CIFF40: Malick for Dummies: Gold Coast (2015)
"Innocence will soon vanish. Welcome to the graveyard of ambitions," a cynical fellow Dane tells Wulff (Jakob Oftebro), an idealistic young engineer who's come to Ghana/"New Guinea" in 1836 to establish a coffee plantation. He might have been talking about Gold Coast itself, a film whose good intentions and bad aesthetics mingle promiscuously, and wind up replacing one set of colonialist cliches with another. It was the fourth movie we saw last Thursday at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and easily the worst; several minutes in, I felt grateful to have my cherry Icee as a distratction, and began to long for the bouncing popcorn shell and hyped-up usher that were the stars of the CIFF's omnipresent introductory cartoon. Even though I'd already suffered through them three times that day, at least they knew what they were trying to say.
If you've seen The Mission or The Piano, then you've seen Gold Coast, which borrows heavily from their 80s art-house lighting and framing, as well as their tendency to reduce people of color to props in their smug, "let me tell you what to think" white martyr narratives. And while the film constantly reminded me of Pauline Kael's classic line on Jane Campion's film-- "The symbolism never really registers fully, because you can't tell what she's symbolizing, though you know damn well it's symbolic"-- The Piano at least had Holly Hunter's complex face and body movement to ground it, and The Mission had one of Ennio Morricone's finest scores. Gold Coast is left with Oftebro's telegraphic emoting (it's not so much "best" acting as "most" acting, although in fairness there's not a lot to do when the film wants to constantly make you a Jesus figure), and a score by Angelo Badalamenti whose ominous, tell-tale synthesizer lines leave nothing to the imagination (that said, it was the only part of the film I even vaguely liked). I was putting the film out of my head even as I watched it, but the film certainly helped that process along.
As the CIFF program description indicates, the film longs to create an ironic, Heart of Darkness-like juxtaposition between the forced idealism of Wulff's letters home to his fiancée (heard in heavy-handed narration), and the growing darkness and violence of what we actually see unfolding on the screen-- the slow build and then destruction of Wulff's plantation fields, his evangelical idealism about "uplifting" the African slaves who work the colony, his shock and disgust at the discovery of an ongoing slave trade in the area after Denmark has outlawed it, his attempts to lead an uprising, and his slow descent into madness when the uprising fails.
That's the outline of a potentially good, complex, moving film in the right hands: the history, the politics, the regional and period detail that could be created and deployed for a variety of effects. Unfortunately, despite some occasionally striking imagery--Wulff backlit by a jumping flame that creates an almost psychedelic quality, severed heads on a slave trader's castle wall--director Daniel Dancik too often relies on a series of close-ups that either feel like blatant borrowings from better directors (a close-up of water going down a drain that's a stand-in for the coffee cup/universe metaphor in Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her), or so on-the-nose that they lose all power (at one point, we see the brand of the slave trader Richter (an eerie "HR") burned into the shoulder of a slave, a shot whose effect is destroyed by Dancik's need to then cut to a close-up of the branding, in case we missed it). At one point, I wrote "Oh, good-- a poisoned chalice" in my notebook; everything is abstracted, not just by Wulff's narration, but the structuring of the images themselves. The irony that Gold Coast misses amidst its art-trope finger pointing is that it's a film that wants to stake an anti-colonial position, but is nothing if not controlling. Its methodology is to excavate cinematic resources from a pained and problematic history, in order to present them to its patrons who can then congratulate themselves on their own political self-awareness in the lobby. Nothing breathes.