Bagdad Cafe (1987, Percy Adlon)


It probably qualifies as one of the oddest confessions in the annals of this blog when I tell you that I wanted to see this briefly celebrated, surreal German comedy for years, mostly because Tom Servo recommended it during one of MST3K’s customary rants about Leonard Maltin. (In this case, Maltin’s crime was bestowing this film with the dreaded “two and a half stars.”) Initially, it seems as if curiosity is to be left hanging in an opening sequence that’s alternately alienating and forcefully sentimental. Soon enough, however, Percy Adlon’s portrait of a small town and its people successfully fuses the good-hearted humanism of Jonathan Demme with some outright Lynchian weirdness that generally (though not always) seems warranted and effective.

Despite being shot and set in California, you can tell Bagdad Cafe isn’t an American (or at least Hollywood) film within a couple of minutes: the two lead characters are a large-bodied middle-aged German woman (Marianne Sägebrecht, whose very non-“classical” beauty is justly celebrated here) and a perpetually frustrated African-American lady (CCH Pounder, absolutely brilliant) who is the patriarch of her family and the boss of her business (!!). Pounder is typically shunted aside in supporting roles, so while I always liked her in oddball encounters like ER and the marvelously idiotic telefilm Psycho IV, I never realized how enormously good she could be — and isn’t that the whole story with black actors in the U.S.? She has maybe the best walk in all of cinema, at least since Charles Laughton, and her choreographed circles around Adlon’s camera are breathtakingly intense.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on how tourist Jasmin gradually helps to transform Brenda’s gas station, cafe and hotel after she stumbles upon it and, crucially, after both women have left their husbands. But the increasingly improbable and often unnervingly “cute” story won’t distract you too much from what’s really going on here, which is an incisive, sweet and funny portrait of people who come to form a perverse extended family. It’s one of the few unmitigated portraits of achievable happiness and contentment in movies; “too much harmony,” indeed.

There isn’t as much dimension to the individual personalities — which include a genuinely hilarious Jack Palace as a flirty painter, a tattoo artist and sex worker played by Christine Kaufmann, and Brenda’s own disobedient teenagers, Phyllis and Salomo — than on the progression of their relationships as their mutual trust increases. Eleonore and Percy Adlon’s script is perceptive of both the mechanics of small-town relationships and, more subtly, of the way that friendships evolve (especially between women). It’s little wonder that the film was subsequently the basis for a TV show (albeit unsuccessfully); it establishes a vivid enough world to go on for much longer, though it’s pleasing that it doesn’t.

I don’t know much about Percy Adlon but his movie fits nicely with the explosion of West German cinema in the ’80s; his film is clearly influenced by Wim Wenders, which is not at all a debit. As Akira Kurosawa, a champion of the film, would later point out, Adlon’s use of color is extraordinarily sumptuous, making the film visually stunning considering that he never leaves a very small space near Barstow. The beauty of all of it, the eye-popping angles and the consistently wonderful actors help us ignore the overuse of shoehorned literary metaphors (a constant motif of a spinning boomerang) and the absolutely terrible music score; Darron Flagg, as Brenda’s son, spends much of the film playing Bach on his piano and that should have sufficed.

The film doesn’t reach into directions that aren’t somewhat expected. Jasmin gains Brenda’s trust at roughly the same speed she gains ours, and her exotic magic, probably a coy remark of sorts on the one-sidedness of American culture, infuses and enriches her surroundings enough to bring color and life back into a desert landscape. When she leaves, it feels as if there’s nothing left. But people don’t just realize they love her, they realize they need one another. All the while, business about a coffee machine and a delightfully gradual series of increasingly sexy paintings of Jasmin could descend into sheer quirk — but it’s more like what she describes herself: “magic” — that is, a magic of joy and validation. Adlon’s best achievement here is effectively combining his achingly real empathy for his characters with a wildly playful cinematic oddity; it’s all so weird, and yet so not. I’m very glad I found this movie.

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