Look, there’s no point beating around the bush: Wim Wenders’ 3D snoozefest “The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez” is not a good movie. It’s not a good movie, and at the same time, it doesn’t fail so spectacularly so to provide a compelling secondary reading. It’s neither good nor so bad it’s good; it is just ploddingly, achingly dull. And yet, qualifiers be damned, I think the film might stand the test of time. I think it could live on as a curiosity, as an answer to the question, “What is the most uniquely spoiler-impervious film since Andy Warhol aimed his camera at the Empire State Building and let it roll for eight hours?”
Just what makes it so impervious to spoilers, you ask? That’s easy – nothing happens. Like, nothing at all. Which is entirely the point of the film, an adaptation of a theatrical dialogue penned by playwright Peter Handke about two unnamed characters conversing in the shade. For ninety-seven minutes, actors Reda Kateb and Sophie Semin recline on wooden lawn chairs in a lush hilltop garden somewhere outside of Paris and talk and talk and only talk. At one point, the Man stands to stretch his legs; later, the Woman fidgets to light a cigarette. But when the gets a little too stir crazy and veers too far down the hill, she has to remind him, “No action – only dialogue!”
This ascetic aesthetic is a feature, not a bug. The director set out to make a stereoscopic film stripped of the spectacle and bombast we commonly anticipate when slipping on those glasses. And that’s a perfectly reasonable pursuit. If a director sets out to build a film around a simple dialogue with no other trappings, and then they go do just that, you can’t really fault them for not including a car chase. On the other hand, you certainly can fault them for not finding a better script.
Offering neither tension nor wit, Handke’s text seems like exactly the wrong kind of repartee over which to mount a ninety-minute film. If dialogue is the film’s alpha and omega, then that dialogue better crackle, or offer food for thought, or give the actors something to bite into. But there’s simply no ‘there’ in Handke’s endlessly repetitive and often impenetrable text, where Sophie Semin’s nameless woman walks Reda Kateb’s nameless man through her sexual coming-of –age, and he occasionally interjects odd tangent about birds, stars, and the Spanish town from which the film derives its name. If it sounds structurally similar to Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac,” the text is written and delivered with same level of erotic charge as a dental savings plan renegotiation.
Wenders makes one major addition to Handke’s text by essentially throwing Handke into the mix as well. As The Writer, actor Jenz Harzer hovers in his office overlooking the garden, hard at work at his typewriter writing the words the two leads will soon speak. Without any dialogue of his own, the figure of the writer at least opens one new intellectual avenue, allowing us to ponder whether he is there driving the action with the (figurative) pen, or simply there to transcribe what is already there before him. At least until the Woman cries out “without you I am blind and mute,” and that puts an end to that question.
Wenders and Handke have collaborated several times, from “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick,” the film that launched Wenders’ career, to “Wings of Desire,” the film that will forever define it, so it easy to understand why they’d want to work together again. And if you factor in a late in the film cameo from musician Nick Cave, who appears out nowhere, plays a song on the piano and then disappears without any further explanation, you can begin to understand why this film got made. It seems Wenders found himself with some free time, some cool collaborators and a couple of stereoscopic lenses, so hey, why not put on a show? As far reasons go, that’s not a bad one. Unfortunately, nothing about what he made should give anyone else a reason to care.