Once upon a time Chuang Chou dreamt he was a butterfly, but when he awoke he could no longer tell whether he was then a man dreaming he was a butterfly, or whether he was now a butterfly, dreaming to be a man. The story comes from an old Chinese proverb and nicely fits with the structure of Wim Wenders’ last work, Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez.
It’s a hot summer day in a countryside house in the surroundings of Paris and a lone writer is looking for inspiration. He sits before his typewriter and looks outside the window, when a lady and a man magically appear, sitting at a garden table right outside the house. We do not know whether the duo comes from the writer’s imagination, or whether the writer is a figment of their own.
Wenders does not help to solve the puzzle. Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez develops as a 97-minute long conversation between the couple (Reda Kateb and Sophie Semin), which the writer (Jens Harzer) observes and records. It is based on a play written by Austrian writer Peter Handke, with whom Wenders has worked on several occasions between the 1960s and 1980s, a fruitful teamwork that reached its peak in 1987, with the international success of Cannes’ Best Directing Award-winning Wings of Desire.
Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez marks the fifth collaboration between the two, and earned Wenders a spot amongst the twenty films selected as part of the official competition of the 73rd edition of Venice’s International Film Festival. Wenders chose to present it in 3D, a format which does not seem to add much to the film’s quality, for its strength does not come from its bucolic images, but from the couple’s conversation.
Sitting in front of each other, the two begin their chat by talking about love. He asks her about the details of her first night with a man. She is reluctant to reveal much, but when she does the conversation rapidly turns into a ritual ruled by a number of strictly obeyed laws: neither must answer the other’s questions with a yes or no answer, and no action other than dialogue must take place.
It is a long, somewhat abstract and philosophical conversation which spans from lovemaking to death, from memory to vengeance. The two recite their lines as if on a stage, to the point that one wonders whether Wenders adapted Handke’s play for the big screen, or whether he turned his own work into a play. It is the film’s greatest flaw: the dialogues, never mind how deep and rich their subtext may be, feel cold and overly theatrical, and fail to establish any degree of empathy with the audience.
At the end of Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez, one leaves the cinema with the feeling of having seen something that resembles the flowers that surrounds the two around the garden table, and which the both wax lyrically about: a beautiful and evocative tale, but one whose aura is sadly very short-lived, and fails to convey the emotions and drama which Wenders’ fans would expect from a director of his stature.