Berlin Film Festival: Mist Opportunity

Not many films in the 60 years since Robert Flaherty's immortal Louisiana Story have evoked the atmosphere of the Bayou State as strongly as Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist,

a movie that doesn't seem to have been filmed so much as distilled, on

a creaking porch beset by mosquitos and summer heat, with the rumble of

a gathering storm in the distance. Adapted from the novel by James Lee

Burke, the film stars Tommy Lee Jones as Burke's popular detective

character, Dave Robichaux, here investigating the murder of one Cherry

LeBlanc, a "fatally beautiful" 19-year-old prostitute whose mutilated

corpse washes up on shore in the film's opening scene. Not long after

that, another body -- this one belonging to a lynched black man dead

and gone some 40 years -- surfaces deep in the swamp, loosed by

Hurricane Katrina's churning tide.

Since it was first announced, In the Electric Mist has

sounded like an ideal project for Tavernier, combining two of the

veteran French filmmaker's great passions: the American South

(previously explored in his 1985 documentary, Mississippi Blues) and American pulp fiction (the basis for 1981's Oscar-nominated Coup de torchon, which transposed Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280 to French colonial Africa). But it's been a long road to Berlin for In the Electric Mist, which was shot on location in 2007 only to become entangled in post-production disagreements between Tavernier and the film's American producer, Michael Fitzgerald (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada).


the dust finally settled, two different versions of the movie emerged

-- an "international" cut prepared by Tavernier, which screened here in

Berlin and will be released in most countries around the world, and an

"American" cut supervised by Fitzgerald that runs 15 minutes shorter

and will go directly to DVD in the U.S. next month. In comparing the two edits, Variety

critic Leslie Felperin deemed the American version "brisker but

less-coherent" with "tacky summing up and [an] oo!-spooky last shot

mini twist that makes [it] play like a made-for-TV movie."

Berlin Film Festival: Mist Opportunity

Having seen only Tavernier's version, I can say that it's unfortunate

American audiences may never get a chance to experience this superior

detective yarn on the big screen, in the form its director intended.

Unfortunate, but by no means surprising. Indeed, where the default

Hollywood position would have been to strip-mine Burke's source

material for its narrative chassis while junking all its atmospheric

touches, tertiary supporting characters and curlicue digressions,

Tavernier (working from a script credited to the husband-and-wife team

of Jerzy Kromolowski and Mary Olson-Kromolowski) does exactly the

opposite. Much like Burke himself on the page, he plays up the bass line at

the expense of the melody, showing markedly less interest in the

identity of the killer(s) than in a long and winding history of

Southern injustice that stretches from Jim Crow to George W. Bush. Long

ago, Robichaux says in the lyrical voice-over that opens the film,

people placed heavy stones on the graves of the dead so as to weigh

down the souls of the departed. But in Burke and Tavernier's world,

every time a storm blows through, those stones become displaced, and

restless spirits take to wandering the bayou.

This is the

Burke adaptation fans of the author deserved, but were sorely denied by

the 1996 film version of another Robichaux novel, Heaven's Prisoners,

with an altogether unconvincing Alec Baldwin in the lead. Jones, by

contrast, slips effortlessly into the character's skin -- a bit too

effortlessly, some might argue, given the actor's history of playing

no-nonsense lawmen. But pay close attention to the jittery impatience

in Dave Robichaux's voice, his clumsiness of gesture, the faint

uncertainty in his recovering alcoholic's eyes, and you will see a

character many jurisdictions removed from The Fugitive's cocksure Marshal Samuel Gerard and No Country For Old Men's wizened and weary Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

If In the Electric Mist

is finally less than completely satisfying as a murder mystery, as a

piece of cultural anthropology it is never less than deeply absorbing.

History and myth freely intermingle with the present, particularly in

the case of what may be the movie's cleverest conceit -- a Civil

War-era film within the film, starring a hell-raising Hollywood actor

(a highly amusing Peter Sarsgaard) and a cast of hundreds, although the

Confederate General (Levon Helm) Robichaux keeps encountering in the

nighttime fog seems more than a mere costumed extra.


Tavernier's movie runs thick with gut-bucket jazz and blues, regional

accents so foreign that the film's Berlin press screenings carried

English subtitles, and local fat cats with names like "Babyfeet"

Balboni (wonderfully oily John Goodman) and "Twinky" Lemoyne (Ned

Beatty) who add to the Chinatown-like air of pervasive

corruption. One murder blends into another, and the only meaningful

punishment is meted out not by the hands of the law, but by those of

father time. Ultimately, "whodunit?" seems a question as unanswerable

as a Zen koan -- except, perhaps, in the producer's cut.

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