by Michael Barrett

24 September 2007

How strange it is to realize that the modernist aesthetic, which we think of as the visual language of alienation and ennui, traces its roots back into silent comedy.

Back where we started.

L’Iceberg is a comedy from Belgium that begins when a woman accidentally locks herself in her restaurant’s freezer overnight. This becomes a transcendent experience that forces her to evaluate her life, especially since her husband and children never noticed that she was missing.

In a plot twist that may be intended to spoof Close Encounters of the Third Kind, she becomes obsessed with an interior vision of a double-pointed iceberg and sets out to find it. This means leaving her family and hooking up with a big deaf-mute sailor,(Bruno Romy). Her desperate husband Julien, (Dominique Abel), pursues her, getting wet many times in the process.
Our heroine Fiona, (Fiona Gordon), is a red-haired, red-nosed woman who’s a bit like Olive Oyl, from the comic strip Popeye, in her gawky skinniness, her flighty flakiness, and her strange fascination with that hulking sailor.

cover art


Director: Dominique Abel
Cast: Dominique Abel, Bruno Romy, Fiona Gordon

(First Run Features)
US DVD: 18 Sep 2007

This movie is noteworthy for its style and its method of collaboration. Its story unfolds with very little dialogue and with a static camera that sometimes adopts whimsical compositions, (such as looking out through the round window of the freezer), but mostly plops down in the middle distance and watches each sequence play out unblinkingly in real time, casually letting slip one droll and quirky detail after another.

As a series of visual jokes based on the film frame itself, the movie makes no attempt to be realistic. For example, someone sinks under the water and is at the last moment is pulled up by a hand that suddenly appears from above. It’s not the hand of God; it’s someone on a boat. Therefore something that should have been perfectly visible is made invisible to the person who was unaware of it until the hand thrust into the frame. There’s no point in asking the how’s and wherefores, or even attempting to determine why these characters do what they do. They only do what they do because that’s just what happens.

The three main actors are also the writer-directors, and in their written statement that appears on the DVD, they say they wanted to evoke the classic traditions of silent comedy. Presumably this means Buster Keaton, for example, who often presented himself in precise interaction with various objects and spaces, such as locomotives and falling facades of houses. Their statement doesn’t mention Jacques Tati, but his films are the most obvious immediate point of reference, both for their use of space and their tendency to present dialogue as a mixture of random statements and bits of mumbled noise.

What’s curious is that this is also the current film-festival/art-house style employed by any number of auteurs. The recent death of Michelangelo Antonioni prompted various writers to observe that his legacy lives on in many filmmakers who plunk taciturn characters into an enervated landscape and have them play out their semi-dramas in the middle distance of unbroken takes, either static or sinuous.

The laundry list includes Jim Jarmusch, Tsai Ming-Liang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Theo Angelopoulos, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Sang-Soo Hong, Abbas Kiarostami and others who have made fine films. Of course their styles can’t be reduced so rigidly, (they hardly avoid close-ups on principle), but I think of them as Middle Distancers who consciously set themselves in opposition to the dominant style of Hollywood narratives. They tend to alienate the viewer and encourage detached contemplation rather than try to “suture” us seamlessly into the drama.

How strange then to realize that this so-called modernist aesthetic, which we think of as the visual language of alienation and ennui, traces its roots through Tati back into silent comedy. Was Keaton the first modernist? Was Melies? Was Edison? Film history is constantly redefining its perspective.

This film is also up to the minute as an example of post-auteurism. It’s “by” all three of its actor-writer-directors, and their statement, (presumably attributable to all of them), declares that they can no longer tell who did what. This is the first fiction feature I’m aware of with three co-directors, but in the last decade there has been quite an upswing in films with two directors.

These have not been mainstream Hollywood studio movies but independents and non-American films. Meanwhile, the Director’s Guild of America still doesn’t allow two directors to share the auteur credit. Robert Rodriguez resigned from the Guild in order to sign his and Frank Miller’s names to Sin City. (The DGA seems to have a loophole for brothers.) As more people collaborate, especially with digital projects, this is a choice Hollywood will finally have to reckon with.

A word of caution is in order to the majority of viewers who still don’t have big screen TV. Movies like L’Iceberg and others of its poised, minutely balanced, carefully paced ilk just don’t come anywhere close to their big-screen charm unless you see them on a big screen, and preferably with high-def as long as you’re blowing money.

It’s common for film snobs to say that movies must be experienced in a theatre. Well, there are many reasons why the “theatrical experience” is overrated compared to the perfect digital image at home, but we must admit that size matters. If you watch a Middle Distance movie on a 24-inch screen, or even 36, you might as well not bother, because you’ll wonder what all the critical fuss is about as you squint at the cyphers in their colorful compositions. It’s similar to the difference between seeing a full Cinemascope image or watching a pan-and-scan butchery. Even though you see the full DVD image, you’ll still be missing something.



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