9th 07 - 2017 | no comment »

The Beguiled (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I’ve read a few reviews of Sofia Coppola’s revision of the 1971 The Beguiled, made by Dirty Harry director Don Siegel with Dirty Harry star Clint Eastwood at its center. Some of the reviews have been sincere engagements with the newly released film; others are desperate attempts to wrest this Civil War drama of a Union soldier mixed up with a small group of females in an exclusive Virginia girls school from its feminine focus and return it to its lurid, macho, misogynistic roots. To the latter I say, ‘I’ll give you this movie when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Coppola’s The Beguiled has no clichés to spin about repressed schoolteachers, deviant headmistresses, Lolitas in cotton bloomers, and slaves who stand by their masters. It isn’t particularly interested in the Civil War either. The director’s films are not intended to be history lessons—they are explorations of timeless, therefore contemporary, human nature, fleshed out but not overwhelmed by their period detail. Coppola made that point perfectly clear in her sometimes reviled, but truly brilliant biopic Marie Antoinette (2006) by, among other things, scoring it with contemporary music. It is ironic (and partially proves my point) that the Cannes crowd booed her for her sympathetic, updated look at their executed queen, but gave her the Palme d’Or for a similar treatment of women and girls from slave-holding families.

Coppola’s film reaches beyond the usual narratives of the war and Southern gothic genres to present a psychologically plausible story about real people in real circumstances. The handful of women and girls who are holed up at the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), are relatively isolated from the war not only because of their location in the middle of a dense forest, but also because leaving would not be safe. Nonetheless, the war gnaws at the fringes of their world, with the occasional boom of cannon fire, small groups of Confederate soldiers and captured “blue bellies” passing by their front gates, and smoke rising above the treetops. Finally, it enters their sanctuary.

Mr. Stranger Danger is the injured Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), whom tween Amy (Oona Lawrence) finds while she is gathering wild mushrooms in the forest and brings back to the school. Christian charity motivates the ladies to tend to his wounds and shield him from discovery. An object of curiosity not so different from Steve Trevor in the Amazon colony of Themyscira in Wonder Woman (2017), he rouses in each of them a desire to attract his attention. All of the ladies (always addressed as “Miss”) dress beautifully for dinner, with young Marie (Addison Riecke) borrowing pearl earrings for the night, and the oldest student, Alicia (Elle Fanning), stealing away from evening prayers to plant a kiss on the sleeping soldier.

It is important to emphasize that while most of the residents of the school take Cpl. McBurney into their confidence at one point or another, it is at his urging, and he remains largely a stranger and potential enemy. Indeed, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), an unhappy woman who teaches at the school, greets his professed ardor for her with, “but you don’t even know me.” The tables are turned here, with McBurney as a male Blanche du Bois depending on the kindness of strangers to see him through. At the same time, it makes him a perfect screen to project back to the ladies their fondest wishes—Amy, his greatest friend; Edwina, the woman with whom he will escape to a new life; Miss Martha, a paragon of virtue and strength; and Alicia, a woman men find irresistible. These projections are really the only insight we are allowed into these characters, as Coppola is more interested their self-defining fables and prejudices than their personal histories.

Of course, even flattery has its limits. Miss Martha, the ultimate authority of the house and a Southern aristocrat and astute judge of character, questions McBurney’s honor and, though wavering, maintains her resolve to return him to his outfit once his wounds are healed. A recent immigrant from Ireland who took money to take another man’s place in the Union Army, he deserted after landing in the thick of battle. While he is unconscious, Miss Martha carefully sews his gaping wounds and washes him with mounting sexual excitement, but reprimands him later for his dirty fingernails, evidence of his attempt to hide from battle in a hastily dug ditch. We know what he’s up to as well as she does, but until his essentially selfish and greedy nature asserts itself, we enjoy the game the entire household is playing and don’t blame McBurney for wanting out of a fight that’s really not his own. However, one seeming throwaway line, “There is nothing more frightening than a Southern woman with a gun,” sets us up for the violence to come.

In some ways, The Beguiled is reminiscent of Coppola’s first feature The Virgin Suicides (1999). In that film, boyhood friends recall their teenage years and the mysterious Lisbon sisters who haunt their memories as beautiful, desirable creatures who, one by one, killed themselves. I’ve long been convinced by the clichéd details of some of the deaths—the sister hanging herself while in schoolgirl attire is particularly relevant here—that there was only one death and that the men created the mythology of mass suicide as an expression of their own sexual frustration. In The Beguiled, Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd create a look that has heavy psychological overtones. The colors are muted, almost desaturated in many scenes, like a period black-and-white photograph, with candles and sunlight seemingly the only lighting sources. The images of lush forest and overgrown garden offer a primal splendor and interiority to the formerly grand Farnsworth estate, while the women almost always wear light-colored clothing, without even a trace of dirt at the hem despite the manual labor they must perform to keep home and hearth together. We can also surmise that perhaps with the exception of Edwina, who may have been farmed out to spinsterhood by her rich family, all of the ladies are virgins.

Coppola is greatly aided by the performances of her skilled cast, particularly Nicole Kidman. Miss Martha never loses her cool save for the need to splash cold water on her face after she bathes the corporal. The girls follow her lead without question and trust in her judgment implicitly. When she tells Edwina to fetch a saw and the anatomy book so that she can amputate the corporal’s leg after Edwina, in anger, has pushed him down a long flight of stairs, we are inclined to believe that the leg is irreparably torn and broken. Yet, her protestations that she doesn’t know how to set a broken leg, but can saw it off with the aid of an anatomy book, leads our thoughts in another direction. Why the leg must come off is anyone’s guess at this point, but his serial seductions of members of the household certainly pose a threat to her authority.

Reportedly, Don Siegel said the underlying ethos of his The Beguiled was women’s desire to castrate men. Coppola picks up that thought, but twists it. Women have a great capacity for love and kindness, she suggests, but will defend their power and honor when men seek to undercut it. In the protracted war between men and women, circumstances may force us all to become warriors.


17th 02 - 2015 | 1 comment »

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

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By Roderick Heath

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 popular appreciation, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.


5th 04 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Intimacy (2001)

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


3rd 11 - 2009 | 10 comments »

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Director: Stanley Kubrick

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By Roderick Heath

Legendary and lauded as most of them have become, few of Stanley Kubrick’s later films landed immediate punches with viewers. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) took time to find an audience, A Clockwork Orange was so controversial in its time Kubrick removed it from British cinemas, Barry Lyndon (1975) was written off by many as a prestige-seeking objet d’art, and even The Shining (1980) underperformed badly on first release, catching neither the Oscar-bait nor the Friday the 13th (1980) crowds. And everyone knows that Kubrick’s final film, a mordant and menacing sexual satire, gained a collective shrug from general movie-goers, even after the death of the director and the pairing of then-married superstars Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman earned it an avalanche of hype.

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I found Eyes Wide Shut a deliciously weird, funny, beautiful, and original piece of work, then and now. Eyes Wide Shut did for writer Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle what Apocalypse Now did for Joseph Conrad—transpose it to the modern day without ejecting its crucial flavour of timeless, mystified sensuality, filtered through a cutting sarcasm that was Kubrick’s own. Frederic Raphael, who wrote the screenplay with Kubrick’s aid, had tackled similar themes, with some similar narrative touches, in Two for the Road (1967). Kubrick’s ironic-realist approach always shaded into a deep stylisation, and Eyes Wide Shut was stupidly criticised for being unreal-seeming when such was the whole damn point of a film based on a “dream novel.” But it’s a judgment I also take issue with: I can think of very few better films that capture with accuracy the haunted feel of a great city late at night as we follow Cruise as he stalks the frigid streets, lost in mists of sexual jealousy and aching fear.

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Sold as a sexy thriller, which means, in standard terms, a tawdry morality play like Fatal Attraction, Kubrick’s swan song is closer in spirit to Italian horror films, Val Lewton (particularly The Seventh Victim, 1943), Ernst Lubitsch, and the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs.” Eyes Wide Shut isn’t actually about sex—it’s about what it means to individuals and to couples and the anxiety it engenders, built around the basic joke that the top male movie star of his era can’t get laid. That would be Cruise, who plays Dr. William Harford—named after Harrison Ford, the whitest-bread guy Kubrick could think of—who plays (as he did in his two other best roles after it, in Magnolia and War of the Worlds) one of his cocky ’80s golden boys getting a rude shock when it comes to growing up.

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Fit, handsome, prosperous, and criminally self-satisfied, Harford and his wife Alice (Kidman) leave their gorgeous apartment and young daughter (Madison Eginton) for an evening at a party thrown by Bill’s wealthy, randy patient Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) and his wife (Leslie Lowe). Bill encounters a friend who dropped out of med school, jazz pianist Nick Nightingale (Todd Field, before becoming a Kubrickian director), and playfully chats with two models (Louise J. Taylor and Stewart Thorndike) who try not so subtly to sell him on a threesome. Alice dances with the fishy Sandor Szavost (Sky Dumont), who, with gentlemanly affect and a strong whiff of sleaze, tries to make her. Bill is soon called upstairs to aid Ziegler, who is hurriedly putting on his clothes near a naked girl named Mandy (Julienne Davis) sprawled on a chair, almost dead from a drug overdose. She comes to, and Ziegler asks Bill not to speak about this, which Bill takes as all part of the business.

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Alice extricates herself eventually from her would-be lover’s arms, but suspects that Bill may have gone romping with the models, an anxiety that doesn’t reveal itself until the following night. After a day in which Bill works and Alice, an unemployed gallery curator, packs Christmas presents, they get stoned together. Alice taunts Bill with a story about her powerful attraction to a young naval officer she encountered a year before at a resort she and Bill visited. Before the discomfort of the revelation can be settled, Bill is called away to “show his face” at the apartment of one of his patients who has died, commencing a series of charged scenes in which Bill is confronted by distorting mirrors to his plight: the dead man’s daughter (Marie Richardson), who’s willing to throw away her fiancé for a professed love of Bill; the fur-clad, oddly named hooker Domino (Vinessa Shaw) he meets on the street, whose professional glaze slips in dealing with her good-looking, charming, slightly befuddled client; a European costumer, Milich (Rade Sherbedgia), who rents out his pubescent daughter (Leelee Sobieski) as a prostitute; and a gay hotel clerk (Alan Cumming) who swoons, figuratively, in his presence, not long after a mob of obnoxious frat boys have assaulted Bill on the street and hurled homosexual abuse at him.

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Most dizzying and bizarre of all, Bill crashes an orgy of a secretive cabal of society patricians, alerted by the intimations of Nick, who plays music for their hedonistic mock-religious rituals while blindfolded. Bill wanders through the mansion while dozens of black-draped, masked guests cavort in approximations of passion with the exquisite females provided for their entertainment. One of the faceless, lushly formed women chooses him as the assembled pair off, but seems to recognise him. She warns him to leave, but he’s soon hauled before the assembled hedonists and forced to remove his mask. Only the masked girl’s intervention seems to save him from a grisly fate, and Bill is ejected with a warning to keep his mouth shut. It’s a scene that evokes and exploits a deep anxiety, desire (both sexual and social) seguing into the needle-sharp moment of being revealed and humiliated. After Bill returns home, Alice awakens from a dream and recounts it to him. It is startlingly similar to his experience, and for Bill, the settled boundaries between life and fantasy, waking and dreaming, threaten momentarily to dissolve. In the clear light of day, Bill finds no solace: in retracing his steps, he finds Nick has vanished, receives another warning from the cabal, and soon suspects that an ex-beauty queen, found dead from an overdose, may have been his guardian angel from the orgy. He senses he might be pursued around town by what may or may not be malevolent agents.

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Like most of Kubrick’s other films, Eyes Wide Shut is indeed coal-black comedy, but the humour tends to die in the throat: the recurring gag that goes beyond a joke quickly enough is that while he gets come-ons from every direction, every flirtation Bill engages in, consciously or unconsciously, sees him frustrated or embarrassed. He withdraws from Domino when he gets a call from Alice; later, when he returns to visit her, he’s about to screw her roommate Sally (Fay Masterson) when she halts their tryst with the news that Domino has AIDS. The darkest reflection of his appetites comes with Milich and his daughter, who whispers a come-on in his ear and backs away in a provocative pose, and later appears at her father’s side as he explains he and her Japanese fancymen (Togo Igawa and Eiji Kusuhara) “came to another arrangement.” The film is, in many ways, a comedy of manners, and again like most of Kubrick’s films, it is about how social ritual masks games of power and desire, a method Kubrick initiated with the contrast of the elegant waltzers and the office politics that destroy hundreds of men, in Paths of Glory (1957), and evolved into more delicate and intricate shadings.

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That Bill becomes the ultimate in uninvited guests is both the biggest and coldest of the string of humiliations he receives. The unmasking is also Bill’s “outing,” for a recurring counterpoint to his desire to reaffirm his masculinity that leads him into situations that rob him of it. He’s taunted as gay by rowdy, vicious young men, and becomes the object of Cumming’s obvious ardour. There’s a quality of vicious humour in using Cruise, so long associated with on-screen potency and off-screen rumours, and the narrative constantly moves to cut off both Bill the character and Cruise the actor from the usual recourses. He is transmuted from beaming, cocky would-be stud striding through the party with two women on his arms, to weeping, unshaven fool of fortune confessing every minor and major seamy act of the previous two days.

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The great conspiracy that Bill considers unwinding proves to be little more than a bunch of rich wankers having a good time, as Ziegler, who was one of them, admits to get him to stop digging into what is nonetheless a potentially volatile situation. He awakens Bill to the fact that the dead girl, his saviour, whom he was able to recognise in the morgue from the colour of her eyes, was Mandy and that her death was, so he swears, her own stupid fault. It’s particularly galling for Bill considering that despite his mask, Mandy could recognise him, or least sense his outsider status. The long sequence between Ziegler and Bill is one for which Pollack received almost more praise at his death than he did for the films he directed. As was once said of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1966), Pollack cuts like a knife through the mouldy cheese of Bill’s self-absorption. Victor accuses Bill of spending the past two days in a metaphorical jerk-off. Ziegler’s admissions deflate Bill’s mounting panic and put a leash on—but do not seal away—the genie of erotic dicontent, as Bill’s journey has conclusively revealed a pattern of how people use one another in sexual situations for whatever motives and prices. Only in his marriage is there something more than a variety of economics involved.

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Eyes Wide Shut is also about marriage, its failings, frustrations, and intrinsic intensity; the shadow people lovers construct from each other and the damage that results from the demolition of those images; and the necessity of both the construct and the demolition for the survival of any union. Bill and Alice’s intimate moment after the first party sees them touching each other but admiring themselves in the mirror, trapped in a state of narcissistic self-contemplation by their experiences at Victor’s. Alice’s admission of her deepest temptation, which mingle desperate ardour both for another man and for her husband, sends him out to half-consciously replicate the journey, to provide himself with objects of desire, and then reject them for his wife. He, in his waking life, and she in her dream, tear apart the false versions of themselves in order to return to where they essentially began. I’ve never liked Kidman as an actress more than here, with her mordant deliveries in the hypnotically brutal confession scene, and her weary, frightened, but hopeful affect in the final few moments.

Kubrick’s visuals, festooned with shades of muted colour and embracing warmth contrasted with deep blues and evocations of a frigid northern city night, light Bill’s path between inside and outside, acceptance and rejection. Beneath the fastidious, facile realism of the details, the expressionist intent is readily apparent in the city sets that, like Val Lewton’s settings, vibrate with stylised liveliness. Kubrick had quoted Euro-horror before in The Shining, which utilised the fetishist visual patterns of Dario Argento with impunity, and Kubrick’s saturated colours and textures here again resemble Argento’s. The orgy sequence, with its sex-as-theatre dreaminess, clash of flesh and formal clothing, and psychedelic music, evokes many a work of Euro underground sex-gothic and surrealist cinema. It’s an aspect that many viewers seemed blind to, perhaps because Kubrick had always been assumed, despite the distorted expressionist violence and comedy and pop-art reflexes in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) (and classical art in Barry Lyndon), to be a careful realist. The film’s core musical theme is Shostakovich’s “Jazz Suite,” a cunning choice that fuses the lingua franca of America and Europe in a jaunty waltz time that contributes to the blurring of space and era.

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But as well as making its own felicitous quotes of other oeuvres, Kubrick readily referenced his own obsessions all the way through. His script for the unproduced Napoleon had a scene in which a young go-getter is ushered into decadent society to his shock and delight. Milich’s daughter is another Lolita. The film’s mix of formal elegance and impudent humour reflects how deeply the influence of Vladimir Nabokov, whose Lolita he filmed in 1962, seeped into Kubrick’s style. What is rare about Eyes Wide Shut and what made it a particularly lovely coup de grace, is the final, fecund warmth it tries to locate between Bill and Alice. It is able to approach the nature of human decency as well as corruption, leading to one of the greatest, pithiest, most meaningful final lines in any movie.

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5th 09 - 2008 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday, 1960)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Mario Bava, director

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By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava, ace cinematographer, had filled in as director on his mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the film many horror genre scholars see as the first of a nascent explosion in the genre’s popularity that barely receded until the mid 1980s. Bava was the son of a sculptor and film effects pioneer Eugenio Bava, and had wanted to be a painter himself. But he, too, moved into movies and became a respected director of photography, working for the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. He had also made some short documentaries in the ’40s. The low budgets and strict shooting schedules of Italian genre film often overwhelmed directors and crews, and Bava had proven himself able at picking up the pieces. He had done so on I Vampiri, when Freda, frustrated, had walked off the set, forcing Bava to finish the film in two days. Bava had also contributed to several films as second-unit or fill-in director. In 1960, he finally made his first lone, credited foray into directing at the age of 46, La Maschera del Demonio.

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Some horror critics feel La Maschera del Demonio is Bava’s best film. It certainly exemplified a richness of style nigh untouched at the time by other genre filmmakers, pulsing with inventive cinema and making an immediate impact. In what was becoming common practice, foreign actors were imported to sell Italian genre films overseas. For horror films whose makers were attempting to pass them off as Hammer product, British actors, rather than Americans like Steve Reeves, were hired. For his debut, Bava picked up John Richardson, whose greatest claim to fame would be to act alongside Raquel Welch in One Million B.C. (1967), and a young actress whose appearances thus far had been restricted to four rather small roles in her native land—Barbara Steele.

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The story is loosely based on a Nokolai Gogol short story, “The Vij,” and Gogol’s work itself was adapted distantly from folk tales collected by early Christian scholar Saint John Cassian. The startling opening is worth noting for confronting violence. Around this time, horror films were becoming vehicles for a fresh, increasingly manifest social and historical cynicism, and were exploiting looser censorship with newly charged depictions of gore that anticipated the interests of the 1960s, when more revolutionary fantasies were taking grip. There is quite a gulf between the relatively distant fantasies of German Expressionism and Universal horror and that more direct impulses toward attacking social order in horror at the time. Terence Fisher had begun actively eviscerating historical iniquity in his Hammer films, Alfred Hitchcock tried to capture the shocking texture of sudden violence and incipient madness in Psycho, Michael Powell had meditated on the relationship between voyeurism and brutality with Peeping Tom (1960), and Georges Franju had made his explicitly antipatriarchal parable Eyes Without a Face (1959). To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943).

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Bava begins at his most provocative, with a spectacle of Inquisition in old Moldavia. An accused witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele), and her brother (a detail obscured in the English-dubbed version), lover, and consort in evil, Javutich (Arturo Dominici), having been captured and condemned by soldiers and priests, are subjected to gruesome punishment. Javutich is already dead. Their other brother, Gryabi, acts as Grand Inquisitor, bringing this relentless annihilation upon them. Asa begs for Satan’s aid to return from the grave and punish her tormenters, which include her own father. She is, in short order, branded, and has a “devil’s mask”—a grotesquely spiked object designed to eternally identify her as a Satanic being— pounded onto her face with a sledgehammer. The sickening force of the blow and the blood that flows from her face is gross enough, but Bava makes sure we hear her moans that tell us she survives this torture. Following this, she is to burn at the stake, but a furious wind and rainstorm prevent it. Instead, she is interred in her family crypt under a repressing cross, and Javutich is buried.

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Two centuries later, figures of modern, masculine rationality, embodied by Doctor Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant, Andrei Gorobek (Richardson), travel the region. Their carriage throws a wheel, and whilst their jittery driver fixes it, they venture into a nearby ruin of a church. Vaguely aware of Asa’s legend, they discover her sarcophagus and can’t resist opening it, tugging off the devil’s mask to reveal her face, riddled with holes and with the eyes rotten away but still surprisingly intact. Kruvajan cuts himself, of course, and blood spills on Asa’s corpse. As they leave the church, they are startled to happen upon a young woman with a mastiff blocking their exit, the very image of the witch. But this is her descendent Katia Vaida (Steele again), who makes eye contact with the handsome and young Richardson, and bids them go in peace. But peace is short-lived—Asa has been revived by the blood. She summons Javutich from his grave, which he digs his way out of, and he sets about aiding Asa’s vengeance on her family, including Katia; her father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani); and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri).

La Maschera was a prestige effort for Galatea Studios, which gave Bava an uncommonly long six weeks to make the film. Bava used the time well, setting up some impressively complex and innovative camerawork. Despite this, it has a number of the regulation cheesy moments of horror films of the time, notably a bat the size of Rodan that attacks Kruvajin. AIP bought the film and hacked it about considerably, dubbing a lousy Les Baxter score over it and changing the title to Black Sunday. Nonetheless, they were paid off with a big hit. The film became an immediate template to steal from, so that works like Freda’s L’Orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum, John Moxey’s City of the Dead, and others filched its plot and imagery to the point where it looks clichéd now.

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The shoot was beset with script difficulties that Bava doesn’t entirely paper over. But like Hitchcock, Buñuel, and Lang before him, and Argento and De Palma after him, Bava was the kind of cinematic shaman whose belief in the power of images subverted dramatic standards. Scenes in La Maschera dazzle the eye and imagination; Katia, framed by the shattered doorway of the church, holding two dogs on leashes; Javutich slowly breaking his way out of his tomb and lumbering out into the night; the nocturnal progress of the Vajdas’ coach, appropriated by Javutich, making its ghostly passage through the night fog; the gently gliding camera that observes the Vajda family in their castle, a Byzantine environment of great carvings and paintings; Asa, partly revived, calling for Kruvajin to become her lover and the middle-aged intellectual instantly enslaved; Prince Vajda discovered gnarled and masticated; Asa sucking out Katia’s lifeforce to rejuvenate herself.

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It’s wonderful to watch Bava save the genre from the mercenary insipidness that had, apart from rare exceptions, afflicted the style of horror films for two decades after the dizzying stylistic heights of films like Nosferatu, Bride of Frankenstein, and Vampyr. Bava enters the gothic realm wholeheartedly, employing some newer, sophisticated camera techniques, like slow motion, which had barely, if ever, been used before by genre directors. He also employs some devilishly clever, exceedingly simple special effects, like the slowing regrowing eyes that fill Asa’s sockets, and the infrared make-up effect used when Asa leeches off Katia. Maschera also leapt wholeheartedly into another, perhaps ultimately less salutary, trend, towards strong violence and raw corporeal effect. Asa’s branding and masking, Vajda’s masticated corpse, and Kruvajin’s scorched face all represent the new frontier for gore in the genre. Much of this had to be edited out of the AIP cut, and the film was refused a certificate altogether in Britain, where it was not released uncut until 1992.

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With his tales of rampant killers driven beyond all reason to wipe out everyone who taunts their illusory desires, like Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1973), Bava probably did more than any other horror director other than Hitchcock to invent a modern genre; La Maschera, with its Gothic style and themes, might seem backwards-looking by comparison to some of his later work. Bava also had gifts that invited a larger stage than he ever achieved. But Bava was born to make horror films, not merely because of his talent at creating pitch-perfect mise en scène, but because of his insistent interest in the notion of repressed feelings, passions, and ideas rudely returning to enfold and ensnare the present. Such a notion is, indeed, fundamental to the genre. But perhaps no other filmmaker maintained such a relentless interest in expressing the idea, especially through incestuous families, fuelling the narratives of this film, Operazione Paura (1966), Lisa i en Diavoli (1972), and Shock! (1977). Sexual passion, particularly, keeps resurging in warped ways; condemned in an act of patriarchal repression; Asa is a raw, seething body of sexuality that refuses to die, determined to ensnare all who approach her, and to steal the flesh of the virginal Katia. The image of Asa, lying on her bier, face pocked with unholy holes, writhing like a lustful leech, her fingers clawing and flexing with rapacious need, seducing Kruvajin, isn’t quickly forgotten.

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Steele is an incalculable asset. Her perverse beauty, with her ability to project gradations in intensely weird emotions, from virginal insensibility to insatiable cruelty to rampant madness, instantly became emblematic of the genre—and made her verboten for mainstream cinema. Even Fellini could only manage to cast her as a kooky beatnik in (1963). Steele was a cunning actress and a hipster with a feminist bent. As such she was entirely hip to Bava’s approach, and would later express cutting opinions on the degeneration of the genre into misogynistic slasher films. She expertly presents distinct characterizations of innocent, doe-like Katia and the powerfully perverse Asa. She is the centre of the film, far more than the heroes Andrei and Constantine, who, as is often the case in Bava, are present as a requirement, but are so wooden and conventional they practically disappear. If there’s a disappointment to La Maschera, it’s that it ends too conventionally. Asa, unlike a lot of subsequent movie monsters, is cool and interesting enough to win.

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8th 05 - 2007 | 1 comment »

Exotica (1994)

Director: Atom Egoyan

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

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.

up-6exotica1.gifThrough 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.”

Exotica%2010.JPG 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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