Review: Faust

(Alexander Sokurov, 2011, Russia)
(originally posted at CineVue)

Billed as something of a free interpretation of Goethe’s original play, Alexander Sokurov’s Faust sees the Russian auteur returning to his proclivity for challenging depictions of male protagonists, to somewhat perplexing results. Collating his traditional cinematic interests, namely the fragility and combined strengths and weaknesses of masculinity, Faust is a slow moving, murkily fascinating depiction of moral ambiguity, painted on a broad and visually operatic canvas that eschews straightforwardness in favour of a dreamlike narrative texture.

Set in 18th-century Germany, Johannes Zeiler plays the titular Heinrich Faust, a bored scholar frustrated with the mundane and poverty-stricken society in which he inhabits, a climate he believes is undeserving of his supposedly deep intellect. In an attempt to trade a precious ring in favour of money, Faust meets the mysterious Muller (the creepily dead eyed Anton Adasinsky), a moneylender who begins to toy with Faust, eventually goading him into committing a murder which sends him on a hallucinatory descent chequered by lust and greed.

Sacrificing, to a certain extent, traditional characterisation and plot details in favour of a forward momentum built on stirring events that happen in quick succession, Sokurov here has created an incredibly odd understanding of the tale, one which makes settling into the dense world he’s depicting a hard task. Opening with a close up of the penis of a corpse being picked apart by Faust – an image backed up by even more stark imagery, particularly Muller’s grotesquely deformed body – his film goes on to blend authentic period details with erratic camerawork, complemented by Bruno Delbonnel’s (Amelie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) typically translucent cinematography. Playing fast and loose with soft focus, an effect that is somewhat analogous of the film’s alienating approach to narrative definition, Sokurov appears to consciously mirror the aimlessness of Faust’s strange journey into existential acquisition, an altogether cerebral quest for knowledge and the affections of the pallid Margarete (Isolda Dychauk).

A reputable reappraisal of Goethe’s story, Faust, which won Sokurov the prestigious Golden Lion award at last year’s Venice Film Festival, is visionary and chaotically surreal in both style and substance, a feverish delineation of the philosophical struggles between life and death, good and evil. Although it ostensibly proves to be a tough watch, once the fluid camerawork and overzealous set design begin to coalesce, it slowly manages to become a similarly rewarding one.

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