Like so many Coen Brothers films, the primary complication of Blood Simple hinges on an absurd series of misunderstandings, lies, and botched schemes, and yet this is no farce like Burn After Reading, or even a black comedy like Fargo. Perhaps a more serious-minded film like No Country For Old Men makes for a closer comparison to what they are accomplishing in their staggering debut, though even where that Western thriller leaves a haunting ambiguity over its ensemble of fatefully connected characters, this thickly plotted neo-noir winds towards a dark, ironic conclusion. Everyone here has their own hidden motives, but as fate would have it, they all inevitably cancel each other out. From the Coens’ omniscient perspective though, dramatic irony is the binding force that keeps these characters in the dark, driving towards a final showdown between the remaining survivors which, even at that pivotal point, continues to obscure their identities from each other.
Perhaps Emmet Walsh’s drawling private detective, Loren Visser, is the closest of them all to seeing the whole picture for what it is, being hired by bar owner Marty to spy on his wife and employee, Abby and Ray, who he believes are having an affair. Given Visser’s dark humour and streak of violence, he acts a precursor to Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, dealing out a warped sort of justice with chilling proficiency. Much like his targets though, Walsh’s character possesses his own weaknesses. He may be the sort of stoic monster who doesn’t even flinch when there is a fly buzzing around his face, but oversights like leaving his lighter at the scene of a crime indicate that he is less than faultless.
Visser’s decision to turn on his client and murder him rather than those he is sent to kill is a twist of the knife in a narrative that turns what would have been an easy assassination into a confused mess for all involved. Leaving Abby’s gun near the Marty’s body should easily frame her as the culprit to whoever comes across it, though Visser doesn’t count on that person being Ray, who instantly goes to work cleaning up the crime he believes his lover has committed. Additionally, Abby’s hallucinations of Marty’s angry ghost mix in with the reality of Visser coming after her to finish the job, setting up a biting punchline after she shoots her pursuer in the film’s final minutes.
“I’m not afraid of you, Marty.”
“Well ma’am, if I see him, I’ll sure give him the message.”
Frances McDormand may be Walsh’s equal in her screen debut as Visser’s final victim, Abby, though for an actress who would become known for her roles as intelligent, outspoken women, her presence here carries a surprising power in its silence, quietly trying to survive the men around her. In fact, it is remarkable just how much the Coens resist the urge to fall back on their dialogue as a narrative device here in Blood Simple, demonstrating immense confidence as first-time directors by carrying their story along on large stretches of purely visual filmmaking.
That assurance is importantly there in the editing, as we see characters wordlessly piece together misleading clues to arrive at incorrect conclusions about what is going on, as well as slick transitions that whisk them from one location to the next. In the formal details too though, Blood Simple is subtly foreshadowing all the deaths to come, constantly returning to the dead fish lying on Marty’s desk as if to draw a connection between these rotting creatures and the characters around them.
Tiny quirks like these go a long way in many Coen brothers films to create a distinct setting defining its inhabitants, and that trademark begins right here in their Southern Gothic vision of small-town Texas, far removed from the bright, sunny exteriors of classic Hollywood Westerns. Perhaps Visser is the closest thing we get to a cowboy in this film, though even his craftiness is far more in line with crime thriller archetypes. On every level of its construction, from the narrative to the low-key lighting, this is a neo-noir, soaked in the smell of sweaty bars and beer-stained carpets.
Director of photography Barry Sonnenfeld does some of his best work here as well in his first of three collaborations with the Coens, heavily contrasting the darkness of the night-time settings with the bright glare of artificial light sources. Around Marty’s bar, they find some glorious compositions inside the pink, neon frames that adorn windows and walls, while a jukebox and other signs shed a dim assortment of colours around the scarcely populated room. Outside, car headlights pierce rain-glazed windscreens and silhouette characters in dire situations, and the Coens make especially creepy use of this when Ray finds a still-alive Marty trying to make an escape from his backseat. Like a pitiful, wounded animal, the bar owner crawls along the gravel road, backlit by the car’s two harsh beams cutting through the darkness. With his face completely obscured, his outline becomes entirely bestial, and in that moment, he is reduced to the agonising pain that has been inflicted upon him and his most basic instinct to survive.
Joining the Coens and McDormand here on the list of artists making an outstanding film debut in Blood Simple is composer Carter Burwell, whose entrance arrives in an eerie, minimalistic piano motif that often echoes through the film’s silent passages. With its sinister, high-pitched melody playing over a steady, sustained bassline, it superbly complements the rough, rural landscapes of Texas where Visser’s murders mount up, edging ever closer to our heroine. When that confrontation finally arrives too, the formal pay-off is immense, pulling together a pair of strangers who are only at odds because of the selfish wishes of a dead man neither particularly liked. Even without attaching our perspective to any single character, the Coens are meticulously dedicated to creating a complete immersion into this grimy, moral wasteland, and armed with a talent for deeply riveting storytelling, they navigate its nefarious backroads towards an understanding of its place in a senseless, godless universe.
Blood Simple is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.
Cinema Paradiso bleeds the sort of pure, unassuming love of film that greater movies may have tackled with keener self-reflexivity and more ambitious visual artistry, and yet Giuseppe Tornatore’s majestic coming-of-age tale nevertheless inspires an intoxicating sentimentalism which erodes all traces of cynicism in even the harshest critics. The childhood of his surrogate character, Salvatore Di Vita, is partially defined by those moving images that flicker across the giant screen in his tiny Sicilian town, ranging from the Hollywood westerns of John Ford to the arthouse fare of Federico Fellini. Within that darkened movie house, virtually every facet of his identity is born – the vibrant cinematic worlds that inspire his imagination, the communal gathering of odd townsfolk in the audience, and even his first sexual experiences on the floor of the theatre make the establishment a landmark for many personal milestones. Most significantly of all though, it is the friendship that he forms with Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist, that marks his sentimental memory most deeply, evoking a nostalgia for the days they spent in his tiny room up the back playing movies for the village of Giancaldo.
In the present day, Salvatore is a famous film director, emotionally cut off from his hometown, though still affectionately remembered there as Toto, the sweet but troublesome projection assistant. Cinema Paradiso’s extended childhood flashback dominates the film like a more innocent version of Once Upon a Time in America, as Tornatore sweeps us into a long-gone era similarly distinguished by Ennio Morricone’s light, fantastical score of flutes, eventually swelling into a full, grand orchestra. Much like the movies that Toto joyfully escapes into, Cinema Paradiso’s narrative becomes a fable of escapism, drifting along on waves of vignettes that progressively reveal the pieces of history intrinsically embedded in the man he is today. Some romantic flourishes of style in Tornatore’s dreamy camerawork gliding across packed audiences and the fantastical roaring lion head sculpture through which movies are projected do well to carry a delightful charm through these scenes, though for all its sentimentality, this is not a film that possesses the same cinematic grandeur as its artistic inspirations.
Still, this is not to suggest that Cinema Paradiso lacks emotional punches in its epic, decade-spanning narrative or rich characterisations. The town square that the theatre sits on is frequented by one raving homeless man who claims the territory as his own. Light tension builds in scenes highlighting the local priest who sits in the theatre ringing a bell at any sign of intimacy, forcing Alfredo to censor the reel of its lewdness. Most movingly of all, Alfredo himself is revealed to be a truly selfless character, paying back Toto’s entry fee to save him from getting in trouble from his mother, and eventually teaching him how to work the projector itself.
A slick transition of the older man running his hand over a young Toto’s face smoothly slips us a decade into the future, revealing the features of an adolescent still helping behind the scenes. In the years since the fire that burned the theatre to the ground and its reconstruction as Nuevo Cinema Paradiso, he has taken over the duties from his now-blind mentor, and yet their friendship does not fade. Just as Tornatore will often shoot Toto centre-frame from low angles as he gazes in awe and delight at the cinema screen, so too does he carry a similar reverence for the movie house itself in exterior shots, letting it dominate symmetrical compositions like a monument to human imagination.
As Cinema Paradiso floats along with teary-eyed wistfulness, super-imposed images of black-and-white films over their captivated audiences continue to settle us into the mind of the young projectionist, drawing a direct connection between his work and the emotional impact it has on large crowds. That feeling that he is the one making them all forget their troubles is one that is evidently passed on from Alfredo, and above all else, it becomes the most rewarding part of the job.
The next step that Toto takes when he finally grows old enough to leave home is only logical – the film industry waits for him beyond the borders of Giancaldo, and Alfredo realises better than anyone that this is where he belongs. The meagre pay and scanty life of a projectionist is not one he wishes upon his young, bright-eyed friend, and neither does he wish for him to ever look back to where he came from.
With Alfredo’s passing and Toto’s return though, Tornatore begins tying back in those remnants of childhood memories that have aged and matured over the years. The girl he never quite worked it out with is still there, though given how much has changed, rekindling those old flames does not come easily. Similarly, Nuevo Cinema Paradiso is now nothing but a derelict remnant of the town’s past, sitting on the verge of demolition. As Toto re-enters the site of his childhood wonder for the first time in decades, Tornatore continues to consume him in its architecture, though the effect is now entirely different. While he has moved into the future, his childhood has simply been left to gather dust, and that joyful nostalgia is now overwhelmingly melancholy.
Still, there is one final gift left behind for him by Alfredo. Among the late projectionist’s old possessions is an unlabelled film reel, splicing together all those censored shots the town priest used to ask him to remove from romantic scenes. In those missing pieces, Alfredo finally creates a film of his own, relishing a love of life and art that has unconsciously guided Toto in all his endeavours, and which now overflows with overwhelming passion. Only an ending as profoundly in tune with film editing processes as this could tie off Cinema Paradiso’s tribute to the artform with such affectionate catharsis, as Tornatore wistfully closes the semi-autobiographical book on his first, great love.
Cinema Paradiso is not currently available to stream in Australia.
In the challenges posed to the 80s conservative mentality of Something Wild, there is something of a sentimentality for 60s bohemia, and so what better time would there be to revive the screwball comedies of the 30s? A call back to a genre that had long since grown out of fashion might just be the perfect challenge to the stagnant lifestyle of middle-class yuppie Charlie, who keeps plugging away at his white-collar job in New York City under the happy pretence that his wife didn’t pick up and leave him nine months ago. His sudden meeting and blossoming affection with free spirit Lulu who whisks him away on an impromptu road trip is not unlike the offbeat relationship between David and Susan in Bringing Up Baby, with Melanie Griffith embodying a similar force of pure chaos as Katharine Hepburn. With his nuanced control over this Hawksian gender comedy, Jonathan Demme settles us in for a rollercoaster of a narrative as unruly as his film’s title suggests.
Something Wild never grows so comfortable in this unhinged dynamic as to become predictable though. The fact that the catalyst for this adventure is Charlie’s own decision to dine and dash from a café indicates that there may already be something of a repressed rebellious streak to him, and all it takes is this freewheeling woman to draw it out of him, throwing him into a sexual tryst at a motel, forcing him to call in sick for work, and eventually crashing their car. Demme’s eclectic soundtrack of reggae and 80s rock makes for perfectly offbeat accompaniment through these ventures, driving home several renditions of “Wild Thing” to the point that it becomes a theme for these unorthodox lovers.
Where Demme’s narrative takes its first major turn beyond its impulse-driven path of eccentric escapades is in Lulu’s Pennsylvanian hometown, where she essentially transforms into a whole new woman. The reckless brunette disappears, and in her place emerges Audrey, a blonde woman with a more moderated attitude, though still maintaining enough spontaneity to pull Charlie into her high school reunion. In Demme’s fluid pacing and Griffith’s shifting cadences, there is a fascinating depth to this character that keeps peeling back layers of insecurities, and which reaches an apex with the introduction of Ray – a figure whose volatility makes even her look stable.
Just as Audrey’s ex-husband comes into the picture, so too does something shift within Charlie’s own sense of self-worth and motivation. Seeing the manic pixie dream girl act crumble before his eyes pushes him to start tearing down his own façade of pride in his lonely life, finally admitting to his own separation from his wife. On one level, Demme reveals a darkness to both the conservative and liberal lives on either end of society in Reagan’s America, but Ray also manifests as a repressed shadow version of Charlie, revealing the adversary he could be to himself should he push too far in the opposite direction. Where Jeff Daniels’ New York banker is meek and ineffectual, Ray Liotta is sharp and unstable, soaking up every second of screen time with a screen presence that is dangerously magnetic. His charisma seems to permanently balance on a knife edge, drawing Charlie in to believe his good-natured affability before robbing a store and ruthlessly beating up the cashier.
Though the two men appear to be wildly different, on a raw, psychological level, there may not be so much separating them besides the circumstances that led one into a life of privilege and the other through the prison system. Either way, they have both attracted the attention of the same woman, falling in love with her and the life she offers. Still, this is an objective only one of them can accomplish. It is satisfying to see Charlie finally assert some agency in his own story as he silently tails Ray and Audrey, plotting her rescue, but even more so to see him pull the exact same cruel trick on Ray that Audrey inflicted on him earlier, landing him with the bill in a diner after he has already departed. Still, as Audrey reminds us, there is still a careful balance for him to strike in uncovering his dangerous potential.
“What are you going to do now that you know how the other half lives?”
“The other half?”
“The other half of you.”
As much as Something Wild is a tale of two Americas, it is also a story of psychological dualities, splitting Charlie between his conflicting desires and Audrey between her two identities. Soul-sapping routines can’t sustain them forever, and neither can a violently unpredictable life on the road, as both degrade their own holistic humanity. It is only in destroying the forces that pull them to either side of the spectrum that some sort of resolution can be found, and for Charlie this is not only achieved in rejecting the safe life he is familiar with, but also in effectively killing his shadow self. Though much of the film is weakened by a relative lack of cinematic style, Demme marks the final confrontation with the characteristic close-ups that would define his later career, and that he would perfect in The Silence of the Lambs. As Charlie stands facing Ray with a knife lodged in his chest, Demme cuts between them staring right down the lens, dripping with sweat and drenched in blood. There is shock in their expressions, but also pain, sorrow, and weariness, carried through especially in Liotta’s piercing blue eyes which almost cut through the screen.
Though Demme does not possess the same mastery over abstract symbolism as David Lynch, there are certain psychological parallels between Something Wild and Blue Velvet in the probing of psychosexual instincts and villains representing darker, alternate versions of a naïve protagonist. In place of a surreal journey into the depths of the human mind though, Demme pulls off an extraordinary blend of tones and genres. With a steady command over the comedy, thriller, action, romance, and drama elements of his narrative, he sends Something Wild spinning off in hilarious and terrifying directions, drawing us into the orbit of characters simply trying to reconcile their own contradictory, innate desires.
Something Wild is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on YouTube.
In a dystopian society where citizens are little more than consumers and intellectualism has long gone out of fashion, those who control the distribution of food hold ultimate power. The symbolic parallels Peter Greenaway draws to Margaret Thatcher’s own political reign are thoughtfully painted out within such an elaborately garish setting as this, whereby one restaurant becomes Britain and its obscene, abusive owner is its Prime Minister. He lords over his customers like a tyrant, rubbing their faces in their meals and bullying his subordinates, though perhaps the most disillusioned of them all is his own wife, whose eyes have started turning towards a far more sensitive figure in the dining hall she visits every night with her loathsome husband.
Narratively, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a tightly plotted political allegory in the vein of George Orwell, rendering its complex characters as the archetypes written out in its title and subjugating them to strict, arbitrary power structures. Visually, it is operating on another transcendent level altogether, marking some of the most triumphantly stunning displays of mise-en-scène ever put to film in its ornately curated interiors conforming to a unified Baroque aesthetic. This style is not surprising given Greenaway’s background as a painter, his specific adoration for 15th to 17th century art, and the technical virtuosity of his previous films. Still, there is something particularly tactile about The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover in its evocative staging and camerawork, both maintaining a strong sense of screen direction in the consistent horizontal movements through a restaurant laid out like a gallery where each room is its own striking exhibit. Together, these tableaux effectively form one large Wes Anderson-style diorama, with his rigid parallel tracking shots emphasising the skilful layering of every shot into individual planes moving at independent speeds across the screen like paintings vividly rendered in three-dimensional space, and smoothly transitioning between rooms divided by the black strips of negative space between.
On the far left of this elongated structure is the alleyway leading into its back entrance, lit with neon blue lights revealing a clearly artificial soundstage around the edifice. With such vibrantly expressionistic colours bleeding through the scenery, there is an evident Giallo influence announcing itself here, suggesting a tinge of gaudy horror reminiscent of Suspiria. As the opening scene sees trucks pull up in symmetrical formation to reveal the meat hanging inside though and as gangster Albert Spica makes his grand entrance stripping a man naked and smearing him with dog poo, there is no doubt that this is a Greenaway film, its imagery simultaneously repulsing and enticing its audience with a dangerously handsome allure. Out in these dark exteriors, dogs hungrily feast on the restaurant’s wasted meat like peasants who can’t earn a seat at a table, and Michael Nyman’s score hits sharp, staccato accents on orchestral strings as a Baroque prelude to Greenaway’s cinematic opus.
To the right of the blue-lit alleyway is the kitchen defined by the unnatural green hues shed across its brick walls, pantry, and bench tops, upon which Greenaway’s mess of half-prepared meals, sharp utensils, and carved meats spread out in meticulous arrangements. In long shots he catches two colossal, triangular vents hanging symmetrically above the room as silhouettes, and below the space is filled in with an eclectic range of characters bustling through pulsing lights and plumes of smoke, bringing the room to life through their own bizarre contributions. Working at one benchtop is a short, dumpy cook wearing nothing but white briefs, and underscoring the kitchen’s intricate commotion is a young boy soprano singing a hymnal miserere pulled directly from the Book of Psalms, praying for a spiritual cleansing.
“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity.”
This also winds up being a key location for Spica’s wife, Georgina, and her newfound lover, Michael, who seek refuge in the claustrophobic pantry to carry out their affair under the protection of the kitchen staff. The sweet refuge they find in each other’s arms is still not entirely secure here though, as even when Spica isn’t trying to sniff them out, Greenaway intercuts their sexual tryst with sharp knives chopping up meats and vegetables, tersely illustrating the kitchen as a dangerous place for any sort of forbidden love given the uncertain loyalty of the gangster’s underlings.
Perhaps it is in the dining hall most of all where Greenaway draws his hardest barrier between the audience and his actors, setting up Spica, Georgina, and the henchmen along a table separating them from the camera. This deep red chamber of unruly patrons may be the singularly most picturesque of all the rooms in this establishment, setting up wildly cluttered tableaux of crudely mannered dinner guests illustrated in stark contrast to the large, Flemish Baroque painting that hangs in the background, The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company in 1616, depicting 17th century Dutch gentry civilly congregating around a feast. It is through a remarkable depth of field that Greenaway is able to capture this gorgeous artwork in great detail as a complement to the drama that unfolds in front of it, and it similarly serves his staging well in catching Georgina and Michael’s silent glances across the room, while Spica’s obnoxious rambling keeps rattling over the top. Around them, Greenaway’s striking crimson hues saturate the carpet, chairs, wine, roses, and velvet curtains in expressionistic patterns, bleeding with passionate lust and violence as the mobster relentlessly bullies anyone who crosses his path, and even those who don’t.
If the external alleyway in all its dark, chaotic designs represents human’s unhindered brutality, then this entire restaurant could very well represent a spectrum of civility, progressing through the anarchic kitchen, the sophisticated but busy dining hall, and finally arriving at the minimalistic, pure white bathroom on the far right. This is the site of Georgina and Michael’s very first rendezvous away from prying eyes, cleanly set up as a spotless paradise that might almost be a reprieve from the intense colours found elsewhere were it not for the shimmer of angry red light shining in from the dining room whenever the door is thrown open, reminding us of the danger lurking on the other side. Still, for the short time that it stands as a sanctuary from Spica’s ferocity, Nyman’s score shifts away from the harsh Baroque orchestra and operatic soprano associated with other rooms to gently bask in a romantic chamber piece of strings and piano.
Such extraordinary dedication to these thoroughly curated palettes goes far beyond Greenaway’s décor though, as even the colours of his characters’ costumes subtly alter from room to room to match whatever dominant scheme is expressed through the production design. It is a smart choice to recruit renowned fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier in this department, as even his most famous collaborations with significant stylistic directors such as Pedro Almodóvar and Jean-Pierre Jeunet can’t top the own sartorial elegance on display here, gracefully blending these wealthy characters in with their lush environments.
It should be no surprise that Greenaway goes on to carry out this exacting formal perfectionism through virtually element of his film’s construction. Much like his zoological studies in A Zed and Two Noughts, he comes at the culinary arts with a taxonomical precision, structuring his narrative through the seven different menus assigned to each day of the week, each one framed with detailed compositions of the meals they describe. Standing in direct opposition to such refined culture we find Spica and his boorish affronts, as while his staff and patrons celebrate and partake in elaborate servings of food, he denigrates it all as nothing but the foul end result it becomes after being thoroughly digested.
“How do I care what he ate? It all comes out as shit in the end.”
And yet for all his lack of taste, Spica might just be the most ravenous of them all. Michael Gambon dominates the screen in this role, putting forward a truly monstrous performance while leaving himself barely a second to breathe between lines. Over the course of the week of this narrative, he crudely eats his way through the restaurant as if driven by an endless hunger, all while his resume of violent atrocities keep stacking up with numerous physical abuses exacted upon customers, the hospitalisation of a young boy, and the chilling rape of his own wife. “I’m her husband, not her lover,” he coldly proclaims, separating the two roles into distinct categories and consequently asserting his total domination. There is no doubt about where he sits in the hierarchy of this restaurant, nor his political equivalences given that the only topic he seems well-versed on is the favourite dishes of historical figures such as Hitler, Mussolini, and Churchill – though even then there is some doubt as to whether he is simply making it up as he goes.
Spica’s anti-intellectualism manifests most of all in his interactions with Michael, who works in a book depository and spends his dinner times perusing novels. “I reckon you read because you got no one to talk to,” the gangster mocks, though upon discovering the affair between his victim and Georgina, his anger unleashes in its full, violent force.
“I’ll kill him, and I’ll eat him!”
Up to this point Spica has been simultaneously degrading the value of academia and turning food into a weapon he can wield against powerless victims, and with his gruesome vengeance wreaked upon Michael, both effectively culminate in a twisted execution, force feeding the lover pages from his own books until he dies. Greenaway’s indulgences in such macabre murders as this are Hitchcockian in their extravagance, exploring those perverted minds which commit heinous acts and carry little fear of consequences, though of course it would not earn this comparison if there were not at least a tinge of dark humour present. “The French Revolution was easier to swallow than Napoleon,” Spica jokes right after Greenaway notes that the final page stuffed into the lover’s mouth was indeed a chapter on the French Revolution.
Therein lies the ironic inspiration for Georgina’s own simmering plans of insurrection. Helen Mirren is not as loud as Gambon in this role, but she simmers with complex insecurities, misgivings, and dreams, coming together with Alan Howard’s Michael to represent those educated individuals disenfranchised by Thatcher’s unrefined libertarian ideologies. As Georgina lays next to the lover’s dead body and falls asleep, Greenaway pays Mirren one of the few close-ups of the film, absorbed in her quiet monologue pondering the trauma she has suffered and the delectable food she will eat in the morning, each one a tiny rebellion against her husband’s vulgar dismissal of fine cuisine.
“Coffee and fresh rolls and butter… and marmalade. And… toast.”
Evidently, food is always on the minds of Greenaway’s characters, and how they treat it says a lot about them as people, and so it is with this ideal that The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, arrives at a denouement even more nauseatingly poetic than Michael’s murder by books. The toppling of Spica as the man at the top of the food chain is not enacted by Georgina alone, but through the collective action of all those he has wronged, with the kitchen staff seizing back the culinary arts as a weapon controlled by the people, not the wealthy. Leading a procession of Spica’s own restaurant staff like a funeral, Georgina serves up a new kind of meal to her husband at gunpoint – Michael’s naked body, served upon a fresh bed of potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, and lemon slices, steaming hot and drenched in a disgustingly warm glaze.
“Try the cock, Albert. It’s a delicacy. And you know where it’s been.”
For the first time, it seems that Spica has had his fill, unable to eat the meal presented to him or accept the physical manifestation of his own voracious desires. The red lights of the dining hall shining on his horrified face no longer look lustful or violent, but as his shakily brings a forkful of human flesh to his mouth, it instead appears entirely demonic, accompanying his psychological torture with an infernal hellish glow. And then at his lowest point, right after the gangster has consumed the sickening product of his victory, Greenaway succinctly ties The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover off with the ultimate indictment of an authoritarian who has finally gorged themselves on their own gluttonous conquest, branding both Spica and Thatcher with a single condemnation that would haunt any political figure forever.
The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is not currently streaming in Australia.
There is a time and place to blast loud music at large crowds, but clearly Irish opera enthusiast Fitzcarraldo never got the message. It is simply preposterous that anyone could possibly hear Enrico Caruso’s tenor and not be profoundly moved, and so why shouldn’t his voice be wheeled in to interrupt a sophisticated party, or blasted down jungle rivers so the native people might know what they are missing? With his white suit, wild mop of blonde hair, and wide-eyed expression etching a permanent madness across his face, Klaus Kinski looks like some absurd cross between an entrepreneur, scientist, and artist in Fitzcarraldo. Especially with the giant gramophone he lugs around with him, he would look like an outsider in any Western civilisation, let alone in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. There is a huge incongruity between reality and his ambitions of building an opera house in this secluded location, and it only takes a single look at his bizarre appearance to recognise how out-of-touch he is with the unforgiving brutality of the natural world. As Werner Herzog announces in his opening text, the native people call this place “the land where God did not finish creation”. Such lofty dreams of nurturing refined human culture here are not just naïve, but threaten the very foundations of his own conceited, fragile mortality.
Perhaps there is a part of Fitzcarraldo that believes the mythology of the local tribe he enlists in his endeavour, who prophesise a “white god in a divine vessel” bringing holy salvation. In staging him atop mountains, trees, and belltowers looking down upon Peruvian towns and jungles, Herzog certainly at least teases this notion, letting his entitlement burst forth in fits of desperate rage. Taking advantage of the natives’ beliefs is reprehensible enough on its own, but in deluding himself into thinking he could ever contend with and subsequently perfect God’s incomplete creation, he is positively foolish as well, believing that his vision of modern commercialisation is truly transcendent.
But of course, this dream of bringing the opera to the jungle is a long process that requires multiple steps. To get the money he needs to build the theatre, he must first enter the booming Peruvian rubber industry. To get there, he needs land, though with the only unclaimed parcel being cut off from major ports by a long stretch of rapids, he is driven to take alternative, unorthodox methods. Since his acreage is also located over a steep hill a few hundred metres from another, safer river, it stands to reason in his mind that he must haul his large, cumbersome steamship up its precipitous incline, recklessly conquering nature through sheer force of will so that he may exploit it for his own profit.
With such an absurd endeavour fully consuming his protagonist’s mind, Herzog sets him up much like a tragic figure of ancient mythology, brought down by his own attempts to transcend humanity. As such, Fitzcarraldo becomes a fable of Herculean ambition, though one that is both distinctly modern in its sharp critique of colonial exploits, and slightly comical in how obviously this opera enthusiast is destined to fail from the start. Within its firm grounding in Greek narrative conventions, Fitzcarraldo also bears strong resemblance to Apocalypse Now and Herzog’s own previous effort, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. There is the additional similarity of each of these productions being plagued with a number of volatile conflicts and disasters that drove the casts and crews mad in the thick of unpredictable jungles, but even beyond this both Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola frame secluded waterways as passages through which humans embark on journeys to discovery and defeat, lightly paralleling the mythical River Styx.
Even more than Coppola’s film though, there is a coarseness to the grain of Herzog’s cinematography in Fitzcarraldo, infusing the already intimidating scenery of thick, overgrown vegetation and brown, sedimented rapids with a hostile crudeness. Though he drifts his camera on boats past densely crowded trees backlit by magic hour sunsets, Herzog does not possess the spiritual reverence of Terrence Malick. Despite the tropical similarities in The Thin Red Line and Fitzcarraldo, there is a harsh distinction between the two, with the latter revelling in the chaotic, uncontrolled presence of overabundant life. Silhouetted congregations of shrubbery are turned into masses of negative space holding back the light of the sun, with branches bending under the strain of dense canopies that can no longer support their own weight. From higher vantage points where Fitzcarraldo stations himself like a god, heavy fog conceals the uncultivated earth like some unsettling, otherworldly shroud, cutting it off from the rest of humanity and obscuring the journeys of the few who are reckless enough to pass through it.
And in the middle of it all, Fitzcarraldo’s steamship glides innocently down the weedy river, its bow pointing ever-so-slightly upwards as if optimistically anticipating its destination. The noise of its endless, rhythmic chugging set against bird whistles and rushing water even sounds like chanting, mechanically pushing itself forwards despite the odds. The first time Fitzcarraldo and his lover, Molly, board it back at port, their excitement far exceeds its actual visage as an old, rusty vessel, missing floorboards and covered in moss. How this thing will ever make it up a mountain is beyond us, and yet in spite of his folly and overbearing tendencies, Herzog does not treat him with total disdain. In carrying out a virtually identical mission in filming this story, there is a dark irony present, with both men bending nature to their will and submitting to the intoxicating power of their own self-belief.
Still, Herzog does not hold back from menacing surrealism that puts both him and Fitzcarraldo in their places as meagre humans challenging the merciless gods of nature. There is something unnerving about a black umbrella floating down a river in the wilderness, consumed by the water it is designed to keep out, but it is most of all the image of the ship finally ascending the colossal mountain where Herzog manifests the film’s most potent visual metaphor. While the mise-en-scene here is initially crowded out by thick branches and vines imposing upon Fitzcarraldo and the newly recruited Indigenous people, all of this is eventually cleared from view to make way for an enormous construction site, where Herzog employs hundreds of extras blocked all through his frame. In his staging around this set piece, he maintains a keen sense of his environment’s daunting topography, and with it, the manmade wooden beast carving its way through the very materials humans have fashioned it out of. Like the boat perched up a tree in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, there is an absurdity baked deep into this symbolism, whereby the ship becomes a hulking monument to modernity, trying to assert its strained dominion over creation. And of course, Fitzcarraldo stands there amid it all with his gramophone, playing Caruso as if summoning his opera house into existence.
Fitzcarraldo’s challenges and exploitation of nature may be perversions of God’s creation, and yet his downfall is only set in motion at the point that his hubris completely clouds his own compassion. When a local man is killed during a successful test of the mechanical pulley system, it does little to dampen his celebrations, even while pained gasps can be heard in the background. The revenge of the native people he has so callously taken for granted unfolds under the bright, pale face of the full moon, shining down upon them like the white god of their legend, as they let the steamship drift away down the river into rapids.
This is not a man who can be kept down for long though. Even with his ambitions shattered, Fitzcarraldo’s dream lives on as Caruso arrives with a full cast and orchestra, summoned by the ship’s captain to deliver the first production in the Peruvian city of Iquitos. Perhaps the piece of Herzog that sympathised with the rubber baron couldn’t bear to see him completely beaten down and tortured. Nature need not be conquered to fulfil such grand aspirations, he posits, and in this way Fitzcarraldo becomes more than simply a cautionary tale. It is just as much a tribute to those who do strive for greatness, tempering their wild desires with a reminder of where exactly the lines between humanity, God, and nature are drawn.
Fitzcarraldo is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.
Evil is very real in the films of David Lynch, and so it stands to reason that there also exists a naïve, pure goodness in opposition to it. His binary worlds of light and darkness do not suggest a lack of complexity though, but rather an intricate symbiosis that exists between the two, and which he draws right through the mind of Jeffrey in Blue Velvet. The young college student’s idyllic hometown of Lumberton warmly welcomes him back when his father suffers a heart attack, and during his stay with his mother and aunt, the community’s happy mundanity eats away at his patience for such sterile living.
Perhaps it is the taste of mortal danger that comes with his father’s illness that motivates his new macabre interests. It certainly at least opens a gap in his life for a new patriarchal figure to step in, tantalising Jeffrey with the prospect of something darker and more exciting lurking beneath Lumberton’s artificial small-town veneer. Bit by bit, the layers of a mystery behind a severed human ear he finds in an open field are peeled back, revealing conspiracies and corruption far more psychologically disturbing than anything he might have ever conceived. His struggle to appease a craving for both knowledge and security is thus the battle that Blue Velvet wages on temperamental, psychological terrain, striving to find resolution between the conflicting desires that shape minds and cultures.
Blue Velvet’s stark duality is one that Lynch paints right into his expressively bold mise-en-scene, in part evoking the patriotic red and blue of America’s national colours, though primarily using the heavy contrast between these hues to set apart the danger and tranquillity of two co-existing worlds. It makes sense then that within the apartment of psychopathic drug dealer, Frank Booth, the carpet, couches, and wallpaper are dyed a shade of deep maroon, and that his captive, Dorothy Vallens, dresses similarly. When she first changes into that titular blue velvet dress though upon meeting Jeffrey, there is a subconscious attempt in her sartorial choice at soothing those harsher tones with a melancholier countenance. Whether in the curtains and lighting of Dorothy’s cabaret performance, or the eye shadow and lipstick decorating her face, Lynch’s primary colours constantly clash against each other, composing a chaotic world of stylistic dissonance that breaks down our desire for visual harmony.
This is the tragedy that has already broken Dorothy into pieces by the time we meet her, as we discover Frank has kidnapped her husband, taken her son hostage, and is keeping her as a sex slave. The volatility and fragility of Isabella Rossellini’s acting here is only rivalled by Dennis Hopper’s wildly loose performance, and while we are taken aback to find a sadomasochistic side to the otherwise vulnerable Dorothy, there is a sensitivity which we are even more astonished to see in Frank’s face as he tearily watches her sing at the nightclub. Both contain complexities far beyond anything Jeffrey has experienced before, and so while the danger remains perfectly apparent, he can’t help but gaze on with insatiable curiosity.
The Hitchcockian undertones of Jeffrey’s voyeuristic peering through the slats in Frank’s living room closet are not easily missed, with Lynch setting up an image of forbidden desire slowly emerging from its dormancy, intrusively spying on the violent sexual activity taking place on the other side of those doors. Terror and exhilaration are inseparable at this point for Jeffrey, as within the unrestrained psychosexual dynamic of two people calling each other “Mommy” and “Daddy” there is a Freudian transference taking place. Not just for Dorothy and Frank, but Jeffrey as well, whose passive mother and ailing father have left a vacant space for him to consider substitutes belonging to the darker, unexplored side of his mind.
The formal work Lynch does in mirroring relationships all around Jeffrey extends to his newfound romance with Sandy, the daughter of the local police detective handling the case of the severed ear. Between her and Dorothy, Jeffrey’s sexual self-discovery travels along parallel paths between two women in current relationships, and consequently pushing him towards a transgression of social norms in both instances. But where Dorothy dresses in the bold hues of red and blue set out in Lynch’s primary palette, Sandy is defined by her soft pastels. While Dorothy is a European woman with a shock of curly black hair leaping off her head, Sandy is a blonde, all-American girl-next-door type. Where Dorothy pulls Jeffrey deeper into his primal instincts, begging him to hit her like Frank does, Sandy questions his newfound obsession with Lumberton’s mysterious crimes. His response does not so much suggest an explicit interest in the details of the underworld as it does a novel intrigue in its mere existence, compulsively driving him towards the parts of himself that society dictates must be actively inhibited and kept out of view.
“I’m seeing something that was always hidden.”
The unsettling visual motifs that Lynch returns to in representing this war of innocence and corruption epitomise the style of suburban surrealism that he specialises in, bordering on absurd in the collision of these incongruous threads. The image of Lumberton set up in the introduction with its green lawns and white picket fences is superficially bright, making Jeffrey’s father’s heart attack the first sign of anything less than total, picturesque bliss. In the twisted hose pipe and the phallic stream shooting from his groin area, Lynch is already weaving in symbols suggestive of the father’s blocked artery and sexual impotence, relegating him to the background of Jeffrey’s story. As the camera narrows in on the freshly cut lawn, the imagery and sound design only grow darker with the emergence of bugs, fading out the smooth tunes of Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ while their skittering and mulching take over, accompanying the movement of their grotesque bodies across the lens in total domination of the space.
Later when Jeffrey first goes to investigate Dorothy and Frank’s apartment, he takes on the disguise of a pest exterminator, setting him up in opposition to the ugly forces that crawl beneath the surface, though when he begins to fall into their world of sexual deviancy and depravity, it is stripped away to reveal his naked, authentic self. The moment he finally submits to her desire to be hit during sex, there is something unleashed within himself as well, represented by Lynch’s dreamscape as a burst of cutaways to fiery explosions. Unlike Frank, he is not proud of this side of himself and hides it away, though the subconscious can only last so long in the shadows before it rises to the surface. It is almost comical how insignificant the subplot regarding Sandy’s real boyfriend is next to everything else, as his angry confrontation with Jeffrey quickly dissipates in the face of the much larger issue of Dorothy’s sudden appearance, naked, wounded, and begging for his love. For the first time, the two main women in his life meet, and that which represents ordered civility can barely handle the uncomfortable manifestation of his shameful, repressed instincts.
If Frank is the darkest possible version of Jeffrey, and the closet where they met signifies the threshold where repressed longing is released, then it is in a return to that setting where his shadow self must be killed. Lynch’s indulgence in Jungian archetypes rings deeply through these characters, strengthening their relationships within pseudo-families and sexual dynamics that cut to the root of their desires. The restoration of order in the lives of Jeffrey, Sandy, and Dorothy comes not as a blind withdrawal back into suburban frivolity, but rather a healthy recognition of one’s most primal impulses and their purposes. After all, it was only following his first sexual encounter with Dorothy that he was able to muster up the confidence to pursue Sandy more seriously, helping him understand the dangerous power he is capable of so he may draw on it in a controlled, judicious manner.
The appearance of a robin outside Jeffrey’s aunt’s window seems to come straight out of Sandy’s dream from earlier as an emblem of love, and with its devouring of an insect, Lynch effectively ties off the two running motifs in a conquest of evil. “I could never eat a bug,” Jeffrey’s aunt proclaims with disgust, but Jeffrey is wise enough to know that keeping a little bit of iniquity inside oneself is necessary. In place of the severed appendage that led him into trouble and Lynch’s camera wandering into its dark orifice, we now linger on Jeffrey’s own ear, whole and unharmed, and travel in the reverse direction, pulling out into a wide that restores the world to its logical order. Blue Velvet could be read as a coming-of-age film through its discovery of worlds and minds that are not what they seem, though the depths it plunges into humanity’s psychosexual awakening, disconcerting iconography, and bold palettes places it in a transcendent, artistic class of its own.
Blue Velvet is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.
Somewhere deep in the crevices of a 1930s New York opium den, a telephone starts to ring. We know it is for one specific patron here clearly drugged out of his mind, but the question of who is calling and for what purpose becomes a mystery that nags us with each successive tone, infuriatingly drilling into our minds for three minutes. Rather than responding to it, the man lies motionless, and so as if to seek out the source of the call ourselves we dissolve from an oil lamp to a streetlight on a dark, rainy road, where police are cleaning up the aftermath of some unknown disaster that has left behind three casualties. Then all of a sudden, we find ourselves at a party celebrating the end of prohibition, and still that maddening tone refuses to let us forget the inevitable reality that lies on the other side of this dreamy haze.
Through this series of seemingly disjointed sequences, the cuts skip and fade until we finally arrive at a shot of phone owned by one Sergeant P. Halloran. The moment it is picked up, the ringing stops, only to be replaced with an electronic screech shaking the man we will come to know as Noodles from his opium-addled stupor. In this moment, the pieces of reality and hallucinations settle in position. The noise we might have assumed is coming from somewhere within this present setting is instead calling from the past, urging him to face up to the mistake that has ruined the lives of everyone he loves.
If the obscure, non-linear structure of Once Upon a Time in America’s prologue lulls us into the muddled mind of a gangster sifting through old regrets, then it stands to reason that the rest of this four-hour crime epic similar exists in such a state as well, leaping across three time periods in his life that indistinctly merge together under a single cloud of nostalgia and shame. Bit by bit, Sergio Leone pieces together the flashbacks we have already seen play out in the opening, though these are but miniscule drops in a fable that reaches across fifty years of New York’s history, from its days as an industrial melting pot in the 1910s to its period of economic and social decay in the 60s. There is something fascinating about such a seminal work on American mythology and identity being directed by an Italian, though of course Leone is no stranger to such themes. Instead of using Western shootouts and adventures across dusty deserts deciding which stories will form the foundation of a fledgling nation, here he skips several decades forward in time to study that same civilisation in the midst of its downfall, squandering the great promise it once held.
It is fitting then that Once Upon a Time in America is also Leone’s final, conclusive film, competing with his previous efforts in terms of scale and scope while delivering a far more tragic narrative than ever before. With it comes a main character as flawed as the corrupt environment that moulded him into a murderer and rapist, and yet who remains as vividly delineated at the age of 14 as he is at 64. The days of his youth living in an industrial New York built out of brick, mortar, and steel are rendered with a dusty, faintly sepia tint to them, like a photo album that has grown old with time. Crane shots lift us up above crowds of extras pouring down sidewalks and main streets, where horses draw carriages and steam pours from vents, imbuing these gorgeous establishing shots with a slightly mystical, hazy quality.
The hardwood décor and walls of Leone’s interiors are beautifully stained with dark maroon hues, warmly inviting us into their secure foundations, but it is ultimately the towering monstrosity that is the Manhattan Bridge which most singularly defines Noodles’ childhood and 1910s New York as a whole, wedged between the city’s tightly spaced, modernist architecture. In that narrow opening, the tiny figures of him and his small gang of young Jewish immigrants playfully prowl the streets, dwarfed by that colossal monument to American ingenuity that looms above them.
Ennio Morricone’s score penetrates here through the evocative melody of pan flutes played by Noodles’ friend Cockeye, penetrating the rest of the sound design with a breathy whistle that soon develops into a musical motif of their naïve youth. These days of yore see new alliances forged with peers, first-time sexual encounters unfold with local girls, and under-the-table dealings made with crooked police officers, but it all comes crashing to an end when the youngest of the group, Dominic, is shot by rival gangster Bugsy. Motivated by a vengeful rage, Noodles commits his first murder, thereby sentencing him to 12 years of prison.
When Robert de Niro takes over the role upon Noodles’ release, it is evident that he still carries the emotional maturity of a child, acting impulsively on intense emotions and believing firmly in the tenets of masculine bonding that were instilled in him at a young age. At times it appears as if he is sleepwalking through life, with a disconnect between his sad, wistful mind and the violent actions it is watching his body carry out, leaving him in a cycle of endless destruction and subsequent self-sabotage. Such are the consequences of being deprived of the chance to develop healthy relationship boundaries in one’s formative years, that a persistent loneliness accompanies him through the rest of his life.
Perhaps if Noodles were not so willingly blind to the twisted ambitions of his friends, he may have been able to handle them earlier and more appropriately, and so too might he have been able to save his relationship with his childhood love, Deborah, developing their tender endearment into something more meaningful. Instead, when he is faced with the news that she is planning to leave New York for Hollywood, he brutally rapes her in an act of desperation. On every level, this scene is utterly gut-wrenching, marking the most viscerally uncomfortable scene of the film. Nevertheless, Leone sticks with it for several minutes, refusing to shy away from the violent abuse, and consequently signalling a major turning point for both characters. Given that Noodles views her as a symbolic representation of his innocence rather than a full person, the act becomes a frantic attempt to claim what he cannot have, thus making him actively liable for its incorrigible corruption.
There is no redemption waiting at the end of this despicable, lonely figure’s life. In the 60s narrative thread, he returns to New York City upon learning that the Jewish cemetery where his friends are buried is being redeveloped. At the same time, mysteries swirl around the identity of one shady politician, Christopher Bailey, and ghosts from the past emerge in unexpected ways, calling back up painful memories. It is a challenging task on its own for de Niro to evoke any empathy at all for Noodles, but for him to play the role at different points in his life essentially calls for him to carry two distinct variations of his burden, with the older version coming off as a much more mournful figure, staring down his own mortality.
Matching this melancholy is Manhattan’s modern visage of shiny metal and bright lights, washed in a natural blue light by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, completely distancing it from the colourful warmth it possessed in Noodles’ childhood. Even here, Leone’s epic establishing shots never waver in their ambitious stature and composition, revealing a new era in the endless mythologising of America’s identity where the corruption of the past lives on, manifesting in the very fabric of the nation’s radically politicised culture.
With such an immense, sprawling narrative laid out over these four hours capturing the three most significant periods of one man’s lifelong downwards trajectory, Leone’s elegant editing proves to be a key factor in its non-linear progression. The influence of The Godfather: Part II evidently goes beyond Leone’s painstaking construction of 1910s New York or de Niro’s formidable screen presence, but the long dissolves bridging large stretches of time in Noodle’s life here similarly imbue his story with a ponderous weight. Oftentimes Leone uses the combination of two shots to create a new, fleeting one with its own implications, superimposing character close-ups over establishing shots of New York as if to conflate their identities.
When we first leap back to Noodles’ childhood forty minutes in, Leone’s subtle manipulation of a point-of-view shot shows off an even finer display of visual dexterity, cutting from the older character’s eyes gazing through a peephole in a bathroom to the view on the other side – a young Deborah practicing ballet in a dusty storehouse among sacks of flour. With the transition, the musical theme of wavering female vocals we will come to associate with her is replaced by a laidback, old-timey saxophone, and then when we cut back to his eyes, they suddenly belong to a much younger face. In this moment, we find ourselves slipping into his memories as easily as we might recall our own in a rush of nostalgia – a feeling that Once Upon a Time in America consistently evokes all too well in its languid yet nimble editing.
It is easily the match cut which becomes Leone’s signature transition of choice in this film though, and which he implements with great acuity, introducing us to new scenes and time periods before we even realise that we have left the previous one. At their snappiest he lands them on sharp action beats, moving swiftly from a hand unexpectedly snatching a flying frisbee in the 60s to another hand suddenly grabbing Noodles’ suitcase in the 30s. Elsewhere, some of the more indirect edits are passed through connected ideas, such as a car driven off a pier in Noodles’ past leading into a news story about a bombed car in his future, suggestively motivating his own poignant recollections of past ventures with his gang. Perhaps the most emotionally loaded editing sequence though is the montage that arrives towards the end of the film, as when scenes of brotherly companionship from Noodle’s youth pass before his eyes, the full weight of this magnificent epic sets in with all its spectacular grandeur, and the shifts in Leone’s visuals reveal how far his life and the nation have slid.
Then again, looking at the scene he chooses to end Once Upon a Time in America on, maybe very little has changed for Noodles. It is not the 60s narrative thread which brings it to a close, but rather the scene from the 30s that the film opened on – or more specifically, the lead-in to it, where he enters the hazy opium den to drown out the guilt of his tip-off to the police. In the fog of his high, forgetting is easy, and the hardships of life might as well never exist at all. That this is the closest he can get to reclaiming the untainted innocence of his childhood is truly tragic. As we sit on a close-up in the final shot, watching de Niro’s ashamed expression shift to numbness before breaking out in a wide, giddy smile, we can see the pain and memories leave his eyes. But it won’t be gone for long. Very soon, that telephone will be ringing in his mind, and the story of Once Upon a Time in America will keep haunting him like a sad, bitter legend, circling as a cautionary tale in hushed tones, and lingering for generations to come.
Once Upon a Time in America is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, and Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.
There is a single mosaic that appears at both the start and end of Mon Oncle d’Amerique, complex and bewildering in its composition, though not without precise intent. The first time we see it, a spotlight moves across the grid of still photos depicting people, rocks, bicycles, animals, art – a whole assortment of random pieces of humanity with no apparent common thread. Several voices are layered over the top from which we can only pick out isolated grabs, keeping us at a distance from any specific interpretation of Alain Resnais’ maximalist expression. The second time, we recognise these images as belonging to the film we just watched, taxonomically arranged and dissected into fragments. Wedged between these twin bookends is the rest of Resnais’ monumental anthropological study of human nature, taking the form of several narrative strands and motifs laced through the methodical musings of real-life neurobiologist and philosopher, Henri Laborit.
When measuring Mon Oncle d’Amerique up against so many other films of its calibre, it is apparent that there is not much in the way of visual style that might have offered it an extra edge of cerebral wit and playfulness. Equally clear though is just how ambitious it is in virtually every other aspect, not just in its broad themes, but quite essentially in its formal structure as well, far exceeding so many other masterpieces it sits alongside. There is no easy way to break it down into something comprehensible. Even within the context of the film, it takes its entire run time for it all to congeal into something artistically profound, with each disparate plotline and idea being weaved together like threads in Resnais’ magnificent tapestry.
Once the cacophony of voices starts to peel apart, it is a little easier to grasp the unravelling character introductions of Jean, Janine, and René. Each one is delivered like abridged biographies that not only cover their origins, but their entire stories as well, which will soon play out in greater detail. Resnais flicks through slides and footage covering their upbringings at a hasty pace, drawing parallels between each despite their strikingly different backgrounds. The births of Jean to a bourgeoisie family, Janine to politically active proletariats, and René to old-fashioned farmers are set behind oval frames of the characters themselves narrating their own lives, breaking the fourth wall like participants in Laborit’s sociological study.
Though we regularly return to the scientist himself presenting lectures to the camera that complement the behaviours of our three protagonists, he never refers to them directly. It is rather through Resnais’ editing that we begin to draw these connections. As we learn of their childhoods, so too do we learn about the triune brain theory, which argues that humans possess a unique set of neurological factors allowing us to create imaginative constructs from past experiences. “A living creature is a memory which acts,” he poetically reasons, right before we see Jean, Janine, and René each rebel from their respective families and decisively set themselves on their own independent paths.
Further binding them together is a common fascination and identification with three different classical French actors – Jean Gabin, Jean Marais, and Danielle Darrieux. The frequent cutaways to them in their black-and-white movies serve as punctuation marks on dramatic beats, like a comma in one scene that sees someone call out for René, followed by a shot of Gabin turning around, and then René performing the exact same motion. Elsewhere, Jean’s poignant departure from his wife and children is felt even more piercingly when the scene ends with his idol, Darrieux, embracing a loved one. Much like Laborit’s documentary-style presentations, these fleeting breaks from the narrative offer another angle through which we can understand Resnais’ characters as part of something larger than themselves, whether that be evolutionary science or French film history.
And then there is the subject of the film’s title, the mysterious American uncle who never makes an appearance. Jean, Janine, and René all speak of that familial figure as some legend who has left an imprint on their lives before disappearing, whether spiralling into homelessness or going off on an adventure to find treasure. For Janine, he is merely a hypothetical beacon of happiness that never existed, and yet which she believed she was entitled to from a young age. That these niche references sit alongside other broader cultural motifs might clue us into something about their significance as cultural tales, informing our values and beliefs which in turn shape the way we interpret the world.
Because when we are presented with something as complex as the human experience, represented by Resnais’ bookended mosaics, narrowed perspectives and ordered systems are essential in informing our ability to understand it. It is through those structures that we see how each piece of Mon Oncle d’Amerique comes together, most significantly in the affair between Jean and Janine, and the disastrous business meeting between Janine and René.
At this point, Laborit’s lessons take a fascinating, surreal turn, using lab rat experiments to describe these characters’ behaviours, predominantly through the procedure of classical conditioning in which creatures learn to pair warnings with pain. Still, even he often acknowledges the greater complexity of human psychology and sociology, and we are reminded of that in Resnais’ revisiting of previous scenes in cutaways that now comically substitute people for human-sized rats. Where an animal of lower intelligence might instinctively learn to avoid pain, we watch humans make the same mistakes by returning to ex-lovers, and conversely where we once watched two people hide their unhappiness, we now see two rats in business suits fight it out on top of an office desk.
Flashback montages such as these are cleverly inserted all through Mon Oncle d’Amerique, each one sketching out these characters’ common, predictable behaviours. When Laborit speaks of conformity as being a necessity to function in society, we flick through short scenes from their childhoods where they imitate adults as a means of learning. Similarly, when he expounds upon our primal desire for violence, we cut back to scenes we have already witnessed within the film where slaps, punches, and kicks have disrupted social civility.
By the time Mon Oncle d’Amerique approaches its end, we too might feel as trapped as those rats in their cage, or these people in civilisation. The advanced consciousness of humanity does not free his characters from instinct, but merely obscures and complicates its expression in the real world. Like rats trying to escape the electrified floor from one side of a cage to the other side, their attempts to break free of their families’ constraints simply sends them to another part of the same enclosure. Should any of these living creatures escape from their physical or sociological restraints, there is still an even greater, entirely inescapable force enslaving them – their own biology, quietly exerting control through their subconscious.
It is this painful truth which doesn’t simply underlie Resnais’ core thesis, but which makes up its very fabric, and that can only be exposed from as close an examination of the human mind and society as that which he applies here. The intricate tree mural painted on the side of a brick building in the final shot is the perfect conclusion to this, with each sequential jump cut bringing us closer to the painted bricks where its ugly details come into view. There is certainly some awe-inspiring beauty lost in a study of humanity as intensive as Mon Oncle d’Amerique, and yet in the formal cohesion of such unconventional motifs, collaged narrative threads, and punctuative editing, Resnais devises a truly compelling piece of dense, intellectual poetry, dedicated to our most unifying quirks and habits.
Mon Oncle d’Amerique is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.
There is a whimsical horror threaded through Fanny and Alexander that only its ten-year-old protagonist grapples with – at least to begin with. He gazes at his toy paper theatre illuminated by nine flickering candles, before wandering around an exquisitely cluttered apartment draped in red, green, and gold fabrics, framing him like a lost child in a world of endless possibilities. He calls out to his family’s maids, but no one replies. The clock chimes three, a set of cherubs rotate on a music box, and a half-nude marble statue in the corner slowly begins to dance. Then, a soft scraping noise emerges beneath the eerie melody, and we catch a glimpse of a scythe being dragged across the carpet. The grim reaper has arrived, but not for young Alexander. Though this magical realist prologue might be the most undiluted manifestation of his vivid imagination that we witness, the heavy presence of death underlies all 5 hours of this Gothic family drama set in 1900s Sweden, marking his childhood with both merciless damnation and divine salvation.
In the haunted Christmastime setting of Fanny and Alexander’s opening, an air of Dickensian fantasy settles over the extended Ekdahl family, revelling in the warm festivities of their annual traditions. Religious celebrations and commemorations form the basis of these gatherings, and often mark key narrative beats through funerals, weddings, and christenings. Accompanying these occasions are large meals spread across expansive dining tables, though none are so magnificent as the spread on Christmas Eve night which dominates the first act of the film.
Here, Ingmar Bergman delights in splendidly designed sets of vivid crimson hues, weaved all through the patterned wallpaper, long candlesticks, velvet curtains, and holiday decorations. With such a dominant primary colour commanding the mise-en-scène, there are abundant opportunities for his regular cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, to embellish it with small flourishes of emerald-green, popping out in festive wreaths, holly, and indoor plants that frequently hang in the foreground of his compositions, snugly crowding out the space.
Matching his rich use of colour is Bergman’s impeccable staging of his large ensemble, defining the status and identity of each character by their position within immaculately staged shots of family unity, habitually framed within those elegantly draped arches between rooms or around overflowing dining tables. The camera glides gracefully through crowded rooms, each one warmly illuminated by the yellow light of chandeliers and oil lamps. At times it simply soaks in the splendid décor and delectable meats, or it will otherwise latch onto family members as they make their way through the vast yet intimate apartment of their widowed matriarch, Helena.
Within their local community, the Ekdahl family are known for owning the local theatre and staging annual nativity plays, and for as long as they all remain out in open living areas, we continue to witness those dramatic sensibilities emerge in scenes of poetry recitations and musical performances late into the night. It is when they retreat behind closed doors that these larger-than-life characters begin to reveal personal troubles – Alexander’s uncle, Adolf Gustav, keeps a joyful, cheeky attitude right up until he finds his ego slighted, and Carl Ekdahl possesses significant contempt towards his German wife.
It is a lengthy setup which Bergman conducts here, insulating us in these family celebrations like a warm, protective barrier from the freezing snow that blankets the village outside. The touch of poignancy he brings to one conversation between a maid and Alexander’s cousin, Jenny, about Christmas being a difficult time for people with bad memories especially foreshadows the poor misfortune which is about to strike. These children may not understand that concept yet, but upon the death of Oskar, Alexander’s father, Bergman slowly sinks us into a despairing grief that dwarfs any of the issues which previously existed on the fringes of this family unit. He first collapses during a rehearsal of Hamlet, quite appropriately while playing the father’s ghost in the scene in which he visits his son. The narrative that follows is heavily Shakespearean in both structure and characterisation, though in place of an evil uncle swooping in and taking the crown, here it is a bishop marrying Alexander’s mother, Emilie, and whisking her small family away to his cold, bare home.
As the second act commences, Fanny and Alexander becomes an act of catharsis for Bergman, who, in playing to these archetypes of corruption and innocence, reflects large portions of his own childhood. The fond memories of a flawed but welcoming family exist in stark contrast to the oppressive dynamic that pervades the bishop’s home, and caught between the two is the overly active imagination of a boy who struggles to differentiate between fantasy and reality. As such, there is also a distinctly fairy tale quality that takes hold of Fanny and Alexander, accompanying the introduction of the wicked stepfather with ghosts and demons who may very well be directly inspired by those religious tales which the children are raised on. Being deprived of a supportive father figure himself, Bergman carries great empathy for Alexander, understanding his immaturity as a natural stage in his own creative development.
Perhaps it is this lack of emotional inhibition which grants the young boy the means to deal with his grief, letting him lash out in ways which, while not entirely polite, are honest to his own thoughts and feelings. In one evocative scene after he and his sister, Fanny, hear their mother’s guttural cry erupt from somewhere in their grandmother’s apartment, they creep out of bed to peer through the crack of a door, where they see her wailing in private over her husband’s cold body. Unlike Alexander’s coping mechanisms that are freely expressed out into the world, the overwhelming feelings of adults must be repressed to those small, remote corners where no one else can see. This is a lesson that the bishop beats into him even harder, reframing the whimsical fabrications he uses to understand the world as sinister lies that will damn him to hell.
The move from Helena’s vibrant, festive home of expressionistic décor to the stark white halls of the bishop’s Spartan house lands with a quiet dread, and with it comes a shift in Bergman’s approach to blocking. Gone are the large family gathering of characters arranged in relaxed formations across plush couches and dining halls. These rooms are made of stone and wood, unembellished and projecting a cold hostility as the bishop exerts physical dominance over every communal space. His demand that Emilie and her children lose all their old possessions as if “newly born” is delivered with a faint chill, forcing them to conform to the image of sparse minimalism he prescribes to, though this attempt at rewriting their identities is only the start of a long line of abuses. Bergman goes on to capture the devastating isolation that is wreaked upon the young siblings with compositions that close them up inside bleak, angular frames, gazing out the windows of their depressing bedroom and, in one scene, crumpling Alexander on the grey, dusty floor of the attic beneath a fallen crucifix, as if slain by a domineering force of spiritual corruption.
Perhaps the single unifying stylistic device carried through all Bergman’s settings though is his staging of actors in still poses like subjects of a painting, particularly focusing on the thoughtful arrangements of their faces that reveal just as much as their expressions. As Oskar lays on his deathbed, his face turned to the side to face the camera, Emilie’s profile leans up against his cheek in pensive mourning, simultaneously revealing both the intimacy of their final days of marriage, and the tension that is pulling them apart. In contrast, a later shot at the bishop’s house which frames Fanny, Alexander, and Emilie lying on their sides in bed captures them all looking towards the camera, united in their melancholy. With each face slightly obscuring the one behind it, Emilie is set up at the back as the quiet protector of her children, shielding them from the bishop who stands alone and unfocused in the background.
Jan Malmsjö brings a sadistic venom to this role, though he takes care to only reveal his villainy gradually. His first handling of Alexander’s lies is stern but relatively fair, keeping us at a distance from the bitter, angry man who lies beneath his cool veneer. It is initially hard to get a good read of him, but by the time we arrive at his next chastisement of Alexander, his malevolence is exceedingly clear. In response to the bishop’s degradation and punishment, the young boy grows more obstinate in his disobedience, and yet even he can only stand so many beatings before being forced into submission. Watching on, Fanny silently recoils from the bishop’s touch, and Emilie’s contempt for her husband grows. With all paths of escape cut off, they become a broken, trapped family, suffering in an austere hellhole.
Across these early adolescent years of torment, Alexander catches visions of his father’s ghost walking through hallways, bearing witness to the depression left behind in his wake. These transcendent experiences are not limited to his son though, as late in the film Oskar also appears to Helena, his bereaved mother, and simply sits with her as she delivers an eloquent soliloquy on the process of accepting her grief.
“Life, it’s all acting anyway. Some roles are nice, other not so nice. I played a mother. I played Juliet and Margareta. Then suddenly I played a widow or a grandmother. One role follows the other. The thing is not to shrink from them.”
And yet, even as an actress with a deeper understanding of the human condition than her grandson, Alexander, the pain is no less present.
“My feelings came from deep in my body. Even though I could control them, they shattered reality, if you know what I mean. Reality has remained broken ever since… and oddly enough, it feels more real that way. So, I don’t bother to mend it.”
Bergman’s screenplay flows like poetry through these thoughtful contemplations of life-changing events, and yet as this epic drama comes to a close and releases Alexander from the bishop’s tight, suffocating grip, only four words are used to punctuate its ending with a lingering thread of trauma. Though the bishop and his family have perished in the blaze of an incidental fire that obliterated their home like a hellish condemnation, his ghost lives on in Alexander’s mind, cruelly pushing him to the ground and taunting him.
“You can’t escape me.”
The fantastical imagination of Bergman’s young protagonist is evidently as dangerous as it is enchanting, filtering the world through a lens that distorts every intense emotional experience into a memory that will never fade away. Though it manifests primarily as supernatural creatures and visions, it is also baked right into those dazzling bursts of colour that decorate his mise-en-scène, leaping out like nostalgic recollections of a youth that was only partially lived in the real world. By simply dwelling within this perspective, Fanny and Alexander becomes a deeply sentimental work, and through its profound dreams Bergman crafts a magnificent distillation of childhood wonder and terror.
Fanny and Alexander is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes.
There is something a little wistful in the opening exposition of Top Gun, informing us of the elite school established by the United States Navy to train the next generation of fighter pilots. It describes aerial combat as a “lost art”, practiced only by the select few men who graduate and go on to serve their nation. Before we are allowed to witness it in action though, Tony Scott leads into it with a slow, steady build, setting silhouettes of jets and pilots warming up on the tarmac against a burnt orange sky and low horizon. The early morning light is delicately diffused softly through a light mist, and then, as these men finally take off, so too does the film, playing out a montage of aerial sequences as exhilarating as they are immaculately executed.
The first time ‘Danger Zone’ turns up in Top Gun’s soundtrack, it comes as a rousing though affectionately cheesy underscore to this opening adrenaline rush, aggressively warning us of the thrills and terror to be found in this line of work. After the fifth time it plays, it hits a point of diminishing returns, edging from tactfully familiar to plainly over-used. Still, the visual awe of the tight jet formations that the song accompanies and Scott’s decision to fix his camera to plane cockpits never quite grows stale, flying us through their air with no regards to gravity or orientation. Whether these pilots are simply playing around, running drills, or engaging in real aerial combat, he keeps up an elated energy in his editing and camerawork, skilfully controlling the tension and release of every manoeuvre his characters execute.
When it comes to defining those characters, Scott opts for clean, memorable archetypes, each one embodied in their call name. There is little that the moniker Maverick leaves up to the imagination when we first meet Tom Cruise’s charming daredevil, and his rival, Iceman, similarly takes his title from his flying style and attitude, remaining cool under pressure and persistently wearing down opponents. Goose rounds out our trio of main pilots here, though joining in as Maverick’s love interest and instructor, Charlie, is Kelly McGillis, offering up a chemistry with Cruise that save even some of the corniest scenes.
Where ‘Danger Zone’ marks Top Gun’s aerial sequences, ‘Take My Breath Away’ is assigned to its romantic narrative thread, and is pulled off to greater effect if only for its slightly less prominent and more varied use. Its introductory riff often teases the sexual tension between Cruise and McGillis as they edge towards a consummation, but it isn’t until Scott brings us into that dark bedroom with dim blue light filtering through its curtains that it is played in full. In the silhouettes of bodies and faces inching closer together, Scott marks another key narrative development with visual splendour, opting for raw emotional power over any eloquent verbal expressions of love.
It is a fortunate thing too given how Top Gun’s screenplay tends to bog it down in plotting that is so signposted one could count down the seconds until the next plot point. Perhaps the main exception to this though is the heartbreaking midpoint turn, which sees Goose killed during a particularly dangerous training session. The weight that this holds over Maverick’s character arc from this point on is significant, tempering his reckless confidence with a great deal of guilt, and re-asserting the stakes that come with aerial combat.
Cruise carries this drastic shift well, shifting seamlessly from his charming action star persona into a broken man grappling with the realisation that his defining gift is also his downfall. Had the chemistry of Top Gun been slightly different with Cruise or Scott replaced by a lesser actor or director, it could have edged entirely into the realm of tacky entertainment, devoid of any redeeming qualities. As it is though, it stands as an admirable piece of action cinema, lifting the genre up to new heights and coasting along on its electrifying pacing.
Top Gun is currently streaming on Stan, Binge, and Paramount Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.