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The Uncivil Servant: New Films in Darkness and in Light

Mitchell Abidor
July 13, 2017


ANY VIEWER who, five minutes into Klaus Härö’s The Fencer (opening in New York on July 21 and in LA on August 11), is not able to divine the rest of the film should look deep into his or her soul and try to figure out what is wrong with them!

The Fencer is the story of Estonian fencer Endel Nelis, played by Märt Avandi, who arrives in a small town in the final days of Stalin’s rule. Hired by a reluctant and suspicious principal, Nelis hits on fencing as a sport to teach his young charges in the Estonian outback of Haapsalu. But Nelis has a secret, one we are privy to, and the principal is determined to find it out.

Will the initially cold and forbidding Nelis warm up to his students? Will they take to as demanding and esoteric a sport as fencing? Will the principal find what Nelis is hiding? Will Nelis put his freedom at risk for his fencing team? Will his small-town team win a major tournament against big-city foes? To ask these questions is to answer them.

Sadly, whatever is not absurdly obvious in The Fencer is improbable. In the highly repressive USSR of Stalin, could some stranger walk into a school and simply get a teaching gig? Unlikely. Could outsiders delve into the NKVD secret police files of individuals they suspected? Not too probable. Could they remove documents from the files and take them home with them? Inconceivable.

Nelis, we learn at the beginning of the film, fought for the Germans in World War II. That this was not willingly is of no great importance: less brutal governments than that of Stalin did not look kindly on their nationals who fought in the uniform of the occupier. Nelis is a poor choice for a martyr to Bolshevism, and that he should be imprisoned for fighting under the Nazi flag seems unarguable. But there is a wave of films and books coming out of Europe that boldly attack Nazism and Communism, both safely dead, and so are safe to attack. It seems to be purchasing a medal for civic courage at little cost for filmmakers and writers to engage in this.

Those who fence or love fencing should not pass up The Fencer. Those seeking a heartwarming tale that bravely takes on the evils of Stalinism won’t object to it. Those anxious to hear Estonian spoken should start standing in line now. Though the film was nominated for a Golden Globe and was Finland’s entry for the Oscars, the rest of us should think twice before entering the theater.

The Fencer takes place in the gray, cold, forbidding Baltic region, where the paint is cracking on every wall and everything looks about to crumble. Nothing could be more different from this than the setting of Luc Bondy’s False Confessions, his film of his own 2014 theatrical production of the Pierre de Marivaux play, Les Fausses Confidences.

IN MARIVAUX (1688-1763) everything is light and frothy, and love rules his characters’ lives and actions. “Marivaudage” has come to mean witty and superficial banter, and there is much of that in False Confessions. But whatever the lack of depth in Marivaux, his plays always sparkle, which is why they remain in the repertoire centuries after his death, and False Confessions does not let us down.

The complex and rather silly romantic confusion that serves as the basis for the action is not meant to provide any of life’s truths. That lovers will eventually overcome obstacles and misunderstandings and find each other is no radical notion, but the joy of Marivaux and of this film is the journey that the author’s superficial wit takes us on. If at times the acting is a tad over the top, it is always in keeping with the spirit of the play and the film.

The director, Luc Bondy, who died in 2015 and who mounted this production at the Odéon theater, makes the rather bold choice of having the soon-to-be-lovers a young man, played by the broodingly handsome Louis Garrel, and an older woman, played by the ubiquitous Isabelle Huppert. Huppert is thirty years older than Garrel, yet at no point is one left wondering why and how this love could be. If it weren’t for the fact that the film was made far too early to be influenced by current events, one would think the casting was inspired by the real-life love of President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, his former high school drama teacher, Brigitte.

If everything in The Fencer is exaggeratedly gloomy, False Confessions unfurls in a mythically beautiful Paris, in a fabulous apartment where, when the characters step onto a terrace looking out onto the streets of the city’s 6th arrondissement, the sky is always a magnificent Poussin blue.

The utter silliness of the plot should be ignored, and nothing of Marivaux’s 18th century prose is changed, however anachronistic. The viewer should simply sit back and allow herself to be swept along by the witty, the superficial, the beautiful.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.