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Brownian Movement (Nanouk Leopold, 2010)
Charlotte, an attractive young doctor who sleeps with men in a rented apartment is the subject of Nanouk Leopold’s Brownian Movement. A carefully attuned character study, this quiet Dutch film resists easy answers in its examination of sexual mores and inexplicable drives toward pleasure. Sandra Hüller, who bares her body and betrays little of her mind, plays Charlotte as something of a cypher. During a therapy session she says “I really don’t know how I’m supposed to feel.” Asked for an explanation for how she could profess to be happily married yet persist in her string of hook ups, she finally concludes, “I shouldn’t tell at all. It only makes it worse.” Such an attitude is sure to frustrate many viewers, who will hope for some psychological or sociological justification for Charlotte’s actions. But Leopold is after something subtler. As the title implies, sexual desire here is seen as a force that is random and ultimately out of one’s control. As such Brownian Movement becomes feminist not through Charlotte’s agency, but rather in the sense that she is irreducible to a stock type due to her contradictions.
Stylistically, Brownian Movement almost feels like a knowingly retro art film. Its basic scenario seems designed to upset our impressions of women, much in the manner of the once-shocking Belle de Jour or Two or Three Things I Know About Her. Leopold’s Antonioniesque style observes things at a remove, even as it indulges our desire for prurience. Dangerous romps in bed are contrasted with scenes at Charlotte’s sterile hospital job. Sex scenes with her husband are set against dull slices of her home life. Leopold suggests here that we should observe the sex play and the daily routine with same clinical detachment as her job, which is somewhat disingenuous as it is only Charlotte’s sexual drive that serves as a point of narrative propulsion. As a result, Brownian Movement feels unnecessarily coy at times, as if it understands what makes Charlotte tick, but opts instead to obfuscate in the name of art.
In Brownian Movement’s weakest section, its first, it attempts to arouse some degree of shock value in Charlotte’s selection of mates, who are often obese or unkempt, but one suspects an edit, which takes us from the doctor stroking a fat man’s stomach to one of her lying naked on a bearskin rug tells us enough about her desire for sensual variety. Since no conclusive answers are offered, the focus on the film’s style is exaggerated. This is a film that is self-impressed with its formalism (it’s even neatly divided into three parts), but at least it has some degree of rigor. While Leopold might indulge in dated art house clichés, that isn’t necessarily a problem. I love the art films of the ‘60s and it’s strangely comforting to watch a contemporary film that is cut from the same cloth. Brownian Movement ultimately might not be thought-provoking, beyond posing the question of whether it is worse to deviate sexually or to be perpetually unsatisfied, but it seems to understand the style within it functions.