Malina: Film as Ashtray
Published by No. 3 Magazine on 12/29/2020

Ingeborg Bachmann’s life was a Molotov cocktail of philosophy and violence. Raised in Vienna during the Second World War, with an enthusiastic Nazi for a father, she insisted on the power of language to name offenses and hold humanity together. By the time she began writing novels, in the 1960s, she was already a celebrity in Austria and Germany for her poetry, plays, and a series of caustic relationships with other writers, all of whom at some point were accused of plagiarizing her stories or misrepresenting her character in their works. Bachmann was a troubled and incendiary mind, prone to flaying others alive with her words. In Malina, a book which she considered her “imaginary autobiography,” a woman has an affair with a man she can barely understand, all the while negotiating a troubled relationship with her lover, the eponymous Malina, who seems to know her so well he practically owns her. The story chronicles a descent into madness, and she died not long after it was published, in 1971.

Twenty years later, the German New Cinema director Werner Schroeter attempted to adapt it for the screen. He had his work cut out for him. Malina, whose plot was undercut by lurid scenes of fatherly abuse and philosophical digression, has little holding it together besides the spectacular hysterics of its narrator. Schroeter’s film went nearly unseen until a recent restoration spearheaded by Mubi; I went into it with high hopes and low expectations that such a story could be told on screen. I am prepared to say now that, simply for its faithful execution, Malina is a miracle. Its most improbable element, a starring role that enacts such a tenacious and dangerous version of Bachmann herself, is done justice by none other than Isabelle Huppert. I say none other because her performance is so ludicrously great that I doubt anyone else could have ever done it.

Huppert—playing la dame in Malina across Mathieu Carrière in the title role and Can Togay as love interest Ivan—is widely considered the Meryl Streep of European cinema; her reputation sanctified and her position unassailable. But Huppert’s acting style is synonymous with the cold, emotionally distant roles she has performed for Michael Haneke and company over the last decade or so. To see the actress here, in a film that is essentially a two-hour nervous breakdown, is a shock—not only to learn what she is capable of, but of how underutilized her talent has become. If one typically watches Huppert with the sense that she is holding back, here is a golden opportunity to see her hold forth.

The asynchronous scenes tilt on like a merry-go-round: la dame delivering dissertations on Wittgenstein, throwing up in her purse, throwing letters like hand grenades and dancing down the stairs. Bachmann, the author, died in 1973, after falling asleep with a lit cigarette in hand. That scene happens about halfway through the movie, intercut by a dream sequence where Huppert wades waist-deep into an alpine lake to spy on a fornicating couple on the pier. Cigarettes, ashtrays, and copulation are everywhere, though only in the narrator’s febrile mind. The entire set is on fire for the latter third of the film.

Many a director has tried their hand at a cinema which forgoes plot in favor of sumptuous spectacle. They are often as exciting in theory as they are disappointing in practice. Some, like Buñuel and Fellini, used the resultant tedium toward political ends, pointing fingers of impotence at the patriarchy or the bourgeoisie. Schroeter’s feat here reminds me of a cross between Charlie Kaufman and Marguerite Duras, as obsessed with fantasy as it is with memory—but somehow manages to engage us more fully than either of the two. In his Walpurgisnacht, the plotlessness of which removes what distraction there is from the incantatory performance of our leading lady, we dance in a dreamlike momentum towards the final, devastating end, prophesized by nearly everything Bachmann ever said or did: it will turn out for the men much better than the women. ︎