With its oblique, languid, almost Kafkaesque, invocation of an ancient fairy tale world rendered in the smudged, flinty tones of flickering charcoal grey, “Institute Benjamenta” is the first feature-length live action film offering by the incomparable stop-motion animators known as Brothers Quay. Famous for their many offbeat animated shorts populated by creepy antique dolls and surrounded by bits of broken ephemera; old bric-a-brac that springs to life and makes compulsive patterns while seemingly moving inside strange, artificial worlds, as though hinting somehow at an undergrowth of neurosis threading through the hinterlands of a troubled dreaming mind -- these American-born identical twin artists have created a rich body of distinctive work over the years which this debut feature-film taps right into and effortlessly expands on, drawing on the Brothers’ customary influences and many of their most evocative visual motifs to forge, with the aid of their collaborators Nic Knowland and Larry Sider, a challenging but captivating tone-poem that emerges out of the intricate choreography of light and the hypnotic arrangement of shadowy dreamlike images -- along with a careful post-synch layering of sound.
There is only the faintest slither of a recognisable narrative form for the viewer to cling on to here: Konowland’s slatey black & white cinematography opens upon a darkened, mist-shrouded forest, seemingly pitched in some enchanted non-determinant East European location, out of which emerges the thin, nervy figure of Jakob von Gunten (Mark Rylance). He seeks entrance to the Institute Benjamenta: an incomprehensible dreamlike school for servants, full of empty peeling rooms carpeted with pine cones, and a home to a menagerie of odd animal exhibits. Deer antlers adorn the mottled walls and tufts of fur are displayed under cloudy glass cases; threadbare ninteenth century furnishings and cramped attic rooms for the few students in attendance create a bleak old world atmosphere. Below, deep in the bowels of the institute, strange, decaying baraque architecture, across which flits an other-worldly play of light, offers a subterranean refuge which can only be accessed through a chalked “zero” inscribed on the blackboard in the bare schoolroom.
This shadowy realm is run by brother and sister Johannes (Gottfried John) and Lisa Benjamenta (Alice Krige) -- she the Sleeping Beauty and he the Ogre in this distorted black fairy tale; while the seven students Jakob finds already in attendance are paralleled with the seven dwarfs of the Snow White story. Jakob’s reasons for entering the school are concerned with his desire to negate the ego -- ‘I have no high hopes of life’, he says. The school itself has only one lesson, ‘endlessly repeated, over and over again’. Through the mindless repitition of prescribed actions and routines supervised by the strangely tragic figure of Lisa Benjamenta, Jakob seeks to become as object-like and inanimate as the doll-figurines and crumpled puppets that have routinely inhabited the Quay’s work throughout much of their career.
The minutiae of found objects, bent fork-heads rubbed repetitiously with threads of cotton, the interactions of dust and light on air or silt water refracted through the shadowy glass of a fish bowl: these are the kind of obsessively crafted details that occupy the textured imagery of the film. Not only does a constant dance of light and shadow become crucial to its unique feel of faded Victoriana, but even the extreme and unusual use of the focal length of the camera lens results in a kind of isolating bubble congealing around the host of strange characters and their unusual, indecipherable actions, which become caught up in the film's diffuse circle of light. The work of cinematographer Nic Knowland is exemplary in creating the weathered look of a moving early-Victorian lithograph for the film, but Larry Sider’s unique soundcape, created simultaneously and in conjuction with the editing process, puts the seal on this hermetic, completely constructed world.
The Quays have successfully brought their idiosyncratic animation techniques to live film in a quite vivid and compelling fashion, but this is a difficult film to get a handle on nonetheless. The brothers have been inspired here by the Swiss writer Robert Walser, particularly his 1909 novel “Jakob von Gunten”. But rather than attempting to adapt the story to film in a conventional manner, they’ve instead used it more as a springboard for a poetic meditation on the novel and on the life of Walser himself, suffusing the film in spoken recitations of Walser’s texts and fairy tale-like scenarios that are inspired by events in the authors own life, and which are alluded to and echoed in snips of dialogue as well as paralleled in some of the events depicted by the story itself. Ultimately the Quays have made a film tribute to the life, work and ideas of one of their favourite literary authors that resonates far beyond its original creative inspiration. Difficult viewing though it is, the detailed artistry and commitment displayed by performers and film-makers alike makes this a pleasurable, totally immersive experience from start to finish and this duel format Blu-ray and DVD double disc set from BFI is a worthy addition to any cineaste’s collection.
I was provided with the DVD disc of the duel format set for review, but judging by the quality of the print available on the standard definition transfer, the Blu-ray high definition version should be exemplary. All of the extras on the Blu-ray can also be found on this DVD version, along with an extra behind-the scenes featurette, “On The Set Of Institute Benjamenta”, which runs for 16 minutes and is composed of raw video footage from the set at Hampton Court House, featuring several key scenes being arranged, rehearsed and shot -- though all without explanatory voice-over; each is then paired with the scenes as they appear in the finished film.
The other extras here can also be found on the Blu-ray disc. The one minute black & white trailer included for the film is as compelling and evocative as the movie itself; and a half-hour documentary “Inside the Institute: an in-between world” couldn’t be a better introduction to the thinking and working methods of the Quays, who both appear together on camera to talk about their ideas and about the genesis of the project. Also appearing are cast members Alice Krige and Mark Rylance who talk beguilingly about their characters’ relationship with each-other in the film as though they were real people. Writer Alan Passes explains the difficulties of writing for this co-director team who are driven by visual imagery and style above all else; and director of photography Nic Knowland and editor and sound montage-maker Larry Sider appear on screen to talk in some detail about their methods of realising the strange world which the Quays were attempting to create.
The rest of the disc features several Quay Brothers shorts: “The Comb” (1990, 18 mins) is the short film which provided the starting point for the brothers’ leap into live-action, full of their habitual focus on strange repetitious movement, broken mannequins and alien-looking forest worlds, but here mostly rendered in glorious vibrant colour and paired with inky monochrome live-action segments that clearly presage the look and some of the imagery seen throughout “Institute Benjamenta”. “Songs for Dead Children” (2003, 24 mins), sees the Quays providing haunting animated accompaniment to Steve Martland’s strange but catchy “Street Songs quartet”; while “Eurydice - She, So Beloved” (2007, 11 mins) is another live-action piece: an interpretation of Monteverdi’s opera “Orfeo” which dramatises in ballet Orpheus’ attempt to rescue his dead lover from Hades.
Finally, the duel format package comes with a wonderful 26-page glossy booklet full of detailed essays, critical analysis and profiles of the Quays and their collaborators which include among them the legendary photographer, Jill Furmanovsky, whose gorgeous black & white stills photography for the film also adorns its pages.
“Institute Benjamenta” is undoubtedly a difficult piece of work for the casual viewer to assimilate, making few concessions to narrative coherence or conventional plot dynamics; at times it is more akin to watching an extended mime or dance piece with an added soundtrack than a story-bound feature film. Eventually though, the ravishing visuals and the accumulation of sound and image detail becomes entrancing and the ambient world of the Quays takes on a solidity that mesmerises by its powerful realisation. Well worth investigating.