As we travel with Gertrude Bell, the protagonist of Werner Herzog’s facile biopic Queen Of The Desert (USA/Morocco, 2015), through the wide open, sun-dried Arabian desserts, our hair and clothes wrapped in the warm yellow wind, we feel that we have slipped into some other time and place. No, that place is not the Arabian Peninsula at the beginning of the 20th Century. Rather, we’ve stumbled upon something that feels more like the forgotten cave of golden age Hollywood adventure films, which have absolutely nothing to do with the uncompromising voice of an auteur like Herzog.
Nobody Wants The Night (Nadie quiere la noche, Spain/France/Bulgaria, 2015), the Isabel Coixet biopic about the arctic explorer and writer Josephine Peary, has a similar problem – it feels anachronistic. Because it was directed by an acclaimed female filmmaker, we might have expected a more contemporary female-driven piece and not the unnecessarily artsy and stereotypical portrait of a naïve female explorer that it delivers in the end. Breathtakingly magical and infinite arctic landscapes and beautifully designed dresses serve the aesthetics of the film, but lack any significance to the story. What we get is a stale tragic stereotype that seems far from the real life of Josephine Peary.
Nobody Wants The Night and Queen Of The Desert should have at least explored the way travellers, explorers, or invaders mark certain landscapes. Spaces – personal, political, economic or geographical – which we live in are constantly being reshaped. They are shrinking or expanding, redefining relations between people and landscapes, between the physical and the emotional, between history and the present day. How did the people at the beginning of the 20th century understand the world and what drove them to explore unknown lands and cultures? What drove Gertrude Bell into the heart of the Arabian Desert?
Travellers and explorers like Bell and Peary have always pushed the limits of imagination and challenged our perception of things. People have always strived toward knowledge and discoveries, trying to explain the unknown. “In cinema we are all travellers”, said Walter Salles at the Berlinale Talents panel Road, movie: Films in motion. All good films – or more generally, all good stories – take us on some sort of a journey. The voyage to unknown lands can be literal, or more about the inner journey the main protagonists must undertake in order to discover their inner selves.
Both Nobody Wants The Night and Queen Of The Desert represent a missed opportunity to explore the way the landscapes of yesterday can have meaning in our own lives today. Although Gertrude Bell, an accomplished adventurer, historian, diarist, photographer, and archaeologist, is presented as a rebel, heroine, and “female chevalier,” Queen Of The Desert pays little attention to her actual work and the political influence she had. The real Gertrude also might have been a kindred spirit to the wild portraits of pioneers that Herzog has given us before, such as Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre. Like those wild, crazy geniuses, she might have moved boundaries of the accepted and incomprehensible world, but Herzog fails to bring her character to life in that way.
Queen Of The Desert is an alien element in the otherwise homogenous body of Herzog’s work. Who would have ever thought that it would be possible to take the whole family to a Herzog film? What happened there? Why do both Queen Of The Desert and Nobody Wants The Night take what were, in real life, extremely brave and accomplished characters and portray them in such an unimaginative and outdated way? To what mind and cultural landscapes do Coixet’s Josephine and Herzog’s Gertrude belong? And to what kind of filmmaking? We can’t find anything new in those two films. They don’t seem to belong to the present time and to the daring and ground-breaking contemporary filmmaking of, for instance, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen Of Earth (USA, 2015) or the films of Joanna Hogg.
Through movies we are able to inhabit different characters and discover unknown worlds. Films should be like the journeys of great explorers, pushing the confines of our imagination and understanding of the world. To quote Salles again: “The first road movies are documentaries like Nanook Of The North, who sent their characters searching for meaning.” In Nobody Wants The Night there is no other meaning to Josephine Peary’s mission than to follow her husband to the geographical North Pole. In Queen Of Earth, on the other hand, Perry invades the personal space of his protagonist, Catherine, and invites us is in on a dark voyage into the unknown landscapes of the human soul in order to explore its most disturbing places.
The relationship between traveling and thinking is linked with the history of language. To learn means to “follow a track,” or path. As Bertrand Russell says: “Our ‘thoughts’ seem to depend upon the organization of tracks in the brain in the same sort of way in which journeys depend upon roads and railways.” As travellers we do not perceive the world only through our eyes; we also see it through the eyes of other people, such as painters, writers, or filmmakers, and for that reason it’s important for directors to make movies that challenge our way of thinking about the world and our place in it.
Both Hogg and Perry encourage their viewers to think outside the box. Hogg’s work, for example Unrelated (UK, 2008), Archipelago (UK, 2010), and her latest piece, Exhibition (UK, 2013), intersect in compelling ways with Queen Of Earth. Landscapes represent crucial elements in Hogg’s films. Places and buildings we live in can have a great influence on us. They may also influence our behaviour. We rarely think of that, but there are always rules about how we should behave in restaurants or libraries. Places and environment in Hogg’s films can sometimes also function as autonomous narrators. “The house, the space we live in, is a constant, and it’s going to see many different relationships and situations over its life. It becomes a very human element. Houses that have been lived in for a long time soak into their walls the feelings of the previous inhabitants and current inhabitants”, she said in an interview at Locarno Film Festival.
Hogg’s use of houses and natural landscapes is very similar to the method Perry applies in Queen Of Earth. For both filmmakers, the beauty of nature represents, as Joanna beautifully puts it, “the pain-pleasure threshold” – the idea that your feelings intensify when you are upset and in a beautiful place. In an interview I conducted with Hogg, she said, “The landscape on the Isles of Scilly [where Archipelago takes place] is really beautiful, but how does that help you when you just had an argument with your sister? The beauty of the landscape is then very hard to bear. And so it becomes very painful to be there.” Perry explores a similar idea in Queen Of Earth. The film is set in a summer house, surrounded by idyllic nature. But the fresher the air and the sunnier the days, the more the epidemic of depression and self-destruction spreads. Scarily weird and claustrophobic, Queen Of Earth gives us everything that Queen Of The Desert and Nobody Wants The Night do not, by sending us into the heart of darkness, into territory that is altogether frightening and unfamiliar.
Ana Šturm // Written for Berlinale Talent Press 2015 // Berlinale 2015