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CANNES — An old-fashioned, Robin Hood-style revenge tale that favors self-serious storytelling over action and suspense, Arnaud des Pallieres’ Michael Kohlhaas provides a few quick thrills and some beautifully photographed landscapes, but never really convinces as an intellectual’s swords-and-horses period piece — even when it’s the formidable Mads Mikkelsen who’s holding the sword. Following a Cannes competition premiere, this pristinely crafted Franco-German co-production should see additional fest and Euro art-house slots, but will have a hard time riding far overseas.
Based on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, this is actually the second screen adaptation following a 1969 version by Volker Schlondorff, which also played in competition at Cannes. The original text, written in 1811, was based on the true story of a 16th-century German merchant who, after a local baron seized his horses, sought redress in the public courts before launching a private terror war, until he was eventually captured and executed.
Des Pallieres and co-writer Christelle Berthevas up the ante on both the book and the historical record by inserting additional incidents and characters, in particular a loving wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), and daughter, Lisbeth (Melusine Mayance, excellent), who in many ways become the raison d’etre for Kohlhaas’ rebellion, especially after Judith is slaughtered when she brings her husband’s case to the ruling Princess of Angouleme (Roxanne Duran).
After his wife’s death, Kohlhaas takes up arms with a group of merry men — including a Sancho Panza-like character played by Sergi Lopez — launching a crossbow attack on the castle of the local baron (Swann Arlaud), in what’s definitely the film’s only major action sequence. When the nobleman escapes, the band pursues him across the countryside to a nearby convent, wreaking havoc along the way and earning the wrath of the princess’ men.
As juicy as that sounds, des Pallieres, making his third feature after two well-regarded medium-length films (particularly Disneyland, mon vieux pays natal), is less interested in pulling off a French-language Game of Thrones than in creating a moody and atmospheric costume drama — one that excels in its gorgeous settings, impressive horse stunts and intricately lit widescreen cinematography (by Jeanne Lapoire, A Castle in Italy), but fails to build sufficiently interesting characters, and a dramatic enough arc, to carry it through a rather plodding two-hour running time.
There are however a few noteworthy moments, including a discussion between Kohlhaas and a scruffy clergyman (the great Denis Lavant, Holy Motors) that raises questions of faith and moral duty, and an expertly staged closing scene that combines a lengthy sequence shot with composer Martin Wheeler’s powerfully ambient score.
Yet such exceptions only reveal how much the rest of Michael Kohlhaas lacks the kind of filmmaking needed to prop up such a dourly straightforward narrative, and as much as the imposing Mikkelsen (The Hunt, Casino Royale) certainly looks and acts the part (and even does justice to the French dialogue), his backwoods rebel never becomes a hero — or villain — you’d gladly march behind.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Les Films d’ici, Looks Filmproduktionen
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Melusine Mayance, Delphine Chuillot, Denis Lavant, Bruno Ganz
Director: Arnaud des Pallieres
Screenwriters: Arnaud des Pallieres, Christelle Berthevas, based on the novella Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist
Producers: Martina Haubrich, Gunnar Dedio
Executive producer: Serge Lalou
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoire
Production designer: Yan Arlaud
Costume designer: Anina Diener
Music: Martin Wheeler, Les Witches
Editors: Sandie Bompar, Arnaud des Pallieres
Sales Agent: Les Films du Losange
No rating, 122 minutes
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