strass (2001)

director: vincent lannoo

pierre lekeux, lionel bourget, carlo ferrante, helene ramet

There’s a theory that war films, especially those made during wartime, are basically revenge fantasies. A film like Vincent Lannoo’s Strass, while not a war film, is so obviously a revenge fantasy that one conspicuous credit missing from the closing titles is the name of the acting teacher who inspired Lannoo’s seething, concentrated hatred.

Strass is a Dogma film, part of the movement pioneered by Danish director Lars von Trier to strip away the stylistic excesses from modern film. The strict rules of Dogma - handheld cameras, available light, no overdubbed music score - make it appealing to independent filmmakers with tight budgets. Lannoo has cleverly structured his film as a mock documentary, supposedly being made for television, which neatly allows for digital video and a cast that acknowledges the intrusive camera.

The subject of the “mockumentary” is an acting academy in Brussels, and Pierre, a radical teacher whose “open door” methods will be familiar to theatre students everywhere, a boot camp of harassment, bullying, and psychological torture meant to strip away mannerism and inhibitions and inspire more “honest” performances. As played by Pierre Lekeux, Pierre is methodically revealed to be a lecherous, bitter egomaniac gradually going off the rails, a pathological liar addicted to raging tantrums and bedding his prettier students.

Pathetic as he is, Pierre is a master manipulator, dominating the academy through sheer belligerence, his success based mostly on one former student who went on to fame, and whose image his students are compelled to worship. When that student - a hairy, rude oaf - returns to Brussels to help deflect public criticism after the film crew opportunistically airs footage of Pierre attempting to rape a student, Pierre’s whole world starts to shear away into rubble.

It seems hard to believe that the camera crew would be allowed, even encouraged, to keep filming Pierre and the turmoil at the academy only if you’ve never spent time with the voracious personalities that populate theatre and film. Fed by anger and meanness, the film forges ahead through increasingly messy scenes until the end, a ritual humiliation of Pierre by his students and peers under - of all things - a solar eclipse, by which point Lannoo’s film has assumed on an air of fantastic, vindictive cruelty.