From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:
By Santiago Ramos
Directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Christopher McQuarrie, Julian Fellowes
Starring Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie, Paul Bettany, Timothy Dalton
I will forgive director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck for making this movie. But this means he committed a fault. The director of The Lives of Others (2006) - a brilliant thriller, a work of art, easily one of the top films of the decade just passed - has played beneath his strength in The Tourist.
This film is supposed to be a break from von Donnersmarck's more serious work. He said as much to Charlie Rose. After a long period of research for a film about suicide, von Donnersmarck decided that he needed a respite from this bleak task, and along came Angelina Jolie with a screenplay: “Reading this screenplay somehow put me in a good mood, and I thought that maybe it would have the same effect on an audience seeing it,” he told Rose. “I felt that 99 percent of people have a harder life than I do and I would want them to also have this opportunity to escape into a world where…in the end things will be alright.”
This is not to say that The Tourist is mere moneymaking schlock. It is not Transformers. It is an exercise in the type of escape provided by classic Hollywood films where, according to von Donnersmarck, we are given great actors, beautiful settings, and a “sense of lightness and joy.” It is also an echo of the classic 1951 Hitchcock film, Strangers on a Train, and it silently teems with nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood. So we should critique this movie not against what I would have wanted von Donnersmarck to do (something serious, like The Lives of Others) but against what he set out to do. But we can also critique the value of what he set out to do.
The first thing needed for an escape into a world of lightness and joy is a bridge between it and the real world of the viewer. That bridge is the protagonist in the movie with whom we can get along and understand. Johnny Depp plays that character. He stars as Frank Tupelo, a middle class, widowed math teacher from Wisconsin who, in an effort to confront the boredom in his life and defeat it, travels to Italy and takes a train from somewhere to Venice. It is on this train that he meets the mysterious Elise Clifton-Ward (Angelina Jolie), who asks him, “What is your name?”
The similarities with Strangers on a Train end there. In that film, the plot-triggering encounter begins on a train when one man attempts to coax another man into a conspiracy for convenient murder. The suspense that follows arises not only from the criminal acts that ensue but also from the torment of conflicted motivations on the part of the nominally innocent. The only conflicted motivations in The Tourist are those of Elise, who was once a secret agent for the British MI6, and who fell in love with the man she was tracking, the mysterious billionaire Alexander Pearce.
Pearce is wanted by the MI6 for tax evasion, and by this former boss, the much nastier billionaire named Shaw (Steven Berkoff), for stealing two billion dollars from him. Both of these forces are tracking down Elise in order to find Pearce. Elise needs a lookalike decoy and onto the action stumbles a mild-mannered American with a voice like you and me, but with a haircut more like Eddie Vedder’s than a Wisconsin high school would permit for its teachers.
Frank will slowly fall in love with Elise, and she with him. But Elise doesn’t seem anymore bothered about her conflict(s) of loyalty and affection than a college sophomore is about mounting debt from student loans. Nothing much weighs on her—and that’s the point. We see her glide from gown to gown (twelve dresses in all, says IMBD.com), through the watery lanes of Venice, from hotel to ball to action scene to close up of her glowing eyes. She barely ever frowns.
Why do I say that von Donnersmarck has committed a fault? Despite some technical flaws—the pace is uneven, too slow in the beginning - I enjoyed the movie. It was a sweet time I spent in the theater. But I felt empty after such an indulgence. Tron, which I saw the next day, didn’t inspire this emptiness - or at least I didn’t feel guilty over the emptiness. But I expected less from Tron.
When I first saw it in 2006, The Lives of Others opened my eyes to the power of film as an art form. The subtlety of feeling in its writing and musical score, the gravity of the filmmaker’s conceit, the struggle that his characters go through in figuring out what to say and what to do, and the film’s final line - “This is for me” - shook me. There were no tourists in Lives, only people grappling with real circumstances. Reading up on von Donnersmarck, I discovered that he was a former apprentice-novelist who wanted to bring novelistic density to his films - he pointed out in several interviews that the German word for poet, dichter, also means “dense.” He could appreciate both the tradition of European art film and the genius of Hollywood at its best.
I want another film by that guy. Escapism, whether crude or refined, is readily available for all. The entertainment industry makes sure that supply always exceeds demand. But an artist is something that few demand and all need. Escape makes us tourists; art makes us men. I hope von Donnersmarck quickly returns to the project he was preparing before Angelina Jolie gave him a call.
(Ed. Note: Visit www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2007/07/why-dictators-fear-artists to read Ramos’ article on The Lives of Others.)
Santiago Ramos is currently pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Boston College. He has written for The Pitch, Commonweal, Image Journal, and First Things.