JOHANNA D'ARC OF MONGOLIA | Dir. Ulrike Ottinger | 1989 | 165 min
It’s a sumptuously stylized yet ardently observational film that builds its wild contrasts into its plot, about a train ride of legendary proportions aboard the Transsiberian, a virtual Orient Express filled with an exotic collection of international travellers with mysterious backgrounds and fabulous personalities.
With Sofia Coppola making her return at Cannes with The Beguiled and David Lynch making his own return with Twin Peaks: The Return, the substance of style is in question again. A rare and remarkable film that makes this question its very subject has just started its welcome weeklong run at moma: Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia, by the German director Ulrike Ottinger, from 1989. It’s a sumptuously stylized yet ardently observational film that builds its wild contrasts into its plot, about a train ride of legendary proportions aboard the Transsiberian, a virtual Orient Express filled with an exotic collection of international travellers with mysterious backgrounds and fabulous personalities.
The train is a virtual theatre for their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, and, for that matter, their literal theatricality—the group includes Fanny Ziegfeld (Gillian Scalici), an American Broadway star; three Russian chanteuses, the Kalinka Sisters; and Mickey Katz (Peter Kern), a wealthy heir who’s also a Yiddish theatre star, all of whom enthusiastically display their kicky, kitschy artistry for the pleasure of their fellow-travellers along with their spotlighted, florid manners. The doyenne of the group, Lady Windermere (Delphine Seyrig, in her final film performance), is a polyglot and literary high-society ethnologist; a German woman (Irm Hermann) is a reserved and shy teacher; and Giovanna (Inés Sastre) is a young backpacker in quest of “adventure” whom Lady Windermere befriends and takes under her wing.
And adventure they all get. The overheated, heartily mannered revels aboard the train, alternating between the gourmand Mickey’s grandiose culinary extravagances and the improvised musical soirées, come to a rapid halt, along with the train itself: in Inner Mongolia, a seeming troupe of bandits force the passengers off the train and won’t let it go before taking the women hostage and bringing them to their encampment. The scene of their capture is a small masterwork of cross-cultural bewilderment, as the voyagers look out the window of the train and observe with delight the lines of colorfully costumed locals, riding horses and camels, that emerge above and along the sandy hills until Lady Windermere informs them that the groups appear arrayed rather for battle.
The Mongol warriors who capture them do so gently; they’re under the command of a young woman, Princess Ulan Iga (Xu Re Huar), who—as Lady Windermere, who speaks Mongolian, explains—rigorously observes their culture’s sacred laws of hospitality. In effect, Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia becomes, at that point, an anthropological wonder-theatre, with the Western women of the train getting, in effect, a front-row seat on the domestic, religious, and political ceremonies and practices of the nomadic Mongolians, and then becoming integrated into them.
Already aboard the train, Ottinger proves herself to be a director with an enchanted sense of composition. Filming lavish meals in a fancy dining car or Katz and the Kalinka Sisters in a klezmer romp, Lady Windermere in a fanciful peroration or a bread peddler at a station stop, Ottinger has an unrestrainedly lyrical sense of composition that blends lucidly analytical observation with a sugar-spangled touch of wonder, and that sensibility is put to an all the more severe test and an all the more spectacular—and intellectual—use during the travellers’ enforced stay in Mongolia. With a discerning, rapturous curiosity, Ottinger films a formalized reconciliation between two warring tribes, the slaughter of a lamb (accompanied by a remarkable chant by a dozen red-robed women), the celebratory performance of a song by an elderly singer accompanying himself on a single-stringed bowed instrument, the fording of a stream by a troupe of riders on horseback or camels, the construction of a yurt for summertime residence, the lighting of grand night fires, and the driving of herds across the plains.
She catches faces and gestures, clothing and accoutrements, tones of voice and the routines and gestures of work and pageantry alike—as well as mysteries and incomprehensions, dangers and uncertainties. The teacher puts herself at mortal risk by hanging laundry on a clothesline; Giovanna catches the eye of the princess, who befriends her and then invites her to share her yurt. There’s a muffled element of rueful comedy in the dramatic setup—as if viewers themselves would need to be held captive in order to spend an hour or so observing the lives of Mongolian herders.
There’s an element of reserve in Ottinger’s approach to the characters; she’s a respectful outsider, and her observations are impressionistic, not intimate. She films, along with the styles and manners of Mongolian society, the strong but imprecise influence that exposure to Mongolian culture has upon the Western women forced to observe it and participate in it. Her approach to their experiences is similarly fragmentary—full in its approach to detail but dramatically gappy and fitful. Ottinger’s art is more deeply stylistic and intellectual than it is dramatic. The dramatic organization of a movie is essentially mathematical; the stylistic tone is essentially poetic. The difference is that the former can be learned or imposed, whereas the inventions of style are personal, spontaneous, inimitable, and unteachable. Form can be mastered; style is what one either has or doesn’t. Style is a crucial part of personality, of personhood, of character—but “Johanna d’Arc” suggests that, like personal identity itself, it doesn’t emerge in isolation but is informed by culture, beliefs, heritage, landscape, a grand social realm that each person involuntarily represents and transforms. Ottinger seeks, through style, the deep background from which it arises, and finds a superb, simple cinematic correlate for that idea. For all its outwardly probing observation and decorative delights, the movie concludes with an abstract touch that’s as breathtaking as any of its sights and sounds. Written by Richard Brody for The New Yorker Magazine
Berlin International Film Festival 1989 - Nominated (Golden Berlin Bear | Ulrike Ottinger)
Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia is the closing selection for the 2017/2018 Season, and is included in our FOCUS: LANDSCAPES series.
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