Saturday, May 23, 2009
Wim Wenders' Wrong Move is a film as aimless and blank as its protagonist, the chilly, antisocial Wilhelm (Rüdiger Vogler), a young man who finds himself in the position of wanting to be a writer while fostering a hatred and distrust of his fellow people. This makes his desire to express himself a weird kind of paradox: he wants to connect and communicate with people he doesn't even like. This unlikable, introspective central character nevertheless soon gathers an improbable cast of fellow outcasts around him: the lonely theater actress Therese (Hanna Schygulla), a mute juggler (Nastassja Kinksi), an old street singer (Hans Christian Blech), and a sensitive but rather lousy poet (Peter Kern). These unlikely characters exist as abstracted symbols only. They're people who seem to have no inner lives, nothing happening beneath the surface. They speak in abstractions, too, spitting out lengthy soliloquies about politics, creativity, alienation, history and sexuality. They are mere puppets to be maneuvered by Wenders in an allegorical examination of German culture at a precise moment in time. He's exploring, very self-consciously, the difficulty of creating art that engages with politics without losing sight of human specificity — ironic for a film entirely devoid of such specificity.
Indeed, Wenders seems to be just drifting along with his characters, who come together for no earthly reason and part the same way. In between, they drive or walk around the German countryside, stopping for one night at the home of a suicidal industrialist (Ivan Desny) who regales them with stiff monologues about loneliness and isolation. It's all so artificial, so contrived, and the dialogue is torturously overwritten (by the novelist and director Peter Handke, adapting Goethe). Nobody in the film ever seems to be having a conversation, only waiting for the other person to stop speaking. Maybe that's the point, as the film itself hints in Therese's ruminations about the artificiality of acting, how difficult it is to express herself naturally using someone else's words. But Wenders theatrical stylization never rises above the level of a drama exercise, a theoretical game rather than a fully developed work.
In scene after scene, his characters simply lounge around or walk around, spouting non sequiturs, with Wenders' cutting pointedly ignoring the nonsensical nature of all this chatter: his rhythmic variations of shot and counter-shot flow as though following a perfectly normal, natural conversation. It's exhausting, as is the studied blandness of Vogler as the disaffected writer Wilhelm. His sporadic voiceover, taken from his journals, basically consists of writing about how he has nothing to write about — the ultimate form of solipsism. Today, Wilhelm might be on Twitter all day; in the 70s he becomes a wanderer and scribbles crushingly mundane entries in his notebooks. He's no more interesting or worth spending time with than any other solipsist, and Wenders never gives him, or any of the other actors, any depth to flesh out this one-note characterization.
This means that a wonderful actress like Schygulla is more or less wasted here, left to stare blankly and recite stilted prose, though Kinski and Blech bring a certain low-key charm to their more playful roles. The old man with his mournful harmonica tunes and the young mute girl with her low-hanging bangs and big green eyes are compelling characters, even if they're never able to step outside of the allegorical boxes Wenders places around them. Kinski, at least, is saved from having to deliver any of the pat dialogue, and she says more with her hesitant smile and thin, childish face than most of the other characters are able to get across in pages of dialogue.
That said, there is a subtle absurdity and surrealism in the film's pacing, a mysterious quality that comes through especially in the many meditative, quiet night scenes. The film's cinematography is gorgeous, with an eye for slightly contrasting colors, creating visual disjunctions in the ways the colors clash against one another. The night scenes are coolly sumptuous, infused with pale blues and subdued pink lights, the icy color palette giving these moments an antiseptic quality despite their visual splendor. The lights, the colors, are pristine and clean like a hospital corridor, smoothing over the messiness of urban spaces and natural settings alike. There's a distanced, distracted beauty to Wenders' aesthetics, though his overtly stagey character blocking can be distracting in its precision and formality.
In this way, Wrong Move is a puzzling and rather dry experience, a road movie where the road is far more interesting than any of the people traveling along it. Wenders' aesthetics are consistently off-kilter and strange, though one senses this is intentional; he pulls the viewer in with his self-conscious visuals and theatrical set design, but pushes the audience away with his abstraction and refusal to delve into his characters beyond the thinnest outer layers. Even the soundtrack, alternating uneasy silence with the tense, droney music of Jürgen Knieper, subverts expectations and creates a mood of unmotivated discomfort. The music's harsh dissonances and plinking, isolated piano notes suggest a climactic explosion that never comes. Instead, the film just fizzles away into nothing, its characters not so much resolving anything as simply disappearing, one by one, from the film, often literally walking or running offscreen, never to return. It's an odd and unsatisfying ending to an odd, unsatisfying movie.