(a “SPECIAL FEATURES DVD interview with the film’s director, Klaus Härö” review by Timothy J. Verret)
Truth be told, I was not prepared to write a review of THE FENCER (2015), as I was ever so slightly underwhelmed at this film’s conclusion, but after watching the SPECIAL FEATURES DVD interview with the film’s director, Klaus Härö, I knew I had no other choice. I seek to bridge that interview with the actual film in this review, as coupled together I can now see how they wonderfully and spiritually feed off each other. Yes, BOTH!
THE FENCER (2015) is a Finnish/an Estonian film adapted from the real-life story of Endel Nelis, an accomplished Estonian fencer and coach who is basically on the run from the Soviet Police. What “fences” Endel in, as does most, is his sordid yet “did I have a choice?” past and how that comes back to haunt him, maybe for good. When films go the political or war route, I’m typically going for the hills unless same is in the background, lingering but not protruding, which is the case in this film. And this should be in the background because THE FENCER is a “triumphant human” story, a story about relationships, and a story about professional and personal triumph, all things that can easily get hijacked when politics and war in a film predominate. Endel teaches fencing to some wide-eyed and cute-as-a-button little ones, but alas he teaches them much more. He teaches them about focus, technique, and responsibility when fencing (and not) but, above all, Endel plays a hugely patriarchal role in these children’s impressionable minds and hearts. Not to bring up the “war” stuff too much that I just discounted, but many of these children had fathers who abandoned them because of the war or the affiliation therein, so the last thing Endel wants to do is abandon them one more time. He, in fact, puts all his cards on the table (I know, wrong game!) to NOT abandon them for fear of crushing what little hope they have left in someone, a father figure, to believe in them and never leave them. In this respect, THE FENCER is a VERY spiritual film (as you will see below in Klaus Härö’s interview), because I’m reminded of one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). Endel is a “Father God” figure to these children, and he backs up this Bible verse with his great love and devotion to these “fencing” children. What I think had slightly underwhelmed me about THE FENCER is that when Endel and the children head off to a fencing tournament, as THE KARATE KID exciting as this part of the film was, it was hard to get too excited because the film did not explain the fencing techniques and rules all that well. Of course, that could just be me as someone who is VERY “un-sports-inclined.”
Now, I get to talk about the SPECIAL FEATURES DVD interview with the film’s director, Klaus Härö, most definitely my favorite part of this review of THE FENCER. Director Härö is a very handsome fellow, so let me just get that out of the way. But handsome or not, Härö is very intelligent, very honest, and very spiritual. Those traits right there put in the background, ironically like the war and politics I mentioned above, his good looks. The interviewer asks Härö some really probing questions in this interview that the director handles effortlessly. What is revealed along the way is how completely “human” Härö is and why he probably chooses only projects that are “human,” as well, i.e., films about the triumph of the human spirit (with the word, “spirit” in BOLD). One question the interviewer asks Härö is, “What films influenced you to be a film director?” Now, this might have been wishful thinking on my part, but I just knew at that question Häröh was going to mention an Ingmar Bergman film….and he did! He actually mentioned the Swedish film, THE BEST INTENTIONS (1992), that was NOT directed by Bergman (Bille August sat in the director’s chair), though Bergman wrote the screenplay to this film, and the film was about Ingmar Bergman’s parents. Maybe Bergman chose not to direct this film because it “hit too close to home.” I’m embarrassed to say I don’t believe I saw this film (though I will now, of course), probably because it was not directed by Ingmar Bergman. What Härö says about the influence of this film is that it had such a simple premise and storyline and yet tackled with such great drive and fire the complexity of human relationships and human emotions. Härö even coined a recovery term when he said he likes films, like these, that “keep it simple.” The other film that Härö mentioned as an influence, and this really blew me away maybe because it was an American film, was E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (1982). Härö described how he saw this film as a youngster (I take it) at an IMAX theatre in Helsinki, Finland, and when Elliot and his friends on “simple” bikes escaped the police by flying into the air because of E.T.’s powers, Härö knew that he could become and desperately wanted to become a film director. He clearly saw the impossible in that scene and knew that all things would be possible for him with that movie magic! Restated (and I don’t think Härö would mind), “all things are possible to those who believe” (Mark 9:23). This prayerful insight on my part also makes Klaus Härö a VERY spiritual film director.
And keeping this review on the spiritual plane and even personalizing it a bit, I searched all my life for a “father,” like Endel Nelis, who would never leave me nor forsake me. I found that in Father God, and I’m so happy these children in THE FENCER found a father in Endel. And going back to this very handsome film director, did I fail to mention that Märt Avandi, the actor who plays Endel, is also very handsome? Okay, Timothy, enough! End the review….NOW! 😉
When I was in college, I went to see my advisor in his office and noticed he had a poster on his wall of a play (I can’t remember the name of the play) directed by Ingmar Bergman. When I saw it, I told my advisor, “I LOVE Ingmar Bergman’s films.” My advisor said, “If you love Ingmar Bergman’s films, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen his direction of theatrical plays.” As this review will point out, the advisor wasn’t kidding!
Some time back, I wrote a review of Ingmar Bergman’s production of August Strindberg’s THE GHOST SONATA I watched on YouTube (https://timothyjverret.blog/2020/07/18/august-strindbergs-the-ghost-sonata-directed-by-ingmar-bergman/). In that review, I talked about my emotional reaction to the production which often left me utterly speechless. Ingmar Bergman’s MADAME DE SADE, another gem of a find on YouTube, also left me utterly speechless. I honestly (and that’s a key word) do not know how Bergman is able to direct with such authority and authenticity, leaving the viewer this way. I think it has a lot to do with said authenticity and deep truth, especially as far as the human condition is concerned.
MADAME DE SADE is a play written by Mishima Yukio that was published in 1965. It is a play with nothing but women and if I know Ingmar Bergman as I think I know Ingmar Bergman, this is his specialty. Bergman knows women intimately and has been quoted as saying he likes to work with actresses because they are more emotionally available. The actresses in MADAME DE SADE are flat-out brilliant. The play centers on Marquise de Sade (a man, so he ever makes an appearance in this play), who was a French nobleman, revolutionary politician, philosopher, and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality. His sexual desires and perversity ran the gamut of both women and men. The characters in MADAME DE SADE include Marquise’s wife, the wife’s mother, and some other highly strong-willed yet highly self-destructive women. The settings in this theatrical production are to the bare minimum which works beautifully at centering on the women’s emotions (or lack thereof) and a whole lot of words. This, indeed, is a VERY wordy play, but this works beautifully, as well, because when there is some physical action in the production, boy is it ever physical!
In this review, I primarily want to focus on one main thing of Ingmar Bergman’s MADAME DE SADE, and this is something that multiple women speak throughout the play. It’s when these words are uttered: “The Marquise is myself.” Wow! These women are sexually perverted? Well, maybe not all sexually perverted, but they are most definitely perverted. “Perverted” is defined as “the alteration of something from its original course, meaning, or state to a distortion or corruption of what was first intended.” The women characters are perverted in that sense, because they cannot see that their need for control and power is distorted and corrupted from what has never been intended. I guess you can call this an “ego perversion.” It simply boils down to this: “The Marquise is myself!” It’s the “mirror thing.” “You spot it, you got it!” When these women are so quick to judge the Marquise de Sade for his sexual perversion, they are not so quick to see their own perversion of unnatural instincts for power and defined class status and control. They are the Bible’s Pharisees! And we, as viewers, take great note of this dynamic being worked out in this play. If dialogue is what you want, and MADAME DE SADE is mostly dialogue, the “mirror thing” goes like this:
WE: “What’s wrong with him or her?”
WE: “What’s wrong with me?”
“The Marquise is myself!” The wife says it first, I believe, and the rest of the women join in (mostly against their will) for this dreaded merriment. And even if they don’t necessarily join in, it’s right there, staring them right in the face, and they will have to join in eventually. We as viewers join in, too, because life is filled with this “speck in your eye while I have a plank in mine” (Matthew 7:3). “I’m not like him or her!” Oh, yeah, you are! And you better believe you are or else everyone you meet will shine light on what you try to shadow.
And I’d be certainly remiss if I didn’t comment on the direction of Ingmar Bergman in MADAME DE SADE. And let me just say it is often quite difficult to comment on the genius of director Ingmar Bergman, because I honestly (there’s that key word again!) don’t know how he is able to direct as effectively as he does. I can only hopefully emulate Bergman’s style in my own direction (onstage and offstage), which is about a character facing the audience while the other characters face away from the audience, as well as the character. I think for Bergman, this is about directing “shame.” When Bergman meticulously arranges actors onstage in this way, he is conveying “shame.” For dialogue not uttered in this play, the character facing the audience is saying, “I have shame. Please look at me,” while the other characters looking away are saying, “I have shame. Please DON’T look at me.” But when all the characters are on the same “playing field,” no pun intended, either all looking out at the audience or looking at one another, they are connecting, they are sharing their hurts and pains, and they are ripe to heal one another in a sacred bond of the shared frailty of the human condition. Bergman is famous for his film’s closeups and in MADAME DE SADE, which was actually filmed for Swedish television, Bergman did get a chance to use his closeups that he loves so much, but he also had a large stage to do his trickery of distances, spatially and internally, present between these female characters.
Often while watching MADAME DE SADE, I had cardiac arrests, much as I did while watching THE GHOST SONATA. I held my breath, my heart was beating very, very fast, and, once again, I was utterly speechless. This is a testament not only to Bergman’s sublime direction but also because Bergman chooses plays like these to silence us as viewers so he can get us to the heart of the matter. Bergman doesn’t want to direct “fluffy” and “silly” plays that are about buffoonery and slapstick (not that there is anything wrong with that). Bergman is a “heart” director. He is way more interested in words, feelings, dilemmas, and conflicts of characters played out through the heart of the human condition. And for this reviewer, that is of great (and often grave) interest to me. Bergman is a deep thinker, obviously, and he “gets me” this way. “Deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42.7), and no one “gets me” this way quite like Ingmar Bergman or anyone willing to be “got” quite that deep to the heart of the human condition. If you’re willing to be “got” quite that deep, Ingmar Bergman’s MADAME DE SADE is a must-see for you!
(a review of Joaquin Phoenix’s “fearless” performances in DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT  and JOKER )
As an actor myself, I can honestly say that what makes an actor extraordinary is simply one word: FEARLESS. God bless the actor who will say, “I won’t go there!” Fearless actors “go there” every chance they get and, God willing, they come back to themselves. I had a very hard time coming back to myself when I played Iago in a theatre production of Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, and Heath Ledger playing the Joker, ironically enough, in the film, THE DARK NIGHT, never came back to himself. The part killed him, and this is very unfortunate. Actors have to be fearless BUT not go too deep into the fear.
Joaquin Phoenix is my favorite male actor. To say that he is also an animal welfare advocate, as he is, certainly doesn’t sway me, an animal welfare advocate, from this honest and forthcoming vote. But, first and foremost, Phoenix is my favorite male actor because he fits the one-word description of an extraordinary actor mentioned above, i.e., FEARLESS. This can be found in spades with Joaquin Phoenix’s performances in two of his films, DON’T WORRY, HE WONT GET FAR ON FOOT (2018) and JOKER (2019). In both films, Phoenix “goes there” and thank God he comes back to us afterwards. Losing him as we lost Ledger would be an absolute devastation to me and many others.
In DON’T WORRY, HE WON’T GET FAR ON FOOT, Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan, a true-to-life (and true-to-tragedy) man who in his early 20s was involved in a drunk-driving accident that left him a quadriplegic. It was only after much sobering up and much healing that John became a uniquely unparalleled and unapologetic cartoonist who both entertained and angered many people with his cartoons about his troubled childhood and physical disability. The film directed by Gus Van Sant (who also directed GOOD WILL HUNTING) takes us down a road (in a wheelchair, of course) with John Callahan who triumphed in the face of so much tragedy, a story many of us can relate to, quadriplegic or not. Joaquin Phoenix plays John Callahan with acerbic wit and scathing sadness and gives us a fully-realized characterization of a man who could have stayed seated, no pun intended, or who could “get up” and face his demons. Callahan did the latter. For one like myself who has seen Phoenix in many brilliant roles, I was hard-pressed to think Phoenix was NOT actually a quadriplegic. That is how incredible a performance Phoenix gives here. Phoenix always immerses himself into his roles (as you will see later in the JOKER review), and he leaves us spellbound and breathless and always questioning, “What is Phoenix gonna do next in this part he is playing?” We never know the answer until what he does hits us right between the eyes. Phoenix is a “heart actor,” i.e., he finds the truth of the characters he plays and serves us up that truth while he feasts on his characters’ hearts using his own heart.
And if we are talking about fearless actors and their fearless performances, one need look no further than Joaquin Phoenix in and as JOKER. We are talking about a “wild and ‘is he crazy or has the world gone crazy?'” performance! Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a man who just wants his life to be a comedy rather than a tragedy. Fleck has already had enough tragedy to last him a lifetime (one of my favorite lines from the film is, “I sure hope my death makes more ‘cents’ than my life”). Fleck wants a kind world, a sensitive world, a world that wouldn’t see him lying on the street and either walk right past him or walk right over him. Fleck doesn’t get this from this world (if I’m being honest, I’m not sure it is possible to get this from this world), so he resorts to aggressive displays of violence to match the world’s violence. Of course, it is best to “fight” the world’s violence with the opposite, peace, but I can understand where Fleck is coming from. Joaquin Phoenix was a skeleton in his performance, all bones and all guts. Physically, bones were sticking out everywhere when Phoenix was shirtless and only in an underwear. Having done my own research for Phoenix’s performance, it was stated that he ate only an apple a day before and during the entire shoot! How Phoenix did not go the “Ledger route” in this eerily and insanely similar performance is beyond me. Is Phoenix a “better” actor than Ledger was? I care not to “go there.” Where I will go is that Joaquin Phoenix deserved every acting award nomination and win for JOKER. He, in fact, won the Best Actor Oscar that year for JOKER, and I pray most of you heard his acceptance speech but if you didn’t, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qiiWdTz_MNc. When Phoenix got up there that night and talked about how we treat animals so heartlessly, it was a hoot (and a great tragedy) to watch all the ego-driven Hollywood types in the audience squirm and remain without words when Phoenix spoke the truth about how carelessly and inhumanely the world treats animals and each other. This, they did NOT want to hear and/or believe. They wanted, I guess, the movie magic of “make-believe.”
Joaquin Phoenix is not only an incredible actor but also an incredible voice for the voiceless animals and all voiceless beings. Phoenix has a voice that comes through in his acting and in his humanity. He is what I would call the “complete and real deal,” because he gives everything that he is to everything he does, onstage and offstage. He is as honest as the characters he plays and, yes, indeed, most definitely and without a shadow of a doubt, Joaquin Phoenix is FEARLESS!!!!