Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) Review

Often compared to both ‘The Office’ and ‘Lost In Translation’, Alain Corneau’s film is a wonderful blend of office politics and cultural differences. Sylvie Testud stars as a Belgian interpreter who tries to adapt to the working methods of a large Japanese multinational company.

Fear and Trembling (Stupeur et Tremblements) is based on Belgian author Amélie Nothomb’s autobiographical novel of the same name based on her experiences of learning to cope as a westerner working in Japan. The novel was a huge bestseller in France and Alain Corneau’s adaptation for the screen, starring the rising talent of Sylvie Testud, has enjoyed similar success, which isn’t at all surprising as it capitalised on the very same elements that made the book a success.

Amélie was born in Japan, but moved back home to Belgium with her parents when she was 5 years old. Missing the country where she was born, she is determined to return and make a living there, bringing her interpreter skills to Tokyo where she has been able to gain a one-year contract with the huge multinational Yumimoto Company. Amélie’s bosses however are not sure how to deal with her – some find a westerner speaking fluent Japanese intimidating while other’s regard her lack of manners and her disrespect for office protocol as either insolence or stupidity. Amélie however is determined to not admit defeat and seeks to learn from her mistakes from her immediate superior – the beautiful Fubuki Mori (Kaori Tsuji) – who appears to be sympathetic to her situation. However Amélie soon finds she has a lot to learn about attitudes and friendships between colleagues as well as the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes towards work and the office place.

Comparisons have been made to both Lost In Translation and The Office and the film does indeed lie somewhere in-between. Its insight into the differences between Eastern and Western attitudes is however refreshingly more advanced than the lazy xenophobia of Lost In Translation. Comparisons to The Office are misleading, but also valid. Filmed on Digital Video in a studio office-set, the film does have a similar documentary look and feel, if not the same sense of humour and broad satire – although it is certainly quite often very funny in its observations and situations. But just as The Office, by examining the little details of how an office functions, functioned as a microcosm for attitudes that persist in the British workplace – the deceit of office-speak, the petty self-delusions of grandeur that come with adherence to the American business model that persists in British workplace, Fear and Trembling also attempts to present a microcosm of Japanese society and the culture of obeisance and honour. And this is where Fear and Trembling, while making some very insightful observations about the character and power politics of the Japanese workplace, somewhat overstretches its ambition, hoping – by examining it from the point of view of an outsider – to apply these observations to a whole culture.

As an adaptation of a book, Fear and Trembling is a wonderfully entertaining little film that manages, through a predominately narrative-driven adaptation spoken by Sylvie Testud, to capture all the finer points and observations that are normally difficult to achieve in filming a first-person narrative. The lyrical descriptiveness of Nothomb’s book is well preserved and works to a large degree because the tone is not lofty or pretentious, but fluid and insightful, capturing the cadences and lyricism of the Japanese language itself. Amélie describes her superior Fubuki Mori in detail, drawing in allusions to her background and her name, which means ‘Snowstorm Forest’ to contribute to a stronger picture of her character beyond her external appearance and manners. The film is most successful when it makes such leaps beyond the surface and into the mental states of the characters, whether it is in Amélie’s own thought processes as she travels through boredom into a Zen trance-like state in the repetition of the mundane tasks she has been given, through to her imaginary leaps and flight out of the office window; or in her changing perceptions of the Japanese people and their attitudes – getting past the western viewpoint and trying to see it from a different perspective.

Unfortunately, keeping the wonderful breezy first-person narrative of the book is to the detriment of the filmmaking process and Fear and Trembling often looks more like one of those filmed excerpts Newsnight Review and other TV book review programmes created for a reading from a new novel. Despite a great performance by Sylvie Testud (who learned to speak Japanese in preparation for the role), which deservedly won her a César for Best Actress in 2003, the film remains restricted by her monologue, leaving no room for ambiguity or interpretation by the viewer. You are told what the characters are doing, you are told what they look like (even though you can see it for yourself), and you are told what to think about their actions and behaviour. Even more alarmingly the film in one fascinating scene draws a comparison between its pitting of East vs. West with that of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence – even going so far as including an extended excerpt from the film itself. Mori retorts that Amélie is no David Bowie, but the same could be said of Nothomb, who is no Laurens Van Der Post and Corneau, who is no Nagisa Oshima. It’s a mark of this film’s overreaching ambition that it not only tries to reductively package its characters and their differences into easily explainable types, it also tries to do it with Oshima’s film, which offered no such comforting answers or understandings between its characters.

Despite this, Fear and Trembling still has much to enjoy, and does make some interesting observations, examining both Eastern and Western attitudes and personal ambitions within the workplace and exposing the flaws on both sides and the incompatibility of those ideals, but not finding one lifestyle superior to the other. It sees the flaws in ambition, unwarranted self-confidence, in respect for authority and in defiance of it, in excessive politeness and informality, in over-seriousness and with insincerity. All this however is in Nothomb’s book and you might as well read that, since the film offers little more than being a straight transposition of the text onto the screen.

DVDFear and Trembling is released on DVD in the UK by Cinefile. The disc is Region 2 encoded.

VideoThe picture quality on this release is certainly impressive. The film was shot on HD-Cam Digital Video and the DVD exhibits the same perfections and flaws that come with this format. The image is remarkably stable, sharp and clear with not a flicker on the screen. There are no marks, no scratches, no dustspots to be seen anywhere. On the other hand, colours aren’t completely natural, lack fine detail and blacks are also a little bit flat in interior shots (most of the film). The studio-based nature of the production is much more evident on DV, and the film never has the same warmth or lustre of 35mm and it takes a few minutes to get used to. The only real flaws here are a little bit of blurring on movement and some slight colour-bleed on edges that have bright backgrounds. Otherwise, this is an impressive picture and the transfer copes with it well, with no sign of any digital artefacts.

AudioThe audio copes well for the most part – certainly on the elegant Bach ‘Goldberg Variations’ soundtrack – and is mostly clear on the normal demands of the narrative voice-over and dialogue, but it is a little harsh and echoing in places and even crackles on the deeper registers.

SubtitlesSubtitles are optional and stand-out clearly in a good-sized font. While I don’t speak Japanese they appear, like the French narrative sections, to translate the film exceptionally well with a good feel for the tone and lyrical qualities of the original.

ExtrasThere is not a great deal of interest in the extra features – a Photo Gallery shows 14 stills taken directly from the film, the Filmographies provide a lot of interesting information on Corneau, including an in-depth look at a number of his films, while there is just a brief filmography for Testud.

OverallDespite being a little too reductive in attempting to provide a wide and all-knowing look at Japanese attitudes and behaviour, Fear and Trembling is nonetheless an intelligent film that has some fascinating and funny character observations and an intriguing insight into the Japanese work ethic. Director Alain Corneau has done well in bringing it to the screen with good performances and strong characters. The film is certainly deserving of a wider attention than it has received so far in the UK. Cinefile’s mainly barebones DVD release at least offers an excellent anamorphic transfer of the film with optional subtitles.


Updated: Apr 21, 2005

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