Think of Gladiator – not in the arena, but the thoughts of home, the door in the wall, the reunion with family – or, for 70’s children, The Singing Ringing Tree. No obvious connection perhaps, but they both provide the authentic other worldly numinous feeling that is so hard to achieve on film. Edward Scissorhands nearly manages it, but the classic exposition, in The Knife’s opinion, is Paris, in Ermanno Olmi’s 1988 masterpiece, The Legend of the Holy Drinker.
Paris is a ghostly world in muted colours, bustling and noisy, yet eerily disconnected. The drinker is a man with a past – the flashbacks seem part of a stranger’s life, not his. There is a sense of foreboding, leavened by his attempts to do a good deed in his flawed existence.
Rutger Hauer is an actor who effortlessly knocks out straight to DVD rubbish, yet can deliver a startling and moving performance with equal facility. The cast is multinational, which further removes the viewer from the sense that Paris is a nearby familiar modern French city, and is more akin to the ghostly, empty Bruges of Die Tote Stadt, seen in the somewhat mixed opera/pop video movie Aria. This in turn was influenced by the wonderful symbolist novel Bruges-la-Mort by Georges Rodenbach.
Psychiatrists refer to depersonalisation as: “.. a change in an individual’s self-awareness, such that they feel detached from their own experience, with the self, the body and mind seeming alien”, and the related derealisation as: “..a change in an individual’s experience of the environment, where the world around him/her feels unreal and unfamiliar..”
Who has not felt this way, and perhaps treasured the weird dream-like state that it can engender, if only briefly? Olmi and Hauer’s triumph is to deliver, fully-formed, its cinematic manifestation, with a deeply moving coda.
The film is hard to get though. I have an old VHS copy, but it is out there on DVD. Critically acclaimed 22 years ago, it disappeared from view after winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The fine book by Joseph Roth (author of the brilliant Radetzky March, one for another post), on which it is based, is no match for the film, which, as it draws to a close, brilliantly portrays the redemptive urge that is part of our human condition.