I’m grateful to my Movie Analyst gig for having gotten the chance to discover Austrian filmmaker Barbara Albert; it’s hardly a black mark against a director if the worst thing you can say about her work is that it suffers from too many ideas vying for space in each film.
You could fault Albert’s Free Radicals for having a character stand up, early in the movie, and basically explicate the theme: High school physics teacher Lukas (Rupert Lehofer) lectures to his uninterested class about “chaotic symmetries,” and how order and chaos exist side by side, or rather, within the midst of seeming chaos there exist patterns and recurrences, a barely perceptible structure.
Left unspoken, but perhaps it hardly needs to be said, is that an enterprising filmmaker will take it upon herself to illuminate some of those invisible patterns, using individuals to stand in for a larger community, in this case a provincial Austrian town, which is in turn a microcosm of universal fears and desires.
Free Radicals offers so many characters and subplots that the initially overwhelmed viewer may be glad for that physics teacher’s assurances that there is a cohesive structure underlying all this. The opening scenes mislead the viewer into thinking that it’s Lukas’ sister Manu (Kathrin Resetarits) who will be the movie’s heroine. It’s through her that we meet the movie’s crowded cast of characters, which includes her best friend Andi (Ursula Strauss) and Manu’s husband Andreas (Georg Friedrich), the uptight manager of the town’s new multiplex. The movie theater is part of a new mall under construction on the outskirts of town, and the mall might be the movie’s true lead character. Free Radicals is structured by establishing shots of the mall at the beginning of each season: the same camera setup four times, as the weather changes and the mall comes to dominate the landscape.
We follow the lives of the townspeople over the course of a year, and late in the film most of the characters attend the mall’s opening celebration, timed for Christmas. The recurring shots of the mall give the viewer plenty of time to note the conspicuous yellow banner heralding the construction: “WE MAKE YOU HAPPY.” Over the course of the movie, that statement will come to seem both, wouldn’t you know it, ironic (these people are anything but happy), but also true. Albert wants to show us, not without sympathy, how consumer culture permeates these people’s lives, almost filling the role of a belief system that no one remarks upon. Albert’s camera will seek out those troubled souls who can’t find fulfillment through consumerism, sex, organized religion or anything else.
The handful of characters mentioned above doesn’t begin to describe the film’s Robert Altman–like sprawl and density. The overgrown thicket of narratives is the main flaw of Free Radicals, and it’s why a movie that is absorbing in its first hour threatens to become exhausting in its second. Had Albert snipped out some extraneous back stories and subplots, a version of the film that ran 90 or 100 minutes might communicate her concerns much more forcefully, whereas at two hours Free Radicals begs the question of how much pathos an audience can endure.
What links all the characters’ stories is a sense of disorder — lives thrown off balance, an entire community struggling to cope with sudden deaths, aching loneliness and emotional paralysis. People will break off affairs, or be rebuffed when they try to initiate them. Even a suicide attempt will go wrong, leaving the despondent woman an amputee.
There is a hole in these peoples’ lives that nothing can fill — and worse, they have to cope with their existential crises in the midst of man-made non-places, chain stores, franchises and prefab environments that have no character, no history and no soul. (And you’d best believe that this movie takes the notion of soul seriously.) The characters are never allowed to play out their personal dramas in any kind of privileged ‘cinematic’ setting. In scene after scene, advertising slogans, TV screens and lingerie mannequins populate the backgrounds.
Most of all, there is pop music, playing everywhere (always sourced within the scene), some of it catchy, much of it inane beyond belief. This is a world mediated by kitsch. It’s no wonder that when kindergarten teacher Andi is about to break down near the end of the film, she escapes by driving into the mountains and lying down in a field of snow, the all-enveloping whiteness a blessed void.
What’s refreshing about Albert’s work is that while the characters might live in an all too recognizable world of tacky shit, it doesn’t define them. The director is not encouraging us to sneer at people for eating at McDonalds, for attending the mall’s big Christmastime opening, or for whooping it up at a dance club where no one qualifies as remotely hip. If anything, Albert would seem to most fully sympathize with Manu and Andi when they set out to raise hell at the discotheque. An interlude where the two women lustily sing along to a hit from their adolescence — A-Ha’s “Take on Me” — on the car radio is a rare moment of grace in the film.
The film is interlaced with ambiguous, vaguely New Age ideas about interconnection. But Albert also sets up a more earthbound, almost schematic web of recurrences to point up how linked these people are, even if they don’t know it. The use of parallels and echoes is a staple of films in the “intersecting lives” genre: think of Kieslowski’s Decalogue or Three Colors trilogy, or Alejandro González Inárritu’s Babel, for starters. As a storytelling device it can easily get too cute, or even suffocate a narrative with endless self-references. Albert makes her parallels so explicit that the notion of eternal recurrence isn’t even a subtext.
I admire the intellectual gamesmanship at work in the director’s layers of connections and motifs, even if Free Radicals starts to feel overdetermined at times, the filmmaker prodding these poor provincial Bürger through a maze that’s all sharp angles. When I watched the movie a second time, a single offhand line registered more poignantly than all the clever hypertextuality. When Manu is about to leave the dance club, the one apparent nice guy there asks her, “Will I see you again?” Manu replies, “I don’t know” — and heads out on the drive home, where she will die in a car crash. You never do know, do you.