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BERLINALE 2013 Out of competition / Germany / Switzerland / Portugal

Jeremy Irons in pursuit of the White Rabbit in Night Train to Lisbon


- Bille August embeds one “mystery of Lisbon” into many others

Jeremy Irons in pursuit of the White Rabbit in Night Train to Lisbon

Danish director Bille August, twice winner of the Palme d'Or in Cannes and rewarded for two films in Berlin, comes back this year to the German capital, out of competition, to present the Germano-Swiss-Lusitanian coproduction Night Train to Lisbon [+see also:
making of
film profile
, whose plot unfurls like a series of train carriages, never stopping at stations.

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The title is nevertheless deceptive: the journey it announces happens in a flash and all the action takes place in Lisbon. The incipit is also misleading, with the solitary professor Raimund Gregorius (Jeremy Irons) preventing a young woman in a red coat from jumping off a bridge, only to see her a few moments later disappear without explanation. This enigmatic “White Rabbit” clad in scarlet, whom Gregorius will follow, has however left a Portuguese book behind, together with a train ticket for Lisbon, for immediate departure. Already, even more so than the distraught young woman, it is the book’s author, a certain Amadeu (Jack Huston), who begins to intrigue our guide, because the book, a sort of invitation to the voyage and the unexpected, represents what the professor has always wanted to write, and live.

There he is then, all of a sudden setting off for Portugal, out of the blue and without any luggage. When he arrives, while living an experience that resembles an Erasmus exchange (August in fact hired a troupe of stars of all nationalities for his fim, who express themselves in basic English with various Portuguese accents), he continues to follow the thread of several mysteries embedded within each other. Convinced that he has not lived so far and that life is governed by a series of accidents (like when he is pushed over and breaks his glasses), Raimund lets himself be borne along.

The first discovery he makes in Lisbon is that Amadeu died at the end of the dictatorship (which his sister, played by Charlotte Rampling, refuses to admit, without us really knowing why, as the plot moves on rapidly to something else). When the ophthalmologist (Martina Gedeck) whom Raimund goes to see turns out to be the niece of one of Amadeu’s old comrades, he discovers that the author, who was also a doctor, had joined the Resistance (albeit “out of guilt”, which naturally hides a new enigma). This information in turn cannot be fully understood without turning to Amadeu’s friendship with Jorge (played by August Diehl when he was younger, Bruno Ganz in the present), which itself seems to have taken a crucial turn because of a woman in the Resistance known as “the one who knew everything” (Lena Olin).

All in all, the purpose of Raimund’s investigation changes as it goes along and as each possible clue to the intrigue disappears to unveil another. And although this way of abandoning himself to so-called chance from one discovery to the next corresponds for the professor to his newly chosen life-style, we somewhat regret not having kept an eye on the young woman in red who had so skilfully triggered the entire journey . 

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(Translated from French)

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