(Christian Petzold, Germany, 2007)
After having seen the excellent Jerichow, I promptly added the other available Petzold films to my Netflix queue, and this was the first to arrive. Overall, it's a strong film with several good cinematic ideas, but it doesn't create a lasting emotional resonance, and its ambiguity ends up feeling a bit on the forced side.
Petzold does a number of things very well - he knows how to shoot and cut, he has a flair for using diagetic music in an immersive way, and he works exceptionally well with actors. The two female leads in Ghosts are tremendous, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of their performances. But he keeps things so hermetically tight that the story never really engages, and it ends up seeming like a squandered opportunity. Petzold's structural ideas are fascinating, but he doesn' t seem willing to fully commit to them, and the film ends up caught in a weird emotional limbo between the Dardenne brothers and Michael Haneke. This probably sounds more interesting than it really is, and winds up dwelling in the weaker areas of both of those respective styles.
It could be a mood thing. Lately, the razor-sharp construction and tonal restraint of certain European directors has been wearing thin for me. For all of their clean lines and perfectly modulated rhythm, I can't help but be irked by their misplaced sense of economy. What exactly is gained by all of the mood they forgo? It isn't some kind of new angle on realism, since there generally is a favoring of structure over depicted behavior. Usually, these films play out in semi-parable mode, relating a crisp little distillation of key events, but the set-pieces contain plenty of, as it were, negative space - mini-meditations on the characters in quiet rooms, driving, etc., which will occasionally be interrupted by some emotionally jarring moment. I can't say exactly what it's all in aid of, but I can say that it's not to my current taste, as much as I once admired it (probably for what it wasn't.)
But such meta-concerns aren't really fair critiques of Ghosts, which, like I said, contains some very cool stuff, such as the sequence where the two girls go shoplifting, and Petzold cuts from the security cameras to the hand of the wacky mother character at exactly the moment we expect to see a guard descend upon poor hapless Nina. The beginning of the two girls relationship is likewise very well-handled; it manages to be delicate and volatile at once. But elsewhere in the film - especially the travails of the older married couple, things stall out and get wearisome. It's good to know that Petzold got his act together for Jerichow, but things here aren't quite up to snuff.