Monday, October 23, 2006

Wrongs of Desire

Yesterday, recovering from a 20 mile walk and 8-hour drink the previous day, the wife and I slumped in front of Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire, which we'd never seen before.

I thought it was extremely good - mesmerising in parts - and don't agree with Michael Hofmann's claim that 'in the end, intentions, messages and techniques crush the life out of the film... Wenders has kept one eye on craft and another on significance, and lost sight of the film'. But it is, as he says, 'cosmic, static and romantic', and for quite a specific reason. Like all films which are romantic in a perjorative sense, the problem's in the ending.

Damiel becomes mortal in order to taste mortal life. When he pursues the woman and they meet, she returns his desire, recognising that he is the presence she had felt when he, as angel, was near. That is, they achieve love and happiness because he is an angel and not human. So having wanted to experience life, instead he achieves a fantasy, and this completely undermines what Hofmann refers to, at arm's length, as the film's 'message'.

I wouldn't want to demand that the film attempt naturalistic realism. But since the film celebrates mundane reality in all its variations (the angel just wants to feel, not necessarily feel good), Damiel's advances ought really to fail. A woman is approached by a man she's never met. Yes, she might fall for him. But it's more likely, and neater, if she rejects him. Damiel feels the pain of frustrated desire, and his mortal life goes on. His fantasy is revealed as a fantasy.

Such an ending doesn't even undermine the film's celebratory tone. He doesn't get the girl. (For all that 'To Be Continued' flashes up, the satisfaction of angelic desire in a rarefied love is as close to closure as any film, except Dr Strangelove, can get.) But feeling his failure is a success for his desire of being and feeling mortal - he gets to feel what it's like to be alive.

Well, I'm no Wim Wenders, and it's pointless wishing the film were otherwise. And criticising it in such terms is really meant to be a compliment - it's so good, so far ahead of most films, that it can bear a few abstract quibbles. And by the end I was even starting to feel a little better.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed on Wings of Desire. I sometimes wonder if other very good filmmakers think at the same level, and consciously construct their films as answers to movies they admire. Because it isn't a huge stretch to imagine Y tu Mama Tambien as one answer to Wenders' film (getting what you thought you wanted, but not realizing what you've gotten), and Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood for Love as another (getting what you always wanted, but failing to hang onto it). There are even stylistic lifts from WoD in those films: Y tu Mama Tambien relies heavily on omniscient voiceovers, and In the Mood for Love is full of shots of voyeurism and longing, and dialogue about what might happen.

Or maybe it's just another hangover talking. Either way, I enjoyed your thoughts on the ending, and now I want to see Wings of Desire again.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Tony Williams said...

Hi Sefton, thanks for encouraging my nascent career as film critic by not telling me I'm talking nonsense.

In fact that career is threatened by a bad record of seeing good films - for instance, I haven't seen either of the two you mention (despite living near one of the UK's best independent cinemas). But now I know I want to watch them, which is I suppose the first step.

5:12 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home