Even a touch of tawdry-ness can overwhelm all of the other elements in a story. It doesn't matter what the other flavors are - they can involve historical importance, natural beauty, or any number of other refined elements - a small dollop of tabloid touches will undermine the integrity of the whole enterprise unless it's handled the right way. It's so frustrating to watch something that doesn't acknowledge when it's crossed over into absurdity, because then you can't take it seriously but it won't let you have the fun that should naturally come from rubbernecking.
This is a lesson that Galapagos Affair does not seem to understand. It is a documentary about three small groups of settlers (a man and wife team, a small family, and a woman with her two lovers) who all moved to an uninhabited island in the 1930s. There are a lot of reasons why you would start the story in a straight forward manner: the main association that the Galapagos islands have is with Charles Darwin, who is a serious figure; the press at the time all compared them to Robinson Crusoe, which is another solemn angle to the story; and the fact that it's all history now makes some reverence towards the story inevitable. But those are background facts that don't actually play very much into what unfolds. In fact, the story that gets revealed is about a small band of weirdos on a mostly empty island who had ill-defined sexual tensions before one (or possibly two) murders ended the experiment in island living. The story ends up being so crazy that you can't tell it with the same amount of straight laced sincerity all the way through, and yet, the film refuses to change it's narrative tack once the set up is out of the way.
I can even pinpoint the moment when the film lost control of it's tone. The first people to come were curmudgeons who moved there to get away from civilization to a place where they could read Nietzsche in peace; introducing them in an austere way makes sense. But you can't treat the arrival of the "Baroness" and her two lovers the same way; hers is a story too tacky to be discussed by serious minded talking heads. The "Baroness" was a former dancer who picked up two male companions in Europe, convinced them to follow her to a small island off Ecaudor where boats only came by once every six months, and then told everyone she was an aristocrat who had brought two architects with her to help her build a resort hotel. Her entire story (both the real parts and the parts she invented) are madness, and they demand to be expressed energetically. Instead, there's the same amount of narrative sincerity applied to both the Nietzschean and the Baroness, even though they are not equally sincere people.
You can't convince me that this story is weighty enough that it has to be told; these people are a footnote in history, because they are all Germans who fled Germany to go to a desert island on the eve of Hitler's rise to power - so they actively avoided being part of history. But you could convince me that this is a story I would want to hear if you tempted me with the juicier elements of the story. And those juicy elements are there! There's lies, weird sexual tensions, and ultimately death. But because these people were all Germans their letters home are written with a very Germanic seriousness, meaning that the narration (which is mostly taken from their letters) is being written by people who do not understand how this story will end up, nor how it will look after the fact. I suppose the narration wouldn't sink the ship if it was counterbalanced by something more energetic, but the filmmakers don't have enough visual pizazz or editorial zip to make the story seem as vibrant as it should.
It's not that the filmmakers don't try to make it exciting - they do. They just have a bad instinct for what would be thrilling. They keep insisting that there is a big mystery about what happened to the person who went missing, but a) almost everyone they interview seems to finger the same person (you know, the one with the best motive), b) there were only 10 people on the island in total so it's not exactly a who was behind Lee Harvey Oswald level mystery and c) who cares, this is one random person dying almost a hundred years ago.
No, mystery is not what we need to sell this story - sizzle is. And there could have been sizzle there - it's a story of crazy people that has room for both sex and violence. But the Galapagos Affair botches the sizzle, going instead for a straight down the middle style that would make more sense for a more conventional story. Perhaps it's fitting that a documentary set on an island that's mostly known for it's tortoises is short on sizzle, but that doesn't mean it isn't a shame.
Winner: the Cat