer), "Voyager" follows its hero through a web of coincidence that takes him from Zurich before the war, where he was a student, to his low point two decades later in Athens. The setting isn't coincidental; Schloendorff's story has its origins in the tragedies of classical Greece. But though the shape of the drama is classical, the film's themes remain distant and inchoate.

Fate seems to have targeted Faber as the butt of some cruel cosmic joke; for some obscure reason, he's set on a collision course with his past. The complicated plot has Faber aimlessly trotting all over the globe; he first discovers that his old lover, Hannah (Barbara Sukowa), married and had a daughter with his best friend, Joachim (August Zirner); later, during a voyage across the Atlantic, Faber falls in love with Sabeth (Julie Delphy), a pale, precocious young girl who reminds him of Hannah.

When Delphy makes her entrance as Sabeth, it doesn't take a trained film professional to figure out where the story is headed. What Schloendorff ("The Tin Drum") means by it all is another matter. Shepard seems to wander about in a fog of navel-staring self-absorption. As Faber, he gives so little away that, aside from an air of weary glamour and his reliance on rationality and fact, the man seems virtually without personality. Delphy is an alluring camera subject -- she has an almost translucent quality on screen -- but she falls too easily into the generic mold of the French jeune fille to make a fresh imprint on our imagination.

From beginning to end, the film appears on the verge of collapse; it has a lethal case of malaise. And instead of resolving his ideas, the director seems to simply run out of gas. Like Faber, his movie fades into nothingness.

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