The aim of this paper is to provide a comparative analysis of the films Mostly Martha (2001) and No Reservations (2007) by trying to explain the reason for the director’s choices, their influence on the intended message and their foundation on the cultural paradigms of the German and American society. The plot and the alterations that were made in the remake will be discussed and how these changes determined the efficacy of the film to obtain a cathartic action to its intended audience.
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Mostly Martha is a 2001 German romantic comedy drama, filmed in Hamburg, Germany and Italy, written and directed by Sandra Nettlebeck, starring Martina Gedeck as Martha, Sergio Castellito as Mario and Maxime Foerste as Lina. No Reservations is the 2007 American remake of Mostly Martha directed by Scott Hicks and starring Catherine Zeta Jones as Kate, Aaron Eckhart as Nick and Abigail Breslin as Zoe. In brief, the plot of the two films is similar, with No Reservations having adapted the screenplay of Mostly Martha almost to its entirety. The story follows the life of the character of Martha/Kate who is a master chef at a busy restaurant, completely consumed by her work such that she often lacks time to have interactions and form relations outside of work. Her rigid nature and her incapacity to allow other people to enter her inner circle leads her to express her emotions through her cooking and live her life solely from the confines of the kitchen. Her solitude is threatened when her sister dies in a car crash and she has to take on the responsibility of raising her daughter Lina/Zoe, a role she is unprepared and unequipped to take up. Her life is complicated further when her boss hires Mario/Nick as sous-chef. Mario is depicted as fun loving, unorthodox and much of a clown while Nick is freewheeling and enjoys making the staff laugh and listen to opera music while he cooks. No Reservations differs from Mostly Martha only in its ending since Kate does not travel to Italy to retrieve Zoe and through this undergo transformation, instead, she is transformed through the breaking of her emotional barriers, to a more vulnerable individual so as to allow her relationship with Nick to thrive. However, in the end, as is typical of every romantic comedy, Nick/Mario and Kate/Martha end up happy and in the process of building a loving family with their daughter Zoe/Lina.
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Despite their similar plot and screenplay, watching these two films does not produce a similar effect upon the audience, the subtle alterations that have been made to Mostly Martha by director Scott Hicks indeed distinguish his film from its earlier version both in presentation and intended effect. It is these alterations and their significance that will inform the content of this discussion. In the earlier German version, the lighting for the Hamburg atmosphere produces a cold, wet and colorless atmosphere that contrasts sharply with the long shots of the Italy that show a warm, sensual and uplifting atmosphere. Moreover, Martha’s character is often seen to retreat to the freezer of the restaurant and maintain a tight hold on the Lido menu and is incredibly dedicated to her traditional French cooking and considers all other styles as inferior. As the story progresses, Martha is involved in a significant amount of conflict with Mario, later gains respect for him but continues to view him as a competitor and rival. At the end, Martha retreats to Italy where she in many ways finds herself, with the support and guidance of Mario, and embraces a new outlook on life. The significance of these plot choices can be understood best from a cultural perspective. There is a well-known traditions of Germans travelling to the south in order to redeem themselves and escape the somewhat rigid nature of the German culture. Moreover, with the increase in immigration and ethnic diversity, there has been incredible tension between Germans and foreigners as they try to define the kind of relationships they should have with these laid-back opposites. Additionally, with the collapse of the wall, Germany and its society has struggles immensely with the adaptation of multiculturalism and its acceptance of other cultures. It is from these historical facts that the director’s choice of plot and its intended effect on the audience can be understood. The film tries to show the similarity between Martha’s rigid attitude towards life and cooking with the German culture of severity and stolidity and Mario’s fun-loving nature as a sort of remedy to this severity. The film identifies strongly with the concept of multiculturalism and uses comedic elements to question and critique Martha’s desire to maintain cultural chauvinism which, as stated earlier, embodies the position taken by Germany. Martha’s relationship with food is incredibly intimate, she uses food and cooking to express emotion and can only thrive in the claustrophobic atmosphere of her kitchen, and she often retreats to the freezer room to deal with the overwhelming nature of her work and is often very quick to anger when a customer is unsatisfied with her cooking. Despite this dedication, her food is often soulless, lacking, and only takes in to account the action and opinion of the chef who seems to know everything and negates the perspective of the people who are supposed to enjoy these meals. This one sided, disciplined approach and maintenance of presumed cultural superiority seems to act against her when she is unable to get her niece to eat her food and cannot figure out what to do to make her eat something. This portrayal and its effects are what serves to show the efficacy of multicultural engagement as a solution to the cultural crisis that occurred in Germany after the fall of the Berlin wall. The film, through the character of Martha and the use of food manages to explore these political issues effortlessly without becoming depressing or alienating the German audience and their conservative view on ethnic diversity. The cliché, warm surroundings of the Italian scenery and their effectiveness in removing the icy barriers of the German heart as well as the sensual, somewhat chaotic and lively nature of the Italian soul serve to support an infusion of the German culture with one that is more authentic, closer to nature and more realistic in order to reduce the constraints that the German society lays upon its members.
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On the other hand, its American adaptation, although retaining a similar screenplay does not aim to explore such deep and compelling political issues. Instead it aims to reinforce to the audience the values of the American culture that motivate every American to aspire to be happy as a conformation to the American political and social ideology. In the film, No Reservations, the American individualistic approach to life receives criticism which could be the reason why Kate appears significantly more secluded than her German counterpart Martha. This criticism comes from the expectation that every individual no matter how cynical desires to be happy and the desire to be an independent individual can often result in conflict between those cynical aspects of and the desire for romantic love, acceptance and happiness. Kate perceives herself as an individual, often separating herself from other people and desiring to control the world around her to fit in to the ordered way in which she views herself. This individualistic approach to life is threatened when she has to care for Zoe and later when she develops a romantic attachment to Nick. Despite the expectation that romantic love will guarantee happiness, there is incredible conflict between the individualistic nature of the American society, embodied by Kate and the quest for this happiness. Kate often struggles with maintaining an independent nature in the face of an opportunity that will enrich her life and grant her a chance to be happy, which is why the words “I need your help” seem so pivotal to the plot of the film. When she perceives herself as an individual, she alienates herself and suffers extreme loneliness and love is the only thing that can bridge her to Nick and give her the freedom to be happy and embrace life in its fullness. However, in order to cross this bridge she has to tear down the emotional walls that she has built around herself and become vulnerable so that she can give this love an opportunity to give her the happiness that is guaranteed by the constraints of the genre.
From this discussion, it can be posited that the director’s choices reflect the intended audience of the film, the prevailing cultural and historical environment and its influence on love and intimate relationships. It would not appear as cliché for an American viewer that Martha had to travel to Italy to find herself but to a German viewer this action is not out of the ordinary. It is refreshing for the American audience to watch Mostly Martha since the plot, characterization, lighting and cinematography are not what they are used to in contemporary Hollywood romantic comedy filmmaking. The use of cold, hard lighting, dominance of moves and lighting over dialogue, slow pace and effortless building up of characters (whose beauty has not been overemphasized in selection) to a transformation that is clear and guided, may make Mostly Martha authentic and more realistic but it is important not to forget the cultural paradigms under which these two films were made. One gets the most value out of these two films by examining the intended effect on the audience, who this primary audience is expected to be and how the director used these factors to guide his choices during filming. For instance, the choice of well-known characters such as Catherine Zeta Jones and Abigail Breslin over characters that are less well known can be understood as a measure to appeal to the American audience that still maintains incredible love for their celebrities and will flock to cinemas based on the character choice alone. Moreover, No Reservations cannot be considered inauthentic and predictable if we look at the film from the confines of its genre which more often than not makes for predictable films. Moreover, it stands to reason that it appears inauthentic given that it is almost a complete adaptation of the original film.
To conclude, these two films offer significant lessons for the primary audience for which they were intended and despite their similarities there appears to have been incredible effort, made by the directors, to tailor them to the needs of these audiences. The cathartic function of cinema can only be employed if the director does not employ a ‘one size fits all’ principle to film making but instead seeks to find out the needs of his audience and the gaps in knowledge that are contained within it and by filling them, accomplish his/her objective of education and transformation.
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