Institute Benjamenta

Entertainment is more than just escape. Fascination, arousal (intellectual or otherwise), cool observation, deep involvement: all of these are aspects of the endeavor. Entertainment does not have to be a slam-bang action fest; the word “entertainment” is not limited to the brainless wasting of time. In fact, to entertain is one of the duties of art – to engage us in a fashion that whatever message or technique is employed is not ruined by boredom or revulsion. “Controversial” artists tend to ignore the responsibilities to the audience, to not give them a reason to watch. Chances are, if your main intent is to offend, the only willing audience will be those who want your target offended, too.

Institute Benjamenta is not offensive, but it is boring. The film is beautiful to look at, but its roots have been cored out by the directors’ failure to engage us. Intellectual observation is thwarted by the idiosyncratic style that makes even the simplest scenes obscure.

The Brothers Quay are a pair of astounding directors, directors renowned for their stop-motion animation, and rightly so. Institute Benjamenta is their first foray into live-action and feature-length work, but the pacing, if not the narrative, makes the movie feel like a string of short features that are stapled together by fiat.

Jakob (Mark Rylance) is the newest, and last, student at the Institute Benjamenta, a school for the training of servants. The school is administered by Herr Benjamenta (Gottfried John) and taught by his sister, Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige). There are virtuoso elements in the film: during the interview for admittance, Herr Benjamenta examines Jakob in excruciating close-up; later, we watch Lisa’s class sway in unison as if they were a rocking boat.

But the beginning of the film gives us a taste of the meal that never comes. The Quays are more interested in the enigma of scenes and characters that are disconnected and inscrutable. That, and the flagging pace, makes the film boring and incomprehensible. Long scenes with peripheral connections – that is the guiding strategy.

Most disappointing of all, (and this is the glue that could have held the weirdness together), is the lack of humor. This is typical of the Quays (whose shorts, with the possible exception of “The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmeyer,” are very serious in mood), but here it is a hardship because the novel, Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, is funny. Walser writes about human hells that are Kafka-esque, but he does it with a touch of irony. Because of their overriding love of the image, the Quays have deadened Walser’s story.

What we’re left with is something dry and occasionally fascinating. The film breaks too many contracts with the audience, and offers only a curio in return for our interest. See the short films, not this, unless you want specifically defined the reason why the directorial techniques of animation are useless with live action.1 There is nothing here but disappointment and boredom. Beautiful boredom, but boredom just the same.

1While the movement and humanization of inanimate objects is inherently interesting, and it can support weak narratives (a strong one would be detrimental to the average stop-motion art short), particularly the attractive ones that populate films, it cannot hold interest without a story.

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