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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Out of the Past

Heartbeat Detector (New Yorker)

Love Songs (IFC)

Sputnik Mania (IFC)

The French director Nicolas Klotz proves—not for the first time in film history—that a picture may be a bit of a jumble yet fascinating. Klotz's Heartbeat Detector, written by Elisabeth Perceval from a novel by Francois Emmanuel, begins as an up-to-date story about Simon Kessler, a smart young psychologist employed by the Paris branch of a Franco-German company. His job is to judge job applicants and to keep tabs on the mental status of the staff. And he suggests projects for staff satisfaction, such as the founding of an orchestra. But the script becomes diffuse: Kessler's personal life is also involved. At the start, his voice tells us that his story is so complicated that he cannot tell it chronologically. He keeps his word.

A major executive of the company, Karl Rose, confidentially asks him to check on the mental state of the CEO, Matthias Jüst, who has of late been behaving oddly. Kessler proceeds carefully but finds that his caution is superfluous: his assignment is known to Jüst. That story is the film's center. But we also frequently see Kessler cavorting drunkenly at a disco, and twice he sleeps in what seems to be the street. These scenes may be from Kessler's past, slipped in to display aspects of the present man, but they are confusing. They don't enrich: they are simply bothersome on the way to the main matters.

Those matters involve the gradual unfolding of the backgrounds of Rose and Jüst. Both are German-born sons of former Nazi zealots. (The film takes place in 2006.) The machinations of Rose versus Jüst and Jüst's recent peculiar behavior are related to the two men's connections with their families' Nazi past, being worked out in self-recrimination (Jüst) and vindictiveness (Rose). Ultimately the focus shifts to a man named Arie Neumann, recently discharged by the company. Neumann, we learn, is the son of a Nazi who drove one of the trucks that asphyxiated prisoners in the back as they drove along. Kessler tracks down Neumann in Le Mans, and eventually Neumann describes to him—it is the last scene of the film—the remnants that were left in the truck his father drove. The film's title is the name of the device used by the Nazis to determine if there were any survivors left inside.

So we have a film that begins in slick modern settings, with such moments as male employees going to the toilet in almost identical dress and peeing almost as if choreographed, and ends with an old man sitting at a café table, quietly adding detail after detail about those trucks. The jumble comes not from this evolution: in the main, the picture is an acute sociological excavation, discovering dark layers in a seemingly bland situation. In retrospect, even the men's room visit seems related to the later discoveries. The mix-up comes from the many details about Kessler's personal life, which seem irrelevant, even puzzling. Chiefly, gravely, Klotz's film is telling us that shirts and suits and homes and argot may change, but deeply incised facts remain: more, they affect the individual who thinks he may have escaped what was not even his personal behavior.

The film is sustained by some strong elements. Klotz directs with a keen sense of ellipsis and of pace. He frames shots unusually but without bravura. (A waiter's body intruding in a cafe shot certifies the shot.) The acting ranges from good to better. Kessler is well played by Mathieu Amalric, who is the center of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Amalric is sort of a lesser Dustin Hoffman: he hasn't yet shown Hoffman's range and depth, but he is able to make his ordinariness interesting.

Matthias Jüst is in the wonderfully capable hands of Michael Lonsdale, the veteran Anglo-French actor. Before we get the facts of Jüst's past, we see a man who is surfeited with both the good and the bitter aspects of living. He scrutinizes everything knowingly but remotely. When his limo brings him to the company parking lot in the morning, he dismisses the chauffeur and just sits there listening to Schubert. He is indeed obsessed with music, almost to the point of cruelty. (Kessler's idea for an orchestra touches Jüst.) For this and other reasons, Jüst is a trenchant reminder of Thomas Bernhard.

Another benefit is the appearance of Lou Castel as Arie Neumann. I first saw Castel in 1965 as the mad younger bother in Bellochio's Fists in the Pocket and have seen him only a few times since then. As Arie, whether one knows him or not, he is a white-haired seraph, a man who is alive but is somehow past life. He transforms his closing gentle recital of horror into a sort of numbed acceptance.

HERE IS NEW WINE IN an old bottle. In fact, the old bottle makes the wine new. A Parisian film includes: two young women and a young man in bed, with the man watching the two women have sex (we later learn that all three of them partake often); a scene between one of the women and her mother, in which the mother is fascinated by her daughter's lesbianism and asks about sexual positions; the sudden heart-attack death of this young woman outside a disco after a night of dancing; the young man getting involved in a steamy gay affair; the closing scene of a fervent gay kiss.

All these matters might draw a ho-hum in most of us by now, but the writerdirector Christophe Honoré has turned them into novelty by using this material as the book of a film musical. The effect of Love Songs is tingly. The time-treasured frothy charm of, say, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has not been abandoned: it is simply employed on quite different material. Imagine an Astaire-Rogers picture in which, after a swirling dance number, the two dancers hop into bed with another woman and swirl differently.

The new contrast is heightened by the large amount of music: songs that run through the picture while it is traveling, mostly sung by the principals in something like Sprechstimme style. The music by Alex Beaupain avoids show-biz flair and engages mostly by (subtitles trusted) intelligent lyrics. There is a particularly nice duet between two men on cell phones crossing back and forth past each other. The score and its presentation support the director's intent to bring the film musical into the current world. Some of it succeeds; much of it would be better if the cast were more taking and if the music did more than remind one of similar music. Still, it is a seriously iconoclastic picture.

The film musical has always been something of a dainty preserve. (There are exceptions, of course, most of them adaptations of theater musicals.) Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin' in the Rain and numberless others were provinces where stories were measured to the music in more than lyric or rhythmic ways. The musical film posited that because, in life, people do not sing their feelings or break into song accompanied by orchestra and dancers, therefore what happened in a musical could and should have congruent unreality. The very presence of music lifted the film past mundane credibility. (Opera is a very different subject, comparable only in externals.) Now Honore discards this prescription and says that the use of music unrealistically in streets and halls and offices does not exclude any of realistic life that we want to treat. Love Songs is an interesting moment in the struggle of verism to invade what was designed as an escape from it.

AN AMERICAN DOCUMENTARY CALLED Sputnik Mania is slightly crude but rewarding. It takes a moment in relatively recent American history, cramped already into the files of the past, and stretches it out figuratively to the emotional dimensions of the period when it happened.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first Sputnik. Immediately the United States shook with shame and fear: shame that the Soviets had been able to make such a device before us and in secret; fear that the Sputnik would be used to launch missiles at us and at the rest of the world. In the next few months, near-hysteria followed, heightened by the failure of the first American attempt to match the Soviets. ("Flopnik," said one paper.) In time an American counterpart arrived, American space projects matched the Soviet, and fear was replaced by grim determination. By gum, we were ready now for missile war. Further on, even that grimness eased as the Soviet Union collapsed.

The director, David Hoffman, refreshes the memory of those who were around in the Sputnik days and may startle younger viewers with shots of schoolchildren practicing bomb drills in classrooms by hiding under desks, of families boasting about the supplies in the bomb shelters they had built in their backyards. And, oh, those signs in office buildings: "Bomb Shelter This Way." The country tensed in anticipation of what was called a communist war—it became a terror rehearsal for the Cuban missile crisis a few years later.

Hoffman also supplies a few ironies of the day. For instance, while the U.S. was gearing up to face a tyrannical enemy, it was also sending troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, so that nine black children could go to a high school of their choice. Throughout, except for the corny stock footage that pocks the vivid newsreel clips and interviews, Hoffman has done a reasonably smooth job, and he gives due credit to Eisenhower for his stature during the mess. In sum, Hoffman's film reminds us of the quickened tempo of history in our time, the rush of events that can sweep away a huge national shock so fast and far that, in a revisit, it almost looks bizarre (as the title hints).

This viewer couldn't help wondering how petty this crisis in the Western world may have looked at the time to certain people in the Middle East, who had plans of their own—if not plans, at least hopes. How simple any past war looks nowadays, even missile war, in the light of possible nuclear terrorism.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.