Beast of Eden: Dore Strauch and Friedrich Ritter set up camp in the Galapagos Islands in 1929
Show Hide image

Death in paradise: Ryan Gilbey on The Galapagos Affair

Drawing largely on home movies shot by the subjects in the 1930s, the picture pieces together the circumstances that led to several unexplained deaths. 

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (cert TBC)
dirs: Dayna Goldfine, Dan Geller

A brief internet search for the Galapagos Islands produces images of never-ending blue skies upstaged only by the unruffled azure seas and unblemished beaches spread out beneath them. The makers of The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a documentary set on the archipelago, suffered rotten luck, if the footage they brought back is anything to go by. The tourist board won’t thank them for shots of coastlines tangled with barbed-wire creepers or clouds stacked like dirty dishes on the grey enamel horizon. The Galapagos tortoise, no party animal at the best of times, looks suicidal. I think it’s fair to say that this effect was deliberate. Limbo-dancing and pina coladas wouldn’t have suited a film that is, as its title suggests, more Agatha Christie than Thomas Cook.

Drawing largely on home movies shot by the subjects in the 1930s, the picture pieces together the circumstances that led to several unexplained deaths. In 1929, Friedrich Ritter leaves Germany to start a new life with Dore Strauch. He is a doctor, she his devoted former patient. They love each other. Or rather, she loves him, while he suspects she might be a cut above most “weak and cowardly” women. They are well matched in their physical oddness: Friedrich with his features squashed into the lower half of his face, exposing a steep, brainiac forehead, and Dore with her thick eyebrows like two lines of distant tanks. They have both had it up to here with society, that “huge impersonal monster . . . [chasing the] valueless”, as Friedrich calls it. For their unspoiled home, they choose Floreana, an island 60 miles from its nearest neighbour. Cate Blanchett reads from Dore’s writings in a voice stern but almost trembling: “Life can make a poor end of fine and admirable beginnings.”

The first problem that the couple encounter is one another. He is brusque and unloving; she is lonely. A nearby donkey provides companionship and a shoulder to cry on but have you ever asked one for relationship advice? In desperation, Dore longs for another human being to materialise, even a cannibal or a buccaneer.

Enter the Wittmers. They are admirers of Friedrich’s writing and have come to Floreana from Germany after learning of his move there. But while he is pursuing a Nietzschean ideal, their aspirations stop at The Swiss Family Robinson. Friedrich helps them to establish a home and grudgingly delivers their baby but he finds
them insufferable. “We shall resolutely resist the establishment of any community,” he declares, his words spoken by an actor, over footage of him and Dore waving to camera. The film stock is scarred with imperfections, as though the celluloid were breaking out in boils.

Next to put down roots is Baroness Eloise Wehrborn von Wagner-Bousquet (everyone calls her simply “the baroness”, though they’re not sure if she really is one). She has two handsome young blades in tow and plans to establish a swanky hotel on the island. “We’ve hardly been here two months,” grumbles Papa Wittmer, “and already there are unwelcome neighbours living next door.” (And that’s before she washes her feet in his drinking water.)

Gossip trickles from the islanders’ letters home and into the German media, which run the story complete with bodice-ripping illustrations. There was already eccentricity, isolation and exoticism. The baroness adds the ingredients necessary for a potboiler: class, money, envy and desire.

From the start, the directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller alternate between stoking the sense of foreboding and snickering at it. Not that they don’t take the material seriously; they just know how easily it could lapse into outright campness. They get in there first with a squall of excitable violins on the soundtrack, or doom-laden fades-to-black after some pointed remark. The wealth of letters and journals, read by a strong cast that includes Diane Kruger and Connie Nielsen, provides an instant emotional charge. Why the directors bother to include latter-day interviews with the offspring of their subjects, wrenching us away from the action, is a mystery almost as great as the whodunnit at the film’s centre. Still, its heat and strangeness endure. When the baroness agrees to star in a silent swashbuckler filmed on Floreana, it is as though she knows they are all being swept up in a melodrama beyond their control, like swimmers stolen by the tide, and is signalling for help. She’s not acting, but drowning.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

Getty
Show Hide image

Will playing a farting corpse allow Daniel Radcliffe to finally shake off his Hogwarts associations?

Radcliffe is dead good in Swiss Army Man – meaning he is both good, and dead. Plus: Deepwater Horizon.

Actors who try to shake off a clean-cut ­image risk looking gimmicky or insincere – think of Julie Andrews going topless in SOB, or Christopher Reeve kissing Michael Caine in Deathtrap. Daniel Radcliffe has tried to put serious distance between himself and Hogwarts in his choice of adult roles, which have included Allen Ginsberg (in Kill Your Darlings) and an FBI agent going undercover as a white supremacist (Imperium), but it is with the macabre new comedy Swiss Army Man that he stands the best chance of success. He’s good in the film. Dead good. He has to be: he’s playing a flatulent corpse in a moderate state of putrefaction. If ever there was a film that you were glad wasn’t made in Odorama, this is it.

The body washes up on an island at the very moment a shipwrecked young man, Hank (Paul Dano), is attempting to hang himself. He scampers over to the corpse, which he nicknames Manny, and realises he could use its abundant gases to propel himself across the ocean. Once they reach another shore and hide out in the woods, Hank discovers all sorts of uses for his new friend. Cranked open, the mouth dispenses endless quantities of water. The teeth are sharp enough to shave with. A spear, pushed deep into Manny’s gullet, can be fired by pressing down on his back, thereby turning him into an effective hunting weapon.

On paper, this litany of weirdness reads like a transparent attempt to manufacture a cult film, if that term still has any currency now that every movie can claim to have a devoted online following. The surprising thing about Swiss Army Man is that it contains a robust emotional centre beneath the morbid tomfoolery. It’s really a buddy movie in which one of the buddies happens to have expired. That doesn’t stop Manny being a surprisingly lively companion. He talks back at his new friend (“Shall I just go back to being dead?” he huffs during an argument), though any bodily movements are controlled by Hank, using a pulley system that transforms Manny into a marionette.

The gist of the film is not hard to grasp. Only by teaching Manny all the things he has forgotten about life and love can the depressed Hank reconnect with his own hope and humanity. This tutelage is glorious: improbably ambitious DIY models, costumes and sets (including a bus constructed from branches and bracken) are put to use in play-acting scenes that recall Michel Gondry at his most inspired. If only the screenplay – by the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – didn’t hammer home its meanings laboriously. Manny’s unembarrassed farting becomes a metaphor for all the flaws and failings we need to accept about one another: “Maybe we’re all just ugly and it takes just one person to be OK with that.” And maybe screenwriters could stop spelling out what audiences can understand perfectly well on their own.

What keeps the film focused is the tenderness of the acting. Dano is a daredevil prone to vanishing inside his own eccentricity, while Radcliffe has so few distinguishing features as an actor that he sometimes seems not to be there at all. In Swiss Army Man they meet halfway. Dano is gentler than ever, Radcliffe agreeably deranged. Like all good relationships, it’s a compromise. They make a lovely couple.

What to say about Deepwater Horizon? It’s no disaster as a disaster movie. Focusing on the hows and whys of the most catastrophic accident in US oil drilling history, when an explosion consumed an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, it doesn’t stint on blaming BP. Yet it sticks so faithfully to the conventions of the genre – earthy blue-collar hero (Mark Wahlberg), worried wife fretting at home (Kate Hudson), negligent company man (John Malkovich) – that familiarity overrides suspense and outrage.

The effects are boringly spectacular, which is perhaps why the most chilling moment is a tiny detail: a crazed seagull, wings drenched in oil, flapping madly on the deck long before the fires start. As a harbinger of doom, it’s only mildly more disturbing than Malkovich’s strangulated accent. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories