Arnaud des Pallieres’ take on Heinrich von Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas, has all the makings of a riveting, party-crashing entry into the Cannes Film Festival’s In Competition banner, what with its focus on adventure and righteous vengeance. Disappointing it is, then, that while it features Mads Mikkelsen in as game a mode as ever, and the landscapes are sumptuously shot, the soporific narrative pulse has kept this oddly forgettable film clear of festival discussion pretty much altogether, which many could argue is even worse than it being an alright flop.
The story begins as the titular character (Mikkelsen), a merchant, is forced by a local Baron (Swann Arlaud) to relinquish two of his prized horses as collateral on the way to the market due to him not having the proper documentation. When Kohlhaas returns to discover that the steeds are of ill health and Cesar (David Bennent), the man he left behind to tend for them, has been attacked by the Baron’s guard dogs, he seeks reparations from the courts. However, given the Baron’s social stature, Kohlhaas loses the case immediately. Devastatingly, his wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), also winds up murdered while travelling to plea the case, and so Michael teams up with the local social outcasts to launch an attack against the Baron and his army.
Though audiences are likely to be enticed by the jaunty, Robin Hood-esque premise, Pallieres’ film is a shockingly airless, ponderous affair, more interested in tritely philosophical, faux-poetic diatribes than in crafting an experience that is either exciting or viscerally engaging. By the director’s own admission, his film smacks of Herzog’s Aguirre, though can’t muster even a morsel of the same seat-of-your-pants invention, while Mikkelsen, if a fine Herzog stand-in, is distinguished by little more than his remarkable coiffure and designer stubble.
Even when the band of merry men eventually lead an assault on the Baron’s castle, Pallieres’ sloppily unfussed action direction denies the audience much fun, made further problematic by appalling, often incomprehensible editing, overseen by the director himself alongside Sandie Bompar. In the end, it’s clear where Pallieres’ interests largely lie, in building a believable time capsule into centuries past, which he has admittedly done well thanks to Jeanne Lapoire’s razor-sharp cinematography (she also lensed the festival’s A Castle in Italy) and Yan Arlaud’s punchy production design. Essentially, it is strong in the way that almost all costume dramas are, though evidently thinks itself capable of coasting on those merits alone.
The interminable nature of the picture is such that viewers may well have run out of steam long before the finale of the piece, at which point it becomes clear that the trio of internationally regarded actors starring in the picture – Mikkelsen, Bruno Ganz and Denis Lavant – have been thoroughly under-utilised. Only in the film’s final scene does Pallieres manage to rustle up any truly soul-stirring imagery, specifically a closing image that is hauntingly poetic in spite of almost everything that precedes it.
This is a brutally tedious, interminably long costume drama that errantly wastes a fleet of talented actors.
The Upside: Mads Mikkelsen tries hard to imbue his role with the necessary gravitas, and his co-stars aren’t far behind. It’s also sumptuously filmed, specifically the landscapes.
The Downside: It drifts by at a glacial pace, and Pallieres’ handling of the film’s single notable action sequence is embarrassingly messy. The worst thing that can be said about Michael Kohlhaas is that you won’t long remember it afterwards, save for the final image.
On the Side: This is the second movie adaptation of the story, after a 1969 attempt by Volker Schlondorff, which funnily enough also played the In Competition strand at Cannes.