The Suspended Step of the Stork
This seems to me effortlessly Angelopoulos best film of the 90s. The film has all the stylistic virtues of Ulyssesâ€™ Gaze and Eternity and a Day but far fewer of their detractions / distractions: rickety thematic apparati, overloaded symbolism, clunky exposition, poorly integrated set pieces.
I think one of the keys to the success of this film is that Angelopoulos has hit upon a subject that ideally suits his thematic preoccupations. He tends to structure his films around journeys that never reach their explicit destination, through a pattern of interruptions and repetitions, and is preoccupied with borders and transitions: spatial, political, temporal or metaphysical, but generally all of those and more (which is why his films risk becoming thematically overburdened).
In The Suspended Step of the Stork, whose titular event / image of a person poised mid-step before armed guards at a border crossing neatly synthesises a suspension between states in at least three senses ('state' as geopolitical entity, 'state' as personal legal status and 'state' as living or dead), the consideration of refugees in the bureaucratic limbo of a border town finesses many of the director's concerns. The refugees are physically, politically and legally isolated, and â€˜crossing overâ€™ the physical border involves a drastic change of status and the very real risk of death.
Piled onto this, but in a relatively organic way, are more specific transitional states represented by the largely symbolic marriage of a young girl and the shifting identity of the character played by Marcello Mastroianni, who seems to be the only character ultimately capable of moving between the many states contemplated by the film. At the point that Jeanne Moreau finally confronts her long-lost husband (Mastroianni), she turns to us and explains plainly, â€œitâ€™s not him,â€ but since she had previously noted that, the last time sheâ€™d seen him, he was in the process of â€œturning into somebody else,â€ this statement has its own depths of ambiguity.
So, for the most part, this film manages to dovetail beautifully the metaphorical / metaphysical significances that threaten to overload some of Angelopoulos' other films. The only element that seems a little shaky to me is the â€˜filmmaker angstâ€™ one: the whiff of narcissism invariably weakens Angelopoulosâ€™ films. Gregory Karrâ€™s performance as the journalist is also a bit of a weak point, especially when heâ€™s performing in too-actorly English.
But the set pieces, when they come, blow all such concerns away. The climactic riverbank wedding is a tour-de-force. The complex, multi-plane action is staged like Jancso but shot as pure Angelopoulos, with slow, penetrating zooms exploring the landscape. You can feel the chill of the morning air.
I also loved the matched plans-sequences which focus on Jeanne Moreauâ€™s relationship with the film crew, one beside a motorway at night and the other in the border town when she finally encounters Mastroianni. In both cases, the physical movement in depth gives way to a view of the interior of the filmmakers' van, where we can see the action doubled on video. Itâ€™s an ingenious way of affording Moreau a couple of privileged (and quite essential) close-ups without violating the directorâ€™s rigorous long-shot aesthetic.
And finally, thereâ€™s the magnificent closing shot which features Angelopoulosâ€™ characteristic yellow-boiler-suited workmen incongruously converting the filmâ€™s unadorned landscape into some kind of bizarre art installation. Itâ€™s definitely a WTF moment, and arguably over-reaching and pretentious, but the formal effect is so striking Iâ€™ll give it a pass.