Stupeur et Tremblements (2002)

Genres - Comedy Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Workplace Comedy  |   Release Date - Nov 19, 2004 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 107 min.  |   Countries - France, Japan  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Richie Unterberger

Comically absurd, but not quite a comedy, Fear and Trembling is the kind of film you might uneasily laugh at once in a while. But its farcical elements coat serious commentary on huge cultural differences and the vicious human costs of maintaining and saving face within Japanese corporate culture. Sylvie Testud brings the appropriate mix of pixieish waifishness and cunning literary observation to the lead role as the amused yet acutely suffering heroine, though there's a touch of magical realism to her musings (often expressed in narrative voiceover) that some viewers might find a bit too dotty. While there are occasional glimpses of life outside the monolithic high-rise in which she works (sometimes, in more magical realism, via her imagined bird-like flights over the city of Tokyo), almost all of the action takes place in the claustrophobically sterile and regimented office in which she performs her dehumanizingly menial tasks. That's if "action" is the right word for it: most of the leisurely, at times snail-like-paced, action here is psychological, whether it's Testud futilely trying to guess at the motivations behind the increasingly cruel and pointless tasks she's assigned, or the impassive faces of her supervisors that can unpredictably boil over into rage or hysterical laughter. No faces are icier than that of her female colleague Kaori Tsuji (who brings a regal frost to her role), and the gradual deterioration of their tentative camaraderie into backstabbing rage is the film's most arresting element. If there's any slightly unconvincing aspect of the movie, it's how the obviously intelligent if whimsical Testud crumbles a little too easily into self-effacing resignation when it becomes obvious her Japanese employers will not give her the respect and duties she deserves, even if it means shooting themselves in the foot to maintain their hierarchy. Still, Fear and Trembling is a simultaneously amusing and chilling look into a work ethic that many Westerns find incomprehensible.