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Rick McGrath [Celluloid 05.16.11] movie review drama fantasy

Year: 2010
Director: Assaf Tager
Writer: Assaf Tager
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Rick McGrath
Rating: 4 out of 10

Editor's Note: Rochefort had a similar reaction to the film when he saw it at SXSW.

Andante might have been a bleakly existential study of the world of the dreamless mind, but instead it's merely a muddled melodrama in the room of the mindless dream. Put another way: Andante is one of those infuriating movies in which the art direction and soundtrack are absolutely fascinating and compelling, but the characters and storyline are absolutely uninteresting and relentlessly one-dimensional.

Which is all just too bad, because the possibilities of the plot offer up a world of wonder.

Our story involves a post-apocalyptic society in a town called Andante, where dreamless people buy their imaginative fantasies from a factory that collects and broadcasts dreams from a "Mr Coma". His dreams are repetitive and stale, but this courier from the unconscious will soon be joining the choir celestial, which is bad news for the factory and its dream-consuming clients. But one of the factory workers, Didi, knows a girl, Sarah, who has started dreaming again and he convinces her to come to the factory to replace Mr Coma in an endless sleep, but a rift soon ensues between Sarah, Didi, and Mr Terrier, the psychopath who runs the dream farming operation.

Cool, eh? Don't the possibilities seem endless for an imaginative look at dreams, their symbolism, dream psychopathology, how a society might exist without dreaming, even the nuances of collecting a dream, editing it, and selling it to the public? Well, forget about all that. Cause and effect isn't on the menu. Even the basic plot is explained to us at the beginning of the story (right after an interesting opening dream sequence), which is never a good sign if you like meaning in action. It's not difficult to figure out what's going on after you've been told, but it is quite a challenge to imagine why the ensuing story is so flat and tedious with such a promising premise. While the action creeps on at andante speed I found myself wondering what may have happened before the story starts, and what will happen after it ends, if it ever ends. What disaster struck? Why can no one dream anymore? How can watching a dream, edited like a film, give you the experience of a real dream? How can you not dream and stay sane? Are these people sane, anyway? Has the imagination atrophied? And on and on. So many questions, so few answers. Like, none.

OK, OK… it doesn't all have to be intellectual. Yeah, I get the possibility Andante may be a riff on Hollywood as a dream machine. But any connections there are tenuous. And there is a balance for the under-examined plot – the gorgeous visuals and damn cool soundtrack. Which makes some sense, as writer/director/original music writer Assaf Tager started his career as a pop musician in Israel, and Andante does have many many connections to a well-crafted music video… with crummy lyrics. The credits tell the story: one production designer, three art directors, two painters in the art department, and five technicians in the sound department. Get to work, boys! What they've concocted is a visually gorgeous series of sets – this movie is mostly indoors – and a compelling soundtrack that's sort of industrial Pink Floyd combined with German doomjazz and maybe some Brian Eno on draino. The sets are obsessively done in a sort of derelict post-steampunk, pre-computer world of imaginary machines (most with little moving bits) and tired, shabby chic furniture in large dark rooms illuminated here and there with small lights. The factory – supposedly an old sawmill – is a cool blend of dark passageways, lots of dust and billows of steam (Alien), and all this sound and visual fury supposedly helps us to understand the characters, who sadly creep around in dark clothes, dark suits and dark uniforms, odd counterpoints to the veracity of the movie's inanimate components.

But all this shouldn't be a shock. I found the Andante website and was not entirely surprised to discover the movie had an aural conception, originally conceived by Tager as an opera. Heaven forbid. From the site: "With a background strongly rooted in music, director Assaf Tager's innovative approach to cinema began with a musical score, that he originally wrote as an opera, from which the visual element draws its life. As collaboration had been an important aspect in much of his work, Assaf gathered a commune of actors, artists and musicians for the project. Everyone worked together to develop the script, build the sets and create the sound and atmosphere captured in the film. Andante is characterized by its long flowing shots, much inspired by the techniques of theatre and silent film. In order to better integrate the musical aspect, actors performed music live during shooting. As well as using conventional instruments, sounds were created using the building itself, giving the factory its own organic presence. During filming the music and visual action were synchronized, via a stethoscope, to the walking pace of Sarah's heartbeat. Along with the set's dystopian design, this pace helps draw us further into her world, and the world she inhabits where no one dreams."

Well, there ya go. Blame it on the commune. The crappy characters and plodding plot are the result of a committee approach… so much for actors, artists and musicians being writers. Dumb move. Even substance abuse ain't gonna save this. And how clever by far are they as actors, artists and musicians? Well, they dreamed up the idea of having the soundtrack as a reflection of the dreamer's heartbeat. That explains why the movie starts with each character's heart rate, and we are told right off it's 86 bpm for Sarah. Apparently any deviation from this opening beat will indicate some important information. No matter. We're also not told how this "pace helps draw us further into her world," which is too bad, because for a dreamer, and therefore a person with great advantages, her world is a rather unexciting and unemotional dunk into most of the inaction flowing around her. The movie's "dystopian design" doesn't draw us further into her world either as we're not given enough information to actually discern what her world entails. From her actions all we can tell is she's passive and submissive. The world where no one dreams is obtuse as well, as we're never shown it, save a sort of funky room where the undreamers meet to watch Mr Coma's predictable fantasies, and highly stylized shots of the "factory", which is always in crumbling darkness. Even the sorry non-dreaming populace is odd, prancing around between showings, up and down factory lanes, pausing once in a while to observe a dead body in the pervasive white dust. They like cameras. They're nostalgia addicts.

I've always been amused by stories of Roger Corman commissioning a film based entirely on a great movie poster, but this is the first I've come across where the movie is based on a quasi-techno-industrial soundtrack which, at first listen, seems to have damn near nothing to do with dreaming -- except perhaps dreaming it was simply a new cd and not attached to a movie -- and even then, the sound seems both strangely compelling, yet derivative… perhaps it's the constant subwoofer of rib-compressing awareness that sets off a feeling of low-level anxiety when the action doesn't warrant it (which is most of the time), but when the sound machine starts beating out its repetitive riffs it can get pretty funky. My favorite scene involves Mr Terrier, who appears to be controlling a screening of one of Mr Coma's dreams by whacking his feet on a big square of metal lying on the floor. The room looks like a stage set. He keeps the film flowing and stops projection jitters by performing a percussive dance… meanwhile all sorts of stuff wails in the background while Mr Coma's dream shows a couple lighting bubbles. Zany.

So, we have a movie based on a soundtrack, which appears to begin and end with a dream, and offers up a slo-mo middle with lots of relentlessly useless dialogue and action, such as a five-minute eating scene which simply involves… eating. The best I can say is it's arty but certainly not heavy. There doesn't seem to be any big ideas behind the action, and the action is also lacking in meaning, save the odd nod to Franz Kafka and Man Ray. Is the whole movie a dream? Dreams within dreams? Probably not, although Sarah does like to nod off, so you never can tell. Slicing up dream and reality in this movie is a mug's game, anyway. There's no reference points. More likely Andante is a highly stylized riff on a very simple story kept simple, played out in time with the heroine's adrenalin levels.

But I wouldn't worry… it's sorta fun to pick up on all of Tager's visual and musical borrowings while the action bogs down the sets and the soundtrack jostles for position. As for the plot, one only has to look to Mr Terrier when he runs his brain-scanning machine over a comatose body: "There's a wave here. It's a wave of zero awareness". Hah.

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