‘The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez’ (‘Les beaux jours d’Aranjuez’): Venice Review

Les Beaux Jours d'Aranjuez - still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Donata Wenders
Two characters in search of an author.

Wim Wenders’ first French-language film opens up Peter Handke’s stage play with 3D cinematography and a number by Nick Cave.

As lovely to look at, relaxing and soporific as the perfect summer day sung by David Bowie at the beginning of the film, Wim Wenders’ The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez scatters some nice ideas amid non-stop French dialogue that only speed readers of subtitles will be able to follow fully.

Based on a 2012 play by the Austrian writer Peter Handke, whose work Wenders has adapted four times previously, including his revered The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, False Movement and Wings of Desire, the film invites the viewer to overhear an intimate conversation between a couple in a garden, while a 3D camera circles around them. Nearby a young writer sits in his room, watching them and typing their copious dialogue. Perhaps not surprisingly, and despite the skillful actors, camerawork and offbeat musical choices, the result is rarefied art cinema that will have as much trouble finding an audience as the two characters do finding some equilibrium in their outlooks.

A guest appearance by Nick Cave singing at a piano that magically appears, not to mention a vintage Wurlitzer jukebox that literally plays the background songs, are innovatively incongruous additions to the play that offer some enlivening audio contrasts.

It’s high summer and the boulevards of Paris are completely and totally empty — a directorial miracle in itself. The camera then leaves the city and travels over the heavy vegetation around a stunning country home, whose garden overlooks a vast plain stretching all the way to Paris. There, under a flowering gazebo, an well-heeled couple in their forties sit enjoying their surroundings and embark on a very personal conversation.

The Eden-like setting suggests they are outside of time and history, “but not reality.”  The man, played by a smirking but strangely magnetic Reda Kateb (Zero Dark Thirty, The Prophet) and the woman (a verbose but self-assured Sophie Semin) are playing some kind of a truth-or-dare game. She has agreed to answer his questions about her first sexual experiences, which leads to profound philosophical musings on how it feels to be a woman and to have a lover, before, during and after. Speaking rapidly, Semin often corrects herself, as though the writer in the house was rewriting her dialogue on the spot.

Kateb, on the other hand, reveals almost nothing personal about himself. He, too, is extremely articulate, but his focus is highly concrete. He has an ornithologist’s knowledge of birds and an arborist’s passion for trees and shrubs, which he discourses on in painful detail, interrupting the woman’s memories about her feelings. One presumes the film is tipped to her side. When she speaks passionately about women as the origin of the world, the wind whips through the branches of the trees and the very air comes alive. When he talks about robins and wild berries and castles in Spain, nothing happens.  

Meanwhile, looking out on the colorful garden from his dark study, the writer (Jens Harzer) pecks at a beaten-up, pre-electric typewriter. One is left with the idea that perhaps it’s the characters who are feeding their words to him, not the other way around, and they demonstrate their autonomy when he finally leaves the room and vanishes into the woods.

Virginie Hernvann’s sets are impeccable feasts for the eyes, well-suited backdrops for cinematographer Benoit Debie’s confidant return as Wenders’ 3D cinematographer after Every Thing Will Be Fine.


Production companies: Alfama Films, Neue Road Movies

Cast: Reda Kateb, Sophie Semin, Jens Harzer, Nick Cave

Director: Wim Wenders

Screenwriter: Wim Wenders, based on a play by Peter Handke

Producers: Paulo Branco, Gian-Piero Ringel

Director of photography: Benoit Debie

Production designer: Virginie Hernvann

Costume designer: Judy Shrewsbury

Editor: Beatrice Babin

World sales: Alfama Films  

97 minutes