Future mime’s battle to thwart the Nazis

Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau in Resistance (Pantaleon Films)

By Richard Ades

There may be no performing artist who’s despised and ridiculed more than the mime. But maybe after seeing Resistance, people will start to give these silent storytellers the benefit of the doubt.

The World War II thriller focuses on that most famous mime of all time, Marcel Marceau, and reveals that he definitely had a story to tell, though he mostly kept to himself. It turns out that back when he was coming of age in occupied France, Marceau joined the Resistance and was instrumental in helping hundreds of Jewish children escape the Holocaust.

It’s a fascinating and unique story, despite the fact that writer/director Jonathan Jacubowicz fails to tell it in a manner that’s fascinating or unique—or even very believable.

True, we’re used to reality-based tales taking liberties with the facts in order to ramp up the drama (the bullet-riddled escape from Iran in Argo comes to mind). But Resistance is filled with so many clichés and cliffhangers that we start to doubt virtually everything we see. Just to take one: Did Marceau’s father, a butcher, really oppose his son’s desire to be an actor, or is that simply Jacubowicz’s attempt to add the kind of parent-child tension that invariably leads to a moving reconciliation?

Further feeding our doubts, the movie casts 36-year-old Jesse Eisenberg as Marceau, even though he was actually a teenager at the time. You may or may not feel Eisenberg is able to shed his usual persona and do a convincing job here (I’m not impressed), but it doesn’t help that the movie depicts Marceau as years older than he really was. You have to wonder what else is made up.

Another weakness: Despite focusing on someone who came to personify mime—a craft that calls on viewers to use their imagination—Resistance seems determined to spoon-feed us information.

Just in case we don’t know what the Holocaust was, the first scene shows a soon-to-be-orphaned Jewish girl (Bella Ramsey) asking her parents, “Why do they hate us?” And just in case we don’t know that the Nazis were evil, the film periodically cuts away from Marceau to show vicious Gestapo agent Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) methodically shooting, beating or torturing people. For the record, Barbie was a real-life monster, but Schweighofer’s version comes off as the kind of psychopathic sadist who could just as easily double as the villain in a run-of-the-mill melodrama.

Despite all these problems, the film does succeed on some levels. The cast—including Clemence Poesy as Marceau’s love interest and fellow Resistance fighter, Emma—is good enough to make us care about the people trying to survive and oppose the Nazis’ reign of terror. As a result, viewers who are able to overlook the film’s excesses will watch many scenes in a heightened state of tension.

But the film’s real value lies in its revelation of the heroism displayed by a well-known figure and many others in response to the 20th century’s greatest evil. It provides the kind of inspiration that’s welcome now that we need all the heroes we can find.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Resistance (rated R for bloodless but troubling violence) opens March 27 at VOD outlets.


Milquetoast turns manly in dark spoof of machismo

Art of Self Defense
Karate instructor Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, right) is determined to turn Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) into a real man. (Photos courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Richard Ades

Minutes into The Art of Self-Defense, a vicious mugging sends 35-year-old Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) to a gun shop in search of protection. Ultimately, though, he ends up in a karate studio, where he becomes a devotee of a secretive instructor known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

It’s a decision that at first transforms and later endangers his life.

Though Casey’s goal is to learn how to defend himself, it turns out that Sensei teaches more than kicks and punches. He’s determined to turn Casey into a man—his definition of a man, that is, which includes the most extreme attributes of machismo.

And maybe that’s what Casey wants, too. “Other men intimidate me,” he tells Sensei, admitting what we’ve already witnessed in his interactions with assorted obnoxious males. So when Sensei eventually invites him to join the dojo’s exclusive “night class,” promising that it will help him become what he fears, Casey jumps at the chance.

Sure enough, he soon becomes someone who instills terror in others, but in the process he starts down a dangerous path that has no easy exit.

Written and directed by Riley Stearns (2014’s Faults), The Art of Self-Defense could just as easily be called The Pitfalls of Toxic Masculinity. Its true subject is that much-derided syndrome, which has been blamed for offenses ranging from sexual harassment to mass shootings and has been attributed to male entitlement, among other causes.

Here, Stearns doesn’t delve deeply into the disorder’s whys, other than having one of Casey’s fellow students suggest that men’s aggression is caused by testosterone. Instead, the flick concentrates on depicting machismo in its most absurd and destructive form.

In his quest to help Casey man up, Sensei tells him to start listening to heavy metal music and to give up his plans to visit France, a country best known for raising the white flag. In its place, he recommends idolizing more “masculine” lands such as Russia or Germany and is pleased to learn that Casey’s dog is German, even though it’s only a lowly dachshund.

Art of Self Defense Anna
Anna (Imogen Poots) is consigned to second-class citizenhood in Sensei’s male-centered dojo.

As for women, Sensei’s male-centric worldview reduces them to second-class citizens since, after all, they’re not men. Accordingly, he continually downgrades the only woman in the dojo, Anna (Imogen Poots), despite the fact that she’s one of his fiercest and most skilled followers. And Anna herself seems to accept his judgment to some extent, even while she chafes at being denied the black belt she clearly deserves.

The Art of Self-Defense is being promoted as both a dark comedy and a drama. Of the two, it’s probably closer to the former, as long as you realize it’s more “dark” than “comedy.”

Nivola’s deadpan portrayal of the militantly manly Sensei may garner a chuckle or two, but the film’s spiral into danger and violence stops it from turning into a laugh fest. As for the dramatic elements, they’re undercut by Casey’s unrealistic transformation from a fearful milquetoast to an unprovoked throat-puncher, as well as by certain developments that are more predictable than they should be.

It’s probably most interesting to see Stearns’s flick as a comment on toxic masculinity, though Anna’s presence complicates the subject. After all, for the most part she is just as aggressive and dangerous as the men around her. It’s not until the final act that we learn there is one step on Sensei’s perverse journey that she refuses to take.

In the film’s dire view of humanity, that represents a slim hope for salvation.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Art of Self-Defense (rated R) opened July 18 at Columbus’s Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and AMC Dine-In Easton Town Center 30.