Germany/USA 2002 : Tom Tykwer : 93 mins

Heaven is the arthouse A.I Artificial Intelligence, with Kieslowski in the Kubrick role and Tykwer playing Spielberg. And, once again, the project can never overcome its fundamental mismatch of sensibilities – a charitable view would be to say that Heaven isn’t afraid of embracing absurdity as a short cut to profundity. After Tykwer’s double-whammy of Run Lola Run and The Princess and the Warrior (one of the most underrated releases of recent years), however, this feels distinctly like a step back.

It’s especially disappointing, given the phenomenal strength of the opening moments – a slow tracking shot a landscape too green to be quite earthly. We hear a voice saying “Follow the terrain,” and the truth soon dawns. Tykwer maintains his momentum with the next sequence, in which we see a thirtyish woman (Cate Blanchett) carrying out what looks like a terrorist attack on an office block. In a gloriously Hitchcockian touch, Tykwer shows us the bomb from the outset, then ratchets up the tension as we – but not the woman – see her plan go tragically wrong.

The film ends on a similar note of audacious visual bravura – but unfortunately there’s 80-odd minutes in between where Tykwer actually has to tell this absurd tale. We find out the woman is Philippa, an English teacher in Turin. She’s soon apprehended by the Carabinieri and interrogated by a team which includes an interpreter, Filippo (Giovanni Ribisi). It turns out the intended target of the bomb was a drug dealer she blames for her husband’s death. Before long, Philippa and Filippo are exchanging meaningful glances, and apparently, falling in love. He helps her to escape, and the pair eventually make their way to the small village in Tuscany. But the police are closing in.

Though the script was written by Kieslowski – along with his collaborator, the still-with-us Krzysztof Piesiewicz – Heaven fits in almost too neatly with Tykwer’s last two films (his earlier Deadly Maria and Wintersleepers have barely been shown outside Germany). As in Lola and Princess, this is a mildly fantastical romance in which a rangy blonde goes on the run with a morose, unhealthily sallow-looking boyfriend, apparently in accordance with the demands of destiny. This time, it’s Blanchett in the Franka Potente role – presumably a condition of the US funding provided by Miramax, along with the non-Italian speaking American Ribisi and, perhaps, the scenic but fairly arbitrary Italian settings.

The Potente pictures worked on their own terms, creating coherent, slightly skewed alternative universes in which the characters’ actions and motivations at least seemed consistent and believable. Heaven, however, is weighed down by the muddiness of its metaphysical gropings – we’re presumably supposed to regard Philippa and Filippo as somehow destined for a communion, or perhaps even a commingling of souls and/or bodies: they share similar names, the same birthday, and in the latter stages they shave their heads and start to dress identically. At one stage, they have outdoor sex under a huge hilltop tree, and Tykwer’s stunning compositional sense and fluid camerawork do their best to make it seem like a vision of Eden – presumably indicating that they’ve escaped from the City and found innocence in the Garden.

But it’s very hard to take these rather grand ambitions seriously when we keep snagging on the absurd mechanics of the plot – especially the lengthy sequence in which Philippa escapes police custody thanks to a scheme involving a randy milkman, a faulty hand-dryer, some diuretic powder and, most incongruously hilarious of all, a child dressed up in a Blanchett wig. The climax is another moment when many audiences will struggle to contain their laughter, at a time when presumably we’re supposed to be experiencing some kind of awed enlightenment at what Blanchett has called a ‘poetic journey of union and communion.’ It’s a miracle she could keep a straight face.

16th March, 2002
(seen 6th February, Cinestar Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

by Neil Young
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