Thursday, November 4, 2010

Review: In a Year with 13 Moons

       From Woody Allen, Bergman, and Antonioni to Sofia Copolla and Paul Thomas Anderson, directors have often tried to show man's primary object as an attempt to find meaningful connections with the world around him. A more optimistic viewpoint shows that men can find acceptance with their past and meaning in life  (Bergman's Wild Strawberries) or love with fellow loners (Sofia's Lost in Translation), but often directors put their characters through a continued alienation that they are unable to escape (Antonioni movies like l'Eclisse). At the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen's character is unable find love and thus "give meaning to the indifferent universe," to use a phrase from the narration.

     Add Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year with 13 moons to the top of the list of films that deal with what it means to be alone. After her boyfriend leaves her (in that cruel way that is so characteristic of German movies), Elvira, a transgendered female who used to be a man called Erwin, goes in search of past memories and loves. She visits the slaughterhouse where she used to work, the orphanage where she was raised by nuns, and searches for Anton Saitz, the man for whom she got a sex change in the first place. She also tries to reconnect with what used to be her wife and daughter.
     But while 13 Moons deals with profound loneliness and failed reconciliation with one's past, it is remarkable in that it is not in itself aloof and alienated. This stands in marked contrast to Antonioni's films and also with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, a Fassbinder film that is superficially similar in almost every way but that seems intent on making its main character despicable. It's not that Fassbinder pulls out all the stops to make us empathize with Elvira--she's an enigmatic character for much of the film-- but by the end I felt a strong connection with her and an understanding of her pain (maybe this has something to do with the male fear of castration...).  If Elvira is initially repulsive, we realize quickly that she deserves not just pity, but respect. 

      As far as filmmaking goes, it's more vibrant the Petra von Kant which was restrained but masterful in its own way. 13 Moons is often realistic (the lead performance by Volker Spengler astounds with its honesty) and sometimes exaggerated and intentionally ridiculous (just look at that picture). But above all, it is incredibly powerful; the slaughterhouse scene, where Elvira calmly details her past romances while the camera lingers over the incredibly graphic proceedings, is unforgettable. So is the scene where Elvira falls to the ground while listening to one of the nuns (Fassbinder's mother!) recall details of her past. And so too is one in while Elvira watches a man hang himself with casual indifference, as if it were the only logical conclusion to life.
     And if 13 Moons feels extremely personal, thats because it is; Fassbinder made the movie after his boyfriend Arman Meier committed suicide as an attempt to deal with his pain and the culpability he felt. Much of Elvira's past is taken from Arman's life. This probably also explains why the film feels like memory-- or a mix of private and cinematic memory to be precise. It certainly doesn't feel constructed; the imagery flow naturally and the dialogue seems almost like poetry at times. Well, I could keep trying to describe it, but if these last sentences prove anything, it's that the film has a certain quality to it that is indescribable. It's transgressive, uncomfortable, and tragic, while still recognizing the presence of beauty and love in the world.



  1. Who could this be?!

    Aww thanks Maudy! Did you look at any Fassbinder at Wesleyan?