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Berlinale 2009: "In the Electric Mist", lost and found in the swampland

Above: Tommy Lee Jones tracing paths through the swamps of history in Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist.

Like a bullet deflected, Bertrand Tavernier's In the Electric Mist lands close to target, but is ultimately repelled.  The end hilariously, ingeniously, quotes the final shot of The Shining; the film's references to the American Civil War, to slavery, to segregation, to Vietnam and finally to Katrina in this Louisiana-set detective tale indeed aims more directly at America's bloody past than that most allusive of Kubrick films, but despite the ambition and the plot's mobility, the film cannot seem to find itself.

Sneaky, wandering, and unfocused in the swamp water where Jean Renoir was amazed and cautiously compassionate with his American actor-heroes, In the Electric Mist is perhaps no less true to the atmosphere of its Louisiana locations, even if the latter shot his Swamp Water on a stage and Tavernier gets access to Southern locations.  A foreigner in a guilty, blood-soaked land, Tavernier expectedly brings that vagueness that most European directors shooting in the States somehow conjure up (count the clichés that mobilize the plot: a Chandler detective, a red convertible, a movie production, old skeletons in swamps...), but who said precision was the goal of cinema?  The incongruities are fun; I'm happy hearing the sheer variety of "local" accents spoken by character actors and regional actors alike; and everyone has the charming habit of chatting while sitting, as if Chandler's characters were getting on and had to rest during their inquiries.

The mise-en-scene—the swampland—stretches out almost to infinity, like those videogames where you leave the left side of the screen only to enter back around on the right side: the roads, towns, houses and bars of In the Electric Mist aren't on any map, are unanchored by geography and float free in Tavernier's world of anguished guilt that detective Tommy Lee Jones thinks he hallucinates his way through.  And perhaps that's the film's best framing device.  Jones wanders around trying to solve a serial killing, gets mixed up in a movie production and suspects a crooked millionaire, but when he finally starts seeing visions of an affable Confederate general giving weary, kindly advice about loss and greed, that's not when In the Electric Mist takes it too far but rather when the film finally puts its entirety, its Euro-ambivilance, into an exciting form: hallucination.  Were not Philip Marlow's pathways through L.A. any less happenstance and imaginative than a "trip"?  Was Kubrick's Overlook not a place where time and space had no meaning?  And are these devices of genre and of subjectivity not perhaps one of the most expressive ways of digging into the devices American cinema uses to color and disguise national history?  Strange questions, to say the least, but In the Electric Mist is a strange film, which says something.  It is a curoisity, with a sting lurking somewhere within, but the film twists and turns so much, Tavernier dodging something, I know not what, that the gun's sight never lines up exactly, and the bullet just can't seem to hit the target.

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