cast: Laura Fraser, Isabella Rossellini, Jeroen Krabbé, Maximilian Schell, and Chaim Topol
director: Jeroen Krabbé
96 minutes (PG) 1997
Arrow DVD Region 0 retail
reviewed by Paul Higson
Laura Fraser went from a debut in Gillies McKinnon’s sufficiently entertaining Small Faces directly into a leading role in Jeroen Krabbé’s Jewish ‘dramedy’ (comedy drama) Left Luggage in 1997. She must have thought this was it the big time, as she shared scenes with oh so many greatly admired players: Maximilian Schell, Isabella Rossellini, Chaim Topol, Krabbé, and Marianne Sagebrecht. Her future as a serious actress had surely been secured… But Krabbé proved to be a stunted and insecure director, and if Fraser foresaw the terrible tidal wave of lottery funded dross on the way from the UK and thought she might avoid it with a Euro shoot and a sage, top-notch cast then lessons were to be learnt. Left Luggage comes across as a mediocre British-displaced, gunning for pathos and comic encounters, full of wrongly placed self-belief, failing the targeted tone and delivering half of what it surmises it has. Before long, Fraser would be back in the UK and her next starring role in a SF sex comedy (Virtual Sexuality) written by The Sun’s movie critic.
Adapted from Carl Friedman’s novel The Shovel And The Loom, Left Luggage opens in the Second World War, with the burial of two suitcases of personal possessions. In 1972 Antwerp, the chipper Chaja (Laura Fraser) is moving from one job to another, lasting rarely more than a day. I think at this point I have to mention the Restaurant Amadeus, which is mentioned in the acknowledgements and provides the first location, that of Chaja’s first employer. You wonder if the owners were aware that their kitchen was going to be portrayed quite so comically cockroach infested. As one plate is moved to a sink four cockroaches are waiting on the plate underneath. More of the acrobatic little nasties have somehow managed to work their way onto the blades of a fan in the hot kitchen, a fan that hasn’t been used all day, not until Chaja’s shift begins that is.
Now that the star of our film is here the fan can go on and shower the staff with them, who respond casually as if it were light rain. It is not so much an infestation as a plague. Her father (Schell) is the burier of the suitcases and 30 years on Antwerp has rebuilt and anything that may have previously place-marked their location has gone. This drives him potty now that he wishes to unearth them again. A family friend, Mr Apfelschnitt (Topol) refers her to her next short term vocation, as nanny for a Hasidic Jewish family. She hates Hasidic Jews but she makes her way to their glum ghetto, brightening the place up with her little red mini, and somehow finds herself employed, fawning over and falling for the creepy, mute, ginger mopped, bed-wetting youngest son, Simcha (Adam Monty).
Most of us would want only to get out of the place faster upon sight of this stunted freak. Chaja begins to take interest in their quare old ways, the unfathomable communal self-torture of drab clothes, wigs, daft little curls, but also to the belief system behind it all. Thankfully, Chaja isn’t going to shed her cool garb or cut out the skinny-dipping, but she does hang in with the family long enough to persuade the boy to talk, rehearse him in his prayers and mourn him when he drowns in the duck pond.
We should cherish Left Luggage as there are too few films made today that are so fascinatingly bad that they are resultantly entertaining and to do it with such a heavyweight, calibre cast, and under the direction of somebody of Krabbé’s prestige. To be honest, Krabbé is a great presence on film but there is no reason to assume he could be a great director, particularly if one has witnessed his other ventures into the arts at large (to give him is due, he is a better painter than Sylvester Stallone and Tony Curtis… and Clive Barker come to that). Caricatures not characters populate the film. They spout stilted dialogue and take pantomime cues, screaming to the back of the audience, forgetting which medium they operate in. It is particularly awful at the beginning of the film. Fraser is particularly confused how she should respond and how loudly she should deliver her lines, though a veteran pro like Miriam Margoyles is equally susceptible. It’s okay, you lot, we have volume control, and we can hear you. When it feels the need to support some slightly whimsical musings it throws in a comedy clarinet and bassoon into the accompanying soundtrack. When the bigoted concierge (David Bradley) blocks the stairwell with his furniture, it provides the film with its one daring, action set-piece, as Fraser returns to the third floor and shinnys down the pipes in the central court space. Given her reactionary character, the little clamber over a small pile of furniture would have been less hassle. The more life threatening activity taken is unnecessary. In another scene, with Simcha having admitted he can repeat the word ‘Quack!’ they skip down the street quacking together quite nauseatingly.
The humour is desperate, made more so by the need of characters to laugh outrageously at barely funny incidents, like the neighbour whose wife leaves him but not before sticking his prized stamp collection all over the room. The comedy highs and dramatic lows fail to strike the aimed for chord with your reviewer. One of the main music themes is a dreadful, unrecognisable version of Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies while the most bizarre credits are also sound related, Ruby and the Tweed Twins provide an early track in the film and the loop group are called Ear Whacks! Topol is the quintessence of Semitic cool and always comes out looking good. Even when delivering a good news/ bad news line, which ends with the punchline “Simcha is dead!” Fraser paints a pretty picture throughout and it is through her attractiveness and liveliness that the film is made watchable throughout. Left Luggage is perhaps a missed opportunity to better understand orthodox Jews. It playfully enters their world, admits it’s a bit crap, then departs for a normal existence, albeit one of digging up the ground in public spaces in search of those missing suitcases. Ironically, it will, for most, be a genuine introduction to this Jewish quarter, and its faultiness might make the orthodox Jews all the more human to an otherwise largely uninvited and quite reasonably so disinterested gen-pop. I don’t think Krabbé will appreciate it, but I want to thank him for a rare, great raspberry of a movie.