Saturday, July 18, 2009

Review - Cloud 9 (Wolke Neun)

In cinema, sex has long been the preserve of the young and the beautiful, so the opening sequence of Cloud 9 is one that will give many filmgoers a jolt. Inge (Ursula Werner) is a seamstress of indeterminate age, although we learn during the course of the picture that she's over 60 at least. We first find her ironing a pair of trousers and, after giving the matter some deep thought, she decides to deliver them back to their owner herself, with her unexpected arrival obviously delighting 76 year-old Karl (Horst Westphal). After he tries on the new trousers, and the pair exchange a few stilted pleasantries, Karl and Inge soon find themselves in each other's arms, pulling their clothes off before having sex on the floor of his apartment. As they make love, director Andreas Dresen refuses to look away, continuing to film in a frank manner, with his close-ups capturing every sag and wrinkle of their ageing flesh. This is certainly not how we're used to seeing sex depicted in the cinema.

A few other films have tried to explore the sexual desires of older people in the past – Roger Mitchell's The Mother is a recent example that springs to mind – but I can't think of any that have delved into the subject as Cloud 9 does. Dresen, who wrote the film along with three others, is probably aware that the sight of explicit geriatric sex will be a hurdle for many viewers, and so he has explored the topic through a familiar narrative framework, one that lets us see the themes as being universal and ageless. Inge's dilemma is to continue with an affair that has revitalised her spirits, or to end it and remain faithful to her husband Werner (Horst Rehberg), to whom she has been married for over thirty years. Werner is a good husband, and they have a loving relationship, but life with him is just a little staid and familiar, and Inge can't get the dashing, more passionate Karl out of her head. Her daughter advises Inge to carry on with Karl if it makes her happy, but the burden of guilt, of living a lie with her husband, is too much to bear.

The torment of dealing with these conflicting emotions is expressed by Werner's superb and deeply touching display in the central role. She performs with a complete lack of vanity and great sensitivity, and she is utterly authentic throughout. The scenes she shares with her husband late in the picture are emotionally wrenching, with Rehberg alternating between bouts of rage – chastising Inge for her "childish" behaviour – and desperately sad scenes in which he wears a resigned look in his eyes, defeated by the unexpected turn of events that has stolen his wife away from him. Dresen's patient direction gives the actors ample room to work in, allowing scenes to unfold in long takes and focusing on the small, banal touches that add extra dimensions to the characters. Werner's hobby of listening to a record of train noises, for example, or the dirty joke Karl tells that later sends Inge into paroxysms of laughter, much to her husband's bemusement.
Cloud 9 is also expertly shot, with cinematographer Michael Hammon, bathing Inge's scenes with Karl in beautiful sunlight, while the stultifying nature of her marriage to Werner is suggested by the cramped confines of their drab apartment. The sex scenes are filmed in a similarly skilful fashion, explicit without being prurient, and capturing an affecting sense of intimacy between the participants. A number of reviews have raised an eyebrow at Cloud 9's sexual frankness, questioning the need for such graphic nudity in a film concerning pensioners, but we wouldn't ask those questions if a film featured a younger cast, and Dresen deserves credit for respecting this tale by treating it such a forthright manner. Just because Inge, Karl and Werner aren't in their prime it doesn't mean their story is any less relevant, and regardless of age, Cloud 9 is ultimately a quietly powerful film about ordinary people grappling with real emotions.