Film review: Institute Benjamenta

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 26 1996 12:00 a.m. MST

Images and ideas intersect and collide, at times seemingly without reason, in "Institute Benjamenta," the first full-length project from British video directors and animators the Brothers Quay.

Perhaps no movie, outside of David Lynch's "Eraserhead," has had such a high "what the?" quotient, as the Quays' peculiar story-telling techniques make some of the works of Terry Gilliam ("Time Bandits," "Brazil") and Jeunet & Caro ("Delicatessen," "The City of Lost Children") seem positively lucid.

Of course, that being said, "Institute Benjamenta" has a dreamlike quality in its focus-changing photography that makes it mesmerizing at times. It's certainly not for all audiences, but those with a taste for the weird may be richly rewarded by the film, which resembles a moving painting or piece of art rather than cinema.

The Quays, who directed memorable music videos for Michael Penn, Peter Gabriel and Tool, have loosely adapted Robert Walser's poetic novella "Jakob Von Gun-ten," which isn't particularly heavy on traditional methods of story-telling itself.

As the film begins, Jakob (Mark Rylance) enrolls at the Institute Benjamenta, a run-down school for prospective butlers and household servants, in the hopes of turning his aimless life around.

But what he sees at the institute doesn't exactly inspire him. Its two teachers - Lisa Benjamenta ("Star Trek: First Contact's" Alice Krige) and her brother, Herr Ben-ja-menta (Gottfried John from "Golden-Eye") - give the students exercises and lessons designed to crush their spirits, in order to make them as subservient as possible.

Jakob not only resists the mind-numbing training, he also manages to awaken passions in the Ben-ja-mentas, who have become as lifeless as their students.

If the plot sounds simplistic, that's because it is little more than a skeletal frame, over which the Quays drape some truly bizarre fantasy sequences and some equally puzzling real-life action. For instance, in the film's funniest moment, the students are taught balance and courtesy with exercises that look like a cross between tai chi and ballroom dancing.

Besides the befuddling imagery, which at times includes thimbles, forks, deer horns and a fishbowl, the Quays keep things interesting by constantly keeping things either in sharp focus or completely out of focus. It also should be noted that their handling of a sexual encounter and a sexual fantasy is unlike anything you've seen before.

They're also helped by their cast, especially Rylance - who's properly standoffish - and Krige, who manages to convey an overwhelmingly aching loneliness.

"Institute Benjamenta" is not rated, but would probably receive an R for its discreet sex scene and fantasy, some brief glimpses of Krige's partially nude body and one profanity.