Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life

on August 23, 1996 by Ed Scheid
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   Subtitled "This Dream People Call Human Life," this debut feature from the Brothers Quay was part of the fest's tribute to surrealists (which also saluted Jan Svankmajer and Guy Maddin). Like a dream (and the brothers' previous puppet shorts), "Institute Benjamenta" is unpredictable and intriguing, if sometimes mystifying, and its characters are manipulated like those puppets.
   The Kafkaesque story of a man amidst absurd circumstances is based on "Jakob von Gunxen," a 1905 novel by Swiss writer Robert Waiser, who spent his final decades in a mental hospital. Not having much ambition, Jakob ("Angels and Insects'" Mark Rylance) enrolls in the Institute Benjamenta to train as a servant. His fellow students are robotic, dehumanized by a sadistic staff. Jakob becomes involved with the enigmatic Lisa Benjamenta ("Chariots of Fire's" Alice Krige), who runs the institute with her brother.
   Light and shadows combine for unusual and often perplexing images in the film, which was photographed in black and white. "Am I living in a fairy tale?" a character rightly asks. In one shot, Lisa is upside down, with a substance dripping from her mouth; in another, a face appears distorted through a goldfish bowl. The institute itself seems oddly influenced by nature; deer antlers hang on the walls and stag semen is exhibited, and one room's floor is covered with pine cones and needles. The Quay brothers sometimes seem to share Jakob's bewilderment, but there's enough imagination on display to keep audiences watching to see what will happen next.    Starring Mark Rylance, Alice Krige and Gottfried John. Directed by the Brothers Quay. Written by the Brothers Quay and Alan Passes. Produced by Keith Griffiths. A Zeitgeist release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 105 min.
Tags: Mark Rylance, Alice Krige, Gottfried John, Brothers Quay, adaptation, surrealism, Robert Waiser
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