A couple from Rosenheim, Germany stop at a gas station in the middle of the Mojave Desert, California and argue. The dissatisfied wife, Jasmin, (Marianne Sägebrecht) leaves her husband. She checks in at the Bagdad Cafe and Motel run by stressed business owner and single mother of three, the fiery Brenda (CCH Pounder). Needing time to adjust to her new-found freedom, Jasmin begins to get to know the few other inhabitants, that include Rudi, a hippy portrait painter (Jack Palance in an unusual role) and helps out with odd jobs that need doing. Slowly, Brenda and Jasmin form a deep bond and the café’s prospects begin to look up.
Located in a desert place where, like whorls of a breeze, everyone is restless and only souls that still hold onto past burdens stay longer, Brenda has stalled. Somehow this family has made half a life for itself at this truck stop, perhaps in the expectation of moving on to something better, perhaps as a result of the ending of Brenda’s relationship.
Brenda is overwhelmed by her current life of noise, responsibilities and scrabbling around for any sort of income. Her stress is ever-present, and she has made a good job of building walls up around herself. When help comes in the form of a stranger from a foreign country, Brenda is suspicious of her motives. Over time, though, she begins to accept Jasmin’s help.
It is hopeful to witness people shedding heavy emotional baggage and welcoming in the shiny new energy of change. Such is the case with Bagdad Cafe. Jasmin, much like Mr Muscle, loves the jobs Brenda hates and is unafraid to tackle either the ‘office’ which is bursting with tat, like a room-sized man drawer, nor the large, freestanding water tower that identifies the location from some distance. (This provides Adlon with his most iconic shot, and the DVD/Blu Ray cover image: of Marianne Sägebrecht atop a precarious step-ladder, wielding a long brush, cleaning a water tower).
This extraordinary activity illustrates several things. It tells us how much energy Jasmin has to devote to change and how great her internalised concern is for her dead marriage. It is a sizeable gesture to impress someone; a cry for help, a call for a friend. There is a theory that clutter and grime is emotional baggage made physical, and cleaning is therapeutic when working through issues. Jasmin’s marriage was one of tightly reined-in order, from the underwear up. By imposing her bright, kindly presence on the café, she works off her stays and also sloughs away the emotional detritus around Brenda. It is a testament to the power of just one person to add value to a community.
The core relationship of the film is the unexpected love that builds between Brenda and Jasmin. Understated and awkward, an understanding develops, albeit haltingly. It takes Brenda some time to accept Jasmin’s help, and to see her as a potential partner with a genuine interest in improving her life at the café. Jasmin has a lot of love to give. We infer it was wasted on her husband but somehow, despite having few possessions, and being plonked in the middle of nowhere, she transforms her environment into a warm, attractive community hub. She blossoms. She develops a song and dance magic show, and becomes a muse to Rudi.
And then there’s this extraordinary song, Calling You by Jevetta Steele, that has haunted me since I saw the film, days ago. Haunted is inaccurate. Haunted conjures up neglected buildings where any inhabitants are long dead. But here in Bagdad, something is alive, albeit stuck. It’s more like Fate, siren-singing, gently reassuring the viewer to have hope: that love will always be there for you, provided you allow it in. It’s a spell of a song that has seduced other artists: from Jeff Buckley to Celine Dion.
Adlon’s film is flooded with colour: pink, orange, purple, mustard, green, gold. He makes a feature of a strange weather sensation in the skies of Bagdad: a duel light accompanied by a hissing sound. This is a real phenomenon where particles of dust are caught in light beams. The colour gels are his tribute to the range of lights he saw that inspired him. Adlon is an artist at heart and works on all the senses to draw the viewer into his vision. Cleaning a water tower, posing for an artist, a pedestrian on a dust road under a giant sky, a piano player in a nook that could be an artist’s studio… Bold shots are presented to the viewer with a flourish, like the unveiling of a more genial Hopper, or a Dix minus the edgy sleaze.
Percy Adlon’s dreamy film floats around your conscious long after you’ve watched it, like incense settling on slow drifts of air. I’m reluctant to let it go. The whole film is a sonnet to the sensuous fabric running through a group of humans thrown together by desert zephyrs, an ode to the romance and adventure that happens when the wandering spirit meets their split-apart. Bagdad Café reassures us that even within chaos it is safe to exhale: all is as it should be.