Dir: Bent Hamer.Nor-US-Ger. 2005. 93mins.
Following the modest butreal arthouse success of Kitchen Stories (which premiered, in 2003, inDirector's Fortnight at Cannes), Norwegian auteur Bent Hamer is back with Factotum,a small but droll and, in its own way, quietly powerful film based on a novelby America's poete maudit, Charles Bukowski.
To this day little known tohis fellow countrymen, the hard-living Bukowski has always rated more highlywith Europeans, especially in France and Scandinavia, and the existence of thisadaptation bears witness to that ongoing admiration.
As such, this unremittingbut often funny portrait of the underbelly of American life and its cast offeckless screw-ups probably will have limited appeal for US arthouse audiencesbut should do much better in Europe.
Where Kitchen Storiesworked its tongue-in-check magic primarily through pregnant silences and itsmise-en-scene and camerawork, Factotum relies more on the laid-backhumour and working-class wisdom of Bukowski's words. A ne'er-do-well whopreferred drinking, whoring, and playing the horses to more 'honest'work (read: a middle class, respectable job in an office), Bukowski's is aworld of bars, race tracks, unemployment offices, and perennially lost jobs.
When he does finally manageto hold on to a job for more than a few days, he decides to quit when herealises that steady employment has affected his sex life, since he 'fuckedbetter as a bum.'
Interestingly, preciselybecause of his inability to stay employed for very long, this film containsmore truth about the world of real work than a hundred mainstream Americanfilms put together. When was the last time you saw the inside of a picklefactory, a bicycle parts distributor, or a brake shoe company'
Dillon plays Hank Chinaski,Bukowski's alter ego, and he brings just the right amount of purposefulstolidity and dead-pan humour to the role. Two of his series of women, withwhom he of course has exceptionally complicated relations, are played by Taylorand Tomei, with the former carrying off the acting honours, perhaps owingsimply to the greater richness of her role.
But anyone looking for aclearly-developed plot is bound to be disappointed by both the book and thefilm, which are structured more as a series of vignettes that gradually reveala character and a way of looking at life.
Nor do the laughs, frankly,come a mile a minute, and many scenes end with the mere positing of an absurdsituation, and let it go at that. This is clearly intentional, but won't be toeveryone's liking. Similarly, the jokey payoffs don't always fully pay off, butthey almost always manage to make us grudgingly smile at the very least.
The thematic core of thefilm only gradually reveals itself, when, by the end, the audience realises theferocity with which Chinaski, and by extension, Bukowski, hold on to theirdream to make it as a writer. Not for fame and fortune, of course, but for thesheer existential fulfilment of artistic self-expression.
It might seem a bit cornythese days, this romantic vision of the hard-drinking, lowlife writer whoovercomes all odds to achieve his goal, but it's heartfelt and affecting. AsHank says at the end of the film: "If you are going to try, go all the way. Aimfor perfect laughter, that's the only good fight there is."
Christine Kunewa Walker
John Christian Rosenlund
Eve Cauley Turner