.Wild Kingdoms

Keanu the ocelot, meet Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary 

A critic’s confession: I love movies about nature and wild animals. As kids, we were wowed by Walt Disney’s Yellowstone wildlife documentary, Bear Country (so, evidently, was Ernest Hemingway). Later on came Akira Kurosawa’s Siberian semi-doc, Dersu Uzala; the Yukon adventure, White Fang, with Ethan Hawke and Jed the dog against monstrous grizzlies; and both the “Wild Bill” Wellman-Clark Gable Call of the Wild and the 2020 Harrison Ford version of that Jack London tale.

Werner Herzog’s doc, Grizzly Man, was as scary for its screwy human subjects as it was for its vicious, unpredictable bears. And Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God gave us a new appreciation for Amazon forest monkeys. Almost anything involving untamed critters and inhospitable country was worth a look, even the sight of an Everglades gator deep-throating an entire deer.

And so Trevor Frost and Melissa Lesh’s new documentary, Wildcat, comes highly recommended, at least by association. We get up close and personal with Harry Turner, a young British Army veteran of the war in Afghanistan, who is working out his personal demons—he suffers from PTSD—by going deep into the Peruvian jungle and rescuing ocelots from the region’s environment-spoiling logging crews that keep the cats as pets. Joining Harry in his mission is Samantha Zwicker, a scientist and nature activist from Seattle. 

As jungle life demands, the two shack up together in a little hut with their main client, a baby ocelot named Keanu. Their considerable task is to train Keanu to be wild—that is, to hunt and kill his prey, and to eventually leave their care and rejoin the ways of the selva

No easy task—neither the rehabilitation of Keanu nor the mending of Harry’s psyche. The relationships have their ups and downs. Harry is apt to burst into tears, and Keanu can’t quite tear himself away from his playmate. But their scenes together are guaranteed to soothe the restless spirits in the audience. The doc is a triumph of observation, and thus recommended.

Seven thousand miles away from Peru and 144 years earlier, in writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s German-language historical drama, Corsage, we find ourselves in the private quarters of Empress Elisabeth of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the royal palace in Vienna. 

“Sisi,” as she is known to intimates (played by Luxembourg actor Vicky Krieps from Phantom Thread), is undergoing a bout of self-criticism on the occasion of her 40th birthday.  The archetypal bird in a gilded cage, Sisi keeps herself busy by taking cold baths, riding at the Lipizzaner stables, visiting the inmates at a mental institution and trying to help her husband, Emperor Franz Josef (Florian Teuchtmeister), deal with the empire’s restive subjects in Sarajevo. When she’s extremely bored, the empress is fond of “collapsing” into feigned unconsciousness before her startled companions. 

Corsage—the metaphorical title comes from the French term for the bodice of a garment, and thus by extension to the ties that bind our heroine—belongs to the style of European film dramas that seek to depict the lives of notorious monarchs as more tedious and devoid of meaning than we might expect. Austrian filmmaker Kreutzer pokes restrained fun at her characters by using anachronisms (for example, 20th-century pop songs like “As Tears Go By” performed by musicians in the palace) and inventing fictitious relationships, as in Sisi’s interaction with Louis le Prince, an early inventor of motion picture photography.

But the wit gets buried in the hushed, repressed atmosphere of the empress’ formal daily life. Long before Elisabeth has an anchor tattooed on her back in Italy and hurls herself from the prow of an ocean liner, even the most fascinated observer has come to the conclusion that she is terminally stifled. Corsage is neither humorous nor cruel enough to take the empress’ midlife crisis to the next level. Eventually, it quietly runs out of gas and is over.

Both films are playing theatrically.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition