Judge Adam Arseneau naturally assumed this film had to do with the period following the American Civil War, when the southern states of the breakaway Confederacy reintegrated into the United States of America. Boy, was he ever disappointed.
"Remember: It is all film. It is all a construction. But even so, it hurts."
Reconstruction is an interesting little Danish film, which is to say a film from Denmark, not a film about delicious pastries. Not that I would be opposed to such a tasty film, mind you, but that is beside the point.
Esoteric, mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, and more than a little pretentious, Reconstruction exists slightly out of tune with the world at large, like a conceptual work-in-progress, more interested in crafting an emotional reaction from the audience than it is in telling an actual story. It somehow manages to be both good and bad at the same time, like an indeterminate answer to a paradoxical question, or an exercise in states of quantum mechanics, completely unknowable.
Wait. An unknowable film, you say? This will be a fun review to write.
Facts of the Case
"My name is Alex David. It's been a very weird day."
Aimee, a beautiful young Swede, is married to an older man, a successful writer named August. Hard at work on his new novel, August spends all day lecturing and writing, desperately trying to sort out the ending to his book. Aimee hopes to spend some time with her husband before he leaves town on business, but with every growing day, it seems less and less likely. In Copenhagen, Denmark, the couple spends their nights separately, August working away and Aimee out in the cold streets finding refuge in smoky bars and night clubs.
Here, Aimee meets Alex, a young and handsome man. He sits down and invites Aimee to fly to Rome with him, as if they have met before and are longtime lovers. Whether they are or not is not clear, but for whatever reason, the two find themselves inexorably drawn to one another. Alex has a girlfriend named Simone, who loves him dearly and desperately, but toward whom he finds himself rather aloof. After ditching Simone on the subway, he rendezvouses with Aimee and spends the night with her, slipping out the doorway minutes before August arrives.
Alex, before departing the next morning, agrees to meet Aimee later in the day and returns home for a change of clothes. However, he finds a storage closet where his apartment door used to be. His neighbors, family, and friends have no idea who he is—and neither does Simone. Desperate, he meets up with Aimee, who at first seems to recognize him…but then again, perhaps not…
Reconstruction is an experimental film—not merely in the sense of resembling similar esoteric works within the genre, but also as an actual scientific experiment itself, full of beakers and tubes and constructs of human emotion, manipulated, prodded, poked, and reorganized. Like a puppeteer manipulating his figures, the film dances, reconstructs, reorganizes, and presents its characters over and over again in slightly different configurations, attempting to lock onto something; exactly what, we are never quite sure. Love, perhaps? Neither are we sure exactly what, if anything, should be taken at face value in Reconstruction, since the film exists slightly out of phase with the world. It does not break the laws of reality outright, merely bends them slightly, like a willow in the wind, vying and flexing with the tides of love and desire. It follows the random patterns of a breath of exhaled smoke, gently coalescing up into the night sky, repeating the same themes but never with the same pattern twice.
For example: August, the husband and writer, works on a novel throughout the film, and the words on his pages seem to oddly parallel the events occurring to Alex in the film, as if Alex himself was a character in August's novel. Even this cannot be taken for granted, since there are noticeable sequences of events that seem to be playing out of August's control. Alex finds himself torn between two women representing opposite ends of the spectrum of desire—played in classic surrealist style by a single actress (the beautiful Maria Bonnevie)—which makes Alex's perception of reality suspect, especially when everyone in his life seems to forget about his very existence. Even the narrator, who also sounds a lot like August, could very well be a representation of entirely different individuals, since both the narrator and August speak from entirely different positions on the board. Even if both are performed by the same actor, August is in the dead center, with events swirling around him directly, while the narrator speaks from behind the stage, at the very least observing from a distance, if not indeed the puppet master himself. Reconstruction is a film of changing perspective, of missed opportunities and self-doubt, and part of that doubt gets transmitted directly into your optic nerves.
If you are confused at this point, it is understandable. Reconstruction has serious identity issues, throwing against the wall dashes of Lynchian oddness, New Wave surrealism, experimental art-house cinema, romance, and anything else it deems appropriate—some of which sticks, and some of which does not. Imagine this film as the surrealism of Alain Resnais's Last Year At Marienbad transposed to the icy streets of Copenhagen, or as the cool and complicated reality of modern love in Patrick Marber's Closer reconstructed as a French New Wave film. Though the ever-changing nature of love and relationships, of choices and commitment, in Reconstruction bear a striking similarity to Marber's play, the comparison to Resnais's film in particular may be the most apt, since both films languidly glide across the same dance floor using the same themes. As in Marienbad, the characters in Reconstruction may as well have single letters for names; they are mere simulacra of humans, representations of the basest of human desires, of loneliness, longing, sadness, doubt, and desire.
Reconstruction does not play fair with its viewers, but at least it comes clean about this fact in the opening montage. The narrator, in a candid bit of fourth-wall breaking, casually explains that this is not reality, but a film, but that nevertheless, knowing this fact will not reduce the impact of the story. And it does not. In that sense, Reconstruction is a resounding success, because even with total disclosure, the film still holds emotional resonance at the end, coming full circle. "Remember: It is all film. It is all a construction. But even so, it hurts," says the film, and this is undeniably true. The first and last five minutes of the film are quite elegant and powerful; but where the film goes awry, of course, is during the other eighty minutes. Reconstruction is an interesting film, no doubt; a beautifully shot film, a well-acted film, and a compelling little intellectual curiosity indeed. But a good film? Trickier to answer.
Reconstruction, for all its intellectual appeal, has a hard time holding emotional interest. It floats in the wind instead of having a clear trajectory, waffling back and forth between states of indeterminateness. This admittedly adds a certain sense of esoteric beauty and deep surrealism, but the aloofness leaves little behind to capture the attention or connect with on an emotional level. Characters behave erratically, acting either on base emotion out of principle, or out of sheer manipulation by the writer / narrator / puppeteer; either way, their behavior is bizarre and head-scratching, riddled with self-doubt, insecurity, and fear. Knowing the characters have little control over their actions gives the film a bitter taste at times, robbing the film of any spontaneity or surprise, drained of all human emotion and natural reaction. It is hard to connect emotionally with and care about characters who are merely pawns in an existentialist experiment. Yes, the film occasionally has emotional impact on a gut level, but has a hard time sustaining it for more than brief spurts. This is a hollow film, beautifully constructed and elegant, but paper-thin and totally devoid of the heart that drives a romantic drama. Reconstruction has the sterilized feel of a mental exercise, not a vibrant and tortured love story. It is simply a film for the head, not for the heart. It tries to be both, of course, but fails in that (and only that) particular regard.
Reconstruction is a sea of icy blues and grays, clashes of harsh white halogen lighting against murky back alleys the dimly lit streets of Copenhagen. The transfer captures the simple and understated elegance of the cinematography quite well. As with most films shot on 16mm stock, during sequences of excellent lighting, the film exhibits decent sharpness, contrast, black levels, and detail, while poorly lit sequences have a shifty graininess, a murky black tone, and indistinct detail that borders on overwhelming. Considering the film quality, the transfer is quite exceptional. Shot in a handheld style, the film is gorgeously composed with a noticeable icy detachment—coldness in both tone and direction. There is nothing warm, comforting, or inviting in this world, and the dimly lit bars, blackened streets, and stark ultra-white interiors seem to exist only to further push the characters into each other's arms. This is especially true considering the only scenes lit with any kind of inherent warmth or richness are the intimate lovemaking sequences.
A simple Dolby Digital 2.0 track provides excellent bass response, clear dialogue, well-spaced and dispersed ambient noises and an ever-pervasive string-heavy soundtrack, but the film truly shines on its Dolby Surround 5.1 track. While the mixes are very similar and heavy in the front channel, the surround track opens up the film like a closet door spilling sunshine into dusty corners, adding clarity, definition, fidelity, and an immersive balance of background ambience and foreground dialogue. Both are fine choices, but the discerning viewer will be all over the surround track like white on rice.
The only notable extras on the disc are three artful interviews with Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Alex), Maria Bonnevie (Aimee/Simone), and Christoffer Boe (the writer-director), filmed in a distinctive split-screen black-and-white fashion offering reflections on character development, deeper meanings behind the film and other subjects of note. Each ten-minute interview offers exceptional insight into the process of creating Reconstruction, and despite their relative brevity, all are of exceptional quality. We get a few other tidbits on this DVD, like trailers and previews, but no other content of worth.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For every kind word I can say about Reconstruction, I can think of an unkind one in rebuttal. A fascinating film, no doubt; but also a pretentious film, oblique, irritating, frustrating, dense, preachy, deliberately difficult, et cetera. And did I mention pretentious? Oh my word, yes, that too. The film takes an irritating pleasure in withholding truths from the audience, like a cocky show-off magician. Every twist and turn is made with a certain measure of smug self-satisfaction, a perverse delight taken with each deliberate manipulation.
In short, in every way a foreign art-house film. Bah dum kssh. But it had to be said.
As beautiful and poetic as Reconstruction may be, the film adds equal amounts frustration and tedium, making this DVD a refined and acquired taste, to say the least. Fans of oblique cinema, the French New Wave, and experimental filmmaking will no doubt find much to love in this film, but for the average viewer, Reconstruction remains a perplexing choice. This is the cinematic equivalent of a skilled street illusionist; fascinating to stare at, incredibly beguiling, but totally without answers or resolution. Just when you open your mouth to ask a question, it is gone in a puff of smoke.
An intriguing little film—of this there can be no doubt—but ponder long and hard on what kind of cinematic viewer you are before you tackle it, to avoid disappointment. If you are the kind of person who enjoys a film for the sake of the journey, who can allow the film to take you on its languid and dreamlike adventure without trying to force your own will upon it, someone who cares less about answers than simply enjoying the journey itself? Then meet your new favorite film. If, however, you are the kind of person who demands explanations, answers, who wants to learn the truth behind the mystery, the secret behind the magic trick? This film will frustrate the everlasting hell out of you.
Despite the total lack of answers in Reconstruction, there is enjoyment here to be found, but only if you are of a temperament to appreciate it. Imagine trying to open a puzzle box treasure chest when you have been told the box is empty to begin with. Would you still spend 90 minutes trying to open it? One can find pleasure in the challenge itself, certainly, as long as there are no bitter feelings at the end when you finally lift the lid.
Sort of, but not quite, almost but mostly not guilty. An ambiguous verdict for an enigmatic film.
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