I guess it had to come to this.
Umberto Eco with his Foucault’s Pendulum. Polanski with his Ninth Gate. Lynch with his Inland Empire. And now Medem.
It might just be natural if you have an interest in narrative to pass through kabbalah. My own knowledge of this comes from Borges who wrote short stories alluding to the notions of the tree of life found in the Zohar. Caroll’s “Alice” is supposedly based on this same structure (the 10 emanations) and so are the movies mentionned above.
I don’t know much about it, but I’ve seen enough films based around it to understand the notions of regenerating worlds. It is intricately linked with the creative process because it is a model for the mapping of the universe. Mystical, elusive, cosmical. It is about how reality is but an emanation of a previous reality which itself is an emanation of a previous emanation and on and on until ten emanations. These are structured visually to form three tryptichs. Symmetries and unlikely parallels can be deducted from this visual representation and that is why so often we find “temporal slippage and causal confusions” in such films.
Although the tree of life finds its roots in Jewery (but mingled with the Polish and Spanish), some symbols strikingly similar to those of the kaballah were found amongst Native American artifacts. It is thus interesting that Medem chooses to include Native mythology in this story.
Anyhow, that study is deep, and I only know very little, so you will have to look elsewhere if you wish to probe it.
But readers, I am unhappy to report that this film is a failure. It is too ambitious for its own good.
By now we know that Medem’s technique is to offer an engaging story all viewers can enjoy while still supplying all kinds of narrative innovations for the initiated. The problem here for someone like me (and possibly you) is the innovations are all in the narrative instead of being at the outer edges, molding the bends.
So the story itself is filled with beguiling ideas. Just imagine. A curious soul who lives in a cave with ten doors. A painter whose paintings are images that emanate from past lives. Charlotte Rampling, a seeker of souls, who takes her away from the cave and brings her into a “Wonderland” (an artist residence) where she is meant to discover the depths of these past lives.
Along the way she encounters a video-artist who tapes her hypnosis sessions and makes a film out of them, tying her past lives together.
A love story where motherhood is conflated with sexual affection and displacement, estrangement, loss, possibly redemption.
Heads roll (like in Alice), someone’s mother shrinks into irrelevancy, some characters reccur in different stories.
Sex sublimated in all creative forces.
And the shape of the thing is ten chapters, conflating with a hypnosis-like countdown, ten to zero, but by now we know these are actually the ten sephirot.
And last but not least, an opening sequence on a dancefloor that so subtly references The Saragossa Manuscript, that you might miss it if you blink.
So how could he have gone wrong? Why is it that this fails where Arctic Circle succeeds and Lucia triumphs?
Because he began with an overt agenda of making a film about his deceased sister. In fact the wonderful layered paintings we see in the film are hers. As such, the project morphed into a dissemination of the notion that natural creative power is inherently feminine, and opposite of this we find the dumb masculine vicious tendacy towards violence and death. Our protagonist’s supposed “past lives” are all of great historical female figures (from Hypatia to Riefenstahl), who were tragically abdicated from life because of their defying creative powers.
That’s fine. But why draw it all throughout in such unsubtle terms? Why mention the Iraq war and offer a caricatural Bush-like figure on which to execute a symbolic punishment? Why literally dub this punishment a “poetic act”?
I don’t know.
Although, in good humour, Medem writes in a male character who regards women as goddesses, yet is constantly made fun of for doing so. This tells me that Medem was perfectly aware of the obtuseness of what he was doing. But then, why do it? Why is enlightenment nothing but a simple-minded awareness of patriarchal tiranny?
My guess is this. This film is a woman who will be chastized, abdicated, sacrificed, but eventually give birth to an “army of good sons”. And I have read good things about Medem’s next project.
Watch for the Kieslowskian camera and see how it works wonderful effects when it comes to confounding realities (lookout for the first “conscious hypnosis” scene in the desert as lovers escape on horse).