Note: This is part of our coverage of TIFF Bell Lightbox’s On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders
(Although much of Until The End Of The World is plot driven without twists or turns, this review turned into a bit of an analysis so there will be spoilers)
As a cinephile you get used to endurance tests in film. Film is such a wide canvas with limitless constraints, even more so for avant-garde or alternative film. Experimental film tests cinematic methods, philosophical ideologies, and the cinema of the mind expands the movie screen. Thus, an experimental filmmaker will take full advantage of a boundless canvas.
In a five hour Wim Wenders film a viewer is guaranteed glorious languid views of panorama and an appreciative look into the beauty that exists in everything. It’s not only a feat to keep a story together in that time frame, but also to keep a viewer’s attention.
Until the End of The World took several years to complete and the original rough cut was twenty hours long.
The story is set in the future where the world has become chaotic as the result of a rogue satellite that is expected to crash into the Earth. Our protagonist Claire (Solveig Dommartin) gets up after falling asleep at a lavish party. She walks through partygoers decked out to the nines in rooms playing The Talking Heads on full blast. Claire heads out home to Paris to meet up with her estranged writer boyfriend Eugene (Sam Neill), but gets into a car accident. A few happenstance moments and we find Claire chasing a mysterious stranger in Trevor McPhee (William Hurt in a cyber film noir incarnation) after agreeing to deliver stolen cash for some new friends.
“I still love you, broken ladder.” – Claire
After a long trek that sees Claire follow Trevor through Berlin to San Francisco, the two fall in love. Turns out Sam (previously known as Trevor), has a device that renders other people’s views as videos that the blind can see. Eugene, Claire, Sam and all of the people they’ve gathered along the way, congregate in the Australian outback where Sam’s father, Henry (Max von Sydow), has a giant lab to make the blind video “view-master” work for his blind wife, Edith (Jeanne Moreau). The lab has been built in a set of caves and land inhabited by indigenous Australians who volunteer their help to Henry’s cause.
After a few failures and successes, the story reveals another invention: a machine that can play dreams back to the dreamer. The images invoked and projected onto portable units are abstract, nostalgic, and full of sentiment. Soon the users, in this case Claire and Sam, become obsessed with interpreting them and lament the passages of time.
While the first half of the film is replete with beautiful sights in locales familiar in film to many (Paris, Beijing, etc.), but changed to look futuristic, the story lags. Claire’s chasing of Sam is long and drawn out, however, I believe what compelled me to keep watching were the analogies of what love might truly mean for someone. Claire continually searches for Sam unquestioningly, claiming her main motivation is protect him and thus, find meaning to her existence. While she finds pockets of evidence for that, the stronger case is for each of the characters, including Claire, to find their own purpose without each other.
By the last half as Claire and Sam fall into a narcissistic reverie on their portable dream videos, it’s hard not to parallel it to the way modern consumers use social media and transform their need for validating love unto themselves. They fall in love with the idea of their pasts and drown in the images seeking validation in their existence. Smartphones and tablets hold the consumers’ interests not just for networking, but for instant substantiation of posited thoughts and self-images.
“Soon they were hooked; all of them. They lived to see their dreams, and when they slept they dreamed about their dreams. They had arrived at the island of dreams together; but in a short time they were oceans apart. I watched helplessly as Claire and Sam were drowning in their own nocturnal imagery. They ignored each other, and neglected themselves. Dreams which should have been flushed away with the first yawn, were now their only diet; and thus became more concentrated. They made monsters for themselves that they could neither tolerate or do without. They wondered in and out of lost worlds. Feelings and figures emerged from a forgotten past. Their dreams became black holes of isolation. They suffered, finally; from a complete loss of reality. – Eugene”
This last half interested me more not just for it’s clever look at despair without the idea of the self, but for how the “white privileged” self uses the world around it to fuel its obsessions. Sam’s father, Henry, found no problem with using the indigenous peoples’ land and resources to build his mind view-master. Then, when he lost his two main experimenters, Claire and Sam, to madness, he instantly volunteers one the natives. As the elders and young realize this exploitation they take all of their people and abandon Henry to find a better world. Henry, Sam, and Claire are left empty without direction and comfort. It says a lot about defining oneself in the modern world of technology, cultural appropriation, and in a world where people are taking back was stolen from them, ie. their land, their identity, and their resources.
Another interesting character is the one of Eugene the writer. Eugene types away on his laptop, utilizes the videophone to keep in touch with Claire, and as a writer, is very intrigued with the potential uses of new technologies for his work. However, when everything breaks down, he finds a typewriter and through it begins his own transformation. It is a journey that takes him from his attachment to Claire back to his lifelong love affair of the written word. He creates a story from a reality, but in the form of his memories to impart a slice of life for his reader and a reflection piece for the ones he cares for. The writing process is a grand form of introspection, but it is also a means to express and decipher the other apart from the self. Writing is the universal form of communication into an ether we know nothing about, thus expressing means validating something outside of the self regardless of motivation. I was pretty fascinated by idea that there is hope for a world of basics outside of the technology now and the future world.
As an aside, it delights me to no end that Max von Sydow is part of many time and mind altering future flicks including Minority Report (where a man must face the consequences of his actions before he commits a crime) and that William Hurt is part of many identity confusion films including the much underrated Mr. Brooks (where a man’s alter ego takes over).
Until The End Of the World features a swoon-worthy soundtrack of nostalgic (for those of us now) heavy tunes, especially from a time when synthesizers, alternative, and world music crashed and blended so well together. The musical thread keeps a rather long experience from becoming cumbersome, even during the lag periods. Although there is much to be said for the 80s/90s geometrical hats and excellent Gaultier futurism fashion. There is no denying the film is a joy to look at.
Wenders made this film as his ultimate road film. The travels characters make are poignant, gorgeously rendered for the viewer, and now make a lot more sense with the lengthier director’s cut. If you are determined to fill your Wim Wenders watching catalogue, do make it to see the original vision as best you can. I can’t recommend it more than the two hour flop which was a fuddled flop for a reason.