Brownian Movement: Berlin Review

Fine cinematography and central performance are squandered on inert endurance-test of an art movie.

In Nanouk Leopold's fourth film, which screened at Berlin, the characters find themselves pondering for most of the movie, leading the audience to do so as well.

BERLIN -- If there’s a word that sums up Brownian Movement then that word is ponderous. The characters spend most of their time pondering rather than speaking or acting, and before too long the audience likewise will be pondering too, on whether this treacle-slow example of post-narrative art-for-art’s-sake cinema justifies the prolonged investment of their attention. 

And while it’s not without merits — ones that will ensure significant festival play over the coming months (it premiered at Toronto last fall) — this fourth feature from Dutch writer-director Nanouk Leopold (after 2007’s Wolfsbergen) squanders its noteworthy features on a story that’s slim to the point of emaciation.

Chief among these is the rather fine work by Sandra Hüller, a wonderfully empathetic and subtle screen-presence best known for her terrific turn as the "possessed" believer from Hans-Christian Schmid’s Requiem. And whereas in that movie she had a full-tilt physical and emotional workout, here she’s operating at the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum. As Brussels-based German medic Charlotte (who’s effectively the only fully-developed character in the whole movie) she must convey feelings mainly using physical gestures and facial expressions -- often in challengingly extended close-ups. 

Charlotte is introverted and complex, unsatisfied with her seemingly ‘perfect’ life with attentive, handsome husband Max (Dragan Bakema) and young son Benjamin (Ryan Brodie), even though she and Max continue to enjoy rewarding intimacy. Her dissatisfaction manifests itself in impulsive sexual experimentation, as Charlotte picks up men -- most of them physically unprepossessing -- at her hospital, taking them back to a rented, sterile apartment. 

When this serial infidelity is discovered (via a contrived, coincidence-dependent happenstance) Charlotte is struck off the medical register and seeks psychiatric help, with limited success (“I really don’t know what I’m supposed to feel ...”). In the final section of a tripartite film, we see that Charlotte is still with Max, and that the family -- now enlarged by the addition of two babies -- have relocated to India, which might perhaps prove a more conducive environment for Charlotte’s self-realisation.

With its unflinching examination of an intelligent woman’s sexual life, this is material with strong potential — and, courtesy of luminous cinematography by Frank van den Eeden (which makes Hüller strikingly resemble Cate Blanchett at certain junctures), Brownian Movement is always very easy on the eye. 

Such a shame, then, that Leopold and her long-time editor Katharina Wartena should opt for takes of such pointlessly long duration, succumbing to the all-too-prevalent fallacy that the slower and more dialogue-light a film becomes, the more effective and significant it magically will be. A distinct whiff of pretentiousness soon becomes evident, and perhaps it goes without saying in this context that the high-faluting, intriguing title should never be explained — or even mentioned — in the script itself. 

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Circe Films, Coin Film, Serendipity Films, Bella Cohen Films, VPRO Television
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Dragan Bakema, Sabine Timoteo, Ryan Brodie, Nicole Shirer
Director: Nanouk Leopold
Screenwriter: Nanouk Leopold 
Producer: Steinette Bosklopper
Co-producers: Herbert Schewering, Ellen de Waele
Director of photography: Frank van den Eeden
Production designer: Else de Bruijn
Music: Harry de Wit
Costume designer: Ulrike Scharfschwerdt
Editor: Katharina Wartena
Sales: Films Distribution, Paris
No rating, 100 minutes