A peculiar meditation on the nature of war that feels as if it was extrapolated from some high-minded novel, when in fact the story is an original creation by director Arturo Ripstein and his collaborators, Foxtrot explores the fanciful idea of a super-wealthy aristocrat fleeing civilization during a time of impending military conflict, only to realize that the seeds of war are buried so deeply within humankind that isolation is no protection. (Note the film’s alternate titles, The Far Side of Paradise and The Other Side of Paradise.) From a sociopolitical perspective, there’s some fascinating stuff to explore here. Unfortunately, the concepts don’t quite translate to full-blooded drama, a problem that’s compounded by the stilted performances of the film’s three leading actors. Furthermore, even though Foxtrot feels, looks, and sounds like a sophisticated intellectual exercise, it suffers from an excess of narrative contrivances, and Ripstein’s thematic ambitions often result in pretentiousness. Accordingly, the movie is frustrating and uneven, though basically worthwhile.
Set in the early days of World War II, the picture concerns Count Liviu (Peter O’Toole), a European of considerable means. Traveling by yacht along with his elegantly beautiful wife, Julia (Charlotte Rampling), Liviu reaches a remote tropical island that he has purchased as a refuge. Waiting on the island is Liviu’s best friend, Larsen (Max von Sydow), who has established a camp replete with luxurious appointments and servants. For a brief while, the group enjoys a decadent idyll, but then a boatful of obnoxious Europeans drifts by the island, joins Liviu’s group for a dance party that becomes an orgy, and embarks on a “hunting trip” during which every animal on the island is pointlessly slaughtered. Once the visitors leave, additional problems ranging from jealousy to plague endanger Liviu’s scheme.
The movie’s narrative is consistently interesting, even though very little of it rings true, and the technical execution of the picture is quite polished. Yet Foxtrot gets stuck in a groove because of tone. O’Toole and Rampling both underplay their roles, incarnating repression to a fault, while Von Sydow tries to make the dubious rhythms of his character’s arc feel authentic. By the time Ripstein concludes the movie with a heavy-handed juxtaposition of beauty and violence, it’s clear his literary aspirations have gotten the best of him. Nonetheless, the picture boasts several beguiling moments, particularly Rampling’s final scene, and it’s ultimately a unique piece of work.