Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Lines of Wellington

The Lines of Wellington is a historical drama written by the great Raul Ruiz, a Chilean film maker who died a couple years ago.  Ruiz' wife, Valeria Sarmiento, directed the picture released in 2012 and the movie is a baffling combination of soap opera, prestigiously mounted costume drama, and made-for-TV (or Cable) mini-series.  The cut of the film circulating on the Film Movement DVD runs about 150 minutes; however, the movie contains odd ellipses and scenes introducing new characters who vanish as quickly as they appear, episodes that suggest dramatic arcs that seem to have been edited out of this version of the film.  Some footage is inserted as flashbacks to provide narrative context, as if the editor were trying heroically, if unsuccessfully, to motivate peculiarities in the characters and story that would otherwise be inexplicable.  (I understand that the film was released in Canada on cable-TV as a mini-series and suspect that it may have been shown in Spain and Portugal in much longer versions.)  The movie is handsome, impressively shot with excellent actors, many of them, apparently, TV stars in the Iberian peninsula.  In the Film Movement version, the film provides an interesting counterpoint to Ruiz' The Mysteries of Lisbon, an engrossing four-and-a-half-hour costume melodrama made for Portuguese TV and the late director's greatest commercial success.  In The Mysteries of Lisbon, a fantastically complicated plot proceeds through a series of riddles that the narrative gradually solves; no loose ends are left unresolved -- every mystery is ultimately explained although on the basis of concealed paternity, fantastic coincidences, and mistaken identities.  The Lines of Wellington presents the opposite case:  in this film, plot-lines are abandoned, characters appear for a few moments and, then, vanish from the story, conflicts are left unresolved while important protagonists are unceremoniously killed or left for dead.  Whereas The Mysteries of Lisbon posited a narrative that was tightly closed and involuted, The Lines of Wellington presents a series of scenes that are not only fragmentary and unrelated, but, also, in some instances, digressive -- a sequence may be fascinating to the viewer but it leads nowhere.  (For instance, early in the film, Sarmiento puts Michel Piccoli, Isabelle Huppert, and Catherine Deneuve in the same shot -- the characters are Francophile Portuguese nobility quarreling about whether Napoleon's invasion signifies progress or barbarism.  There is a lot of star-power in the scene but we never see these characters again after their five minute cameo.)  Ostensibly, Sarmiento's epic concerns the Peninsular War fought between the French and the English in 1811 in the mountains north of Lisbon.  The film begins with carnage, the aftermath of a battle that the British, with their rather hapless Portuguese allies, have won against the French invaders.  Immediately, however, the movie operates against audience expectations:  although the British, led by the foppish Wellington (John Malkovich), have won the battle of Bucacao, they, nonetheless, retreat, withdrawing through the mountains to a series of fortifications called the Torres line.  (The film's title is an adaptation of this name for English-speaking audiences -- the Wellington line is the fortified heights extending for 20 km across the peninsula and protecting Lisbon from the French advance.)  During the retreat, Ruiz' script introduces the viewers to about a dozen characters:  Pedro, a valiant Portuguese fighter has been shot in the head and is convalescent, Bardolo, a poet and French deserter leads a group of Poles, also defectors from the French side in a guerilla war, Vincente is searching for his wife, lost in the retreat, Percy, a red-headed Irish officer, is enticed into sex with a depraved British girl whose previous lover was her own brother -- and there are warmhearted prostitutes, women driven mad by gang-rape, and savage priests who butcher French stragglers while shouting:  Death to Liberty.  (The conservative Portuguese call the French "Jacobins".)  Wellington frets about how he is being portrayed by a Portuguese artist and provides the recipe for Beef Wellington.  There is little violence in the film and no battles are depicted.  When the English reach the Torres line, they continue to strengthen its fortifications and, ultimately, the French simply melt-away -- they vanish.  Throughout the film, people die but mostly by accident -- they are killed in ambushes, hit by stray shells, perish in landslides when the fortifications collapse, or dies from disease.  The movie is mostly a study in landscapes -- the photography is lush and beautiful, composed of panoramic shots of large numbers of refugees doggedly trudging along the Portuguese hilltops.  This is a film about war that cleaves very close to the facts of Rwanda, Syria, and Iraq:  armed conflict is portrayed as shells falling at random from cannons fired at great distances and immense crowds of ragged people dragging their belongings over muddy and rugged roads.  In the end, the Portuguese have prevailed but at what cost -- in a Stalingrad-style defense, they have burned their own villages, vineyards, and farms to deny the French provender:  the final scene shows survivors gazing out upon the ravaged and charred landscape.  The film is interesting and well-made, but, ultimately, it's pointless.

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