Reviewed by Drew Ninnis
Director: Arnaud des Pallières
Screenplay: Christelle Berthevas, Arnaud des Pallières. Based on a novel by Heinrich von Kleist.
Runtime: 122 minutes
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Mélusine Mayance, Delphine Chuillot, Swann Arlaud.
Trailer: “But I pray that God never forgives me.” (warining: trailer hilariously misleading. Those expecting tits and chainmail will receive a belaboured art house film.)
Viewed as part of the Alliance Française Film Festival, 2014.
Plot: The titular protagonist of Michael Kohlhaas is a small but wealthy merchant and horse breeder, who has raised a family in the sleepy surrounds of Cévennes. However, old arrangements are not respected when a new baron succeeds to the coronet, and Kohlhaas’ trade is disrupted by an illegal tax. Leaving two of his horses in the custody of the baron and seeking justice, Kohlhaas finds none. A man of principle, he has no choice but to rise up against his master.
Review: It never becomes clear what the sleepy, mystifying Michael Kohlhaas is trying to achieve. Director Arnaud des Pallières seems fixated on a historical tale that finds a simple man fighting for justice and principle, in an age that seems to have none. Yet the attraction of this particular historical tale never translates to a foreign audience; and we are left baffled as to Kohlhaas’ definition of “principles.” Even more baffling is the message we are to take away from this film; which seems to have no contemporary resonance. Beautifully shot, passably acted, and poorly paced, Michael Kohlhaas is a film that feels conceptually empty and not one that will be of interest to most audiences. Not actively bad, the film is never actively good, either.
The narrative follows the small but wealthy farmer Michael Kohlhaas, who finds the road to the local market town blocked and is unable to sell his horses. This is at the instigation of the new baron, who wishes to extract a tax from anyone passing through his land. Kohlhaas, literate enough, knows that this practice has been banned by the Sovereign. He leaves two horses in the custody of the baron – in lieu of paying the tax – and proceeds to sell his horses in town, returning several months later. In the interim, the baron has grossly mistreated the horses, and Kohlhaas is understandably pissed – demanding a like for like replacement. The issue is taken to court, where the judiciary decides against Kohlhaus in a decision that smacks of bribery. Kohlhaas then risks everything, dispatching his wife to the royal court in the hope of pleading his case. Things do not go well; and he is left with only one option – rebellion. (To paraphrase Porter from Payback: ‘Not many people know what their life's worth is. I do. Two horses. That's what they took from me. And that's what I was going to get back.’) The latter half of the film traces this uprising; which starts strong, ambles about, and ultimately dissipates disappointingly.
What to take from all of this? The film seems to hint at a few suggestions, but not with enough effort or emphasis to get any across. One seems to be the political message that all men are equal in the eyes of the law; a message that is a little misplaced in 16th century patriarchal France. Another seems to be charting the rise of an educated, empowered middle class – again an odd choice; although Kohlhaas is portrayed as a solid intellectual, debating theology with a young Martin Luther stand-in. [To explain: the film translates the book’s original context of Brandenburg to southern France, for reasons that are probably close to the fact it is a French-funded production, so not exactly Martin Luther, as it was in the book. That explanation was almost as dull as the film, to give you a taste.] Finally, the film can fall back on the claim that it simply documents a man of principle fighting against tyranny – the Braveheart defence, if you will. Unfortunately the film’s stubborn dullness defeats any attempt to pursue this reading.
The performances are adequate. Mads Mikkelsen reprises his talent for looking tanned and inscrutable while smiling joylessly; a modern Demosthenes in his work in English, at least in French he doesn’t sound like he has a mouth full of cotton wool and Novocaine from a standing appointment with the dentist. An ethereal-looking Roxane Duran makes an over-wrought appearance as “the Princess,” and Delphine Chuillot turns in a similarly forgettable performance as Kohlhaas’ wife. One of the few attractions of the film is the talented Mélusine Mayance, who shines briefly as Kohlhaas’ daughter Lisbeth. Other actors also appear and disappear, unmemorably.
Walking out of the cinema, one is left with the impression of all of the films Michael Kohlhaas would like to be – perhaps an updated Virgin Spring, a French Braveheart, a rehashed Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Who knows; and the marketing department doesn’t, retitling the film as ‘Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas’ with a poster that attempts to cross Game of Thrones with the Transformers franchise. I don’t blame them for getting desperate; there is not much to be done with this film.
Rating: Two horses, and they’re never coming back.