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Scorpion Releasing's best DVD yet is Volker Schlöndorff's 1991 Voyager (original title Homo Faber), an uncompromised adaptation of a novel by Max Frisch. A very personal film about a rootless man's sudden plunge into emotionalism, Voyager uses what some might consider rather obvious coincidences to explore the nature of regretfulness, and the inability to recover the past. Starring a subdued Sam Shepard and filmed with a literary detachment, the film positively glows thanks to the presence of 20 year-old Julie Delpy, who single-handedly gives the film the breath of life and the warmth of love. An overlooked commercial non-performer, Voyager is a very pleasurable experience.
It is 1957. Dry, rational Walter Faber (Sam Shepard) narrates part of his own story and is himself stunned by the crazy coincidences fate puts in his past. An engineer building a dam in Venezuela, Faber decides to break off with his girlfriend in New York by writing her a letter. Walter's ability to compartmentalize his love affairs is explained in a flashback to Germany in 1937. When his girlfriend Hannah (Barbara Sukowa of Fassbinder's Lola) became pregnant, Walter first suggested abortion, and then offered to marry her. Furious, Hannah instead marries their best friend Joachim (August Zirner).
Faber has no problem meeting women, including the stewardess on a Mexican airplane that is forced to crash-land near Tampico. While waiting for rescue, Faber discovers that fellow passenger Herbert Hencke (Dieter Kirchlechner) is Joachim's brother. As Faber has never found out what became of Joachim and Hannah, he accompanies Herbert to Joachim's tobacco plantation.
Later, Walter literally ditches his New York girlfriend in the middle of a lobster dinner and hops a boat to Paris. On board he meets a charming, radiant girl that breaks through his defenses and prejudices about women and relationships. She's Elizabeth (Julie Delpy), who Faber "renames" as Sabeth. Faber at first takes a paternal attitude when Sabeth announces her intention to hitchhike to Italy before joining her mother in Athens. By the time they begin the trip, Faber has already proposed marriage.
Despite its personal mysteries and globe-hopping sense of adventure, Voyager is structured as a novel, not a movie thriller. Walter Faber is an ordinary man with strengths and weaknesses, and a very un-heroic cynicism in regard to relationships. The movie also doesn't pretend that all of its mysteries are going to be explained. The suspicious, rather horrible death of one character must be accepted for what it is: nobody feels compelled to dig into what exactly happened. The narrative also sees little need to find conventional closure for the characters left at the finale. The focus is on the Walter Faber character.
Walter Faber jumps across the globe building dams and addressing conferences, but the center of Voyager is his rebirth as a romantic believer. In this the film is 100% successful, despite the limited performing range of Sam Shepard. Faber is a quiet man who retreats into silence when his emotions are challenged; only when he's been drinking does he feel the need to respond to other people's opinions. His fellow boat passengers find him attractive but anti-social.
Sabeth is traveling in the company of a boyfriend, who remarks on her independent nature. Intrigued by Faber's disinterest in the world of art, Sabeth starts spending more time with him. Walter is fascinated by Sabeth's almost ethereal connection to life; her behavior goes beyond the innocence of youth to express a deeper understanding. Delpy's performance is captivating in the extreme. The actresses's refreshing turns in the much better known Before Sunrise and Before Sunset movies seem calculated in comparison. Voyager is an older man's story about memories of youthful love, and this Sabeth/Julie Delpy creation brings those 'first girlfriend' memories back fresh and strong. We even forgive the novelistic conclusion, that reminds us that this is a tale of regret as experienced by a lonely man, who thought he didn't need people but suddenly cannot do without "that special person". Since we have experienced the joy of Sabeth as well, we fully understand Walter Faber's emotionally paralyzed condition.
Volker Schlöndorff is the least predictable and most international of the "new" German directors of his day. Working with the author and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer (Two-Lane Blacktop), Schlöndorff does a fine job of creating a 1957 ambience without Hollywood trappings -- no hundreds of extras, no matte paintings. The production helped revive an extinct Constellation "Connie" prop airliner for the movie, and staged an impressive desert crash without special effects. Glimpses of New York streets give an impression of late-50s cars, and a few costumes do the rest. Walter Faber seems to spend his life waiting around in airline terminals, at a time when people dressed up to fly. Shooting in Mexico, New York, Italy, Greece and points between give the movie a proper "road" feel. The only time we feel slightly cheated for realism is when Faber apparently checks onto a Paris-bound boat on a whim. We don't see him return home to deal with his girlfriend first, but he somehow has his full traveling gear with him when the boat debarks.
Scorpion Entertainment's DVD of Voyager is presented in a fine enhanced and progressive scan transfer, with excellent color. It was approved by the director. The on-screen title is Homo Faber.
The care afforded the transfer carries over to the extras. Volker Schlöndorff, Julie Delpy and Rudy Wurlitzer appear in separate interviews. The actress and screenwriter mostly discuss the specifics of their involvement (Ms. Delpy was cast in an open call), whereas the director covers a number of interesting subjects. A skilled raconteur, Schlöndorff recalls the career slump that led him to Voyager, his working relationship with the author, and the help given by actor Sam Shepard, who rewrote scenes to minimize his own dialogue. The 26-minute featurette touches upon the director's personal philosophy, and the relationship of his work to his private life. He undertook Voyager at an emoitonal low point in his life, and the film shows it. 1
Also included are a trailer, an alternate Voyager title sequence and a number of deleted scene snippets, unfortunately with German dialogue only.
Voyager is the kind of DVD release that depends on viewer word-of-mouth, and it pleases me to recommend it enthusiastically. To those wary of films that don't follow the usual narrative conventions, I can heartily endorse it just to enjoy the performance of Julie Delpy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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