Stupeur et Tremblements (Fear and Trembling)
directed by Alain Corneau
Adapted by Corneau from the novel by Amèlie Northopmb


The new film from French director Alain Corneau, whose work is little known in the US, adapted by him from the novel by Belgian writer Amèlie Nothomb, is a fascinating insight into Japanese culture that also happens to be a moving and thoughtful examination of one young woman's voyage of self-discovery. Corneau's previous American "success" was the period piece Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) which was critally well-received, but like most sub-titled foreign-language films, little seen.

Fear and Trembling is a fascinating glimpse into a clash of cultures that explains little, but presents a provocative mediation on the paradoxes of human behavior. The vehicle for this is the experience of Amèlie, a young Belgian woman born and initially raised in Japan, who moved back to Belgium as a child. Her nostalgia for her Japanese roots and her familiarity with the language brings her back to work for the Yamimoto Company, a multi-national organized along the lines of a strict Japanese business model.

The inescapable collision between Amèlie's vague impressions of the Japan of her childhood and her romantic ambition to "become a true Japanese" with the reality of what Japanese life is like and what "being a true Japanese" means, is the dramatic center of the story. Like a neophyte in a cult, or a new recruit into the armed forces, Amèlie is stripped of her dignity and her individuality, of her initiative and imagination, and taught to function within the sado-masochistic hierarchy of her new culture.

The contrasts between Western culture and Japanese are made with a mixture of humor and horror. Amèlie is hired as a translator because she speaks fluent Japanese. But because she is the most recently hired, she has to be relegated to menial tasks where her skills won't threaten those with more seniority.

When she is given the task of serving coffee to an important meeting, her attempts to ingratiate herself by speaking politely to the participants in Japanese as she serves them backfire, as she sows distrust of a company that would hire a foreigner who can understand what the "bosses" are saying.

When she is recruited by a junior manager to expedite a program that involves communicating with a company in Belgium, she acquits herself with professional efficiency - and her reward is an hysterical scolding from one of her bosses - because, whatever the merits of the report or its positive effects on the company, it was not done according to strict protocol.

But the most crushing blow comes when she realizes that it was her boss - a woman she admires and whose beauty she idealizes - who betrayed her, and that this woman's apparent empathy was nothing more than a polite mask. This "misunderstanding" is compounded when the boss, Ms. Mori, receives a very public and humiliating scolding from her boss. Amèlie goes to the bathroom to try to console her, but instead makes an implacable enemy of her by unwittingly bearing witness to her humiliation.

There follows a series of incremental abasements through a series of increasingly meaningless and menial tasks- at one pont Amèlie describes herself as the "Sysiphus of accounting." Amèlie adopts what she imagines is a "Zen" attitude toward her plight, and sticks it out to the end of her one year contract. She ends the year by resigning, putting herself through a series of self-humiliations to each of her bosses, which turns out to have an unexpectedly cathartic effect and lifts her to a new level of understanding of herself and the experience she has undergone.

She returns to Belgium and writes a very successful book about her experiences (the book on which the film is based!). Her former boss sends her a one-word message of congratulations - written in Japanese brush calligraphy, almost as one Japanese to another.

This film takes every advantage of its "fish out of water" premise - which is much more interesting and personally specific than most similar scenarios in mainstream films. The explorations of the mysteries of the Japanese mind-set and the culture in which it is formed (and which reflects it) are very amusing but also respectful - tinged with a little bit of awe for the ridiculous, tradition-bound seriousness with which clearly wrong-headed ideas are held.

At the same time, it illuminates Amèlie's solipcistic insensitivity to the differences between her romantic vision of Japan and the reality with which she is confronted. Her journey to self-awareness is fraught with wryly ironic mis-steps as she seeks to come to terms with the fact that the "other people" among whom she finds herself, are really, in many essential ways, not much like her - that they can observe one another, communicate on some levels, but in the end, they have to acknowledge an unbridgeable gap between their visions of the world and the way it works.

This paradoxical vision of human relations - that we can understand each other deeply, but that we can never really understand each other (even as we understand and fail to understand ourselves) - is the philosophical problem with which the film grapples. Corneau, with the nonchalance familiar to admirers of French film, but so annoying to many American audience members who want everything tied up neatly at the end, is content to leave it there - a wrestling match that ends in a draw.

The film is carried by a masterful central performance by the appealing Sylvie Testud as Amèlie. She captures both the character's innocence, and her insensitive and self-absorbed ignorance, and manages to invest both sides of that coin with a thoughtful charm. She plays the physical comedy and the psychological anguish of the role with assurance and intensity.

A fine ensemble of Japanese actors rounds out the cast, with nicely-crafted performances that use a great deal of body-language, tone of voice and facial expression to reveal more about their lives than their carefully-chosen and formally polite (or searingly rude) words ever can.

Kaori Suji - a Japanese model living in Paris because (like Fubuki Mori, the character she portrays) she is too tall and strikingly beautiful - unable to "fit in" - to be successful socially or professionally in Japan - is iconic of a certain ideal of Japanese delicacy and beauty, yet brings to the several scenes where the person behind the mask is revealed, a subtle and moving sense of tragic irony that makes her character as much the victim of the piece as the villain.

The production values of the film are admirable. The production design by Valérie Leblanc and Philippe Taillefer manages to be exotic and banal at the same time. The office is a room crowded with work-stations that could be in any modern-high-rise office building in any industrialized country - but there are lots of little personal touches that place it ineffably in Japan and subtly emphasize the fact that it is as foreign as it is familiar.

Yves Angelo's camera work is imaginative and expressive - especially the special effects shots of Amèlie envisioning herself flying above Tokyo. But even in the less spectacular scenes, his perspectives, points of view and movements convey a sense of the space beyond the frame, to emphasize the constriction of the actions inside it.

The music leans heavily toward European classical themes that provide another level of contrast with the very different rhythms and melodies of Japanese culture. Yet in it's Baroque simplicity, it also hints at something of a kinship with the clear, uncluttered, carefully manicured and strictly regulated "harmony" of the Zen Garden that is a recurring visual symbol.

Fear and Trembling - which not accidentally is also the title of S¿ren Kierkegaard's famous philosophical treatise on existential dread and awe - is an engaging, amusing, thoughtful film. You may eventually have to resort to finding it on DVD in order to see it, but if you do, you will be rewarded by a film that respects your intelligence and offers you some intelligence of its own.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.