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4.6 out of 5 stars
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VINE VOICEon 29 May 2010
"Institute Benjamenta : or This Dream People Call Human Life" is unlike anything you'll have ever seen. Unless you watch Lynch's "Eraserhead" every time it rains on a Saturday afternoon like myself, that is. Brother's Stephen and Timothy Quay are better known for their amazingly disturbing and surreal animations, but with this and their later feature, "The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes", they entered the world of live-action film and yet somehow managed to embed them with the feel and look of their unique animations to boot.

The plot involves a young man called Jakob who arrives at the eponymous institute to study servitude under the brother-sister team of Johannes and Lisa Benjamenta. Enduring never-ending and ludicrous lessons about such things as drawing circles endlessly (makes you a better servant, apparently) Jakob and Lisa (played by the criminally under-used Alice Krige) seem drawn to eachother, but whether the attraction is unrequited is unclear. As Lisa becomes Catatonic as the winter draws in, it seems that it's Jakobs presence and actions are the cause, but the reasons for this have to worked out.... But all this is moot really, as the Quay Brothers aren't interested in anything as trifling as plot - rather the visuals, the surreal dreamlike interludes, the black-and-white photography are what they concentrate on as they do within their animation. And like the aforementioned "Eraserhead" it does indeed mess with your head on a grand scale, so the Brothers can rest assured their goals were met. However, don't watch this movie with a purpose of ferreting out meaning within it's symbolism, as this isn't a puzzle. It's all perfectly spread before you, but like many things of such grand scale, it's sheer size can frighten you.

Praise be to the BFI, once again they've released a beautiful package of a feature, and with their new "dual format" discs you're getting both Blu-Ray and DVD, so if like so many others you haven't gone hi-def yet, you've been well-and-truly futureproofed. Extras are also glorious; a new documentary commissioned by the BFI ("Inside the Institute"), three Quay Brothers shorts, a booklet contaiting comprehensive essays regarding the film.... All for such a small price natch. One thing though, BFI... The sticker on the top of the case that trumpets it's "Dual-Format" nature... why won't it just peel off without leaving a sticky/papery mess? So small a quibble, but YOU try having OCD.
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on 7 October 2010
As we know publications such as 'The New York Review of Books' invite the well known to pick their book of the year. Several years ago (and it may have been 'The Times Literary Supplement'!)the poet John Ashbery was one of the 'well known'. I cannot remember the book he recommended, but at the end of his piece he strayed a little to remark upon and praise a film he had seen that year, 'Institute Benjamenta'. I respected Ashbery's poetry and opinions; so I had a look. And I've had a number of looks since. It was my introduction to the Brothers Quay. Remarkable. My original copy was a VHS. The DVD gives it a degree of permanence - plus a documentary on the making of the film - plus a discussion with the Brothers Quay (plus some of their short films). Very good. I can't remember the words John Ashbery used to recommend 'Institute Benjamenta':it does not matter. This film is simply extraordinary. Watch it!
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on 15 April 2012
Literary sensibilites that arose from viewing/witnessing this artisans masterwork...Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, because this film is based on Robert Walser, & the dream/real poetry/prose of the whole piece felt so similar in tone & a microcosmic/macrocosmic abstraction and emotional obfuscation that i simply sat slack-jawed as i watched.
Other authors who wandered through the mind were of course Kafka, Meyrink or even Grabinski.

Filmic memories that arose were: Dreyer's 'Vampyr', which has the similar twilight sensation of faerytale threaded with precise shadow & light play (and play is exactly the Quay's methodology), touching upon Murnau's 'Sunrise', and a sense i felt watching 'Phantom Carriage' by Sjostrom; pertinent also would be the world of Has, namely 'Saragossa Manuscript', 'Hourglass Sanatorium', in the persistent filling of the frame with surreal interest & ferment!

Personally, as i am very much a photographer, the macro/close-ups & use of monochrome is a sheer delight to see focused and refocused, the focus-puller should have had a field day..ho ho.

But, as ever, cast aside the mere intellect and memory keys, and the film eagerly struck a chord, which it maintained throughout, art and artifice, the superlative acting skills, the precision of effects, all amass to an 'Outsiders' metaphysical, existential theatre.

A very deft, subtle use of eccentric literature, artisans attention to occultic elemental detail and an eye for the depths inherent in inanimate objects.. Any praise i heap upon this work of 'pure' cinema (that does sound pretentious but its harkening back to silent cinema and innocent clarity), would be faint praise indeed...

In short, lets be slightly vulgar, one either embraces eccentricity in artforms or shuns it as one would a plague carrier. Couple my enthusiasm with decent sized insightful booklet, useful thought provoking features and it is only now that i realize that i have waxed lyrical and nostalgic about a simple, monochrome flickering riddle. A come-down indeed into the real world, imposing order on this exquisite participation mystique.
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VINE VOICEon 19 February 2011
Robert Walser,the inspiration for Institute Benjaminta,stated "I can breathe only in the lowest regions"and saves himself from fear or the struggle for existence by changing himself into something subservient and small.He also escapes(as he did in the last 26 years of his life)into the madhouse.His characters often inhabit a twilightworld. The Quay twins, famous for their use of puppets,inanimate objects,have used living actors and shot a full length film,telling a story based on Walser's novel Jakob vonGunten.High on atmosphere,avoiding dialogue and linear narrative, utilising stirring,symbolic imagery,they create a visual poem borne along by music,which shapes the trajectory of the scenes,improvised by scenes where the servants train,or simply sway like trees,galvanised by the movement of dance.The lessons are exercises in mindless repetition and subservience.The aspiration to become a `plump zero' seems to be brainwashed into them like a zen koan.

Jakob(Rylance)is a kind of holy fool,seeing salvation in downward mobility,he applies to the Institute to train as a servant for rich people:"I have no high hopes of life."Although he is subversive,cheeky, insolent,questioning all the time(his speech inserts are based on journal entries),he is determined to become an obedient servant. He is inspected on admission like a stag,teeth,ears,eyes,hair by Johannes,the master. The Institute is heavy with symbolism," perhaps there is some hidden meaning to all these nothings";Lisa(Alice Krige) is the sickly,beautiful teacher who is seen as Snow White,waiting to be woken from slumber;there is stag imagery combining sex and death; we float between sleep and wakefulness in an `in-between world';Jakob is the Princeling character; Johannes(Gottfried John)is the Ogre;the students are the 7 dwarfs; Johannes hints that Jesus was in their midst;there is the idea of the god who must be killed to bring new life;Jakob voices the idea of flowering through decay,death like a blossom.The film is closer to a dance performance,without the grittiness of dramatic momentum.Does life break through this fairy-tale world?

Lisa is strangely stirred by Jakob.She provides him with his own room and also takes him on an Orphic journey downstairs into the inner sanctum.A scene full of ice foretells of death where their future lies.He is blindfolded and she allows him warmth in an erotic moment,this is capped by a stream of water pouring out of her upturned mouth.Johannes is also drawn to confide in Jakob and treats him as an equal.Jakob's presence brings death to Lisa and the dissolution of the Institute.Jakob is seen out in the snow in a strangely liberating scene with Johannes, who seems to have been set free.We need to remember that Walser himself died in the snow while in the asylum.The cinematography(Nick Knowland)is precise as to depth of field or degree of diffusion of the image,using glass in front of the lense,we get gauzy light,shadowy outlines,an Hour of the Wolf-suspension of light.Sound is hermetic, lack of acoustic,dead atmosphere,dryness,brittleness and fragility. The music makes room for the articulation of images.We never know Jakob's motives,hidden by slapstick delight.This film will take several viewings to get its full import.More easily enjoyed in hindsight,at times dramatically sluggish." To live is what matters" said Walser.This film depicts a brilliant writer's dream world.Superb extras and booklet.
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on 9 May 2000
If you appreciate films with a strong sense of atmosphere that builds up through the interplay of light and shadow and movement of bodies in space, you will enjoy this film. Brother's Quay background in animation is evident in their treatment of human form. The theme of alienation is conveyed with outmost sensitivity. Surreal, inspiring!
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on 16 November 2012
Read the reviews before I bought this so I knew it would be a bit different. Certainly is!
I have always liked weird stuff and this is just like those old German Cinema efforts (Nosferatu etc). I suspect that's why it's done with German accents. Works well, haven't got a clue what it's all about but who cares.
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on 20 January 2006
Enter “Institute Benjamenta” is entering a world that is almost… other worldy. Strange maybe, but it’s a world created by the twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay who are known for their claustrophobic animated shorts which are little dreamlike environments, filled with wood, iron, feathers, shattered glass and worn-out, strange little moving puppet things. Now there is their first live action feature and the Quays have menaged to keep the dark brooding atmosphere that was so deliciously present in their early works.
The Institute is a school for butlers, but expect no standard training procedures. It feels more like some ‘last resort on earth’, a school in whuch lessons are repeated to infinity and makes the students move and look like marionets. There is no real story here, in the minds of the Quay brothers that concept probably doesn’t even seem to exist. It’s a series of tableaus in which not action or dialogue but movement is the main treat; there is the motion of the actors, who are sometimes directed to make seemingly unreasonable moves, and there is the perfect colaboration between lights, camera and editing. It’s a ballet, a theatre of motion, and the spoken dialogue is more part of the music than of the pot.
The decors are incredibly detailed: pictures, gestures, objects, nothing escapes the eye of the filmmakers, who seem to operate even more as one single person, than most single movie directs do. The result is a stunningly and hypnotic film, shot in velvet black and white, slow and wicked, some times too slow and wicked, but rewarding for those who can wait.
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on 23 June 2010
IB never looked better, and the remastered soundtrack is simply sunning. Five stars for the Quay's, and the BFI.
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on 19 January 2006
Enter “Institute Benjamenta” is entering a world that is almost… other worldy. Strange maybe, but it’s a world created by the twin brothers Stephen and Timothy Quay who are known for their claustrophobic animated shorts which are little dreamlike environments, filled with wood, iron, feathers, shattered glass and worn-out, strange little moving puppet things. Now there is their first live action feature and the Quays have menaged to keep the dark brooding atmosphere that was so deliciously present in their early works.
The Institute is a school for butlers, but expect no standard training procedures. It feels more like some ‘last resort on earth’, a school in whuch lessons are repeated to infinity and makes the students move and look like marionets. There is no real story here, in the minds of the Quay brothers that concept probably doesn’t even seem to exist. It’s a series of tableaus in which not action or dialogue but movement is the main treat; there is the motion of the actors, who are sometimes directed to make seemingly unreasonable moves, and there is the perfect colaboration between lights, camera and editing. It’s a ballet, a theatre of motion, and the spoken dialogue is more part of the music than of the pot.
The decors are incredibly detailed: pictures, gestures, objects, nothing escapes the eye of the filmmakers, who seem to operate even more as one single person, than most single movie directs do. The result is a stunningly and hypnotic film, shot in velvet black and white, slow and wicked, some times too slow and wicked, but rewarding for those who can wait.
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on 23 January 2007
Of all the films I've ever seen, this is close to being the one that most completely blew me away.

I first saw it in my local cinema, and after an initial period of uncertainty as to how good it was going to be, or what *kind* of film it was, I found myself completely mesmerised. There is so much going on beneath the surface here - or perhaps it was going on beneath my surface, and the filmmakers managed somehow to open it up for me, or clean the windows looking onto it. Whatever the inner process was, it was an experience of real depth and beauty - albeit at times a rather disturbing one.

It's very hard to write a review of Institute Benjamenta, because to describe the plot, or try and place it in some context of style is pretty much useless. It won't describe the experience at all. You have to see it. It's one of those rare things that you'd like to give a sixth star to, because it just seems to go beyond the normal boundaries you expect from a film.

I can't critique it or classify it or tell you how & why it's special - I can only try and convey my enthusiasm, and say an anonymous thanks to the people who made it.
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