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La jeune baronne Effi Briest souffre d'ennui dans la vaste demeure de son mari. Sa rencontre avec le Major Crampas va adoucir la rigueur de sa vie. Mais un jour, le sévère baron va découvrir la correspondance des deux jeunes gens...
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Adapted from the novel by Theodor Fontane by controversial director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it's obvious from the very beginning that `Effi Briest' is not going to be your typical drama. Having recently seen `Martha', I thought I knew what I was in for. Despite releasing both films in 1974, Fassbinder creating two very distinct and very original pieces in these movies, neither one of them comparable in the least.
The film simply tells the story of young (seventeen year old) Effi Briest who is given in marriage to the much older Baron Geert von Instetten; her mother's former lover. Things go fine for a while, but Effi's lack of real companionship pushes her into the arms of a womanizer by the name of Major Crampas. The affair is short lived, but the repercussions are devastating.
While the story is simple, the telling of that story is not. Fassbinder is a very passionate direction who knows how to create a truly authentic and artistic vision. That is scene on every frame of this film. The crisp black and white's as well as the use of a bright fade out as apposed to the standard black fade out are all reflective of the character's inner being; and that brilliant use of mirrors and windows are like small glimpses into the tucked away corners of these characters souls. If you look closely you can see how this technique is used so lavishly, when characters have their backs to the camera yet their facial expressions are captured in a nearby mirror. It's a telling example of artistry with motive as these mirrors reflect or `capture' the pure expressions of these characters. The three forms of storytelling (the narration, dialog and title screens) all come together masterfully to give this film a very storybook feel.
It feels very much like a novel brought to life.
The acting is superb across the board. Hanna Schygulla is very effective as young Effi. She captures this young woman's emotional plight with an effortless subtlety that grabs us by the back of the head. Wolfgang Schenck is marvelous as her husband Geert. He has an almost agitated calm that engulfs him, and he uses that to create an almost chilling portrait of jilted affections. I also thought that Ursula Stratz was very effective as Roswitha, Effi's loyal housekeeper.
I have noticed one thing about Fassbinder, and it's apparent in both films that I've seen from him. He doesn't know when to say `when'. I understand that this was adapted from a novel, and apparently he was very strict about staying close to the material; but like `Martha', there was a distinct moment when the film felt `complete' to me, and going passed that point took away a little from the experience to me. I won't say when that point was, because it would be giving too much away from the films outcome, but let's just say that the film is maybe twenty minutes too long. If those last few scenes had been trimmed (even though the final scene is utterly immobilizing) I wouldn't hesitate to call this one of the best films of 1974.
Regardless, this is a stunning film that is a pure artistic expression worth delving into. A far cry from `Martha', Fassbinder proves he has more than one side to him. I can't wait to get my hands on another one of his films.
Theodor Fontane's 1895 novel, about the consequences of betrayed love, was long a favorite of Fassbinder's. Effi Briest was so important to Fassbinder that he not only wrote the screenplay (which was customary), but in his extensive role as the offscreen narrator he literally became Fontane's voice, and sometimes even Effi's. Adding yet another personal layer, he also cast his own mother, Lilo Pempeit, as Effi's mother.
Although I believe this is one of Fassbinder's most intricate masterpieces, as suggested below, it is also one of his most accessible films. On its most basic level, it features an engrossing melodrama about adultery, albeit one purposefully shorn of histrionics. Set in the closed, repressive Prussian society of the Bismarck era, it shows what happens when teenage Effi Briest (Hanna Schygulla, who appeared in twenty of Fassbinder's films), with prodding from her parents, makes an expedient marriage to a rising politician twice her age, Baron Geert von Instetten, and later has an affair with the charming Major Crampas. The film is marked by performances of exceptional nuance and depth; rich period detail and production design; and striking black and white cinematography. But it also works on many more levels - not only as Effi's wrenching story but as Fassbinder's profound involvement both in the social implications of her tale and in his probing of the expressive possibilities of film itself.
Fassbinder (sometimes accused of being a "stagy" director) here shows his mastery of the expressive possibilities of image. To take one example, just over an hour into the film, there is a scene with Effi and Instetten in their boudoir, which follows the scene where Instetten spied on his wife and her lover (although Effi does not know this). Vsually, Fassbinder plays off of our knowledge of the fraught context by creating a beautiful but telling emblem for Effi's married life. We see her in a nightgown, looking towards the camera, cosseted behind a lace net which fills the frame; her eyes downturned, she sinks into a luxurious feather bed, sippin coffee. Behind Effi sits her stiff husband in a suit, his head bracketed by a grille, trying to trick her into revealing her infidelity. Both of them are watched over by a praying plaster cherub, ironically suggesting the role religion plays in their lives. This one shot - gorgeous yet tense (both compositionally and dramatically) - tells us so much about Effi, her life, and the social/political nature of her world.
On a narrative level, Fassbinder uses the film's formal construction to explore the very repression in Effi's life and world. Like agitprop playwright Bertolt Brecht (some of whose works Fassbinder staged at his theatre), Fassbinder wants to give us distance from the action so that we can better contemplate its social, and perhaps even personal, implications. At one emotionally charged moment, the narrator tells us that Effi "threw herself on Instetten." But we see no such thing. The couple is offscreen, and we are left in the kitchen watching the servants desultorily preparing a meal. This defuses the melodrama, which produces a fascinating double effect. On the one hand, it thwarts our expectations - hence giving us aesthetic distance; but on the other hand, it forces us to imagine the scenes for ourselves - which, paradoxically, draws us even further into Effi's life.
In Effi Briest, Fassbinder brings together image, emotion, and idea in extraordinarily rich and complex ways, even as he tells an engrossing story. To take just one more example, it is no accident that this film is filled with statues, which so uncannily parallel the stiff people who share the screen with them. This is a world in which the human figures increasingly recede into the background, where outdoors they are obscured by branches and bushes, while indoors their rigid forms are framed in narrow doorways and reflected - constrained and meaninglessly multiplied - in a series of ever more elaborate mirrors. Fassbinder has captured the poetry of repression: Exquisitely beautiful but enervating, and, ultimately, fatal.