It may have been out of their comfort zone, but the Quay Brothers’ first live action effort shows an alarmingly assured transition from the stop motion animation that had won them such acclaim previously. Not that a full reinvention was necessary: stylistically the film is no major departure from the dark and fantastical realms of the duo’s earlier work.
It begins with Jakob (a terrifically meek Mark Rylance) enrolling at the titular school for servants, run by siblings Gottfried John and Alice Krige, having ‘no high hopes of life’. What follows is a dreamlike hour and a half or so, as Jakob discovers and comes to terms with his new surroundings and with himself, delivered in set pieces full of symbolic imagery and with surrealist leanings – the Quays’ favoured stop-motion animation even makes a cameo.
The Institute, in which the entire film is set, is a strange place, where silently servile ‘students’ mime chores wordlessly and monotonously. Jakob does his best to surrender himself to this way of life but struggles, looking out of place among his peers and exploring the labyrinthine institute on his own and becoming involved with Alice Krige’s tragic matriarch.
Shot in black and white and using gorgeous sets that borrow from German expressionism, the visual appeal of Institute Benjamenta is immense, but the film’s atmosphere owes equally as much to the eerily minimal soundtrack. Dialogue is very sparse – the simple narrative doesn’t require much to be said and emphasis is given to sound effects – notably early on, for example, the creaking of Jakob’s stiff collar is amplified such that you can practically feel the protagonist’s discomfort yourself.
Institute Benjamenta is a major achievement in arthouse cinema and seems grossly undeserving of its relative obscurity, something that hopefully this DVD release will go towards remedying. The extras are generous and include a revealing ‘making of’ documentary.