I tend to blow hot and cold on David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, filled as it is with works such as Videodrome (1982), Naked Lunch (1991), and A History of Violence (2004) that strike me more as catalogues of interesting moments and ideas rather than completely coherent films. But it’s impossible to deny that the Canadian auteur has been one of modern mainstream cinema’s most consistently visceral, intelligent, and original fountainheads, and at his best, can be a fearsome artist of psychological straits and the overflowing id. Cronenberg’s reputation is still often immediately associated with his early, overtly horrifying essays in body distortion and corruption; thus, A Dangerous Method, his latest and one of his most subtle films, seems, in abstract, like an outlier. But A Dangerous Method’s guardedly realistic approach to character and historical setting revolves around some very Cronenbergian motifs, not the least of which is the strange and often perverse manner the inner self and the outer self relate.
The film’s early scenes are fixated on Keira Knightley’s unhinged performance as Sabina Spielrein, a young Russian Jewish woman who suffers from an overwhelming, physically manifest neurosis. Sabina, dragged out of the carriage that brings her to the Burghölzli Clinic in Switzerland in 1904, is placed into the care of Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), a young, brilliant doctor at the clinic. He decides to employ Dr. Sigmund Freud’s theoretical and almost untested “talking cure” on her. Sabina, in the extremes of her disease, contorts and buckles and twists, her jaw elongating as things push about inside her, looking as if she’s about to explode like a character out of Scanners (1980) or undergo a transformation similar to Jeff Goldblum’s in The Fly (1986).
Sabina’s pathological pain and rage prove to have two sources: her hatred for her father, the kind of authoritarian who’d make her and her siblings kiss his hand after he struck them, and her powerful masochistic urges, partly imbued by that cruelty, that she can’t assimilate in any form other than as a kind demonic aberration. As Jung works with her, she slowly begins to return to a functioning state, and as part of her therapy, is encouraged to pursue her interest in studying medicine. Two male figures overtly and covertly influence her fate: Jung and his medical field’s unchallenged leader and guru, Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Not long after Sabina becomes Jung’s patient, the peculiarities of her case and Jung’s success in putting Freud’s method into practice becomes a catalyst for the two men to meet, form an initially powerful accord, and then slowly but surely break apart.
Freud, proud and fully aware of his virtually imperial position in a nascent realm of medicine, is actively searching for heirs apparent, and he soon declares Jung one. He entrusts to Jung’s care another of his potential heirs, Otto Gross (Vincent Cassell), a cocaine-sniffing libertine who begins to preach total liberation from traditional familial and social forms, and who is considered insane by his own authoritarian father. His egocentric arguments coincide with a time in Jung’s life when his rich wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) is pregnant, and their marriage is strained, leading Jung to capitulate to his attraction to Sabina.
We live in a world where the catchphrases and oversimplified versions of psychoanalytic theory have gone through phases of utter disdain, near-religious acceptance, and back again. A Dangerous Method sets out to portray a window in not-so-distant history when ideas of the self and society seemed set for a radical change, and the consequences of that change were still potentially inexhaustible, but the people offering the change were still irrevocably tethered to the world as it was. Freud and Jung are portrayed as men caged by their worldly concerns. It’s not the first film to look at the formative years of psychiatry and its figures: John Huston’s amazingly undervalued Freud (1962) pitched the tale of Freud’s speculative development as an expressionist detective story where the younger hero fights through his own neuroses to uncover experiences and epiphanies that he converts into his classic theories. Cronenberg’s film takes a calmer tack and comments wryly on the way Freud, Jung, and Spielrein each in their way turn a fierce personal intelligence in on itself with analytical daring, and yet still constantly give in to bad judgment and behaviours they would reject and criticise in others. Freud proves a fascinating mixture of wisdom, moral rectitude, and a powerful circumspection, even timidity, in the face of disrupting social assumptions and straying beyond immediate scientific rationales.
Many directors become long-winded, not always unfruitfully, but often indulgently, in their late-period films, but Cronenberg here has honed his style to a succinct, discretely impressive economy. He wastes no more frames and words than necessary in a series of interpersonal exchanges, like the way he shoots Jung’s sessions with Sabina constantly from in front her, her alarming visage dominating the foreground whilst the calmly listening doctor hovers behind. The stage origin of Hampton’s work is detectable in the essentially limited range of characters—only five of the actors really matter—and the largely conversational drive of the tale. Cronenberg’s approach to such material is cunning, breaking his film up in a fashion that makes us aware of leaps of time whilst maintaining unity in the flow of vignettes and talk reminiscent of epistolary novels, accumulating over a nine-year period and coalescing into a narrative. Cronenberg does this through a purposeful use of cuts between episodes that lack the usual passage-of-time film grammar, watching relationships evolve and devolve. Simultaneously, Christopher Hampton’s screenplay, adapted from his own play and a book by John Kerr, accumulates detail in an unforced but clear-minded and literate fashion: for Hampton, the story has clear affinities with his script for Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse (1995), which similarly delved into the sordid affairs of fin de siècle antiheroes.
If A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (2007) saw Cronenberg leveraging flashes of personal inspiration out of essentially impersonal material, A Dangerous Method sees him thoroughly submerged in his chosen story, which has echoes as far back in his oeuvre as The Brood (1979). Rather than placing into a dramatic context the imagery of the id, here he peers with quiet wit at the forceful, often violent meeting of minds and bodies that gave life to modern psychological theory. Cronenberg, at any rate, steadfastly refuses to go in to standard biopic histrionics and structures the film backwards, with Sabina’s neurotic explosions all at the start; the finale sees the protagonists all diverging on solitary adventures. The mesh of cultural, political, and personal values that bind and define the characters is laid out in concise terms, especially when Freud draws Jung’s attention to the difficulties of their profession and that fact his theories are gaining credibility as being bound up in the overwhelming Jewish membership of the Viennese psychiatric circle. When Jung asks, “What’s that got to do with anything?” Freud replies, “That, if I may say so, is an exquisitely Protestant remark.” Freud is well aware that such irrational, yet potent prejudices as anti-Semitism can only give fuel to the aggression of his detractors, who will not stomach the implicit condemnation of all Victorian ideals of child-raising, and aspects of the social structure itself, that will inevitably flow out of psychotherapy’s new wisdom.
This is, after all, early 20th century Europe, with its uneasy blend of the liberal and untold lodes of hypocrisy and buried frustration that will soon be released in its orgiastic moment. Sabina seems a by-product of the peculiarly bestial undercurrents and power-favouring assumptions of the era, which the starched collars and trim skirts cocoon. Jung and Freud present less frenetic yet identifiable versions of the same thing, particularly well invested in Fassbender’s expert acting, as he squirms both within the assurances of his professional and actual garb and the tools of his mind to control his impulses, and yet he requires only slight encouragement to give into them. Nonetheless, in the first half of A Dangerous Method, Jung’s use of Freud’s talking cure pulls Sabina back from the brink of self-destruction and helps form a partnership between the two doctors, and the scene fulminates with creative and intellectual potential, as their first meeting goes on for hours before Freud first notices. Taking lunch in Freud’s apartment, Jung yammers away on sexual theory until Freud casually encourages him to not observe any conversational niceties, causing Jung to remember that Freud’s family are listening with beguiled fascination.
Cassell’s Gross is the serpent in this particular Eden, in which Freud is initially high priest and lawgiver who puts Jung and Gross together like the experimenter he is, hoping for another catalytic reaction, and then getting chagrined at some of the results. Gross proffers a blend of entitled addict’s reasoning and unapologetically rebellious attitude, which persuasively preaches a total freedom whilst seeming at the same time to be deeply disturbed. He penetrates Jung’s head with temptation exactly when he’s vulnerable to it, attracted to Sabina on several levels and alienated from his wife and her bourgeois rituals of family-rearing—rituals Gross mocks mercilessly. Perhaps the most revealing, biting, and propulsive aspect of A Dangerous Method is the way it identifies the porous boundaries of the psychoanalytical field, with characters stepping over borderlines between doctor and patient according to the necessity of the moment, and the implicit theory that it takes a neurotic to know a neurotic. “You’re exactly the sort of person we need,” Jung tells Sabina when she asks him if he thinks she can ever be a psychiatrist: “Insane, you mean?” she deadpans.
Jung’s actual affair with Sabina is undoubtedly sexual—Cronenberg casually zeroes in on the stain of blood left when he takes her virginity—but is punctuated by his indulging her masochistic desires. He’s glimpsed methodically smacking her backside as she writhes in erotic frenzy with the air of man simply extending therapy into the bedroom. Sabina sets out to seduce Jung out of romantic interest, but also to satisfy her growing awareness that a good psychoanalyst with an interest in sex like her ought to know something of what she’s talking about. Gross is glimpsed fornicating in the garden with a clinic nurse whose bored expression suggests it’s an equivalent to emptying bedpans and giving out medication, and Gross with an expression redolent of the junkie getting his daily fix. Gross commences as at least a tacitly functioning intellectual but soon enough flees like a man chased by ghosts, asking Jung to tell his father he’s dead. Sabina, on the other hand, travels from barely functioning wretch to a professional. Jung, after deciding early on to steer Sabina toward the medical ambitions she’s already harboured, makes her an assistant in experiments, including one in which he has his wife perform a word association test where the quiet discord in the Jungs’ marriage is made apparent to Sabina.
Jung’s privileged position is underlined when his wife buys him a huge house and a yacht whilst acquiescing coolly to the possibility of his having an affair, and just as coolly reclaiming him with the certainty that for all his percolating temptations to break with his fastidiously bourgeois upbringing and outlook, he’s effectively held within those limits by his own conscientious thinking. These factors do lead him to break with Sabina and even to try to obfuscate the nature of their relationship in his dealings with Freud, obfuscation Freud later claims as one reason for his severing his ties with Jung. But that split already began when Freud tried to block Jung’s desire to move beyond strict adherence to Freud’s purely sexual model, itself challenging enough that Freud predicts that people will still be resisting aspects of it for a century, and starts adopting theories the older man dismisses as unscientific nonsense. In one scene, Jung, having absorbed a criticism from the older man, suddenly begins interpreting a clicking sound emerging from a heating system that coincides with a twinging in his stomach as proof of the possibility of psychic anticipation. Of course, all what’s really manifesting is his anguish at Freud’s determination to remain the guardian at the bridge of legitimacy.
As with the word association scene, close to the film’s end, there’s a clever use of theory to introduce a new idea: in 1913, Jung recounts a dream we know contains a dread portent for the world he lives in, filled with images of waves of blood and piled corpses. Freud’s own spurts of unease when confronted by Jung’s wealth is drolly handled and gives a telling weight to Freud’s discomfort and determination to retain his intellectual leadership. Freud’s understanding of the perilous position he’s in, reminding Sabina of their shared Jewish responsibility, gains a chilling clarity in the coda where we’re reminded that Freud died as a refugee from the Nazis and that Sabina perished at the hands of an SS murder squad in 1942.
One quality of A Dangerous Method that distinguishes it from Cronenberg’s earlier films in a similar key—my favourite of his works, Dead Ringers (1988), and my least favourite, Crash (1996)—is that where he might have adopted an air of chilly archness when dealing with such characters and situations, the tone of this film also has a strong grasp on the hothouse feeling underneath. As with his uneven yet occasionally remarkable Eastern Promises, there’s a deep ocean of feeling and a quiet beauty to the film, as if Cronenberg has grasped at last a way to articulate passion as well as pathology without stooping to bathos. Fassbender’s characterisation of Jung is very much the centrepiece of the film, though he doesn’t dominate. Of the startling amount of work he’s ploughed through in the past 18 months, Fassbender gives one of his very best and most subtle performances here, capturing the finite play of guilt, frustration, attraction, and professional zeal in Jung, a man who doesn’t quite seem to find his sense of mission until after his break with Freud and his last goodbye to Sabina.
Undoubtedly when the time comes to estimate awards, the early scenes of the deeply disturbed Sabina will count most both for and against Knightley’s performance; but the quality of her acting is best noted by how she modulates the characterisation in the later stages, her overt symptoms dissipating, yet maintaining something freakishly odd about Sabina, who operates on a level of feverish strength beyond anything Jung and Freud can contemplate releasing in themselves. That strange intensity is most apparent in such moments as when she’s taking notes on a roomful of Jung’s patients listening to Wagner, hovering with a blend of geeky enthusiasm and hawkish intent. Mortensen is however perhaps the film’s quietest coup, incarnating his Freud as an icon of pipe-smoking sang froid and cagey authority. It’s as restrained a piece of star acting as you’ll ever see, and one of the most effective. Like the film itself, he’s so measured, smart, and effective, you almost don’t realise it.
There’s a saying that a picture’s worth 1,000 words. While this statement is a bit vague, I think I’m safe in saying that, generally, it means that a photograph can convey more information instantaneously than can be gotten from reading 1,000 words on the same subject. Photos are documents—living memories, even—of what we looked like at a certain time of life, where we’ve been, things we’ve seen, and people we knew and met. They tell us truths about ourselves that the vagaries of memory may have erased or distorted. They bear witness. But is a photograph a reliable witness? I’m going to quote from an interview I conducted with Errol Morris earlier this year regarding his film Standard Operating Procedure that sums up his belief about information contained within the borders of a photograph. My questions are bolded:
But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.
And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?
Not to clarify…
Then to do what?
If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…
If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.
Anyone who makes pictures, still or moving, and anyone who looks at them create consciously or unconsciously a context for interpreting those images. That context may be as simple as “that’s pretty” or “that’s ugly” based on the image and one’s visceral or instinctual reaction to it. In the case of art photography, which is designed to do more than document reality, more complex contextualization often is required to interpret not only the “text” but the “subtext.” And without those 1,000 words, viewers must rely on their storehouse of information about subjects similar to those depicted by the photographer. This fact is precisely what makes Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs of poor residents of the hollers of the Appalachian Mountains near Hazard, Kentucky, controversial in the larger world.
Noted Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal traveled with Adams to Appalachia to talk with and film him and his models at work and at rest. She also interviewed a sociologist, several art critics and photographers, and one former holler resident to provide the widest possible context for the viewers of her film to decide for themselves, as one holler resident puts it, “the true meaning of pictures.”
The opening shot is a straight-down aerial view of a dense forest. It is lushly green with shadows and shapes suggesting texture and depth, but like the screen on which it is viewed, it remains essentially flat and free of telling information. We bring our knowledge of the film we are watching to it; thus, we assume it is in Appalachia, though it could just as easily be a wood in Baichwal’s native Quebec.
Our impression is reinforced by the sound of the voiceover that brought us into the film and that is now accompanying this image—a man speaking in the halting, ecstatic rhythms of a rural preacher. We move down into and through the forest and then view a series of still photographs: two weathered men leaning their bent elbows on the seat of the same chair, their bibles open, their hands clasped in prayer; a series of family portraits, including one with cows; lone images of an ancient woman, a white-bearded man holding a banjo. Finally, the camera moves into the black corner of one image, and we are transported to an art gallery full of city sophisticates looking at these photographs. One woman waves her hand in front of the picture with the cows, suggesting something about the composition to her companion.
More stills, including one of a man holding a hog’s head and smiling for the camera. An unidentified voice of a man saying he loves Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs, though he can’t stand to look at them for very long. “But I remember the people in them,” he says, and to him that’s just as important as the pictures themselves. Then Baichwal cuts to Adams instructing some Appalachian men on how to stand for a photo he is making; he speaks to them in a slangy, accented voice that matches their own. In three short minutes, Baichwal has deftly introduced us to the two worlds in which Adams operates, the photos he makes, the toughness of their content, and finally, to the man himself.
During the first part of the film, we spend considerable time with the Napier family, particularly with matriarch Berthie. She’s a tough woman who cut timber alongside her husband, bore him 14 children, and watched 10 of them die. She frequently tucks a pipe into her pinched mouth surrounded by rivulets of skin and oversize moles. Adams complains about concerns people have expressed that Berthie resembles Mammy Yokum from L’il Abner. It’s not his fault that comic strip was drawn, apparently to reflect real life. The real problem is not the drawing but the caricature of mountain people as dumb hicks fit for the funnies. One could argue that the Blondie comic strip similarly lampoons the middle-class readers of L’il Abner and even consumers of Adams’ picture books. Are Adams’ critics just blowing PC smoke?
New York Times critic Vicki Goldberg complains about Adams’ set-ups that purport to show authentic holler life, but actually are historical recreations. Specifically, she mentions the hog butchering picture (above). Indeed, we see Adams’ own archival footage of the slaughter, with the Napiers explaining how it used to be done and then standing by during each part of the process as Adams films and snaps. The final photo is a rather gruesome family portrait, with the hog’s head resting in the foreground in a metal pan. There certainly are a number of ways to interpret this photo. It’s unlikely that the family would have posed with a hog in this way had they been able to photograph themselves; they’d be more likely to photograph the special occasion that surely would have required the slaughter of the costly animal the Napiers were furnished for the photo shoot because they were too poor to own it themselves. As I viewed the photo, I was reminded more of the sport fishermen and hunters—not poor by any means—who pose with their mammoth kills, or of the photos of picnics with a lynched man in the background. Goldberg’s objection to this photo as “set up” ignores the fact that photographers routinely stage their subjects. That Adams may be critiquing the consumers of this photo seems to escape sophisticated readers such as critic A. D. Coleman, who says, “I’m sorry, but these people aren’t sophisticated enough to know when they’re being exploited.”
One critic who can’t be contradicted so easily is Dwight Billings, then a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky: “The problem for me with these portraits is they certainly are telling stories, but the stories are kind of left to the reader to imagine, and we know what the reader is imbued with to imagine: a hundred years of stereotypes.” Baichwal immediately cuts in scenes from Deliverance showing the retarded banjo picker and the violent mountain men attacking Jon Voight and his friends. It’s true—popular culture hasn’t done holler dwellers any favors.
Another authoritative critic of Adams’ work is Louise Hall, a holler native who escaped its poverty, got an education, and moved into the larger world. She is appalled by a photo Adams took of her beautiful, younger sister that shows her leaning through a torn screen door with a man smiling against a wall in the background. While Hall seems to think the poverty of the picture takes away from the girl’s beauty (and most likely finds embarrassing now that she has felt the sting of the outside world’s regard for her place of origin), I find this photo objectionable as a stereotype associated with child sexual abuse. The man in the background doesn’t appear just to be smiling—he seems to be leering. It would take a lot of exposure to the peculiar smiles of the holler dwellers to see this smile as normal and friendly, and I don’t imagine the casual observer would have that opportunity. Adams’ eerie use of lighting to accentuate his black-and-white photography gives this and many of his other photos a sinister, noir-like quality.
Yet, it is Shelby Lee Adams himself who most calls his work into question. He says his family moved around a lot when he was growing up. But then he establishes his legitimacy as an insider by saying he grew up in Hazard. Which is it? He also says he was of the middle class in Hazard and came into contact with the holler folk, not that he actually lived among them and called them friend. He says he never publishes a photo not approved by his subjects; he certainly can’t afford to antagonize them, he says. He says he has made thousands of pictures that he gives to his subjects—a generous gesture, I suppose, given that he makes a fortune off the ones he makes for himself. (I have been able to find no evidence that he shares his economic good fortune with his subjects.) His accent and folksy talk disappear when he’s alone with Baichwal and her crew. He has a foot in both worlds, and yet he stands apart, insecurely, from them both. Why? Because he’s an artist? Because he’s a con man?
Adams’ introduction to his book Appalachian Portraits says, “My work has been an artist’s search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate. I hope my photographs confront viewers, reminding them of their own vulnerability and humanity. I hope, too, that viewers will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people.” There’s no question that he accomplishes most of these aims. Certainly, he records the dignity and strength of many of these people, from the awe-inspiring portraits of coal miners, to the community-centered home funerals, to the majestic landscapes of which they are a part.
He also plumbs some very disturbing depths, using, for example, a family with retarded and deformed “children” in diapers to examine his relationship to Christianity. Perhaps the holler dwellers were the stuff of nightmares during his years in Hazard, frightening images he recreates in order to exorcise them. Perhaps he finds appalling a community that accepts child brides and endless pregnancies that use up and kill its women. He almost never shoots people smiling, adding to the negative impression of his vision. And if his subjects don’t see these impulses in his work, even if they concede the man the right to make a living (something many of them can’t) and like the pictures he publishes, is Coleman right that they are being exploited? Are 1,000 words from Mein Kampf equal to 1,000 words from Othello? Do the two Adamses—Ansel and Shelby Lee—occupy the same moral universe?
It’s clear from watching the comprehensive documentary Jennifer Baichwal has executed that these holler dwellers are well served by her more rounded view of their lives, the circumstances that made them and keep them grindingly poor, and an extended exposure to the people who might emerge from a Shelby Lee Adams photo primarily as grotesque. Of course, Baichwal’s camera can be deceptive, too, recording some moments, choosing to leave out others. And much can be done through the editing process—the order in which Adams reveals the seeming contradictions of his early years may have been changed for dramatic or persuasive impact. The shocking picture of the man and the pig’s head at the top of this review is part of a series of photos Adams took of people with animals; most of them are touching and even sweet. Baichwal spends a good deal of time on Adams’ work with the snake-handling sect of the Pentecostal church, which certainly tips the balance of the film into the bizarre; yet Adams’ photos of people and animals show dogs, cats, geese, chickens as well as snakes. I have a photo of my brother holding a boa constrictor as part of his docent duties for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Without his docent’s uniform, he might look just as bizarre.
Baichwal ends her film as she started it, with the implacable treetops filling her frame. Her provocative challenge remains suspended in air. What is the true meaning of pictures? l
On my way to the screening of Heaven on Earth, I drove past a church at which a wedding celebration was underway. I stopped to let a grandmother pull her grandson across the road, his tiny shoes barely touching the ground, his munchkin-size suitcoat hiking up as he gripped his grandmother’s hand. A large van obscured my view of what was going on in front of the church, but I could clearly hear music with a Middle Eastern flavor. As I passed beyond the van, I took a quick look at people in a circle dancing and clapping with their arms held high. I watched this scene as long as I could in my sideview mirror, reflecting on how this neighborhood, once Swedish Lutheran, had given way to a new immigrant community that no longer worshipped Jesus Christ in the church at which they celebrated.
As Heaven on Earth began, I found myself wrapped in another celebration—this one a prewedding party of a large group of Indian women dressed beautifully in vibrant, gold-threaded saris, armfuls of bangle bracelets, and many-tiered chandelier earrings. They danced with the joyous freedom I had seen only an hour or so ago in my hometown, preparing a beautiful bride named Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) for her journey to Canada to meet her bethrothed for the first time and accustom herself to life in a new country, with a new family. I felt as though I were getting a chance to see inside the experience of a family like the one I had glimpsed only briefly, and savored the possibilities that would soon unfold in the dark theatre. I expected Chand to experience many feelings that go along with being in a strange environment among strange people. But I did not expect this radiant bride to become the extremely unhappy, isolated victim of spousal abuse.
How can any bride expect their spouse to despise and abuse them? Perhaps it is more to be expected in arranged marriages that happen long distance, but Chand didn’t seem worried. The morning before her departure, Chand’s much wiser mother, awakens her to repeat a story about a cobra. Chand sasses that she’s heard the story a hundred times. “Do you remember the moral of the story?” her mother says. “Don’t mess with a cobra!” is Chand’s response. The lesson her mother really wants her to remember is to learn to yield to difficult circumstances. It sounds like Chand’s mother has seen a good many arranged marriages and observed—perhaps lived herself—the difficulties.
When Chand’s new family meets her at the airport, they remark glowingly that she is even more beautiful than her picture. Her husband-to-be, Rocky (Vanch Bardwaj), is teased by his family for being as “as shy as a girl” upon meeting Chand. When the family arrives home, Chand learns that she is to share a small, single-story house with Rocky’s parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two children. Chand says little and keeps her eyes downcast in shyness and obedience.
The marriage takes place almost immediately. As Chand waits for the ceremony to start, she looks out the window. “Dear God. It’s snowing!” Instead of wonder at this new experience, one of the bridal guests just says, “Oh shit.” The splendor and solemnity of the wedding ceremony made me feel this marriage was truly blessed. When the newlyweds return to their home, Chand lays expectantly on her side, still fully dressed in her wedding regalia, awaiting her husband. When he lays down, he says, “We’re not going to do anything tonight. I’m tired.” Chand, still a virgin, might be expected to be a tad bit relieved, but the look of disappointment, of worrying that she does not please Rocky, makes the scene particularly cruel.
The couple drives to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon. When Chand asks if they can take a picture of this physical wonder, Rocky says, “Only tourists take pictures.” Their first sexual embrace never happens because Rocky’s domineering mother (Balinder Johal) arrives at their room with the excuse that she had a premonition that he was in an accident. Rocky decides that he and his brother-in-law will sleep in the car, and Chand and Maji will take the room. When Chand suggests they get another room, Rocky slaps her hard across the face. Chand begins to use her imagination to retell the cobra story in her mind as a way to soothe her, take her back to India, and find a place of her own.
Life for Chand now involves the endless drudgery of working in a laundry, even though she complains to her sister-in-law and coworker Aman (Ramanjit Kaur) that she has a degree. A Jamaican coworker (Yanna McIntosh) advises her to grate a root she gives Chand into Rocky’s drink; once he drinks it, he will fall instantly in love with her. Unfortunately, the root makes Rocky pass out. When Chand tells her friend about this, she says “You have to use the whole root.” When Chand does this and pours it into some milk, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the liquid to boil. Chand runs outside and dumps it on the ground and shakes her burned hand. In silhouette, we see a cobra rise in the foreground.
The cobra will become a nuisance to Rocky’s family, but a source of solace for Chand, as it assumes the image of her husband and comes to her as the man she would like Rocky to be. One day she stays home from work, and the cobra Rocky enters her room, where they make love. When the real Rocky learns that she has been with another man—although Chand insists she was with him—he beats her savagely. A thoroughly confused Chand speaks to the cobra Rocky once more. The cobra provides her with a means to prove she is not an adulteress and gain her freedom—one, of course, that requires her to find great courage within herself.
Indians are taught that cobras are very powerful and can assume the shape of anything they wish. Chand did not make the connection between her imagination and the miraculous appearance of a cobra in Brampton, Ontario. Indeed, Rocky refused to allow her to call her mother and denied her the calling of marriage to which she had given herself willingly. Cut off from her roots, abused and reviled by her witchy mother-in-law and the men in the family, she suffered the usual fate of domestic abuse victims. The folklore of the cobra connects directly with the first scene—the celebration of the women. It is in the suppressed feminine power that Chand finds strength and a way to defeat her abusers.
Deepa Mehta, an acclaimed director, is herself is an immigrant to Canada, and the film captures the flavor of an Indian colony in a new world. Her grasp of the dynamics of domestic violence is accurate and heartfelt—every blow Rocky lands can be felt. She uses a device of shooting Rocky and Chand as a couple in monochrome, reflecting the joylessness of their marriage and the otherworldliness of Chand’s imagination. It’s hard to understand Rocky’s attitude. Is he gay? Is he angry about being forced into an arranged marriage? Does he truly not like Chand? Or women in general? He beats Chand savagely when she pushes Maji to the floor, but when he tells his parents that they will always be his first priority, we can sense his own entrapment and resentment.
The film feels a bit long and goes slack in a couple of places, because it’s hard to know exactly how much time passes between Chand’s arrival in Canada and the end of the film. And despite Chand’s assertions that she had been with no man but Rocky, the complete lack of even discreet or suggested sex scenes made it difficult for me to believe the couple had ever consummated their marriage. Mehta, however, uses extreme close-ups to great effect, practically putting the audience into the scene and Chand’s imagination. The cast, with the exception of newcomer Bardwaj, are very affecting and individual, even Geetika Sharma, who plays Aman’s daughter Loveleen with enthusiasm for her new role model, and later, with dread.
Heaven on Earth regards patriarchy with a cold, clear gaze and asserts the salvation for women—and perhaps men—through belief in feminine power. This is a tough, but ultimately uplifting film. l
There is no anguish quite like that felt by the loved ones of a person who has gone missing. The much-vaunted “closure” that appears to make reconciliation with loss easier cannot occur in an atmosphere of uncertainty. When the missing person was much loved, the stalled grieving process can stop a person right in their tracks for the rest of their lives.
How much worse is it when the missing person is standing right there? Alzheimer’s disease swallows people alive, stealing their memories, robbing their futures, trapping them forever in a narrow, directionless now. Living in “the now” takes on an ominous meaning in this context, at least for the people the Alzheimer’s patient leaves behind.
This dark cavern of experience is explored by fiction writer Alice Munro in her 1999 short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain“. The story focuses on the final crisis of the long-married Grant and Fiona when Fiona is stricken with Alzheimer’s in her 70th year. The omniscient narrator stays well away from Fiona’s spider-webbing mind and focuses instead on how Grant understands and deals with this catastrophe. As with many stories that are grounded to a large extent in academia—Grant is a retired professor of Norse literature and legend who, of course, had myriad affairs—this one is riddled with sex (Grant’s) and a somewhat condescending regard for ordinary people and their native survival instinct that helps them remain pragmatic while their betters struggle.
Somehow, this story appealed to 27-year-old actress Sarah Polley, who chose it for her directorial debut. I dwelled on the literary background of this film to some extent because Polley, who wrote the screen adaptation, transcribes word for word most of the story’s dialogue while attempting to find a cinematic frame for it. I think she made a lot of rookie mistakes both as a screenwriter and a director, but ultimately succeeds in creating a vision that aging Baby Boomers can and should take to heart. Polley also was exceedingly lucky to get the semi-retired Julie Christie, with whom Polley has worked before, to play Fiona. Christie’s performance should garner her an Oscar nomination—and quite likely an Oscar—if anyone remembers this film at the end of the year.
Polley creates a visual metaphor for Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona in her opening shot—the pair are cross-country skiing across a frozen lake that backs up to their spacious cottage in Ontario. Their skis move in smooth parallels in established tracks they must have created themselves. It takes a lot of effort to break trail, so understand the work involved in creating this side-by-side harmony. At one point, Fiona starts making loops in the snow, breaking through fresh snow and disrupting the regularity of the trail. She returns and they head back home.
After this, Polley adopts a time-jumping narrative style. The present time has Grant narrating the story of his wife to the wife of another Alzheimer’s patient at Meadowlake, a facility with assisted-living and full nursing care. Grant’s memory of a young, radiant Fiona proposing marriage to him is gauzy and beautiful. This memory will recur throughout the film, as though it is the last, best way for Grant to hold on to a future full of promise with his rapidly deteriorating wife. Between episodic cuts to Grant finding and meeting this other wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), we see the scenes of Fiona and Grant’s life as her Alzheimer’s begins to take hold. A quizzical look as she tries to figure out what a frying pan is and then decides it belongs in the freezer; yellow Post-It notes labeling each utensil drawer in the kitchen; a dinner with friends during which she babbles incoherently.
The last straw is when Fiona goes out to ski alone and vanishes for hours. Grant finds her standing on a bridge staring down into a river. He approaches her; she doesn’t recognize him, but she accepts his lift home. She decides they are “at that point” when Meadowlake must be her new home. When Grant visits the facility, he gets the scripted tour by its director (Wendy Crewson) and is told that once Fiona is situated, he will not be allowed to visit for 30 days. He has never been away from her for this long, and somewhere deep inside, he knows this separation will cause her to forget him forever.
On their way to Meadowlake, Fiona recalls the previous summer when they discovered some yellow skunk lilies in a nature preserve—a rare recent memory. The more enduring long-term memory is of Grant’s infidelities, which we see again in Grant’s gauzy memory. The couple’s last moments together—nearly the last Fiona will ever remember of Grant—occur with the awkward dignity Fiona musters to accept her room at Meadowlake. This is a truly painful moment to watch—to see an elegant, intelligent woman giving up her life. Unlike Grant, however, she gets another—one less confusing, one with a companion named Aubrey (Michael Murphy), Marian’s husband, who is there temporarily.
As with the short story, we see this tragedy through Grant’s eyes. He desperately wants to hold on to Fiona, but she is already adrift. He turns to a sympathetic nurse, wonderfully played by Kristen Thomson, for some kind of assurances that Fiona, after all, will come back. She’s pleasantly evasive on that point. He even confesses that Fiona’s “infidelity” with Aubrey is poetic justice for his own affairs. He believes the shred of her that still remains is paying him back. His self-pity and narcissism are annoying, and the ends to which he will go to obviate his guilt—though some might see it as unconditional love—include sleeping with Aubrey’s wife to bribe her to bring Aubrey back to Meadowlake to soothe his pining wife. Grant really is a shit.
And perhaps he seems more the shit because Christie’s Fiona is so graceful, beautiful, resolute, and vulnerable. She grasps for memory like a falling cat grasps for a ledge. Her devotion to Aubrey is extremely touching and so unlike her relationship with Grant, even in her lucid moments. There seems a small cruelty to their marriage. I only wish Pinsent had been able to show that hard heart at Grant’s core. The film would have seemed more fleshed to me; now, Grant just seems rather faded, particularly in contrast to the regal Fiona.
Polley’s shooting choices seem a bit amateurish; the camera occasionally seems out of place, creating some awkward, empty spaces. Worse, her choice to leave all of Munro’s dialogue intact makes this film far too literary; the words sound arch in an actor’s mouth, though they might have worked on the page. She also doesn’t give us much of Grant and Fiona’s life before Meadowlake. Without Christie’s laser-beam performance, I probably wouldn’t have cared much about the tragedy that had befallen this couple. The intercutting of the conversation with Marian and Grant also left me impatient.
Nonetheless, for members of my generation, a fairly privileged lot to which much has been given, Away from Her shows just how easily much can be lost. This is a sometimes exasperating, but memorable, film. l
Everybody knows that you’re in trouble/
Everybody knows what you’ve been through/
From the bloody cross on top of calvary/
To the beach of Malibu/
Everybody knows it’s coming apart/
Take one last look at this sacred heart/
Before it blows/
And everybody knows.
—”Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen
Grief is an emotion that many people find unbearable—unbearable to feel and unbearable to observe. Atom Egoyan, a Canadian director of Armenian ancestry, has an ethnic heritage of grief over the slaughter of 1 million of his Armenian brethren by their Turkish conquerors that seems to have informed his film explorations. The Sweet Hereafter and Ararat deal indirectly and directly with tragedy and its attendant guilt. Similarly, Exotica explores the amorphous boundaries of grief, weaving a web of connections and disconnections that brings its main characters face to face with their own illusions.
The film opens on an illusion—a two-way mirror through which customs guards observe passengers at Toronto’s airport and the guards who go through their bags. One passenger, Thomas (Don McKellar), moves directly to the mirror, seeming to examine himself, but perhaps aware that he is being examined. A customs officer being coached in how to observe (Calvin Green) moves forward, coming nearly nose to nose with Thomas, prevented from touching him only by the trick pane of glass. This motif of illusion, concealment, and barriers will play itself out not only in Thomas’ story, but also in the film’s central story.
That story’s crucible is Exotica—a gentleman’s club that trafficks in fantasy. Exotic dancers perform various types of fantasies for the audience, and for just $5 more, they will bring those fantasies to the privacy of a client’s table. Christina (Mia Kirshner), a dark-haired young woman who dances in schoolgirl clothes to Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” is the particular favorite of Francis (Bruce Greenwood), who comes to the club every other night and pays to have her dance at his table or just talk. The two are watched jealously by Eric (Elias Koteas), the club’s DJ/MC and Christina’s ex-lover. Artificial caverns run behind the client booths with two-way mirrors that Zoe (Arsinée Khanjian), the club’s owner, uses to watch for inappropriate behavior, specifically clients who touch the dancers. Eric frequently sits behind Francis’ table when Christina is there, watching and seething at their special relationship.
Through the use of flashback, we learn that Francis has suffered a tragic loss. His beloved daughter was murdered, and his wife died in a car crash a few weeks later, a possible suicide. Francis was implicated in the murder, but never charged. He keeps his grief in check by carrying on an illusion of normalcy. On the nights he goes to Exotica, he brings Tracey (Sarah Polley), his daughter’s babysitter, to his house where she practices on his piano, then brings her home and pays her. Tracey, disturbed by this arrangement, asks her father (Victor Garber), an old friend of Francis’, if she can stop going. “There’s no baby to sit.”
Christina, Eric, and Francis have a creepy connection as well. Eric and Christina met while on the massive search for Francis’ daughter. Christina, too, babysat for his daughter and gained consolation from him for the lack of warmth shown her by her own family. There can be no doubt that Eric finds this eroticized father-daughter type of relationship unhealthy, possibly dangerous, and this feeling and his own jealousy cause him to drive a wedge between the pair.
Thomas enters this web when Francis comes to audit the records of his pet shop and blackmails him into trying to mend the rift with Christina and the Exotica management. Thomas, it seems, has been smuggling the eggs of exotic species of birds into the country. A method he stumbled upon to pick up men snags him, unwittingly, the customs guard who observed him so closely at the airport. After a night of sex, Thomas awakens to find the eggs have vanished.
Exotica weaves coincidence into meaning, reality into illusion and back to reality again. We become aware of the hurts each character in this film has suffered, but we also learn that we can’t trust anyone too far. Eric loves Christina, but he destroys a relationship that was special to her and then seems to take her place as Francis’ consoler. Thomas rejects one man who might have been good for him, but invites the wrong one home. And then there is Francis himself. He doesn’t seem as though he could harm his daughter, but his wife’s suspicious death and his visits to the Exotica cause us to wonder more than we should. Egoyan not only has dealt with dead children before, but also incest.
Exotica is an elliptical, but nonetheless, schematic film that some may not find satisfying. I like the atmosphere it creates; the suggestion that we can find what we need, at least for a time; and its linking of sex with death. These potentially dark elements of human experience carry a charge that many filmmakers have explored, but I can think of few who have done so with such sympathy, lack of judgment, and intrigue. l
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