Belgian Salamander’s Appealingly Untrendy Approach to Suspense

Salamander is one of those programs you find only because (unlike lots of the mainstream stuff you logged on hoping to find) Netflix is offering it on their streaming service. I clicked through to this Belgian suspense tale I’d never heard of on the promise of its nearly five-star user rating. As I approach the end of the series’ one season’s worth of episodes thus far consumed in a rapid one-week binge, I have started to reflect on what about it is special.

From the start that program participates in that admirable European tradition of actually casting normal-looking, middle-aged humans and treating them like they can believably represent interesting, complicated, and, yes, sexy people.

My now several hours with the series is also certainly the longest time I ever spent listening to people speak Flemish—to my ear a fascinating aural mash-up of French and German phonemes but hardly the reason I’ve been compulsively returning to my laptop. When I consider Salamander and what I am enjoying about it, these foreign distinctives are not at the top of the list.

I’ve realized that escaping into this Brussels-based mystery is less like watching good television from another country than it is like watching good television from another time. Let me be clear: the series is by no means outdated in its look, its brisk pace, or its long-format approach to storytelling. But it manages to spin its yarn without a lot of the latest concerns that define paranoia culture and without any of the narrative crutches that have become fashionable on American primetime. Continue reading Belgian Salamander’s Appealingly Untrendy Approach to Suspense

The American (2010 film)

I’d been wanting to see The American and with HBO on demand, I finally did.  The American is that assassin picture starring George Clooney–the one with the cool, sort of ’70s-throwback-looking movie poster.

The poster did on its job, luring me in with a visual cue back to the tense psychological and political thrillers of 30 or 40 years ago.   

But as it turns out the poster could be used as a metaphor for the whole viewing experience.   It visually conveys  tension using a retro aesthetic but gives you no sense of character and little hint of plot.

These are strong words from a gal who sincerely likes 70s political drama.  Sure, a lot of people did at the time, but have you seen one lately?  By today’s standards, these things move like molasses.  I’m a believer in that slow narrative pacing, however.  I’m a fan of those long takes with little dialogue.  Those movies were about intense situations in uncertain, even paranoid political times.  There is arguably something brilliant in making you stew in anticipation just like the people you’re watching on screen.  Seriously: I’m the person who actually likes Klute, a movie so slow that after it, my husband announced a 3 month moratorium on renting 70s films.  

But The American tried my patience.  Not so much because I can’t be a patient viewer (see above endorsement of Klute), but because I need a reason to be patient.  Don’t ask me to stare at a guy who talks about as much as Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western and then not deliver on a reasonable reason to care about him.

The American started strong but began to sputter mid-way.  I felt the urge to bail when it became apparent that the relationship through which we are, presumably, supposed to root for Jack (Clooney) to find relief (redemption is beyond his reach) is with the prostitute he’s just met.   I do not have a blanket policy against sympathy with prostitute characters (again, see Klute endorsement above).  But I failed to connect with whatever was supposed to be going on here.  He sleeps with her twice.  The second time we have to sit through a soft-porn-ish scene of him “pleasuring her.” [Why do polite terms for such actions always sound like junior high health class?]  This intimacy is immediately followed by a terse exchange that seems to undo the implication of, well, intimacy.  And then for the rest of the picture to work, we need to believe in and root for them to find a way out of their unsatisfying lives and be together.  It’s totally absurd.  Not only as a concept, but in its execution.  The chemistry between these two is not strong enough to persuade us to overlook how under-written this implausible arc is.   And when the writing kicks in, it’s predictable and heavy-handed.  Biggest eye-roller: When Jack asks Clara to run away with him, she actually asks him if they could be together [breathily] forever.   Aww… really?

Of course, we’re probably supposed to be okay with the weakness of this romantic, escapist undercurrent because the movie also sets up a suspenseful (or suspensefully shot) plotline about unearthing who is trying to assassinate our gun-toting leading man.  But the answer is too obvious, too soon.   I worried far less about who was after Clooney and whether he would survive than I did about, say, Donald Sutherland in Klute (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The American hits all the aesthetic marks creating the feeling of an intentionally well-shot, intentionally broody, intentionally plodding film.  But it does little to back up its intention to tell us a good story.

I should have trusted the instinct to bail when I had the chance.