(Air Date: Week Of 05/29/96)
As dreams go, "Institute Benjamenta" is a particularly melancholy, ethereal one. The first live-action feature from those twisted masters of puppet animation, the Brothers Quay, "Institute Benjamenta" is an exquisite and hypnotic chamber piece. It's also a film totally unlike any other I've seen, which makes for a disorienting and challenging night at the movies.
"Institute Benjamenta" evokes the mood and spirit of German expressionism, sparse in dialogue but rich in sound design, shot in gauzy black-and-white with a hefty dose of shadows. Throw in a nonstop array of bizarre deer symbolism and it all adds up to a claustrophobic study in power and surrender, shot through with the most acute sexual repression.
The mood, sensation and aesthetics of "Institute Benjamenta" are crucial, for the plot itself is relatively simple. A hesitant, sharp-featured man named Jakob von Gunten, played by Mark Rylance of "Angels and Insects," arrives at a boarding school for the training of servants. This decrepit place, Institute Benjamenta, is cut off from the outside world and operated with an arbitrary, dictatorial hand by Lisa Benjamenta and her equally bizarre brother. How weird is this place? Only one lesson is taught, over and over and over.
The setting is eerie and vaguely Germanic, and the time could be the late 1800s or 1947. Jakob is our insecure guide in this upside-down world, reciting obscure monologues that only deepen the sense of existential mystery: "Past and future circle about us," he intones ominously. "Now we know more; now we know less."
Based on the writings of early 20th century Swiss author Robert Walser, "Institute Benjamenta" occupies the surreal crossroads somewhere between Kafka and Ionesco. It's not so much postmodern as premodern, a warning about bureaucratic aloofness and corporate soullessness. I'd venture to guess that "Institute Benjamenta" is also about the devastating loneliness of life at the top, and the peculiar craziness brought on by isolation.
Whatever "Institute Benjamenta" may be about, the film's real pleasure is in its visual scheme. The Quays seamlessly blend live action and puppet animation to poetic effect. Every shot is so beautifully composed and every movement so impeccably executed that one is often simply mesmerized. If you fall under the spell the Quays weave in "Institute Benjamenta," you will be transported to a faraway land that isn't so far away after all. Isn't that the stuff movies are made of?
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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