Belgium 2001 : Vincent Lannoo : 83 mins

Strass has been promoted as a comedy – ‘hilarious’ according to one source. This is a baffling and very unwise step. Audiences in search of belly-laughs will probably be looking at their watches after ten minutes, and for the exit after twenty. Because what emerges is only intermittently and queasily amusing – perhaps Belgian humour, like its best chocolate, is supposed to have such a bitter taste. If this is a comedy at all, it’s a one-joke affair: internationally renowned drama-teacher Pierre Radowsky (producer Pierre Lekeux) is revealed as a lecherous ego-maniac. But does this mean he isn’t a new Stanislavsky?

The film takes the form of a spoof documentary examining Radowsky’s controversial methods at a Brussels conservatory, observing him in action with his pupils – including the combative Jerome (Jerome le Maire) – and clashing with colleagues: fellow-instructor Lionel (Lionel Bourguet) and the school’s ineffectual principal (Carlo Ferrante). Despite the frequent sturm und drang arguments between Radowsky and just about everyone else, Strass (a title never explained, but presumably referring to US method-acting guru Lee Strasberg) remains an oddly inert, low-key affair.

StrassIt has an improvised, cobbled-together feel, as if the actors were encouraged to develop their characters into something resembling a coherent story, rather than working within a specific script framework. The results are predictably uneven, the main drama coming when Wallace Shawn lookalike Radowsky, frustrated by his female students’ unwillingness to respond to his advances, auditions for a more pliant pupil and selects the suitably shapely Eleonore (Eleonore Ramaekers). A filmed, one-on-one ‘teaching’ session rapidly escalates into a sexual power-struggle, plunging Radowsky and the school into a messily public storm of controversy when the documentarists release the footage to the local TV news.

Implausibly, the principal allows filming to continue as the debate rages over whether Radowsky overstepped the mark or, as he claims, it was ‘all part of the game.’ We’re a long way from Oleanna territory, however – Strass doesn’t go very deep into the hot-button issues with which it toys. Indeed, the final act is pretty much a fizzle-out, despite the unexpected appearance of a solar eclipse – perhaps the most fortuitous use of the ‘found environment’ as laid down by the dogme rules within which the wobbly-cam Strass was made.

But it’s hard to square the austere dogme tenets with Lannoo’s inexplicably gratuituous decision to film a caf chat between Radowsky and Cesar-winning prize student Leopold Gaetan (Gaetan Bevernaege) in juddery stop-motion. He also misses a major trick by keeping the charismatic Le Maire on the sidelines: performing a structurally identical function to Bo Overgaard in dogme offshoot The Exhibited, Jerome is Radowsky’ most persuasive opposition, provoking Pierre into his most entertainingly unbridled outbursts of pedagogic fureur.

14th August, 2002
(seen same day, Cameo Edinburgh – Edinburgh Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young
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