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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in literary culture, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.
Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.
As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.
Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).
The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.
After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.
Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.
In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.
In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.
Moreover, Taylor-John and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.
And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.
Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.
Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.
It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”
In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.
The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.
Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Josef von Sternberg
By Roderick Heath
After the collapse of his partnership with Marlene Dietrich, Josef von Sternberg’s career, which had traced the upper limits of success as a film director, went into near-terminal arrest. The flagrantly sensual, imperious, outrageous expressionist of the silver screen was out of place in the aesthetically and morally leashed era ruled by the Production Code. Whilst Sternberg lost the big budgets and rapturous, unfettered stature he had in the early ’30s, his grip on sound cinema strengthened, and some of his final films, as patchy, brilliant, and forsaken as Orson Welles’ later work, stand amongst his best. He made a marvellous skid row version of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1935), but his involvement with Alexander Korda’s big-budget adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius” proved a disaster when star Merle Oberon was injured in a car accident and Korda pulled financing. Sternberg kept making whatever films he could in the next 20 years, even travelling to Japan to make Anatahan (1953). The Shanghai Gesture, destined to be the last complete work he was able to make in Hollywood, remains one of his most obscure, but is also a prized cult object. The Shanghai Gesture was based on a play by John Colton, a property that several Hollywood big shots, including Cecil B. DeMille, had tried to film. But the potato was just too hot: a lurid, fetid moral melodrama about revenge and degradation set in a high-class brothel. The Hays Office ordered more than 30 revisions to the script before it was finally deemed acceptable, including a shift of setting from bawdyhouse to casino—even then, the potency of the piece was inescapable.
Sternberg proved the guy gutsy enough to do it, and legend has it he did it whilst lying on a couch all through the shoot. The resulting film is many things, amongst them Sternberg’s expression of enraged contempt for how clean and bogus the town had become. Even the film’s opening credits includes a jab at the hierarchism of the industry as it offers a page in praise of “Hollywood extras,” whose anonymous, massed contributions helped so many films. Another early title assures the viewer that this is a pre-War story, whilst Shanghai of the day was at the centre of an enormous tussle of civilisations, “its fate undecided.” But of course, Sternberg’s time and place is not the real Shanghai of the 1930s, but his imagination’s conjured nexus of mystique and depravity.
The linchpin of this mythic world is Mother Gin Sling’s gambling establishment in the heart of the old International Quarter. The Shanghai Gesture feels on some levels like the evil twin of Casablanca (1942), with which it shares the setting of a popular nightspot and gaming house at a world crossroads—with Marcel Dalio playing the overseer of games in both—where an old romance comes back to haunt the owner. But The Shanghai Gesture is the virtual negative image of the more famous film: the owner is a woman, and the old romance not only can’t be healed, but sparks a merciless vengeance the moment chance presents itself. For Sternberg, it was also a thematic return to the nature of rootlessness and the corrosive nature of erotic need, which tend in his films to lead directly in to one another, expressed through the exotica of unstable 1930s China in Shanghai Express (1932). But whereas that film emphasised mobility and hope, The Shanghai Gesture is again an inversion, a static, sucking whirlpool of evil.
The production design turns Mother Gin Sling’s into just such a maelstrom, the terraces of the casino interior evoking a tiered descent into Dante’s levelled hell where the roulette wheel spins on and on in the lowest circle, racking up cash and souls. “It smells so incredibly evil,” Victoria “Poppy” Charteris (Gene Tierney) murmurs in sublime delight shortly after arriving and surveying the motley denizens: “I didn’t think such a place existed except in my own imagination.” Sternberg immediately acknowledges through his as-yet innocent, yet already perverse anti-heroine that this is psychological wonderland and repainted reality, where the audience is encouraged to use their own imaginations to fill in the lurid details. Sternberg’s narrative enters Mother Gin Sling’s not with Poppy but with another young woman, an American former chorus girl and exiled chippie, Dixie Pomeroy (Phyllis Brooks), who’s introduced being shuffled down the street by an angry landlord and his comrades to a cop for failing to make the rent. Luck, or something like that, is on her side, as two of Mother Gin Sling’s cabal, “Doctor” Omar (Victor Mature) and gone-native English financier Percival Montgomery Hower (Clyde Fillmore) pass in a car and, taken by her looks, pay off her debt and take her to be assessed for a job as decorative furniture in the casino.
Mother Gin Sling’s hardly seems like a safe repose, however, as a player’s attempt to shoot himself is dismissed as “Saturday night.” This week’s would-be suicide is regular player Boris (Ivan Lebedeff). Gin Sling makes her first appearance after his failed attempt, chastising him: “I thought we were good friends. Why do you choose my place as a springboard to the upper air?” Gin Sling is the film’s fetishistic heart and villain, as archly formalised in her dragon lady affectations as Ming the Merciless, Darth Vader or any other pulp villain, whilst also recalling the icon of stylised femininity Sternberg always tried to turn Dietrich into. She treads the aisles and stairs of her palace with angular precision, a high-fashion Nosferatu in her rarefied castle. Poppy is brought to this establishment by an asinine guide to the lowlife (John Abbott) in search of cheap thrills, but it soon proves that Poppy has some yearnings to be a cheap thrill. Poppy swaps politely barbed words with Gin Sling when introduced: Poppy teases her about her unlikely name, and Gin Sling pleasantly insults her back by suggesting her name might have been something as generic as Poppy, with the suggestion that there’s scarcely a thing different about where each of them has come from and where they’re going.
Gin Sling learns from a circle of rich businessmen she counts amongst her regular customers, including Van Elst (Albert Bassermann), that her establishment is the target of strict new laws being imposed by corporate interests on Shanghai. “This is not a moral crusade, which might be easier for you to oppose than big business,” Van Elst warns Gin Sling, on giving her the news she has to clear out. “What do you call this?” ripostes Gin Sling’s bookkeeper (Eric Blore), referring to Mother Gin Sling’s. The herald of change is a newly arrived representative of the India-China Trading Company, Sir Guy Charteris (Walter Huston), who is also Poppy’s father. Gin Sling doesn’t recognise the name and is scarcely interested or concerned by this threat, until she finds that Dixie was a former girlfriend of the incoming plutocrat.
As Dixie describes one of his signature physical mannerisms, Gin Sling suddenly realises that she knows Charteris, and a look of lethal intent comes upon her. Her plot starts in encouraging Omar, her spruiker, pimp, and in-house gigolo, in his attentions towards Poppy, drawing the young woman, who’s fresh from a girls’ school in Switzerland, down to the roulette table, where she gambles with increasing fervor while spouting that eternal line of the neophyte, “I can stop anytime I want to.” But Gin Sling keeps her tethered to the tables by giving her a ready line of credit. Poppy’s real character begins to appear from behind the shield money and social insulation provide. She proves to be a spoilt, dictatorial brat with streaks of outsized carnal desire and contempt, and her jealousy is carefully stoked to a white heat by Omar’s simultaneous attentions to Dixie. Gin Sling barely bats an eye when Poppy is quickly reduced to a drunken harpy decorating her bar.
Whilst not as floridly stylised as Sternberg’s earlier works, like Shanghai Express, Docks of New York (1928) or The Scarlet Empress (1934), The Shanghai Gesture is just as hypnotic in its less shadowy, but equally artful images, where characters are turned into stylised types defined by physical attitudes and modes of dress. The visual style suggests a touch of Art Deco infused with Sternberg’s prior baroque sensibility, with more emphasis on flow and geometry as organising principle—planes, angular lines, elegant curves and circles explored with tracking and crane shots, particularly the grand, slow descent of the camera into Gin Sling’s casino pit. As opposed to the tangled, semi-surrealist forms of The Scarlet Empress that entangled the protagonists, here, the interiors are spare and spacious, yet just as organic and entrapping, the carefully constructed physical expression of Gin Sling’s understanding of the most putrid parts of her customers’ psyches. The wide shots offers mural-like studies in form and content, as rich and sprawling with detail as the decorative artwork that clads the walls of the casino and Gin Sling’s abode (notably, that artwork was provided by the Chinese-American actor Keye Luke). Close-ups reduce the actors, particularly Munson in Gin Sling’s finery, to kabuki masks of stylised affectation and the fanning shapes of her increasingly ornate pseudo-Mandarin hairdos. It’s easy to think of Dietrich in the part of Gin Sling (in fact, Munson, who’s probably best remembered as Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind, 1939, had, like Sternberg, been Dietrich’s lover in the ’30s), but Munson’s blend of icy malignance and an arch survivor’s cautious precision is excellent. The way Munson walks through Gin Sling’s joint, blind to the human cacophony about her as she contemplates her upcoming consummation with the gait of an empress walking a tightrope is sublime physical characterisation.
The Shanghai Gesture may represent one time when a censorious attitude from studios and the revisionist instincts of the director made for a work far superior to the source. Colston’s hysterical work was sordid and racist in the extreme, and like many such works (including another film starring Huston, 1932’s Kongo, which was a remake of Tod Browning’s silent film West of Zanzibar, 1927) offers insights into the hothouse nature of sexual fantasy in the Western mind of the era, channelling images of sexual sadomasochism and the simultaneous desire to protect and pillage virginal white femininity through racial Others. Sternberg’s reordered narrative and new characters constructed an infinitely more ironic piece of work. He added two significant characters, Dixie and Omar, to offer protagonists who are observers and alternate voices in the story. Dixie’s American garrulousness is present mostly to deflate the pretensions of the two versions of the Old World, Chinese and European. Her earthy, experienced sensibility directly contradicts the fetid sexual and racial politics at play in Gin Sling’s revenge on Charteris, and she retorts to a jealously bossy Poppy who’s accusing her of trying to steal Omar with a roaring putdown that notes that real character has nothing to do with birth or lot in life. In the finale, Dixie is the lone character who manages to detach herself from the awful spectacle of blackmail and cruelty with cheeky humour. Sternberg delights in throwaway character actions, from the Sikh policeman directing traffic with imperious elegance in the midst of urban chaos, Gin Sling’s accountant gleefully scooping out the night’s profits like a kid fondling his Halloween candy, or Dixie mucking about at a swanky dinner trying to leaven the oncoming mood of disaster.
Omar is Sternberg’s archest conceit, a character who fits neatly into the line of such Sternberg alter egos as Count Alexei in The Scarlet Empress, whilst painted interestingly as a corrupter who knows but doesn’t much care that he’s a zone of moral nullity because he’s a creation of multiple worlds, a misfit who’s found his place as an imp of Gin Sling’s Satan. A self-appointed doctor (or maybe not) and a self-described mutt of the East with part-French, part-Armenian heritage and Damascene birth, Omar is a conceited lothario who seems to think he’s Greek chorus to his own life. He’s given to perpetually reciting appropriate passages from Omar Khayyam (“If you wanna, you can listen to that Persian tripe, I’m goin’,” Dixie tells Poppy at one point.). He greets his weekly paycheck, dropped from the bookkeeper’s booth to him in the casino pit, with a sarcastic salaam and plays Gin Sling’s bait to get and keep Poppy on the hook. Mature, several years away from major stardom, is splendidly smug in his role as he wears his character’s bogus exoticism on his sleeve and slouches through the film with the lazy sensuality of an experienced libertine until the very finale reveals something more serious long dormant in him. Tierney, another soon-to-be star who would prove an uneven actor, capable of performances both refined and stiff, is equally fun here as the prim British fashion plate who steadily devolves into a neurotic addict and harridan, glimpsed in one marvellous moment seated on a bar top, whining for attention and satisfaction, delivering a backward kick of one foot like a stroppy yearling to a wine glass and sending it flying. Her behaviour wavers between poles like delirium, as she soaks Omar’s face with a G&T before pleading forgiveness in desperate erotic obeisance. Great touch here: Omar holds up his robe to hide their kiss from the room, perhaps less out of gentlemanly discretion than embarrassment to be seen kissing such a brat.
By comparison, Huston’s performance as Sir Guy, like Munson’s Gin Sling, seems to belong to another species: the world’s aristocrats, who specialise in much daintier cannibalism. Sir Guy is a suave man of the world who seems to have long burned out all his excess passions and now only has a measured solicitude to him. Gin Sling first tries to contact him when he’s in a meeting with the International Quarter’s bigwigs, and when told she plans to keep phoning until he answers, he simply unplugs the phone and gets on with his business. Gin Sling then sends a Russian coolie (Mike Mazurki) over to Charteris’ apartment block to fire a bullet through his window. A fascinated Sir Guy understands the implied message that the coolie will try to kill him if he doesn’t let the winds of arranged fate steer him towards Madame Gin Sling’s place.
Gin Sling invites Sir Guy and other doyens of Shanghai’s European community for a soiree on Chinese New Year. Gin Sling has some kind of hold on most of them, through threat of scandal or humiliation. She provides a dining table arrayed with little statuettes of each guest; the figurine of Poppy has its head strategically removed. An intervention by Omar, who sells a necklace Poppy pawned for gambling funds, alerts her father to her increasingly fraught, indebted nightlife. He calls her to his office where he announces he’s sending her out of the country. Poppy seems grateful, and Sir Guy sees her off on a plane, leaving him free to venture to Gin Sling’s lair and find out what she’s on about with maximum savoir faire.
Gin Sling’s Chinese New Year banquet proves to be rather a delirious theatre of cruelty, a banquet where revenge will be served at sub-Arctic temperature, a sequence of slow-uncoiling poison and suppressed hysteria, punctuated by nervously raucous laughs and Gin Sling’s potent, whiplash-like threats to keep her guests in their seats for the purpose of dealing up to Sir Guy a certified public scalding. The evening entertainment starts with a wild spectacle of women in cages being sold off to fishermen as sex slaves, angling just outside the window of the casino’s dining room, a show Gin Sling explains that has only been staged for her male guests’ edification.
Gin Sling assures her guests this is a show for the tourists only based on past practice, but the show looks frighteningly real, and soon Gin Sling has all but stated that once she was one of those girls, kept at bay by having the soles of her feet cut open and pebbles sewn inside to stop her running off. What exactly happened between Sir Guy and Gin Sling back when he was a young adventurer under a different name is only partly revealed in what follows, as Sir Guy certainly married her back when she was the daughter of a good family, and had a child whose apparent infant death sent Gin Sling running off in a wild grief. Now she believes Sir Guy abandoned her and stole her family’s wealth. Sir Guy is initially confounded as he realises who Gin Sling is, a possibility that seems impossible to him. Gin Sling’s neat line of recrimination is, however, disputed as he claims her family’s money is lodged in a bank even though he thought her dead.
Still, Gin Sling trots out the crown of her bitter banquet: Poppy, who returned to Shanghai on her own, now thrust into her father’s sight, poured into a glittering silver gown, bow-legged and tousled and swinish in mood and humour, clearly having been treated to every degradation under the sun by Gin Sling’s minions, and having enjoyed it. The tar-thick sense of evil eroticism lurking under the surface of the film finally oozes out here, and plays out in the exchange of close-ups of Huston and Munson, grim wounding and malicious pleasure underneath their studied surfaces. Sir Guy’s attempt to make a graceful exit is forestalled by Poppy herself. Wild-eyed in her drugged-up rage, Poppy has pretences to play the same bitch-queen as Gin Sling, only without the finesse or the smarts. She point a gun at Dixie, proposing to shoot her for presuming to attract Omar’s eye, and only Omar’s quick intervention stops her.
Meanwhile, Gin Sling unsheathes a peculiar kind of reverse-racism as she gloats in her triumph over Sir Guy and his weak genes, only for Sir Guy to reveal his own secret: Poppy is his and Gin Sling’s daughter, the child who didn’t die, and so she’s gone to great effort to reduce her own offspring to a wretch. Gin Sling’s attempt to intervene and restrain Poppy in her newfound aggression is met with utter contempt that only grows when Gin Sling tries to argue maternal right, cueing Poppy’s immortal line, “I have no more connection to you than with a toad out in the street!” Mother Gin Sling, her title all the more perverse now that it matches her status, reacts with less than restrained maternal chastisement, whilst Sir Guy, poised on the threshold between dreadful past and empty future, hears a gunshot. Omar has already delivered the epigraph earlier: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit, Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line.” “You likee Chinese New Year?” the Russian coolie asks, for one of the most casually, coldly sarcastic final lines in film history.
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Director/Screenwriter: Abdellatif Kechiche
By Roderick Heath
French-Tunisian filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche specialises in long, leisurely, encompassing behavioral studies of individual humans standing at various crossroads. They are often tilted towards Kechiche’s own understanding of cross-cultural neutral zones and the immigrant experience, whilst also often fluently examining the peculiar rituals and experiences that mark youth’s coming of age. Kechiche’s superlative 2007 epic The Secret of the Grain (aka Couscous), his third film and one of the best of the early millennium, depicted an extended and volatile family working to remake its fortunes by starting a small business. Blue Is the Warmest Colour, his latest, gained a Palme d’Or this year and international fame and notoriety along with it. It clearly extends Kechiche’s oeuvre in encompassing niches of the modern human experience, locating both what’s peculiar and universal about them.
Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Blue is the Warmest Colour charts young love, from individual yearning to electric attraction to coupling to break-up, as experienced by and between two young women. Maroh’s book told a familiar variety of queer love narrative with the expected beats of the genre (variably accepting parents, schoolyard angst, etc.) but in a dynamically expressive and highly emotional fashion. Kechiche’s approach is superficially cooler and more exacting, but ultimately travels into the tactile and emotional envelope that forms around its central couple, picking up manifold nuances and peculiarities.
Kechiche’s narrative replicates both the essence and specific moments from Maroh’s book, whilst revising many elements in a filmmaking process that often seems to have followed its own logic. The film loses the melodramatic bookending narrative and changes the main character’s name from Clementine to Adèle, partly, it seems, to clear a space of independence and to foster lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos’ stake in the characterisation, and also to justify some shifts in attitude. Kechiche’s style has more than a hint of the neorealist hue revised and updated by filmmakers like the Dardennes brothers and Ken Loach in contemporary European film, except that Kechiche’s touch is more spacious, colourful, and carefully rhythmic, with an almost musical quality (musical performance is usually an important aspect of his work). His stories are less case studies than biographies, a quality that gives the film’s French title its justification, a title that also calls out to the film’s many references to classic French literature.
Much of Maroh’s book was rendered in a near-monochrome with only striking blues elucidated, reflecting the impact the woolly mane of dyed hair Clementine’s lady love Emma sports in an otherwise drab and petty environment. Kechiche avoids this flourish, painting rather in crisp but painterly colours and sunny hues, with the only suggestion of blue right at the end. But the relationship of film to other art forms, like literature, art, and music, is evoked with a nudging constancy, almost echoing the central relationship in its simultaneous rich accord and subtle disparity. Kechiche emphasises the hidden artifice of dramatic shaping in a manner reminiscent of some other French films, like Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), including virtually self-deconstructing, essayistic-flavoured passages.
Such reflexes are readily on display in long scenes in which bored teens in a class read and discuss Marivaux and Sophocles, failing to comprehend the urgency of the relationship between the experiences recorded in art and their oncoming plunge into life, or a later scene in which a middle-aged aesthete may stand in for Kechiche himself in meditating on the overwhelming urge recorded in art history of men trying to comprehend female sexuality. Kechiche calls out to his earlier work in this manner, like his second film, Games of Love and Chance (2003), which was built around rude and rugged high schoolers acting out Marivaux, explicitly testing the relationship of the young products of shifting cultural paradigms with the French canon, finding both alienation and connection through it. Adèle and Emma, whose studies necessarily entail comprehension of technique and representation, are glimpsed at one point exploring an art museum’s sculpture collection. Its rooms filled with roiling nude female forms coaxed into dazzling life from crude ore is an act that Emma—and through her Kechiche—can surely thrill to, whilst for Adèle it’s a way of familiarising herself with the form that very shortly she’ll be exploring more immediately.
Young Adèle is a fairly “normal” high schooler who begins to feel the elusive tension between her personal emotions and the pack life that dominates at that age as her friends call her attention to Thomas (Jérémie Laheurte), who’s taken with her, in the school cafeteria. Adèle dates Thomas and has sex with him, but is haunted by the vision of Emma (Léa Seydoux), an older art student she catches sight of with an arm around another woman, the image of her invading her nightly masturbatory fantasies.
Adèle’s intimation of an almost predestined link to Emma seems borne out when she and gay pal Valentin (Sandor Funtek) venture into gay bars, and Adèle, after having several women hit on her, is rescued by Emma’s charming attentions, setting the scene for a quickly combusting relationship. Adèle and Emma form a bond initially through extended conversations, where attraction and developing mutual confidence grow amidst the thrust and parry of conversation of two smart but callow lasses seeking to justify and express their tastes. Kechiche all but bends over backwards trying to situate his narrative in the great French romantic tradition, with all its references—Les Liaisons Dangereuses is also shouted out to at one point, evoking its rakish delight in bedroom matters and foreboding a later turn in the plot—and his film’s evident echoes. Adèle and Emma’s long, garrulous conversations laced with probing intimations of character and perspective echo the famous bedroom scene of Breathless (1959) and the chatty works of Eric Rohmer and Jean Eustache, whose The Mother and the Whore (1972) anticipates Blue particularly in length and scope. Like those films, and many in the French cinematic pantheon, the degree of cultural literacy on display is surprisingly high, perhaps to an extent that seems artificial (does the average French teen really enjoy talking about De Laclos?). Some of these conceits have specific overtones: when Emma prods Adèle about her knowledge of art, she answers that she’s only really aware of Picasso, who, of course, had his blue period. Kechiche’s work here, however, is in active dialogue with both cultural context and personal experience, whilst negotiating its own evolving disparities as an adaptation.
Kechiche dials back much of Maroh’s familiar angst, particularly in contending with homophobia as inward retardant on personal acceptance, avoiding clanger lines like one a parent emits in the novel, “Gay pride again? How much longer are they going to be doing this nonsense?” Not that it’s a bright, rosy, postgender world here: Adèle contends with her school friends who, at the first hint of her homosexuality, roundly turn on her. Whereas in the book Clementine runs away and hides to deal with her shame, the more forthright Adèle gets angry and tries to wallop someone. The way people come out, and the world they come out to, has changed, Kechiche notes. More faithfully reproduced from the novel is a moment in which Adèle has her first real same-sex snog, with the bohemian-styled school pal Béatrice (Alma Jodorowsky), who then resists Adèle’s desire for more: such are the pitfalls of curiosity when it grazes against real and urgent need. Kechiche makes long movies because, like the late Theo Angelopoulos and Nuri Bilge Ceylan, he’s a maximalist who specialises in redistributing the way cinema time is absorbed, with a flow of epiphanies that coalesce into a special brand of storytelling, creating an echoing space around the key drama. Unlike them, however, he’s less a poet than a blend of Victorian realist novelist and sociologist. The Secret of the Grain is still his best film because of the fashion in which it justified its heft in building to a brilliant conclusion, one that managed to express simultaneously an urge towards a climactic revelry associated with Shakespearean comedy whilst also counterpointing a tragedy laced with microcosmic import.
Blue is the Warmest Colour, by contrast, has little story and tones down sociological pressure on its heroines. Kechiche concentrates on the transitory beauties and pitfalls of a relationship that’s based more on a preternatural sexual chemistry than genuine accord of personality, and traces the urges that first brings them together, as Emma helps to ease Adèle through the pains of accepting herself, and then tears them apart, as they grow into distinctively different adults. Emma’s outlook is intimately bound up with her ambitions as an artist, whilst Adèle becomes a teacher of young children. A pair of well-contrasted scenes depicts each girl meeting the other’s family and comprehending the subtle but daunting differences in outlook they face. Emma’s mother and stepfather, casually accepting of her, are haute bourgeois, complete with a fancy art collection started by Emma’s father. In perhaps the film’s most obvious thematic joke, the stepfather, an expert gourmand, serves up live oysters to the girls. The poetic conceit of conflating eating oysters with cunnilingus is not at all new, calling back to, amongst others, Radley Metzger’s film of Violette Leduc’s signal lesbian erotica novel Thérèse and Isabelle (1967), and also suggesting the infamous “snails and oysters” scene restored to Spartacus (1960), whose director, Stanley Kubrick, Adèle loves. Dinner with Adèle’s petit bourgeois family, by contrast, eats spaghetti bolognaise and careful evasion of Adèle’s sexuality; Emma scarcely bats an eye at posing as Adèle’s friend and tutor in philosophy, whilst Adèle’s father (Aurélien Recoing) gruffly grills Emma about her job prospects as an art student, all familiar reflexes of a more working class mindset.
The quiet disparities outlined in these paired scenes include the first time in the film that both Emma and Adèle state what they want to be. Emma is forced to lie doubly not only about what she is, but also that she fully intends to be an artist, whilst Adèle is honest, but sets the scene for her later frustrations. Adèle remains closeted in some peculiar ways, neither coming out to her parents, or at least not on screen, nor to any colleagues when she becomes a teacher, to protect her brittle sense of security as much as out of concern of what might happen to her. Blue is the Warmest Colour is at its best when charting Adèle and Emma’s coming together, a process that climaxes in the already legendary and notorious central sex scene that sees the couple conjoin in feverishly energetic, invasively corporeal manner. Kechiche counterpoints the convulsive intimacy of the moment with one of public display, as Adèle joins Emma in a gay pride march where the ecstasy of being young and in love loses all bindings for a moment, a scene that mirrors another earlier in the film in which Adèle marches with students. One peculiarity of gay sex scenes in modern film is that they’re just about the only ones where anyone’s allowed to look like they’re actually enjoying themselves (straight sex scenes now, by contrast, are generally required to be hideous). Kechiche mimics Maroh’s approach to Adèle and Emma’s first bedroom encounter, using jump cuts like comic panel boundaries to fragment the girls’ roundelay of positions into an explosive succession of erotic images.
Kechiche’s approach here is quite clearly unitary with his general fascination for detail and descriptive comprehension, gazing calmly at intense sexual activity as he does at other behavioural traits. But to a certain extent, it also unbalances the film’s emphasis on interpersonal passion and distorts the impression we should be getting, of a young and inexpert girl’s first bedroom romp with a more experienced lover: the necessary sense of exploration is missing. It looks and feels more like an extremely hot one-night stand for two well-practiced sexual athletes, as they whip between positions and smack each other’s asses in search of ever-sharper corporeal registers. The aspect of clinical display is emphasised by the flat lighting and diorama-like bed, carefully charting possible positions and forms, coming close at points to resembling a yoga instruction sheet or “baby’s first pop-up book” of sapphic sex. Other points, however, strike notes of extraordinary beauty, as when the two lie together in symmetrical post-coital calm, as close to a unified creature with two minds as humans can get, the linchpin of both their affair and the film’s aesthetics.
When gay-themed works like Beginners and The Kids are All Right (both 2010) are so cosily mainstream and sentimental in their reflexes that it’s not too hard to imagine classic Hollywood actors playing roles in them, Kechiche’s gambit to wield an unblinking directness in his sex scenes gives the film a radical edge it wouldn’t have otherwise because he is working with two of the most pleasing possible avatars for lesbian love conceivable. In spite of Emma’s jokes about bull dykes and Adèle’s classmates branding Emma as an obvious lesbian, it’s hard to imagine just about anyone not falling for Emma, whose tousled tomboyishness and anime hair in no way violates rules of attractiveness; ironically, only later, when Emma is older and no longer dyes her hair, does Seydoux seem more genuinely androgynous.
In terms of the film’s intrinsic personality, two subsequent sex scenes are more impressive. One sees Emma trying to keep Adèle from crying out as they secretly make love in her parents’ house. The other depicts the two lovers, locked in a scissoring tussle, reach out for each other to grip hands, in part for greater traction and pleasure, but as much in that blindly desperate joy of trying to bridge the gap of mere flesh even as it seems they might literally meld. Perhaps indeed the most profound and universal note the film strikes is implicit here, the intensity some relationships can reach on the sexual level, to extent that when other circumstances intrude upon them, it can feel like being cut off from a part of one’s own flesh. Blue Is the Warmest Colour’s second “chapter” deals exactly with this notion as it skips forward a number of years. Now Emma and Adèle live together. Adèle has fulfilled her desire to teach young children, whilst Emma is poised frustratingly close to major success, a success Adèle helps to foster by posing for a lushly semi-abstract nude, exciting the attention of a major gallery manager, Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol), who comes to a party Adèle helps to throw. Adèle impresses and charms many present, including Joachim and Samir (Salim Kechiouche), a mildly successful actor who wryly comments on his moment of success, playing an Arab terrorist in an American movie. But Adèle still quietly chafes in their company, especially as Emma tries to talk up Adèle’s diary writing as an accomplishment, an attempt to paper over Adèle’s inferiority in their relationship.
Adèle is also perturbed by Emma’s friendliness with Joachim’s very pregnant artist friend Lise (Mona Walravens), and as Emma and Lise begin working on a project together, Adèle’s increasing alienation leads her to commence an affair with co-worker Antoine (Benjamin Siksou). Most of this is synthesised from the scant material in Maroh’s book, and begins to smack of a lack of inspiration on Kechiche’s part, as the once-powerful relationship cracks up over such clichéd tensions, with Adèle stuck playing the wife to the mercurial artist in a very familiar kind of domestic drama. The early shout-out to Picasso can be read as a warning that like old Pablo, Emma paints mistresses and moves on. Perhaps this was the point, to show their relationship is prone to the same weaknesses as any other union, but the price Kechiche pays for normalising that relationship is to also make his own narrative more banal, recalling Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), which for the sake of mainstream recognition, turned Harvey Milk’s lover into a regulation politician’s stymied wife. Without the force of a strong story behind the film, like The Secret of the Grain possessed, this film’s unwieldy length starts to wear thin.
Tellingly, the film’s intellectual discursions feel far too academic and potted, relating only to the film’s own telling but without real penetration. Unlike, say, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore, which is as much about the sociopolitical milieu that formed it as it is about its central ménage à trois, Kechiche deletes most of Maroh’s emphasis on the experience of her couple as products of the early ’90s, when gay visibility was on the rise in a still-reactionary society, and thus of the schism of personality the women experience in the way their sexuality links them to the world. Neither Emma nor Adèle are granted much self-awareness in this regard, in part possibly because in altering the setting to be more contemporary, the relatively laggard sensibility of a more liberated generation is evoked. Whereas Metzger’s Thérèse and Isabelle was intimately layered to both build to the climactic sexual consummation whilst also mediating it through flashbacks to make it both immediate and nostalgic, cinematic and literary, Kechiche’s touch is often much more prosaic.
Which is not to say he doesn’t wield some marvellous cinematic prose, like that aforementioned image of the entwined lovers and an early sequence in which his camera glides ahead of Adèle after she’s brushed off by Béatrice, her hurt all too vivid even as she maintains a stoic mask and ignores the world whirling about her. Kechiche determinedly avoids melodrama: only the calamitous spat between the couple that breaks them apart resembles a traditional climax, and he skirts several key scenes of the novel, especially the slip-up that sees Adèle ejected from her home and previous life. Moreover, for a film that expends so much time on merely detailing the characters in a love affair, the inner life of both women remains a little vague—in the case of Emma, more than a little. She’s a cagey creature who holds Adèle at a slight remove that Adèle eventually tries to shatter, but this element remains frustratingly opaque. In Maroh’s book, the relationship commences under a pall as Emma already has a girlfriend, which lends a hypocritical edge to Emma’s explosive rage when she throws Adèle out after learning of her affair. Here, however, it seems at once more righteous and also more peculiar in its contextless vehemency. Adèle, for her part, becomes a Lady of Shalott figure, doomed to grieve over her ejection perhaps all her days.
Kechiche pulls off two excellent scenes as he skips forward again in time: Emma now lives with Lise and her young son as a family, but Adèle, having suffered for a long time, tries hopelessly to entice Emma back when they meet at last for an amicable drink. Adèle’s efforts to seduce Emma reveal once more the powerful spark of physical attraction between them, but can’t break Emma’s new commitment. It’s a somewhat gruelling scene of humiliation for Adèle, reminiscent to my mind of Bob Dylan’s angry heartbreak under surface goodwill in “If You See Her, Say Hello”. The subsequent, ultimate scene, is equally strong, as Adèle attends a gallery showing being given by Antoine signalling Emma’s success, with Adèle finding her portrait hanging with the others, a white-hot and life-changing affair now a mere incident in Emma’s life. Emma and Lise canoodle in the moment of triumph whilst Adèle roams in disquiet. Her intent is all too painfully obvious, as she’s dressed in blue, evidently trying to sway Emma’s eye or at least memorialise their connection. Where for the artist, alchemic creation is the act, for the average person the self is the canvas, and Adèle cannot channel but only telegraph her own bleeding emotion. Adèle meets Samir again, who’s now quit acting for a life in real estate. He searches for her when she quietly absents herself, dashing in a different direction whilst she walks away, a blotch of forlorn blue burning in a grey city street. If the use of the artistic milieu elsewhere feels hoary, here Kechiche uses it to concisely reflect Adèle’s exile: it’s a world of insiders and outsiders, and Adèle is just another outsider now.
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Director/Screenwriter: Alain Guiraudie
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Stranger by the Lake has been making waves internationally for its frank exploration of gay cruising, which includes explicit, mostly unsimulated sex scenes. The film’s director and screenwriter, Alain Guiraudie, won the directing prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the film, a prize I think he deserved because of the unself-conscious performances he got from his actors and the subtle changes in mood he brings to the looping scenes of the lake, beach, and wooded area that form the single location of the film. At the same time, this film doesn’t offer a major departure in form or structure—Guiraudie, known for his more audaciously experimental approach to film, has said that he surprised himself by how formal the film ended up being. Of a piece with the New French Extremity movement that began in the early 2000s, Stranger by the Lake indulges the themes of loneliness, fatal attraction, and the linking of sex and death that go back to the beginnings of film, but that were elided until the end of the studio system in Hollywood and the coming of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The central character, Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps), is a young, slim, gay man without a career, job, or any specific goal beyond spending the summer at the cruising beach swimming, sunning, and having sex in the woods that surround the lake. Franck uses his first visit to the beach to get acclimated. He greets a friend, strips to his underwear, and goes for a swim. As the summer progresses, he’ll forgo the underwear, sunning and swimming in the nude like the other men. Franck also goes out of his way to become friendly with Henri (Patrick d’Assumçao), a middle-aged man who sits apart from the beach dwellers, never sunning or swimming, but rather just watching them. Henri has split from the woman in his life (girlfriend or wife is never made clear), who has remained on the other side of the lake, presumably where couples roam in more conventional fashion. Henri may feel like an outcast from that world, but he also doesn’t seem to fit into the gay scene and, in fact, seems rather naïve about it. When Franck tells him that he doesn’t go with women ever, Henri seems surprised, thinking that all homosexuals also keep a woman around, perhaps because Henri is just such a man, trying to come to terms with his repressed homosexuality.
Franck is attracted to Michel (Christophe Paou), a man who epitomizes the ’70s style of desirable homosexual—tall, muscular, tanned, and sporting a thick mustache. However, Michel has a possessive lover, Eric, (Mathieu Vervisch), who sends Franck on his way. Franck, who has a habit of staying at the lake into the night, watches Eric and Michel swimming one evening. They appear to be playing, but the play turns deadly as Michel holds Eric under the water and soon emerges alone from the lake. Despite the fact that Eric’s red car and beach towel remain in place for several days, nobody remarks on it, and Franck says nothing of what he saw; instead, he and Michel become lovers. When Eric’s body washes up on shore and the police come snooping around the lake, the film moves steadily toward a suspenseful end.
Stranger by the Lake mildly indulges a backward-looking pastiche that seems to be forming a contemporary current in French cinema. The sun-washed days of idleness and pleasure by an Edenlike beach are bathed in Summer of ’42 (1971) nostalgia. The film is shot through with comic moments that seem to look back in time to a different, less dangerous era of free love; for example, Franck hooks up with a man who insists he wear a condom, even though Franck is only giving him a blow job. The caution this man won’t throw to the wind is not only gently ridiculed, but also contrasts with Franck’s attitude, which eschews the future to live in the moment. It’s possible to look at Franck’s fatal attraction as being akin to the search of the main character for a lover who will kill her in the 1977 Richard Brooks film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, but Franck is not the suicidal one here. The notion of a gay-hating serial killer picked up from the much-reviled Al Pacino vehicle Cruising (1980) is voiced by Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte), who pops up at the lake regularly like Lieutenant Columbo, comic, but unavoidable, as Guiraudie refuses to open up his film beyond the lake. His intense focus on this locale has the effect of demystifying gay cruising for straight audiences through an honest depiction of desire that transcends sexual orientation. In this context, the explicit sex in the film is not pornographic, but an organic part of the world Guiraudie is trying to explore.
One wonders why Franck doesn’t run fast and far from Michel after what he has witnessed. Certainly, linking sex and death is nothing new—Gloria Grahame was more turned on by Robert Ryan in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) after she asked him if he ever killed anyone, and Vanessa Paradis seemed to orgasm when carnival performer Daniel Auteuil threw knives at her in Girl on the Bridge (1999). It is usually not the aim of such foreplay, however, to actually end in death. More likely, Franck has been caught by the devouring charisma many emotionally damaged people give off that traps so many would-be rescuers and innocents who mistake their immediate connection with discovering a soulmate. Franck says after only a couple of meetings with Michel that he thinks he is falling in love, and Michel says all the things that would lead Franck to think he is feeling the same way, too. Only Henri sees Michel for what he is—an amoral psychopath who killed a possessive lover when he found someone he wanted more.
I found myself quite involved in this movie and concerned about what would happen to everyone. D’Assumçao exudes a pathos that nonetheless is grounded in reality. He tries to reach out to Franck, but knows that the young man is busy being young, and not a candidate to fill his empty heart. Paou is an implacable avatar of entitled desire—remorseless, sexually greedy, and quick to action. Deladonchamps, for all his sexual adventuring, seemed a bit like Bambi to me, particularly at the end of the film, when his plaintive cry was like a baby doe looking for its mother. By that time, we realize how much he’s made us care.
Stranger by the Lake screens Friday, October 18, 9:15 p.m. and Sunday, October 20, 4:10 p.m at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. in Chicago. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
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Director: Russ Meyer
By Roderick Heath
Roger Ebert’s death last week at the age of 70 brought on a wealth of lionising appreciations and articles, most of which celebrated the obvious and salient fact that he was a dean of mainstream American film criticism. There was another Ebert, however, a side the renowned critic was half-embarrassed by later in life, and one that his one-time partner in critical volleying Gene Siskel often used as a punch-line. Ebert had been a gaudily talented, furtively scurrilous dilettante screenwriter who collaborated with, of all people, Russ Meyer, the closest thing American cinema has ever had to a Rabelais. Ebert wrote three films for Meyer, two under pseudonyms: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Up! (1976), and Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979), all frenetic, comedic, deliriously eroticised satires that contemplate the sheer randy zest of the American populace in filmmaking that moves as if demonically possessed. This collaboration between Meyer, who had risen slowly from independent sexploitation productions to signing a three-picture contract with 20th Century Fox, and Ebert, a Midwestern film nerd with a literate intelligence blended with hip, ruthless wit that was carefully leavened by his later persona as cuddly advocate, could only have happened in 1970. This, of course, was when Hollywood was desperate to connect with youth audiences who, even then, were the life blood of cinema attendance, but whose tastes were notoriously hard to cater to. Asked to create a follow-up for Mark Robson’s famously awful, enormously successful 1967 hit Valley of the Dolls, adapted from Jacqueline Susann’s bestseller, Meyer and Ebert transformed the project into their own freewheeling satire on both the Hollywood scene, which had been infected by the counterculture but still offered excess par excellence, and the Hollywood product itself.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls traces essentially the same arc of morality play about talented, pretty youngsters who hit Los Angeles hoping for fame and fortune but find the seedy underbelly of the Dream Factory. Susann’s story had the appeal of both waggling illicit and vicarious thrills under the nose whilst reinforcing prejudices for the receptive. Meyer and Ebert provide thrills illicit and vicarious alright, through the veil of mimicking the forms and platitudes of soap operas, magazine editorials, talk radio shows, and parochial moralists. The cast’s uncertainty as to whether they were in a comedy or not, an uncertainty enforced by their fear of embarrassing Ebert by having to ask, explains and surely contributed to the film’s volatile temperament: the motifs are authentic, the style ridiculous, the vulgarity supreme, and the emotions often strangely real. Indeed, that uncertainty says a lot about how silly much of Hollywood’s bread-and-butter output is. Funny thing is, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls has a perversely acute prognosticative streak under its cheeky leer: Ebert’s script riffed on the then still-reverberating shock and notoriety of the Manson murders, and chose as his villain a figure based loosely on Phil Spector, who much later would reveal a genuine homicidal side to his outsized eccentricity. At a time when all-female rock bands were practically unheard of, Meyer, a professional libertine, and Ebert, dipping his toe in that pond, drummed up a film about one that became a sort of incidental founding text: watching Floria Sigismondi’s much undervalued The Runaways (2011) about that breakthrough act feels like art imitating life imitating art. Similarly, Beyond the Valley helped to invent a subgenre making fun of the licentious fantasies the explosion of the pop music scene in the ’60s engendered in the public consciousness, to be followed by films like Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984), and creating in such a film an ironic touchstone for people who really aspired to success in music.
Beyond the Valley begins with The Kelly Affair, an all-girl rock band composed of ballsy but cute singer Kelly MacNamara (Dolly Read), doe-eyed bassist Casey Anderson (Cynthia Myers), and sassy black drummer Petronella Danforth (Marcia McBroom), playing for a high school dance. Harris Allsworth (David Gurian) is their manager and Kelly’s boyfriend. Fed up with such paltry scenes, they decide to drive out to L.A. to pursue major success, where Kelly visits her aunt and last remaining family member, Susan Lake (Phyllis Davis), a successful fashion designer and sole inheritor of the large family estate, because Kelly’s mother had been disowned as a single mother. Susan, charmed by Kelly, wants to give her a cut of the inheritance, but her scheming, square lawyer Porter Hall (Duncan McLeod) objects, calling Kelly a fraud. Success proves instantaneous for The Kelly Affair, thanks to their introduction by Susan and Porter to flamboyant music promoter Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John LaZar), whose nightly parties, explosions of hip debauchery, are infamous.
Z-Man is immediately taken with Kelly and, after changing the band’s name to The Carrie Nations in reference to the saloon-smashing suffragette, he turns them into a sensation. But the shadow of success and all its evils now falls upon the band, as the cornucopia of sex, drugs, and money they now have access to puts them at the mercy of vampires of many kinds. Kelly is pulled away from Harris, who regards Z-Man and his world dubiously, and thrust into the arms of muscly Aryan gigolo Lance Rocke (Michael Blodgett). Harris then gives in to the attentions of greedily sensual porn starlet Ashley St. Ives (Edy William). Petronella falls for a law student moonlighting as a waiter at Z-Man’s parties, Emerson Thorne (Harrison Page), but in a distraught mood, sleeps with hot-blooded boxing champ Randy Black (Jim Iglehart). Casey, disaffected with men, heads into a lesbian affair with Susan’s collaborator Roxanne (Erica Gavin).
What follows is a remorseless burlesque on the tropes and conceits of trashy melodramas, inflected with Meyer and Ebert’s determined indulgence of that trash. Meyer was a contradictory figure: an extremely talented filmmaker with one of the best eyes for shot and cut in American cinema at the time, he was nonetheless extremely happy to celebrate the niche he found for himself as Hollywood’s greatest sex fiend, whilst playing the waggish commentator on the state of the nation’s bedroom life and psyche. Ebert’s film nerd streak comes out in some fairly obvious touches, like naming Porter Hall after the ubiquitous player of craven roles in ’30s films. A weird flourish that kicks the movie off suggests an immediate and forceful attempt to jam the film’s excessive and gaudy aesthetic in the audience’s faces, and also doubles as another film freak joke, as the climactic scenes unspool under the opening credit. Thus, the film plays the noir game of setting up a shift into flashback (and it should be remembered that Beyond the Valley, like most of Meyer’s films, becomes a noir tale, filtered through a distorting prism), but with the added gag of the credits being styled like the closing credits, as if the projectionist has messed up the reels. The utter bizarreness of what’s glimpsed on screen in this opening does eventually make sense later—well, sort of.
The riotous cornucopia of pansexual and pharmaceutical indulgence that is Z-Man’s abode provides a gladiatorial arena for much of the drama, with Z-Man its deliciously weird master of ceremonies. Kelly’s first entrance to his house is a brilliant display of both Meyer’s visual technique and Ebert’s cheekily loquacious writing, with Z-Man introducing Kelly to each of the vital figures of the upcoming drama with a stream of airily literate descriptions: “Languid Roxanne finds beauty, that delicate pinch of feminine spice with which she often flavours her interludes. Ah, look there, Lance Rocke! Greek god and part-time actor. See how well he performs? The golden hair, the bedroom eyes, the firm young body, all are available for a price!” Z-Man’s ornate word flow and status as unofficial narrator anticipates the more sustained experiment in narration in Ultra-Vixens, and also, weirdly, has a certain rhythm in common with Ebert’s speaking style in his later TV days. Meyer does spectacular work here as he leaps from character to character, interaction to interaction, entwining conversations, many between dancing people, into a rhythmically pulsing visual music, as it is in an earlier montage where his images and the arguments of the band over heading to L.A. turn into a kind of audio-visual beat poetry.
A certain loopy, sarcastic poetry does indeed inflect Ebert’s script, especially through the fount of verbose entertainment that is Z-Man. His declaration about his own party, “This is my Happening and it freaks me out!”, turns ephemeral hipster slang into Shakespearean epigram, whilst he later admonishes Lance, “I accept your fealty and do nobly return it, and beseech you to get thine ass in gear and gird thine angry loins,” and segues into his immortal cry of lunatic offence, “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” Reminiscent of Jay Robinson’s fey Caligula in The Robe (1954) whilst anticipating Joel Grey’s pansexual emcee in Cabaret (1972) but more fundamental to the drama, Z-Man is the singular brilliant creation of Beyond the Valley. The spirit and embodiment of an unfettered, polymorphous age, Z-Man fancies himself as Virgil, the orchestrator of tours through Hades, as well as the seductive Mephistopheles dangling temptation, and finally succumbing to it himself, as his own bizarre secret is exposed in the course of sexual humiliation—he’s a hermaphrodite, or a transvestite, or something (Lance calls him “a really ugly broad”) a twist made up almost at the last minute by Ebert, but anyway he runs about for the rest of the film with dinky little tits out—sending him spiralling into a homicidal delirium.
If there’s a weakness to the film, it’s that it mimics the structure of what it’s sending up a little too faithfully (a common fault of such send-ups; 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a recent example), laying out the separate travails of the band and the people they know in overdrawn but not always hugely funny terms. Kelly is manipulated by Lance and abused by Porter, whom she seduces although he’s so uptight he won’t even take off his socks before getting into bed, in a sequence that can best be described as slightly amusing. Emerson catches Petronella and Randy in bed and then gets run down by the boxer when he refuses to budge from in front of his car. Like many of the professional women in the melodramas exemplified Douglas Sirk’s camp works, Susan is rescued from the sterility of success when her former boyfriend Baxter Wolfe (Charles Napier) comes back into her life. Harris, increasingly addled and made impotent by narcotics, is soon given the boot by Ashley, who contemptuously suggests he might be gay, and in steaming humiliation he assaults the lippy Lance in Z-Man’s house. Badly beaten, he retreats to Casey’s house where they get stoned and sleep together, only for Casey to awaken the next morning without remembering how it went down, and throw Harris out in horror. But Beyond the Valley’s wicked streak finally crystallises when the story lines collide in a hospital waiting room after Harris has attempted suicide by throwing himself from the rafters of a TV studio where the band was performing. A stream of shocking revelations, including the fact Casey is pregnant by Harris, who’s feared to be paralysed, is accompanied by a droning organ score of the type endemic to soap opera. A kind of critical mass of absurd tropes is reached, and the only place for the narrative to go is into orgiastic self-destruction, something Z-Man is happy to provide.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls bemused and delighted many critics and viewers upon release and ever since for largely the same reasons: through its unabashed willingness to pander precisely the things it was sending up, its an excessiveness of style and attitude, and its eruptive, declarative embrace of what was supposed to be, in more familiar style, winking or happenstance pleasures for stoned collegians and raincoat-clad weirdoes. In this fashion, the director and screenwriter helped to erect something that others had tried but without the cred or the contempt for boundaries: studied, self-reflexive camp (one that pays tribute to an earlier effort by having Casey and Roxanne dress as Batman and Robin, famously camped up on TV in the 1960s).
The peculiar achievement of Beyond the Valley lies therefore in its capacity to strike one viewer as very obviously a lampoon and leave another uncertain, even appalled. The director and writer’s sensibilities are beautifully simpatico, particularly at the very end where Ebert serviced Meyer’s “sick sense of humour” by providing a ridiculous run-through of the characters’ fates in a plummy voiceover that points out the moral of each of their stories, underlining the vapid veneer of moralising assumed by much popular entertainment that actually appeals to base instinct. But there’s an undercurrent that keeps one mindful that Meyer really was the trash auteur where Ebert was a talented dilettante: where you can hear Ebert cackling with laughter bent over his typewriter, Meyer’s lower, debauched chuckle is also audible, as he always finds the money shot, throwing random huge-breasted starlets at the screen and going for broke with a startling moment when a woman is shot in the mouth to a rapidly edited but still spectacularly gruesome glimpse of spurting blood.
Meyer was definitely a director well-schooled in the perverted arts, but he also had a unique, sinuous grasp on the shifting tides of his public, sneaking observations and provocations with strange and disorienting punch into his sex farces. Ebert approached the affair as a mocking pastiche of everything he found silly in popular entertainment and our receptivity to them; for Meyer carnal forces lay deeper, less separable from more proper forms of entertainment, eating away at surface stabilities. A hint of meta self-satire is introduced as Meyer casts his then-wife William as the man-eating porn star (Meyer would close the circle with Ultra-Vixens, turning his own directing into part of the film) who, like Tura Satana in Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965), inverts sexist prerogatives as an aggressively Amazonian libertine who humiliates Harris for his inability to perform. One of Meyer’s most sublime cinematic gags comes when Ashley first seduces Harris, enticing him into the back seat of her luxury car after Harris says he’s never made love in a Rolls-Royce and inspiring her orgasmic reverie, intercut with shots of gleaming hood ornaments: “There’s nothing like a Rolls – not even a Bentley! – Bentley! – Bentley!” Conspicuous consumption indeed, in a scene that beautifully condenses both Meyer’s contemplation of the relationship of sex and money in American society and his own love of the jump cut with sexual technique. The swanky photography by Fred Koenekamp buries the fairly low budget with gloriously overheated hues and worshipful studies of flesh, particularly in a brilliant late montage the depicts Z-Man’s fateful last bacchanal where he, Lance, Casey, and Roxanne take drugs and spiral into ecstatic tactile passion, bathed in sensual hues of green, blue, and red, in a riotous succession of off-kilter angles, geometric figure studies, and jammed-tight close-ups, orgiastic indulgence about to transmute into onanistic rampage.
Where Faster, Pussycat! had diagnosed repression and obsessive, degenerative machismo as secretly crippling atomic-age America and predicting an age of Amazonian superwomen rising out of its ashes, Meyer here, with Ebert’s help, reconnoiters the fallout of the breakdown he predicted. Norms collapsed, generations split, genders melted into a primordial chaos, and alternative and mainstream cultures each sought to exploit the other—late ’60s hip culture crashing headlong into haute capitalist power games. Both men readily admitted they knew little about the counterculture, but that didn’t matter: in fact, it became their secret strength. “Come on, man. I doubt if you’d recognise a hippie,” Kelly jabs at Porter: “I’m a capitalist, baby. I work for my living, not suck off somebody else.” If there’s a “serious’ aspect to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, it’s in its evocation of a very specific moment in popular culture where social and sexual givens were cracking open: Meyer and Ebert give us an upwardly mobile, seriously conceived black couple and an ardent lesbian pairing, amidst the already familiar squares versus cool kids drama that pits Kelly against Hall, an uptight prig who upbraids the young hipsters around Z-Man and attacks Kelly with special viciousness in his efforts to send her packing before Susan endows her with the money he hopes to bilk. But unlike the many attempts to capture the counterculture zeitgeist in films before it, Beyond the Valley has already moved into a vantage of intense irony regarding that schism. It’s clear in retrospect that Ebert and Meyer recognised that youth revolution had already become theatre, and that the Me Decade was about to begin, presaged by Z-Man’s monstrous formlessness.
The open-minded aspect of the moment was still celebrated and perhaps indeed furthered by this film’s boldness. But it’s quite obvious that the clash between the candy-coloured hippies represented by Kelly and the effete, venal establishment embodied by Porter has already become a cartoonish trope as corny as anything in the soap operas the filmmakers repeatedly reference, fitting in perfectly with the film’s overall R-rated proto-Scooby Doo aesthetic. This is not to say the film is cynical about liberation, but it does have a wryly observant take on some aspects of it: the tendency of modern fashion toward androgynous skinniness is diagnosed in an exchange between Susan and one of her gay designers who keeps complaining about a model’s capacious bust, to which Susan retorts that “you must reconcile yourself to the fact that Cynthia is not a boy.” (If boob-happy Meyer was bound to find anything objectionable in contemporary gender revisions, that was it.) Still, the transposition of a fairly familiar brain-vs.-body romantic choice onto a black woman, who is caught between Randy, who posits himself as a sensitive warrior-poet but is actually a lunatic macho, and the smoother aspirational charm of Emerson, whose path to success is slower and more exacting, captures the “which way now?” question hanging over the post-civil rights era in the African-American community more incisively than many more earnest mainstream takes on the matter. More problematic is the approach to Casey and Roxanne’s affair, which offers up some canards about lesbians—Casey is weepily misanthropic whilst Roxanne is manipulative—but is essentially generous, if only because, in a note that pays off with a gloriously shameless make-out scene that affirms the audience’s voyeuristic pleasure but also critiques it again through excess, Meyer’s affectionately rubbernecking way of saying that liberation is a win/win situation, folks.
By this time, Meyer has given us “Stranger in Paradise” as a musical cue when Z-Man grabs Lance’s cock. The film’s last phase explodes with visions of disintegrating reality and pansexuality segueing into body-in-pieces Freudian fantasy, complete with distraught Z-Man asserting phallocratic power over Roxanne by jamming a gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out, and hacking off the head of Lance, reducing him to a purer lust object. Thus, Z-man brings to a consummating explosion the breakdown of forms into constituent bloody pieces. He also shoots Casey and stabs to death his household servant Otto (Henry Rowland), who’s actually Nazi bigwig Martin Boorman, a weird recurring trope in Meyer and Ebert’s collaborations: in Ultra-Vixens it’s Hitler himself spending his declining years finding fulfilment in erotic dalliance in the American Midwest. The readiness of the rest of the band and their now settled partners to leap to Casey’s rescue, albeit too late, is itself hilarious, as Harris saves the day by crashing into Z-Man with his wheelchair and thereby regaining his ability to walk.
The whole show concludes with a triple wedding for Harris and Kelly, Petronella and Emerson, and Susan and Baxter, whilst Porter watches from outside, ruined by his machinations, the final gloating satire on the moral neatness of melodrama but also linking the story back to Shakespearean pastoral, from which this mode of storytelling draws much of its spirit. If Z-Man’s rampage is surprisingly potent, this scene, and the exposition of the narrator giving us the lowdown on the meaning of it all, concludes the film again on a note of giddy, laugh-yourself-sick excess. But it’s hard not to notice that with Casey and Roxanne sacrificed as victims to Moloch’s twisted breeding with Pan embodied in Z-Man and the remaining couples joined in wedded bliss, the party is surely over. All that’s left after dissolution is reconstitution: reenter the squares, stage right.
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The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film
Director: Henry King
By Roderick Heath
If The Sea Hawk is the working model of the old-fashioned swashbuckler, The Black Swan is its disreputable younger brother, a study in lascivious über pulp in rest and motion. Starring Tyrone Power, Errol Flynn’s chief rival for the mantle of swashbuckling heartthrob during the late 1930s-1940s, in one of his nearly a dozen collaborations with director Henry King, The Black Swan is another essential genre avatar. King, a cinema pioneer and usually a soberly artful, thoughtful director, here threw out the niceties and reduces the serious themes of the Curtiz-Flynn model to window dressing. He charges through the narrative like a whirling dervish to wrap up his narrative in 84 minutes of Technicolor-swathed foreplay. The theme usually treated cheekily, even suggestively, but ultimately decorously in Flynn’s movies, the dance of dangerous seduction between roguish outlaw and a prim lady fair like Olivia de Havilland, is here transmuted into an extended S&M fantasy. Apart from Duel in the Sun (1948), The Black Swan is, in its circuitous way, quite the filthiest, mind-bogglingly kinky and campy film I’ve seen from a major Hollywood studio in the 1940s. Whilst The Sea Hawk took the oncoming mood of war seriously enough to sail on those ill winds, The Black Swan is entirely a rejection of contemporary reflection, except perhaps in its aggressive underlying celebration of warrior masculinity as a newly desirable ideal.
Some of the films that helped to invent what would later be called the camp aesthetic (and The Black Swan surely is one, along with the likes of Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman  and the most florid Bette Davis and Joan Crawford melodramas) welled out of the underground reservoirs of this seemingly more serious era’s frenetic anxieties and perfervid fantasies, which would also disgorge film noir. Shot in Technicolor that pools with the luscious vivacity of Renaissance art, all the better for soaking up the texture of leading lady Maureen O’Hara’s vulva-red lips and the hues of Earl Luick’s costuming, The Black Swan prefigures the painterly aesthetic of King and Power’s fine later collaboration, Captain from Castile (1947). But whereas the latter film was coolly resplendent in its use of storybook colour and offered its melodramatic story as a sober epic, The Black Swan is little more than a romp through the tropes of the pirate movie.
Working from a script by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller adapted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel, King whirls through what should be a first act of a standard swashbuckler film in a solid 20 minutes of delirious fights and captures, rape and bondage, torture and pistol brandishing, door-entering and stair-climbing, that starts to play like French bedroom farce done in buccaneer costume. This is, as an opening title tells us in a manner suggesting cowriter Hecht lampooning his archly romantic foreword scrawl for Gone with the Wind (1939), a “story of the Spanish Main — when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was — Love, Gold, Adventure.” The very first shot, of a young Hispanic gallant serenading his lady love far below her high balcony, hits a romantic note the film only wants to subvert. Within moments, the Spanish Caribbean port is infiltrated by a band of English privateers who leap from the rooftops to overwhelm the guards and plunder the town of everything that can be carried away; the pirates are glimpsed hefting tethered girls onto their ship like sacks of grain.
Pirate captains Jamie Waring (Power) and Billy Leech (George Sanders) celebrate by getting sozzled on the beach with two trussed maidens wriggling like puppies at their feet. Leech makes a play for figurative fellatio as he tries to force one captive to drink from his mug, but as she resists, he instead splashes his symbolic seed all over her face. Spanish soldiers resurge from the night, driving out the pirates and capturing Waring, who is then stripped to the waist and hung on the governor’s rack for a little gratuitous torso-ripping and rippling. Now it’s Waring getting the wine goblet/penis substitute waved in his face. Thankfully, in bursts Waring’s chum Tommie Blue (Thomas Mitchell) with a relief party, and soon it’s the Spanish governor on the rack. Jamaica’s British governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), comes downstairs to intervene, protesting that England and Spain have now made peace, but Waring, even more infuriated, has him promptly hurled into the dungeon as a traitor. His daughter, Margaret (O’Hara) descends too, wielding a pistol and demanding to know her father’s location: Waring swats the gun from her hand and tries to kiss her as prelude to ravishing her, but the arrival of Waring’s friend, Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), distracts him so much he drops Margaret like so much laundry under his arm. Morgan’s arrival doesn’t mean, however, that the pirating business will continue as usual. Morgan, whom all of his pirating friends thought had been hung in London after being captured and shipped there by Denby, has returned as the new Jamaican governor, because he’s the only one who can persuade the pirates to hang up their cutlasses now that England has made peace with Spain—or, if he can’t, can use his knowledge to hunt them down.
Unsurprisingly, Morgan is initially spurned by Denby. Leech and fellow cutthroat Wogan (Anthony Quinn) in turn spurn the idea of giving up piracy, whilst Waring reluctantly sides with Morgan and Tommie. As he and Tommie escort Morgan into the governor’s mansion, they fight like children over the best rooms, and Waring eagerly claims Margaret’s former chamber, all the better to lounge upon her pillows to imbibe the scent she’s left on them. Tommie tries to impress a lady friend he’s picked up by making love to her in Margaret’s bed, only for Waring to catch them and kick them out. Waring tries to reinvent himself as a gentleman, or at least as close as he can get to one, in order to pursue Margaret in his new station. She, understandably, is less than thrilled initially, playing the cobra to his mongoose in a lengthy game where Waring tries to suppress his natural inclination to bend Margaret over the nearest barrel and have at it and play the gentleman suitor. When Margaret falls from her horse while fleeing from him, he tends to her in his approximation of gallant fashion, including peeling her eyes wide to check she hasn’t suffered a stroke and fetching her a drink of water using a lily pad as a cup, only for her to then clout him on the noggin with a stone. Waring has a love rival in the form of Denby’s foppish friend Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), a strutting ponce who seems by far the more ideal gentleman—except that Ingram is plotting to make himself extremely rich, destroy Morgan, and help Denby take back control of Jamaica by feeding information to Leech on where and when to attack ships, and how to avoid Waring and the other loyal captains under Morgan.
Piracy is to King as jewel thievery is to Lubitsch and Hitchcock: an extended mating dance. Whereas for the latter directors, that finer illicit occupation symbolised adult sexuality at its most sophisticated, piracy under King’s watch becomes a fundamental metaphor for baser, more primal processes, as the drama, whilst set nominally in a specific historical milieu, portrays a moment in human evolution that is far more remote, when animal needs and raw force give way to the relation of individuals. King isn’t the slightest bit interested in either the finagling of the villains or in delivering a comeuppance to Ingram—that’s left to be resolved after the final fade-out—but rather focuses purely on the randy energy of his stars, complemented with some neat action.
Power, who was King’s discovery, was catapulted to stardom after appearing in King’s Lloyd’s of London (1936) as an artful, but largely static romantic lead. When he played the title role in King’s 1939 drama Jesse James, and then the masked avenger in Rouben Mamoulian’s more classical The Mark of Zorro (1940), with an epic bout of swordplay between Power and Basil Rathbone that ranks as one of the most genuinely fierce ever filmed, Power became a legitimate rival to Errol Flynn as a swashbuckling idol. The air of physical discomfort that would beset Power increasingly in the later 1940s and 1950s owing to the inherited heart ailment that would finally kill him, was still nowhere to be seen, and he bounds through The Black Swan with the swaggering confidence of a movie star at full force: actually this was the next to last movie Power would make before he joined the Marines and served as pilot through the end of World War II. He was bisexual according to Hollywood scuttlebutt (but then, who wasn’t?), and certainly was no stranger to letting himself be eroticised on screen. He spends about a third of the running time of The Black Swan sans shirt, starting with an interlude of homoerotic torture.
O’Hara, on the other hand, seems to have possessed some innate quality that brought out the latent S&M fantasist in so many of the directors who worked with her: bound, gagged, and hooded in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939), kidnapped repeatedly and subjected to medieval torture in William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), dragged across country on her rear end at John Ford’s behest in The Quiet Man (1952), and thrown in for a bout of mud wrestling and spanking in Andrew V. McLaglen’s McLintock (1963). What was it about O’Hara that exposed the nakedly eager chauvinist in such filmmakers? Was it her capacity to seem at once rigidly proper and cast-iron in character, but also provocatively, lawlessly sensual under the surface? Certainly The Black Swan is predicated on just this balance, as the more ferociously contemptuous and dismissive O’Hara gets the more and more certain Waring is that Margaret secretly adores him. After he’s clobbered Ingram, who ill-advisedly tried to start a duel, he demands to know what on earth she sees in such a flop of a man. Margaret spits a stream of insults at him: “You black-hearted bully! What do you know about men or women or anything human? All you can do is shoot and kill and prey on women, with your beastly senses slobbering at the sight of anything fine!” Waring swishes his cape and struts off with a confident flourish: “I repeat my lass, you’ll have to choose between us, and very soon too.”
The idea of making an action-adventure movie as an excuse to put two roaring hot stars together was once one of the essential creeds of Hollywood; Howard Hawks was the past master of it. I recall a few years ago when watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), one of the direct descendants of this film and its brethren, how much I was struck by the blinding arc of electrochemistry between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley in one singular scene together. That chemistry was otherwise entirely ignored in the series, leaving us instead with Knightley’s romance with Orlando Bloom’s blockish ingénue and Depp to romance his own CGI simulacrums. It felt like an offence to cinema and nature, one neither Hawks nor King would have committed. The classic notion that the on-screen action is only an essential backdrop to the contemplation of human mating rituals is not necessarily a degradation of the adventure movie ethic; on the contrary, it has long been one of the genre’s distinctive traits. The essential motif of misconstrued character between potential lovers is again ancient, though the peculiar tweak it’s given here is that Margaret really isn’t wrong to mistrust Waring’s “reformed” character, given what we see of the way he acts, a pure caricature of troglodytic masculinity who obeys a fundamental belief in the truth of immediate biological reaction rather than any social nicety. Freudian and mythical symbolism is invoked as Waring plants a sword between his and Margaret’s beds as both a fittingly phallic and deadly totem of the space that must remain between them until the romance is finally mutual. Whilst it could hardly seem a greater distance from King’s next film, The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Black Swan treats playfully a theme that consistently preoccupied King in his more evidently personal works: characters attempting to transcend their character flaws and evolve towards a yearned-for state of grace and enlightenment, usually within the context of a great social moment that not only offers the chance for such transcendence, but also forces it.
Chief villains Sanders, who, equipped with his great bushy red beard and broad accent, seems to be relishing playing a less gentlemanly kind of rotter for once, and Quinn, sporting an eye patch, feel like avatars for the perverse, consuming pan-sexuality of the “pirate” breed, imps from the innermost realm of Waring’s psyche who must be defeated if he is to truly evolve as he says he wishes. When Waring and Margaret are forced to pretend to be married for the sake of fooling Leech, he comes snuffling into their room looking as if he very much like to climb into bed with both of them, brandishing a nightgown for Margaret that he seems to like the idea of wearing himself. Meanwhile, Quinn’s Wogan lounges shirtless in the window bay of his cabin.
Whether Waring really can evolve is the chief stake of the plot. He gives in, apparently, to his most anarchic impulses when, faced with a schism between ardour and duty, he haphazardly combines both by intervening to keep Margaret from marrying Ingram by kidnapping her, cueing another of O’Hara’s bondage scenes, as Waring ties her up and wraps a big thick gag about her yap. But once he has her on his ship, Waring tries to maintain a gentlemanly forbearance, even as circumstance dictates he pretend to be signing back on with Leech and Wogan. The necessities of political loyalty are also seen as essentially erotic, just like the dance of force and seduction, softness and hardness between Margaret and Waring; Morgan’s ennobling by the King and his new suppliance to authority demands he attempt to quash his former colleagues and the roguish activities he himself still wishes he could indulge, just as Waring must give up his ravaging.
Cregar’s gleeful performance as Morgan is another highlight of The Black Swan, walking an exact line between high comedy and imperial force, appearing initially in a vision akin to the climactic moment of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when King Richard reveals himself as nobility and order incarnate, as he appears unexpectedly, resplendent in the full Restoration drag. And yet Cregar’s Morgan constantly scratches underneath his mighty black wig of state and finally tugs it off in a fit of pique. He’s almost glad when the conspiracy of the snotocracy in Jamaica forces him to flee and find his only possible salvation in one last bit of seafaring action, to try to ensnare Leech and Waring, whom he believes really has turned rascal again. As a film, The Black Swan is a work of pure illustrative élan in the most classical Hollywood fashion. In avoiding standard swashbuckling until the finale, King pares back exposition to almost comic book proportions, like the course of an attack on a treasure ship depicted in swift montage, resolving with a victimised ship’s nameplate, still affixed to a broken piece of hull, drifting in the water. The early scene in which Leech and Wogan split from Morgan, with a pie-eyed Waring unable to actually decide whom he wants to follow, is a Hogarthian litany of seedy humanity and ye olde fakery. The ultimate sympathy of The Black Swan leans distinctly towards the pirates’ side, or at least the gentlemanly ones: Morgan considers chucking in his commission for a return to sea, having gotten a taste of the more refined buccaneering of politics and high society, whilst Waring’s swashbuckling prowess is finally proven to have heroic uses.
Whilst neglecting the usual action until its last reel, The Black Swan finally lets rip in one of the most visually inventive and dazzling action sequences of its era, making the fullest use of Leon Shamroy’s photography—he very deservedly won an Oscar for his work—and some ingenious special effects, including using a mixture of matte and model work to give the battling ships the kind of crawling liveliness that wouldn’t be much seen in such fare until the arrival of CGI. Waring, finally cut loose in action, cripples Wogan’s ship by cutting its rudder lines, causing the vessel to crash headlong into the shore, and then swims to and boards Leech’s ship to engage in the compulsory death-duel with his nemesis. Sanders, never pressed for much physical acting, nonetheless rises to the occasion with some surprisingly deft swordplay, making the final battle a convincingly feral clash. Waring is skewered in the hip by his opponent, giving him a terrible wound that nonetheless also hands him the chance to dispatch his enemy with one good jab to the belly. Of course, the spectacle of Waring’s selfless and prodigious derring-do, and his newly prostrate, weakened state, finally win Margaret over, and she contemptuously dismisses Morgan’s offer to see her beastly kidnapper hung. The final clinch, rather than offering Waring secure reinstatement into polite society, offers instead Margaret, now transmuted into a pirate wench, a sexually sovereign being who feeds back to Waring his own suggestive catchphrases (“I like to sample a bottle before I buy it”) and recites “Jamie Boy’s” name thrice according to an ancient and pagan nuptial vow. It’s as sexy as movie punchlines get.
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Director: Ken Russell
By Roderick Heath
Ken Russell’s death last week at age 84 felt like the last in an endless series of cheats the director had suffered in his lifetime. The eternally puckish Russell had been until quite recently continuing to amuse and instruct in newspaper columns, belying his advanced years with a still-guttering mental fire, and thus his death cheated him, and us, of hope of a last good film. Also, it comes at a time when something like Russell’s due was finally coming to him. Lately, Russell has begun to be celebrated as the great British rebel he was, and like many great British rebels, ended up exemplifying something about the society he fell into struggle with. In that regard he resembled D. H. Lawrence, the writer Russell adapted for his third, and first truly, personally definitive feature film, Women in Love. Purely by living long enough, Russell became an elder statesman of British film, an unlikely end as there was a time not so long ago when Russell’s audacious, rampantly energetic, entirely wilful cinema was a byword for something nasty and crazy and degraded. Indeed, some of Russell’s essential aesthetic beliefs – that creative passion was superior to refined style, that interpretative vibrancy was more important than fidelity, that the erotic and the vulgar had a deeper and more vital place in art than they had been allowed – were red rags to the bulls of cultural guardianship, especially as one of Russell’s favourite creative guerrilla tactics was to remind us of the compost out of which much great art grows. During the 1970s, when most of his generational fellows tried to carve out places for themselves in Hollywood and British cinema almost died from a lack of passion and confidence, Russell didn’t always stay home, but he did try to stay true to his creed, and continued to shake things up until his career began to stall in the late 1980s.
Women in Love came after Russell had reentered cinema with Billion Dollar Brain (1968), the third of Michael Caine’s delicious series of Harry Palmer spy flicks, but also after he had excited audiences and attentive minds with a series of electrifying TV movies and shorts in the previous few years. Women in Love came amidst a steady flow of highbrow literary classics tackled by the young heathens of British cinema in the ’60s, some flagrantly modernist and playful, like Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), some elegiac and expansive, like John Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1967). Russell’s take on Lawrence’s novel was something else again. Russell doesn’t seem to be filming Lawrence’s book so much as trying to live it out page by page. The superficially uncouth yet poetic, symbolic writer who tried to find the comprehensibility in things normally thought of as primal and vice versa, has been digested and defecated, reshaped into the literality of images and of feeling by Russell, who also poured his own emotional reflexes into it, and extracted in turn the potential in Lawrence’s material, true as he saw it when he wrote the book in the 1910s, to capture things nascent in the late ‘60s zeitgeist. Feminism in the form of Glenda Jackson’s ground-breaking performance and her character’s arc from frustrated parochial nonconformist to self-actualising femme du monde; frank homoeroticism in the infamous nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates; and sundry other fragments replete with satire, social observation, and philosophical yammering, which capture and distil that sense of import in the moment which distinguished the era. Would certain great cultural institutions survive as their foundations seemed now rotten? What was the future of human relations, between classes, between genders, when so much had gone wrong with them? Lawrence had tried to make the questions palpable, and Russell tried to capture with authenticity the way the questions had found new momentum.
In terms of actual story, of course, there’s an element of soap opera to Women in Love, depicting as it does two concurrent love affairs, one of which involves shattering social classes and ends in near-murder and then suicide. The soapy element is however what gives the intellectualism flesh. Some criticism was levelled at Women in Love for, however, keeping intact Lawrence’s loopy anti-realistic dialogue, but to adapt such a novel without trying to capture its depth of thought would have reduced it to a sex farce. Russell for the most part keeps them ably counterpointed with his animated, dynamic camera, a visual entity that reproduces the thrashing sense of life found in the characters. One of Russell and screenwriter-producer Larry Kramer’s more contentious touches was to relocate the novel to after the First World War, whereas Lawrence had been writing about the fin-de-siecle mood of bohemian boundary-stretching of the Edwardian era, and which the war had been used as a justification for repressing, a cultural war which Lawrence and his novel had been caught up in. But Russell makes this work for him, using the official pieties of dedicating war memorials and visions of mangled, poverty-stricken and begging veterans, to give immediacy and mordant pep to Rupert Birkin’s (Bates) oft-satirical, always frantic attempts to synthesise a modern kind of living, and the inevitable translation of this into terms of the film’s Vietnam-era anti-war mood. Russell also depicts flapper styles and jazz-age rags beginning to infest the hidebound British landscape, as its heroines in their wilfully colourful garb strut through grey and grimy streets and filth-clad working-class men, like Birds of Paradise nesting in Mordor.
These exotic birds are Gudrun (Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden), daughters of a schoolteacher who are themselves now teachers. Except that as members of their mining town’s small intelligentsia, they become intimate with some of its flashier figures, including Gerald Crich (Reed), son of the mine’s owner (Alan Webb), his friend Rupert, who works as a school inspector, through which capacity he first meets Ursula, and his pretentious aristocratic lover Hermione Roddice (Eleanor Bron). Rupert and Hermione’s relationship is foundering as he becomes increasingly cold and sarcastic about her affectations and greed for attention, coming to a head when he breaks up a self-indulgent dance she performs whilst trying to overshadow Gudrun and Ursula, by getting the accompanist to start bashing out a Charleston rag. Hermione, enraged by his scorn and her offended pretence to cultural imperium, tries to beat his head in with a paperweight, but he survives and runs away. Gerald, intrigued by the sisters, invites them to an annual party the Criches throw for their workers and other townsfolk, but during the party his younger sister Laura (Sharon Gurney) and her newlywed husband Tibby Lupton (Christopher Gable) drown whilst swimming naked in the estate lake. This tragedy catalyses both Ursula and Rupert’s and Gudrun and Gerald’s affairs, and also deepens Rupert and Gerald’s bond. But these relationships are fated to run very different courses, as Ursula’s conventional concept of love slowly reins in Rupert’s yearnings for multifarious relationships, whilst Gerald pours grief and anger into his partnering with Gudrun, who in turn drifts into an intellectual bond with a gay German artist, Loerke (Vladek Sheybal), when the quartet head off for a holiday in the Alps. In a nihilistic rage, Gerald strangles Gudrun almost to death, but then wanders off to freeze to death in the mountains.
Like Lawrence’s novel, most of the captivating, invigorating illustrative vignettes in Russell’s film are loaded into the first half: Tibby and Laura racing each other to the church on their wedding day; Gudrun dancing before bulls like a Cretan priestess, oblivious to danger and given up to art as life in the moment; Hermione’s assault on Rupert and his ritual-like stripping and self-cleansing afterwards in the forest; the fatal drowning of the couple and Rupert and Ursula’s frantic copulation in the bushes, transmuting death-angst into life-spark as the lake is drained to reveal the drowned bodies, the living and dead couples wrapped around each other identically; Gerald wielding the same controlling instinct he pushes on his workers on his horse, in forcing it to remain close to a speeding train; his crazed mother releasing guard dogs on workmen coming to the family mansion. It helps that Lawrence provided such episodes that stick like burrs in the imagination and gave a filmmaker such naturally intense images. Women in Love presents a panoply of thematic tropes and visual motifs Russell would play about with in increasingly effusive and unique terms, and it stands as a definite prototypical work for Russell, who would achieve his most personal and intense extremes in the likes of Ken Russell’s Film of Tchaikovsky and The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Mahler (1974).
Russell did his best work when he was fighting against limitations of not only censorship and cultural expectations but also assumptions of technical competence and traditions of quality – the tension between the formal beauty his traditionally trained cinematographers, editors, and studio hands could give his films and his own anarchic impulses was in fine balance in his ‘70s works. Here Russell’s filmmaking, with the incomparable aid of the great cinematographer Billy Williams, attacks with physical force. They often employ hand-held camerawork, not affected like so much modern wobble-cam stuff, but charged with sweeping energy, to give the film a hungry, compulsive feel. Russell did some of the hand-held work himself in trying to upset the classic delicacies of movie photography. The sense of production detail is impeccable in recreating the ‘20s, with much of the costuming authentic stuff picked up in op shops and thrift stores. Despite this, or maybe because of this, there’s a resistance to the sort of precious, muted air that afflicts most such historical movies, an effect deepened by the material, which in part subverts our stereotypes of the era’s behaviour and personal world-views, whilst also offering up shots like the Crichs’ golden car knifing its way through knots of filthy mine workers, a concise visual nugget that reminds us what all the bohemian cavorting is being supported by. There’s Russell’s own satirical jab back at Lawrence, who, trying to wrestle his way out of the usual class presumptions and rhetoric of his time, seemed to yearn to belong to the upper class bohemians of the Bloomsbury group he nonetheless satirised mercilessly in the novel.
One irony of Women in Love is of course that it could as easily have been called Men in Love, for Rupert and Gerald dominate as much as the two sisters, and Rupert’s channelling of Lawrence’s philosophical articulateness especially, in the first half. Rupert hopes overtly for a kind of deep platonic partnership to counterbalance the familiar man-woman marriage, wanting to establish a kind of blutbrüderschaft with Gerald, expressed after the pair beat hell out of each other in a bout of Japanese-style wrestling as Rupert encourages Gerald to release his emotions following his sister’s death. The nude wrestling scene is famous for some obvious reasons – it was the first time a mainstream English-language feature allowed frontal male nudity, and two big-name actors to boot. But what makes it still a riveting scene is how unabashedly the men carry it out, and how Russell shoots it, even given that he’d worked closely with the censor chief to carefully tweak light levels and framings, nonetheless the scene doesn’t feel especially self-conscious when British cinema had been notoriously clumsy with erotic themes and nudity. Instead Russell here does some of his most vivid editing, ending with the two men entwined like lovers even in inflicting violence on each-other, and indeed the violence takes the place of sexual and emotional release. Russell ratchets up the flicker of homosexual bonding between the pair, apparent in Rupert’s glitter-eyed attempts to get the stiff-necked Gerald to understand his offer of a kind of love. The male romance counterpoints the two more traditional romances, and also the crack-up of Rupert and Hermione’s affair, which mirrors what later happens with Gerald and Gudrun, but with the gender roles reversed.
Although it’s certainly a film with a director’s powerful imprint on it, much of the force and beauty of Women in Love comes from the cast, an almost perfect confluence of talent. Jackson won the Oscar, but the film offers ensemble work of a high character, although I feel Linden’s Ursula is more distinctly whiny and petty than she should be. Amongst the supporting cast, comprising many of Russell’s stock company of actors, Bron is a stand-out. She inhabits Hermione with a mixture of gruesome egotism and defined pathos, particularly excellent in the lengthy dance scene where she both displays physical deftness, but also puts across the peculiar form of violence she’s inflicting on her so-called friends and lover, before her own exclamation of aggrieved disbelief when Rupert tells her he didn’t mean to spoil her dance, “My arse!” Bates, whom Russell reported identified deeply with Lawrence, is fantastic as Rupert, a difficult part to play at the best of times, bringing out the emotional charge, hints of drunkenness, desperation, and bisexual longing throbbing beneath his airy pronouncements: whereas Jackson’s Gudrun communicates the thrill of wilful self-liberation, Rupert suffers from a darker knowledge, of knowing new human paradigms have to be invented to survive. Bates might be at his keenest in the moment when he expounds a lengthy comparison of the fig with femininity, a scene charged with multiple levels of character revelation and tension, as the metaphor means different things to each of the people listening to it. This moment encapsulates indirectly the shift of Rupert’s affections from Hermione to Ursula, as Rupert is being honest, witty, and caddish all at the same time.
Similarly riveting are Russell’s two signal muses, Jackson and Reed, whom he would later often try to replace but usually unsuccessfully. A more different pair in terms of personal outlook is hard to imagine, but both had gusto, fearlessness, and a confrontational style, that well matched Russell’s own. Reed, whom Russell had cast before in several of his telemovies including The Debussy Film (1966) and Dante’s Inferno (1965), and would use again in The Devils (1971) and other films, became an ideal vessel for his self-projection, for, as well as bearing a certain resemblance to Russell, he could exude a quality of poeticism filtered through a primitive bluntness. This is exactly correct for portraying Gerald, who in spite of his upper class background and machine-age ambitions, retains a kind of savage volatility in him which first seeks relief in Gudrun’s arms and then begins to metaphorically and then literally throttle her. One of the film’s most riveting scenes comes when, after his father dies and his mad mother has humiliated him, he stalks through the night, dressed as a working man, squeezing the mud from his father’s grave between his fingers and then sneaking into the Brangwen house, where he finds his oblivion in her bed. The next morning, in a marvellous volte face of point of view, she awakens with his bulk upon her, trapping her in bed.
Gudrun takes on Gerald as the only man fearsome enough to take her on, and she the only woman filled with enough energy for both creation and destruction to engage his innermost impulses. Early in the film as he parades about with hookers in one of town’s working class pubs, he encounters her slumming, taunting and despising the working men, one of whom she easily rattles by answering his come-ons with a stated desire to “drown in flesh.” Jackson, who would give another galvanising performance for Russell in The Music Lovers, seems to condense all of the other characters within herself, as well as a total intelligence that refuses to be pinned down, even as she chafes and occasionally shrinks before a world largely hostile to her, which she answers with prickly arrogance. Gudrun’s dance before the cattle, and her gestures throughout, channels the style of Isadora Duncan, about whom Russell had made a telemovie in in 1966. Russell almost always included a dance or mime sequence in his films. This recurring, crucial actualisation of the kinetic-creative force in his characters reflects Russell’s own adolescent training as a ballet dancer, and it’s often through such sequences that his truest, more elegiac impulses, and sometimes also his most humorous and surreal ideas, are communicated. A certain amount of homosexual panic, which underlies Gerald’s simultaneous closeness with and rejection of Rupert, erupts in him as Gudrun, who already tempts something destructive in him, drifts closer to Loerke. But Gerald’s world-view and private madness also can only finally find a sense of conclusion in a totally nihilistic gesture, leaving the film poised in an aspect of depletion and incompleteness, true to the novel, even as the characters all, in a way, find what they’ve been looking for. Of course, in Gerald’s case it’s a tragic end, but one that satisfies and takes to a limit his own impulses, and for the others there is a sense of cost and longing still inflecting their happily ever afters. Women in Love doesn’t so much end as stop, questions still in the air, the unease of the times still heavy upon characters, artists, and audience.
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Directors: Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman
By Roderick Heath
Before his sad death at age 52 from AIDS in the early ’90s Derek Jarman, had established himself as one of British cinema’s true enfants terrible. He helped define gay cinema, maintained an aesthetic guerrilla war against the Thatcher government of the ’80s, and claimed a corner of demanding, semi-abstract narrative filmmaking that took up challenges laid down by the likes of Ken Russell, Nicholas Roeg, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, but dragged them off in his own direction. Sebastiane, his first film, codirected with Paul Humfress, ventured into new realms of lucid, unveiled, homoerotic image-making, conflated with an effervescent intellectual blend of classicist humour and spiritual seriousness.
Unlike the odious Peter Greenaway, with whom Jarman shared dominance of the British arthouse scene in the ’80s, Jarman’s cinema was urgent and personal in its provocations and learned references, angrily ransacking the massed detritus of the European cultural tradition for forms and voices through with to articulate his peculiar aesthetic: following Sebastiane, his subjects included Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Marlowe’s Edward II, Caravaggio, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Based around the life and martyrdom of St. Sebastian, Humfress’ and Jarman’s film aggressively appropriates the barely veiled rendering of the saint as a sadomasochistic erotic object in Renaissance painting for their own ends, reconstructing him as a gay icon. Sebastiane has a claim to a certain distinction for being the first film made entirely in Latin, even going so far as to have a translator render patches of the dialogue in the vulgar form for deeper authenticity. As such, it stands as an influence—or at least prefiguration—of a film like Mel Gibson’s similarly antiquarian, S&M-hued religious work The Passion of the Christ (2003), a film motivated by polar opposite moral and philosophical urges.
Sebastiane actually follows a very familiar narrative line for religious epics, depicting the attempt of a pagan Roman to browbeat his rapturous Christian love object into surrendering his or her body and thus, implicitly, his or her ideals; in the likes of The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951), the love object was female. Here the love object is Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio), and the film is closer to the eroticised beefcake-suffering of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur (1959). In spite of the feeling of authenticity in the photography and the use of Latin dialogue, strict realism is a long way from Jarman’s mind, and this is soon apparent in the anachronistic touches that dot the film.
Sebastian is a favourite of Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley) and captain of his personal guard. The opening sequence depicts Diocletian’s court celebrating the birth of the sun in the time of his jubilee in a scene of Felliniesque excess. Male dancers sporting huge fake genitals tied to their groins dance around a man painted as a caricature of femininity, who is spread-eagle on the floor and mock group-raped, fake jism squirting on him, in a droll parody of Roman phallocratic sexuality and politics. It’s a stylised representation of what follows. Roman high society sprawls in decadence, suggested through a punkish mix of historically accurate tropes and glam rock pizzazz that includes the reigning whore supreme Mammea Morgana (played by punk emblem Jordan). Diocletian loses his temper with one of his toy-boys who is weeping for a man sentenced to death for one of the conflagrations started by Christian insurgents in Rome: the Emperor has the boy strangled. When Sebastian tries to intercede, Diocletian strips him of his rank and exiles him. The rest of the film takes place in Sardinian locations, standing in for the unnamed desert outpost to which Sebastian is exiled. Maximus (Neil Kennedy), also present in at the festivities, is posted to the same locale, and reports this directly to the audience.
In that hot, dry, unpopulated part of the Empire, Sebastian makes it clear that he’s become a Christian, and won’t train for fighting anymore with the other men. The commandant Severus (Barney James) abuses and humiliates him, a regimen that worsens when Sebastian won’t let Severus screw him, to demonstrate his contempt for browbeating power. The introductory scene has already made clear that this refusal to submit, to allow access to the body and, more importantly, to the private conscience, infuriates the representative of the dying regime. This theme, of the powerful figure that forces obedience and conformity, runs side by side with the religious and sexual themes; those three basic concepts—sex, power, spirit—constantly shade into each other but occasionally are shocked into polarisation.
Amidst the small band of soldiers, the leading personality is Maximus, a dirty-minded git with a false nose strapped to his face and a false penis sometimes strapped to his groin. He has a relentless hunger for amusement and dirty by-play, whilst the other bored, horny soldiers turn to each other for gratification after looking at dirty pictures. One of the soldiers, Justin (Richard Warwick), empathises with Sebastian’s plight and tries to understand his strange idealism, which, as Sebastian meditates on his own, seems partly composed of narcissism—making his prayers whilst gazing at himself in the water—and lust, as he wishes to be embraced by Jesus. Sebastian communes with his rugged landscape and prays, conflating the sun god Phoebus Apollo, whom Sebastian used to worship, with his version of Jesus. So the searing touch of the sun, of which Sebastian gets plenty when Severus has him staked to the ground as a punishment, is only more ecstatic bliss for him.
Like many beginner filmmakers with artistic ambition as well as an urgent intellectual position to articulate, Jarman—and it’s hard to doubt Jarman was the driving cinematic force here—gives into the tendency to indulge longeurs and pound select ideas into the ground. Early in the film, Jarman presents a beauteous sequence in which Sebastian awakens early in the morning and washes himself down in the morning sun, enjoying and idolising the physical sensations which are part and parcel with his spiritual understanding. Severus watches him with a predatory intent and fascination with a species of man beyond his experience. Jarman shoots the male body like he’s the first person to discover it, and in a manner of speaking, he is: he doesn’t just eroticise it, but also renders it as a universe unto itself.
But on occasion, Sebastiane starts to resemble a motion picture edition of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, except with sporty young guys frolicking and wrestling in the water rather than girls, lounging about in the sand, and cleaning their sweaty bodies in a Roman bath. The actors are barely clothed through much of the film, as Jarman said they didn’t have enough money for costumes. A lengthy sequence with two of the soldiers in an initially romantic clinch that gives way to them wrestling in the water, goes on forever, and though it clearly had political heft in 1976—Sebastiane pissed off people exactly as it was supposed to, though there are no literal sex acts in the film—it seems like soft-core self-indulgence now. And yet the evident erotic enjoyment is imbued with a hint of the alien, anticipating Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, as Jarman communicates a sense of the body as a thing of mystery and beauty in his languorous, slow-motion scenes of muscles flowing under skin with ineluctable beauty.
The body is a war zone throughout the film, strong and lustrous, yet also disturbingly vulnerable, easily damaged, abused, and controlled; the only riposte is the untouchable and inviolable soul, which is why Sebastian crushingly rejects Severus late in the film when he tells him he can have his body but never have his true, inner self. The scene in Diocletian’s court establishes the atmosphere of physical ferocity, where murder is casual and the entertainment a plain parable for rape and exploitation. Jarman jams his camera in the gruesomely made-up face of the “female” dancer writhing under faux-ejaculate, and the bloodied mouths of slaves as one strangles the other in a dizzying image of animalistic humanity. The Emperor’s exile of Sebastian is the necessary gambit to his assassination, and yet the remote location and the vagueness of their mission causes the men to feel the weight of whatever angst they suffer, from Maximus’s basic desire to get back to Rome and hole up with a prostitute, through to Severus’ inability to obtain his obsession, whilst Sebastian finds the path to his destiny through unimaginable cruelty. Jarman sets up dichotomies—abusive strength, religious fervour, Roman decadence—but doesn’t easily separate them. The basic joke is easy enough to grasp: the Christian in this context is the outcast, aberrant, abused figure, mocked for effeminacy and arrogance, not the homosexual. Jarman seems to be trying to depict a moment in time in which humanity evolved from a purely physical creature into something deeper and better, but also less coherent and natural.
Jarman doesn’t make the assailed Christian emblematic of a desexualised, denaturalised ideal about to supplant the free and easy paganism, however. Sebastian’s idealisation shares a certain homoerotic tone with John Donne’s Fourteenth Holy Sonnet (“Except you enthrall me, never shall be free/Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”), envisioning God as an invasive, beauteous, erotic force. Brian Eno’s eerie, electronic score pulsates throughout with spacey beauty, underscoring scenes alternately banal, bizarre, and violent, constantly suggesting weird, transformative potential. The images seem engaged in a perpetual search for signs of transcendence only to be found in a surrender to the utterly physical, a loss of distinction between world and self. Throughout the film flows a brand of humour blending poles of donnish esoterica and Carry On-style scatology, particularly when the soldiers stage death battles between beetles they name Messalina, Boadacea, Sappho, and Dido, imagining them in a mass lesbian rape, and those passages of vulgar Latin proliferate in the soldiers’ excited sexual language. At one point Sebastian demonstrates for Justin a dance he used to do for the sun god in Rome, which Maximus sees and satirised feverishly before the other soldiers as he pretends to make love to a pig. Kennedy’s earthy performance dominates the film, playing Maximus as a human being with no high ideals, violently contrasting Sebastian’s elevated aspirations, and appointing himself the chief persecutor of the Christian until Severus orders him to stop.
As its story unfolds, Sebastiane displays surprising similarities to the likes of Platoon (1986): amongst its many aspects, one that emerges strongly is its portraiture of the volatility of soldiers, beset with rampant sensual hunger while trapped in an existentially ambiguous exile in distant territory. Perhaps the likeness isn’t coincidental, as Jarman surely had the Vietnam War and the soldiers who fought it on his mind, as well as any regimen of forced social normalisation. As the film entwines sexual, political, and spiritual anxiety, cranking up on virtually subliminal levels, the casual sex that some of the soldiers indulge contrasts Severus’ building hysteria in his need to dominate Sebastian and force his surrender. He has Maximus and the others snatch and beat Justin to a pulp, and Sebastian dragged to Severus’s cell where he plans to rape him; instead, he only reaps his own humiliation, and so, as in many a horror movie, erotic unease is deflected into physical destruction, as this finally makes Severus decide to have Sebastian killed. In the glare of day on a rocky plain, Sebastian is tied to a pole, where the soldiers, several stark naked, riddle him with arrows. Even the bloodied and barely conscious Justin is manipulated into firing a bolt. Sebastian’s martyrdom sees the ironic fulfilment of his desire to physical communion with his god and of Severus’ desire to penetrate him in a welter of blood. In a point-of-view shot from Sebastian on his pole, the world is suddenly rendered in the distortions of a fish-eye lens, inverting space and changing the devastated plain and his torturers into a permeably false reality. It’s one of the most grotesquely beautiful scenes ever shot, and galvanises Sebastiane’s final haunting effect.
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Director/Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
By Roderick Heath
Among those in the wave of new German cinema to emerge from the mid-1960s and into the ’70s, the most restless, protean, and tragic figure was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder’s relentless pace of work between 1970 and his death in 1982 would have been admired by old studio pros, whilst maintaining the strictest standards of artistic experimentation and expressive engagement. Fassbinder’s importance as a film artist manifested on several levels: in his rummaging through cultural detritus and worship of Douglas Sirk, he was a pop ironist, but also a fearless innovator and a key inventor of queer cinema. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, an adaptation of his own play, is considered one of the pivotal works in his career in that he gained complete control over various themes and stylistic impulses here, ironically by zeroing in on the most limited drama imaginable: the film never leaves the ground floor of the title character’s house, and barely even moves from her bedroom space. As has proven true for many of the best directors, the challenge of such a limited, theatrical setting stimulated the most refined cinematic reflexes in Fassbinder: the visual style of Bitter Tears is subtly epic and consistently, arrestingly beautiful.
Petra (Margit Carstensen), our antiheroine whose capacious bed is the centrepiece of the film’s geography, story, and the fraught emotional and sexual warfare about to take place, is awakened by her servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), who draws up the blinds, abruptly showering Petra with sunlight. Petra’s at a crossroads in her life: a former model and jet-setting wife now gaining fame as a designer, she relishes requests for work from fashion houses that had turned her down not long ago. Petra’s marriage ended within the past couple of years, and she has a teenage daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes), who is a milk-fed calf of the most innocent and irritating sort.
Petra is visited at the outset by her sister, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), who’s lodged comfortably in a standard relationship with her husband, a baron, and she attempts to understand Petra’s lengthy, abstract explanation of why her union with her once slavishly adored husband Lester failed. Sidonie trumpets her own success in achieving a familiar balance in her own union—she lets her husband maintain an illusion of authority, but gets her own way in the end. This is precisely the kind of dishonesty Petra dislikes, for the refusal to sink into such hypocrisies defined her marriage, which actually disintegrated when she began to outearn her husband. Accompanying Sidonie is a young friend of hers, Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), who instantly fixates Petra. When Petra invites Karin to come back later, she does, dressed, like Petra, in the most ornate and displaying clothes imaginable. After a delicate process of teasing out Karin’s troubled past, including the fact she’s recently abandoned her Australian husband, Petra declares her love for the girl.
What follows is the definition of a chamber piece, but Fassbinder renders his limited setting almost impossibly lush by several tricks of décor, including, most obviously, a wall covered with a detail from Nicolas Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus,” with a nymph’s feminine form prominently sprawled. Mannequins and busts to support Petra’s array of wigs lend a kind of immobile chorus to the proceedings, and later, to mock her own situation, Petra arranges those mannequins in sexual positions. Fassbinder uses the layout of the apartment for the most cunning effects of mise-en-scène, like having Marlene watch Sidonie and Petra from a another room via two windows and fingering the glass with hopeless, alienated angst, or, later, using a bench top to divide the frame in such a way as to perfectly realise the sudden schism between lovers. He even plays games with the amount of available space in the apartment: in early scenes, Petra’s bed dominates the set, but later it’s pushed away so that Petra’s bedroom is a great wilderness of white shag carpet in which she flounders in an alcohol-pickled rage. The almost maddening closeness of the space is pushed even further in the scene of Petra’s seduction of Karin, as Marlene, present as always yet rendered a nonperson by Petra’s regime, bangs away relentlessly on a typewriter, her noise almost omnipresent and yet unprocessed. Pointedly, Marlene only stops typing, as she had earlier stopped working, when Petra begins to speak of her own failed amours. Marlene’s desire for knowledge of Petra’s mental landscape is matched only by Petra’s complete uninterest in the mental landscape of others.
That’s not to say that Petra is intended as a villain, but she is a thoroughly flawed human whose prejudices, blind spots, and self-delusion are gnawed to the bone as if by a school of piranha. Fassbinder’s drama carefully warps perspective and emotional response with such skill that it’s possible to hate and empathise with every character. Petra is able to write herself into the role of the distraught Pygmalion spiralling in despair of the amoral, ice-cold work of art she’s given birth to and been betrayed in the lowest way when Karin abruptly abandons her to return to her husband, now armed with the contacts and experience she’s gained as a model. But Karin, even in her stony, apparently contemptuous kiss-off, insists she loved Petra in her own way—that of a blithe young swinger whose willingness to take advantage of situations she stumbles into shouldn’t be confused with Petra’s own still instinctively materialist concept of love: having spurned her husband for trying to assert economic control over her, Petra has simply repeated the process.
As a fashion designer, Petra is an artist after a fashion, but a lazy one—she has Marlene do the colouring in her sketches—and her art form is always implicitly one of altering surfaces as though those acts could reconstruct the interior. Thus, putting on make-up and dressing are elaborate and overt acts throughout: Petra, after her rude awakening by Marlene, goes through the paces of adorning herself until she’s the image of what she wants to be: an empress, in command of the erotic, the fiscal, the emotional, and the social. Later, when she meets Karin, they have both dressed up in a fashion that’s both flesh-revealing and ornate: they’re like super-stylised fantasies of ’30s high fashion, pagan priestesses forming a new cult of love and ditzy narcissists all at once. It’s camp, of course, but subtler and less overtly amusing than that form is usually seen to be: Fassbinder’s love of femme glamour and formalist aesthetics is tempered by a coolly unsentimental, relentless study of games, pretences, cruelties, and vulnerabilities.
Rhetorically, Fassbinder achieves a number of entwined, but distinct ends. Overt gay themes were still relatively fresh to the screen in 1972, and Fassbinder’s disquiet about exploring his own homosexuality is partly distilled through the use of lesbians (he’d get around to looking at gay men with 1974’s Fox and His Friends). But that is not to mistake the film for naïve or shy in any fashion, and it’s a choice he makes the most of, considering he could also encompass questions of women’s lib and social restructuring through his protagonists here in a uniquely holistic tale. Fassbinder manages to tease the strands apart with surprising care at the end, chiefly through the late entrant to the tale, Petra’s mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), who separates her surprise and emotional uncertainty over her daughter’s homosexuality (“My daughter loves a girl…how peculiar!”) and her solicitous rebukes over Petra’s willingness to hurt others to make herself feel better. Thus, Petra’s sexuality and her personality are carefully distinguished. Petra’s in rebellion against familiar patriarchal structures and convenient fictions, but also utterly in thrall to them and, though she doesn’t perceive it, she’s actually an enforcer of a system of power. She emphasises the freedom that she and Lester sought in their marriage, which finally curdled when financial freedom was in her grasp (“That way, oppression lies, that’s obvious. It’s like this, ‘I hear what you’re saying, and, of course, I understand, but who brings home the bacon?’”), at which point she developed a loathing for what she describes as the “stink of men.” And yet, the tendency to turn a lover into a possession to be bought, however subtly and in whatever good faith, is one that Petra reproduces in her relationship with Karin.
In the third act, months after Petra and Karin’s relationship began, Petra needles a calmly indolent and purposefully resistant Karin about who she was with when she went out dancing the previous night until she delivers what is, tellingly, both the film’s funniest and most merciless line: she was with “a big black man with a big black dick.” It’s a memorable crux not only for the way the revelation acts like a bucket of cold water on their relationship, but also for the instantly codified racial and sexual anxieties with which Karin skewers Petra. The title’s specificity is worth noting: Petra von Kant weeps a lot of bitter tears indeed, but only for Petra von Kant. Even her name has meaning as one that marks her as a member of the German aristocracy (she herself notes with humoured weariness, “Nothing ever changes in Germany.”), and her rhetoric about freedom is entirely hypocritical: “It’s a waste of time being nice to servants,” she says with contempt for the slavishly devoted Marlene. Fassbinder here manages the genuinely sophisticated job of pointing out that liberation in one segment of a society quite often comes at the cost to someone else, and he refuses to let Petra off the hook for her sense of entitlement and personal arrogance.
If Petra is still doggedly interesting and compelling in spite of all her appalling behaviour, it’s because she’s absolutely fearless in confronting her shifting sexuality and is at least searching for a genuine alternative. The film’s course has an almost Buddhist logic to it, as it essentially strips her of everything she possesses at the start, until she’s left alone, dishevelled, and humiliated, but finally, fundamentally aware enough to smile as she watches Marlene pack her things and walk out on her. She even finally comes to doubt she loved Karin, but rather that she made her a doll to act out a psychodrama (Sidonie sparks Petra’s vicious final tirades with the gift of a blonde doll that resembles Karin), but the evidence that Petra’s emotional reflexes, intensity of feeling, and commitment to an ideal make everyone around her look puny is hard to ignore. Bitter Tears has a lot of similarities to the first mainstream, lesbian-themed film, The Killing of Sister George (1968), but unlike in Robert Aldrich’s film, where Beryl Reid’s George is left alone and devastated by her unremitting nonconformity, Petra’s journey to a similar end entails more contradictions and even a degree of desired necessity. Petra needs her betrayal to take the liberty to firebomb every smarmy platitude and straw-dummy social role around her, and the sequence in which she tries to terrorise and emotionally flay her mother, sister, and daughter with truly loathsome force,sees her spurning not just them, but also what they represent—the nagging, settled aspects of femininity and the inevitable of past and future.
Bitter Tears is a bitterly funny film in spite of, and partly in service to, its intensity of feeling, as in the spectacle Petra makes of herself and her insults to her family, at once mortifying and giddily hilarious as Petra is unspeakably honest in calling her daughter a nasty little monster and accusing her mother of having been a passive whore with a fancy title who never did a day’s work in her life. Although there’s nothing to entertain anyone searching for vicarious soft-core thrills detachable from context—Petra and Karin only even kiss once—it’s also a lividly erotic film. That’s because of the way everything on screen is charged with beauty through the terrific, crisp cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. The carefully coordinated colours in the set design and costuming start to resemble art nouveau in their careful clash of tones, and those great nude figures on the wall in turns mirror, mock, and contrast the characters in front of them. The film builds to a conclusion that seems initially funny and facile but is actually curiously cryptic: Marlene’s final walkout, packing away belongings including a revolver, in her declaration of independence, comes not from some final straw of humiliation, but because Petra, having attempted to free her, takes away even the dignity of Marlene’s masochism, a dignity Petra herself has indulged to the limit. l
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Director: Luis Buñuel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
If ever a great director ended their career on a high, prototypical note, it was Luis Buñuel. I’ve always said that everything Buñuel was about as a filmmaker is in his last film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Among his many dreamscapes—from his early, surrealistic L’Âge d’Or to his mysterious, blasphemous Viridiana and kinky sex farce Belle de Jour—That Obscure Object of Desire must be seen as Buñuel’s ultimate dream, the final, clear telling of the story of his inner life. It recycles his trademark obsessions almost as jokes on himself and his fans and foretells that this will be the last time he and his anima will spar on camera.
We are barely into the film before Buñuel dispenses a couple of his trademark flourishes. Opening shots of Seville segue to a large home as its master, Mateo Fabert (Fernando Rey, Buñuel’s marvelously pompous alter ego in a number of films), walks through a red, upholstered door into an ornate bedroom and instructs his valet (Andre Weber) to burn a blood-stained pillow he is picking off the floor. “Burn it all!” he says in disgust, as the valet picks up and shows Buñuel’s favorite fetish objects—a pair of high-heeled shoes and a pair of lace panties.
Mateo has decided to leave for Paris, and climbs in his large American car to be driven to the train station. We see another man get into a chauffeur-driven car and a close-up of the car ignition. With one turn of the key, the car explodes in a ball of fire. “They’re even here,” Mateo says, in a “there goes the neighborhood” manner, of the terrorists who will plague the film. As he boards the first-class train carriage, it fills with people he knows—a neighbor (Milena Vukotic) traveling with her young daughter and a judge (Julien Bertheau) who is a friend of his cousin’s. Last into his car is a dwarf—a psychologist whom the judge knows from the courthouse, where he gives expert testimony. As Mateo looks out the window, he sees a woman (Carole Bouquet), black-eyed and forehead bandaged, striding along the platform looking into each carriage. We see him hand some money to a reluctant train porter, who goes into the toilet and emerges with a bucket. When the woman reaches Mateo, the object of her search, he dumps the full bucket of water on her head. She brushes at the water with disgust, throws her suitcase to the ground, and boards the nearest carriage. This act provokes the curiosity of Mateo’s carriagemates, and they listen with relish as he relates the story of “the worst woman on the earth.”
Mateo met Conchita when she was engaged to serve as his maid. She knew nothing about being a maid and had hands too delicate to have done serious housework. Smitten, Mateo made plans to seduce her that very night, but was politely rebuffed by Conchita (now played by Angela Molina). Upon arising the next day, he learns that the object of his desire has quit and left for parts unknown. He loses her and runs into her by chance a couple of times, first in a nightclub, where she is working as a coat checker, and later, in Lausanne, when he is robbed of exactly 800 francs by a couple of young men, and finds out Conchita was behind the robbery to get them only what they needed to buy train tickets back to Paris. He tells her to keep the money she tries to return and extracts her address in Paris, a humble flat on an ancient block of buildings that she shares with her religious, widowed mother, Encarnación (Maria Asquerino) who is too bourgeois and useless to work.
Mateo becomes their benefactor, and eventually the coy Conchita agrees to be his mistress in his rarely used home on the outskirts of Paris. Their encounter at his estate is a teasing comedy in which Conchita is disturbed by the photo of Mateo’s late wife in the bedroom they are to occupy and insists on another room. Once there, Conchita tantalizes Mateo by exposing her breasts, only to reveal that she is wearing a garment that amounts to a chastity belt. They take up residence in the villa, but Mateo catches her sneaking one of the young men with whom she was traveling into her bedroom. For the rest of the movie, Conchita will toy with Mateo, dancing naked for some tourists in a cabaret where she is employed, and wheedling the deed to a lavish home in Seville, only to lock him out, curse his very existence, and make love to a young man in the courtyard while Mateo watches briefly in fascinated horror.
And perhaps predictably, even after relating the entire story to his captive audience, he and Conchita disembark the train and go off together on a shopping spree. After viewing yet another Buñuel trademark, a seamstress sewing a rend in a lace garment Conchita has left with her (reminiscent of Arturo de Córdova’s character’s plan to sew his wife’s vagina closed to prevent her from straying in El), the pair walks off, only to be obscured by the smoke and debris of the explosion that ends the movie.
In his wonderful autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel writes at length about his lifelong fascination with dreams and imagination. That Obscure Object of Desire is, I believe, his most completely realized dream. Despite the resemblance to reality that is Mateo’s train journey, Buñuel has populated it with the ultimate dream cliché—a dwarf, who, humorously, is a psychiatrist trying to analyze Mateo’s experiences with Conchita—as well as people he knows in some way, as we all do in our dreams.
Buñuel, born in Spain, adopted France as his home and returned to work there in his last years after many years in Mexico, during which he became a Mexican citizen. The director actually has two mistresses—France and Spain—to which he feels affinity, if not fidelity, creating an unstable situation. But it seems to me that what he is really trying to do is to join harmoniously his male aspect and his female anima; this explains why he can’t just break with Conchita with resolute finality, for which of us can truly escape ourselves.
He doesn’t understand his female aspect. She is constantly changing, signified not only by the two actresses who share one role, but also by their different levels of refinement. Carole Bouquet, the face of the most chic couture house in the world, Chanel, is effortlessly beautiful, sophisticated, and importantly, French. Angela Molina is earthy, more brazenly sensual, and Spanish. The language Buñuel chooses for the film is French, but he dubs both actresses with a third one, confusing the issue even further. Buñuel dubs Rey with Michel Piccoli to bring perfection to Mateo, who is called Mathieu in many reviews and subtitling, though we can clearly hear Conchita call him Mateo. The duality of Buñuel’s expatriate status, therefore, also is acknowledged.
For once, Buñuel gives his antipathy toward the Catholic Church a bit of a rest, even though he ascribes most of the terrorist attacks to the Revolutionary Army of the Infant Jesus. Again, this seems like an in-joke, a way to get one of his trademark themes out of the way so he can focus his attention on his main project of reconciling the duality in himself.
His anima entices him with words of love, pursues him when he rejects her, deceives and berates him, and tells him she doesn’t need his money and can’t be bought. When he calls her the worst woman on the earth, he is actually chiding himself, seeing the native intelligence, integrity, and mischief in himself in terms of his feminine aspect. Does he want to dominate her? Would he if she yielded to him? That, Buñuel seems to suggest, could never happen. The final scene—the closing of the symbolic vagina—leads to an explosion we can assume causes Conchita’s and Mateo’s annihilation. Perhaps this is Buñuel closing the book on his career and life, feeling that a final reconciliation of the anima and animus can come only in death—or at least, he won’t be making any more movies trying to work on the problem.
Otto Rank is one of the many psychologists whose theories come up frequently when looking at Buñuel (much to the director’s amusement, claiming his imagination was not a subject for psychoanalytic study). In looking at this Wikipedia passage about Rank, however, you don’t have to be Fellini, so to speak, to figure out Buñuel:
On a microcosmic level, however, the life-long oscillation between the two “poles of fear” can be made more bearable, according to Rank, in a relationship with another person who accepts one’s uniqueness and difference, and allows for the emergence of the creative impulse—without too much guilt or anxiety for separating from the other. Living fully requires “seeking at once isolation and union” (Rank, 1932/1989, p. 86), finding the courage to accept both simultaneously, without succumbing to the Angst that leads a person to be whipsawed from one pole to the other. Creative solutions for living emerge out of the fluctuating, ever-expanding and ever-contracting, space between separation and union. Art and the creative impulse, said Rank in Art and Artist, “originate solely in the constructive harmonization of this fundamental dualism of all life” (1932/1989, p. xxii).
That Obscure Object of Desire moves in a dreamlike way, its flashback structure encouraging the mixture of reality and imagination (as Buñuel said “Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories”) that becomes a dream truth. The switching between Molina and Bouquet is confusing, disorienting, further plunging the viewer into the undersea world of the unconscious. That’s when the great director is most effective in weaving his magic, a truthful untruth we are seduced into following to its illogically logical conclusion.
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Director: Patrice Chéreau
By Roderick Heath
Considering that we’re supposed to be living in an age in which cinema is freely littered with the perpetually conjoined twins of sex and violence, it’s interesting that whilst mainstream media offers copious amounts of the latter, the former is really quite underrepresented. You don’t see the makers of crappy action films trying to squeeze unsimulated sex scenes into their movies, and with good reason: they’d be far more cruelly penalised if they did. At the end of the ’90s and early new century, a handful of controversial art house pics did ruffle feathers with boundary-pushing portrayals of sexuality, like Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999); Virginie Despente and Coralie’s Baise-Moi (2000), still banned in Australia; and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004). Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy likewise caused about 10 minutes’ worth of controversy for featuring real screwing by middle-aged actors Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance photographed, unlike just about every other sex scene in history, with the same cool simplicity a cameraman would otherwise turn on them drinking a cup of coffee or walking on the street.
But what’s truly striking and disorientating about Chéreau’s film is the utterly unflinching, merciless way he photographs Rylance’s pasty arse and grizzled face and Fox’s far from supermodel flesh, and, most importantly, the anxiety, anger, and terror that pool in their eyes. The nakedness of their bodies, as the cliché goes, is nothing compared to the nakedness of their souls, but it’s certainly true that in order to wrench the most profound communication of desperation and stripped-bare humanity in his actors, Chéreau had to remove every safeguard of actorly affectation. Not that he had to go too far with Rylance, predominantly a stage figure who, nonetheless, on the basis of his performance in this and in the underregarded Angels and Insects (1995), would count as one of the most interesting actors alive, or with Fox, beloved of movie fans since her starring role in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1989).
Intimacy was adapted by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic from stories by the laureate of British grunge writing, Hanif Kureishi, whose screenplay for the 1985 hit My Beautiful Laundrette helped revitalise British cinema. With exceptions—the toothless Peter O’Toole vehicle Venus (2006), for example—Kureishi’s name being attached to a movie promises fearless material. Chéreau, for his part, was a former wunderkind stage director. His two films of the new century, Intimacy and 2005’s splendidly mordant Conrad adaptation Gabrielle, evince a tense and incisive talent more at home with these gamey, literate, intimate psychodynamics. Intimacy, like most movies in this demi-genre, reflects the long shadow cast by Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, commencing with a similar conceit of a willfully anonymous, intermittent, rudely carnal hook-up between Rylance’s Jay and Fox’s Claire.
Claire shows up every Wednesday afternoon at the house Jay’s renting from his friend Victor (Alastair Galbraith), initiating protracted sessions of transcendental rutting, before disappearing again. The back story slowly resolves: this has been their habit for several weeks since meeting at a bar, and they know virtually nothing about each other. Jay is the head barman at a flashy London club, maintaining a tight, authoritative, nitpicking control over his small realm even though he really has nothing but contempt for his job. He protests to the managers about their hiring of the inexperienced but good-looking gay Frenchman, Ian (Philippe Calvario), doubting his ability to do the job. But Ian quickly proves adept, and he and Jay soon become good enough friends so that Jay invites him to move into an empty room in Victor’s house, who, like Jay, is on the run from marriage and fraying more obviously than his more composed, unreadable friend.
The circumstances in which Jay left his wife (Susannah Harker) and two sons (Greg Sheffield and Vinnie Hunter) come out in fragments of dialogue and then flashback: suffering mysterious, gnawing pangs of mid-life crisis and hinted sexual frustration, Jay simply walked out one night after heavy drinking and nearly being caught masturbating in the toilet by one of his sons. His taciturn shell, so frustrating to his family and friends like Victor, begins to unravel when it becomes apparent that he’s hooked on his weekly liaisons with Claire, panicking when Victor doesn’t clear off as usual on a Wednesday and waiting pensively, cracking the bubbles in plastic wrap. When Jay’s inspired to follow Claire across town to learn something about her, he discovers to his shock that she’s an actress currently appearing in an amateur production of The Glass Menagerie, married to cab driver Andy (Timothy Spall), and has a son Luke (Joe Prospero) of her own.
Although Jay’s viewpoint remains dominant, the structure of the film does a partial reversal with these revelations about Claire. It encompasses her travails, her frustrated efforts to make a career as an actress. Like Jay, she pours much of her energy and forceful, dissatisfied feelings into their couplings, and again like Jay, she’s also in a business she’s respected in but secretly hates—the acting classes she runs for people like talkative, grating dilettante Betty (Marianne Faithfull). Her husband generally doesn’t watch all of her performances, preferring to play pool, but he maintains a genial, interested tone and plays the theatre buff for her sake. When Jay, appalled, fascinated, and strangely fixated, keeps coming to Claire’s performances, he strikes up an acquaintance with Andy and Luke. Jay isn’t able to keep himself from describing to Andy in contemptuous terms his anonymous girlfriend whose screwing him behind her husband’s back. How much Andy knows, suspects, or is in denial about becomes a taunting question for everyone, especially once Claire discovers that Jay knows now who she is and where he can find her.
A great deal of the power of Intimacy comes from the careful interweaving of Rylance’s performance and the hungry, roving, defence-stripping filmmaking that owes so much to Chéreau’s excellent eye and the efforts of DP Eric Gautier and editor François Gédigier. The urgency of the camera and cutting escalates and subsides in deep accord with the fluctuations of emotion on screen as Jay loses control, possessed with equal parts desperation, intrigue, need, and horror at both himself and the world he sees losing interest in him. It has a quality of expressionist intent that greatly expands the film’s power beyond its kitchen-sink realist roots. This is particularly evident in a brilliant sequence in which Jay catches sight of Claire on a street and begins trying to catch up to her, only to lose track and revolve in frantic distraction before giving up and heading for the pub where her theatre group performs unaware that she’s spotted and begun following him in smiling intrigue until he arrives at the pub, and her smile gives way to glazed shock as she realises he knows that much about her.
Fox’s excellence is not to be understated. She radiates unease even as she plays the fierce taskmaster for her class, her style of dress saying a little too much about her artsy pretensions, tearing strips off Betty and another classmate (Fraser Ayres) and earning praise for it because, as Betty says, it’s what they think they need. Inevitably, when she and Andy finally lay their cards on the table, the eruption of festering resentment is concussive and humiliating, Andy channeling his anger not into the idea of having an affair but in living with her affectations (“You know what hurts the most? You’ll never be an actress!”). Infusing this intricate emotional drama are small, piquant, but very telling details, like the subtle importance of Jay’s wearing a condom during his and Claire’s couplings or Andy’s protest at Jay’s assumption of his low libido because of his portliness (and the assumptions for Claire’s straying): “Why do you think I don’t enjoy a good fuck?”
Jay’s relationship with Victor is appositional: the two men are bound together in old friendship and resentment, both experiencing as they are the same problems but not sharing them. Unlike Jay, Victor’s going off the rails, and Jay has to come fetch him one night from a fight at squat full of feral youths Ian knows. Jay calms him down, and the two men lurch through the squat looking like bleary, bedraggled survivors of some self-consuming emotional war. Jay’s steely demeanor attracts one female denizen, Pam (Rebecca Palmer), and they spend a spell happily rutting, but Jay’s distracted, preoccupied manner as he moves to leave causes her to mock him as old fart. The indignity of aging is evoked without sentiment throughout the film, but it takes care to confirm that the characters’ yearnings are based in deeper things than mere anxiety about waning opportunities for fulfilling desire, where Jay, Claire, and Victor’s varieties of panic would be written off as gender-varied menopause, but perceiving them all as beset by gnawing disaffection, having succeeded in standard forms of coupling and social roles, yet finding themselves utterly alienated and unfulfilled within that success. Jay’s rage at Claire, however, seems to be sourced in the fact that where he couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of acting out such a role, even at the cost of annihilating his sense of self and responsibility.
Intimacy doesn’t tell a dramatically neat story, and perhaps, finally, it fails to live up to all its potential with an equivocating, but admittedly realistic, conclusion. And yet, its ferocity and honesty are often as compelling as anything that can be found in new millennium cinema, particularly in the final scenes in which Jay forlornly begs Claire to stay with him rather than return to Andy, revealing just how deep the roots their carnal union planted have now grown. It’s worth noting finally that Intimacy is an interesting cross-cultural oddity, a French film in most respects, but one made in London and infused with a very post-’70s London sensibility—a revealing and fortunate confluence of energies. l
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Director/Screenwriter: Walerian Borowczyk
By Roderick Heath
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like many famed, oft-filmed horror-genre properties, has never been accurately adapted. Stevenson’s story possesses a cool, serpentine suggestion of elemental evil living within the brick and stone of Victorian London’s hidebound certainties, a low-key power that I had not actually encountered in any of the film versions, partly because of Stevenson’s strength of prose, and perhaps because most of the films follow Jekyll on his journey, and make it explicit and coherent, rather than view it from without in alarming, menaced snatches. In addition, unlike many of the film adaptations, Stevenson’s story almost completely lacks female characters. For example, the seminal 1932 Fredric March version provided Jekyll with a decorous fiancé and Hyde with a tart to harass, to extend and embody the schism behind the antihero’s cryptically described debaucheries. Stevenson himself had no time for the suggestion his story was about sexuality, and many such adornments in fact came from Richard Mansfield’s infamous stage production.
Polish filmmaker Walerian Borowczyk, who would make this bizarre and savage takeoff on the Stevenson story, could be described as an infinitely less lucky Roman Polanski or Miloš Forman. Borowczyk made a name for himself in the 50s and 60s as a maker of surrealist, short, animated films. He influenced Terry Gilliam, amongst others, who named his Jeux des anges (1964) one of the best animated films of all time. Borowczyk then gained significant acclaim with his first few feature films, including Goto, l’île d’amour (1968), Blanche (1971), and the Palme d’Or-nominated Dzieje grzechu (1975), but his career was generally perceived as losing steam in the later 70s, and his later work was dismissed as mere grindhouse fare. His short film Une Collection Particuliere (1973), a wry catalogue of the peculiarities of Victorian-era pornography, saw him drift perhaps out of personal taste toward sexuality-themed films like Immoral Tales (1974), and particularly, his variation on Beauty and the Beast variation La bête (1975); he eventually made Emmanuelle 5 in 1987 in final consummation of his drift into skin flicks. And yet prominent Australian film critic Scott Murray suggested in 1998 that Borowczyk’s oeuvre was ripe for reappraisal and that Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (aka Dr. Jekyll and his Women; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne; The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; and Bloodlust), a fruit of the officially debased end of his career, looked like his greatest film.
Borowczyk’s Jekyll makes no pretence of fidelity to the Stevenson’s story—in fact, it’s surely the loopiest adaptation ever—and yet it captures the threat lurking within the tale to a degree that dwarfs all rivals. Borowczyk had an antiquarian streak that infused his films with a highly physical evocation of the intangibly appealing past, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes displays this quality with an alternately grimy, ghostly, and hazy beauty evoked in the period Victoriana that’s comparable to a full-colour The Elephant Man. Borowczyk’s take on the story begins with a dread-provoking, mysteriously filmed sequence that conflates two incidents from the book: an adolescent girl runs for her life from a shadowy man through alleys and dark buildings before he finally chases her down and beats her with his cane, which shatters. He starts tearing her clothes off, but an interloper scares him away.
A short distance away, at the house of Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier), guests start arriving to celebrate his engagement to Miss Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Osborne’s mother presents a unique dowry to Jekyll’s limping, pianist matriarch: a Vermeer painting recently discovered in Glasgow, which one invitee, Rev. Donald Reagan Guest (Clément Harari), proclaims to be a summit of human achievement. Other guests include General Carew (Patrick Magee) and his daughter Charlotte. Fanny is looking forward to a chance to spend the night with Jekyll as the couple’s sensual enthusiasm strains the boundaries of the acceptable: when they kiss with illicit glee in Jekyll’s laboratory, she flinches at the sight of Jekyll’s father’s portrait staring at them from the wall.
Jekyll’s recently published The Laboratory and Transcendental Medicine, a book that lays out his new theories of metaphysical medicine, is hotly debated about the dinner table by Jekyll, Reagan, and Jekyll’s colleague and critic Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon, an ubiquitous figure of Euro-exploitation). Borowczyk suggests what’s coming as, throughout the dinner conversation, flash cuts reveal glimpses of atrocities that will be committed by night’s end. For the evening entertainment, Victoria Enfield, the daughter of one the guests, dances, but the frivolities are interrupted by news of the discovery of the fatally beaten young girl.
All hell begins to break loose when Victoria, resting in an upstairs bedroom to recover from faintness after her dance, is raped with startling savagery and left for dead by an intruder. The men immediately presume the man who attacked the girl has infiltrated the house, and the General takes charge, ordering the women to lock themselves in their rooms and then setting out to track the man down; instead, he accidentally shoots the Osbournes’ coachman. The General is then sprung upon and tied up by the intruder, who tears off his medals and stamps on them, prongs his surprisingly willing daughter in front of him, and dashes off to do more mischief, including sexually assaulting one of the young male guests. Jekyll, who has seemed to have been outside tending to the coachman, returns at last in an exhausted state, and the servant he sent to fetch the police turns up dead. Now in a state of siege, Lanyon has the women take a sedative so they can more easily be kept locked together. Fanny avoids taking the draught and sneaks down to Henry’s lab, where she watches him bathe the solution that he uses to transmogrify into Hyde (Gérard Zalcberg).
It’s a touch of inestimable cheek on Borowczyk’s part to name Jekyll’s fiancé after Stevenson’s real-life wife, whose criticisms of the work reputedly inspired Stevenson to burn his first draft of the novella. And yet explicitly setting the drama in a blurry mid-ground between reality and fantasy helps signal that this is a riff on a familiar tale, and it then proceeds to conjure a bold and troubling fever dream out of Stevenson’s raw material. Whilst the besieged set-up and single-night structure is original, Borowczyk, like the original story, keeps the identity of Hyde mysterious for more than half the film, with Hyde’s appearances fast, obscured, and punctuated by unnerving glimpses of perverted savagery. Hyde’s killings aren’t just symbolic of sexual aggression as they are in so many horror movies: they are sexual aggression, for in the course of the film he kills at least one man and one woman by sexual penetration (or so we’re told) with his gigantic, animalistic phallus, as Lanyon notes with increasingly queasy apprehension. Lanyon realises they’re up against a creature not only brutal in nature but completely lacking in all sense of behavioural prohibition.
Some critics had, amusingly, condemned Borowczyk in his earlier films for making erotic films that weren’t erotic, and Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes extends this contradiction at least to the extent that Borowczyk is completely uninterested in the usual brands of eroticism or violent hype. Only in one scene, that in which the General’s daughter eagerly presents herself to Hyde, the beast fumbling with his colossal silhouetted penis, does the film slide into clumsiness, although the image of the prim Victorian lass eagerly giving herself to a monster to taunt her trussed-up, tyrannical father fits into the anarchic structure neatly. When she unties the General after he promises not to punish her, he immediately slaps her and then bends her over to whip her arse with unchecked fury. Magee, a tremendous actor who delighted in playing grotesques, had played the Marquis de Sade in Peter Brook’s similar, if far more self-consciously highbrow Marat/Sade (1967). Borowczyk’s film explores a genuinely Sadean side to Stevenson’s parable, which bears more than passing resemblance to 120 Days of Sodom and the film version Salo (1975) by Pasolini. Docteur Jekyll is not that grotesque, though some moments, like swiftly employed, nightmarish visions of Hyde’s victims hanging, their bloodied genitalia on display, evoke the furthest reaches of Sadean imagery.
Stevenson’s story contributed to the growing strain of psychic pessimism in late Victorian fiction that also manifested in H.G. Wells’ scientific romances and, finally, clearly breached the walls of symbolist fiction in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Borowczyk’s film successfully closes that circle, as the film’s remarkable final 20 minutes build a mounting sense of apocalyptic threat. Like Conrad, Borowczyk suggests the dissolution of civilisation through the totems of colonial conquest in Africa, in this case, poisoned arrows the General has brought back him from the “Black Continent” and given to Jekyll as his wedding present, a martial man’s gift that stands in opposition to the art of Vermeer. Hyde makes eager use of the arrows, shooting Fanny with one, and then making a pin-cushion out of the General, to his daughter’s giddy delight, until Hyde casually riddles her with barbs, too.
Borowczyk realises with power and integrity the implicit dichotomies of Stevenson’s text, as Jekyll’s “transcendental medicine” unleashes a force of utterly barbaric nihilism, yet still remaining, in a curious fashion, transcendental. The acting isn’t very important, with Kier and Pierro dubbed. Pierro, nonetheless, embodies Fanny with panther-like force, and both Borowczyk and Jean Rollin, to whose films Borowczyk’s display much in common, used her several times. As alarming and fascinating as Jekyll is until this point, the film doesn’t entirely hit its stride until the last 10 minutes, when Jekyll reconstitutes himself with Lanyon’s aid. Lanyon has saved a small amount of a substance needed to work the restoration from a batch Hyde has destroyed; the revelation that his friend is the monster so horrifies Lanyon that he falls dead from a heart attack. Jekyll then picks up a wounded and bewildered Fanny and takes her to his laboratory, explaining his system not with shame and self-hatred but with enthusiasm about being the first man to truly present two dichotomous faces to the world. He immediately sets about making another bath of his solution, unable to and uninterested in resisting the call of Hyde again.
Rather than being mortified by his revelations, Fanny declares she must take the bath herself. To save herself from the arrow’s poison and to join with Jekyll in his barbaric liberation, she dives right in and turns into a yellow-eyed demon who, with Hyde, sets about laying waste to the house and murdering the rest of the inhabitants. Fanny enthusiastically knifes her own mother, and the pair burn books and destroy artworks, including the Vermeer and the picture of Jekyll’s father. In its sheer unleashed anarchy, Jekyll bests anything Godard came up with to suggest the crack-up of Western civilisation in Week-End (1967).
In the film’s final mad moments, the couple flee in a coach, rutting on the floor of the carriage and lapping the blood streaming from each-other’s wounds, as Bernard Parmegiani’s driving electronic score pulses to ecstatic rhythms and then runs down like a steam engine losing force to the film’s final puff. This is utterly brilliant filmmaking that packs a tremendous wallop. l
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Director/Co-Screenwriter: Mary Harron
By Marilyn Ferdinand
From Yahoo! Answers, June 2007
Q: If you could fall madly and passionately in love with any cartoon character, who would that be and why?
A #1: I tell ya, this was the hardest best answer I’ve ever had to make. I feel the sweat dripping down my forhead. I’m shaking. Marv loves Betty Paige.
The romantic animation fan who asked this question and the people who responded would understand completely the point of view of The Notorious Bettie Page that seems to have left many film critics and viewers rather cold. This nearly flawless film that tells the real-life story of Bettie Page, “Miss Pin-up Girl of the World of 1955,” is an accurate biopic that, nonetheless, has more in common with comic books than it does with conventional, character-based film narrative.
The sly, inventive style struck by director/writer Mary Harron and her co-screenwriter Guinevere Turner is nothing if not a tribute to the naughty comic books we see several furtive men pawing through in an adult bookstore at the opening of the film. The scene continues, frame by frame, as a tall man in a trenchcoat moves down the length of the shop until he reaches the back counter. He asks the shop owner if he has anything special. Something in shoes. The owner pulls out a glossy of a dark-haired woman wearing platform, lace-up boots. He asks for more. The owner pulls out some photos of women in bondage. Cut to a close-up of the man, an undercover cop, pulling out his badge. You can practically see the dialogue balloon inked in a shocking shout: “You’re Under ARREST!”
Harron and Turner also tip their pillbox hats to Douglas Sirk’s sexy, humorous soap operas as well as bland civil defense films—both popular, or at least ubiquitious, forms in the 1950s—through their mix of color and black-and-white sequences, their script full of the superficiality of melodrama, and the restrained emotions of their typical 1950s characters. And they do something more—they revive the flapper (Betty Boop edition) and the plucky woman of the pre-Code 1930s as they question today’s gender politics.
The film picks up the thread of the arrest as we watch Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver (David Strathairn) open hearings on pornography. We see the very pretty Bettie Page (Gretchen Mol) come down a hall and sit on a bench, awaiting her inquisition by the kind of god-fearing Tennessee native she grew up with. Her mind returns to her teen years in Depression-era Nashville, and the comically listless hellfire-and-damnation sermon of her church’s preacher (John Cullum). Young Bettie (Molly Moore) flirts with a boy across the aisle to the preacher’s narrative of sin and tortured damnation. This humorously foreshadows her rise to prominence as a pin-up who specializes in bondage and punishment.
Then the Perils of Pauline set in. There is a short, direct scene that suggests Bettie was sexually abused by her father. “Bettie, I want to see you upstairs,” her harsh father (Jack Gilpin) says to her. As he climbs up the stairs and out of the frame, a close-up of Bettie’s worried face says it all. Bettie, however, maintains her innocence. She accepts the invitation of a perfect stranger who walks up to her on the street and asks her to go dancing with him and another couple. When the car moves into an unfamiliar area, Bettie asks where they are going. Again, like a perfect comic-book villain, her “date” assumes a look of hate on his face. She is taken to be gang raped. We see her afterwards, two buttons neatly open at her neck, exposing her slip. She goes into a church and cries.
Even this experience teaches her little about men. She again agrees to go out with a man off the street if her strict mother will permit it. The man, Billy Neal (Norman Reedus), tells his buddy as he walks away from this first encounter that he intends to marry her. Their courtship, marriage, and divorce are chronicled in a montage. Bettie decides to make a new start in New York City. A fortuitous encounter on a beach with a picture-taking colored man named Jerry Tibbs (Kevin Carroll)—another stranger—shows us Bettie’s natural posing style and easy sensuality. After being approached by a cop during this photo shoot—even though Tibbs claims to be a cop—he suggests that they confine their sessions to his home. During their first session, he decides to make a bold suggestion to Bettie. We’re all set to hear him tell her to take off her clothes, but instead he suggests she should wear her hair over her high forehead to reduce the shine off the lights and frame her face. When we next see Bettie, she’s answering phones as a receptionist sporting her now-famous fringe.
Through Tibbs, Bettie hooks up with the brother/sister pornographers, Irving and Paula Klaw (Chris Bauer and Harron regular Lili Taylor). Bettie’s first assignment is to pose in sky-high heels. A shot of feet moving slowly and precariously out of a dressing room and an ankle crumbling sideways, then two feet moving next to them (Paula holding Bettie up) is another comic moment—this time at the expense of shoe fetishists.
Bettie turns out to be a natural, projecting a sunny innocence within her perfect, desirable body. Each time she is asked to do something else—wear a tight corset, tie another girl up, pretend to spank another girl—she’s agreeable. She has started taking acting lessons and doesn’t really see the difference between playing a part for her class or a dominatrix for a magazine spread. The leather, girdles, whips, and leopard skins are costumes. She explains this to her boyfriend Marvin (Jonathan Woodward), an acting student who has no idea what kind of modelling she does, when he accompanies her to a party. He takes one look at the photos and calls them disgusting and the people who look at them even worse. Then the Klaws begin taking heat from the law, and Bettie is out of a job. Time for another new start.
In the second of two brilliant Technicolor fantasies right out of Sirk’s playbook, Bettie heads back to Florida, a place where she once vacationed and where she hooked up with nudie photographer Bunny Yeager (Sarah Paulson) and a handsome young man named Armand (Alejandro Chabán)—in reality Armand Walterson, Bettie’s second of three husbands. Still troubled, she walks along the beach, finally spying a neon cross floating above the treetops. She makes her way into the church and decides to be saved. She walks to the altar and kneels. The preacher prays for her. She says she has been reborn. “What did it feel like?” asks the preacher. “Like a lifting up,” replies Bettie. Another montage shows Bettie casting off her sexy persona, putting on loose clothing, and preaching on the streets.
People who knew Bettie said she was the nicest person they ever met, and indeed, Gretchen Mol’s performance is winning and natural. She possesses Bettie’s beauty and appears as comfortable posing nude or in restraints as Bettie always seemed. She doesn’t seem to agree to everything the Klaws ask of her just to please them. She really doesn’t see the harm. When Marvin tells her what the world perceives, it really comes as a huge jolt. He tries to contact her after she’s decided to head to Florida, but she pretends she’s not at home. She’s not sure he accepts her the way she accepts herself.
Bettie’s acting teacher, played by Austin Pendleton, teaches the Method. During one scene, she shows some good acting chops. He asks Bettie what emotion she drew from to play the part of a rejected woman. She says with as much naturalness as she takes off her clothes, “I thought of something that makes me really scared. I thought of God punishing me for all my sins.” The teacher, taken aback from his secular milieu, stammers “Wonderful!” It is this sense of religiosity, which in the South is a proud mark of independence, that may have helped Bettie preserve her sense of self even through her traumas early in life. But she does not define her modeling as sinning. Her attitude reminds me quite a lot of Evy in Luis Buñuel’s Southern masterpiece, The Young One.
The real Bettie Page
The Notorious Bettie Page is a confection with a potent message—a plea against censorship and for a woman’s right to control her body. To argue about the dangers of pornography—and remember this is about pornography, not prostitution—is to take Bettie Page to a place she never went. The film does look sympathetically at a father who claims a photo of Bettie trussed led to his son’s death, but it seems that perhaps the father did not know his son as well as he thought he did. That makes the incident tragic, but not evidence of a need for a ban.
In the end, Bettie sums it up best. When a man comes up to her while she is preaching and recognizes her, he wonders if she’s ashamed of what she did before. “No,” says Bettie, “After all, Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. After they sinned, they put on clothes.” l
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Director: Luis Buñuel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In his excellent autobiography, My Last Sigh, Luis Buñuel said, “When I was younger, my so-called conscience forbade me to entertain certain images—like fratricide, for instance, or incest. I’d tell myself these were hideous ideas and push them out of my mind. But when I reached the age of 60, I finally understood the perfect innocence of the imagination. It took that long for me to admit that whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone.”
Luis Buñuel was 61 when Viridiana premiered, and his tale of sexual perversion and the deflowering of a would-be nun bore out his philosophy to a tee. Generalissimo Francisco Franco, as you might imagine, was not as amused by the imaginative freedom of the over-60 director. Despite Viridiana‘s selection as Spain’s official entry into the Cannes Film Festival, Buñuel was forced to flee to Mexico to escape reprisals by Franco’s fascist regime. He remained there the rest of his life, eventually becoming a Mexican citizen. (Ironically, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who must have been inspired by Buñuel, took up the cause of examining Franco’s Spain in both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.)
Many of Buñuel’s films rail against the hypocrisy and uselessness of the bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church, and the State. While these themes remain fairly constant throughout his genuine oeuvre (as opposed to the dozens of films he made for a buck in Mexico as a journeyman director), some of his films are informed primarily by his surrealist philosophy, and reflect his lifelong fascination with dreams. Viridiana is just such a film.
Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a novice in a cloistered convent. Shortly before she is to take final vows and be locked away from society forever, the Mother Superior suggests that she pay one last visit to her uncle Jaime (Fernando Rey), who paid for her schooling. Viridiana strenuously resists this suggestion, but says that if ordered, she will go. This scene is the first to suggest the dreamlike structure of the film, with a resistant consciousness obeying an order to plunge into the irrational.
The scene shifts to an estate, where we see the fancy footwork of a young girl jumping rope under a tree. She is Rita (Teresa Rabal), the sassy daughter of Don Jaime’s maid Ramona (Margarita Lozano). When the camera pulls back, we see Don Jaime watching her in delight. He even surprises her with a new jump rope that has real wooden handles. He seems to revel in her innocence and liveliness. His own life has been a lonely one since the death of his wife.
Viridiana arrives into this sweet scene, but Don Jaime’s warm greeting to her is met with a distinct chill. Viridiana doesn’t really remember him and still considers him something of a disgrace for fathering a child out of wedlock and abandoning the mother and child, though Don Jaime claims that was the way the woman wanted things. He assures her that his son will be provided for after he has died. He also comments on how much like her late aunt Viridiana is, right down to her walk.
Viridiana goes to her room to change and rest. The camera moves into Don Jaime’s bedroom, where he has a white, high-heeled shoe slipped over the top half of his foot and a veil draped over a dressing screen. He picks up a corset and starts to model it in front of his mirror, quickly tucking it out of sight when the loyal Ramona comes in. He tries to persuade Ramona to speak to Viridiana on his behalf, to ask her to stay on at the house indefinitely. Ramona demurs, suggesting Don Jaime speak to her himself. He moves to her room, but hides out of sight when he sees Viridiana disrobing. In one of Buñuel’s patented leg shots, she removes her thick, dark stockings to reveal a very shapely leg.
With Ramona’s assistance, he eventually persuades Viridiana to do him one last favor—don his dead wife’s wedding gown. Apparently, Viridiana was moved by the story of his wife’s death in his arms on their wedding night. However, she is repulsed when he proposes marriage to her. This refusal is Ramona’s cue to drug Viridiana’s tea. Don Jaime lays her out on a bed, intending to rape her. He unbuttons her top and kisses her passionately, but shies from the deed itself. When she comes to in the morning, however, he lies to her and tells her he has ruined her so that she can never return to the convent. Her disgusted rejection of him pushes him to suicide. In a scene of obscene hilarity, Rita is shown playing with the same jump rope Don Jaime used to hang himself.
Overcome with guilt, Viridiana determines that she cannot return to the convent after all. To carry out her pious mission in the world, she invites local beggars to live in Don Jaime’s mansion. She hopes that with religious instruction and useful tasks to perform, they will be uplifted and their souls will be saved. Most submit themselves to her requirements, but as with many religiously based missions, the unfortunates endure the sermons primarily for the food and shelter. In a move that Princess Diana would mirror several decades later, Viridiana touches a “leper” (actually, a syphilis victim) whom the other beggars shun. They agree to suffer his presence, but only if he sleeps in the shed and ties a can to himself so they will know when he is around. When one of the beggars applies himself to painting a religious picture, he asks the lovely Viridiana to pose for him as the Blessed Virgin. When she does so, her vanity becomes all too apparent.
To pick away at this chink in the saintly armor enters Viridiana’s bastard cousin Jorge (Francisco Rabal). He unashamedly brings his mistress with him and sets about turning the neglected estate to useful growing and industry. His mistress notices his undue interest in the indifferent Viridiana, and leaves him. He then takes up with Ramona.
One night, the owners of the estate must leave for town. The beggars become curious about the main house and sneak in. They kill a couple of goats and have a feast, soiling the expensive lace tablecloth, breaking the crystal and china, and making love behind the furniture. In a grotesque parody of Don Jaime’s earlier scene, the syphilitic beggar dons the dead wife’s corset and her veil and dances an obscene jig. One of the women urges them to assemble for a photograph. The tableau they create is one of the greatest visual gags in cinematic history. When the masters of the house return, the beggars vanish from the house or remove themselves to other rooms. Two of the beggars overpower Jorge and rape Viridiana. With her ideals in tatters and her sexual nature awakened in an archetypal way, Viridiana is both freed and imprisoned by her new, worldly impulses.
This film dwells in the unconscious as easily as an ant dwells in its underground tunnels. The death of Don Jaime’s wife on their wedding night is a shadow cast over the rest of the film. Could the rich man have murdered her so as not to have to consummate the marriage? He certainly has done nothing to find another mate or sexual partner. Perhaps she, too, was drugged, but with an accidental lethal dose. Clearly, Don Jaime’s sexual perversion sets the stage for the beggars’ orgy and Viridiana’s fall and rebirth as a sexual creature with warped tastes. The way the story unfolds reminds me of the progress of a dream. Viridiana’s close resemblance to her aunt sounds like the “you were there, but you weren’t you” episodes that friends often hear from dreamers. Viridiana’s dress-up date with her uncle reveals incestuous impulses in her as well, to come to full flower by the end of the dream.
Luis Buñuel’s darkly humorous films stand up extremely well for new audiences because they tap archetypes and primal impulses we all have and find the need to suppress at different times for different reasons. His discovery that “whatever entered my head was my business and mine alone” was a terrific benefit to younger moviegoers looking for that same release.