Aimee and Jaguar and more
Aimée and Jaguar
Maria Schrader, Juliane Köhler, Johanna Wokalek, Heike Makatsch, Elisabeth Degen, Detlev Buck
(Zeitgeist Films Ltd.; US theatrical: 11 Aug 2000 (Limited release); 1999)
When screenwriting Erica Fischer’s novel, Aimée und Jaguar for his first film, Bavarian playwright Max Färberböck must have understood the heart’s need for the romantic tagline, “Love Transcends Death”, but the brain’s need to deceive – itself as well as others—in times of madness seems to have been foremost in his thoughts, as well. Yes, this 1999 Golden Globe Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is undoubtedly about a passionate, reckless love forged in dangerous times, and although the initial physical attraction that is needed to spark this love clearly exists, at least for the pursuer, Jaguar (Felice Schragenheim played by the alluring Maria Schrader), this is not a story of love at first sight, but rather, the affair is initiated by the cloying, intriguing play of a caged cat.
Set in Berlin during World War II, Felice’s calculating intelligence as a Jewish woman working in an underground movement, and posted directly under the nose of the Gestapo at a Nazi propaganda newspaper, is part of her appeal. She is wilder and bolder than her cluster of half-starved, beautiful friends who have thus far survived on their fraying wits and Felice’s do-what-she-dares approach to keep them in food and housing. Felice moves with dark, aggressive confidence between wartime Berlin’s many worlds; seated bravely and looking beautiful amidst Berlin’s upper class, and prowling smoothly within what’s left of the now deeply underground world of queer life in Germany.
Blond and cool to Felice’s brunette hot, annoyingly jittery to Felice’s seemingly impossible calm, the so-called Aryan ideal Lilly Wust (Aimée, played by Juliane Köhler) paces her confines with nervous, irritable, dissatisfaction. Lilly is naively – maddeningly naively—unable to intellectualize the reality of her role as a ‘breeder’ for the Aryan race, letting her children play amidst the rubble and walk past the bodies on their way to the zoo. The mother of four, unhappily married to a German soldier, she’s having an affair with a Nazi petty official. Although it’s never revealed, one senses this is not an affair of her choosing.
Felice and Lilly are an unlikely paring, by temperament as well as circumstance, but it’s that initial spark of attraction—as if the caged Jaguar’s eye was caught by something small and fleeting running outside the bars—as well as that urge to deceive the one who appears to be in power, that compels Felice to hold her wrist to Lilly’s nose and purr, “Smell”. It is not the scent of the Jew that is detected by the anti-Semite, but what seems to Lilly a deliciously expensive French perfume – an impossible and alluring fantasy. From this point, love transcends the reality, and it is beautiful. We, too, become hopeful that such a tender, desperate love could move even the coldest heart. As reality encroaches, Lilly and Felice – now the lovers Aimée and Jaguar – collude on their mutual self-deception. This deception – this ridiculous ideal that love transcends death—is what keeps them so vibrantly alive when death is all around them, and this too, is their undoing.
Ten years on, and Felice and Lilly’s true story reverberates. Perhaps that’s the transcendence to which Färberböck alludes. Karen Zarker
Eyes Wide Shut
Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Pollack, Todd Field, Sky du Mont, Rade Šerbedžija, Vinessa Shaw, Leelee Sobieski
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 16 Jul 1999; 1999)
The Hollywood star status of then-married Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman raised the profile of Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut, at least in the mainstream media and among casual filmgoers. Expectations were elevated to the point where the film was almost bound to be considered, on a mass-culture level, a disappointment or failure. And I suppose it was, though its stature among cinephiles and Kubrick scholars, many of whom consider it one of his best films, is another story.
Casting such a high-profile married couple to portray an upper-class couple whose marriage is troubled by suspicions and jealousy only adds to the levels on which the film works, which is many. Based on the 1926 Arthur Schnitzler novella Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the film transposes the story from Vienna in the 1920s to NYC in the 1990s. Schnitzler’s focus on desire disrupting the everyday life of a couple is kept intact. A quintessential example of a “one night in New York City” film (in line with After Hours, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, etc), albeit extending somewhat outside the confines of one night, the trajectory of Eyes Wide Shut follows Cruise’s character, physician Bill Harford, on a journey through the city that’s as much a trip through the psychological dimensions of human sexuality and the socially agreed-upon format for containing it.
Each of his encounters that night resonates with elements of fantasy, insecurity, and fear. There is a prostitute he desires to save and a dying patient’s daughter who confesses her love to him. A gay hotel clerk hits on him. Men harass him on the street, calling him a “stupid faggot” and ridiculing his height (an example moment where the casting of Cruise, himself short and often rumored to be gay, plays into the film’s tendency for multiple readings). And, ultimately, he finds himself at an extravagant, strangely ritualistic orgy.
For much of the film we observe the plight of a man trying to react in “normal” ways to abnormal circumstances – manifestations of individual and societal fears and desires – and getting increasingly bewildered at what happens. Yet the opening music of the film, a waltz, embodies movement in circles, a suggestion that these conflicts within humans are perpetual, over time. Or that they are mundane, even. The music throughout the film is alternately everyday and surreal, at the same time relating through classical touches the past and present. The film suggests continuity over decades and centuries, of hidden, ugly questions underneath the surface of a “normal”, “perfect” life.
Eyes Wide Shut is a rich text to study. It is riddled with references to other parts of itself, not to mention other works of art, forming a body of questions with no one answer. It’s also a rich film to watch, a masterpiece of cinematography and the unity of sound and vision. Kubrick was a master of light, and Eyes Wide Shut is a stunning example of that. When I think of this film I think first of the hanging lights at the party scene in the beginning, of the dark glows and color hues cast over Cruise and Kidman in their domestic scenes, of the lights on the little Christmas trees that are omnipresent in homes throughout the film. I think of the myriad visual details that are at store in the film waiting to be observed and considered, and of the ways this film continues to grow in dimension with each viewing. Dave Heaton