gratia artis

Remarks about film(s)


‘I’m sorry, Mr Welles: there’s been a Hitch…’

The Sight & Sound ‘Greatest Films’ poll for this decade has now been out for a couple of days, and already it seems too late to discuss it. However, that may not stop me putting my oar in. (Spoiler: I plan to call it ‘The Wrong Hitchcock’.) For the time being, the picture and caption above will have to do.

While two of the more written-about films released this week – The Woman in Black and A Dangerous Method – are not remakes in any conventional sense, they can’t be said to cover particularly new ground either. In addition to the highly-regarded original novel by Susan Hill and the long-running theatrical version (not so much a conventional play as a machine for inducing terror), The Woman in Black has already been adapted as a film, albeit one made for TV. As I remember from my single viewing, it was very scary indeed: I wonder if the new one will be on the same level.

As for A Dangerous Method, that too is an adaptation (it’s another example of Christopher Hampton reworking one of his plays, to go alongside Total Eclipse and, of course, Dangerous Liaisons), but some of the real relationships it portrays, in particular the affair between Jung and his patient Sabina Spielrein, were covered in an earlier film: The Soul Keeper. The film is something of a Euro-pudding (strictly speaking it’s an Italian fllm called Prendimi l’anima) and doesn’t really work, though its British leads – Iain Glen as Jung and Emilia Fox as Spielrein – do what they can; the final credits sequence, with Fox looking into the camera and miming to the Jewish folk song ‘Tum Balalaika’, is rather more uplifting than it has a right to be. There’s also an odd, not really necessary modern-day parallel story set in St Petersburg, intriguingly pairing Craig Ferguson and Caroline Ducey. Since the film was made (2002) Ferguson has largely forsaken acting for hosting The Late Late Show: his creepy-flirtatious interview technique is one of my favourite things to watch on YouTube. As for Ducey, I remember being shocked at just how beautiful she could be, still reeling as I was from her ultra-committed turn in Breillat’s Romance a few years earlier.

I finally saw The Artist last week, having been super-keen to watch it since the reports of its frenziedly positive reception in Cannes last spring; I suppose it goes without saying that I was a bit disappointed. It certainly looked the part, but I was expecting more invention. Ironically, it may all-too-accurately reflect the rather flat, intertitle-heavy comedies which were reportedly in vogue in Hollywood not long before the introduction of sound – to such an extent that Keaton’s visually splendid, dialogue-light The General found itself dismissed as ’old-fashioned’ – rather than the more heavyweight works that have kept their place in cinema history. For instance, it’s impossible to have sat through Murnau’s The Last Laugh (which, as its director proudly pointed out, dispensed with intertitles altogether) and not to have found The Artist’s visual language a bit wanting. (And I say that as someone who isn’t even sure that he likes The Last Laugh very much.)

There’s been a fair amount of fuss about the use of parts of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo in the new film The Artist, the earlier film’s star Kim Novak* going as far as to call it a ‘rape’. But nobody seems to have mentioned that Herrmann wasn’t the only composer to be ‘quoted’ on the soundtrack: the entire sequence of Peppy going into George’s dressing room and playing out that cute little romance with his suit jacket was accompanied by part of Ginastera’s ballet music Estancia. Very nice it is, too.

* Is it my imagination, or did Mike Figgis get her to say the C-word in his underrated film Liebestraum?

(The Thing, BFI Southbank, 8.45pm, 29 November 2011)

Last night I got to see a preview of the new version of The Thing, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead and a lot of men, most of them beardy Norwegians. I suppose it should be regarded as a remake because it has the same name as John Carpenter’s now-classic body-horror piece from 1982, but the final inter-credit sequences of this film are supposed to resemble the beginning of Carpenter’s, so that it functions as a form of prequel as well.

It begins fairly promisingly with a teaser sequence in which three of the Norwegians fall into a glacier and inadvertently discover an alien spaceship. (Yes, a spaceship: we’re already in Predator or Alien territory.) The highlight of this sequence is a joke, told in Norwegian, whose combination of tastelessness and hilarity almost matches the one Michelle Williams tells in Blue Valentine. At the end the three men are stuck in their ice truck, wedged in the ice and facing downwards into emptiness, which suggests that it’s all over for them; yet there they are some minutes later, being introduced to the heroine Kate, with no word as to how they were rescued. What has happened? Are we supposed to think that they have been taken over by the monster? Probably not, since there is no monster at this stage. This is one of the first signs that the narrative is falling down on the job, or perhaps that the film has been poorly cut down from a longer original.

However, suspicions may have been aroused earlier with our first sight of Winstead’s character Kate, who is some kind of palaeological pathologist. She is first seen in a single, barely perfunctory scene, which I’m guessing (since it is insufficiently made clear) is set in a US university and is so devoid of the usual gimmicks of introducing a character that it hardly seems worth bothering with, except that it does give us some people speaking English after the all-Norwegian prelude. It appears that Kate has forgotten an appointment with a colleague and/or friend Adam, played by the rather anonymous Eric Christian Olsen (an American despite his Nordic name), though I couldn’t work out what that appointment was (business or pleasure). Adam then introduces his boss Dr Halvorson (the excellent Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen, hopelessly wasted), who gives her three facts about her proposed new job: 1) it’s in Antarctica; 2) they’ve found a ’structure’; 3) they’ve found a specimen. After the barest consideration Kate says, ‘I’m in’, and boy is she ever.

The flight to the Norwegian base gives us enough time to register a possible love interest in the American pilot Carter. This character, decked out with an earring and an unnecessarily anti-Norwegian attitude, is played by the Australian Joel Edgerton, whose rise through the ranks of young male stars in Hollywood seems rather mysterious: though a serviceable enough actor he is not especially charismatic or good-looking. In the end this is neither here nor there, since when all hell breaks loose, as it does fairly quickly (which may be a point in the film’s favour), there’s no time for anything as fancy as romance, and as for a gratuitous shower scene for Ms Winstead à la Kate Beckinsale (in the Antarctica-set Whiteout), forget it. (No sex please, we’re being eaten.) Once they have transported the ice block specimen to the base and begun work on it, it is only a matter of time before the creature gets out, and the film gets going. The creature’s escape appears to be facilitated by a decision Halvorson makes to take a preliminary sample, a move opposed by Kate. Since Halvorson never gets round to doing anything with the sample, it looks as if it was just there to show his wrong-headedness and Kate’s good instincts. This trope has been standard stuff in these sci-fi versions of And Then There Were None ever since Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley tried to stop her shipmates bringing the doomed John Hurt back onto the ‘Nostromo’ in Alien, and its familiarity is hardly improved by the tediously high number of times that Kate is subsequently right and Halvorson wrong; indeed, Halvorson sometimes seems more of an antagonist for Kate than the creature itself (a fact which is very much borne out by Kate’s climactic encounter with it).

The special effects which come thick and fast after the creature escapes are undoubtedly effective, particularly the first time it breaks out of one of the human characters: the man’s head splits in two, each half maintaining a perfect image of the actor’s face in a way that Rob Bottin’s marvellous mechanical recreations of the 1982 actors could only approximate. However, we have been spoiled by CGI, and this stuff now only works if the characters react in interesting and affecting ways to what’s happening to them. (This is usually interpreted as ‘characters we care about’, but that feels like an unnecessary sentimentality.) Carpenter’s 1982 film really scores in having a group of not especially well known but very experienced character actors (Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, David Clennon* and the wonderful Wilford Brimley among them) who are able to do a lot with their necessarily brief screen time and constrained reactions; this film, on the other hand, has a load of Norwegians with beards, dull Americans (Adam and Carter, plus Carter’s black co-pilot, no match for Keith David’s lone black character in the 1982 version) and a very iffy Cockney. Oh, and there’s a short-lived Norwegian female, who has been made mousy and inconspicuous (rather than some giant blonde Nordic goddess) so as not to detract from our ‘final girl’.

Which brings us to Mary Elizabeth Winstead herself. In the unlikely event that we could ignore the special effects this would undoubtedly be her film. She is the lead, after all: indeed, it’s her first lead performance in a film of this size, and she does everything asked of her, even if that doesn’t add up to very much. She’s far from the most unconvincing dollybird-scientist Hollywood has given us, has the action moves down pat and is pretty good at looking scared; better still, when the camera fixes on her enormous, dark eyes, she occasionally gives the impression that something is going on behind them. She’s an appealing and sympathetic presence with a short but nicely turned-out CV, and, as far as I can tell, has a considerable number of people looking forward to seeing her break into the big time. If this film does nothing more than help her do that, it will have got something right.

* That early Norwegian joke is no guide to the rest of the film, which feels pretty devoid of humour: there’s no equivalent to Clennon’s fantastic reaction to a particularly outré special effect, ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding…’

Yesterday (Mon 28) I heard the news that Ken Russell had died. I haven’t felt this bad about the death of a director since 1985, when I went round to see a student friend and tell him that Orson Welles was dead. (He replied, with admirable presence of mind: ‘Another dot just stopped moving.’) Of course, as with Welles, Russell had a pretty lean time of it (professionally at any rate) in his last years, though doing Celebrity Big Brother to remind people he was still alive was perhaps a step too far.
I picked up on Russell in the late 1970s, during my teens: I can’t remember which film did the trick, although it’s certainly true that the long shot of a naked Helen Mirren walking down a staircase in Savage Messiah, for a long time a gold standard of cinematic nudity as far as I was concerned, will have sealed the deal. (The rest of the film, which I watched on the tiny black and white TV I had in my bedroom, wasn’t half bad either.) Not many of his films were deemed suitable for television at that time: the one which I suspect got me truly hooked, Mahler, was shown in a ‘director approved cut’, though since the version I saw still contained Hugo Wolf wiping his arse on a music manuscript, various Nazi-based goings-on to the ‘Frère Jacques’ music from the First Symphony, and the magnificently tasteless conversion scene (where Cosima Wagner, dressed as a Valkyrie, persuades Mahler to hammer his metal Star of David into a Siegfried-style sword and chow down on a pig’s head), I can’t imagine what was left out. By the time Women in Love was added to the mix Russell had become so associated with screen nudity that any naked body that my brother and I saw on television was immediately dubbed a ‘Ken Russell fantasy’. By the early 80s Russell was perhaps my favourite director, though I imagine I’d seen relatively few of his films by then: not The Devils, probably not Tommy, certainly not Lisztomania. In 1981, when I was required to give an arty talk at a newly convened school society, Russell’s films were the first thing I thought of. However, the logistics in those days (with VCRs only recently introduced into Britain, and DVDs long in the future) made this impractical, and I switched to a musical subject (though not one of Ken’s specialties).
During the 1980s I filled in the gaps with his old and new films, watching the earlier ones on TV or getting them out on video, and going to see a number of the newer ones as they came out in the cinema: Gothic, The Lair of the White Worm and Salome’s Last Dance. In each case, I’m sorry to say, I was disappointed. But there was still the old stuff to catch up on, and his occasional TV outings. I was particularly taken by the programme he made to the music of Holst’s Planets Suite, which he did for The South Bank Show. This programme used only pre-existing footage and is perhaps the most concentrated example of Russell’s preternatural gift for matching images to music. (I remember reading at the time that Holst’s formidable daughter Imogen, then in charge of his estate, only gave permission for Russell to do this on the understanding that he didn’t have any Nazis marching along to the ‘Mars’ music and no pornography accompanying ‘Venus’: how well she knew him!) I caught various other things along the way – an inventive, low-budget film for ‘Nessun Dorma’ in the portmanteau film Aria, a brief biopic of Martinu with lots of characteristic touches – and saw his Lawrentian follow-ups to Women in Love: The Rainbow and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There were even a couple of well-behaved TV films for the Americans, both starring his favourite actor Oliver Reed. I finally got to see his first, barely known film French Dressing, and the celebrated disaster that was Lisztomania; and then, a few years ago, his rather wonderful BBC drama Dante’s Inferno – one of that marvellous run of arts programmes from the 1960s, which also includes the better-known films about Elgar and Delius (Song of Summer) – with Reed as Rossetti.
Ironically, given his pariah status as a working director, Russell’s historical importance within British film history has seemed unassailable for the past few years. However, only one of his films, Women in Love, was regarded favourably from the start (to the extent of receiving various awards, including an Oscar for Glenda Jackson), and even that came with a nice healthy controversy, courtesy of its unabashed, unprecedented coverage of male genitalia in the famous nude wrestling scene. The others had a pretty bad ride from the critics: Billion Dollar Brain (which I had enjoyed hugely without even knowing he’d directed it) was widely thought to have killed the Harry Palmer franchise stone dead; The Devils was alternately nasty and silly; The Music Lovers was a taste-free travesty; The Boyfriend was grotesquely overblown; Tommy was a curio; Mahler and Savage Messiah sank without trace; Lisztomania was a film without any redeeming features whatsoever. Of course, I have become fond of every one of these films, even the last, whose frenziedly negative reception resembles that of Showgirls, another vulgar film about vulgarity, twenty years later. The Devils in particular feels increasingly like a masterpiece, and I wonder whether the problems Russell had with it, both from the British censors and from the critics, did something to his self-confidence.
His later work I’m not so sure about. I can’t get on with Valentino, and indeed Russell was as forthright as usual about the trouble he had trying to get his leading man, Rudolf Nureyev, to act. As for the American films that followed, I’m very fond of Altered States, which seems a very interesting hybrid of a well-made Hollywood film and Russell at his most visionary. In the next one, Crimes of Passion, the tension between Hollywood and Russell is less well maintained; the film also feels unpleasantly sleazy, in a way that makes the smut in his British work seem curiously innocent. I also dislike the scores in this and his next film, Gothic: for a director so steeped in classical music, he doesn’t seem to have had much of an ear for more contemporary work (I should say that both scores are by highly-regarded composers and are probably much liked by some). I watched about half an hour of Gothic with the sound down and with a soundtrack of my own choosing, and it felt like a much better film. Despite its high-powered cast (Byrne, Richardson, Spall), I don’t feel that it’s particularly well-acted, and this is a problem that I think gets worse in his later films. (Much of my respect for Hugh Grant comes from the first time I saw him, in Lair of the White Worm: with his appearance the film briefly becomes energised.) It’s true that in the earlier films Russell encourages a rather knowing attitude in his actors that occasionally manifests itself as a form of camp, but there’s a sort of underlying seriousness as well. The later work seems very shallow in comparison, though I’m not sure the TV work belongs in the same bracket. Russell’s biggest TV project of the 1990s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, seemed to me to do very well by the book, though it was fairly heavily trashed by the papers: sex remains a difficult sell on British TV even now, encouraging every prurient instinct of the tabloids and eliciting a mannered indifference from the broadsheets.
It’s interesting to compare the reception accorded to the two most important naturalist directors of the last 40 years, Loach and Leigh (the ‘two Ls’), with that meted out to those two great visionaries Russell and Nic Roeg (the ‘two Rs’), and the fact that the two Ls have gone on making films long into their old age, while both Russell and Roeg have been marginalised. I often think of the two Rs as a pair: there are the indelible visuals, the interest in sex, the intellectualising, the photographic background (Ken as an actual photographer, Nic as a very acclaimed cinematographer). They both worked on curious multi-director projects: Aria and the Erotic Tales series. There’s even a sense of transference at one point, with Roeg making Castaway with past Russell stalwart Oliver Reed and future Russell regular Amanda Donohoe, and Russell making Whore with his namesake, and Roeg’s wife/lead actress, Theresa Russell.

Recent events have made me think of another possible film quiz question, viz:

What do TV stalwarts Jack Klugman and Robert Vaughn have in common?

Of course, this is one of those questions that will eventually go out of date.

Here’s another old quiz, this time all about Mr Maurice Micklewhite himself, Michael Caine.

A: Colleagues

  1. Michael Caine’s British contemporaries include his old friends Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Terence Stamp.
    • Put this quartet in the right order by age, oldest first.
    • He has made films with two of them: which two, and what are the films?
    • What is his connection with the third?
  2. Caine has made five (some might say six) films with Bob Hoskins. Name as many of them as you can.
  3. Caine has had some interesting co-stars over the years. In which film does he appear with:
    • Mickey Rooney
    • Billy Connolly
    • Henry Fonda
    • Peter Cook and Dudley Moore
    • John Gielgud
    • his own wife?
  4. Caine appears with two distinguished British playwrights in two of his most popular films. Name the playwrights and the films.
  5. Play a version of ‘Six degrees of Michael Caine’ with the following films: Quills, Gladiator, LA Confidential, Seven, Emma, Little Voice.

B: Names

  1. In which films does Caine play the following oddly-named characters:
    • Gonville Bromhead
    • Peachy Carnehan
    • Milo Tindle
    • Wilbur Larch
    • Hoagy Newcombe?
  2. In addition to the Harry Palmer films, name a film in which Caine has played a character called Harry.
  3. In both Caine’s outings as characters called Jack, he has ended up dead. What are the films?
  4. In which two films, based on stage plays, has Caine played against type as a character called Sidney? What links the two characters?
  5. In what way could Caine claim to be a gypsy?

C: Connections

  1. Which of the following World War Two films starring Caine is the most odd-one-out: Battle of Britain, A Bridge Too Far, The Eagle has Landed, Escape to Victory, Play Dirty, Too Late the Hero? Why?
  2. Which film united Caine with Glenda Jackson, Tom Stoppard and Joseph Losey?
  3. Who connects Joseph Losey with Caine’s first starring role in Zulu?
  4. Which Caine film is a remake of Bedtime Story, starring Marlon Brando and David Niven?
  5. What links Caine with British actors Alan Napier and Michael Gough?

D: Oscars

  1. Caine won his second Oscar in 2000 for his New England doctor in Cider House Rules. In what previous films had he played an American, accent and all?
  2. Caine’s first Oscar was for Elliott in the 1986 film Hannah and her Sisters. In which other film of 1986 did Caine play a character called Elliott?
  3. For which of the following four films was Caine NOT nominated for best actor: Alfie, The Honorary Consul, Educating Rita, The Quiet American?

Many years ago I used to take part in my local cinema’s monthly film quiz. I wasn’t too bad at it (even won it a couple of times, when I was in a team with people who could supplement my deplorably shaky knowledge of the films of Steve Guttenberg), but thought it was a bit narrow – mostly post-1977 stuff, with hardly a non-Hollywood film in sight. So I put together a couple of quizzes of my own, pitching them at the same sort of level (but with a wider spread) and sent them off to the relevant official at the cinema.

Naturally, he or she did not even deign to reply.

So I thought I might as well put this first one out onto the internet (slightly updated), to see if anyone bites. The questions were originally designed to be read out and answered without help from reference books, IMDB, Google, etc. (It goes without saying, of course, that these are a doddle if you look them up on the internet, so it’s more fun if you don’t.)

A. Variants on ‘Six degrees of Kevin Bacon’

The rules of this circular variant of ‘Six degrees of Kevin Bacon’ are simple. You start with a film starring Kevin Bacon, then choose a film that stars one of his co-stars from that first film. The next film stars a co-star from that second film, and so on, ending after another three or four films with a film starring Kevin Bacon again. A fairly straightforward example would be: Apollo 13 (Bacon with Bill Paxton), A Simple Plan (Paxton with Billy Bob Thornton), Primary Colors (Thornton with John Travolta), Blow Out (Travolta with John Lithgow), Footloose (Lithgow with Bacon).

  1. All the Kevins: Which Kevins connect the following films?

    • JFK
    • Silverado
    • Consenting Adults
    • The Usual Suspects
    • A Few Good Men
  2. Spacemen: Kevin famously played an astronaut in Apollo 13. The following films are connected by which actors, and in which films do they play astronauts/men in space?

    • Tremors
    • The Player
    • The Truth about Charlie
    • Three Kings
    • Ocean’s Eleven
    • Devil in a Blue Dress
    • Natural Born Killers
    • JFK
  3. Six of one: The following films are connected by people who have worked with Kevin themselves. Who are they, and in which films do they appear with him?

    • The Mexican
    • Stepmom
    • The Hours
    • Deer Hunter
    • We’re no Angels
    • Disclosure

B. Names

Who is the odd one out?

  1. Cyd Charisse, Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, Susan Sarandon
  2. Tuesday Weld, Stockard Channing, Sigourney Weaver, Susan Sarandon
  3. Anemone, Anne Shirley, Gig Young, Mickey Rooney

C. Historical characters

Which actor has played these real-life figures?

  1. Marcus Aurelius and Richard the Lionheart
  2. Elvis Presley and Wyatt Earp
  3. Louis XIV and Arthur Rimbaud
  4. Richard Wagner and Alexander the Great
  5. Michelangelo Buonarotti and Cardinal Richelieu
  6. Emma Hamilton and Cleopatra
  7. Al Capone and W C Fields
  8. Pablo Picasso and David Lloyd George
  9. Francisco Pizarro and Henry VIII
  10. Dashiell Hammett and Howard Hughes
  11. D W Griffiths and Robert Flaherty

D. Criminal quotations

All these quotations are from crime films. Name the films and the actors who say the line(s) and/or about whom they are said. (I ought to say that these are almost all from memory, so may not be exact!)

  1. ‘Mother of mine, is this the end of Rico?’
  2. ‘He used to be a big shot.’
  3. ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’
  4. ‘You are a very bad man!’ – ‘I just want my money.’
  5. ‘Made it, Ma! Top of the world!’
  6. ‘All I have in this world is my balls and my word.’
  7. ‘He’s so cool, when he goes to sleep, the sheep count him.’
  8. ‘We was with you at Rigoletto’s.’
  9. ‘They put one of ours in the hospital, we put one of theirs in the morgue.’
  10. ‘I’ve got this little man inside of me…’

E. Not a remake…

The following pairs of brief synopses describe films with the same title (but not remakes). What is the shared title in each case?

  1. – An ambitious TV presenter has her husband murdered.
    – A gay man is haunted by his recently deceased lover.
  2. – Two mismatched scholars look into the private life of a 19th century poet.
    – An errant husband discovers that his wife’s lover is literally a monster.
  3. – The biopic of a crippled painter.
    – The love affair between a writer and a prostitute in 19th century Paris.
  4. – A French woman remembers her childhood in Africa.
    – A newcomer opens a shop in a small French village, to some resistance.
  5. – A respectable man loses control when he falls for a younger woman.
    – A bullied girl takes revenge on her tormentors.
  6. – A group of teenage boys try to survive after the American Civil War.
    – A feckless man takes the place of his dead twin, a secret agent.
  7. – The story of three sisters in London.
    – A porn star is involved in a botched robbery.
  8. – A cop and a glamorous lawyer are chased by the KGB.
    – A woman’s double life as a spy is revealed by the government.
In response to the Film Experience open invitation…

(Strictly alphabetical)

1 Baker, S (Accident)

2 Caan, J (Thief)

3 Cagney, J (White Heat?)

4 Coburn, J (A Fistful of Dynamite / Duck, You Sucker)

5 Finch, P (Sunday, Bloody Sunday)

6 Fonda, H (Once Upon a Time in the West)

7 Garfield, J (Force of Evil)

8 Granger, S (Scaramouche)

9 Grant, C (North by Northwest)

10 Holden, W (Bridge on the River Kwai)

 11 Lancaster, B (The Leopard)

12 Laughton, C (Rembrandt)

13 Livesey, R (A Matter of Life and Death)

 14 Lorre, P (Arsenic and Old Lace)

15 March, F (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde)

16 Mason, J (Lolita)

17 Mitchum, R (Out of the Past)

18 Piccoli, M (La Grande Bouffe)

19 Rathbone, B (Son of Frankenstein)

20 Redgrave, M (Dead of Night)

21 Robinson, E G (Double Indemnity)

22 Ryan, R (The Set Up)

23 Trintignant, J-L (Trans-Europ Express)

24 Veidt, C (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari)

25 Walbrook, A (The Red Shoes)

I went to see this now-notorious film on its first showing in the UK, as part of the Curzon Soho’s ‘Midnight Movie’ strand on 10 July. This would-be club of bright and brash semi-demi-mondaines seemed a slightly odd choice as the first spectators of what was already billed, since its divisive Cannes premiere, as strong meat: before the film started a couple of pleasant characters turned up to tell us that the club’s next cinematic extravaganza would be some sort of mash-up of the films Blue Velvet and Pretty in Pink (and we were all expected to come in our best eighties finery).

Antichrist began with a massive turn-off, as far as I was concerned: a section billed as the ‘Prologue’, in slow-motion, super-detailed, high-contrast black and white (or silver, even), with a counter-tenor singing a melancholy Handel aria on the soundtrack. Pure late-80s advert territory, in other words. A couple have a shower, then sex in the shower, then sex in a bed: there’s a momentary hardcore insert of a rod-like penis getting up close and personal between a pair of thighs. (Don’t remember that bit from the adverts.) In a room in the same flat a small boy ponderously gets out of bed and takes a tumble out of a bedroom window with his teddy bear. Not sure if the teddy survives; the little boy evidently does not, and seeps black blood all over the pavement. Then we’re into Part One (as the home-made-looking titles inform us), and colour, and the amorous gentleman from the Prologue, none other than Willem Dafoe, is looking in on the boy’s coffin as the hearse it is in moves slowly towards the cemetery. Dafoe seems tremendously upset, as why would he not be, while his wife, Charlotte Gainsbourg, is more impassive; but it is she who faints dead away, to awaken in a hospital bed, a month later, accused by her doctor of grieving inappropriately. Dafoe, a therapist of some kind, is impatient with the (unseen) doctor, thinks he can do better, and whisks Gainsbourg back home. Once there she bangs her head against the toilet bowl (eliciting the first of many groans from the audience) and rubs her bare arse against Dafoe until he is forced to have sex with her, after which he exclaims, with some annoyance, ‘This won’t do’ (which elicited the first guffaw of the evening). As the film’s rather striking poster image – the couple having sex (again) against a massive tree, with arms coming out of holes in the trunk – suggests that we will eventually find ourselves in the countryside, this enforced period in their flat goes on a bit. Finally Dafoe reckons that he has discovered the thing that most frightens Gainsbourg – their country cottage, unpretentiously named Eden – so off they go. Now we’re into Part Two, and the cinematography, which has never been less than impressive, becomes remarkable. (The film is technically very admirable throughout, even in the black and white bits I couldn’t stand.) Gainsbourg, though still suffering, seems more at home in the woods than Dafoe, who is troubled by images both of nature and unnature: these reach their climax with a fox, apparently gnawing at its own innards, who turns to Dafoe and out of the blue says ‘Chaos reigns’. (Fewer people laughed at this than might have been expected.) At this point von Trier and his director of photography have established the sort of atmosphere that makes it possible to believe exactly that (although by the most unchaotic of means, naturally enough). As Part Three arrives Gainsbourg, who has occasionally been very affecting in her grief, seems to have recovered, but her sorrow is replaced by something else: a guilt (the reason for which is revealed very late in the film, with a rerun of that black and white nonsense from the start) which feeds into work she was doing for a thesis on the punishment of women in the middle ages. She begins to feel that women, in fact, should be punished, and by her extreme actions makes it impossible for Dafoe to prevent himself punishing her. These actions involve the various assaults on genitals both male and female which have given the film its notoriety, and which were responsible for numerous groans and a few walk-outs at this showing. In the end there is a death, and a curious coda in which the earth seems literally alive with women.

Although the film has caught the imagination of our tremendously smug and lazy cultural commentators, to the extent that it has almost become a water-cooler subject amongst certain media types, it’s not so different from a number of grisly-but-arty horror films that the French, in particular, have recently taken delight in inflicting on us: Haute Tension, Calvaire, Inside, Martyres, all played with commendable poker faces by actors known (Béatrice Dalle, Cécile de France, Laurent Lucas) and unknown (the unfortunate young women of Martyres). To some extent the film also feels like that virtuosic joke in very bad taste, Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible (another hyped-up scandal of its time). von Trier gets his usual committed performances from his two actors – though, curiously, while part of what they do requires them (especially Gainsbourg) to be physically very exposed, he makes use of their shared capacity, seen in many of their other performances, for shutting themselves off emotionally. Or perhaps they just have rather unreadable faces. Whatever, we never get inside their heads, and that may well be von Trier’s point. After all, if this is a horror film (and I suspect it is), how much internalising do you want?

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 2/5 (2)