Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995)
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This was the first feature length film of the brilliant stop motion animators The Brothers Quay, based on the now recognised classic but largely forgotten turn of the century novel "Jakob Von Gunter" by Swiss author Robert Walser. For a film so concerned with the surreal dream world between waking and sleeping it seems appropriate that I started to watch the film late last night and found myself almost hypnotised - half awake and half asleep for the majority of the second half of the film, to the point where I wasn't sure as I opened and closed my eyes if I was watching or dreaming the events on screen. Re-watching the whole thing again tonight properly confirms what an excellent piece of work it is.
On a superficial level there is a great deal to enjoy if you are prepared to accept the strangeness and inevitable confusion of not instantly understanding what you are seeing (it makes a lot more sense on a second viewing) - the black and white cinematography with constantly shifting focus and plays of light across the walls is stunning, as is the art direction and soundtrack/sound design - most of the film is post-dubbed for a further distancing effect. The performances are mesmerising too: Mark Rylance, easily one of the greatest actors currently working in theatre but sadly mostly absent from cinema, brings his customary sense of playfulness and eccentricity to the central role - equal parts Kafka hero, silent German expressionist and Buster Keaton. His early scenes entering the institute and in the classroom are a delight with wonderful comic subtlety and awkward realism. Alice Krige is also brilliant, looking radiant throughout and bringing effortless grace to her role, silently drifting through the corridors with her deer-leg stick, trying to keep her passions in check. Mention also to Daniel Smith who plays the ever present assistant/pupil Kraus with an odd, half-smiling menace.
It is perhaps a little too long, apparently the Quays thought so too, as the plot thins out and the surrealism takes over, but there are real depths to be discovered here; much like entering the pine-cone strewn deer mazes of the inner institute - doors lead back on themselves, it's easy to get lost, but it's a beautiful, sensual and unsettling walk.
Insanely beautiful! If this was seen by more people, the Brothers Quay would be demigods to those who love cinematography.
Possibly the most beautiful black and white movie ever made.
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In 2 official lists
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This movie ranks #127 in 366 Weird Movies (Certified Weird)
This movie ranks #805 in Doubling the Canon