The title of Rudolph van den Berg's beautiful and tantalizing "Bastille" (at the Nuart through next Saturday) is symbolic: It concerns an Amsterdam high school history teacher imprisoned by an anguished uncertainty over his sense of identity.
It is a highly complex, multi-layered work, dense yet elliptical with fragmented time and dream sequences, presenting an emotional as well as intellectual challenge and unfolding briskly in deft brushstrokes. Adapted from a novel by Leon de Winter, this audacious, intimate enigma is remarkably, breathtakingly confident for a first feature.
Before the credits, we hear this teacher (Derek de Lint), who's slim, handsome and dynamic, suggest jokingly to his class that if Cleopatra hadn't had such a beautiful nose, Marc Antony wouldn't have fallen in love with her, and the Roman Empire wouldn't have fallen. Actually, De Lint is more serious than he lets on; for several years he's been working on a retelling of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's flight to Varennes in which they successfully elude capture and their eventual grim fate at the Bastille.
The teacher is a man obsessed with the "if's" of life--what if the royal couple had escaped, as they very nearly did. Or more to the point, what if his own twin brother, taken to Bergen-Belsen as a baby, had in fact survived? (Their parents definitely died in Auschwitz.) De Lint's search for the brother is a search for self, which means also that he must come to terms with his own Jewishness, something he has evaded his entire life. (The question of Jewish identity has concerned Van den Berg in several earlier documentaries.)
The beginning of "Bastille" involves a series of flash-forwards in which an anxious De Lint is riding in a taxi on a rainy night, bound for a French seaside village where a man who might be that brother lives. When he presses his driver to look at a photograph, the cab suddenly veers off the road; not until the film's conclusion do we return to this rainy night.
In between these urgent, mystery thriller-like sequences, we discover the strain on his family of the teacher's obsession with chance. On a Paris sojourn, an encounter with a beautiful, young Jewish woman (Evelyne Dress) may ultimately be more important than his search for his brother, which involves hiring a detective agency with a reputation for ascertaining the fate of Holocaust victims. Dress has had everything De Lint hasn't--loving parents who have passed on to her a respect for Jewish traditions, which she finds comforting even if she's not especially religious.
From one scene to the next, Van den Berg displays a sure instinct in their staging and in directing his actors. De Lint's wonderfully warm, tender moments with Dress contrast with his tense encounters with his lovely blond wife (Geert de Jong), who soon suspects him of infidelity. De Lint's teacher is often moody and difficult as he approaches a state of crisis that his wife may not fully fathom any more than he does; to their credit, Van den Berg and De Lint convey the teacher's genuine anguish with such compassion and conviction that we do not lose sympathy for him in his relentless quest.
"Bastille" (Times rated Mature for complex style and themes) concludes abruptly, even joltingly, and demands a leap of imagination on the part of audiences as daring as that required in Antonioni's "Blow-Up." Don't be surprised if your first reaction, especially if you've become completely involved in the film, is to feel cheated emotionally. Upon reflection, however, you realize its rightness, for whatever answers the teacher is seeking lie finally within himself.