Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Right One

In the long and mostly unrewarding history of remakes, nothing better illustrates the differences between Hollywood and the rest of the world (including, of course, that largely undiscovered country called America) better than a Hollywood remake of a foreign-made film. When a film from France or Argentina or Mexico scores a better-than-expected international success, one or another Hollywood producer can always be relied on to try to repeat its success with a remake.

In some cases, they will hire the Japanese or Polish or Turkish guy who made the original film to make the remake. To use one example among many, a Dutch thriller named The Vanishing was released in 1988, which was directed by George Sluizer. It was a remarkably effective, carefully crafted film about a young woman's disappearance and the lengths (including, among others, guilt) to which her lover goes to find her. A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France stops at a gas station for refreshment when, to Rex's - and our - mounting astonishment, Saskia vanishes, seemingly, without a trace. Rex searches everywhere for her, but after days, turning into weeks and then months, Saskia's whereabouts remain inexplicably unknown. Did she simply leave with someone else, not wanting Rex to find her? Rex commits the whole of his life thenceforth to finding her. He appears on television and posts placards around the place where she was last seen. Finally, he is contacted by someone, a Frenchman, who claims to know where she is. When they meet, the Frenchman explains that, in order to know what happened to Saskia, Rex must drink the contents of a thermos cup. If he refuses, the Frenchman will never tell him where she is. The rest of the film fulfills the brilliance of the writing, pacing, and framing of this set up.

When the film became an international hit, George Sluizer got the inevitable call from Hollywood. He was hired to direct a remake, ostensibly for everyone who can't stand films in a foreign language and who believe that "nothing alien is human to me." The remake, however, was just about everything that the original film was not - blatant, prodding, and utterly unconvincing. It consequently failed on virtually every count in which the original triumphed for both both critics and audiences. What happened? Clearly, the American producers believed that, to attract a bigger audience, Sluizer had to forget all his subtlety and skill to make his film luridly - and stupidly - obvious. And he had to change the ending.

Another film, Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In), made in 2008, was similarly mistreated by Hollywood. The overall effect of Tomas Alfredson's film, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, is of a serious film momentarily streaked with bizarre details. These details are jarring not because they are intrusive and blatant. They jar because everything around them is exactingly convincing. After the credits, the first thing we see is snow falling against a dark sky. We are introduced to a boy, Oskar, who, we learn, is bullied at school and who has a fetish for knives, pictures of knives, and newspaper clippings about violent events. Then we follow an older man who has moved into the vacant flat next door with a young girl whose name is Eli. The first thing the man does once they're inside is block the windows with posters and cardboard. Then he leaves the flat with a case carrying a few objects - an empty plastic jug, a funnel, a large carving knife, and a small gas canister with an attachment to cover a person's nose and mouth. Outside, at night, he meets a man on the road, gasses him with the canister, takes him farther into the woods, hangs him by his feet and cuts his jugular vein. We can hear the blood trickle into the jug, but the man has to abandon his victim (and the half-filled jug) when a poodle appears nearby, followed buy voices. The woods are incongruously well-lit for such a gruesome act, and two girls discover the dangling body.

Just when we reach the point when we think that the film we are watching is going to be about school bullying or about a serial killer, out of the frozen blue comes a living, breathing vampire. (You can see the steam when she speaks or exhales.)  It's Eli, the young girl who just moved in next door. The older man is a quite incompetent caretaker who provides her with blood. He does this voluntarily, it seems, but he is obviously terrified of her. Oskar and Eli somehow become friends. No attempt is made to try to make us believe in vampires. If there had been, my opinion of the film would be much lower than it is. It is all simply presented like the details of any ordinary story involving ordinary people. But not so simply - the film is shot with a delicacy and clarity one has come to expect of Swedish film since the beginning. And the actress playing Eli, Lena Leandersson, was a genuine discovery. She reminded me of Patrizia Gozzi, the girl in the now forgotten Sundays and Cybele.

There is another tradition, however isolated, for such a film as Let the Right One In. In his long career, the fabled Danish director, Carl Theodor Dreyer made films about vampires (Vampyr), witches (Day of Wrath) and about resurrection (Ordet), each of them made from Dreyer's approach of what if such things were real? Dreyer was, according to accounts, a devout Christian, so his belief in any of these things was aesthetic rather than real. He wrote and directed his films with an absolute trust in the authenticity of his skill as a filmmaker.

Such a skill can be seen in the framing, staging and pacing of Let the Right One In. The expensive Hollywood superhero movies employ digital effects that make things like flying, which would seem to be one of the most common fantasies, look so real that one wonders if the next Superman will actually be able to fly. But not even such seamless and perfect effects make anyone in possession of their senses believe that superheroes have any existence outside of comic books and the tawdry imaginations of their creators and their fans. Between them, there seems to be a tacit agreement that reality is best is best left outside in the street.

Never to be seen to be outdone, someone in Hollywood (Matt Reeves) decided he could do this crystalline Swedish film one better.(1) He kept very close to the plot of the original, duplicating many of the scenes. Of course, he also decided that the original was too fine, too true, and far too careful with its subject. So instead of looking at a typical snowbound Scandinavian city (the latitude of Stockholm is 60 degrees - the same as Anchorage and St. Petersburg), the Hollywood film is set in a quite unreal, gloomy, northern locale (Minnesota?) where it's nearly always cloudy and where everything is frozen. It seems more like a fantastical place than a real city, and that was one of the director's choices. The film gave me the feeling that it had been adapted from a graphic novel. By the time the last scene arrives, with the boy and the vampire traveling on a passenger train (Amtrak?), it doesn't come as any kind of surprise - as it did in the Swedish original.

The American version does have its merits. But it comes across as little more than an offbeat horror film, whereas the strange beauty of the Swedish film derives from its careful matter-of-factness being streaked with the vampire elements, which, though they are handled just as carefully, seem to have come from some other film.  

(1) Let Me In is the title of the remake. It features good performances by Chloë Grace Moretz as the girl/vampire, and Richard Jenkins as her caretaker.

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