Editor’s note: for all you readers who have come to Film Freedonia since its inception, you might not be aware that for many years I used to co-author the review site Ferdy on Films with my great friend Marilyn Ferdinand, of Chicago. Now, in what will hopefully be the first of many, I proudly present this contribution by Marilyn to Film Freedonia – RH
Arguably, there is no religion as rulebound at Judaism. With a several millennia head start on other major religions and philosophies, Jewish scholars and rabbis were able to develop a truly vast body of religious law that proscribes and prescribes for every aspect of human life as derived from close readings of the Torah. The central codification text, the Talmud, even has two versions (the earlier Jerusalem [Palestine] Talmud and the later Babylonian version), and, according to Wikipedia, a modern printing of the entire text comprises 2,711 double-sided pages. As you can imagine, debates over the many and varied interpretations of the Talmud over the centuries have kept the academy very busy churning out additional texts.
It is into the scholarly world of Talmudic esoterica and rivalries in modern-day Israel that director/screenwriter Joseph Cedar plunges us. More than that, however, Cedar makes flesh the adage “old age and treachery will overcome youth and skill” in its various manifestations.
The film opens at an award ceremony. Uriel Shkolnik (a chunky-looking Lior Ashkenazi), a best-selling author and in-demand speaker and professor, is called to the dais to be honored for his work in bringing Talmudic studies out of the library stacks and into the lives of everyday Jews. His wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), son Josh (Daniel Markovich), mother Yehudit (Aliza Rosen), and especially his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), watch him intently as he starts his acceptance speech. After an ice-breaking joke, Uriel softens with a story about Eliezer, a Talmudic scholar, who told him to fill in the word “teacher” as his occupation when a young Uriel brought a questionnaire home from school. This experience elevated the role of teachers in Uriel’s eyes, and he proudly claims the same job description for himself. The speech earns Uriel a standing ovation and thunderous applause from everyone, including the normally stone-faced Eliezer, who appears to have been moved by his son’s tribute.
A narrator (Dan Kaner) breaks in to tell us Eliezer’s backstory, one of painstaking research over more than 30 years to provide an accurate and definitive version of one part of the Talmud, only to have his colleague, Yehuda Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), discover an original document of the same section and publish it right before Eliezer is about to issue his research. Eliezer is thus trapped in the backwaters of academia.
In truth, Eliezer considers himself a philologist, not a teacher, and the emotion he displayed at Uriel’s award ceremony was probably rage, a condition now so endemic to his existential state that he no longer is able to feel anything else. This rage is compounded when he is denied reentry into the hall where the celebrants are chatting and smiling by a security guard who sees he is not wearing the colored wristband needed for admission. His churlish act to end the evening is to walk home instead of riding with his family in their car.
With the sting of the previous day still upon him, Eliezer becomes offended when he is not detained by the security guard at the university where he is a daily visitor, believing them to underestimate his capacity for evil. He rehearses his class lecture on homeoteleuton—the skipping of words during transcription that causes text corruption—only to deliver it to a single student who wasn’t able to get into the class he wanted. When Eliezer returns home, he immediately repairs to his dark study, dons a large pair of yellow noise-cancelling headphones, and gets to work examining more text for inconsistencies. His avoidance of life has struck his long-suffering wife mute and earned him the “diagnosis” of autistic from his exasperated daughter-in-law.
With the cast of characters now introduced and the scene set, Cedar springs his trap. On his way to work one day, Eliezer gets a call on his cellphone informing him that he has won the Israel Prize in the Talmudic Studies category, the highest cultural honor in the nation and one that has eluded him for the 20 years that his son has submitted his name for consideration. Hardly daring to crack the door of his fortressed emotions, Eliezer eventually gives into a bit of celebratory behavior with his coworkers. Alas, a mistake has been made. The honor was meant for Shkolnik the Younger.
Cedar, an American Jew who studied philosophy and history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem before attending New York University’s film school, knows this hothouse world from the inside, where enmities are easily made and never forgotten and small moments of triumph are clung to like a leafy outcropping in a titanic flood. He suggests the overabundance of meetings academics attend—the more one is invited to, the higher one’s status—by filming the Israel Prize committee meeting at which Uriel must be told of the mistake in a file room that is too small. The constant jumbling of chairs and positions is hilarious, but the close quarters raise the emotional temperature between Uriel and Grossman, the latter of whom has held a ruinous grudge against Eliezer for decades.
Eliezer takes pride in being mentioned in a footnote in a definitive book by a giant in his field. When Uriel confronts Grossman about the latter’s shoddy treatment of Eliezer, Grossman shoots back that that precious footnote was an act of pity, not true acknowledgement. Uriel’s plea that the committee consider his father’s award an act of compassion (perhaps even contrition) is met with a cold assertion about maintaining the integrity of the honor.
This argument forms the crux of Cedar’s critique not only of scholarship, but also of a country that has been sliding off the rails for some time in its internecine fractures and unyielding attitudes. Were he to listen to the committee’s rationale for rescinding his award, Eliezer would likely agree with it. For him, the precise and original meanings of Judaic law are all-important, and he sees his win as a return to higher standards. However, his son appears to adhere to an even earlier law, the commandment to honor one’s father and mother. Of course, Uriel can afford to be generous because he is successful, and Cedar hints that he is neither as honorable as a son nor as a father as his defense in the file room might lead one to believe. He finds a way to betray his father in an ingenious, though possibly unconscious, way, and sends his mother into a deep depression by revealing that her sacrifices for Eliezer’s career were for naught.
Nonetheless, the ultimate victory goes to Eliezer. As he awaits his turn to take the stage at an event that is being televised across the region, he betrays his disappointment, but not his resolve. He is a master philologist—that much we have seen—and will grab his place in the sun.
Director: Dennis Hopper Screenwriters: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Terry Southern
By Roderick Heath
A few years ago, I went to a revival screening of Easy Rider in a town that’s something of a magnet for alt-culture people. I sat encamped literally and figuratively between two other generations, with some aging former hippies a row behind me, reminiscing with a mixture of pleasure and embarrassment, and a troupe of young people – late teens, early twenties – settled a few rows down, who had clearly not seen the film before and were there to bone up in their bohemian catechisms. The film’s infamous climax still had its effect: several members of the young troupe were left blubbering and clinging to each-other. Not bad for a movie often written off with that dread phrase, “time capsule.” What’s most fascinating about Easy Rider is that it continues to evolve: every time I’ve watched it it’s felt like a different movie. With my most recent viewing it felt not just still vital but disquieting, even shocking, in how relevant it felt. In its cumulatively devastating wrestle not just with general and pervasive worries of the modern world, but with specifically American symptoms of that worry, particularly gun violence. And a more elusive, existential dagnosis, a background hum of anxiety that’s only grown louder in the last few years. The loss of the pioneer spirit, so long celebrated in the culture, now like a narcotic addiction deadly to kick, the sense of the USA as a place on the move breaking down and squelching through the mud of Vietnam. Call it Hopper’s How The West Was Lost.
Easy Rider owed much of its genesis to beloved low-budget impresario Roger Corman, who had, as the exploitation film market evolved in the 1960s and the youth audience’s tastes grew more rowdier along with the ‘60s zeitgeist, set out to please them with films about various precincts of the culture like the biker movie The Wild Angels (1966) and the LSD experimentation flick The Trip (1967). Both of those films starred Peter Fonda, son of Hollywood legend Henry and brother of fellow rising star Jane. The Trip also sported a small supporting performance from Dennis Hopper, and was written by Corman’s star discovery and acting protégé Jack Nicholson. American International Pictures, the low-rent but high-energy exploitation film studio Corman had helped make into a force, also made “hippiesploitation” films like Richard Rush’s Psych-Out (1967). Those films were interesting and popular with the kinds of young folk rushing to the countercultural scene, but also held in not-so-faintly sarcastic amusement by many of them, as movies that strained to encompass an experience based around rejecting establishment entertainment factories run by old people trying to get their heads around the scene and treading fine censorship lines.
Easy Rider proved a key moment in the changeover to a new generation of filmmakers now often called the New Hollywood, following Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate (both 1967) but excelling both in reaping credibility as a work of generational, artisanal authenticity. Hopper and Fonda were, despite their flirtations with mainstream stardom, leading figures in Hollywood’s rising bohemian scene and drug culture. Few expected much better of the notoriously combative and wilful Hopper, who had already torpedoed his Hollywood acting career once and was still on a comeback trail, but Fonda was seen as foiling a promising career in becoming “a bit of a dropout.” Somewhere out on the fringe of Hollywood legend Hopper and Fonda decided, after their experiences on those Corman films, to make a movie that would nail down a more immediate and personal piece of expression contending the ructions gripping America at large and the various new and old concepts of society it contained. Hopper, with his experience in photography and general livewire energy, would direct, and for a script Fonda approached Terry Southern, then a very popular and famous writer for his erotically-tinged and satirical novels and co-writing Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) with Stanley Kubrick. The film also presented a translation-cum-riposte to On The Road, Jack Kerouac’s novel which had popularised the “Beat” movement as the first post-war manifestation of a new bohemian culture, but where Kerouac and the other Beats had been charged with electric positivity Hopper confronted a national mood rapidly turning sour and balkanized.
After failing to get Corman and AIP to back them, nervous as they were about Hopper directing a movie, Fonda obtained a roughly $400,000 budget from Columbia Pictures, but also paid for elements of the production out of his own pocket. That Fonda sought out Southern indicated the larger aim of the project, which was to create a kind of contemporary take on classic texts about wandering seekers like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Voltaire’s Candide, the latter of which Southern had already burlesqued as his novel Candy. The film’s shoot was messy and contentious, starting with writing credits: Hopper later claimed he had to write most of the movie when Fonda and Southern were taking too long, Southern said the two actors suddenly wanted credit when it was clear the movie would be a hit, and Fonda’s contributions to making the film were overshadowed by Hopper, whose difficult behaviour on set was often trying, setting the scene for his brilliant meltdown with The Last Movie (1971). Rip Torn, hired to play the supporting role of George Hanson in part thanks to his friend Southern, got into a fracas with Hopper that would prove the subject of litigation decades later, and in more immediate consequence Torn was sacked. Nicholson was swiftly hired to take over and brought onto the shoot several weeks in. The initial intent of picking up crewmembers along the route of the shoot saw Hopper constantly struggling to keep control of the set, and after Hopper got into a fistfight with a camera operator he and Fonda finally hired a professional crew. By the end of production all of the customised bikes Fonda and Hopper had rode in the film had been stolen.
Despite all that, Easy Rider proved an instant cause celebre upon release, capturing the Camera d’Or at Cannes and becoming a runaway hit with levels of profitability starkly contrasting the weak returns for many a big-budget bomb a faltering and sclerotic Hollywood was putting out at the same time, and set the big studios to eagerly producing imitations. Of course, that didn’t last, any longer than the hippie-era dream did. For all the film’s repute as a specific epochal touchstone, it would only require a few revisions and a shift of hipster lingo to seem a product of today’s independent film scene. Part of that’s because Hopper and Fonda wisely didn’t make a movie about hippies. Certainly both of their characters in the film, carefully contrived to be iconic, are harassed and repelled for their long hair and nonconformist ethos, but they are finally as alienated from the actual emissaries of the counterculture they encounter as they are from the thuggish hicks who dog the last legs of their journey. Whilst the communes and love-ins might have fallen by the wayside, the world is still full of people like the protagonists of Easy Rider.
Easy Rider only drops hints about who Billy (Hopper) and Wyatt, aka Captain America (Fonda) are and what they do: Billy declares to some cops who jail them, “We’re headliners, baby – we’ve played every fair in this part of the country!”, suggesting they’re musicians or possibly professional motorcycle stunt riders: it was made clear in Hopper’s early, much longer edit the latter is the case. In the film’s opening moments, however, they’re more exactly portrayed as entrepreneurial drug dealers, buying a wad of cocaine from a Mexican dealer named Jesus (Antonio Mendoza) in a junkyard. The two men merrily sample the goods and take it to Los Angeles, where they sell it on to a bigwig in a Rolls Royce near the airport, played, in a touch of alarming humour, by the record producer and future murderer Phil Spector, glimpsed snorting up white powder and giving the nod to his chauffeur to pay the men with a satchel full of cash: origin myth for the official fuel of the New Hollywood scene. The two sellers this time demur from sharing in the coke with their client, who pays up before sliding on leather gloves, whilst airplanes roar overhead, rendering the exchange a peculiar mime act. Hopper semi-ironically cues up the band Steppenwolf’s song “The Pusher” on the soundtrack, with its cool, clicking opening guitar lick and lyrics damning “the pusher man,” straddling the line between outlaw cool and seediness, espousal and disavowal. The two pals drive into the California desert in their battered, anonymous pick-up truck and, in the privacy of a garage where they keep their two, flashy, customised Harley-Davidson motorcycles, they prepare for their imminent journey.
Hopper’s evident influences quickly nod to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos as he lovingly surveys the choppers, gleaming chrome forms clashing with jaunty painted colours decorating the gas tanks. Wyatt carefully bundles up the cash in a tube he then secrets in his gas tank, which has the American flag painted on it. An ingenious detail that expresses the street-smarts of the heroes in protecting their hard-won fortune, whilst also doubling as a sly symbol, cash the literal fuel of escape and the septic heart of the American dream. Hopper continues to eye the choppers out in the sun, machines of personal deliverance ironically constructed through a zenith of industrial art, a perfect fusion of form and function, ambition and truth. The two men also seem to cast off their other identity, the one that did the drug deal, as Wyatt dresses up in his “Captain America” livery, knight for a new age, with Billy his hairy, buckskin-clad, more primitive companion. The nested points of pop culture reference nod to both the beloved comic book hero Captain America whilst also signalling it’s only the latest incarnation of the classic American hero, as Wyatt and Billy recall the gunslinger heroes of the Wild West and a million Westerns, heading out to backtrack through the westward colonising sprawl and catch up how things are going. As a final gesture of repudiation, Wyatt, after checking his wristwatch after being asked the time by Billy, slips the watch off, gives it one last glare, and drops it by the roadside. Beginning a motif that pervades the film, Hopper splinters time in this moment with cinema tricks – quick edits and a small but disorientating outward zoom. The two men roar off, engines fading as they burrow into the landscape.
The opening credits finally roll, with another Steppenwolf song blaring, this time, with more totemic impact: “Born To Be Wild” accompanies the two riders as they own the road and incarnate a generational fantasy, a unit of sound and vision easily quotable in other movies and TV commercials over the next few decades. The high of pure open road freedom lasts exactly as long as the credits, at the end of which the riders try to get a room at a remote hotel for the night but find the owner ignores them, turning on the No Vacancy sign. The two men camp out, and the nominal goal of their expedition emerges: the two men are heading for Mardi Gras in New Orleans, hoping to indulge hedonistic splendours. Billy’s signature nervous energy contrasts Wyatt’s removed and meditative aspect, which he describes “just gettin’ my thing together,” whilst Billy jokes about “fightin’ cowboys and Indians on every side,” tipping a hat immediately to the underlying thesis informing the character names and also allowing the characters some hip distance from the association. Next morning Wyatt pads around the patch of desolation where they camped, with abandoned houses and shacks and scattered debris, signs of one outpost of the spread of America that didn’t quite take. Such signs fascinated Wyatt, as if a crucial part of getting his thing together is making himself muse on such scenes and feeling out the ghosts of the land. One shot wistfully scans a pioneer shack with a modern electricity tower in the background with a sense of the dizzying progress from one to the other.
This kind of scene quickly became a bit of an Americana cliché in indie films (in Antonioni’s late-to-the-party Zabriskie Point, 1970, for instance, and also still often evoked, for instance in Aaron Morehead and Justin Benson’s films). Still it retains a special, spectral quality here, in large part thanks to Hopper’s odd, stuttering editing, linking scenes with a signature effect that’s neither dissolve not straight cut but instead flashes between shots into staccato fragments, setting the sense of cinematic time in flux and forcing the viewer to share the disorientated viewpoint of the characters. A major aspect of Easy Rider’s impact in its time and now, very apparent in this interlude, was Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography. Kovacs, born in Hungary, had become friends with fellow cinematography great Vilmos Zsigmond. The two former film students had filmed secret footage of the doomed Hungarian revolt against Soviet hegemony in 1956. They hiked out of the country but couldn’t find any interest in their smuggled footage for years, and after some time working manual labour jobs both eventually started getting work on low-budget films. Both men worked on infamous poverty row auteur Ray Dennis Steckler’s The Incredibly Strange Zombies Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1966), and the surprisingly good look of that film led to Kovacs getting hired by the likes of Richard Rush on Psych-Out and Peter Bogdanovich for his Targets (1968). On those two films he mooted the visual lexicon that became a pillar of the New Hollywood look, at once gritty and grainy but also lustrous, charged with both artistry and immediacy.
Kovacs might well have felt specially plugged into what Easy Rider set out to do as it mirrored his own experience to a certain extent, as an exile drawn to worship the American landscape in images. Long passages of Easy Rider simply and wisely allow Kovacs’ images to speak for themselves. At times they drink in the mountains and plains and roads with the expansive awe and grace of David Lean but constantly alternated with patches of quasi-abstraction as if recreating modernist paintings photographically, and vigorous use of zoom lensing that mimics documentary filmmaking language and using lens flare effects to help create a sun-washed atmosphere. When the bikers camp out in John Ford’s favourite amphitheatre of Monument Valley, Kovacs’ camera swings around in a long, dreamy arc, surveying the bluffs and mesas burned to grainy masses against a simmering twilight. Most of the film was shot with purely natural light, intensifying the rugged poetry. The geometrical struts of steel bridges, the high crags and snow caps of mountain ranges, surveys of pueblos and factories, shipping terminals and tumbledown shacks – the landscape in Easy Rider is given rare contemplation as a more than just pictorial interest but a domain of wonderment.
In the first of the film’s on-the-road vignettes, Billy and Wyatt stop at a ranch in Arizona. They ask the rancher (Warren Finnerty) and his hand, as they’re busy shoeing a horse, if they can repair a flat on Wyatt’s chopper. The rancher generously lets them use a shed and their tools, and extends his hospitality to inviting them to lunch. The two guests eat with the rancher’s wife (Tita Colorado) and their small army of children, whose presence the farmer attributes to his Catholic wife, and Billy upon request bashfully takes off his hat as the family say grace. This interlude presents Billy and Wyatt ironically with something very close to what they’re seeking virtually, or at least something worth finding, as soon as they set out, in a touch plainly inspired by Candide, in which the wandering heroes stumbled upon El Dorado early in their travails and found the demi-paradise where the locals had contempt for the plentiful riches around them, but the heroes were themselves doomed to move on through the world. Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1971) would offer a similar vignette when its seeker-exile hero stumbles into a William Blake-esque vision of an English rural idyll. The kind of perfection is undeniable but also perhaps useless to men like Billy and Wyatt. The rancher’s so out of touch he doesn’t know the acronym L.A., and once it’s explained notes, “What I was a young man I headed out for California…but…well, you know how it is.” Wyatt nonetheless congratulates the farmer, recognising the worth of what he has: “It’s not every man who can live off the land, you know? You do your own thing in your own time. You should be proud.”
This is immediately contrasted with a commune full of dropouts urgently trying to reverse-engineer themselves into the same breed of propagating and effectual being. The bikers encounter a hitchhiker, credited as the Stranger on the Road (Luke Askew), who proves to be a member of this commune, and thanks them by extending their own limited hospitality. The Stranger, one of the unofficial leaders of the commune, seems a very interior and spiky personality on the road, speaking in gnomic stoner riddles and chiding the bikers for their obliviousness when they camp for the night in a ruined pueblo near Monument Valley (“You’re right on top of them – the people this place belongs to are buried right under you…You could be a trifle polite.”). The Stranger nonetheless pays for their petrol, filling Wyatt’s gas tank much to Billy’s fretfulness, and once they arrive at the commune the Stranger shows them the brace of lanky, famished young would-be dropouts, all city kids, seeding the earth by hand, a shambolic but necessary step in trying to get the commune self-sufficient.
The commune was based on the New Buffalo commune outside Taos, New Mexico (the filmmakers couldn’t get permission to shoot there, and instead recreated it in Malibu), and the bikers and their charge are glimpsed riding past the famous pueblo structure in Taos on the way there. The commune itself is an ultimate expression of the 1960s counterculture moment but of course also an idea with deep roots in American life, like the Transcendentalist communities of the 1800s, as well as the less self-conscious project of untold numbers of colonial settlers. The scenes in the commune are the most dated in Easy Rider but also encompass such a time and place with anthropological zest, blending yearning sympathy and more than a little scepticism. Hopper notes the incidental sexism ingrained in the set-up as the women work in the kitchen whilst the young men try to work the fields, but also the louche, non-possessive approach to sexuality. Hopper populates the place with a cross-section of scenesters, from men dressed as swamis to a band of improv theatre actors (referring to themselves as “Gorilla Theatre”) in guises like Victorian stage villain and carnival row Cleopatra, and a skinny, blissed-out hippie Jesus named Jack (Robert Walker Jr) who leads them in a group prayer and improvises sinuous, incantatory, yogic dance moves that would be recreated by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (1979). Wyatt explores the commune building, one part old Celtic roundhouse, one part nativity barn, with plastic-sheeted skylight for Wyatt to resume his sun worship.
Billy becomes increasingly jittery in such surrounds, particularly when the Stranger wards him off from a confab of the communards by implying he might be a narc, and soon Billy wants to split. Wyatt, more at ease, reminds him that they’ve been eating some of the commune’s limited resources, and feels this obliges them to do a favour for comely communards Lisa (Luana Anders) and Sarah (Sabrina Scharf). These two liberated lasses dig the two hot strangers and draw them out not for a chore but for an interlude of lyrical play, skinny dipping with them in the flooded cellar of a riverside building in a scene that comes closest out of the any in the film to offering familiar, what’s-marked-on-the-tin celebration of life on the road. Hopper however makes clever use of The Byrds “Wasn’t Born To Follow” in these scenes, with its alternations between lightly skipping guitar picking and lyrical paeans to romping in nature, and passages dipping into heavily produced, spacy-sounding throbbing, as if the bad trip is trying to break out, so even at the film’s most relaxed and lyrical there’s a sense of strangeness persisting: Wyatt has to be coaxed into full engaging with the play, and even then begins sinking back into his musing state. Hopper including Anders in the film was a nice homage to them working together on Curtis Harrington’s 1961 film Night Tide, a movie that broke Hopper’s film acting exile. The commune inhabitants and their guests gather in a circle to offer a prayer of success for the crop they’ve planted, led by Jack the hirsute freak-saint. Hopper has the camera pivot around their silent and expectant faces as he did with the rancher’s children, finding much the same mixture of naiveté, frustration, and inward-drifting boding, until Jack begins speaking, with his benediction concluding, “Thank you for a place to make a stand.”
The disparity between Wyatt’s contemplative persona, appraising what he sees with a generous and optimistic eye, and Billy’s fidgety, nervous, livewire energy and fixation on fulfilling his appetites, reflect distilled and purposefully exaggerated versions of Fonda and Hopper themselves. Billy’s childlike streak is brought out as he plays with the commune kids. Wyatt praises the farmer, decides of the commune dweller they encounter that “They’ll make it,” and delivers the film’s final, famous epitaph with the measured meaning of a man who finds for all his efforts just cannot escape from his own company. Fonda’s inhabitation of the film anticipates where his own directorial efforts would drift on The Hired Hand (1971) and Idaho Transfer (1973), more overtly concerned with the permeable and insubstantial nature of character and fracturing of time, whilst Hopper would also more ostentatiously fragment linearity on The Last Movie but would also sustain his sardonic edge of social commentary and zeitgeist reflection in that film and his follow-ups Out Of The Blue (1980) and Colors (1988). The sense of preordained failure upon Wyatt and Billy’s excursion is underlined when, near the end of the film, Wyatt has a flash vision of the fate before them. As if seeking out some chance to go deeper and so come back out further, Billy accepts from the Stranger a tab of LSD which the Stranger recommends he wait for the ideal time and place to take.
The two bikers move on, but quickly find themselves thrown in a small town police lock-up after they accidentally ride into the midst of a parade and get in on the act. They find aid in an unlikely place, that is, sharing their cell: George Hanson, a sometime ACLU lawyer and semi-pro drunkard, awakens from one sleeping off one of benders, setting off Billy’s aggression with his bumbling, but easing his way through shows of wry, drawling charisma and conciliation with both his fellow prisoners and the duty cop who brings him a cup of coffee and an aspirin. George warns them about the hair-clipping tendency of the local cops: “They’re tryin’a make everybody look like Yul Brynner.” When Billy asks if he can get them out of the clink, George answers, “I imagine that I can if you haven’t killed anybody – ‘least nobody white.” True to his word, George succeeds, handling their release with practised bonhomie. Taking his first morning swig of the hair of the dog with a toast to “Old D.H. Lawrence!, George performs a ritual like a cold engine turning over with the first shock of liquor in his tongue, punctuated by a random phrase (“Indians!”… “Firefly!”), an act a little reminiscent of “Nick Va-Va-Voom” in Kiss Me Deadly (1955) but apparently inspired by a mechanic working on the film bikes. When told where the bikers are heading, George muses on how he’s often started off for Mardi Gras but never got further than the state line, and brandishes a card given to him by the Governor of Louisiana, advertising a brothel in New Orleans called Madame Tinkertoy’s House of Blue Lights: “Now this is supposed to be the finest whorehouse in the South. These ain’t no pork chops, these are US prime.”
Nicholson’s performance as Hanson immediately paved the way for him becoming a mainstream star, playing a vivid character role that’s also a perfect springboard to show star quality, as a complimentary but also antithetical personality to the two leads. George like them is a substance abuser, moreover a heavy, self-destructive one, but his drug of choice is legal and socially acceptable, and it fuels his sociable and charming streak: George seems like the kind of guy who’s a hell of a lot of fun to be around at least until his liver packs it in. George contains aspects of Wyatt’s thoughtfulness and Billy’s rowdiness and gifted with articulateness all his own, musing on the meaning of the constantly encountered hostility the bikers encounter constantly. It’s easy to assume George is something of a self-portrait from Southern injected into the movie, as a perma-sozzled Texan wag both attracted to but also fatefully alien to the counterculture, translating the more allusive intent of Hopper and Fonda into something the viewer can readily digest. It’s George who spells out the uneasy nature of modern freedom in America, the two bikers embodying it and noting it’s easy to be jealous when “You’re bought and sold on the marketplace.” When George admits he wishes he was going with the bikers, Wyatt asks if he has a helmet, to which George slyly replies he does: cut to the bikers roaring down the highway, now with George riding with Wyatt, wearing his old high school football helmet. The three men have a blast as George enjoys his first motorcycle ride, his childlike gestures inspiring Billy to perform tricks on his bike, and waving to the people they pass.
George is also the star of the film’s one real lengthy dialogue scene and moment of comic bravura. As they camp out for the night, Wyatt offers him a joint, which George has also never done before, assuming at first it’s a normal cigarette. George is uncertain at first, reciting the much-mocked square line that it leads to harder stuff, and when he does take his first few puffs doubts it’s doing anything to him. Nonetheless, after Billy reports seeing an object in the sky like a satellite grazing the atmosphere, George declares it’s probably a UFO, explaining that’s seen them before, and launches into an explanation of how Venusians have been infiltrating human society for years, aiming to help it evolve into a state like theirs, devoid of “antiquated systems.” “How’s your joint, George?” Wyatt asks when he’s finally done. The basic gag of the neophyte dope smoker falling under its influence without realising is good, but more interesting and substantial is the way the scene extends the driving notion that the psyche of the average, ordinary person is a deeply weird place filled with startling assumptions and only needs a little pharmaceutical coaxing to reveal. George’s rant presages the oncoming New Age crazes of the 1970s and on, retreating from open confrontation with the modern world’s hard borders into fantasias of alternate realities and a search for new incarnations of old spiritual urges, of which UFOs would be a singular example. And yet also offers a bizarre yet on-point brand of social satire as George notes that human beings with their social hierarchies and “leaders upon whom we rely for the release of this information” would be completely inimical to the Venusians because “each man is a leader.” In this regard Easy Rider becomes a kind of science fiction film.
Hopper’s initial edit of Easy Rider was very long, and at the request of executive Burt Schneider Henry Jaglom, a young filmmaker and future cult director in his own right, was brought in to reedit the film, much to Hopper’s initial aggravation, and he later commented that others, including Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, also made editing contributions. To Jaglom’s credit, he seems to have understood the movie Hopper wanted to make, excising elements more like other films of the type, including an early scene of Wyatt and Billy outrunning cops when bringing their drug haul over the border from Mexico, and instead lingering on the journey, creating an exemplar of a mode of picaresque storytelling soon dubbed the road movie. Whilst hardly the first road movie made (Francis Ford Coppola had, for instance, released his The Rain People a year earlier), Easy Rider nonetheless created a craze for the subgenre over the next few years, with such movies like the also Fonda-starring Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971), and Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), as well as gentler variants like Paper Moon (1974), and Monte Hellman’s even more reticent and allusive take Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Meanwhile it wielded immediate sway over filmmakers like Rafelson himself and Terrence Malick, and even David Lynch likely took some inspiration from the trip scene for the churning dreamworld industrialism of Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980). Easy Rider’s impact on the independent American film scene can barely be overstated, either, still reverberating in the films of Kelly Reichardt, David Lowery, Chloe Zhao, Debra Granik, Jeremy Saulnier, and Nia DaCosta.
The first of the film’s two wrenching pivots of tragedy is set up when the trio roll into a small Southern town and go into a diner. There they find themselves objects of fervent fascination from some girls, but also of aggressive and contemptuous appraisal by some men, including the local sheriff. To get the desired effect out of the regional men he had hired for the scene, Hopper told them these longhair blow-ins were paedophiles and murderers. The palpable sense of exposure and imminent violence in the scene and indeed the film’s last third helped birth another subgenre over the next few years, particularly with the release of Deliverance (1972), as murderous and depraved rednecks would become a favourite movie monster. Hopper, Fonda, and Southern were channelling the very real rough treatment often turned on hippies in such locales but also reflected the uneasy spectacle and earned infamy of the previous decade a more of racial strife. The irony of it all, as George muses, is that it reflects, in a country so devoted to the idea of freedom, how the actual exercise of it deeply offends and frustrates some. Also inferred here is Hopper’s mediation on the uneasy relationship between the actual America and its mythologies, particularly the cinematic kind, a theme he would become more explicit in expressing in The Last Movie.
One sharp irony for Hopper was that his other acting role of 1969 was in Hathaway’s True Grit (1969), a film that gained John Wayne an Oscar at last and neatly summarised that American mythos in its most classical form, the Western film. In an America weaned on tales of expansion and progress, of enterprise and self-reliance, of gun-wielding heroes bringing order to the wilderness, to encounter any kind of stymie in terms of class, milieu, and education is to be cheated, a loss which cannot be expressed without questioning the holy national mythos, and so must be turned on anyone trying to move on. Easy Rider diagnoses a great American ill, the pain of the loss of the pioneer spirit and its attendant ideals and illusions. Without heroic roles to play, however distantly, when immersed in such a mythos, people starve spiritually; guns meant to take out varmints instead are itchily trained on anything that offends, that gives testimony to one’s actual impotence. The further east they travel, the more Billy and Wyatt contend with the losers of history, the places left behind in the great westward sprawl and the great northern victory, experiencing devolution. “This used to be a helluva good country,” George avows sadly, although of course such nostalgia for the old weird America comes laced with ironies: not so much if you were Black or Native American, but then they were part of the same ecstatic flux too. Billy and Wyatt try to skip the problem through their own variety of alternative capitalism, and their original sin is not so much purveying illegal narcotics than of imagining that in some way could excuse them from dealing with the world.
It’s in engaging with this theme that Easy Rider becomes something near-unique, leading to its disturbing final scenes that see the thesis crystallised in increasingly dark fashion. Camping out for the last time in their journey to New Orleans, George says his piece about the problems of freedom. After the men fall asleep and their fire burns down, a number of men, likely many of the same ones from the diner, sneak up on the camp and begin beating the sleeping men with bats and branches. Billy manages to wrestle out his knife and slash out whilst screaming wildly, sending the attackers scurrying away, but he finds Wyatt dazed and bloodied and George dead, killed seemingly whilst still dead asleep, saved the pain of waking to the cruellest disillusion. Once Wyatt recovers they bundle George up in his blanket and search through his belongings, which prove scant. In the most blunt and bravura of his jump-cuts, Hopper leaps Billy and Wyatt eating in a swank New Orleans restaurant the next day, still wearing the bruises of their beating: as they eat, Billy talks Wyatt into going to Madame Tinkertoy’s as George wanted. The surreal segue from the scene of death to the place of fine dining elides just what the two bikers did about George’s death: did they report it to the cops, and take the chance of having it pinned on them, or did they leave him by the road?
Madame Tinkertoy’s, when Billy and Wyatt arrive there, proves to be a plush but tacky space replete with kitschy religious décor, fake baroque trimmings, and other trappings of an Old World inheritance, including paintings of obscure personages of another age. Many of the “US prime” stable of prostitutes are aging women with too much makeup on, others are plainly bored and zoned out, whilst others ply desperate attempts to be with-it, like one of the hookers shimmying on a table-top. Billy tries to live up to his kid-in-a-candy-store fantasies as he gets boozy and clingy with some of the women. Wyatt turns evermore inward and melancholy, surveying the fake religious trappings and painted philosophical missives on the walls and musing on Voltaire’s maxim, “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Billy and Wyatt are stashed in an antechamber to await their selected partners for the night. The Madam (Lea Marmer) ushers in Karen (Karen Black) and Mary (Toni Basil), two attractive young women who nonetheless suggest doppelgangers of Lisa and Sarah, those women’s free-and-easy vivacity exchanged for blowsy working sexiness. “Do you mind if I take the tall one?” Billy asks his pal. Wyatt, at a loss for what to do, eventually suggests they all head outside to experience Mardi Gras. They wander amidst the contrived spectacle and controlled weirdness of the holiday, the foursome desperately trying to alchemise their random association into some semblance of fun and connection and orgiastic flux.
At last they take refuge in the Basin Street Cemetery with its famous above-ground sepulchres, and there Wyatt has an inspiration, breaking out the acid tab the Stranger gave him and sharing between the four of them with the advice, “Just shut up and take it.” But the acid proves bad, and the foursome are stricken with an array of violently alternating states amidst the graves. The graveyard trip is one of my favourite scenes in cinema, as the rhythmic thump of a steam drill operating nearby is transformed into a doom-laden toll and pumping heartbeat of a monster whilst the bad trip is illustrated in a free-fall extravaganza of fisheye and zoom lensing, flash cuts and handheld shots, images ghostly and washed-out alternating with patches of damaged, colour-blotched film. Wyatt and Mary jam themselves between sepulchres, Mary stripping off and sprawling in the rain like a sylph whilst Wyatt arranges himself into a blank pop-art placard, the American flag on his jacket turned as a frightened placard; Karen moans about having a child and Billy excitedly caresses her thighs and bangs her over a tombstone. The technique in this scene owes much to experimental filmmakers, but achieves its own fresh, fascinating power in a new context, communicating the depth of a squall of interior feeling in a system of images that manage to avoid the by-then-already familiar clichés of on-screen trippiness and enter in a state remote, surreal, recessive, punctuated by flashes of intense and inchoate emotion, from Karen wailing to Wyatt clinging to a statue and experiencing a powerful wave of sorrow mingled with anger for his mother – emotions which came from Fonda himself in musing on his own late mother.
Watching this scene now reminds me that perhaps I’ve met more young women these days than young men on voyages like Wyatt and Billy – young men today find it far too easy to slip back into the amniotic illusions of gaming, for instance. Again, Hopper leaves the scene pointedly unresolved in any traditional sense, the maelstrom of emotion and disorientation suddenly left behind like the city, as Wyatt and Billy return to the road, this time more with the look of men fleeing than moving towards something. A great part of Easy Rider’s impact then and now, although I think has sometimes overstated, comes from the mostly pitch-perfect use of pop music on the soundtrack, including the Steppenwolf and Byrds songs mentioned and also pointed use of Jimi Hendrix’s troubled individualist anthem “If 6 Was 9,” The Band’s elegy to pay-it-forward fellowship “The Weight,” and the Electric Prunes’ eerie “Kyrie Elieson” used as an ironically eerie and spiritual counterpoint to the shots in the restaurant just after George’s death. Finally, as Wyatt and Billy flee up along the levees of the Mississippi, Hopper uses Roger McGuinn’s cover of Bob Dylan’s troubled surreal epic “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” with its famous line “He not busy being born is busy dying” imbuing a final hint of new existential quest for the bikers.
During their next campout, whilst Billy tries to maintain his enthusiastic outlook, Wyatt finally verbalises what he’s been thinking for some time as he comments, with great succinctness, “We blew it.” That line has often been taken to be the essential summation of the entire 1960s project. At least in the terms of Billy and Wyatt’s journey, it suggests Wyatt’s final conclusion that they didn’t just chase the wrong dream but leapt off from a bad beginning and then failed to understand everything of value they found on the way. The film’s infamous ending is then almost a mere coup-de-grace, as the two bikers ride along a road by a levee, passed by two rednecks in a pick-up who, like the diner customers, take delight in harassing Billy: one levels a pump action shotgun at him to nominally frighten him, but when Billy ignores him the redneck shoots him, swatting him off his bike and leaving him sprawled and bloody on the verge. Wyatt stops and checks him out: whilst Billy grunts out fragmented words, Wyatt dashes back to bike to get help.
Only to meet the men in the pickup again, turned about to leave no witnesses: the blast of the gun and a near-subliminal flash of red gives way to Wyatt’s bike, front wheel spinning away wildly, flying across the curb-side ditch and crashlanding. The image of the wrecked and burning motorcycle, surveyed in a helicopter shot rushing away into the sky, conflates multiple frames of symbolic resonance, the crashing, riderless bike an image of some dream desperately trying to keep soaring, a bitter lampoon of a failed space shot in the year of the moon landing, and a conflation of the assassinations that had befallen American political life in the previous year with the epic carnage of Vietnam, all crystallising in internalised blowback, sparking madness on the home front. Hopper was likely inspired in part by the imagery of roadway carnage in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967), but the sense of connection with a parable for the war is exacerbated by the way Hopper concludes the film with a visual quote from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in the long, final helicopter shot that rises high above the madness to survey the wrecked bikes and sprawled bodies and the languorous course of the Mississippi, the flowing river evoked in the theme song written by Dylan and McGuinn that plays over the end credits. The end of Easy Rider retains such force in this disparity of jagged tragedy and elegiac yearning, the grand promise of the world still open to those brave enough to seek it even as the failed seekers lie dead on the green grass.
In 1967, cinema ended. Whatever has been flickering upon screens ever since might perhaps be likened to a beheaded chicken or a dinosaur whose nervous system still doesn’t know it’s dead even as it lurches around. At least, that’s what the title at the end of Jean-Luc Godard’s most infamous film declares – FIN DE CINEMA – as an attempted Götterdammerung for an age of both movies and Western society, as well as for Godard’s own life and career up to that moment. In eight years Godard had gone from being a fringe film critic to one of the most artistically respected and cultishly followed filmmakers alive. His marriage to actress Anna Karina had unexpectedly made him a tabloid star and inspired some of his most complete and expressive films. The union’s dissolution by contrast saw Godard driven into a frenzy of cinematic experimentation that started his drift away from his Nouvelle Vague fellows and off to a strange and remote planet of his own, defined by an increasingly angry and alienated tone. Godard’s relentless play with cinema form and function seemed to become inseparable from his own drift towards radical politics. Politically provocative from Le Petit Soldat (1960) on, Godard’s new faiths crystallised whilst making La Chinoise (1967), an initially satiric but increasingly earnest exploration of the new student left and its war on decaying establishments, which happened to coincide with him falling in love with one of his actors, Anne Wiazemsky, in what would prove another ill-fated marriage.
Godard found himself riding at a cultural vanguard, as young cineastes adored his films and considered them crucial expressions of the zeitgeist, and Godard in turn championed the radical cause that would famously crest in the enormous protest movement of 1968. Week End predated the most eruptive moments of the late 1960s but thoroughly predicted them. What helps keeps it alive still as one of the most radical bits of feature filmmaking ever made depends on Godard offering the rarest of experiences in cinema: an instance of an uncompromising artist-intellectual with perfect command over his medium making a grand gesture that’s also an auto-da-fe and epic tantrum, a self-conscious and considered repudiation of narrative cinema. Many critics in the years after the film’s release felt it was a work of purposeful self-destruction, not far removed from Yukio Mishima’s ritual suicide. Godard certainly did retreat to a creative fringe that of course thought of itself as the cultural navel of a worldwide revolutionary movement, making films in collaboration with other members of the filmmaking collective called the Dziga Vertov Group, and would only slowly and gnomically return to something like the mainstream in the 1980s. Godard’s aesthetic gestures, his violation of narrative form, and the conviction with which it anticipates the ever-imminent implosion of modern civilisation. Godard set out to attack many things he loved, not just film style but also women, art, cars – his alter ego in Le Petit Soldat had mentioned his love for American cars, but in Week End the car becomes a signifier of everything Godard felt was sick and doomed in the world.
Week End was the film Godard had been working to for most of the 1960s and all he made after it was a succession of aftershocks. It remains in my mind easily his greatest complete work, only really rivalled by the elegiac heartbreak of Contempt and the more pensively interior and essayistic, if no less radical 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967). It’s also a crazed one, an obnoxious one, laced with self-righteousness, self-loathing, confused romanticism, sexism, flashes of perfervid beauty, and violence that swings between Grand Guignol fakery and snuff movie literalness. Some of it has the quality of a brat giggling at his own bravery in pulling his dick out in church, other times like a grandfatherly academic trying to talk hip. All feeds into the maelstrom. Godard’s overt embrace of surrealism and allegory, with heavy nods to Luis Buñuel, particularly L’Age d’Or (1930) and The Exterminating Angel (1962), allowed him to ironically lance at the heart of the age. The vague basis for the film, transmitted to Godard through a film producer who mentioned the story without mentioning who came up with it, was a short story by the Latin American writer Julio Cortázar, whose work had also inspired Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966).
The plot of Week End, such as it is, presents as its rambling antiheroes the emblematic French bourgeois couple Corinne (Mireille Darc) and Roland (Jean Yanne), greedy, amoral, wanton, bullish creatures, hidden under a thin veneer of moneyed savoir faire: they might be total creeps but they dress well. Both are having affairs and plotting to murder their spouse. Both are meanwhile conspiring together to kill Corinne’s father, a wealthy man who owns the apartment building they live in, and is now finally sickening after the couple have spent years slowly poisoning him. But they’re worried he might die in hospital and Corinne’s mother might falsify a new will cutting them out, so need to reach the family home in Oinville. The couple linger around their apartment in expecting news: Corinne talks furtively on the balcony with their mutual friend, and her secret lover, whilst Roland does the same over the phone with his mistress. “I let him screw me sometimes so he thinks I still love him,” Corinne tells the lover as they converse on the balcony, whilst Corinne idly watches as the drivers of two cars down in the building car park clash. The driver of a mini accosts one a sports car for cutting him off. The fight quickly escalates into a fearsome beating, with one driver set upon by the other and his companion, and left in a bloodied sprawl by his vehicle.
A little later this vignette is algorithmically repeated with variance as Roland and Corinne also get into a battle in the car park, after Roland bumps their Facel-Vega convertible into a parked car. A boy playing in store-bought Indian costume shouts for his mother, as the hit car belongs to his parents. The mother berates the couple, quickly sparking a comic battle in which she fends off the infuriated Roland by swatting tennis balls at him whilst Roland fires paint from a water gun at her. Her husband bursts out of the building with a shotgun and fires, forcing Roland and Corinne to flee, whilst the boy cries after them, “Bastards! Shit-heap! Communists!” The diagnosis of some awful tension and rage lurking within the seemingly placid forms of modern consumer life is the first and perhaps the most lasting of Week End’s insights, anticipating epidemics of road rage and on to the flame wars and lifestyle barrages of online life. Things like cars and designer clothes as presented through Week End aren’t just simply indicted as illusory trash, but as treacherous things because they are presented as yardsticks of modern life, creating bubbles of identity, and when those bubbles of identity collide and prove to be permeable, the result stirs a kind of insanity.
Before they set out on their fateful odyssey to Oinville, Corinne goes out to spend a session with a therapist, or at least that seems to be the cover story for Corinne meeting her lover. In cynical pastiche of the analytic process – or “Anal-yse” as one of Godard’s title cards announces – Corinne sits on a desk, in a near-dark office, stripped down to her underwear, with her lover playing therapist (or perhaps he really is one), his face in near-silhouette. Corinne begins a long, detailed monologue recounting sexual encounters with a lover named Paul and also Paul’s wife Monique, explaining her pornographic adventures with the pair that quickly progresses from lesbian fondling to dominance displays as Monique sat in a saucer of milk and ordered the other two to masturbate. Whether the story is real or not matter less than its ritualistic value in serving the game between Corinne and her “therapist,” who ends the game by drawing Corinne in for a clinch. The lurid flourishes of Corinne’s anecdote (drawn from surrealist erotica writer Georges Bataille, whose influence echoes throughout the film) mesmerise by describing sordid and perverse things Godard can’t possibly show in a mainstream movie, the first and most elaborate of his many uses of discursive and representative technique to avoid the merely literal.
Along with the titillation, challenge: nearly ten minutes long, this scene is one of several in Week End deliberately contrived to exasperate viewers with its seemingly pointless length and intense, unblinking technique. Darc has to hold the screen right through without a cut, with Godard’s regular cinematographer Raoul Coutard gently moving the camera back and forth in a kind of sex act itself. On the soundtrack random bursts of Antoine Duhamel’s droning, menacing score come and go, sometimes so loud as to drown out the speech: the music seems to promise some dark thriller in the offing, and keeps coming and going through the film. Satirical purpose is draped over it all, as Godard indicts secret roundelays of sexual indulgence played out in bourgeois parlours whilst official moral forms are maintained, as well as mocking movie representations of sex. On yet another level, the scene is an extension, even a kind of ultimate variation, of Godard’s penchant first displayed in Breathless during that film’s epic bedroom scene, for long, rambling explorations of people in their private, deshabille states.
Godard’s signature title cards, with their placard-like fonts all in capitals save for the “i”s still sporting their stylus, have long been easy to reference by any filmmaker wanting to channel or pastiche the Godardian style, instantly conveying ‘60s radical chic. Godard had been using them for a while in his films, but it’s Weekend that wields them as a recurring device not just of scene grammar but aggressive cueing and miscuing of structure and intent. Week End is introduced as “a film found in a dustbin” and, later, “a film lost in the cosmos.” The titles declare the day and time as if obeying neat chronology, but begin to lose track, designating “A Week of Five Thursdays” and events of apparent importance like “September Massacre” and “Autumn Light” and devolving into staccato declarations of theme like “Taboo” and conveying cynical, indicting puns. At 10:00 on Saturday morning, as one title card informs us with assurance, Corinne and Roland set off on their unmerciful mission, surviving their encounter with the shotgun-wielding neighbour only to get caught in a massive traffic jam on a country road.
This sequence, nearly eight minutes long and setting a record at the time for the longest tracking shot yet created, contrasts the hermetic intensity and verbal dominance of the “Anal-yse” scene with an interlude of pure visual showmanship, perhaps the most famous and certainly the most elaborate of Godard’s career. It’s one that also takes to a logical extreme Andre Bazin’s cinema theories about long takes, transforming the movement of the camera and its unyielding gaze to enfold multivalent gags and social commentary. The shot follows the course of the jam as Roland tries with all his gall and ingenuity to weave his way along it. The air sings with endless blaring car horns amassed into an obnoxiously orchestral dun, as the Durands pass multifarious vignettes. An old man and a boy toss a ball back and forth between cars. Men play poker. An elderly couple has a chess match whilst sitting on the road. A family settled on the roadside, father reading a book and sharing a laugh with the rest. A white sports car rests the wrong way around and parked in tight between a huge Shell oil tanker and another sports car. Trucks with caged animals including lions, a llama, and monkeys which seem to be escaping. A farmer with a horse and cart surrounded by droppings. Roland almost crashes into the open door of a car, and Corinne geets out and slams the door shut with the choice words to the driver before resuming. On the roadside at intervals dead bodies are glimpsed near the broken and buckled remains of cars. Roland finally leaves the jam behind as police clear one wreck, and takes off up a side road.
The guiding joke of this scene sees most of humanity adapted and resigned to such straits. The price paid for the car, in both its functionality and its promise of release, has proven to be the screaming frustration of dysfunction and ironic immobility, punctuated by the horror of traffic accidents, and an enforced detachment, even numbness, in the face of a survey of gore and death. At the same time, comic pathos, scenes of ordinary life simply being lived in the transitory state of the road rather than in tight urban apartments, and the establishment of tentative community. Nascent, a primal hierarchy, as Roland and Corinne urge, bully, threaten, and steal bases along their path, mimicking their plans to circumvent waiting for their fortune: awful as they are, the couple are at least evolved to be apex predators in this pond. This sequence links off every which way in modern satire and dystopian regard, close to J.G. Ballard’s writing in its satiric, quasi-sci-fi hyperbole and anticipating Hollywood disaster movies of the next half-century, just as much of the film’s midsection lays down the psychic blueprint for generations of post-apocalyptic stories.
Weekend is a satire on the (1967) present and a diagnostic guess at the future, but also a depiction of the past. Visions of roadways clogged with traffic, roadside carnage, the tatty countryside infested with refugees, refuse, and resistance warriors, constantly refer back to the France of the World War II invasion and occupation, perhaps merely the most obvious and personal prism for Godard to conceive of societal collapse through, whilst also presenting the invasion as a mutant variation, infinitely nebulous and hard to battle. Week End starts off as a film noir narrative with its tale of domestic murder for profit, and remains one for most of its length, even as it swerves into a parody of war movies. It’s also an extended riff on narratives from Pilgrim’s Progress and Don Quixote to Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz, any picaresque tale when the going gets weird and the weird turn pro, each encounter a new contending with the nature of life and being, the shape of reality, and the limits of existence. Comparisons are easy to make with Week End, because everything’s in there. The sense of time and reality entering a state of flux becomes more explicit as the Durands begin to encounter fictional characters and historical personages and new-age prophets, keeping to their overall motive all the while.
After escaping the traffic jam, Corinne and Roland enter a small town where they stop so Corinne can call the hospital her father is in, as they’ve fallen behind schedule and Corinne is fretting over any chance her father’s will can be changed at the last moment. As they park a farmer drives by in a tractor lustily singing “The Internationale,” and a few moments later the sound of a crash is heard, a fatal accident as the tractor hits a Triumph sports car, a sight Corinne and Roland barely pay attention to, and when they do it’s to fantasise it involved her father and mother. When Godard deigns to depict the crash, he slices the imagery up into a succession of colourful tableaux, the mangled corpse of the driver covered in obviously fake but feverishly red and startling blood, gore streaming down the windshield. The driver’s girlfriend can be overheard arguing with the tractor driver, before Godard show the two bellowing at each-other, the woman, covered in her lover’s blood, raving in a distraught and pathetic harangue as she accuses the tractor driver of killing him deliberately because he was a young, rich, good-looking man enjoying life’s pleasures: “You can’t stand us screwing on the Riviera, screwing at ski resorts…he had the right of way over fat ones, poor ones, old ones…” Worker and gadabout cast aspersions on each-other’s vehicles, and the girl wails, “The heir of the Robert factories gave it to because I screwed him!” All this Godard labels, with cold wit, “Les Lutte des Classes” (“The Class Struggle”).
As the pair argue, Godard cuts back to shots of onlookers seemingly beholding the scene but also posing for the camera, framed against advertising placards with bright colours and striking designs. Coutard captures the popping graphics and the faces of the witnesses, sometimes gawking in bewilderment, one trying to control the urge to laugh, and others ranked in stiff and solemn reckoning (including actress Bulle Ogier, who like several actors returns at the end as a guerrilla). The woman and the farmer dash over to Corinne and Roland to each solicit their support in reporting the accident their way, only for the couple to flee in their car: “You can’t just leave like that, we’re all brothers, as Marx said!” the farmer shouts, whilst the girl shrieks, “Jews! Dirty Jews!” Both left bereft and appalled, the farmer finishes up giving the woman in a consoling embrace, in the film’s funniest and most profoundly ironic depiction of the evanescence of human nature. Godard shifts to a vignette he labels “Fauxtography” as he now films the actors from the scene in group portrait against the ads, with a discordant version of “La Marseillaise” on the soundtrack, as if in pastiche of group photos of resistance members at the end of the war, and the way patriotism is often invoked as the levelling answer to the aforementioned class struggle.
Throughout Weekend Godard recapitulates elements of style explored in his previous films: the “Anal-yse” scene as noted recalls the explorations of human intimacy in his first few films, albeit hardened into distanced shtick, as the tractor crash scene recalls his more pop-art infused works of just a couple of years earlier like Pierrot le Fou (1965) and the fetishisation of the allure of marketing in Made in USA (1966). Vignettes later in the film, including Emily Bronte musing over the age of a stone and its pathos as an object untouched and unfashioned by humanity, and the Durands studying a worm squirming in mud, recall the intensely focused meditations on transient objects and sights explored in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. The concluding scenes return to the children’s playtime approach to depicting war Godard had taken on Les Carabiniers (1963). Few directors, if any, had ever tried so hard to avoid raking over their old ground as Godard in the whirlwind of his 1960s output, and this systematic rehashing underlines the way Week End offers a summarising cap on his labours whilst also trying to leap beyond it all. Godard resisted suggestions his films were improvised, instead explaining that he often wrote his scenes just before filming, nonetheless seeming to grow them organically on the move, and so Week End is its own critique, a response to a moment and a response to the response.
As they roar on down the road, Roland comments when Corinne asks about the farmer’s plea, “It wasn’t Marx who said it. It was another Communist – Jesus said it.” As if by invocation, the couple soon encounter a son of God on the road, albeit not that one. In a jaggedly filmed interlude, the couple pass through another, seemingly even more hellish traffic jam, with Godard’s title cards violently breaking the scene up into hourly reports. This jam is glimpsed only in close-up on the couple as they engage in bellowing argument with other drivers who, out of their cars, grab and claw at them, obliging both to bit at hands and fingers, as Roland barks at another driver, “If I humped your wife and hurt her would you call that a scratch?” Resuming their journey again, this time through rain, the pair are flagged down by a woman hitchhiker, Marie-Madeleine (Virginie Vignon): Roland gets out and inspects her, lifting her skirt a little, before assenting to take her. The woman then calls out a man travelling with her (Daniel Pommereulle), hiding in a car wreck on the roadside: the frantic man, dressed in bohemian fashion and wielding a pistol he shoots off like a lion tamer, forces the Durands to take them back in the other direction.
The man explains after the rain stops and the top has been rolled back down that he is Joseph Balsamo, “the son of God and Alexandra Dumas…God’s an old queer as everyone knows – he screwed Dumas and I’m the result.” This unlikely messiah explains his gospel: “I’m here to inform these modern times of the Grammatical Era’s end and the beginning of Flamboyance, especially in cinema.” That Joseph looks a little like Godard himself connects with the earnestness of this seemingly random and absurd pronouncement, as Joseph herald’s the film breakdown into arbitrary and surreal vignettes, and the texture of the movie itself losing shaoe, and Godard’s own imminent departure from mainstream filmmaking. It’s also a flourish of puckish self-satire, as Godard-as-Joseph wields the power of the camera and editing to manifest miracles and punish the wicked, whilst also paying the debt to Luis Bunuel’s arbitrary swerves into pseudo-religious weirdness as he labels this scene “L’Ange Ex Terminateur.” Joseph promises the Durands he will grant any wishes they want to make if they’ll drive him to London, and proves his statement by casually manifesting a rabbit in the glove compartment.
This cues an oft-quoted scene as the Durands muse on the things they want most: Roland’s wishes include a Miami Beach hotel and a squadron of Mirage fighters “like the yids used to thrash the wogs,” whilst Corinne longs to become a natural blonde and for a weekend with James Bond, a wish Roland signs off on too. Joseph, disgusted with such obnoxious wishes, refuses to ride with them any longer, but Corinne snatches his gun off him and tries to force him: the Durands chase the couple out of the car and into a field strewn with car wrecks, but Joseph finally raises his hands and transforms the wrecks into a flock of sheep, reclaiming his gun from the startled Corinne and thrashing the couple as they flee back to the car. Godard refuses to perform a match cut as Joseph works his miracle, instead letting his gesture and cry of “Silence!” repeat, making crude technique into a performance in itself, claiming authorship of the editing miracle and breaking up screen time.
Godard had always exhibited an approach to filmmaking akin to trying to reinvent it from shot to shot even whilst assimilating myriad influences, but Week End as seen here engages directly with the notion of treating the film itself as a kind of artefact, with seemingly random, amateurish, but actually highly deliberated, assaults on the usually ordered progress of a movie. Godard reported that he took inspiration for Corinne’s orgy monologue from Ingmar Bergman’sPersona (1966), but it feels likely he also found permission in the Bergman film’s opening and closing glimpses of the film itself starting to spool and finally burning out, to take the notion much further and attack the very idea of linear coherence as proof of professional assembly in cinema. One ostentatious example later in the film sees a scene toggle back and forth from “Sunday” to “Story For Monday,” with a brief shot of Yanne-as-Roland singing as he walks down the roadside shown three times, like the scene’s been hurriedly spliced together by a high schooler, signalling the further fracturing of time in the Durands’ odyssey. Some of these touches quickly became emblematic clichés of the era’s would-be revolutionary cinema, at once heralded by simpatico minds and derided by others.
More immediately, Godard uses the impression of movie breakdown to illustrate another kind. After fleeing Joseph, the Durands tear down the road, Roland so frustrated and aggressive he causes bicyclists and cars alike to swerve off the road, until he crashes himself in a fiery pile-up with two other cars. Godard makes it seems as the film is sticking and flickering, eventually caught with the frame edge halfway up the screen, as if hitting an amateurish splice point. This delivers the impression of the crash, its awfulness a wrench in the shape of reality, whilst allowing Godard to avoid having to actually stage it, and placing the illusion of the film itself in the spotlight, dovetailing Godard’s aesthetic and dramatic intentions in a perfect unity. This inspiration here feels more like Buster Keaton’s games with cinema form in Sherlock Jr (1924), the frame becoming treacherous and malleable, characters and story getting lost in the spaces between. The crash also cues the film’s most famously cynical gag. The wreck is a scene of total chaos, a passenger tumbling out of a burning car writhing in flames, Roland himself squirming out of the capsized Facel-Vega all bloodied and battered. Corinne stands by, screaming in bottomless horror and woe, finally shrieking “My bag – my Hermés handbag!”, as the designer item goes up in smoke.
Surviving relatively unscathed, the couple start down the road on foot, still seeking the way to Oinville, or someone who will give them a lift. But the country proves an increasingly unstable and dangerous space as the couple stroll by an increasing numbers of car wrecks, corpses littering the road: trying to get directions from some of the splayed bodies, Roland eventually concludes, “These jerks are all dead.” Corinne spies a pair of designer trousers on one corpse and tries to steal it, only forestalled when a truck comes along and Roland has Corinne lie on the road with her legs splayed as a hitchhiker’s tactic, one step beyond It Happened One Night (1934). At another point on the road, the tiring pair settle on the roadside, Corinne taking a nap in a ditch whilst Roland tries to thumb a ride. A tramp passes by, sees Corinne in the ditch, and after alerting Roland to the presence of a woman there to Roland’s total disinterest, the tramp descends to rape her. Meanwhile Roland keeps flagging down cars for a lift only to be asked gatekeeping questions like, “Are you in a film or reality?” and “Who would you rather be fucked by, Mao or Johnson?”, Roland’s answers apparently wrong as the drivers speed off leaving them stranded. As Corinne crawls out of the ditch, Duhamel drops in a flourish of stereotypically jaunty French music as if to place a sitcom sting on her assault.
The evil humour here and elsewhere in Week End does provoke awareness of Godard’s often less than chivalrous attitudes to women at this point in his art. He told Darc when they first met for the film that he didn’t like her or the roles she played in films, and a cast member felt Godard relished a scene where the actor had to slap Darc, but cast her anyway to be the ideal emblem of everything he hated. The identification of the bourgeois society Godard was starting to loathe so much with femininity is hard to ignore, even if it is intended to be taken on a symbolic level. Of course, Week End is primarily the spectacle of an artist emptying out the sluice grate of his mind, come what may, and this vignette, playing ugliness as a casual joke, also captures something legitimate about the state of survival, as if Corinne and Roland are by this time two hapless refugees on the road of life, the dissolution of any semblance of safety befalling this prototypical pair of wanderers, although the film signals they are still perfectly armour-plated by their arrogance and obliviousness, and their own hyperbolic readiness to use violence and murder to achieve their own ends as representatives of the exploitive side of Western capitalism. “I bet mother has written us out of the will by now,” Corinne groans as she tries to purloin those designer pants, to Roland’s retort, “A little torture will change her mind. I remember a few tricks from when I was a lieutenant in Algeria.”
Earlier in the course of their wanderings, the pair also muse over their plans for killing whilst strolling by an incarnation of Louis de Saint-Just (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a major figure of the French Revolution, reciting his political tract “L’esprit de la Révolution et de la Constitution de la France,” with his passionate denunciation of the constant risk to liberty and fair governance from human fecklessness and greed. As well as the blatant contrast with the duo discussing murder for profit behind Saint-Just, Godard implies the link between the glorious revolutionary spirit of the past and the modern radical spirit, like turns to Marxist-hued revolution in the Third World, as espoused in a length scene late in the film in which Godard has two immigrant garbage collectors, one Arab (László Szabó), the other African (Omar Diop). The two men lecture the audience in droning fashion about current revolutionary turns in their respective homelands. Throughout Week End Godard makes a constant attempt to adapt into cinematic language playwright Berthold Brecht’s famous alienation techniques from the stage. Such techniques were intended to foster detachment from mere dramatic flow and oblige the audience to think about the ideas being expressed to them, in the opposite manner to the goal of most dramatic creations to weave such things together. The many formal and artifice-revealing tricks in the movie are wielded to that end, perhaps presented most bluntly when Godard has each garbage man gets the other to speak out his thoughts whilst Godard holds the camera on the face of the silent man as they eat their lunch: the directness of the political speech is amplified by not seeing it spoken. During their speech Godard drops in flash cuts to earlier moments in the film, including of Saint-Just speaking, but also of the cart loaded with horse manure – the continuum of history, or just the same old shit?
Amongst the many facets of his filmmaking that made an enormous impression from his debut Breathless (1960) on, Godard’s ardent belief that the history of cinema was as worthy as literature and music of being referenced and used as the basis of an artistic argot had been a salient one: where an author would readily be congratulated for including allusions to and quotes from other texts, there is still anxiety in many cineastes over whether that is in movies just ripping off, or the equivalent of a kind of secret handshake between film snobs. Godard happily indulges himself to the max in that regard in Week End – the final scenes see resistance cells speaking on the radio using codenames like “The Searchers” and “Johnny Guitar” – even as he also constantly provoked his audience by also insisting on the reverse, interpolating long passages from books as read by his actors and nodding to other art forms constantly in his movies, as with Saint-Just’s speech. Almost exactly mid-movie Godard offers a vignette titled “A Tuesday in the 100 Years War,” his camera fixing that worm in the mud, whilst on the soundtrack the voices of the Durands are heard, considering their own ignorance and pathos in lack of self-knowledge, in an unexpected show of philosophical depth from the pair, even as Roland also offers self-justification in his way, arguing they must do as they do much like the worm, understanding neither the forces that move it or them.
Amidst many bizarre and hyperbolic scenes, one of the most extreme comes halfway through and presents in part the spectacle of Godard acknowledging the frustration he’s out to provoke with such moments, as the Durands, still seeking directions to Oinville, encounter Emily Bronte (Blandine Jeanson) and an oversized version of Tom Thumb (Yves Afonso) walking along a country lane, swapping quotations from books. Roland and Corinne become increasingly enraged (“Oinville! Oinville!”) as Bronte insists they solve riddles she reads to them from the book she’s holding before answering their questions, considering the answering of conundrums much more important than mere spatial location. The confrontation of 19th century literary method with modern cinematic virtues is enraging, and acknowledged by the two modern characters: “What a rotten film,” Roland barks, “All we meet are crazy people,” whilst Corinne rants, “This isn’t a novel, it’s a film – a film is life!” Finally Roland gets so angry he strikes a match and sets Bronte’s dress on fire. He and Corinne look on impassively as the flames consume the decorous poetess. “We have no right to burn anyone, not even a philosopher,” Corinne comments. “She’s an imaginary character,” Roland assures, to Corinne’s retort, “Then why is she crying?”
The dizzy turn from aggravating whimsy to apocalyptic horror in this vignette obliquely describes the simmering anger Godard was feeling against the Vietnam War which metaphorically pervades the film as a whole. Bronte’s burning conflating infamous images of victims of napalm bombing into a singular image of gruesome death, albeit one rendered in a fashion that refuses pyrotechnic representation of pain, as Godard doesn’t show the burning woman or have her screams fill the soundtrack, with only Corinne’s deadpan description to suggest that all an artist can do in such a moment is weep and not wail. Godard conceives as the war, and indeed perhaps all modernism, as direct offence to artistic humanism, whilst also accusing precisely that artistic humanism as continuing blithely through epochs of horror in the way Tom Thumb continues his recitation to the charred and flaming corpse. The theme of characters who know they’re characters engaged in frustrated hunts for obscure ends echoes the 1920s Theatre of Absurd movement, particularly Luigi Pirandello, although the surreal interpolation of such figures with affixed names of famous and mythic import in the context of such tragicomic sweep might be more directly influenced by Bob Dylan. At the bottom of things, moreover, Godard treats the political gestures and artistic interpolations alike as varieties of tropes in the modern sense, fragmented and nonsensical in the dream-logic of the narrative, part of the madcap stew of anxiety and despair the film as a whole proves to be.
And yet it’s the film’s islands of tranquillity that stand out most strongly when the texture of the work becomes familiar. The embrace of tractor driver and the rich girl. The sight of one of the revolutionaries, a “Miss Gide” (a cameo by Wiazemsky) reading and having a smoke as her fellows row in across a Renoir pond. The sight of Bronte and Tom Thumb wending their way along the country lane. A wounded female guerrilla (Valérie Lagrange) dying in her lover’s arms whilst singing a wistful song. Such moments lay bare the ironic peacefulness the idea of chaotic revolution had for Godard – the possibility that in the formless and perpetual new state of becoming he might find his own restless and relentless conscience and consciousness stilled and finally allow him to relax and take simple joy in the act of creating. The most elegant of these interludes, if also once more defiant in its extension, comes when the Durands are finally given a lift during their trek, it proves to be by a pianist (Paul Gégauff) who agrees to take them as close as he can to Oinville if they’ll help him give a concert he’s driving to. This proves to be a recital of a Mozart piece in the courtyard of a large, old, classically French farmhouse, given purely for the edification of the farm’s workers and residents. Coutard’s camera seems to drift lazily around in repeating circles, as the residents listen and stroll about lazily within their separate spaces of attention and enjoyment. The pianist stops playing now and then to comment on his own lack of talent and argue that contemporary pop music sustains much more connection with the spirit and method of Mozart than the disaster of modern “serious” concert music. Given the film around this moment, such a jab at artists going up their own backsides in the name of radical innovation and antipopulism in the name of the people be considered highly ironic jab.
The sequence is marvellous even in its salient superfluity except as a rhythmic break and interlude of pacific consideration, the pianist’s occasionally fractured recital mimicking Godard’s own cinema and the scene as a whole expostulating an ideal of art as something that reaches out and enfolds all, without necessarily dumbing itself down: if Week End’s ultimate project is to force chaos onto the cinema screen, it also exalts culture in the barnyard. Actors who appear elsewhere in the film, including Jeanson who acts as the pianist’s attentive page turner, and Wiazemsky, appear amongst the audience, whilst the Durands also listen, Roland yawning every time the camera glides by him and Corinne noting the player isn’t bad. In random patches throughout the scene bursts of sudden ambient noise, including the buzz of a plane engine, clash with the lilting beauty of the playing, as if Godard is pointing the difficulty of capturing such a scene on film considering the pressure of rivals in volume and attention so pervasive in modern life. Once the couple are dropped off further down the road by the pianist, the Durands resume their tramping. As they pass some men sitting on the roadside: “They’re the Italian extras in the coproduction,” Roland explains.
The appearance of Saint-Just earlier in the film is followed immediately by Leaud in another cameo, this time in a movie joke that plays on the cliché of people who want to make a phone call being stymied by some ardent lover speaking on the phone. Rather than simply speaking, the wooing lover insists on singing a song over the phone and cannot break from it until it’s finished, by which time the Durands have turned their acquisitive eyes on his parked convertible. Finally breaking off his song, the man battles the pair in another extended slapstick clash like the one in the car park at the start. The Durands find they’re not quite the most evolved predators in the countryside they like to think they are, as the skinny young man finally outfights them both, even jabbing his elbow into Roland’s spine to leave him momentarily unconscious, before fleeing. The movie joke is matched towards the end as Godard makes fun of another cliché, that of cunning warriors communicating with bird calls, as the Durands encounter a gangly man who will only communicate in bird noises, even holding up a picture of a bird before his face as he does so. This weirdo proves to be a member of a hippie revolutionary cell calling itself the Liberation Front of the Seine and Oise, who take the Durands captive when they in turn are trying to rob some food off some roadside picnickers they encounter.
Before the Durands are waylaid by the Liberation Front, they do actually finally reach Oinville, only to find their fears have been realised: Corinne’s father has died and her mother has claimed all of the inheritance. Corinne washes the filth off the journey off herself in the bath, with Godard positing another joke on himself, avoiding showing Corinne nude in the bath but including in the frame classical painting of a bare-breasted woman looking coquettishly at the viewer. Corinne’s fretting is meanwhile deflected by Roland as he angrily reads out a book passage contending with the way an animal’s invested nature, in this case a hippopotamus, defines existence for that creature. This scene is another multivalent joke that swipes at the different expectations of censorship levelled at cinema and painting as well as extending Godard’s motif of discursive gesture, which he reiterates more forcefully when the couple confront the mother. In between these scenes, a portion of the film the breaks down into random shots of Oinville with the title “Scene de la vie de province” with the sarcastic lack of any apparent life in the provinces, with Roland’s recital on the hippo on sound, vision punctuated by recurring titles from earlier in the film and random advertising art, threatening for a moment to foil all sense of forward movement in the story. Roland argues with the mother over splitting the inheritance for the sake of peace, whilst the mother carries some skinned rabbits she’s prepared. Suddenly Corinne sets upon her with a kitchen knife and the couple butcher the old lady, represented by Godard by torrents of more of his familiar, hallucinatory fake red blood (shades of Marnie, 1964) spilt upon the beady-eyed and skinless rabbits as they lay on paving pebbles. The couple take the mother’s body into the countryside and contrive to make it look like she died in yet another traffic accident.
Through all the discursive, masking, and symbolic devices thrown at the viewer with Week End, the overarching purpose accumulates. Godard contends with the constant provoking strangeness and slipperiness of representing life, experience, and concepts in cinema, with its duplicitous blend of falsity and veracity, its constructed simulacrum of reality, its overriding capacity to sweep over the viewer and make us feel perhaps more intensely than anything in actual life can, and Godard’s cold-sweat anxiety in not being sure if he as a film artist and suppliant lover is contributing to some deadly detachment pervasive in modern life particularly as it relates to awareness of the world at large. One can argue with the thesis as with many of the other attitudes present in the film – the average person in the modern world is constantly forced to safeguard their own psychic integrity in the face of a bombardment of stimuli and demands for empathy where in, say, the 1300s one’s concerns barely went beyond travails in the next village, and it’s this safeguarding that is often misunderstood at apathy or ignorance (whilst writing this I’m glancing at the TV news updates by thousands of deaths in the Turkish earthquake, of which thanks to the miracle of technology I’m instantly aware and constantly informed of, and can’t do a damned thing about). But what’s certain is that to a degree very few other filmmakers, if any, have matched, Godard creates a work that is a complete articulation of his concern, even if at times the film manifests its own blithely insensate streak, its determined attempt to burn through the veils of its own knowing and intellectual poise. Godard’s method is to constantly force a reaction through indirect means, proving that implication can sometimes pack the shock that direct portrayal cannot.
The long, self-consciously shambolic last portion of the film as Roland and Corinne are held captive by the Liberation Front, becomes a succession of blackout vignettes and vicious jokes. The “liberators” instead play Sadean anarchists and Dadaist provocateurs, raping, killing, and consuming captives – one part end of days hippie happening, one part inverted take on Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom with a bit of Lautreamont’s The Chants of Maldoror thrown in. Passages of the latter are recited in prototypical rapping over drum licks, as the Front have a drum kit set up in the forest glade that is their base for ritual expounding of evil art, companion piece and counterpoint to the piano recital. A captive girl is handed over to Ernest (Ernest Menzer), the Front’s executioner-cum-cook, who specialises in making cuisine with human flesh: “You can screw her before we eat her if you like.” Roland and Corinne are tied up, having been partly stripped and made filthy, likely in being raped and brutalised. Ernest roams around the camp, splitting eggs over prone bones and dropping the yolks on them, and then with the delicacy of a master chef does the same upon the splayed crotch of a female prisoner, before inserting a fish into her vagina – Godard managing to portray this grotesquery whilst still maintaining a judicious vantage, implying clearly without presenting any image that nears the pornographic – which, in its way, makes the scene even more squirm-inducing.
Some unknown time after being captured, the Front crouch with their captives near a roadside, waiting for passing travellers to waylay and add to the pot. Roland tries to make a break, and the Front’s chief (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), rather than let him be shot, instead hits him with a stone from a slingshot. Corinne stands over Roland, his head split open by the missile and bleeding to death: “Horrible!” Corinne moans. “The horror of the bourgeoisie can only be overcome with more horror,” the leader replies, a line that might as well come out of Mao’s little red book, and can be taken as implicitly accusing nothing so petty as movie censors but the entire rhetorical infrastructure always mobilised whenever aggrieved and angry populations unleash that anger in destructive ways. Or, as apologia in dark tidings in glancing back at Stalinist purges and over to Maoist Cultural Revolution and on to Khmer Rouge killing fields. Or both and more. This cues the film’s most infamous moments as a pig is shown being swiftly and efficiently slaughtered, bashed on the head with a hammer to stun it before its throat is cut, and a goose having its head cut off, its body still flapping away pathetically when both animals are laid out for Ernest to add to his cuisine. Actual death on screen, inflicted on hapless animals, a profound provocation to animal lovers. Pauline Kael commented that for all Godard’s tilting at those who inflict horror and destruction, here was a bit of it he could own himself. And yet such scenes would be entirely familiar and commonplace to any farmers and slaughtermen in the audience but when placed in a movie become disturbing horror, given the average audience member’s distance from the realities that put food on the plate. Earlier in the film the farmer who ran into the young couple’s Triumph angrily declares people like her need people like him to feed them, and Godard only engages with that truism on its fundamental level.
The scenes with the Liberation Front, barbed as they are in portraying dark fantasy extreme of the radical dream, can also be taken as a sarcastic riff on Godard’s soon-to-be-ex-pal François Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), taking up the same notion of a fringe group in revolt against society with a project of sustaining works of art within themselves, but with a much less poetically reassuring upshot. Rather than memorising books to carry into an unknown future, these radicals read the books out and turn them into new, perverse forms of art, which warring on the society that has no time for such works. Some remnant flicker of narrative purpose returns for the film’s last five minutes, as the Front arrive at a rendezvous on a muddy road by a farm, the guerrillas all edgy and armed, to get the chief’s girlfriend returned, as she’s been taken prisoner by some obscure rival gang. Corinne is given over in exchange, as she begs to stay with the devil she knows. When a sniper sparks battle, the chief’s girl is killed, dying in his arms whilst warbling her last chanson. Here is Godard’s simultaneous indulgence and mockery of both movie images of romantic death for good-looking freedom fighters, as well as the way such images were held in fond imagination by a generational cadre of gap year radicals, in the way all good radicals should hope to die before age and disillusionment despoil us. Corinne flees, joining the chief in their flight back to the forest.
The last glimpse of Corinne sees her having shifted with ease that shouldn’t be that surprising from rapacious bourgeois to voracious cannibal, taking the place of the chief’s dead girl and listening to his sad musings on “man’s horror of his fellows.” The film’s punchline is finally reached like fate, as Ernest gives Corinne and the chief portions of cooked meat on the bone, a batch of human meat which the chief casually confirms includes parts of some English tourists from a Rolls Royce as well as the last of her husband Roland. “I’ll have a bit more later, Ernest,” Corinne instructs as she gnaws eagerly on her meal, before the fade to nihilistic black and “FIN DE CONTE – FIN DE CINEMA.” Of course, cinema didn’t end in 1967, any more than great Marxist liberation waves swept the Third World or France cracked up into chaotic guerrilla warfare and spouse-on-spouse anthropophagy. At least, not yet. Week End refuses to ease into a pathos-laden half-life of nostalgia the way most radical artworks tend to. As time-specific as the clothes and cars are, the daring of the filmmaking, the way Godard transmutes what he deals with into scenes at once abstract and charged with unruly life, still has a feeling of perpetual confrontation, of standing poised at the edge of a precipice. Not the end of cinema, but certainly one end of cinema, a summative point. Beyond here lies dragons.
In Memoriam: Hugh Hudson (1936-2023) / Vangelis (1943-2022) / Ben Cross (1947-2020) / Ian Charleson (1949-1990) / Brad Davis (1949-1991)
By Roderick Heath
Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire can still be called a beloved and iconic work, even as it’s suffered a precipitous decline in stature since its release in 1981. At the time it was an uncontroversial winner of the Best Picture Oscar, marked by many as the official moment of resurgence for British cinema at a moment when the New Hollywood era had been decisively declared dead following Heaven’s Gate (1980). Actor turned screenwriter Colin Welland also gained an Oscar for the script, as did the Greek prog rocker turned electronica composer Vangelis. As if the film’s themes of patriotic toil and achievement were bleeding out into real life, entrepreneurial producer David Puttnam gained the climax to his and others’ efforts to foster that British film renaissance after the long, hard winter of the 1970s. That sentiment was famously summarised by Welland’s declaration upon receiving his Oscar, “The British are coming!”, and David Attenborough’s Gandhi would repeat the feat the following year. For years after its release, tributes, pastiches, and lampoons playing on its opening images of men running set to the shimmering electronic tones of Vangelis’ glorifying theme were all over the place.
With time however Chariots of Fire seems to have fallen away from attention, now often dismissed as the prototypical piece of Oscar bait that unfairly beat out Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) in the ultimate prestige-versus-pop movie clash, and a flagship of 1980s conservative resurgence in moviegoing taste: Ronald Reagan reportedly loved it. Puttnam would piss off myriad players and onlookers with his brief period running Columbia Pictures a few years later. Hudson’s career would suffer a similarly jarring switchback of fortune. Hudson was one of a cadre of directors fostered by Puttnam, following Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, and Adrian Lyne, who had cut their teeth making TV commercials. Like Parker, Hudson had worked for Scott for a time, with Hudson’s signature talent, as evinced on a famous ad for Fiat showing cars being robotically assembled set to music from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, being interesting fusions of sound and vision. He had also demonstrated his interest in sporting subjects with his documentary on racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio, Fangio, A life at 300 km/h, and worked as a second unit director on Parker and Puttnam’s breakthrough collaboration Midnight Express (1978). Chariots of Fire was his feature debut, and for a follow-up Hudson made Greystoke – The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), and Revolution (1985): the latter proved a disaster both commercially and critically. Hudson was pushed to the margins, only returning sporadically for relatively straitlaced and classy fare no-one watched, with Lost Angels (1989), My Life So Far (1999), I Dreamed of Africa (2000), and Altamira (2016), although as his feature career broke down he kept up making much-admired commercials. His recent passing at the age of 86 was barely noted by many cineastes.
Despite the train wreck his once-dazzling career became, I retain admiration and interest in Hudson’s prime, when he seemed the least flashy but also most quietly experimental of the directors Puttnam fostered. Greystoke tried to reiterate the Tarzan tale in a fastidiously realistic manner, drawing on a script that was a long-time passion project for writer Robert Towne. The result was uneven but fascinating and, in its early portions, uniquely vivid. But it was also the first case of one of Hudson’s film being tinkered with, as would happen more destructively on Revolution, a film which certainly didn’t work but was also a product of authentic artistic ambition. In keeping with his fascination with culture clashes and boldness in risking elements of anachronism, Hudson tried to explore the American Revolution in a manner that nodded to both punk and new wave-era pop culture – notably casting singer Annie Lennox as a revolutionary maiden – and art cinema, particularly Mikhail Kalatozov and Miklos Jancso, with his rolling, flowing staging of communal events, whilst engaging seriously with the theme of an angry and vehement underclass emerging from revolt, as embodied by Al Pacino’s lead character. The film gained some reappraisal when Hudson reedited it in 2008.
Indeed, the singular thread connecting Hudson’s films despite their wildly varying reception was an interest in clashes between and within cultures, as experienced and embodied by individuals. Hudson himself came from an officially privileged background, having attended Eton as a lad – he notably filmed the other famous scene of Chariots of Fire, the Great Court Run, on location at his almer mater – but also developing a visceral hatred for the prejudice he often found espoused in such circles. As a consequence Chariots of Fire is far from being straightforward in its attitudes to patriotic endeavour and identity, revolving as it does around two core protagonists who become champions and national heroes but nonetheless do so in highly ironic ways and upholding vehemently different motives that somehow still mark them as perpetual outsiders, if only in their own minds. In the late 1970s Puttnam was explicitly looking for a story reminiscent of A Man For All Seasons (1966) as a study of a hero obeying their conscience, and discovered the story of Eric Liddell, 400m champion at the 1924 Paris Olympics, in an Olympic history book. He commissioned the former actor Welland to write the script, and Welland talked to everyone he could still alive and able to remember the 1924 Olympic Games where Liddell had competed, but he just missed interviewing Liddell’s teammate and rival Harold Abrahams, the 100m champion at the same games, as Abrahams passed in 1978. Welland nonetheless attended his funeral service, inspiring his script’s flashback structure and anchoring a story of the past in the then-present.
Stories about the British upper crust had been officially unfashionable for decades when Chariots of Fire emerged, around the same time as the hugely successful TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which similarly worked with serious purpose to convey the flavour and meaning of a bygone era’s mores on their own terms, whilst also noting the birth pains of the more recent epoch. If films like David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Joseph Losey’s King and Country (1963) explored the breakdown of the old British character in the face of the Twentieth century’s charnel house, Chariots of Fire evoked it from a safe distance, noting an age when it wasn’t considered absurd to put God before fame or when the idea of patriotic duty as a transcendental virtue was still a still-lit if flickering flame. Chariots of Fire didn’t just set the scene for other posh British dramas to start proliferating again on movie and TV screens, and lurk as an influence behind other ambitious sports films like Ford v Ferrari (2019), but perhaps also opened a door leading to Harry Potter films, which depended on a similarly elastic push and pull between nostalgic yearning and anxiety and rebellion in the face of haughty tradition.
Chariots of Fire has been described as a rare sports movie that even people who don’t like sports movies like. That could be whilst, as movie stories go, Chariots of Fire contains all the stuff of a heroic sporting drama, it also avoids the usual – by historical necessity of course but also but dint of focus and method. The film charts the rivalry, and mutual admiration, of the two standout champions of the British team at the ’24 Olympics: Abrahams and Eric Liddell, who nonetheless are fated not to compete head-to-head, but instead find separate paths towards their eventual reckonings with victory. Eric (Ian Charleson) is a China-born Scottish missionary and Rugby Union player turned runner. Harold (Ben Cross) is the son of a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant turned successful English banker. For both men faith defines them as individuals and in relation to the world about them, but in disparate ways: for Liddell his religion supersedes worldly cares and values, whilst Abrahams is driven by angry resentment. Eric muses with love on the Scottish landscape that is nonetheless new and foreign to him after years of hearing about it from his father, whilst Harold chafes at constantly feeling, despite ardent sense of loyalty and English identity, like others still consider him an alien. The title of course is comes from William Blake’s beloved poem “Jerusalem,” a relevant choice not just in the dashingly poetic lilt it lends but in evoking the centrality of religious faith to the drama as well as Blake’s anxious questioning of the changes befalling his beloved England, and desire to rebuild it as something finer and cleansed: in much the same way the film notes the enlargement of the idea and ideal of British identity.
The film’s flashback structure nods to Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) (also relentlessly mimicked by Attenborough on Gandhi, at a time when Lean still couldn’t get a film financed to save his life) as it commences with a funeral service for Harold, with a eulogy given by his former teammate and pal from Cambridge Lord Andrew Lindsay (Nigel Havers), and attended by some other old comrades including Aubrey ‘Monty’ Montague (Nicholas Farrell). Hudson dissolves from the sight of the old, withered men mourning one of their own to the spectacle of them in all the glory of their youth, dashing as a team through the surf at Broadstairs in Kent (although the scene was actually shot at West Sands, next to St Andrews Golf Club, in Scotland), both physical strain and sheer joyful pleasure in pushing their abilities to the limit apparent on their faces. Hudson returns to this vision at the film’s very end, partly in sustaining the motif of fluid time and restoration of glory days, and also with an old ad man’s knowledge he has a killer hook: it’s this vision, with Vangelis’ music over the top, that became an instant pop culture landmark. A brief vignette follows of Harold’s competitive and brattish streak on full display as he becomes frustrated at failing to bowl Liddell out during a game of cricket, staged with amusing bohemian verve within the plush environs of a seaside hotel’s ballroom, as well as Harold’s final ability to laugh at himself for all his concerted passion.
Loose framing narration comes from Monty in writing a letter home as he muses on Abrahams’ customary intensity, and thinks back to their first meeting three years earlier when first coming to Cambridge, setting the scene for stepping back again in time, as several of the future track and field stars meet whilst signing up for clubs during their induction at the university. Harold, a law student, also immediately makes his declaration of intent when he takes on a standing challenge that hasn’t been beaten in 700 years: the Great Court Run, referred to in the movie as the College Dash, sprinting around the courtyard of Trinity College in the time it takes for the school clock to strike noon. He unexpectedly gains a fellow challenger when the dashing young aristocrat Lindsay decides to try too: still, Harold manages to not just beat him but the clock too, making history. Truth be told, Abrahams never even tried to take on the Great Court Run (which was actually first beaten by Lord Burlegh, one of the two real men Lindsay is based on, a few years after this), but it makes a great scene in first evincing Harold’s blistering ability in the context of this capital of an eminent but hidebound establishment he’s clawing his way into, and its description of the essence of a certain British kind of exceptionalism blending schoolboy larkishness and fearsome ability, the spirit of eternal renewal and limit-stretching amidst echoes of hallowed tradition.
Soon Harold tells his fast friend Monty that he’s determined to avenge the many slights and insults turned his way by the British upper class, to “run them off their feet” literally and figuratively. Meanwhile, the more serenely modest and pious, if also hearty and good-humoured Eric is being feted in Scotland for his success as a footballer, and courted by coach Sandy McGrath (Struan Rodger) to turn his hand to running: encouraged to give a show of his speed during a sporting carnival he’s giving out trophies at, Eric demonstrates his astounding talent, complete with his signature move as he zeroes in on the finish line of leaning back with his mouth yawing wide in ecstatic effort. He soon decides to take up Sandy on his offer. On the one occasion Eric and Harold race against each-other in the 100m, at a meet at Stamford Bridge, Eric handily beats Harold, sparking a momentary crisis for Harold who’s built his entire identity around being unbeatable. He gains solace when a professional coach he’s approached, Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), assures him he can make him a better runner, whereas he thinks Eric has reached his limit as a sprinter and is a better fit for longer runs.
The story of the two runners is presented against the backdrop of a Britain recovering in the aftermath of the Great War, with both men competing unawares to be salves for, as one character puts it, “a guilty national pride.” Harold, first signing into Caius, deals with the patronising Head Porter Rogers (Richard Griffiths) in explaining that he only just missed fighting in the war and comments, “I ceased to be called laddie when I took the King’s commission – is that clear?” Harold’s habitual pugnacity and chip-on-the-shoulder attitude is both a reaction to various manifestations of anti-Semitism and taken by others as a justification for it, particularly the Masters of Caius and Trinity Colleges (Lindsay Anderson and John Gielgud), who observe the courtyard race with languid interest, two old trolls inhabiting the high reaches of this otherwise romantic world of blazers and boaters. They later put Harold on the spot for violating their purely amateur ethos by hiring Mussabini, which they worry will besmirch the honour of the university. “I take the future with me,” Harold ripostes, provoked to tension but also perhaps just a little thrilled to have put the old guard’s noses out of joint, to one Master’s exchange with the other once he’s gone, “There goes your Semite, Hugh.”
The two Master are played with snooty verve by the obviously cast Gielgud and the more mischievously cast, famously antiestablishment director Anderson, maker of what could be described as this film’s antithesis, If… (1968). The inevitable punchline that when informed of Harold’s eventual victory one Master notes to the other with satisfaction, “Just as I expected,” lends a more sardonic hue to the theme of the establishment making room. Some have expressed qualms over what Harold’s bucking of the Masters means over the years, considering that the Harold future claims as his own is the one we’re familiar with today, of professional sportspeople and the invasion of sporting endeavour by overriding commercial concerns and an attendant competitiveness that often manifests in drug cheating. More immediately, it also points to a subtext of Chariots of Fire wound in with its own making. Financing for the film was taken over by immigrant entrepreneur Mohammed Al-Fayed and his son Dodi: Harold’s expressions of a multigenerational intent to carve a path into the heart of the British establishment by immigrant outsiders against all headwinds of prejudice might well have caught Al-Fayed’s attention, as it could well have spoken to so many who had come to Britain in the post-Imperial age. He extends this to Mussabini, a man with a strong midlands accent who nonetheless is Arab-Italian in heritage, further exacerbating the complicating sense of national identity.
This theme is starkly at odds with the film’s reputation as being a conservative statement, although it could also be said to rhyme to a certain extent with the Thatcher-Reagan era’s mixture of embraced traditionalism and narrowly defined and channelled rule-breaking: the outsiders want to be insiders. The film is also cunning in offsetting its antagonist figures. If the Cambridge Masters represent a hidebound old guard, Lord Lindsay is presented as a gentleman bohemian who could also stand in for the Thatcher era Tory’s ideal self-projection, enjoying the fruits of his privilege, merrily practising his hurdling technique in the grounds of his country house with champagne used an actual training tool, but entirely open-minded and breezily reassuring to all in his circle.
The nominal enemies on the running track are the Americans, the flashy Charlie Paddock (Dennis Christopher) and the muscular, intimidating Jackson Scholz (Brad Davis), who have a rivalry not unlike that of Harold and Eric. Whilst Paddock is a figure ripe for a takedown, Scholz proves a serious person who feels unexpected kinship for Eric, eventually giving him a note that suggests equally serious religious feelings, which Eric then carries into the race. Davis had played the lead in the Puttnam-produced, Parker-directed Midnight Express (1978), the film that established the potency of Puttnam’s production approach if with a safe appeal to the US market; Christopher meanwhile was cast with some wit after his lead role in Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (1979) as another sportsman, albeit this one lean and mean, casually accepting a passionate kiss from a random woman when first setting foot in France. Scholz himself, who actually beat both Liddell and Abrahams in the 200m, was still alive when the film was made, as was Jennie Liddell, both thanked in the end credits.
The film’s deeper theme is the way an athlete – perhaps anybody, really – is obliged to find strength and motive within, in wellsprings distinct from and even perhaps alien to the society they represent, even as they’re expected to share out whatever success and glory they win in collective terms. In both Harold and Eric those wellsprings are apparent, Harold’s driving need to prove himself the best participating in a constant roundelay of pride and shame, versus Eric’s triumphal sense of spirituality expressed through physicality, and whichever compels one as an individual viewer the most perhaps says much about one’s own inner drives. Eric’s awesome talent is illustrated to both Mussabini and Harold’s profound wonder when they watch him in a race at a Scots vs English track meet: a fellow runner shoves Eric at the first turn and he falls down at the trackside, gets back up, chases down the other runners and wins, at the cost of collapsing as a breathless mess at the end. Here in particular Eric’s speed seems the purest expression of something beyond the merely human, a vitality of mind and body springing from a conviction so total as to be reflexive: whereas Harold needs the society he feels at odds with in a peculiar way, Eric is beyond it.
In much less airy terms, Eric’s talent has long been honed in active competition as a footballer, the furore of actual struggle a realm he’s been trained to be indifferent amongst, where Harold for all his bloodymindedness competes as the gentleman amateur, and he needs Mussabini’s keen sense of technique to help him improve. Whilst he never does get to race Eric again after losing to him, leaving a tantalising ambiguity in the air, Harold gains something that lets him take on the rest of the best in the world and win. “Short sprinters run on nerves,” Mussabini tells Harold when assessing his and Eric’s differing capacities, “It’s tailor-made for neurotics.” He and Mussabini develop an almost paternal relationship during the course of their labours, with Mussabini finally crying, “My son!” when Harold triumphs. Harold’s friendship with Monty sees him praising him as a “complete man” even as Monty is hurting after grievous failure, even as Harold despairs that he himself might be too scared to win after a life of being scared to fail.
Welland’s script was rife with historical and dramatic licence, including the actual circumstances of Abrahams’ race(s) against Liddell and of Liddell’s quandary at the Olympics, Jennie’s age and attitude to Liddell’s running, the timing of Abrahams’ meeting of his future wife Sybil, and inventing the character of Lindsay as a concatenation of two real historical figures, one of whom didn’t want to be involved with the film and the other competed at a later Olympics. Montague was actually a student at Oxford, although the narration his letters provides is practically verbatim from his real missives. But Abrahams’ authentic musical talent – and Cross’s – and love of Gilbert and Sullivan in particular, was smartly tapped as one of the running motifs of the film, as songs from the G&S catalogue provide jaunty leitmotifs for Harold and the other Cambridge adventurers. After his self-explaining soliloquy to Monty, Hudson shifts into a spry and witty montage of Harold’s training regimens and running victories, scored to his own singing in the Cambridge G&S Society’s production of H.M.S. Pinafore: his signing the anthemic “He Is An Englishman” is a gesture laced with both spry sarcasm and perfect earnestness given Harold’s mission.
Later Harold is distracted from his pure dedication when he’s dragged by his friends to see a production of The Mikado, where he he’s instantly smitten with Sybil Gordon (Alice Krige), playing the role of Num-Yum, belting out “Three Little Maids From School Are We.” Much to Monty’s heartache given his own long-nursed crush Harold successfully asks her out on a date, in part because Sybil’s younger brother is athletics mad, and the two have immediate chemistry even as Sybil tries awkwardly to reassure Harold as he explains his position as Jewish: “I’m what they call semi-deprived…It means that lead me to water but they won’t let me drink.” A moment of crisis seems to arrive when the special of the restaurant Sybil ordered for them both proves to be pig’s trotters, only for this to set them both laughing. Later, as they’ve become a firm couple, Sybil tries with mixed sympathy, irritation, and frustration to coax Harold through his crisis after losing, a moment where despite the jaggedness of emotion it’s plain that Sybil has become along with Mussabini a person Harold can show his deepest, most inchoate vulnerability to.
Eric and his sister Jennie (Cheryl Campbell) have a similarly fraught and close relationship, both being predestined to take up their father’s work in China. Jennie becomes worried that his new passion for running is drawing him away from his habits of faith and their duty, and Jennie is particularly upset when Eric is late from a training session for a prayer meeting, making anxious appeals that he remember what their ultimate purpose it. As he walks with her up Arthur’s Seat outside Edinburgh, Eric explains patiently but firmly that he’s already committed to becoming a missionary but is also determined to take his running as far as he can, feeling that his talent is god-given, that when he runs he “feels His pleasure,” and so must honour it to the upmost. This attempt to balance faith with passion will of course be strongly tested, foreshadowed early in the film when he chides a boy for playing football on a Sunday, although he also makes sure to play a game with the lad and his family the next morning so he doesn’t think “God’s a spoilsport.” Just as Eric and the rest of the team selected for the ’24 Olympic embark on a Channel ferry for their great venture, he learns from an inquisitive reporter’s questions that the heats for the 100m will be held on a Sunday.
When Eric soon declares he can’t participate in the heats, he’s soon taken before number of British Olympic Committee bigwigs including Lord Birkenhead (Nigel Davenport), Lord Cadogan (Patrick Magee), the Duke of Sutherland (Peter Egan), and Edward the Prince of Wales (David Yelland), in a scene that becomes, in Eric’s words, a form of inquisition in the pointed test of loyalties. Eric stands up for himself effectively against Cadogan’s stern espousal of patriotic duty above all and Birkenhead and the Prince’s smoother espousals of the same, whilst the Duke has more sympathy, retorting to Cadogan’s comment “In my day it was King first, God after,” with, “Yes, and the war to end wars bitterly proved your point.” Eric’s steadfastness places them all at loggerheads until Lindsay intervenes: having already won a silver medal in the hurdles, he suggests that Eric take his slot in the 400m, to be held on a different day, and the offer ends the impasse. Meanwhile Harold is obliged to install Mussabini in a hotel room a safe distance away from the Olympic stadium lest he taint it with his professionalism (“I’ve seen better-organised riots,” he quips earlier on regarding a different meet).
Holm’s expert supporting performance was invaluable, presenting the worldly professional flipside to all the toffee-caked youth, whilst Cross and Charleson’s effective performances went oddly ignored even in Oscar nominations. Hudson lost the Best Director Oscar to Warren Beatty’s work on Reds (1981), an ironic win given that whilst both directors paid homage to Lean in their elliptical approaches to stories set in the same period if contending with highly divergent social perspectives, and because Beatty’s work was generally much more traditional than Hudson’s. Hudson’s exacting recreation of the period milieu, and equally exacting feel for the classically British virtues and foibles at play in the drama, blends throughout Chariots of Fire with an aggressively modern film aesthetic. This is most obviously keyed to the boldly anachronistic electronic textures of Vangelis’s score (which made so much impact that Peter Weir pinched the idea for his Gallipoli, 1982, as did Michael Mann for The Keep, 1983, whilst Vangelis was immediately hired by Scott for Blade Runner, 1982), but is also apparent in Hudson’s restless camerawork and innovative editing. Not that Hudson was being entirely original. Slow motion, freeze frames, and replays were already an accepted part of the average TV sports broadcast by this point, and films like Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1972) had played with fracturing time in filming sporting contests.
Hudson still went a step further in trying to use it all for dramatic, even poetic emphasis, balancing the relentlessly fleeting nature of sporting competition, in which entire lives and fates can be decided in a few brief seconds of perfect physical expression, clashing with the mind’s capacity to experience it in expanses of dilation and distillation, the surging physical effort of racing glimpsed in contorting slow motion that turns events into arias of motion and character. Harold’s loss to Eric in their one race is a blink-and-miss-it affair where the difference between the two men seems trifling and yet means everything, and Harold’s obsessing over it is illustrated in constant, drawn-out flash-cut returns to it, each moment and gesture turned over with agonising meaning, punctuated by Vangelis’ moody electronic stings. Harold’s climactic race is filmed first in a deadpan shot looking down the track, the race that has obsessed the runners and become the focal point of the drama disposed of in a few seconds, the winner hard to make out because of the angle – the event of such grand drama is also a mere blip in movie time, never mind the history of the world, but then is revisited in glorifying slow motion, becoming a dream of individual will translated into speed.
Other innovative touches are more subtle, including Hudson’s use of steadicam shots not just for flashy effects but subtle unity that emphasises more communal moments, in the induction day scene, as he moves through the crowd with and around Cross, and then with more intense effect when he films the American Olympic team training fiercely for the contest, set to pulsing music from Vangelis. Later Hudson’s clever feel for making sound and vision interact manifests as he turns a scene of Eric giving a sermon on the Sunday into a study in contrasts, Eric’s meditative words spoken over footage of the athletes who are racing in various states of pain and effort, including Monty who suffers falls during a steeplechase, and Harold loses to Scholz in their heat, rendered studies in slightly absurd pathos as their efforts crash to earth in dreamy slow-motion. Hudson also honours more familiar and hallowed flourishes, like a montage of spinning newspapers used to communicate the furore Eric’s refusal to run sets off in a battle of religion versus patriotism.
Hudson’s direction has weathered better than Welland’s script in some regards – as intelligent and well-layered as it is, not all Welland’s dialogue is crisp and convincing, as he uses Sutherland to deliver a brief, annoyingly essayistic note on the dangers of severing Eric’s strength from his motives, or when Scholz, after the American coach (Philip O’Brien) dismisses Eric to one of his American competitors, notes, in clunky cliché, “He’s got something to prove, something personal – something guys like Coach’ll never understand in a million years.” Nonetheless, the essence of Chariots of Fire that drives it well beyond the usual kind of sports drama never goes out of focus, even as the film ratchets up tension in building to Harold and Eric’s climactic races. That we usually expect a certain outcome in following the story of a sportsperson in a movie is factored into the viewing experience, in the way Hudson presents Harold’s victory with that deadpan long shot, cutting briefly to Eric cheering him on before returning to a slow motion shot of Harold lunging through the finish tape in exact obedience to Mussabini’s instruction. The coach himself is forced to wait until he can hear the strains of “God Save the King” until he knows his protégé has won.
The more interesting point, reiterating the essence of the entire film, is how he wins, and how it affects him: reeling after the effort of his lifetime, Harold doubles up as if in mortal pain, again in slow-motion, whilst the race flashes once more in his head, this time with his sheer and perfect focus on display. The music on the soundtrack is plaintive and eerie even as Eric comes over to shake Harold’s hand in a gesture of great meaning. Here Hudson captures something profound about victory even whilst resisting the usual movie language for conveying it: for Harold it is a purgation, an emptying out indeed, of his previous identity. Harold afterwards shirks out of the changing room as Lindsay counsels the worried Monty to leave him along: “Now one of these days Monty, you’re going to win yourself, and it’s pretty difficult to swallow.” Eric’s subsequent win is a more traditional kind of heroic payoff, if still one filmed and conveyed in an unusual manner. Eric’s earlier conversation with Jennie is heard over his run, emphasising the vitality of his words as part and parcel with his deeds. He charges home to victory with his signature wide mouth and back-flung head, watched with knowing joy by Sandy and Jennie, and Harold with blazing intensity. The heroes’ return to England sees some further irony in the way Eric readily accepts adulation with the others whilst Harold quietly waits to slip off the train and meet with Sybil, his private war over at last, and his victory that of simply becoming a fully functional man.
The film offers title notes on the Harold and Eric’s different ends, with Harold living to a ripe old age whilst Eric’s air of being a little too good for the world is confirmed in the report of his death at the end of World War II (he died of a brain tumor whilst in a Japanese POW camp), which suggests a whole other, equally interesting story in itself. “He did it,” the aged Monty notes to Lindsay as they leave the church in a brief return to Harold’s 1978 funeral service, “He ran them off their feet.” Whereupon Hudson returns to the opening vision of the athletes running on the beach, restored again to their youthful glory. This encore is particularly cunning in the way it lingers on the men for a few moments after a performance of the hymn version of “Jerusalem” ends, with only the sound of their feet splashing in foam and went sand, nailing a plaintive sense of the ephemeral and immediately physical before Vangelis’ theme returns. Sure, Chariots of Fire might indeed not be as great as Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it is a movie in the top echelon of its kind, a properly mature spectacle that represents a rare melding of dramatic intelligence and stylistic vigour. Tragic lustre has been imbued upon Chariots of Fire’s meditations on the dimming of golden youth and sadly exulting nostalgia in the time since its release, by the sheer fact that several of its stars died young, with both Charleson and Davis claimed by the AIDS epidemic, and whilst Cross lived to be an august character actor, even he departed too early. Still, they’re always young in this movie.
Director: Luis Buñuel Screenwriters: Julio Alejandro, Luis Buñuel
By Roderick Heath
Few names resonate in cinema history like that of Luis Buñuel. For the quality and radical vision of his work, of course, and also because the legend of Buñuel connected far-flung zones in that history, zigzagging from the heady bohemian climes and provocations of 1920s Paris and the violent, reactionary forces that consumed his native Spain in the age of Fascism, to the shoals of Hollywood and the fecund delights of Mexico’s cinema golden age, before a triumphant return to the eye of European film to collect Oscars and Palmes d’Or when he was over sixty without dulling the glint of his wild imagination. Buñuel, born in the Aragon town of Calanda in 1900, was the son of a hardware retailer who had made a fortune in Cuba, and his teenage bride. Buñuel would later succinctly note that Calanda remained in the Middle Ages until World War I. Proving a disorderly youth during his Jesuit education, Buñuel became accomplished at entertaining friends with magic lantern and shadow plays, and was obsessively religious until he broke with the Catholic Church at 16 and declared himself an atheist. Whilst attending university in Zaragoza he became close friends with the quick-blooming artist and gadfly Salvador Dali and the future playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Excited by the possibilities of film after watching Fritz Lang’s The Weary Death (1921), Buñuel moved to Paris and, whilst also dabbling in theatre, started working for French director Jean Epstein. Buñuel served as assistant director on Epstein’s 1926 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a work which prefigured much of Buñuel’s cinema.
After breaking with Epstein Buñuel reunited with Dali, and, borrowing money from Buñuel’s mother, the duo made the short film Un Chien Andalou, first screened in 1929. Emblazoned with the helpful caption “Nothing means anything,” Un Chien Andalou, with its signature image of a woman’s eyeball being sliced with a razor and other incendiary, delirious vignettes, immediately exemplified the phrase “succès de scandale” and allowed the emerging art mode of surrealism to annex cinema as an expressive realm. Buñuel was annoyed when his aesthetic hand grenade proved a hit with exactly the kind of intellectual in-crowd he meant to piss off, so he might have experienced a more ambivalent sense of achievement when his and Dali’s follow-up, the feature-length L’Age d’Or (1930), attracted furious protests for its anti-Catholic satire. By that time Buñuel and Dali had ended their association over political differences. Once the stones, literal and metaphorical, stopped flying over L’Age d’Or Buñuel, after a brief and wilfully unproductive first sojourn to Hollywood, became deeply involved with leftist Spanish politics. His pseudo-documentary of life in Extremadura, Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (1933), was to prove his last significant directorial work for over a decade, and was equally infuriating to both the Republican government and the Franco regime for its harsh, ironic portrayal of the country’s most degraded communities.
Buñuel retreated for a time into producing commercial Spanish cinema. When the Civil War broke out he participated in the Republican government’s propaganda efforts, in the cause of which he travelled to the US in 1938 only to find himself stuck there when the war ended. Buñuel had a rough time trying to fit in with the American film world through World War II as his L’Age d’Or infamy was still dogging him, but his work in making and dubbing films for the Latin American market helped pave the way for a move into the Mexican film industry, which was at the height of a boom in the mid-1940s. There, after making a few well-received melodramas, he regained international profile with Los Olvidados (1950), a vivid blend of his surrealist and socially concerned sides. Buñuel’s work through the late ‘40s and ‘50s, chiefly in Mexico but also encompassing the English-language The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), which gained a Best Actor Oscar nomination for star Dan O’Herlihy, was defined by a creative tension between commercial assignment and the director’s transformative talent, and in many ways is his most interesting and diverse period.
Viridiana represented the third great pivotal moment of Buñuel’s career, signalling tentative reconciliation with his homeland and a new stature as a major art-house auteur. He was lobbied to return to Spain and make a movie by the young directors Carlos Saura and Juan-Antonio Bardem, and his project was given vaguely official assent. To the surprise of everyone, the script for Viridiana was approved with only to some requests for alteration by censors, including of the suggestive ending, which Buñuel and his co-screenwriter Julio Alejandro revised to somehow make, whilst seeming relatively innocuous on paper, even filthier in its implications. Buñuel, no fool, still knew what he was courting, and had the film’s negative smuggled to Paris to edit it for its premiere at Cannes. The Spanish government’s film overlord unwittingly introduced it there, and was promptly sacked, the film banned not just from screening in Spain but from all mention in the press until well after Franco’s death. But elsewhere, despite being vehemently decried by the Catholic Church, Viridiana managed to hit the cinema scene at the right time: it only took thirty years, but cognoscenti tastes were ready for Buñuel’s outrageous outlook at its most unrefined and potent. Viridiana was Buñuel’s second, if very loose, adaptation of a novel by the great Spanish novelist Benito Pérez Galdós, preceded by Nazarin (1958), and he would film Galdós a third time with 1970’s Tristana.
In abstract Viridiana reads as exactly what the Franco regime took it to be, a blatantly impudent and iconoclastic jab at the official structures underpinning the type of conservative society they had been brutally enforcing for the previous twenty years. And it’s certainly biting in its portrayal of a rotting aristocracy and the detached pretences of organised religion, both eventually collapsing before the proclivities of an energetic, pragmatic, hedonistically seductive modernity. Buñuel’s art was however more refined than offering mere adolescent iconoclasm. Viridiana is a fable depicting the creation of modern Spain and the world beyond it, a fable laced with ambivalence, sarcasm, horror, and flashes of delirious beauty and weirdness. It also recapitulates the basic concern of Nazarin, which portrayed the remorseless defeat of a saintly priest in the face of a brutish society, whilst swapping the gender of the central character, a move that immediately introduces a different frisson. Galdós’ novel was a direct sequel to his Nazarin, in fact, whereas Buñuel’s extrapolation follows his own bent beyond the book’s premise of an aristocratic woman founding a charitable collective.
Where Nazarin’s hero was tragically noble and genuine despite his luckless passivity, Viridiana’s title character is duly pretentious in her buffeted idealism. Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) is a mendicant approaching the time when she’s to take her vows as a nun after a long, insulated religious schooling and upbringing. The Mother Superior of the convent (Rosita Yarza) tells her that her uncle, Don Jaime, who’s paid for her upbringing and her dowry, has written to say he won’t be able to attend the ceremony. Viridiana is unconcerned, as she had only ever met Don Jaime briefly, but the Mother Superior encourages her to accept his offer of a visit to his home as a show of respect and gratitude before returning permanently to convent life. Don Jaime (Fernando Rey) himself resides in a large, decaying mansion in a Spanish backwater: his former wife, Viridiana’s aunt, Don Jaime later recounts, “died in my arms on our wedding night,” still clad in her white dress. Upon their reunion Viridiana clinically admits that she feels no emotional connection to Don Jaime after too long apart. She insists on sleeping on the floor of her bedroom, and has brought with her an array of religious objects including her own personal crown of thorns and crucifixion nails.
Meanwhile Don Jaime gets his jollies paying Rita (Teresa Rabal), the young daughter of his housekeeper Ramona, (Margarita Lozano) to jump rope so he can stare in fascination at her young, flicking legs, and taking out his wife’s wedding attire to indulge fetishistic communion with it, fitting her gleaming white high heels on his own feet and tenderly fitting her corset to his belly. As he does so one night during Viridiana’s stay, he’s bewildered by the sight of her sleepwalking around the house, engaged in some inchoate form of ritual, obliviously burning the contents of a knitting basket and collecting the ashes to dump on Don Jaime’s bed. Don Jaime becomes preoccupied with convincing Viridiana to stay and marry him, eventually proposing this after he’s talked her into donning his wife’s wedding array. When the appalled Viridiana refuses, Don Jaime, with the aid of his slavishly devoted housekeeper Ramona, drugs her and her spirits her to her bedroom.
Viridiana’s slyly accumulating power lies in the way Buñuel dryly presents its increasingly deviant concerns and storyline with a limpid, becalmed, studious gaze. One quality that always distinguished Buñuel as a director was, for all his reputation as one of cinema’s most committed and peculiar artists, so ingenious at communicating unreal imagery, he had little time for showy filmmaking, preferring instead tightly choreographed camerawork, worked out in advance, and so like Alfred Hitchcock found the actual shooting rather dull. The material here grazes territory often staked out by gothic melodrama, as the young woman comes to the big old house where a troubled male elder resides brooding on ancient losses, and the motif of the eerily glaring portrait of Viridiana’s long-dead aunt and Don Jaime’s desire to transform his niece into the lost lover echoes Edgar Allan Poe stories of fetid and displaced sexuality (“Your aunt died on my arms on our wedding night, wearing that dress”). And yet Buñuel instead plays it not for thrills but as a deadpan tragicomedy. The motifs of the storyline also evoke basic clichés of erotica, with the classic figure of the beautiful, chaste, unworldly young woman placed at the mercy of her decadent uncle who embodies all the threat of a worldly male. Buñuel, who had referenced the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom in L’Age d’Or, here offered his own derivation on a Sadean narrative in portraying a young woman at the mercy of the world’s corruption and who eventually embraces it.
Except that Buñuel plays games with such figurations, disassembling their presumptions, as he finds the absurd pathos in both his central characters. Don Jaime, introduced as a figure reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, is eventually revealed to be a figure of dank pathos as he’s driven to find some form of catharsis for his long-thwarted desire for his late wife, ambiguously finding both deliverance from adulthood and proto-erotic thrills in watching Rita skipping, and obtaining the ideal body onto which to transfer his fetishist passion in the form of Viridiana himself. Sexuality infuses every gesture and yet is constantly displaced into other, bizarre, often functionally sado-masochistic forms. Don Jaime is affected by the sight of Viridiana’s bare legs in her nightgown – Buñuel films her taking off her stockings as if unknowingly loading weapons for a campaign not yet begun – as she engages in her somnambulist ritual, a display which seems to signal her as another person driven to enact a nocturnal demi-life. Albeit whilst Don Jaime is at least conscious of his yearnings, Viridiana, casting ashes on the marriage bed her waking self has resolved never to inhabit, can only explore her own ambivalence in dreams. In this she becomes the active avatar of the surrealist creed. Ramona has an evident, unnoticed crush on Don Jaime, one she later, speedily transfers onto his son.
Meanwhile Buñuel sets up chains of imagery couched with unsubtle humour but also amassing thorny meaning. He cuts from a shot of Viridiana removing her stockings, revealing her white, gleaming legs, to a shot rising up from behind the organ Don Jaime is playing, her body and his fused, her body dancing to his tune, his own later donning of his wife’s white shoes and Viridiana wearing them both anticipated. Eroticism involves its own mysterious transubstantiation, and the seemingly opposed reflexes of sex and faith, the impulse of the flesh and the ethic of its rejection, are nonetheless conjoined in the desire to become one with the worshipped figure, to experience on levels carnal and sublime. Biblical humour surfaces as Viridiana unthinkingly bites into a piece of apple Don Jaime hands her as he begins to talk her into wearing the wedding dress. Viridiana soon appears in that regalia, complete with veil and candelabra in hand, a puckish anticipation of her becoming a bride, whether it be to Jesus or someone more mortal, her absent intended mirrored by Don Jaime’s absent wife.
Since his debut Buñuel had compiled a catalogue of fanatically fixated themes and images, including the true surrealist’s fascination with “amour fou,” mad and boundless love that persists beyond the grave – not for nothing had Buñuel made an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Abismos de Pasion (1954) – and his delight in using insect life as strange and unstable symbol for the infesting and eruptive nature of such passion, a motif that flecks Viridiana – a bee drowning in water, the description of a great old house with a floor infested by spiders – amidst an expanded array of animal imagery that maintains its own peculiar, self-justifying context. Viridiana praying over her collection of religious-masochist paraphernalia gives way to the sight of Don Jaime’s farmhand Moncho (Francisco René) briskly milking a cow, a commonplace act suddenly laced with phallic overtones as Viridiana cannot bring herself to handle the stiff, squirting teat, whilst Rita, gulping milk down hungrily, pauses to teasingly pours some on the cow’s nose. Rita also experiences a disturbing premonition of the sexual furore stirring in the house as she complains of being awoken by a “black bull” coming into her room. As he discusses his illegitimate son Jorge with his niece, Don Jaime assures her he intends to make sure his progeny will be taken care of as he plucks that drowning bee out of a barrel of rainwater. This encapsulates both Don Jaime’s humane side but also his incidental resolve to do as little as possible to service it.
It also prefigures a later, famous vignette of Jorge himself (Francisco Rabal) buying a dog when he’s distressed by the sight of it being forced to walk briskly behind a peasant’s cart to which it’s tied. He walks off with his new pet, oblivious to another dog being dragged along in exactly the same way behind another cart. This vignette says much of Jorge’s counterpoint experience to Don Jaime’s, as a man who knows what it feels like to be the bastard castaway and knows empathy for the literal underdog, and puts his decent streak to immediate, effective employ, but only, again, within a certain limit. This vignette is almost endlessly dissectible, seeming on the face of things to make fun of the charitable impulse, but on closer examination noting that, whilst indeed there’s an aspect of random luck often in who benefits from such humanitarian reflexes, that can have a crisscrossing effect with other gestures, but the eternal problem of social organisation is how to make that effect perpetual and mutual. These seemingly blithe, ironic jokes about the nature of charity see it as inevitably discreet and perhaps only effective when wisely limited in the face of all the world’s pain and suffering. But this eventually plugs into a deeper thesis of Viridiana, when the heroine tries to become a river to the poor and desperate of the district, seeing them not as people but as extensions of her own self-image as a Christ-like fount.
Guilt partly underpins this effort from Viridiana, who, after rejecting Don Jaime, is confronted with the awful consequence in the sight of him dead, having hung himself from a tree near his house with Rita’s jump-rope. This comes after Don Jaime makes a last, feverish play to possess his fantasy by drugging Viridiana after he’s talked her into donning the wedding dress. If it seemed Hitchcock had paid homage to Buñuel’s El (1953) with Vertigo (1958), Buñuel seems to return the favour here, nodding to Rebecca’s (1940) basic plot, offering his own twist on Vertigo’s portrait of a maniacal man trying to reconstruct a lost lover, and quoting Notorious (1946) in the laced cup of coffee that places Viridiana at Don Jaime’s mercy. Don Jaime take her to the marriage bed, laying his face against her revealed, bobbing bosom and kissing her prone form, but ultimately wins the battle against the temptation to rape her. This retreat in proves however self-defeating. Don Jaime first tells Viridiana the next day when she awakens from her induced sleep that he did take her virginity, hoping this will compel her to remain with him, but her distraught reaction causes him to confess to Ramona that he didn’t do it.
Ramona checks his bed for any sign of blood on the sheets to reassure herself he’s told the truth. Viridiana remains understandably determined to leave, but she’s brought back to the house by police to behold the awful spectacle of Don Jaime’s death. The complexity of the aftermath of Viridiana’s drugging suggests possible censor impact on Buñuel’s storyline, but it also undoubtedly helps deepen psychological meaning. Don Jaime’s story, which only occupies about a third of the film, is that of a man trying with all his might not to become a monster, despite being consumed by overpowering impulses that go to a rotten stem of the human being – love, lust, the urge for control, the ever-taunting mixture of the specific and interchangeable in people we as the centres of our own universes encounter. Whilst Viridiana plays the martyr, Don Jaime comes far closer to actually being one, even as he is at the same time just a dirty and pathetic old man. This connects to a credo Buñuel once stated outright, that nothing in the imagination is wrong, only misbegotten attempts to actualise them. Don Jaime’s own, bitter sense of humour manifests in killing himself with the totem of sublimated longings and childhood obliviousness. After Don Jaime is brought down the jump-rope is restored to Rita who resumes skipping with it, despite the angry admonitions of Moncho: youth is as heedless of the pain of age as age often is of youth’s autonomy, and those are two of the forces that wrestle in a traditionalist society.
Don Jaime’s death becomes Viridiana’s load, as she is named as co-inheritor of the house along with Jorge, who arrives with his lover Lucia (Victoria Zinny). Viridiana, after telling the Mother Superior she feels different and won’t be returning to the convent, heads into the nearby town and begins gathering up local paupers, intending to create a kind of religious commune where everyone can do a bit of work to earn their meal and bed for the night. Meanwhile Jorge seems to provide a breath of cleansing air as he lays claim to his legacy. Jorge enters the scene with self-assured masculine swagger, imbued rather than quelled by not having had the easiest time in life, because he knows very well that he is the future. He does note with some resentment that he might, with Jaime’s support, have become a qualified and successful architect by now rather than have merely been working in the office of one, but otherwise isn’t particularly aggrieved by his father (“Anyone can have a fling and then walk away.”). He does quietly admit to Lucia that Viridiana gets on his nerves because she’s “rotten with piety.” Lucia suggests he’s really irritated because she pays no attention to him.
Contrasting Viridiana’s choice of mission, Jorge sets to work repairing, cleansing, and modernising the house, including getting electricity connected and making the estate’s farmland productive again, and hiring labourers for the job. Buñuel builds one of his more elaborate cinematic jokes as Viridiana leads her collective of paupers in prayer in the estate’s blooming orchard – shades of Buñuel turning a wry salute to Robert Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis (1948) with its blend of earthy piety and beatific natural surrounds – whilst the labourers work around the house and grounds, bashing at crumbling brickwork, stirring cement, sawing lumber. Buñuel intercuts between prayers and working, forming them into a system of call and response, labour of the spirit and labour of the practical at once set in contention and locked in a sardonic harmony. The old Benedictine motto of “work and prayer,” realised as an elaborate fugue where focused labour contrasts Viridiana’s ambitious but vague attempt to build a mutually reliant religious commune with social dregs as her flock.
Viridiana’s harvested collective nonetheless quickly reveal themselves to be whatever the opposite is of the deserving poor. A gang of miscreants, petty thieves, sex fiends, and the pathetically penurious, the flock go along with Viridiana so long as she gives them a next-to-free ride. Only one, crippled man out of her initial selection refuses to go along with Viridiana and asks for some change instead, noting, superfluously, that he only accepts such charity because he’s destitute. “She has a heart of gold,” one pauper says of Viridiana, to another’s comment, “Yes, but she’s a little nutty.” Far from embracing an egalitarian ideal of collective labour, the paupers have their own caste and class systems. The blind, bearded Don Amalio (José Calvo) and his pregnant lover Enedina (Lola Gaos) become de facto leaders of their group for their amoral and deftly manipulative cleverness. The paupers forcibly eject José (Juan García Tiendra), a man with a bad case of varicose veins, from their ranks because they think he’s a leper and could infect them all, and toss stones his way whenever he hangs around, whilst taking pains not to let Viridiana see. Another pauper, a man with a bandaged foot known as ‘El Cojo’ or The Cripple (José Manuel Martín), appropriates Rita’s jump-rope as a belt for his pants. He also volunteers to paint religious pictures, which he does, roping in his fellows to pose for him: “I don’t like being the Virgin,” one woman complains. Moncho soon becomes so aggravated by the paupers’ presence that he quits working on the estate.
The official theme here is naiveté, with Viridiana doomed to learn she cannot apply abstract pieties to real life. She is confronted with the truth that the poor are not necessarily ennobled or sanctified by their condition, but remain essentially the same as other people, only more so – a free-floating mass of the greedy, cruel, perverse, and opportunistic. Indeed, the absence of social expectation on them frees them from fetters of behaviour beyond the most superficial and self-centred (Amalio, knowing when and how to grease the wheels, refers to Viridiana as “our blessed protectress”). Buñuel here confronts, with abyssal wit and cool candour, the intersection of two potent, long-antagonistic but fascinatingly similar faiths, Catholicism and Marxism, and one point of concern at which they converge, being what to do about people who fall to the bottom of a society, and provoking the eternal lament of adherents of both creeds as to why the masses will never do what’s good for them. The paupers become Buñuel’s impish projections of his most lawless, cynical, and profane impulses, whilst also evoking the hangover of a crazy medieval spirit that could have sprung off pages of Rabelais, embodying the tumult of the boiling mass of humanity in its natural, unelevated, tumultuous state. Meanwhile Jorge comes to represent industrious modernity, effective, efficient, in many way more genuinely helpful, but also casually imperious and immune to moral criticism. Jorge finds delight in finding, amongst Jaime’s possessions, a crucifix with a knife hidden within, a good, practical version of Cromwell’s advice to put trust in God and keep your powder dry.
That Jaime’s house can be taken as an emblem of the teetering, mouldering, pathetically repressed state of Spain circa 1961 is practically self-evident. More interesting is the way Buñuel sets his rival moral schemes in contention, forlorn and septic patriarchy and daffy virgin matriarchy both waning. Which goes a long way to pointing to the deepest cause for the offence Viridiana caused the Franco state. A little blasphemy and sin can be easily encompassed and suppressed, but not the film’s most galling statement, its confident augury that all the old reactionaries will fall before the seductive appeal of a neo-pagan spirit inherent in the encroaching modern world, of which Jorge is the messiah, casually barging through taboos long tended with jealous care, and the nuns and serviles of the past will become the new whore-priestesses. Where Ramona lingered in lovelorn attentiveness to Don Jaime, and transfers that fascination onto Jorge, he quickly and deftly seduces her as they explore the musty attic crammed with the detritus of a festering aristocracy. Buñuel saves one of his most mordant visual metaphors here as he cuts from the couple’s clinch to a cat springing on a mouse. This seems to indicate the ease of Jorge’s seductive ploys, although the cat could also be the long-frustrated and carnally eruptive Ramona: later when Buñuel films them together in a moment of strikingly happy intimacy, it’s Ramona who joyfully bites Jorge’s hand.
The film’s very end sees Jorge ascending to the status of a pagan priest-king settling down to be a fount of sexual beneficence, His coming inscribed in the strains of a new catechism – shake, shake, shake your cares away, declares the rock song coming from the radio. Buñuel doesn’t take this for necessarily a great good, either, in part because an age of happy, straightforward hedonism would rob him of the mine of his art, his delight in human perversity, in the tangled weeds of sad and sorry old repressed Europe and the creatures it births. The epic quality that touches Don Jaime’s fetishistic longings and Viridiana’s blinkered and self-mortifying piety springs from the same fount: the old world fashioned over centuries to provide psychic and physical bulwarks against the chaos of natural forces. Buñuel was driven again and again to study the failure of such social bulwarks, their collapse the one certain thing in his worldview. Buñuel’s constant preoccupying themes had surfaced in precursors to Viridiana like Susana (1951), which depicted with lacerating good-humour the progress of an ironically sanctified harlot through a good Mexican family, her pulchritude easily provoking the men to raptures, and El and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), with their portraits of maniacal men whose unstable machismo consumes them and others.
Buñuel’s previous film, the near-equally great but relatively neglected The Young One (1960), although set entirely amongst fringe dwellers, also directly anticipated Viridiana, although with its depiction of the forcible seduction of a girl by an older male guardian edging far closer to outright paedophilia, and the theme of schism amongst the underclass encompassing racial prejudice. Buñuel would also go on to restage Viridiana’s riotous climax from a different angle via the famous conceit employed in The Exterminating Angel (1962), as guests at a bourgeois dinner party find themselves unable to leave a dining room due to some invisible force, and degenerate into brutes, an idea that, despite its purposefully arbitrary fantasticality, laid down a template for post-apocalyptic angst in cinema. Buñuel would return to the basic theme of Viridiana, and some of its jokes, whilst flipping genders again, for Simon of the Desert (1965), this time casting Pinal as the taunting, tempting female devil trying to seduce the pillar-sitting saint, eventually spiriting him from detached pinnacle to raucous contemporary New York nightclub. Viridiana’s own eventual embrace of her carnal side opened the gate for Belle de Jour’s (1967) portrait of a transgressive heroine trying to actualise her erotic fantasies and the brutally ironic feminist revenge motif of Tristana, a film that plays very much as an uglier, sadder, more conflicted remake of Viridiana, essentially positing if Viridiana succumbed to Don Jaime and then became him. Buñuel’s influence would also soon echo through the emerging new European cinema, seen in variations like Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968).
Viridiana finally reaches it long, ecstatically profane climax as Viridiana and Jorge head off to deal with legal matters in town and Ramona takes Rita to the dentist, all expecting to be absent from the house until the next day. Viridiana leaves the snowy-haired, ineffectual Don Zequiel (Joaquin Roa) in nominal charge of the commune. Some of the paupers, seeing a chance for rest and relaxation, decide to kill a couple of the spring lambs on the estate for a roast dinner, and Enedina promises to make custard. The paupers soon sneak into the big house to gawk at its splendours. Surveying the portraits of Don Jaime and his wife, Zequiel comments, “Imagine hanging yourself with that kind of dough.” The paupers elect to hold their banquet in the dining hall and clean it up so their cheeky transgression won’t be noticed. There they merrily gobble up their food and raid the wine cellar too. They’re even so kind as to let José join them, sequestered at a separate table. Amalio regales them with legendary feats of begging in rich churches where the women smelt so good they gave tactile communion. For the paupers, guzzling custard in swank environs is the next best thing to heaven, and once everyone’s in the highest spirits Enedina proposes to take their photo with a camera “my parents gave me.” The beggars eagerly arrange themselves into a pose on one side of the dining table before Enedina, recreating Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” and Enedina does indeed per the old joke take their photograph, by raising her skirt and flashing her privates at them.
This famous vignette offers a pure crystallisation of Buñuel’s humour, at once larkish and vicious, seemingly casual but carefully prepared. The “Last Supper” pastiche provided subsequent directors with a ready-made icon of irreverence to pay homage to, ranging from Robert Altman on MASH (1970) to Mel Brooks on A History of the World, Part I (1981). Buñuel’s is the coldest and most merciless however: Amalio holds the place of Jesus, flanked by sleazy weirdoes. Handel’s “Messiah,” heard in the opening credits, is played by the beggars on the gramophone whilst several begin dancing to its strains with sprightly, satiric energy. Jose dons pieces of the wedding dress and swans about as a sickly drag act. Here the paupers rejoice in their freedom to casually disrespect every yardstick of the society whose fringes they persist on, all charged with childlike glee – Buñuel zeroes in on the dancers’ legs, which recalls Rita’s as she used her jump-rope. But other urges are stirring, at once more adult and more animalistic, as the party degenerates into squalid chaos. Enedina is grabbed by one of the men, Paco (Joaquin Mayol), dragged behind a couch, and raped. “Let ‘em scuffle,” Zequiel declares in his besotted state, and gets a face-full of custard tossed at him. Amalio, thinking Enedina is willingly screwing Paco, starts furiously smashing everything on the dining table with his cane, and Enedina, released, dismisses Amalio’s display: “If he were my husband he’d be entitled.” Some of the paupers flee the house as Viridiana, Jorge, Ramona, and Rita return unexpectedly by car, and the others shuffle out more pretentiously, facing up to the astounded Jorge with varying attitudes of proprietorial surprise, or, in Amalio’s case, a blessing for providing a blind man with sustenance.
Where other filmmakers might have felt licence to make their style frenetic to mimic the mounting craziness in such a sequence, or to have the paupers become theatrical in their destructiveness. Buñuel simply and methodically documents the mounting bedlam, only in the “Last Supper” tableaux delivering an arch cinematic joke. Otherwise he maintains deadpan observation, as with Enedina’s assault. Buñuel seems to be dramatizing the worst nightmare in the reactionary mindset: the filthy, ignorant scum erupting to despoil civilisation and take advantage of their benefactors. But their actions also, pointedly, recreate things already seen in the course of narrative – sexual assault, fetishism, transvestism, contempt for tradition, heritage, autonomy, and responsibility – only without any veil of pretence or obfuscation, simply embracing wild impulse. Don Jaime’s drugging and suborning of Viridiana, halted by whatever lingering ethic persists in his person, is soon reproduced in blunt and brutal fashion as El Cojo and Jose collaborate to knock out and tie up Jorge so they can rape Viridiana.
Buñuel dives in for a close-up noting Viridiana’s failing fight against El Cojo, noting her hand tugging desperately at his belt, which is of course Rita’s jump-rope. Buñuel deploys another of his wicked ironies, as Jorge deploys the oldest and most essential art of the capitalist to save the day – using the promise of reward to turn one member of the proletariat against another and forget his own interests, albeit in this case for an urgently righteous cause, as Jorge convinces José, who waits for his turn, to intervene in the rape by offering him money. José promptly and enthusiastically uses a fire shovel to bash El Cojo’s skull in. Calm is restored as the Guardia Civil arrive to round up the ratbags. A gentle inward dolly shot of Viridiana the next day, watching Jorge as he resumes his reordering, confirms the inevitable without words, that she’s fallen under Jorge’s spell, and in her room weeps as she casts off the last of her previous identity and, using a cracked fragment of a mirror, refashions her new one, unleashing her blonde hair.
Meanwhile her religious iconography burns up outside, Rita studying the blazing crown of thorns in bewilderment before tossing it on the flames. Viridiana appears at Jorge’s bedroom door, charged with sullen, silently communicated need, only to find him ensconced with Ramona. Jorge, immediately deciding how to handle the quandary as is his wont, proposes they settle down to play cards, noting “All cats are grey by night,” before commenting, as he suggestively takes her hand and uses it to cut the cards, “The first time I saw you I though, ‘Cousin Viridiana and I will finish up shuffling the deck together.’” Perhaps cinema’s greatest dirty joke and fade-out punchline, but again realised with Buñuel signature mixture of economy and attentiveness. Buñuel spares shots to note Ramona’s hesitant fear of rejection and competition and Viridiana’s blank gaze as she ponders the question as to whether this is who she actually is, before moving to a long shot, retreating slightly as if with a sense of decorum whilst peering through an open door, noting the emergent ménage-a-trois simply and calmly getting on with life in the new age.
Todd Field first caught eyes as a well-employed character actor in the 1990s when he appeared in such disparate movies as Twister (1996) and Eyes Wide Shut(1999). He made his directorial debut to general acclaim with In The Bedroom (2001), and followed it up with the more divisive but still Oscar-nominated Little Children (2006), only to then fall into a long, involuntary quiescence until Tár, his latest and one of the best-reviewed and received movies of 2022. That Field played a pivotal role in Stanley Kubrick’s last film and then immediately made his gambit as a serious-minded filmmaker led many commentators to characterise Field as a Kubrickian protégé, or at least an inheritor. But at the end of the day Field is much more of a traditional actor-turned-filmmaker, as despite the chicly controlled visual textures of his films, his primary interests manifest in deploying carefully wrought performance and conveying character drama. Field’s status as a maker of adult audience drama films, the kinds of movies that remain the linchpins of award seasons but also used to once be the stuff of great mainstream appeal, particularly in the mythologised days of the 1970s New Hollywood era, made him seem a little like a throwback figure when he released In The Bedroom.
His debut, about a middle-aged couple driven to commit a vigilante killing after their son is murdered by a lout, came dressed in a kind of fashionably unfashionable garb, with its autumnal settings and scenes of lingering marital strife building to crescendos of big acting from great thespians and self-conscious emulation of Ibsenesque drama and the north-eastern American literary tradition or writers like John Cheever and John Updike evoked, with a little Death Wish (1974) thrown in for cinematic narrative juice. Field went further down that road with Little Children, an adaptation of a novel by Tom Perrotta portraying the suburban humdrum and the dissatisfied and damaged people living in it. Field tried to push an edge of amplified stylisation in Little Children to move it beyond mere literary realism, particularly through the figure of a released paedophile, played by Jackie Earle Haley in a performance that revived his career, but the result as a whole had a studied, excessive quality. Nonetheless Field helped set the scene for the emergence of some more serious (or self-serious) film talents to emerge in the following decade or so, like Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, and Sean Durkin.
Tár, Field’s latest opus, shows at least that Field’s ambition has apparently grown during his hiatus from movie screens. It’s a nearly three-hour long drama revolving around a central character who inhabits an explicitly anti-popular sphere, and, at least on some levels, refuses to dumb down that sphere and its peculiar lingo, social dynamics, reference points, and fetish zones. Field’s subject is Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who’s introduced being interviewed by real-life New Yorker critic Adam Gopnik, in a staged ritual of cultural anointing of a hero figure. Lydia’s slavishly loyal assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) gives away that the raft of achievements Gopnik recites was compiled by her as she recites it along with the interviewer, whilst Lydia herself deploys an act of chagrined humility mixed with hyper-articulate commentary on her business, explaining amongst other things her approaching culmination of a lifelong project, recording all of Mahler’s symphonies, with an upcoming performance of the composer’s legendary Fifth. Lydia’s list of achievements seems indeed bordering on the absurd, including the holy quartet of Emmy, Oscar, Grammy, and Tony, and an upcoming book with the knowing title Tár On Tár. Field’s purpose here is to assiduously establish Lydia as an expert media performer and a fictional character who nonetheless occupies the centre of the modern cultural landscape as we know it.
Tár’s first-half hour or so comprises entirely of four extended dialogue exchanges, as Lydia is interviewed by Gopnik before an audience, speaks with a fawning guest at a function following, has lunch with fellow conductor and big money conduit Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), and teaches a class at Juilliard before returning to Germany, where she serves as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and young daughter Petra (Mila Bogojevic). These early scenes, far from being dull or extraneous, are indeed the most compelling in the film, as they’re driven by dances of dialogue that depend on Blanchett’s facility for describing the three aspects of Lydia on show. The polished celebrity oiling the machinery maintaining that celebrity gives way to a glimpse of a canny luncheon warrior who engages in a constant game with the world-class schmoozer and professional rival Kaplan whilst affecting to be two honest professionals talking shop – amongst the consequential things they discuss is a fellowship they run for promoting female composing and conducting talents – before finally offering a portrait of Lydia the teacher. The first two situations see Lydia in her element as a figure used to other people defining and measuring themselves against her, as when she deflects Kaplan’s entreaties to get a glance at her annotated scorings to learn how she achieves some of her most compelling effects.
The third vignette proves something rather different. Lydia looks on as one of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), tries to conduct a performance of an atonal piece she describes wearily as “very…au courant.” Lydia calls time on the performance and, without quite explicitly saying so, makes clear she thinks Max is playing a fashionably heady but empty piece because it suits his intellectual postures rather than anyone else’s need for emotional engagement. When Lydia tries to use playing Bach as an example of extracting creative value from work that seems shop-worn and done to death, Max ripostes that he doesn’t feel like Bach as he defines himself as a BIPOC pangender person who disdains Bach’s “misogyny” for having lots of kids. Lydia, provoked to scarcely stifled disdain, begins trying to persuade Max of the wrong-headedness of this opinion and the importance to being open to the full panoply of musical art, but the session devolves into increasingly personal abuse of the young man’s proclivities and Max finally storms out angrily after calling her a “fucking bitch.”
Field here baits his audience in several ways. The number of people who will roll their eyes no small distance into their cranial cavities when Max describes his identity and attendant cultural loyalties will only be rivalled by the number who will want to immediately circle their tribal wagons around him for protection. Field’s not new to this kind of calculated provocation of a presumed liberal audience’s inclinations, having suggested at the end of In The Bedroom that violent revenge might well be as releasing and cathartic for one personality as much as it’s corrosive and self-defeating to another, and arguably leaned in the opposite direction when he tried to humanise a paedophile, so often the ideal boogeyman figure for reactionaries, in Little Children. Max is offered on one level as an earnest young man and on another as a veritable caricature of a modern very online lefty youth, who with his prissily judgemental comments on Bach incarnates a certain kind of touchy-feely posturing that often seems to have a kind of wilful ignorance and generational arrogance lurking behind it, the kind that proclaims Martin Scorsese a bad filmmaker for making gangster movies over and over. Indeed, Lydia’s frustration resembles that of a million teachers, confronted by a slightly more high-falutin’ version of the student who decries reading classic books and learning history because who cares about all that old stuff, man.
More soundly, Lydia herself, who describes herself as “a U-Haul lesbian,” points out to Max that if he’s so dismissive of the others for the quirks of their identity, then others are given implicit permission to do the same to him, and her. Something of Lydia’s journey to the top is evoked here in pushing through barriers as much by adapting herself to established hierarchies and cultural loadbearing as making such forms adapt to her. Lydia nonetheless relentlessly exposes herself more than Max in the course of her spiel. She’s aggravated by Max’s quasi-ideological choice of music rather than the grandiose late Romanticism-trending-Modernism she loves. She’s irked by the taste of youth leaning towards another, younger, marketable female composer of talent when she herself is creatively blocked and wondering what worlds she has left to conquer before she’s pickled in cultural formaldehyde. Lydia herself is perhaps a little conscious that at some point in her career her gender and sexuality stopped being stymies and perhaps became propellers that bore her aloft in a zeitgeist eager to anoint someone like her, but still has a lingering anxiety provoked by someone too easily parading their identity as a banner. Lydia’s free-flowing verbal force and unrestrained freedom to keep lashing at the barely articulate and plainly, intensely nervous Max, as she herself eagerly embodies a figure of authority not using that authority at all well.
Most of all, Lydia reveals a bullish temper which once roused can’t easily be reined in, even if it usually doesn’t so much erupt as burn away like a volcano under snow. This trait bubbles to the surface in a later scene when she threatens a school bully who’s been picking on Petra, going out of her way to scare the hell out of a small girl. Such a talent for charging at foes with a blend of street-fighter attitude and imperious verbal efficiency very likely helped her get where she is, but in such a position of exalted status now feels like a Formula One engine jammed in a VW Beetle. The Juilliard scene is a great one, rich with dynamics both overt and implied and powered by the nimbleness of Field and Blanchett moving in perfect lockstep. But it’s also one that points to the overall failure of what follows, not least in the carefully contrived ambivalence over the culture clash’s meaning as concern for character subsumes the discourse on artistic worth and ideals, but also its retreat from that culture clash. The exchange comes back to haunt Lydia, because some student has secretly filmed it despite a ban on that, and it later leaks online in a heavily edited version that makes Lydia look rather bonkers, but in a way that didn’t strike me as liable to be persuasive to anyone.
Tár has gained much of its talking point traction from being characterised as a drama about “cancel culture” in a totemic way like Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) was about anti-Semitism or The Deer Hunter (1978) was about the Vietnam War. We open with Lydia already on a long road that will lead to her being ejected from her spot atop the cultural pyramid for various mooted and actual transgressions. I’m not entirely sure it’s about that particular phenomenon at all, or more than incidentally. Much of what befalls Lydia could play out the more or less the same in any moment. What is more substantially present is a contemplation of the connection, and lack of it, between artist biography and creative achievement. Mahler’s ill-fated marriage is discussed as well as Bach’s prowess in begetting and Schopenhauer’s assault on a woman, weighed against the things they gifted to everyone else in a kind of moral barter. Such discussions are, in the modern zeitgeist, usually pitched on the level of, “Why am I, who have always acted well/morally/thoughtfully, less famous/acclaimed/rich than that person who did X/Y/Z?” One eternal explanation is that power corrupts, and the way the rot creeps depends on who has the power. That’s not a reassuring explanation for anyone, least of all to those who want to claim that power, but the even less pleasing one is that just about everyone’s done something they wouldn’t like magnified under the glaring glass of celebrity. For a long time modern western society needed the legend of artistic bohemia as a zone of society where those who couldn’t or wouldn’t conform could escape official moral scruples and expected social roles and indulge desires regarded as perverse or excessive, and also keep such people at a safe distance, and not that long ago it was just about the only place where people like Lydia and Sharon would have been vaguely acceptable in expressing their love. Field’s purpose seems most intent on exploring the nature of temptation to a figure like Lydia, temptation that’s actually exactly the same as that working on everyone else, but manifesting more intensely when you actually have the leverage to indulge it.
Anyway, amongst Lydia’s formidable experiences listed at the outset was a field trip into the South American jungle to study tribal music, when she was accompanied by two of her protégés, one of them Francesca, the other a woman named Krista Taylor. Both were beneficiaries of Lydia and Kaplan’s fellowship and heavily implied to have both been Lydia’s lovers. Krista is glimpsed hovering around Lydia, filming her on her iPhone on a plane in a cryptic opening shot, and later mails her a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s novel Challenge – a novel signposting relevant themes – with a taunting inscription that infuriates Lydia, who jams the book into the garbage chute of an airplane toilet. Shortly after, Krista commits suicide, and Lydia sets out to expunge all her correspondence with and about Krista, including the many emails she wrote to orchestra bosses telling them Lydia was unstable and shouldn’t be hired. Lydia orders Francesca to delete any she has too. Meanwhile Lydia has told Kaplan she intends to replace her assistant conductor, Sebastian (Allan Corduner), who was the pick of her mentor and predecessor as conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic, Andris Davis (Julian Glover), but she finds a drag on her style, and Francesca is the obvious and expectant candidate. When Lydia chooses someone else, Francesca quits and vanishes. Meanwhile, Lydia becomes entranced by a young Russian cellist, Olga Metkina (real-life cellist Sophie Kauer), who’s campaigning for a slot in the orchestra: after watching a YouTube video of her playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Lydia uses her considerable guile to manipulate the orchestra into performing the Concerto with Olga soloing.
Lydia and her story were based broadly on the New York Metropolitan Opera conductor James Levine, whose career went down in flames after accusations of sexual assault from several people, a scandal referenced in the film. Field’s decision to make a queer woman the subject of a Levine-like story was a cunning one (maybe a little too cunning), immediately modifying audience attitude to her, where if the protagonist was a big, percussive male personality prejudgements would probably come a bit too easily and sympathy rather less so. It also couches the storyline in multiplying ironies. For Lydia and Sharon, who is also a violinist and the orchestra’s concertmaster, coming out as gay and a couple when they did was a move still laced with risk, as Sharon mentions in a heated moment, and now the young ‘uns are getting around gleefully proclaiming themselves “pangender.” Could be there’s a special spiciness to the prurience that swirls around accusations that fall on Lydia that she tends to show favouritism and also sadistic tendencies towards young female talents who are her type, precisely because of the lesbian angle. All interesting territory but also stuff Field only skirts.
Because Tár ultimately doesn’t quite make it as a character study, and proves really only a tease in exploring “cancellation,” and the reasons why Field stops short is so he can hover in a zone of pseudo-detachment, dramatically speaking, in terms of the cultural and personal issues he prods. He needs to keep just what transpired between Lydia and Krista as vague as possible to retain his glaze of official ambiguity, to keep the audience obliged to reserve judgement on some level about Lydia as a person, and also, I can’t help but feel, not to have to portray something like transgressive urges. Field’s so anxious to avoid being labelled exploitative he avoids being much of anything. It’s worth comparing Tár in this regard to Paul Verhoeven’s last few films, which dynamically venture into the heads of some heroines who own their perversity at the price of being violently misunderstood by the world at large. It could be argued Field is resisting the gravity of “cancel culture” and attitudes of vengeful outrage by not playing that game, but he in truth kowtows to it by avoiding making the audience complicit in or understanding of anything Lydia might have done wrong. Often in recent cinematic and theatrical drama I’ve observed a tendency that I’ve dubbed “unambiguously about ambiguity,” by which I mean they have gestures towards keeping specific aspects of their stories equivocal in a rather ostentatious way that achieves not subtlety and mystery but rather the opposite, and Tár is a particularly cogent example. Michelangelo Antonioni used to do ambiguity with supreme narrative and artistic power; many imitators do it badly. And a huge amount of Tár’s running time is devoted not into delving into Lydia’s head, but instead shallowly reproducing the immediate space about it. Certainly, Lydia is tunnel-visioned, not just by her creative self-involvement but the cocooning effect of celebrity, money, and the cultish closeness of an orchestra ensemble.
By way of compensation Field keeps introducing barometers of her mental space, the constant, odd manifestations of a troubled mind, like finding a metronome set mysteriously ticking in her apartment, being distracted during a jog by some mysteriously sourced screams, and occasional dips into distorted, rather Bergmanesque dreams touched with hints of the erotic. She also keeps glimpsing a hexagonal design Krista drew on the inscription page of her barbed gift and trippy visions of her jungle adventure. As these keep adding up Field seems to be baiting the audience into thinking Lydia has some kind of crazed stalker sneaking into her house at night, or is just cracking up, but what they’re really there for is to keep providing the illusion of something happening before Field properly drops the axe. Lydia keeps an apartment separate to her home with Sharon and Petra for rehearsing and composing, and whilst there hears odd noises that eventually prove to come from a neighbouring apartment, where a hapless German women is caring for her elderly, crippled mother. The woman gets Lydia to help her get her shit-covered mother back into her wheelchair at one point, after which Lydia near-hysterically washes the filth off herself. Later, she follows Olga into a seedy apartment block to return a possession (itself an intriguing and suggestive story segue that goes unpursued) and descends into a dark basement where a dog growls at her, freaking her out so much she flees pell-mell and trips on the stairs, breaking her nose. Such scenes seem intended to illustrate Lydia’s percolating fear of a mucky, scary destiny she’s managed to rise above but still constantly feels stalked by.
Such quasi-Expressionistic and symbolist touches indicate Field’s willing to take some more risks when it comes to the officially lifelike texture of current cinematic aesthetics, but I found them rather too contrived and, worse, a bit time-wasting. Field establishes a miasma of estrangement and anxiety descending on Lydia and then keeps doing so for more than an hour. At many points in its long, ambling midsection I found Field’s work rather too reminiscent of some of his contemporaries who are obsessed to inserting overtones of simmering menace and strangeness derived from Horror film stylistics into upmarket drama films, purveyed of late by the likes of Durkin, Julia Ducornau, and Pablo Larrain. Tár spends all its time warning us relentlessly that something bad is going to happen, and then it happens and, well, we know because of the type of movie we’re watching that Lydia’s not going to be attacked by a lurking fiend, and yet Field insists on purveying his story a little like an art-house version of a Final Destination film: fate’s coming for you, Lydia Tár. The scene with the carer and elderly woman is particularly artificial in regards to the film’s overall aesthetic, which emphasises the bright and shiny surrounds Lydia exists in and she reacts to being covered with filth with the phobic intensity of a vampire to sunlight: the intrusion of mess, dirt, and proof of human decay is served up as a carefully cordoned episode of disturbance of Field’s piss-elegant visual texture as well as Lydia’s hermetic world.
What keeps the film anchored is Blanchett. I’m not as endlessly fascinated by Blanchett as a performer as a lot of commentators are, but it’s hard to deny she renders Lydia palpable despite certain aspects of her never coming into focus. She makes even an aside like playfully mocking the overly-familiar lilt and messages of an NPR announcer into an aria of performative zeal and fleshing thematic depth: I sensed Field making fun just a little of his own high-toned penchants, and also flashes of frustration with the way “serious” art tends to find a kind of ritzy ghettoization in the modern media landscape when people reserve their most committed cultural battles for arguing over superhero movies. Field provides Blanchett with a more spectacular version of the same moment late in the film when, feeling abused and desperate, Lydia is visited by the family of the women in the neighbouring flat, now that the mother’s died and the desperate carer’s now being cared for herself, they’re selling the apartment. Rather than seeing Lydia’s presence and rehearsing as a plus for selling the apartment, they ask her to keep her playing to a minimum, whereupon Lydia trolls them mercilessly by walking around with an accordion and belting out an improvised, brutally accurate description of their actions: “Your mother’s buried deep and now you’re gonna keep her apartment for sale!” As the film shifts into its last act, it’s finally revealed that Lydia, real name Linda Tarr, comes from a working class family, and returns briefly to her family home in Staten Island to take refuge from the fallout of her actions.
Here Lydia unleashes all her brutal humour and disdain for the kind of ordinary people she constantly refers to as “robots” with untrammelled clarity and force (and also at last embraces the atonal), but also exposes her pathos: there’s nobody to restrain her now, even herself, and also nobody to restrain it for, no-one who cares what Lydia Tár thinks about something. That scene perks up the long, dour decline of Lydia, which commences in earnest when she’s faced not just with becoming the object of a baying mob at her book launch, once Krista’s wealthy parents finally catch public attention with their take on Lydia’s destruction of Krista and the edited video of her Juilliard class goes viral, but also learning Francesca has, in payback, saved all of Krista’s emails and makes them available for a civil suit Lydia’s giving a deposition in. Before the reckoning arrives, Field spends much time observing Lydia’s working practice with the orchestra, constantly trying to wring new sensations out of the familiar notes of the Mahler. These scenes are all good on a level of quasi-documentary depiction, but Field never finds any particular expressive intensity for communicating the music’s meaning for Lydia, settling instead for having Blanchett making dramatic conducting gestures reminiscent of her idol Leonard Bernstein. Field also avoids depicting any of Lydia’s own music, which felt like a blank spot in her portraiture: Lydia’s individual artistic persona and achievement, the gifts that presumably won her at least one of her EGOT tally, remain unillustrated.
Field’s own artistic touchstones are in evidence throughout Tár. The theme of a destructively domineering and fatefully love-struck impresario in a musical world recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), but a more immediate reference point is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), with Lydia recalling Fassbinder’s coolly controlling lesbian antiheroine, equipping her with a seemingly slavish but actually personally motivated aide, taking place mostly in a German setting, and naming Lydia’s daughter Petra. I couldn’t help if there was a nod somewhere in Field’s conception to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” echoed in Lydia’s real surname and in the general theme of the figures of authority revealed at the end to been imprisoned and literally tarred and feathered by the loonies who pretend to be the ones in charge. Lydia might enjoin her orchestra to “forget Visconti,” referring to Luchino Visconti’s famous use of the adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth in his film Death In Venice (1971), but Field himself plainly isn’t forgetting the association, with the clear hint that, rather than just a cheap predator, Lydia might be taken as an Aschenbach figure given to falling in love with youthful muses charged with talent. Field nicely captures a sense of elusive erotic frisson as Lydia is first intrigued entirely by the sight of Olga’s boots long before she sees the whole person, only to then turn this into his version of a giallo film’s black gloves: they later become visual clues that allow Lydia to foil a blind audition in Olga’s favour. Field engages with the orchestral music world whilst daring to presume at least a working receptivity to it in his audience, mimicking Lydia herself in this regard in refusing to let the slower members of the class catch up, with characters switching between languages at speed and dropping cultural reference points that aren’t necessary to follow the story but do much to give the feeling of a little world with its own special folklore, as well as please incessant dabblers like me with a pile of old classical LPs watching. If Field had found a way to merely make a movie about a few months in the life of a famous conductor Tár might actually have been a better film for it.
Tár lets you know it’s a very serious movie right off the bat by sporting really, really small font for its credits, and it wears its crispness of look and sound like a starlet in a designer dress. But if you want a film that finds ways to dynamically and vehemently dramatize the way creative passion and demons entangle in ugly and astonishing ways in creating art, watch The Red Shoes again, or any of Ken Russell’s composer films, like Mahler (1974). Field’s images by contrast are always pretty and composed with cut-glass precision, but are also almost entirely inert, depending on the actors within his frames to supply the energy and propulsion. Scarcely a single scene has incidental detail: everything’s been crafted with the diligence of a hobbyist piecing together a doll’s house, like the many luncheon scenes that sport Lydia yammering with the likes of Kaplan and Andris where nobody’s actually eating, the tables just stages for the actors to read across. Field is really big on mirrors with multiple reflections of Lydia to emphasise her duality. Even a minor but meaningful scene where Lydia gets Petra to connect with her by playfully reciting “Cock Robin,” a moment that’s meant to illustrate Lydia’s genuine parental sympathy with her daughter, has the quality of an acting exercise. Other touches, like Francesca reciting in time with Gopnik, have a cliché shorthand quality. The basic storyline has some similarity to Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain (filmed by Robert Benton in 2003), which contended with the 1990s version of cancel culture and also had a hero who had reinvented himself from a less than ideal origin. Also, the number of films of late where a character is told their time’s up by a bunch of lawyers in a boardroom has been growing sizeable.
Meanwhile Glover’s Andris, a now-virtually forgotten conducting hero, muses on the swirl of career-ending scandals he’s been hearing about in the news and comments on the similarity with the de-Nazification era after World War II and accusations thrown at the likes of Wilhelm Furtwangler and Herbert Von Karajan, and the constant anxiety over being accused. Now that’s a provocative comparison to make, and Lydia expresses dubiety, only for Andris to comment, “Either way, you had to be ready.” Field makes something of a motif of Lydia being viewed through a cell phone camera and with text messages bobbing up over the image, reporting differing attitudes from the person wielding the camera: what is presumably Krista’s vantage on the sleeping Lydia opens the film, whilst someone else later films Lydia at her book launch whilst tapping out sarcastic remarks about her arsenal of high-flown ideas. Towards the start of the film it’s revealed that Lydia has purloined and has been using some of Sharon’s medication for heart arrhythmia, presumably to get to sleep and ease the pain from an injury she seems to have suffered from her physically convulsive conducting style. When she first returns home Sharon is suffering and has no medication, so Lydia pretends to find a pill and gives it to her, a vignette that does a nice job of showing Lydia’s cavalier attitude to Sharon’s needs and also her genuine care for her. The medication thing never comes up again in the movie that I noticed, nor does Sharon’s health, and the couple’s relationship is held at a wary distant throughout. There’s one nice moment when, during rehearsing the symphony, Sharon intervenes to demonstrate to the other musicians what needs to happen: it’s the closest we get to a substantive example of Lydia and Sharon’s creative partnership, with Sharon translating Lydia’s visionary gabble into precise technique.
By contrast, the inevitable scene where Lydia is confronted by Sharon as her career’s collapsing proves oddly truncated and clumsy. Field seems to be trying to consciously avoid the actorly fireworks of the husband-and-wife kitchen fight in In The Bedroom, but the dialogue proves stiff and theatrical rather than terse and cutting. “How cruel of you to define our relationship as transactional,” Lydia moans at Sharon when Sharon recalls how their own relationship started, to which Sharon retorts, “You’ve only had one relationship in your life that isn’t transactional, and it’s asleep in the other room.” It’s like Field’s trying to write copy for critics watching the film. Sharon also hints at how their relationship started “on a couch” in Lydia’s flat, with the suggestion she sees a likeness between incidents in Lydia’s life. Which ought to commence a truly dynamic scene between the two women, but that’s all we get, and it’s basically the end of Lydia and Sharon’s marriage. Later Lydia tries to approach Sharon and Petra outside the school only to be pathetically cold-shouldered. It’s disappointing, in no small part because Hoss is always a fascinating, lucid actress whose realism and pathos here strongly contrast Blanchett’s bigness, and yet Sharon is in the end just another victim spouse character rather than an equally complex player in the game of love. For a movie as long as Tár is, there really ought to be more authentic meat on its bones.
The climactic moment of Lydia’s downfall comes when she turns up to the premiere of her orchestra’s performance of the Mahler, now being conducted by Kaplan: Lydia, clad in her sharpest suit, struts out at the start of the performance and physically assaults Kaplan before, wild-eyed and wild-haired, trying to conduct the mortified ensemble. It’s a great moment for Blanchett, as she gets to exhibit feral physical force and seems genuinely capable of killing Kaplan. But I winced as Field forced this moment of grievous humiliation of his protagonist, which is present mostly because he needs Lydia to commit a final auto-da-fe on her career when most of what’s befallen her thus far could conceivably be weathered with patience and PR. It is of course supposed to be a final confirmation of Lydia’s almost childish entitlement and possessiveness, but it still felt a bit absurd that Lydia, regardless of how many hard knocks she’s taken, has fallen to such a crazed and nihilistic level. Lydia’s return to her childhood home sees her tearfully taking refuge in watching old VHS recordings of Bernstein expressing the philosophy that drove her own career determination.
Lydia’s homecoming is punctuated by her brother (Lee Sellars) commenting, “You don’t seem to know where the hell you came from or where you’re going.” Ah, the gruff zing of a salt-of-the-earth working man delivering thesis lines. The theme of a pretentious escapee from a humble background forced to return through disgrace or failure is another one that’s become a wearying cliché of late (it’s close to the only plot Australian TV shows are allowed to have these days), and Field seems aware of it judging by his haste to leave it behind, even as he’s raised many questions about Lydia Tár and who she is that aren’t going to be enlarged upon. Also, who the hell would go to the effort of changing their name from Tarr to Tár? Finally, Field shifts to an extended coda that takes some time to play out as Lydia travels to the Phillippines, where she seems to resuming her career in however fringe a fashion, with her old work ethic undimmed, meeting with the orchestra and hashing out the composer’s intentions. When she asks a hotel clerk to recommend a masseur, she goes to the place she mentioned, only to realise it’s a high-end brothel sporting young local women and more literal transactional relationships.
This moment is striking if also bordering on the arch, as it mirrors what we’ve seen early with visual allusion: the young women are arrayed as if in a vending machine and also reminiscent of the survey of the orchestra with the lovely Olga in its midst, with one girl giving Lydia a particularly charged pick-me look that reconfigures Lydia’s earlier behaviour in its most degrading possible likeness, Lydia even caught in a posture like her conducting, the sort of touch that will either strike you as concise or a bit much. The shock of this sends Lydia reeling out into the street to vomit, which might be a register of lingering moral standards, or a form of confession and purgation. The actual ending of the film is rather more curious and ambivalent. Lydia, finally fronting an orchestra again for a concert, begins conducting, and Field reveals with a tracking shot that she’s performing for an audience of gaming fans, most of them dressed in character costumes. It’s delivered as a mordant punchline for the story, of the kind Lydia herself is fond of, even as it also confirms Lydia, who despite all surely doesn’t need the money, is continuing to obey Bernstein’s credo of making music for all audiences, and has found refuge in art, however popular. As a final note it’s strong, even as it once again essentially baits the audience to judge this concluding twist with preordained prejudices: is this Lydia at an endzone of absurdity and delusion, rediscovering her best and truest self, or both? Keep your answer to no more than three paragraphs. Especially considering that whilst this might indeed strike some as a dark place to end up, gaming scores have been gaining cred for years now, and I know at least one classical music station that devotes a showcase to them. Tár is certainly a good, intriguing film and it might have been great, but the tragedy of both Lydia Tár and the film about her is they both conspire to stifle a surplus of interesting ideas to tell a story that’s a bit old-hat and plays too many games for too long.
Directors: Nicholas Ray, Guy Green (uncredited), Andrew Marton (uncredited) Screenwriters: Ben Barzman, Bernard Gordon, Robert Hamer, Philip Yordan
By Roderick Heath
The history of cinema is so often one of fallen empires. Producer Samuel Bronston was born in Tsarist Russia and was, bewilderingly enough, a nephew of Leon Trotsky. Bronston grew up in the US and had some success as a movie producer in the early 1940s. He then fell into a long fallow patch that didn’t break until 1959’s John Paul Jones. Shooting that film partly in Spain, languishing under the Franco regime at the time and still trying to reconnect with the rest of the world, Bronston grasped the unexploited potential of making movies in that country. Costs were so low and the countryside so varied and littered with historical structures it was a perfect place to make costume epics, at that time the stuff of official blockbuster appeal. Soon Bronston’s move would be imitated by entire film industries. But Bronston’s blend of thrifty cunning and gaudy ambition would eventually ruin not only his career but those of two of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Bronston quickly scored an enormous hit with El Cid (1961), helmed by Anthony Mann, and the Jesus film King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray, one of the era’s most vital and floridly talented but fatefully maverick filmmakers. Bronston then embarked on two more mega-budget historical epics, hiring Ray to make 55 Days At Peking and Mann for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
By this time, Ray’s personal life was in a tailspin and his health declining thanks to his constant drug and alcohol use. Ray collapsed during the shooting of 55 Days In Peking, and the movie had to be taken over by Andrew Marton, the second unit director and an experienced shooter of action sequences, until the former cinematographer turned director Guy Green was hurriedly brought in to finish it. The results were punishing for all concerned: the film’s budget skyrocketed to the then-astronomical sum of $17 million and only made half of it back at the American box office (although it seems to have been much more popular elsewhere), beginning the collapse of Bronston’s fortunes. Ray himself was finished in Hollywood, only turning out sporadic collaborations with film students and a final testimonial with Wim Wenders, Lightning Over Water (1979), in the rest of his days. Today there are reasons to hold 55 Days At Peking in misgiving, on top of what it cost Ray. It’s set in China but at the time it was impossible to actually shoot there, so Bronston simply built a replica of Peking in a Spanish field. Major Chinese characters are played by Caucasian actors in Asian makeup, despite being released at a time when that sort of thing was falling firmly out of favour, whilst about 4,000 genuine Chinese extras were obtained from all over Europe. It depicts history that’s still a touchy subject, the infamous Boxer Rebellion of 1900, largely from a western perspective. Some of the gaps from the production turmoil are obvious, like the way a priest played by Harry Andrews suddenly enters the narrative as if he’s been there all the time.
Despite such obvious and not-negligible problems, I feel some sort of love for 55 Days At Peking, an ungainly problem child shot through with flashes of unexpected art. Like some of the other epics made in that early 1960s moment that were largely dismissed by both critics and audiences, it’s much richer and more complex than it was given credit for, as well as a movie where, as the cliché goes, the money can all be seen up on screen. It’s a transitional work, mediating the end of classic Hollywood and looking forward to where certain things were heading, and despite his tragic exit from the production, Ray’s distinctive blend of sour realism and stylised romanticism still permeates the whole of this, a fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and gilded kingdoms and an uneasy bow to the modern world’s complexities. One of a string of expensive and often ambivalent movies about besiegement made at the time, along with The Alamo (1960), The 300 Spartans (1962), and Zulu (1963), 55 Days At Peking shares their nervous preoccupation with the Cold War zeitgeist as mediated through historical likenesses, as well as marking the first Hollywood film exploring what would eventually become clearly identified as Vietnam War angst. The film’s contention with the possibility of political blocs forced into cooperating takes as its intrinsic subject the birth of the modern world springing out of the colliding egotisms and breakdown of the old.
Today, with China a verified world power, the fractious and unruly state of the country 123 years ago can seem rather shocking, and even when 55 Days At Peking came out its look back to the turn of the century seems charged with bewildered fascination for how the world have both changed and not changed, its narrative hinting at the seeds for what would later happen to all the countries involved as found in this peculiar window of history. The Boxers, more properly called the Yìhéquán or the Militia United in Righteousness, gained their common sobriquet for their practising of martial arts disciplines, or Chinese Boxing as it was called at the time. The Boxers were a coalition of societies built around such activities, some of them uninterested in political matters, others obsessed with them, but many were unified by their sweeping hatred for various forms of foreign influence muscling in on China in the late 19th century, and evolved into religiously-fuelled quasi-revolutionaries with a militantly anti-Christian as well as anti-Western Imperialist outlook. Boxers created initial alarm and fear through persecution and eventually murders of missionaries and other foreigners. Eventually convincing themselves they had divine protection from modern weapons, they began agitating for a crusade of purification in mid-1900, and marched on Beijing, or Peking as it was styled at the time. Meanwhile the Qing Dynasty, led by the Empress Dowager who had deposed her nephew for trying to impose reforms, was being fatally stymied by lost wars and encroaching foreign powers.
In a storytelling flourish that feels entirely and perfectly Ray-like, political blocs are mapped out musically: the film opens with a survey of old Peking, when the various foreign powers share an enclave known as the Foreign Compound, and the various nations war in the morning with their bands playing their rival national anthems at full volume. The camera descends to two hapless Chinese men trying to have their breakfast, only for one to clap his hands on his ears and ask in desperation, “What is this noise?” His friend answers succinctly: “Different nations saying the same thing at the same time – ‘We want China.’” David Niven’s Sir Arthur Robertson, a fictionalised version of the real British legation chief Sir Claude MacDonald, is presented as a man who, on the surface at least, is the very model of an English diplomat. As an emissary from the world’s leading power of the time, Sir Arthur presses the English point of view and a sense of steadfast resolve and forbearance with such ease and class he obliges all the countries and their less easy representatives to play along in his great and dangerous game of chicken with the oncoming rebellion. He inspires his German counterpart Baron von Meck (Eric Pohlmann) to comment, “You know, I admire Sir Arthur – he always gives me the feeling that God must be an Englishman.”
Lines like that betray the contribution to the script by Robert Hamer, the director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), credited here with additional dialogue, and his sardonic sense of humour about the great old days of British identity. 55 Days At Peking’s opening credits utilise paintings by Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman to lay down the aesthetic of a lushly stylised view of the past and the setting, slipping over the horizon of general memory. The story commences with tensions on the boil between three factions, the court of the Empress Dowager (Flora Robson), the great foreign powers comprising Great Britain, the US, France, Russia, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Japan, and Italy, and the Boxers. The Empress’s nephew Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) is trying to foment resistance to the increasing stranglehold the foreigners have over the country and is surreptitiously encouraging the Boxers, whilst the head of the armed forces, General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn), resists such moves. The Imperial court is portrayed a medieval holdover despite the gilded spectacle, with Jung-Lu fiercely establishing his authority over lessers as a factional power struggle commences by lashing an officer in the face with his fly whip, whilst the Empress orders another officer executed because the argument over his fate, amongst other reasons, “disturbs the tranquillity of the morning.”
A detachment of American Marines under Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) arrives back on rotation to Peking to take over defence of the US legation just in time to behold some Boxers torturing a western priest on a water wheel. Matt tries to buy the priest off them but he dies first, resulting in a discomforting stand-off during which a Boxer is shot by a sergeant, Harry (John Ireland), but Matt manages to defuse the situation by buying the Boxer’s corpse instead and docks the price from Harry’s pay. There’s a discomforting undercurrent to this scene beyond the immediate tension in the square-off between armed gangs, as Matt readily grasps and accedes to an understanding that anything, be it faith, patriotism, revenge, or gratitude, can be translated into a dollar value. Matt finds himself mostly answering to Sir Arthur as the American envoy Maxwell (Ray himself) is ill, and soon witnesses Von Meck’s assassination by some Boxers under Tuan’s direction. When Sir Arthur and Matt are brought before the Empress, it becomes clear she has elected under Tuan’s influence to let the Boxers do what they like to the foreigners. Readying their enclave for siege, the international factions are forced to ally and protect their citizens whilst hoping for relief.
The opening vignette and the locals’ sarcastic reaction to it sets in play a film that remains intensely ambivalent about the political manoeuvring and game of national egos unfolding, the Imperial court envisioned as encrusted in arcane and empty ritual and spectacle no longer backed up by anything resembling legitimacy. The musical motif is matched by the visuals as the mammoth recreation of a large chunk of Peking sees the Foreign Compound littered with transplanted architectural styles like gothic forms amidst Chinese. The international representatives swan about in varied postures of arrogance but little real backbone, with only Sir Arthur’s determination to project unruffled calm and principled grit forcing the others to go along with him, because to do otherwise would be embarrassing. It feels revealing that Ray cast himself as the American representative who dismisses any interest in territorial concessions, as the film expresses a kind of idealism that feels consistent with Ray’s scepticism over grand-sounding ideals, although of course he can’t push this as far as he did in something like Bitter Victory (1957). He does nonetheless insist on portraying his heroes as indecisive, brittle, confused creatures, ironically nearly as unsure of themselves in facing down geopolitical crises as the wayward young folk of They Live By Night (1948) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955).
Heston’s Matt is offered as a prototype, a professional soldier who knows his way around upper crust climes as his job and rank require but who seems like anything but a blue blood, a wilfully rootless figure given up to the demands of the army. A man who tosses out most of his correspondence, collected for him by his hotel in the concession, because “Read it and you might have to answer it.” Matt soon finds himself drawn in close to Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), an exile from the Russian aristocracy with still-virulent scandal in her past. The Baroness is persecuted by her late husband’s brother, the Russian delegate Baron Sergei Ivanoff (Kurt Kasznar), who has a singular motive in trying to force her to return an enormously valuable gold-and-jade necklace her husband gave her, a combative relationship spiced by Sergei’s jagged blend of vengefulness and attraction to his former sister-in-law and the Baroness’s offended pleasure in resisting. The Baroness courts Matt’s attention when she’s ejected on Sergei’s behest from her hotel room which is then given to Matt, although her turns of sharp wit almost drive him away: “Clever women make me nervous.”
Nonetheless Matt and the Baroness form a connection in their shared liking not only for each-other but their penchant for ruffling feathers, with Matt agreeing to take the Baroness as his date to a Queen’s Birthday ball thrown by Sir Arthur, giving the Baroness the chance to make a splash wearing the necklace and forcing everyone to be polite to her in the social setting. Ray’s gift for cramming frames with absurd decorative beauty is certainly in evidence in the ball scene, drinking in the riot of colours and the chic allure of a bygone age’s way of expressing confidence and social import. The ritual is quietly violated by Matt and the Baroness’ gesture, Ray noting the reactions of many of the other men in the room when catching sight of the Baroness and her accoutrements with an edge of sexual satire, the Baroness possessing the power through her sheer presence and aura of beauty to disturb social niceties from the level of statecraft down to a few aggravated spouses. This is supplanted by a more calculated and meaningful disruption as Prince Tuan arrives and proposes to entertain the ball guests by bringing in some tame Boxers to give a show of their prowess in martial arts. When Matt is asked to help them in one trick, seemingly to arrange his humiliation in payback for the shooting of the Boxer, he turns the tables by striking not at the Boxer he’s supposed to but suddenly bailing up and tripping a huge Boxer.
Matt’s show of slyness and toughness gains a proud cry of “Bravo!” from Von Meck, but Sir Arthur senses well some delicate balance of politesse and all too substantive political arm wrestling has been upset. Rather than put up with the crowd any longer, Matt and the Baroness leave and enter a Buddhist temple where they waltz away to the strains of the orchestra surrounded by ancient, abiding idols. This image the feels like one pure crystallisation of Ray’s sensibility in the film and its emblematic pivot, west and east, vivacity and boding, male and female, old world about to crumble and be supplanted by the new, two pan-global lovers dancing along the precipice. In basic concept Matt and the Baroness are stock melodrama figures. And yet, rather than their romance becoming the dramatic pivot of the film a la great romantic epics like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Titanic (1997), however, they’re become instead very Ray figures, polarised, consumed by their divergent needs and by the quality of separateness, of wilful repudiation of the world, that brings them together in the first place, unable to properly connect and instead doomed to labour through the consequences of their emotional stymies. Both are ultimately obliged to become figures with a duty of care and rise to the challenge in different ways connected to the larger drama around them.
The film somewhat undercuts its attempts, from a contemporary perspective, to comment seriously on racism and cultural schism with its casting. Try as they might, Robson, Genn, and Helpmann can’t help but give the impression they’re starring in a high-class production of The Mikado. The resemblance might not be so accidental: Helpmann in particular seems to have been cast to put his dancer’s skill to good use in recreating the elaborate formal flavour of the Imperial court. And yet the film’s nuances are surprising as it engages with the theme in a very Ray-like manner, that is, couching it in human terms stemming from the affections and weaknesses of his characters. Matt’s friend and subordinate Captain Andy Marshall (Jerome Thor) has a daughter, Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon), by a Chinese mother: Matt and Andy speak about Teresa before she’s seen in a cool and clinical fashion, with the two men agreeing that Andy must leave her in safe hands in China when he goes home because, as Matt puts it, “She’d be a freak back home.”
But when Teresa comes to find her father during the soldiers’ entry into Peking he snatches her up with a desperately loving gesture, making plain his genuine anguish at the thought of leaving her behind. Later, Andy is killed in battle with the Boxers, leaving Teresa orphaned and facing a bleak future as a mixed race child there, and Teresa begins doting on Matt as an alternative father figure despite his complete lack of any experience or readiness for such loaded gift, no more than he is to help the Baroness. The Baroness’ own transgressive past eventually emerges when, to disarm the threats of Sergei, she tells Matt about how she betrayed her husband, a golden boy of the Russian establishment being groomed for a great career, by having an affair with a Chinese General, heavily implied to be Jung-Lu. “Can’t you imagine yourself falling in love with a Chinese girl?” The Baroness asks Matt, before noting sourly, “That’s not the same.” The political situation begins to lurch towards this conflict when Matt accidentally sees Von Meck’s assassination and he and Sir Arthur visit the Empress in the splendour of her palace, Sir Arthur deftly kicking aside the cushion placed for him to kneel on.
This small but infinitely consequential gesture signals a refusal of any further kowtowing, despite Sir Arthur’s words suggesting to the Empress being patient will benefit her country far more than rash gestures, quickly answered by the Empress and Tuan, who make it plan they will not stop the Boxers from making an assault on the Compound. Initially trying to escape as the war breaks out, the Baroness finds herself forced to return, but then finds her path to revitalisation through volunteering as a nurse under Dr Steinfeldt (Paul Lukas), an elderly German physician who finds himself caring for the wounded during the siege, and the Baroness swiftly becomes beloved by her charges and even the aged doctor. Steinfeldt’s makeshift clinic is a striking islet of Ray’s stylised visual mystique, a crude space transformed into a ward of healing simply by splashing whitewash everywhere. The ever-so-faintly surreal quality here is amplified by the way all colours are subtracted including the costuming of the actors as if to suggest they are part of the space, humans vying towards the angelic, broken up only by the crude blues of the soldiers and the red blood pools stark and bright, the corporeal brutality of the war duelling with the transcendental. Later the Baroness sells off her necklace to buy medical supplies and fruit through the black market.
The credited screenwriters were Bernard Gordon who was just re-emerging after years on the blacklist, and Phillip Yordan, a regular collaborator of Mann’s who had made a good living also serving as a front for blacklistees like Gordon. Such a background is detectable in the Countess’ exile and the very strained politesse of her re-entrance to polite society. “I just do a job patrolling the rice paddies out in the back country,” Matt comments to Sir Arthur in their first confrontation, evincing the first sunrise glimmers of the emerging sense of what the Cold War was becoming via the historical parable. After their visit to the Empress, Sir Arthur and Matt are forced thanks to Tuan’s machinations to head back to the Compound without escort, locked out by the gates of the Forbidden City. This cues a sequence Robert Wise would offer a variation of in The Sand Pebbles (1966) as the Vietnam echoes firmed up and a plain resemblance to TV news reports of unrest in third world locales, as the two men are forced to run the gauntlet of a furious mob.
The diplomat and soldier are quickly rescued by Captain Hanley (Robert Urquhart) and when Sir Arthur makes plain to the other envoys he has no intention of bowing to threats and leaving, he obliges them all to begin barricading the Foreign Compound and prepare for assaults by the Boxers. Matt allies with other capable officers like the British Hanley, the German Captain Hoffman (Walter Gotell), and the Japanese Colonel Shiba (Juzo Itami). Another very Hamer-esque joke gets by as Sir Arthur confesses to his wife, Lady Sarah (Elizabeth Sellers), that he doesn’t mind all the French history books her mother bought him to be used on the barricade because the topic bores him, before Ray cuts to the French ambassador having the same reaction with his books of English history. This joke cuts deeper than it seems: it helps flesh out the coherent theme threaded right through the film about the illusions of factionalism and the opacity of history as a way of understanding them, creating false zones of identity.
The raw and pressing crisis of the siege forces demands communal action illustrate by another good joke as Harry awakens the motley crew of defenders from sleep, offering versions of “Good morning” in each language until he’s stumped by a Japanese sailor and so says it in English, to which the sailor replies in perfect English. Sir Arthur, the perfect diplomat, is meanwhile revealed to hold serious doubts as to both the wisdom of his actions and his own motives. Glimpsed early on satirising himself by dryly suggesting cutting the family dog in two to please his two children to his daughter’s annoyance – “Oh father, don’t play King Solomon.” – Sir Arthur is soon left squirming in a morass of guilt and questioning when he son is shot and lingering close to death in hospital, ransacking his actions and the reasoning behind his choices. His wife has fits of dark reckoning in questioning whether the soul of someone who’s never been “home”, that is has never actually lived in England as their children haven’t, could ever find its way back or would be stuck in “an enormous, empty Chinese limbo.”
The troubled but ultimately tender relationship between the Robertsons is another Ray-like flavouring that contrasts the other, more ambivalent relationships in the film. So too is the motif of children paying the price for their elders’ actions and blindness, in both the Robertsons’ son’s ordeal and Teresa’s status as the unwanted avatar for the possibility of fusing worlds. Matt is pushed to face paternal responsibility towards Teresa when first Harry prods him determinedly to explain her father’s death to her, and then by a priest, Father de Bearn (Andrews), dedicated to looking after the orphans hiding out in the Compound: the Priest comments, “Someone, somewhere said that every man is the father of every child – but I suppose it’s only true if you really feel it.” Father de Bearn, sudden as his entrance into the film is, is a great character who ironically has more military inventiveness than the professional soldiers, improvising canons and mortars to fend off the Boxers’ increasingly ambitions attempts to attack the walls of the compound, including bringing up artillery and a siege engine, alternating warlike arts and soft-spoken humanism. De Bearn stands in for the so-called contingent of “fighting parsons” led by missionary Frank Gamewell, who took on the task of fortifying the Foreign Compound during the real siege.
Ray’s signature visual lushness serves the purpose of illustrating the dramatic concerns, in marvellous shots like one of Teresa hiding after setting up a flower in a gesture of domestic loving for Matt while he’s off in battle, only for the warrior to return bedraggled and exhausted, sitting upon his bed in a room festooned with aged artworks painted on the walls and the huge statue of a warrior with sword. The shot dramatizes the gap between people, between cultures, between aestheticized past and the all too painful now. Undercurrents of satire are readily detectable in the way the puffed-up envoys of the foreign nations are filmed in surveys of bloviating in rooms of plush Victorian only to find themselves forced to commit to a course of action because Sir Arthur is, whilst the Imperial grandees commit themselves to arcane rituals in realms of splendour, fronts of grandeur that have their crude brick backings. The Empress is eventually convinced by Prince Tuan to give the Boxers proper backing against Jung-Lu’s counsel, and the Empress orders Jung-Lu to give the help of the Imperial troops to besieging the Compound and holding off a relief force. This means the defenders of the Compound must face artillery fire.
Before they are handed such weapons, the Boxers try scaling the stout fortifications of the city walls adjoining the Compound and making a charge at dawn, but Matt, Andy, a French officer, and some other stout soldiers use a cobbled-together rolling barricade, backed up by Hanley with an equally cobbled-together canon, and push back the Boxer onslaught. Until the canon explodes and kills Hanley, and Andy is shot on the ramparts. The film was essentially completed by experienced action directors, and as you’d expect the action is strong, amplified by the awesome scale of the sets Bronston was able to build, aiding Ray and the other filmmakers in recreating the popular images of the Rebellion disseminated through correspondents’ artworks in the years following. One great portion of epic moviemaking comes late in the film when the Boxers drag up a rocket-festooned siege tower in the night, men with torches appearing in the dark, leading a horde hauling the tower into view. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s scoring is particularly good here too, in combining slow-thudding drums and a deep-voice male chorus to unnerving effect, as if the Boxers are bringing some kind of monster into battle. The tower’s alarming appearance is however quickly answered as De Bearn improvises a mortar and manages to set fire to the war engine.
Cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s brilliant work made the most of the Super-Technirama 70 scope and Technicolor, capturing all the lush colours of the sets of costumes of course as well as the spectacle of battle, but also backing up Ray’s compositional élan. A dialogue evolves between balanced geometry and lopsided groupings, indicating the flow of power and desertion of structural certainty. Shots of the Empress Dowager in her palace with her handmaidens see human and architectural elements arrayed in harmony, eloquent of a structure tightly and tensely ordered, counterpointing the ebb and flow of human power in the meetings of the foreign diplomats, where one man – Sir Arthur – ensconced behind his desk can contend with many standing on the other side. Even the most chaotic action sequences have a painterly integrity to them.
Shots of Matt barking orders to his men on the city ramparts with the soaring brickwork and overhanging eaves see them dwarfed and enclosed by the infrastructure of cultural, military, and historical might. A visual joke is apparent as the Baroness is glimpsed standing by a guttering lantern whilst Jung-Li hides in the corners, the literal old flame. One major set-piece is more familiar in terms of old-school action-adventure but well-done in its own terms, as Sir Arthur talks Matt, Shiba, and others into a nocturnal venture through the sewers to blow up an ammunition dump whilst the Empress is celebrating her soldiers’ victory over the relief forces. Sir Arthur joins the venture but the guerrilla unit has to contend with interruptions and delays that almost get them blown up, before they finally succeed in lighting the conflagration. Later Matt and one of his men set out to try and fetch reinforcements on a railway handcar, only to hit a mine on the tracks, leaving both men injured, with Matt carrying the other on his shoulders back to the Compound.
Young Teresa stakes a claim to instinctive heroism when she manages to rescue a wayward toddler who’s wondered into the temple during an artillery barrage, seconds before a shell knocks the structure flat. Meanwhile the Baroness is injured when she brings in the load of supplies she managed to purchase with the necklace only for a brokered ceasefire to suddenly collapse, and she dies under Steinfeldt’s care. The film takes an interesting approach to the Baroness, despite the fact that Gardner always feels miscast as an exotic and multivalent Russian aristocrat if not so much as a love goddess incarnate, as she’s revealed to have both sacred and daemonic power over men, able to incidentally destroy her husband and also able to make rooms full of men fall in love with her, including the aged and cynical Steinfeldt. Again there’s something in common here with Ray’s fascination for characters like Rebel Without A Cause’s Jim who possess a lustre, however endangered, that draws people to them.
Ironically, only Matt seems at all ambivalent about the Countess, in part because he is intimate with her, knowing the sordid story of her background and only able to come to terms with her appeals for help when he declares “a soldier’s pay buys a soldier’s woman,” that is, a prostitute. After the Countess dies, Matt is accosted by a working class English soldier (Alfred Lynch) who became one of her worshipful wards for failing to appreciate her, leaving Matt, who has also just failed to bring his injured comrade back in time to save his life, is left cringing in the shadows, a battered remnant amidst a collapsing historical epoch. It’s odd to strike such a queasy and stricken note in such a movie, and signals for Heston in particular a crucial moment in his screen career, playing the character who seems anointed as the cavalier hero but who is ultimately left confronting his own damaged and damaging machismo, lost within the carnage he cannot end. Some anticipation here of how Sam Peckinpah would make use of him in Major Dundee (1965), as well as his general shift to playing flailing titans in films like Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971). The ultimate lifting of the siege comes with a return to the musical motif of the opening as what seems to be a last-ditch charge by the Boxers proves instead to be them fleeing before advancing foreign soldiers.
The soldiers enter Peking accompanied by various specific marching tunes, flowing together suite-like as the besieged citizens dash to embrace their soldiers, representing the highpoint of what Matt and Sir Arthur muse upon as a brief episode of international cooperation. Of course, the inevitability of the accord’s collapse is quickly signalled when the victorious forces parade and resume the cacophony of clashing sounds, and the touch of humour in the Japanese Imperial force primly marching in and the very honourable and upright Shiba saluting the leader of the new contingent contains an appropriate undercurrent of foreboding. By contrast the Imperial majesty of China is envisioned as shattered, as the Empress Dowager, dressed in common clothes in preparing to abandon the palace, meditates on the end of the dynasty. But the ultimate potential for nations working for a common end is the far-off but tantalising anticipation of 55 Days At Peking, casting its mind forward to the founding of the United Nations once the great spasm of the new century’s conflicts fall still. The very last moments of the film look forward to the collapse of barriers and the hope for synthesis, as Matt finally reaches out to Teresa as he and he men prepare to march out, taking her onto his horse and accepting his fate at last to be her father. One of my favourite final scenes in a movie and one that again feels very Ray-like, a final, fragile connection between generations and tribes that can grow to something new and splendid.
Director: René Clément Screenwriters: René Clément, Henri Jeanson, Jacques Rémy / Sébastien Japrisot
By Roderick Heath
When it comes to the exalted ranks of great French filmmakers, René Clément belonged to a generation of filmmakers who helped bring French cinema renewal and new international attention after World War II. In those ranks Clément was linked with the likes of Robert Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jacques Tati. This crew mostly began making movies before the war but emerged most truly during or immediately after it. François Truffaut, in his infamous essay “Notes on a Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” noted Clément as one of the vital emergent figures who helped the national cinema by moving on from poetic realism to psychological realism, a mode Truffaut and his fellow Nouvelle Vague compatriots then set out to demolish in turn. Clément became indeed the preeminent director of that period when pre-war greats like Jean Renoir and René Clair were yet to come home or those, like Marcel Carne and Jean Grémillon, who kept labouring through the Occupation, who seemed to lose steam at its close. Clément had started making short films and documentaries before the war, commencing with the 20-minute Soigne ton gauche in 1936, starring Tati. Clément claimed top prizes at the renascent Cannes Film Festival twice in as many years, first with his docudrama The Battle of the Rails (1945), detailing the fight over the French rail infrastructure between the Nazis and the Resistance, and then with his first proper feature, Les Maudits, aka The Damned. He won the then-special Academy Award for best non-English-language film twice, with The Walls of Malapaga (1949) and Forbidden Games (1952), and also claimed the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion with the latter.
Like the major directors of the Italian neorealist movement, who he was often compared to for his early technique and outlook, Clément then faced subsequent decades negotiating with commercial cinema. Like Clouzot and Melville, Clément was usually at his best engaging with fraught portraits of people engaged in hazardous and morally ambivalent behaviour, but he stretched his talents further and scored his most acclaimed work in Forbidden Games with a poetically measured style. Clément did run afoul of the dangers of international coproduction with the poorly-received This Angry Age (1957), an adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ The Sea Wall, but when he made a shift back into genre filmmaking with Purple Noon, a 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, he scored another hit, one that today might well be Clément’s best-known movie, particularly since it was disinterred after Anthony Minghella’s top-heavy 1999 version. Clément’s 1966 film Is Paris Burning?, an attempt to balance epic trappings with his early docudrama mode in recounting the 1944 liberation of the title city, received a bewilderingly harsh reception upon release, but it stands as a superior achievement. He again resurged to general success and acclaim in 1969 with Rider on the Rain, a swerve back to the chic thriller mould of Purple Noon, but Clément finally retired after 1975’s La Baby-Sitter.
As products from either end of Clément’s directing career, The Damned and Rider on the Rain have obvious differences. One is a rough-and-ready product that has the moment it was made in etched into its frames, filmed in stark black-and-white that seems to directly channel the raw-nerve, almost post-apocalyptic feeling of that time. The other is a sleek and moody psychodrama shot in colour, sporting an American star and meditating sardonically on shifting social mores as well as character and atmosphere. But the two films are also defined by a strikingly similar, smothering feel for intense psychological straits, with protagonists who find themselves adrift and cut off from the world at large, sweating their way through entrapped situations, sweltering through the consequences of their own culpability. The Damned, not to be confused at all with Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti’s films with that title but bearing certain thematic and conceptual similarities to both, opens in the French port city of Royan, damaged by fighting and only liberated in the waning days of the war. The bleak scenery consists of broken buildings and rubble-filled streets and evening murk, streaming evacuated townsfolk returning to their home to find, if they’re lucky, dark and shattered hovels, the pall of grey broken only by flashlights: this is the end of the war as just about everyone in Europe was still very familiar with when The Damned was filmed.
Clément’s protagonist is one of these returning refugees, a doctor named Guilbert (Henri Vidal). Guilbert finds the building he lives in blacked out and battered but still essentially in one piece. He’s pleased and moved to nostalgic reminiscing to find his old harmonica lying on the floor by his bed and lying down in the dark to play the instrument as flitting lights from outside play across the ceiling. By rights the war should be over for Guilbert at this moment, but as his rueful, film noir-esque narration quickly establishes, his rest won’t be long, and forces that will affect his immediate fate are being set in motion in a distant locale. Clément moves into a flashback to explain just what he means, as a few days earlier a U-boat prepares to sail from Oslo, about to embark on a mission to save several high-ranking Nazi and collaborators. Senior Wehrmacht General Von Hauser (Kurt Kronefeld) and Forster (Jo Dest), a Gestapo honcho closely linked to Himmler, have been assigned to lead this escape, with the intention of continuing some embryonic form of the Nazi government in South America and setting up networks for other fugitive Nazis: “Victory is never final,” Von Hauser tells a gathering of his motley collective. One of the collaborators travelling with them is the Norwegian scientist Ericksen (Lucien Hector), who the Nazis seem to hope might one day help them re-emerge with nuclear weapons.
Also on board for the voyage is Italian Fascist and magnate Garosi (Fosco Giachetti), accompanied by his Sudetenland-born German wife Hilda (Florence Marly), who is he actual reason they’ve made it aboard, being as she is Von Hauser’s lover. Guilbert’s narration notes that Garosi doesn’t speak German and Hilda doesn’t speak Italian, so “French was adopted as a diplomatic measure.” Frenchman Couturier (Paul Bernard) was a right-wing newspaper publisher and major collaborator, who quips of their vessel, “Like Noah’s Ark – all that’s missing is the Flood.” Forster is accompanied by Willy Mouris (Michel Auclair), described by Forster as his right-hand man and by Guilbert as a Berlin hoodlum, and who, Clément carefully reveals as the film unfolds, is Forster’s sadistically dominated lover. The passenger list is rounded out by Ericksen’s teenage daughter Ingrid (Anna Campion), an innocent completely out of place in such company of pathetic rogues and killers: the only creatures aboard she forms any connection with are Guilbert and the ship’s cat. The U-boat sets out expecting to make a quick voyage across the Atlantic and gain aid from an agent in Mexico, Larga (Marcel Dalio). But when they’re attacked with depth charges by a British ship, Hilda is flung against a hatchway and receives a concussion, and the Nazis realise to their chagrin they have no doctor aboard: “We thought of everything except the essentials,” Couturier notes. Von Hauser and Forster order the U-boat’s businesslike captain (Jean Didier) to put into Royan, but they find to their shock the city garrison has surrendered, so they send Couturier, Morris, and a couple of sailors ashore to track down a doctor. Which is how their path crosses with Guilbert, who has already returned to practice helping his direly needy compatriots amidst fears of a diphtheria outbreak.
The Damned is a bitter, punch-drunk reverie on the meaning of an age. The evocation of a pervasive atmosphere of moral rot is palpable, the mood distinctly post-apocalyptic, the result hovering in a hazy post-genre zone, not quite a thriller, not quite a war movie. The preoccupation with an entrapped hero squirming under the hand of characters who are at once fugitive criminals and representatives of authority and state repression has immediate tonal and situational connection with the film noir movements flourishing in Hollywood and Britain, playing out like a less rhetorical take on Key Largo (1948). But this is mixed with simmering political overtones beyond the range of noir’s usual interests: Clément is portraying still-intense anxieties and blocs of sympathy and reflex in the war’s aftermath, seeing no clean divorcement between the wartime milieu and after, and notably providing a nudging reminder of widespread French collaboration in the person of Couturier at a time when the legend of the Resistance was being officially played up. Nor do the film’s stakes of tension and character drama play out in a familiar manner. Even Guilbert, the nominated victim of the enterprise, has a load of guilt and grief that isn’t entirely explicated: he seems to have lost his wife Helen in the war, and can speak German but tries to keep this secret, perhaps to give himself an advantage and also perhaps to avoid questions how he acquired this talent. “My life was going finally going to resume its proper course,” Guilbert muses in the opening, followed by rueful awareness that fate has other things in store, a ruefulness that Clément sees permeating the whole post-war world and its uneasy mindset.
Guilbert quickly diagnoses and treats Hilda’s injury but realises the Nazis have no intention of releasing him, and indeed intend to kill him as soon as possible. To buy time, Guilbert, asked to check up a sailor with a sore throat, tells the Nazis that he has diphtheria and must be isolated, obliging them to retain his services. Guilbert immediately sees tactical advantage too: isolated the sailor will force his comrades and the passengers to cram together into smaller compartments: “Hate would become contagious,” Guilbert muses, and, as his plan begins to work, he declares, “I’d created a psychosis of contagion…I was the organiser of this shambles, this floating concentration camp.” During the voyage Clément carefully cross-sections the fugitive Nazis, their interpersonal tensions and quirks of outlook and temperament. “What I miss is going to the movies,” the Vichy collaborator laments, “I love the movies.” Guilbert becomes less an actor in the drama, fool of fate that he is, than a witness to the death throes of an epoch and these last exemplars. He comes to perceive the game being played out between Garosi, Von Hauser, and Hilda, with the Italian too lovesick over his wife and too weak in character (it’s made clear he finished up a Fascist because his father was one) to put up any fight against her affair with Von Hauser. Forster keeps his thug toy-boy in line with fearsome beatings, much in the same way he comes to completely dominate the mission as his companions falter in their will and look for ways out.
The feeling of The Damned mediating eras in cinema as well as history stems from the hangover mood of the pre-war poetic realist movement in the depiction of desperate fatalism amongst doomed people in a cramped, fin-de-siecle setting – co-screenwriter Henri Jeanson had written classics of that style including Pépé le Moko (1936) and Hotel du Nord (1938). A couple of key scenes, like the murder of a traitor and a manhunt through a warehouse filled with sacks of coffee beans, could very easily have been in Pépé le Moko. But the narrative’s swerves and the tone avoid the blasted romanticism of those chicly disaffected works: The Damned is at once more spikily immediate and more punitive in its attitude to the damned of the title. Clément’s direction and visuals are for the most part more realistic and hard-edged, leaning much closer to neorealism, employing non-actors for authenticity in some roles and blending in documentary footage to emphasise verisimilitude and trying to exactingly convey the cramped, tense interior of the U-boat in as convincing a manner as possible. Clément wrings atmosphere and unease out of a touch like a creepily creaking buoy in the Royan harbour. His stern, grey-scale aesthetic had its own influence – John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1965) seems to my eye to have used it as a template – with his emphasis on low, looming angles where the metal universe of the U-boat crowds in the antiheroic lot and cuts through boiling ocean. A long hand-held shot depicting Guilbert’s arrival on board ship and his uneasy march through its halls predicts Wolfgang Petersen’s roving steadicam shots in Das Boot (1981).
At the same time, there’s an added edge of something close to metanarrative play to the way the story unfolds, with Guilbert writing down the tale which he describes as buzzing before his eyes “just like a movie” and himself as writing feverishly as if being dictated to by the haunting personalities of his shipmates, as he is by the end left as a solitary survivor on a ghost ship, surrounded by the echoes of the dead and vanished but still remembering them vividly: The Damned is much about a witness and an artist’s response to the spectacle of war and fanaticism as it about those things. More immediately and practically, Guilbert looks for a way to escape, and gets aid from the U-boat’s Austrian radio operator, who tells him there’s an inflatable dingy and oar ready for him to use to steal away when he gets a good opportunity. Guilbert dithers too long, however, constantly expecting to be betrayed or discovered, and eventually when he does try to flee finds Ericksen has beaten him to it, leaving behind his daughter. Despite the official glaze of determination and sense of historical mission these Fascists set out with, all of them except Forster eventually prove to be contemplating their future with the deepest angst. Couturier plays with a canister of poison pills he carries, the last vestige of choice he has left in his life. When the Nazis finally make landfall in Mexico and visit Larga, who operates as a profitable merchant and seems bewildered this gang of lunatics are still playing war, he listlessly gives aid more to get rid of them than anything else, and encourages Willy to flee Forster and make a new life for himself while he has the chance, even advising him on how to do it.
The queer theme in The Damned, which I suppose should be designated as “strongly implied” but couldn’t be more obvious, reminds me of Roberto Rossellini’s similar use of lesbianism in Rome, Open City (1945) as a metaphor for fascist suborning and exploitation. Such an angle reads as rather homophobic these days, but it’s invested with a fascinating, unsettling potency in the unfolding. Early in the film Forster tells Von Hauser he wants to turf Hilda off the submarine at Royan because she’s dead weight, and tells the General he needs to put duty before pleasure, only for the General to riposte coolly that can very easily get rid of Willy for the same reason. Later Forster furiously bullies and slaps Willy when he teases him for losing a chess match to Von Hauser, and whips him with a belt when he tries to run away at Larga’s suggestion. The introduction of Larga sees the film shift away from the claustrophobia of the U-boat but without any feeling of relief, as Larga tries to obfuscate his way through talking with his visitors and encouraging Willy to abscond, but then faced with the particularly wrath of Forster as he searches for his lover. Clément wrings quintessential noirish energy from this sequence as Forster furiously stalks Willy through Larga’s warehouse, which is crammed with stacked sacks coffee beans, the space Larga recommended as a hiding place instead proving a trap, alleys between the bags lit in brilliant pools by overhanging lights and Willy’s hiding place given away by a gash he leaves in a sack, spilling out tell-tale beans in a gently shimmering shower. Forster advances and collects him with grim, Golem-like authority, and leads him back to Larga’s office where, by virtual pure force of will, he obliges Will to kill Larga: Willy, sweating and glaze-eyed, advances on the cringing Larga, before finally emotion flees his face and accepts the delivering pleasure of being a thrall and stabs Larga through the curtain he makes a last effort to hide behind.
Garosi, eventually humiliated just a little too much, sneaks up onto the submarine’s deck and silently slips into the water to drown himself. Hilda soon searches through his belongings but finds no money or valuables, much to her stung and infuriated chagrin: “Garosi had not even left what would have made him missed,” Guilbert’s narration comments. This scene is a great little vignette for Marly, her icy eyes flashing as Hilda desperately tries to put up a good front in realising she’s now entirely dependent on Von Hauser’s graces, putting earrings on brushing a lock of hair down to hide the dressing covering her wound. Marly’s presence in the film seems to violate the realist texture by pure dint of her hallucinatory beauty, an islet of French movie glamour in the hard, grey panzerschiff zone: Marly, whose subsequent move to Hollywood proved a disaster as she was mistakenly blacklisted, is best remembered to cineastes today for her part as the title character in Curtis Harrington’s Queen of Blood (1966). She’s just as much a vampiric alien here, with her high, razoring cheekbones and rapacious eyes, sowing discontent between the two drone males who lay nominal claim to her whilst also binding them in complicity. Of course, Marly does exactly what Clément asks of her in this, embodying twisted glamour and the erotic appeal of the power-hungry, delivering what Guilbert in recollection describes as “the disturbing Valkyrie widow.” “You only respect the dead that were respectable when they were alive,’ Forster comments when Couturier criticises everyone for carrying on normally after Garosi’s death, only to get up and bawl out some sailors for singing when the Fuhrer has died.
The greater part of the power of The Damned lies in the way it keeps the screw on whilst portraying the self-cannibalising nature of its characters, the weak ones falling away, running away or dying trying, whilst the strong lay waste finally to everything they nominally defend, including, ultimately, their own bodies. Garosi’s suicide and Willy’s failed escape reveal fateful cracks in the alliance. When Forster and Willy return to the U-boat in a boat of Larga’s and cast it adrift once aboard, Couturier tries to flee by swimming desperately for the drifting craft, only for Forster to shoot him in the water. All the while as the last vestiges of the Nazi regime are imploding, with reports coming in on the radio of Hitler’s suicide and then of the official surrender, only for Forster to impose a tight new blackout from the U-boat crew to try and maintain control long enough to gain their destination. Dest is palpable as the ultimate Nazi fanatic, a man with the face of an aging bank manager but the build of a weightlifter, intimidating despite not being a military man – he looks like he could break Von Hauser over his knee, and he later pounds Guilbert until he drops unconscious with pure brawn – and easily bending the young and potent Willy to his purpose. “You planned for everything except defeat,” Forster snaps at Von Hauser as the pressure builds: “I planned for everything including defeat – I’m the son of a blacksmith, not a general.” These kinds of details actually make Forster a unique and potent character, a gay and working-class avatar for Nazism rather than the usual mould of icy aristocrat or the vulgarly devolved, one for whom the credo is essential to his identity as one who feeds off other people.
The film builds towards bleak and ruthless spectacle as the U-boat rendezvous with a supply ship as they run dangerously short of fuel. Forster tries to keep the submariners from speaking with the ship’s crew. But they insist on shouting down the happy news that the war is over. This spreads aboard the U-boat, and a battle erupts between the sailors between those trying to enforce authority and those who demand their release from duty, resulting in a fascinatingly realistic tussle between the men where only one officer is vaguely proficient in punching and so gets the upper hand. Von Hauser elects to remain aboard the supply ship, whilst Hilda overhears Forster proposing to torpedo the ship in revenge: she attacks him in a grip of hysterical repudiation and tries to climb up a rope ladder onto the ship, only to fall in between the two vessels and be crushed as they roll together. Forster carries through on his threat, not just to punish those he calls traitors but also desiring to erase anyone not loyal to him who knows he’s alive. He and a loyal officer sink the ship, and then mercilessly machine gun their own fellow German sailors as they cling to lifeboats and rafts. This miniature holocaust is the climax of Clément’s parable, as he has tried to film the ultimate logic of the fascist mindset, as the numbers of the acceptable and worthy and true are whittled down to an ever-tighter circle of fanatics, until fellow Germans are being murdered in the same fashion as Allied soldiers and many others have been.
Finally, effective rebellion: the remaining ordinary sailors overcome the zealots and Willy kills Forster, albeit still only able to dare it by stabbing him in the back: “Bastard!” Forster groans as he sinks down and dies. The remaining crew flee the U-boat in a life raft, taking Ingrid with them, and Willy jumps aboard too: only Guilbert is left behind, having been knocked unconscious by Forster, with Willy refusing to go back for him in the fear he’ll be able to denounce them, despite Ingrid’s entreaties. The scene of the crew’s flight from the submarine is striking both in the filming and in the starkly evident lack of artifice, beheld in Campion’s frightened face as the actors helping her into the raft accidentally fall into the ocean and nearly take her with them, leaving her clinging onto the raft’s edge. When he comes to the doctor finds himself adrift on the unnavigable craft, the last resident of the Third Reich one dazed, baffled, filthy Frenchman, the last, bitterest irony. Guilbert, with no idea if he’ll ever be rescued, passes the time writing an account of his experience, the one we’ve been experiencing, by an improvised lantern. Relief comes at long last as Clément reveals Guilbert picked up by an American warship, which then sinks the U-boat, as Guilbert tells an officer that he plans to call his story “The Damned.”
Rider on the Rain, despite the many disparities in the two films, conjures a similar mood of opiated reverie from the outset as The Damned: much as Guilbert on his bed is oblivious to his oncoming trial and yet also seems to be dreaming it up, Rider on the Rain begins with its heroine, Mellie Mau (Marlène Jobert), gazing wistfully out a window on a day of omnipresent grey-blue drizzle. The setting is a small town on the French Riviera coast. Mellie sees the bus from Marseilles deliver a tall, bald man carrying a red-and-white TWA flight bag at a stop. Her mother, bowling alley proprietor Juliette (Annie Cordy), is sceptical when Mellie reports this odd sight, as she insists no-one every gets off that particular bus in this locale. The differences between Mellie and Guilbert are obvious too: Mellie is a young housewife, and far from being a survivor of war, is the product of dull, indolent, repressive peace. Mellie is married to Tony Mau (Gabriele Tinti), a Spanish airline navigator with a hot jealous streak, and maintains an uneasy relationship with her dissatisfied and sceptical mother. Mellie seems a good young bourgeois, trying hard to dress attractively, but not too provocatively, for her husband, in buying a dress from her friend Nicole (Jill Ireland): as she changes into the dress, clad only in her underwear, she realises the bald man is starting at her through the shop window, and hurriedly pulls a curtain shut. She drives home in the still-pouring rain and strips off her clothes to have a shower. Returning to her bedroom, she’s bewildered to find one of her stockings missing, and is suddenly set upon by the bald man, who’s wearing the stocking over his face: he ties her up and rapes her.
As far as movie openings go, the first ten minutes of Rider on the Rain weave a singularly powerful spell. Legend has it Jim Morrison was inspired to write “Riders on the Storm” after seeing the movie. Clément uses the Riviera locale, normally associated with blissful good weather, and the pall of rain to create a rarefied atmosphere, dreary and deserted, in which Mellie, whose full first name we later learn is the very apt Mélancolie, moves about in vague approximation of life, and what we see in the course of the narrative works on one level as a succession of conjurations of her haunted imagination. That the film commences with images of the bus bringing the marauding masculine force to her town with a quotation from Alice In Wonderland emphasises this dark fairy-tale feel. The opening credits unfurl over images of the bald stranger walking in the rain, the visitor signalling the arrival of threat that looks for another stray person to latch onto. Even when Mellie is assaulted, the sense of submersion continues. The space of her large and prosperous home becomes a trap where the monster lurks even after seemingly departing. Clément’s visual grammar anticipates the dinner party sequence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) in close-ups victim and attacker’s eyes in strange duet of fear and relish. Mellie claws at the stocking mask, tearing holes in it so her attacker resembles some melting homunculus. After he seems to finish with her, the limp, sweat-soaked Mellie slowly slips her bonds, dresses, and phones the police, but cannot bring herself to actually talk to them.
When she hears a noise coming from the basement, she loads a shotgun and commands the attacker to come out: he does, but when he teases her by making a strangling gesture with the stocking, she shoots with both barrels and he tumbles back into the cellar. When she bends over his body, she finds he still isn’t dead as he tries to grab her, so she finishes the job by frenziedly beating him to death with an oar. Mellie, seeming to decide it’s much easier to dispose of the man’s body than try and explain how all this happened, methodically cleans up the house and drags the corpse into the back of her wagon, and drives it to a remote stretch of coast to dump. Along the way, to her great unease, she encounters a police roadblock, but luckily it’s being overseen by a friend of her husband’s, Inspector Toussaint (Jean Gaven), who furtively asks Mellie if she can arrange for Tony to give him a loan as he’s lost all his pay playing cards. Mellie drops the corpse over a cliff and returns home, only to find Tony waiting for her, and when she tries to pretend she was with her mother, finds Juliette is there too. Tony’s jealousy is whipped up and he constantly recalls how his father would have reacted if his mother had been caught being unfaithful. Nonetheless Mellie is able to burn the last evidence of her action and seems able to resume the comfortable façade of normality, until, a couple of days later, she meets a tall dark stranger, Dobbs (Charles Bronson), a pushily charming American who insists on dancing with her and begins hinting he knows what happened to her.
A cat-and-mouse game develops between Dobbs and Mellie. She at first assumes he’s some kind of blackmailer, as he oppressively inserts himself into her life after Tony heads off for a long haul to Djibouti. Dobbs bullies her and forces her to get drunk so he can then get her to spill her guts, whilst also implying he’s seeking a fortune her attacker stole, which was likely in the TWA bag, which has gone missing. Mellie leaps to the conclusion Dobbs thinks the attacker might have been working with Tony in some kind of drug smuggling scheme, a suspicion that seems to be confirmed when Dobbs encourages her to steal a TWA bag from a shelf in the bus station in belief it was the bald man’s, only to find merely a photo of Tony inside it. The subtler part of Clément’s stylisation here is the way all the various characters seem to have hostile intentions towards Mellie, running the gamut from her indolent, critical mother to her hot-headed and hypocritical husband, and all the way to the man who really does cruelly and viciously assault her. Mellie, as Clément carefully explicates, has a childish aspect to her character, with life experienced as a succession of ugly and wrenching randomness, sourced in a key trauma of her youth, in which she caught her mother having an affair and eventually told her father, who then promptly walked out on them. Whilst he certainly wouldn’t get a job in a rape crisis centre with his method of badgering Mellie and guessing the circumstances of her violation, Dobbs nonetheless walks the line between romantic fantasy, father confessor figure, and masculine threat, at least until his purposes start to become more clear.
Rider of the Rain is dated in some aspects, particularly the gender politics and Bronson’s incarnation of a certain ideal of bristling masculinity as tough-love assaultive, as when he’s glimpsed literally pouring booze down Mellie’s throat, even given that he’s trying to find out if Mellie is a thief and murderer. But it also reflects the shifting mores of the era with some agility, as Mellie shifts from being essentially a decorative object for her husband to someone capable of holding him and others to account, and avenges herself with deadly force, but not with malice. The pitch of Mellie as an innocent abroad trying to leave behind her childhood angst amidst a myth of death and pain signals that in the end Rider on the Rain is much a product of the side of Clement that made Forbidden Games as the one that made The Damned. Nicole is a hipper lass who relies on Tony to bring her records from Swinging London and gleefully awaits a recording she hopefully describes as “bestial,” much to Mellie’s fascinated bewilderment. One notable product of Rider on the Rain’s success was that after nearly two decades as a familiar and increasingly prominent movie face and a smattering of lead roles including Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), it was actually Clément’s film that made Bronson a colossal star in Europe, and his full emergence in Hollywood came soon after. As the film was shot simultaneously in French and English, Bronson was a sport and did his own French dialogue phonetically, but didn’t bother doing it again. This swerve in Bronson’s career was particularly interesting given his role as a character who’s not his usual type of character: Dobbs certainly requires Bronson’s aura of igneous physical and character strength, but who for the most part keeps them restrained, entering the movie as a figure more akin to Cary Grant’s in Notorious (1946) as a smoothly insinuating agent who impersonates and goads the heroine’s guilt complex.
Sébastien Japrisot’s script is replete with nods to Hitchcock, most obviously and a little cornily when the bald rapist is eventually revealed to be named Mac Guffin. And yet Rider on the Rain maintains a very different tone and style to Hitchcock, playing with his beloved transference-of-guilt theme and fascination for highly ambivalent relationships that seem poised between ardour and brutality, but approaching it more as a character investigation where the tension derives almost entirely from the interpersonal encounters. Like The Damned, Rider of the Rain doesn’t quite belong to any genre. It could be said to be Clément’s revenge on Truffaut, as it’s a far better Hitchcock riff than Truffaut ever managed. Rider on the Rain also fits into a mode of art-house thrillers from the time, fusing French cinematic mores and Hollywood-styled narratives also including the likes of Jacques Deray’s La Piscine (1969) and The Outside Man (1972), as well as films by Claude Chabrol and Jean-Pierre Melville. The accoutrement of plot in Rider on the Rain is then mostly unimportant except as it reflects Mellie’s choice to hide her crime and refusal to play along with Dobbs. Her determination to keep the secret is rooted in her sense of responsibility for her father’s abandonment, which she confesses to Dobbs after he’s made her drink two bottles of whisky, a drink she eventually seems to enjoy as much as she says her mother does: “She’s a wiz at infidelity and alcohol.” When a kind of story does develop, it’s the by-product of their gamesmanship.
Mellie is such a goody-goody she can’t even swear, instead substituting the word “saxophone” for any curse she wants to utter, but her unexpected streak of savagery unleashed on the rapist provides vivid proof she’s a tougher, stranger, more formidable person than anyone suspects. Her deflecting way with Dobbs maintains a similar kind of resolve, trying to erase what little proof he can dig up to support his entirely correct summation of what happened between her and Guffin: she threatens Dobbs with the same shotgun she killed the rapist with, but deliberately shoots the wall to obscure gouges left by the original shots. In the course of defending her psychic barricades, she is however forced to pay attention to things she’s been studiously ignoring, like the fact Tony is unfaithful to her with her friend Nicole: when she confronts Nicole, the couturier admits to sleeping with Tony twice, and when Mellie starts slapping her, Nicole halts her angrily after the third blow: “I said twice!” Dobbs meanwhile represents as much fatherly authority to Mellie as an image of masculine menace and fancy: when she tries to lock him out he kicks down her bedroom door, which reminds her, in flashback, of a man who helped her and her mother break into her parents’ locked bedroom, where they found the martial bed shredded by her departing father. “This house is like my life,” Mellie quips after her battles with Dobbs leave it a mess, “Two days ago everything was in order.”
When Nicole comes visiting, hoping to make up with Mellie, Mellie kisses Dobbs to make Nicole think they’re lovers. Dobbs explains as their bickering continues that he’s been able to construct a timeline that brought him to her simply by asking questions around town of people like Nicole and Juliette: “The hell you did,” Mellie objects, “Nobody gets anything from my mother.” She also explains the story of how she got her name, which was rooted tellingly in her father’s whimsical and mercurial nature. Business between Mellie and Dobbs becomes increasingly like a parody of marriage, as Dobbs gets Mellie to fry him some eggs breakfast, which she does dutifully only to then drown them in ketchup (“Americans live on ketchup and milk – I’m a wiz at geography.”), whilst Dobbs takes to sarcastically calling her Love-Love after the writing on her kitchen apron, and introduces her to a game played with chestnuts, chucking them at panes of glass – if the pane breaks, then the thrower is in love. Every time Mellie does it the glass breaks. “You and your Cheshire Cat smile!” Mellie snaps at Dobbs, who has thus far resisted settling down but carries a photo of a son – “I always keep my children.” Finally Mellie does discover the rapist’s bag and the money in it where he left it in her car. Emboldened, she goes to Dobb’s hotel room and finds he’s not a crook or an opportunist, but an American Army Colonel on an investigation.
When Mellie hears of a dead man’s body discovered along the coast, she immediately assumes it’s the rapist. Toussaint tells her it’s been identified as a former boxer and gangster named Bruno Sacchi. Mellie hears that Sacchi’s girlfriend, Madeleine Legauff (Ellen Bahl), is the leading suspect for the killing as she also had underworld connections, and drives out to the beach where Toussaint and other cops grill her to get a look at her. Mellie is stricken with remorse and determines to try and help Legauff beat the rap: she travels to Paris, where Toussaint told her she worked, and follows leads to the place where Legauff’s sister works, after mailing the money back to her home to keep it safe. Trouble is, this proves to be a brothel her sister Tania (Corinne Marchand) runs under the auspices of some sanguine gangsters. Clément nods again to a similar preoccupation with illicit desires as he had in The Damned as Tania tries to seduce Mellie by stroking her thigh, before passing her along to her bosses who, bewildered by Mellie’s entreaties, promptly torture and torment her to find our what she’s about, forcing her to walk about on all fours like a dog and threatening to burn her with cigarettes. Fortunately Dobbs, who the gangsters deride as sounding like a figment of her imagination when she tries to explain about him, chooses this moment to break into the brothel, having tracked Mellie down on the urging of his superiors in fearing she might be endangering herself. Dobbs lays waste to the gangsters in a few artful moves.
This scene provides the closest thing Rider on the Rain has to traditional action, but remains part of the film’s dizzy texture in that it comes about purely because of misunderstandings. It’s easy to see nonetheless why this scene probably did much to cement Bronson’s popularity (after a notable earlier shirtless scene showing off his formidable build), as he genuinely seems like a man who can toss goons around like nine-pins, and blends this confirmation of sheer bullish physical strength with peculiar delicacy in reclaiming Mellie and carrying her out. This whole sequence, whilst essentially a long narrative discursion, provides rather an emotional catalyst on a subliminal level, as Dobbs makes up for some of his obnoxiousness and Mellie finally gains the kind of paternal protector she lacked before. Soon Dobbs explains the truth, that Scchi was actually killed months before and his body was only discovered because Dobbs had the police hunting for Guffin’s. Dobbs himself was sent out to track down Guffin after he broke out of a mental hospital, where he’d been consigned after raping three other women with the same pattern as his attack on Mellie, and stole Army funds. Whilst Bronson got the stardom, Rider on the Rain really depends on Jobert, with the French actress (ironically today probably best known as the mother of actress Eva Green) deftly playing a difficult role as a character who is at once trying to truly grow up and also already has the tools of a survivor, both sympathetic but also eccentric and sometimes insufferable, oscillating between extremes of sweat-sodden suffering, peevish resistance, and crisp, combative humour.
Rider on the Rain is a beautiful-looking product of Clément’s mature style, with visuals that share a near-indefinable quality with those in The Damned in wresting both semi-abstraction and palpability from his mise-en-scene, but in a more sophisticated manner, constructing a psychological universe with his slightly oblique framings and space-perverting zoom shots and mediating long shots. His deployment of colour effect is almost as exacting as Michelangelo Antonioni’s or Michael Mann’s, with most of the film utilising carefully dressed locales and costumes blending blues, greys, and whites, only broken up by specifically associative touches like the fiery red linked with Dobbs (in his sports car and hotel room curtains) and the suggestively uterine saturation of the décor in the brothel. This is a world seen through the eyes of the melancholy Mellie. Clément’s careful framing and use of mise-en-scene is similarly careful, constantly framing along horizontal lines and moving his camera deftly in keeping the performers in orbit with each-other. Some shots evoke the fussily subverted naturalism of Magritte whilst others, like Dobbs setting on a seaside breakwater, and Mellie watching Legauff from a distance on the beach, have a quality reminiscent of minimalist artists like Jeffrey Smart and Alex Colville, utilising stark forms and desolate locales.
Clément risks some in-joke cameo casting touches in employing Bronson’s wife Ireland and Jobert’s stepsister Marika Green, of Pickpocket (1959) and Emmanuelle (1974) fame, as a hostess at the brothel, as if trying to work the theme of family and generational angst into the form of the movie. Another aspect of Rider on the Rain that helped make it a hit was Francis Lai’s score, modish for its time in some ways but very effective, with strains of gently played guitars and organs and thrumming sitars providing a shimmering, haunted texture, and interludes of tinny barroom piano and woozy waltzes lending a faint hint of burlesque to moments of melodrama. The aftermath of Dobbs’ rescue of Mellie leads to a series of epiphanies that finally make sense of the odd behavioural and genre plot flux of the bulk of the movie. Surviving a confrontation with ugly force and self-betrayal brings Mellie to a gentler shore where her mother is now more caring and solicitous, finally murmuring her daughter’s full name for the first time as she watches over her sleeping, whilst Mellie is able to calmly insist Tony take her to London with him on his next trip where they can talk through their problems. The last gift to her comes from Dobbs, who finally locates Guffin’s body and finds a button from Mellie’s dress in his grasp, which he gives to her as a gesture of release. The film’s punch-line is finely humorous as Dobbs, watching Mellie and Tony drive off together, casually tosses away a chestnut he finds in his pocket only for it to shatter a window, leaving him to gaze after the departing Mellie in bewilderment. Rider on the Rain is a peculiar but mesmerising and cumulatively affecting work, and with The Damned stands as a testimony to Clément’s artistry and versatility.
Director: Robert Eggers Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Sigurjón Birgir ‘Sjón’ Sigurðsson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
Emulation and synthesis are eternal processes in art as young talents arise and pick and choose touchstones and heroes and try to find new ways of appealing to audiences. Since the millennium’s turn we’ve seen many a new talent positioning themselves, or being positioned by studios and the media, as cinema’s next Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lynch, Cronenberg, Kubrick, Malick, or Woody Allen. More intriguingly if not always satisfyingly, in the past few years a fresh cadre of filmmakers has tried to blend styles in moviemaking once thought irreconcilable, mating art house, independent film, and Hollywood hit inflections in novel fashions, each commenting on the others. But the spark of real creativity that turns such busy remixing into authentic original art, on whatever level, is something much more rarefied. Native New Yorker Robert Eggers emerged with a bang in 2015 with The Witch, a Horror movie that proved a substantial box office success on a modest budget, made an instant star out of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and Eggers, in his attempts to mate art house movie-style textures, the simultaneously vivid and dreamlike approach of directors like Werner Herzog and Lynch, to a period tale of supernatural menace broadly conforming to the Horror genre, announced he belonged to the gathering wave of directors similarly trying to fuse aesthetic modes and genre presumptions once thought irreconcilable, and in particular a specific wing of this tendency labelled “Elevated Horror.” The main connection of many of the Elevated Horror directors lay in their efforts at quoting classic Horror movie imagery and metaphorical potential but atomising them in a narrative sense, trying to evoke states of dread and fragmenting psychological states.
That said, Elevated Horror very quickly became a set of cliché stylistic gestures, and what was often greeted as groundbreaking in the movement was, to anyone with a strong grounding in the genre as it was in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, rather old-hat. But Eggers also evinced a strong visual imagination and a fascination with surrealism-touched imagery in common with other directors like Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Panos Cosmatos, and David Lowery, filmmakers who, whatever their individual qualities, certainly all seem to share a desire to annex the stature once by filmmakers like Herzog or Kubrick, and reinvest some of the stylistic freedom and atavistic power to cinema that inflected periods in the medium’s history as in the heyday of German Expressionism and late 1960s psychedelia, at a time when both mainstream models and independent alternatives are all but exhausted of personality and visual imagination and potency. The Witch, a film that was certainly exceedingly well-made and impressively styled, nonetheless wielded a contrived brand of onerousness too many seem to automatically accept as artistry, and strikes me as fussy, over-managed, and dead to the touch. I hesitate to say that stylistic instability is, far from a failure in moviemaking, is the essential source of art in the medium, and excessive control is its slow death. But I still often feel it’s true. Eggers’ second film, The Lighthouse (2019), highlighted both his specific strengths, expertly exploiting strong acting performances in depicting a crisis of besieged personality, and his potentially aggravating weaknesses, as he wrapped the central character tale in imagery and Horror movie teases that refused to resolve into much more than student film showboating, an extended stab at trying to have your art house cake and eat your genre film too.
Nonetheless Eggers seemed like a director of promise who could be forgiven the contemporary critical tendency to latch on to the new voice as the greatest thing ever. The Northman sees Eggers taking a leap most of his contemporaries have been unwilling or unable to execute so far, in making a big movie – the budget of The Northman is somewhere in the $70-$90 million range – and trying to bend the mindset of the mass audience to bold and challenging vision, much as, say, Kubrick managed with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The Northman is also a Viking movie, a perennially popular movie subgenre stretching back through the likes of Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958), Roger Corman’s The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent (1958), Mario Bava’s oddball Norse Westerns Erik the Conqueror (1961) and Knives of the Avenger (1966), Jack Cardiff’s The Long Ships (1965), Robert Stevenson’s The Island At The Top of The World (1974), Charles B. Pierce’s The Norseman (1978), John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999), and, for some actual Scandinavian input, Nils Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2010). One could even stretch this to include works like John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, being as they are film drawing heavily on Norse myth for their more overtly fantasy settings.
More recently all things Viking have been hugely popularised by TV shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and now also permeate music genres and subcultures. Those include, rather controversially, sectors of the far right and white supremacists, which has some basis in the idiotic cultural theories and ideals of the Nazis. I suspect the greater part of their penchant for the imagery Norse culture and mythology is essentially the same as everyone else’s at the bottom of all: it’s really cool. The Viking mystique is at once deeply alien and peculiarly familiar, violent and menacing and contemptuous of the more pastoral visions of medieval Europe and the evolving structure of its power and institutions, but also reflects a folk culture defined by powerfully appealing things like camaraderie, macho virility, and rowdy boozing in the mead hall. That Eggers wants to examine the charisma of the old Norse culture more incisively, unsentimentally, and palpably than many such precursors is signalled not just in the sturm-und-drang he invests in his movie’s look and sound, but in the material he takes on to give his project form. The Northman adapts the Danish folkloric tale of Amleth, which William Shakespeare annexed for Hamlet. The Northman isn’t the first film to bypass Shakespeare for the source stories: Gabriel Axel’s Prince of Jutland (1998) also took them on, although, despite featuring a notable cast including Gabriel Byrne and Christian Bale, it didn’t make a cultural ripple.
Amleth’s story might be sourced in lost bardic poems and sagas from Norse culture, but no extant version comes to us earlier than the versions found in two 12th century texts, by the historian Saxo Grammaticus, who included it in his Gesta Danorum, and another, slightly different version in the Chronicon Lethrense. Both versions contain scenes familiar from Hamlet, like the crafty protagonist rewriting an execution order carried by two guardians during a voyage to Britain. Eggers and his coscreenwriter, the Icelandic poet and musician Sjón, by contrast only utilise the loosest outline of the tale, as if trying to peel away the layers down to some presumed origin point as a Viking campfire tale, a myth of bare-boned moral reckoning emerging out of a wild and savage time and culture. This also gives him leave to work in a myriad of harvested movie likenesses. Nonetheless, the basic story is hazily recognisable. Young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is overjoyed when his father, the king of the island of Hrafnsey, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from war, badly injured and weary. He’s reunited with Amleth, his wife Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and resolves to initiate Amleth into the mystical secrets of being king in a rite overseen by Heimir (Willem Dafoe), who is also the Fool in Aurvandill’s court and under the guise of lampooning suggests Gudrún is sleeping around. As father and son walk together, Aurvandill is struck with arrows by a hidden sniper, and Fjölnir and henchmen surround him and slay him, even as Aurvandill curses his brother.
The henchmen chase Amleth through the woods, but he manages to cut off the nose of the one who catches him, and he glimpses his mother being carried away by Fjölnir. Amleth reaches the beach and rows away from Hrafnsey, vowing revenge. “Years later,” as a title card puts it, Amleth, now grown into the hirsute beefcake bodaciousness of Alexander Skarsgård, has become a mercenary berserker in a band of marauders who attack a village in Rus’, slaying many and taking others for slaves. When he hears that some slaves are going to be shipped to Fjölnir, who has since been dispossessed of Hrafnsey and has relocated to Iceland with what’s left of his clan, Amleth slips aboard the ship transporting the slaves and pretends to be one of them: one of the Rus’ prisoners, Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), sees him come aboard and becomes his helpmate, chiefly because she also intends escape: “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” she comments, “I have the cunning to break their minds.” Brought to the homestead of Fjölnir and Gudrun, who now have a son together, Gunnar (Elliott Rose), as well as Fjölnir’s snooty adult son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), Amleth believes his mother feigns affection for Fjölnir to protect Gunnar. He and other slaves are pressed into playing knattleikr, a brutal field sport, during a celebratory meeting of clans in the district, and when Gunnar gets too excited and invades the pitch he is knocked down by a hulking rival player (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson), who then in turn is beaten to a pulp by Amleth, a sign that Amleth feels some familial attachment to his half-brother. This thorny situation demands Amleth chart a careful path to his retribution, but also earns him a level of privilege amongst the slaves, including being allowed to marry Olga.
From its earliest frames The Northman declares its ambitions with volume, as Eggers’ camera swoops over long ships sailing towards the Hrafnsey coast with the booming, drum-and-dissonance-laden scoring of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough immediately establishing a mood of strange, jagged grandeur, and scarcely lets it up for the next two-and-a-bit-hours (the quality of superficial weirdness is as prized by the current crop of would-be film artists and cineastes as much as it was in pop music in the early ‘90s). One distinct facet of The Northman, and the one that Eggers seems most intent on putting across to make this something more than just your average muscleman revenge movie, lies in the way Eggers tries to anatomise Viking culture, to force the audience to share the viewpoint of these almost primeval people who peek over the edge of civilisation before burning it down. In this regard The Northman reminded me less of all those other Viking movies than it did of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s versions of Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969), and Sergei Paradjanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and Sayat Nova (1968), with their usage of relic narratives less to tell their stories than to recreate the societies in their customs and philosophies and the forgotten cultural precepts lurking behind the plotlines.
Applying this approach to The Northman, stripping away the psychological qualities of modern drama and instead immersing itself in the way such things were conveyed and explored in myth, in symbols and archetypes, is a potentially very interesting one, particularly given that Hamlet is one vital source point for modern psychological drama. To radically deconstruct a couple of millennia of western art is certainly no small project. Rather than adapting Amleth’s story straight from the original sources The Northman harvests ideas and images from a variety of classical myths – Eggers and Sjon introduce hints of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, The Odyssey, Beowulf, Medea, and more. Less elevated influences are apparent too: Amleth’s habit of repeating his to-do list of revenging recalls that of Arya Stark in the novel and TV series Game of Thrones, whilst at time I suspected Eggers was somewhat desperate to play Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” but couldn’t as it has recently been profaned by use in Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Northman also reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014) as an odd and fulminating blend of a specific personal lexicon of images and concepts with the blankness of mythical metaphor and the pressures of modern blockbuster filmmaking. Eggers also follows David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) in applying a similarly self-conscious style to illustrating an almost equally archaic but very different tale. If The Northman is a much less insufferable a film than The Green Knight, it’s because at least it seems to know what it wants to say about the artefact it tackles, and adds up to more than a succession of stylistic gestures. On the other hand, it lacks the kind of grand synthesising reach of parable Aronofsky achieved. Where he linked the ancient and futuristic and ages of human development with his approach to Flood tale, Eggers is stuck fetishising rites that at times look like a really far-out men’s encounter group session.
Eggers dedicates himself to portraying the hallucinatory religion and ritual that pervades Amleth’s life and world and strongly suggesting an intended dialectic. Early in the film he dedicates a lengthy sequence to depicting the Aurvandill and Heimir inducting Amleth into a mystic union where they bring him through a process of mimicking and animal and making music with his body – burps and farts – before he then ascends to the status of man and then leaves his body. This ritual cements Amleth’s love for his father in terms both physical and spiritual. It’s echoed later when the priest of the berserkers (Magne Osnes), who took Amleth under his wing, leads the rampaging band in a dehumanising rite. Other visions are proffered as portals of understanding for his psychological functions. This is particularly notable when, sent by a He-witch (not to be mistaken for a Manwich; anyway he’s played by Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) to claim Draugr, a magical sword, from its owner known as the Mound Dweller, an undead being who resides on a throne in a buried barrow: Amleth battles the Mound Dweller when he comes to life for the sword, and finally bests him, only for the camera to return to Amleth standing before the dead man and simply pluck it from his hands, the battle we saw representative of Amleth gathering to courage to risk the taboo and take the weapon. Whether Eggers really nails what he’s aiming for is another thing entirely.
One problem is how he purveys it, with some special effects visions of Valkyries and the mystical family tree that bears forth its progeny living and passed like so many apples, that sway towards the CGI generic in execution, and spoil the integrity of physical solidity he pursues elsewhere. But the feeling of jammed gears also stems fromt he way Eggers approaches the story. Eggers and Sjon try to situate the tale in an overtly realistic and fetishistically authentic depiction of his world, but then lace it was aspects of magic and irrationalism, full of wise seers and preternatural animals. One can see the intellectual project Eggers tries to articulate, but then won’t stick to. He strips away all hint of depth from Amleth and then tries to reinvest it as the story unfolds. Eggers justifies this in part through Amleth’s single-minded project and his berserker schooling, which is depicted in a scene early in the film as he and other warriors whip themselves up in ritual manner to become animal beings who unleash bloody mayhem on the Rus’: Amleth is so dead-eyed a being in this state he doesn’t notice when he fellows seal the village children up in a hall and set it on fire, a casual act of genocidal contempt for anyone weak enough to fall prey to the Viking marauders. By contrast his journey of bloody revenge is an act of a civilised and rational man, insofar as it involves honouring bonds of identity and some basic code of ethics. This leads Amleth to experience a prototypical tragic experience, as seeking revenge commits him to acts that seem self-defeating.
Eggers takes definite risks with this film. Several people walked out of the film during the screening I attended during interludes of violence and overt weirdness, which, whilst perhaps not great for the movie’s bottom line, is a sign that whatever else you can say about it, The Northman is not yet another toothless mass media product. Eggers’ view of the Vikings is hardly exalting: he portrays this world as squalid and replete with brutality and oppression, and leaves you with the impression no sane person would want to live in such a world. The Northman serves the cult of the Viking with a hot dose of undiluted junk. Eggers tries with all his might to force the viewer into the atavistic zone he describes, to enter into a world where codes of speech and behaviour obey their own, peculiar, ritualistic rhythm. Trouble is, Eggers’ manner of doing so courts ridiculousness and a brand of stilted ye-olde-isms and rejected Death Metal lyrics that lack a compensating poetic quality, offering a parade of rasping-voiced men who say things like “I will meet you at the Gates of Hell!” and “Furnish this fierce heart and slayer of men with a drink that I might drink to him!” with a straight face. Eggers and Sjón pull off an interesting flourish however as Gudrun speaks consistently in a more elegant and sophisticated manner than those around her, even employing quasi-Shakespearean metre and metaphor on occasions (“Let my words be the whetstone for your mighty rage.”), befitting her status as a former slave stolen another culture as well as a power behind thrones.
Throughout, Eggers exhibits cinematic traditions he’s eager to annex. There are repeated nods to Conan The Barbarian, particularly in Fjölnir’s attack on Aurvanduill, and later when Amleth battles the Mound Dweller, which takes the scene in the Milius film where Conan discovers the Atlantean sword a few steps further. The sequence of the berserker attack on the Rus’ village is staged in a series of fluid tracking shots and culminates in a long single shot that variably does artful tracking and then pivots from a fixed position, whilst pseudo-objectively capturing acts of carnage and chaos, in a technically impressive but arch imitation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s shooting style on Andrei Rublev (1966). Vignettes like Amleth encountering a Rus’ shamanka (played, in a most inevitable in-joke, by Icelandic singer Björk) wearing funny stuff on her head echo Pasolini and Paradjanov in portraying pagan creeds. Hell, the climax, which situates the final battle of revengers in the midst of flowing lava with the seething magma mimicking the protean moment for civilisation as well as two warring psyches and bodies, directly mimics Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). There’s nothing wrong with homage and magpie borrowing in filmmaking, but like many younger directors of the moment, Eggers’ mix-and-match approach struck me as if he seems to be seeking a fast track to being hailed as a great artist, when the actual meat of the film is prosaic and straightforward, the human-level gestures by and large blunt and obvious, and the images have a contrived quality, so desperate to knock your socks off and yet so often arriving as lumps of conceptual show-off.
Eggers’ Tarkovsky-quoting tracking shots, for instance, don’t wield the same immersive feeling of being a wandering tourist in another world the Russian master achieved, but rather simply feel strenuous in technique and distancing from the horror it portrays rather than making it more immediate. His desire for flamboyance sometimes even hurts the story he’s trying to tell, like the long, mobile take of young Amleth sneaking about wearing a purloined robe amidst slain bodies of his father’s loyalists and glimpsing Fjölnir carrying his mother. Amleth then steals away in full view, rather bewilderingly paid no heed at all by Fjölnir’s men. It’s clumsy staging purely because Eggers doesn’t want to cut yet. Elsewhere Eggers’ barrage of surrealist visions occasionally made me feel like I was watching an especially long music video. The Northman is also one of the most stringently humourless films I’ve ever watched, perhaps out of fear even the most casual gag or moment of ordinary human interaction will spoil the desired credulity for this stylised world, and disrupt the texture Eggers labours to weave. I could have some sympathy there, but even the less heaviosity-charged interludes are encaged by style, as when Amleth and Olga meet to bump uglies in the forest in good pagan fashion, filmed with a kind of iconic import and inescapable aesthetic that chokes off any depiction of real sexual ferocity and feel for the strange catharsis of two fearsome personalities meeting in a place of tenderness.
Amleth begins terrorising Fjölnir and clan by chopping up some of the guards and also two priests of Freyr, acts of violence that seem present mostly because it’s been a few minutes since we had some baroque violence and so Eggers can work through his obsession with imagery of mangled flesh. One of the few sequences that effectively varies the onslaught of ostentatious style is an interlude depicting a mating rite for the younger Vikings, a male and female pair of singers performing for the gyrating lovers. Just for a moment a different sensibility gleams out of the muck. Eggers makes a point that this world is cruel and rough, and otherwise evokes virtually nothing but cruelty and roughness. Still, Eggers attempts through Amleth’s journey to chart the one real force that counteracts such barbarity, the bonds of family and lovers, but even these gets seriously stress-tested. Most broadly, The Northman can be described as a critique on the classic revenge tale, substituting Hamlet’s careful, intellectualised ethical contemplations for Amleth’s more visceral confrontations with the ironies of his quest. Self-professed critiques on revenge tales are pretty common these days, and, again, something of a short-cut to being taken seriously. Most classical revenge tales end nonetheless with varying forms of self-defeating mayhem unleashed.
Eggers’ main twist on this most ancient and hallowed realm of cliché is to essentially present everyone in the film as standing at some point on the timeline of a revenge path because everyone has some spur to seek payback and play such games, because everyone is aggrieved in an endless chain of power. Whilst the film is officially bracketed by the course of Amleth’s, it is also revealed that we’re in the end game of Gudrun’s and see other revenges launched and delivered or deflected. Amleth’s “heart of cold iron” and washboard stomach, honed in his years as a mindless berserker, give him the tools to pursue his end, but they have simultaneously retarded aspects of personality that need reawakening. In a pre-modern world like the one Eggers tries to portray matters of justice, like every other human value, has no greater muscle or strength in the world than the individual human holding them, and the radial of their connections to others, family first and foremost, then whatever can be called their community. Fjölnir’s act of treachery towards his brother is, in a manner never really fleshed out, partly inspired by a general feeling that Aurvandill has failed as a king, but this in turn leads to Fjölnir being labelled “The Brotherless” and tossed out of his kingdom by another, greater king.
The film’s vital story and character pivot comes when Amleth finally manages to sneak into his mother’s rooms in her and Fjölnir’s homestead, believing he’s bringing her the promise of rescue and righteous revenge. But Gudrun instead explains to her son that she pressed Fjölnir to kill her husband, who took her as a slave and then to bed, and far from being her beloved progeny Amleth is the last tether to that slavery and doesn’t care if he lives or dies as the product of her body’s colonisation by a hated foe. Kidman delivers a neat lesson in star acting cunning in her role here, erupting with feral energy as the formerly idealised maternal figure of Amleth’s faith suddenly reveals herself a ruthless and equally primal character even with her greater word power. This scene hits a note of volatile and unexpected emotional perversion but also one that wreaks subtle havoc on Eggers’ theme and approach to it. Rather than taking on Hamlet’s Gertrude as a clueless, sensual thrall, he remakes Gudrun after other Shakespearean archetypes like Queen Tamora and Lady Macbeth, a cunning embodiment of will to power aimed at what engendered it, who is also, to boot, rendered a rather demonic figure, laughing mockingly and employing incestuous appeal to dazzle and disorientate her son-foe.
Trouble here is Eggers nonetheless insists on straying into the kind psychological narrative he was supposed to be avoiding: he presents in Gudrun a furious counter-avenger created by the world’s evil and paying it in kind, one who wields a knowledge of how to manipulate men to control them. Olga, meanwhile, is an earthier archetype, a witchy woman who has cunning arts of her own but uses them more precisely, driving the Vikings to crazed fits by feeding them hallucinogenic mushrooms and keeping Fjölnir from raping her by showing off her blood-smeared crotch. Eggers makes a point about differently gendered forms of payback and power-exercising in this world, the women using guile, stealth, and manipulation to achieve their ends, but just as invested in their aims. At the same time despite his hardening to an engine of insensate wrath Amleth is saved from becoming a self-satisfied princeling like Thorir. Thorir reminded me strongly of the character Senya in The Saga of the Viking Women and Wigliff in The 13th Warrior, both similarly peevish, hysterically insecure and fey princelings trying to prove their strength in a forbiddingly patriarchal world. This indicates the thematic preoccupations of the Viking movie as a subgenre are more codified than one might expect, and more than Eggers quite realises: they’re all fascinated by definitions of masculinity and the strange weeds that grow in the family plot in the shadow of virile patriarchs.
I couldn’t help also but think back to Bava’s Knives of the Avenger, a film which similarly used a Viking-age setting to explore the moral ambiguity of revenge, masculine rage, and fatherhood, in the character of Rurik, a man who in a fit of madness after his family’s slaughter avenged himself by leading a rampage of his warriors and raped the wife of one the enemy’s leaders, and years later inadvertently becomes protector to her and her son. Most crucially, Bava, despite much smaller advantages of technical resources and budget, casually delivered the kind of complex blending of mythological starkness and dramatic complexity depicting the evolving human psyche that Eggers here labours to execute. Late in The Northman Amleth is distracted very briefly by the sight of Olga running away, giving his enemies a chance to to capture him. ‘Twas beauty killed the beast. There’s some guff about Amleth being just like his father, but I’m not sure what that means beyond the very obvious: they’re both dumb enough to be captured by Fjölnir. Anyway, here Eggers tries a pivot of perspective as Fjölnir, confronted by Thorir’s slaying by Amleth, is filled with paternal wrath, wrath Gudrun tries aim properly, whilst Amleth, when captured, manages to delay Fjölnir’s execution of him by taunting him over the whereabouts of Thorir’s heart. Cue a scene of Amleth being tortured and making an escape that nods to another evident model for Eggers, in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (or is it A Fistful of Dollars?). Except that Amleth’s freedom comes thanks to some ravens who peck at his blood-soaked bonds – with the hint it might also be Aurvandill’s spirit animals to the rescue.
Eggers also resorts on occasion to very hoary suspense-building tricks, as when Amleth crouches out of sight behind a hut hiding from some of Fjölnir’s men only to be barked at by one of their dogs, and Amleth is only saved from discovery by that time-honoured mistake of villains not to advance one or two steps more or turn their heads slightly. The film’s last act is enabled when Amleth and Olga, after she has helped spirit him away from the homestead elect to leave Iceland to together, only for Amleth to experience a vision telling him Olga is pregnant: deciding he needs to protect his incipient brood from any chance of Fjölnir hunting for them, he leaps off the long ship, swims ashore, and starks wreaking havoc at the homestead, carving up henchmen. Amleth dealing death to the same warrior whose nose he cut off as a lad feels indicative of the film as a while – cleverly done, wince-inducing in its gory verve, and lacking any true irony or purpose. Bang, a Danish actor who has brand of dark charisma well-suited to playing superficially charming but rather seedy characters, catches the eye as Fjölnir, even if he’s not really present that much in the film.
At least as the film veers towards a climax Eggers ventures into morally abyssal climes as Amleth, on the hunt for Fjölnir, is attacked by his mother, and then by Gunnar who tries to defend her, and Amleth kills them both. Both acts are done in self-defence but spring directly from his resolve, having fully accepted that, if they’re not encompassed within the aegis of his nominally defensive wrath, then they must be sacrificed to it as a matter of course. Eggers captures the spectacle of violently contradictory emotional impulses as Amleth later pays homage to their bodies where Fjölnir has laid them on the volcanic ashes below the Gates of Hel – an erupting caldera – that serves as the primal temple of their mutual fury. There’s a contradiction in here that’s potentially, endlessly rich, in presenting Amleth as at once a lover and a killer, the force of destruction and the seeder of soil contained with his bulbous body, that doesn’t fully emerge, in part because by this point we’ve seen so much death a little more doesn’t make much difference. Amleth and Fjölnir’s battle amidst the lava floes, as well as the likeness I’ve mentioned, is foiled in part because it wants so desperately to finally and fully anoint the drama in a perfect mythic tableaux, two naked men waging a perfectly symmetrical war of motives and heaving abs. But, again, this tries so hard to be instantly iconic that I couldn’t give myself up to it, particularly as the glossy, digitally-enhanced look of the scene and its calculated silhouetting robbed it of the kind of concussive physical immediacy it needed. It’s hard to deny The Northman is a compelling, intermittently fearsome piece of work. But I was left with the feeling the would-be visionary’s reach still exceeds his grasp.
Director: Ridley Scott Screenwriters: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Nicole Holofcener
By Roderick Heath
Ridley Scott’s first film in four years wields the unavoidable feeling of a culmination, and repudiation, more than forty years after his debut feature, The Duellists (1977). Scott’s career hardly seems finished, and yet if he had retired after making The Last Duel the sense of circularity in regards to The Duellists would be irresistible, particularly in coming after his divisive but brilliantly grim and meta revisit to the Alien series, Alien Covenant (2017). Here he offers another film with “duel” in the title, sustaining in part the same driving theme of irrational and self-destructive resentment and fixation and acts of antiquated violence, as well as casually casting two American actors as period Frenchmen and avoiding Old Vic accents, to the consternation of some. The differences are revealing, of course. The Duellists was made heavily under the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), whilst The Last Duel, though it pays overt homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951), sees Scott truly wrestling with only one master, himself. It’s also now more than twenty years since Scott revived his stature as a major Hollywood director with Gladiator (2000), one of his most popular and beloved movies, albeit one that dated with punishing speed. Scott’s been returning to and improvising variations on that hit since, partly for obvious reasons – sticking “From the Director of Gladiator” on a movie poster featuring some hairy, sweaty dude clutching a sword seems an easy sell, even as these revisits have generally failed with audiences – but also, as has become increasingly clear, because it was the gateway into his late career obsessions.
So Scott has been revising Gladiator’s straightforward, even simplistic exalting of heroically bemuscled men resisting tyranny (I’ve long thought of Gladiator as less a modernised sword-and-sandal film than as a period transposing of the sports movie, depicting as that mode usually does the physically dynamic sporting hero as the only figure left to use who can transcend pure commerce and stick up for individual will in determining outcomes) from different angles of questioning, in the tangle of religion and sectarianism explored in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), and the exploration of emerging democratic impulses as presented by folklore in the violently uneven but doggedly interesting Robin Hood (2010). All of those films dealt in varying ways with Scott’s recurring late-career fascination with the birth of a modern concept of individual worth and identity in relationship with raw tribal identity and political power. The Last Duel completes the arc in essentially renouncing Gladiator’s fantasy, by recounting an obscure but fascinating nugget of authentic history, involving a duel to the death. The battle between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was one of the last to gain official sanction as a holdover of the old chivalric faith that trial by combat invoked direct deistic judgement. The clash was held outside Paris in 1386, after Carrouges accused Le Gris of raping his wife Marguerite.
Through its very nature and moment, the event of that duel rests on a fault-line in historical consciousness, confronting our lingering fascination for the days of old when knights were bold and ladies fair walked with wafting silk trailing, with our simultaneous cynicism, which is also the period setting’s, an emergent scepticism close to the cusp of the Renaissance when, whether the powers that be admitted it or not, people knew damn well God didn’t express his will through two guys trying to murder each-other. It’s the sort of subject one could imagine an array of great filmmakers tackling with very different art – Robert Bresson, say, casting his dour eye on men wrapped in cold grey metal bashing each-other to death, or Richard Lester, impishly smirking at the absurdity, or Ken Russell, relishing the ritual of bloodshed and locus of wilful lunatic energy. For Scott, it’s a story that engages multiple strands of his career long concerns and stylistic explorations. The Last Duel offers a chance to bind together ways of seeing, ways that unfold on multiple levels – the narrative itself proffers multiple versions of the same events according to different viewpoints, correlated with the way the film operates as both a definite portrait of a historical epoch and a parable for contemporary concerns.
Unlike Rashomon, The Last Duel doesn’t hinge on a disinterested party’s viewing of events. Instead it presents the viewpoints of Carrouges (Matt Damon), Le Gris (Adam Driver), and Marguerite (Jodie Comer). After a brief prologue showing the preparations for the title duel in all its careful ritual measure presaging the unleashing of pure physical force, the relationship between the three characters is sketched in Carrouges’ opening narrative. Carrouges, the son of a respected Norman knight, sees himself as a doughty, unappreciated, wronged and justifiably frustrated man who has to pay his way through the brutal and dangerous life of a professional soldier. He saves Le Gris’s life when the two men are involved in an ill-advised but honourable attempt to lift the English siege of Limoges in 1370. Whilst they remain friends for a time afterwards, their bond sours as Le Gris becomes a trusted agent of their mutual lord Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck) and is increasingly favoured by him to the extent of being handed both Carrouges’s father’s former title and estate. Carrouges marries Marguerite, the daughter of Sir Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker), an aristocrat held in general odium for formerly siding with the English. Carrouges is willing to overlook the disgrace in the face of Madeleine’s beauty and the opportunity to get hold of fine new estates.
One valuable parcel of land, Au-le-Faucon, which Carrouges firmly insists Thibouville give as part of his dowry, is instead claimed as recompense for feudal dues by Pierre and then handed over as a reward to Le Gris. Carrouges sues Pierre over the title to the estate, but fails, earning the lord’s peevish enmity and convincing Carrouges that Le Gris is plotting against him. Carrouges and Le Gris reconcile for the sake of accord amongst Pierre’s vassals, but the peace doesn’t hold, and Marguerite eventually reports to her husband that Le Gris assaulted her whilst Carrouges was in Paris collecting payment for one of his military ventures. The second narrative presents Le Gris’ perspective, seeing himself as a man of talent and intellect suitably rewarded. Pierre, disliking what he sees as Carrouges’ stiff-necked, charmless, and resentful persona, prefers Le Gris as an industrious employee and friend, inviting him into his inner circle and nightly orgies. Le Gris sees himself as tested to the utmost by Carrouges’ increasingly paranoid and irate streak and generally poor judgement, and feels an immediate connection with the multilingual and well-read Marguerite when he encounters her after reconciling with Carrouges, a connection which he interpreted as inevitably romantic. When questioned about his visit to the Carrouges castle to expiate it, Le Gris explains, “Of course she made the customary protests, but she is a lady.” The third chapter illustrates Marguerite’s experience, a perspective from which both Carrouges and Le Gris are seen as stripped of their pretences and self-delusions.
In terms of the film’s interlocking units of storytelling, each bearing the contrasting imprint of a different screenwriter which Scott has to stylistically unify, the impossibility of knowing crashes against the certainty of result. Damon’s chapter hands himself a part that hinges on his screen persona as a man who people tend to underestimate, for his curiously nondescript good looks, turned increasingly heavy-set in middle-age and matching capacity to play men driven by deeply repressed social or class resentment. Affleck’s chapter is as much a lampoon of Hollywood players in the fashion of his own movie Argo (2012) as it is a portrait of a destructively egocentric pair of men. Holofcener brings the feminine perspective, forcing a discomfortingly close identification with Marguerite as she sweats through several different forms of abuse. The real history invoked in The Last Duel is opaque. Just what really went down between the Carrouges and Le Gris is unknowable beyond what they themselves said happened. The film itself finally is not. I gritted my teeth just a little bit as Scott designated the first two chapters as “the truth according to” but the last, more than a shade archly, sees “the truth” as those words fade more slowly from the screen. The ultimate point of Rashomon was that people inevitably see events that encompass them with a slanted perspective, according to the way they think of themselves and of other people. But fair’s fair: The Last Duel has a different end in mind, that yes, there can be a specific and ultimate truth that other people don’t always want to see, for whatever reason, and that people can also edit their own reality to make sense of what they do.
With a kind of irony allowed only to deities and film directors, Scott can make his film equivalent to the proposed metaphysical reasoning behind the concept of the trial by combat itself, as a vehicle to reveal such hidden truths. Only at a couple of points in the film does Scott and his trio of screenwriters entirely contradict what has already been portrayed, a way of approaching cinema that has a controversial aspect, as it requires the camera which reports narrative to us to lie. But it is used here with exacting purpose. Thus, where Carrouges remembers his attempt to intervene when the English slaughter French hostages at the Battle of Limoges as a valiant if doomed charge demanded by honour and humanity, Le Gris recalls as a calamitous surrender of reason to emotion that cost victory in the battle and almost got him killed. The event binds the two men in their erratic orbit, whilst also defining their relationship to Pierre, whose power over their lives and careers plays no small role in what happens. Carrouges becomes increasingly convinced that Le Gris, perhaps constantly aggravated by owing his life to the older, tougher knight, has become pathologically fixated on taking his stuff and showing him disrespect. Le Gris sees Carrouges as increasingly ridiculous and impossible in his lack of moderation and reason, and that he himself is merely the accidental beneficiary of Carrouges’ self-invited bad luck. Pierre’s personal detestation of Carrouges, sparked by his actions in the battle and reinforced when Carrouges sues him, and his indulgence of Le Gris, reinforces the deeply personal nature of power the age, as the lord has the right and facility to award and strip favours and posts, to oversee and manipulate legal contests, and generally make life easier or harder. Moreover, as Pierre admits to Le Gris in speaking of Carrouges, “He’s no fun.”
Affleck, in a performance reminiscent of the kind Peter Ustinov once gave in movies like Quo Vadis (1951) and Spartacus (1960) in the way he manages to offer levity and glimmers of satirical anachronism without despoiling the overall texture, portrays the medieval lord as a man with a strong streak of smug brattiness, but also a keen sense of his own prerogative and a good sense of which people will meet his needs and those who will not. Pierre comes to lean on Le Gris as both an intelligent manager of his affairs who can get things done, chiefly by employing standover and shakedown tactics to get money out of his vassals and tenants, and as a friend and confederate who comes increasingly to share and enjoy Pierre’s predilection for hedonistic pleasures, pleasures that are readily served up by the in-built pyramid scheme that is medieval social structure. Affleck helps to also bridge the film’s period setting and the more contemporary concerns, pitching Pierre as an indulgent friend and protector for Le Gris, and coaching him on how to handle Marguerite’s accusation: “Deny, deny, deny.” Affleck and Damon of course owed much of their breakthrough as major Hollywood players to the now disgraced and jailed Harvey Weinstein, and this line had the stinging quality of something they might have heard bandied about the Miramax offices at some point. Scenes depicting Pierre playing the easy, jocular host for his circle of friends, making a tart speech farewelling his pregnant wife as she heads off to bed, similarly lampooning a certain kind of Hollywood grandee as he and Le Gris then settle down to the proper business of buttering up the gathered with choice bawdiness.
A key encounter in the course of the tale as a whole sees Pierre deftly counter Carrouges’ scarcely controlled fury in reminding him of what he has every right to do, in a scene where Carrouges confronts Pierre and Le Gris at the celebration of Le Gris being given his father’s title. This scene is cut away from in Carrouges’ chapter, as he reports to Marguerite that he feels he spoke well, whereas through Le Gris’ eyes it’s the spectacle of his old friend making an ass of himself before a much-amused crowd, where Carrouges’ anger is self-defeating, and his attempt to argue to Pierre that Le Gris is a snake in the grass falls totally flat. Carrouges sees himself as a kind of working stiff of the aristocratic warrior class, the guy who, robbed by The Man and unfairly penalised for standing up for his rights, has to go to Scotland to find work, risking life and limb, gaining a knighthood in the process but still returning home to what he feels is snooty disdain. Glimpses of combat in the film in which Carrouges fights at Limoges and in Scotland exemplifies the famous formula of life being nasty, brutish, and short, but battle is also a realm where Carrouges is at least comfortable and competent. This self-portrait is undercut to a degree later when Marguerite learns Carrouges neglects collecting rents on his estate, and takes it in hand herself. Which is actually a nice depiction of one rarely elucidated aspect of medieval life, when the running of a great estate was a task that needed intelligent and competent people and often fell to wives to perform when their husbands were off at war, which tended to be frequent.
The Last Duel in this fashion assiduously details the mores and structures legal, military, and financial that underpinned feudal Europe, and examines the way those things meshed with the people who inhabited it. Part of the challenge in making such a film is to animate the very different ways the society of the age understood cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and individual identity itself, even as the actual people are entirely recognisable to us in their motives and emotional and behavioural extremes. Carrouges, for instance, is revealed through signing his name with a mark, to be illiterate, not uncommon for his time but giving a fascinating and revealing dimension to his feelings of paranoia and persecution in the face of Le Gris’ learning and competence in abstract matters like finance and letters. This represents an entire world at once readily visible to Carrouges but also entirely incomprehensible, much in the same way that much biliousness today stems from the simultaneous ubiquity and incoherence for many of dominant areas of specialised learning like computer technology or high finance. As the titular duel itself confirms, this was still a time when a fearsome price to be paid in physical suffering was supposed to both substitute for, and potentially alleviate, spiritual suffering. Or, to take another attitude towards the same idea, fear of the latter was made more palpable and therefore more impressive and real by the threat of the former, helping create a kind of mental surveillance system to ensure good behaviour.
A very crucial part of the plot of The Last Duel as it reaches its home stretch is the revelation that loss in the duel for Carrouges also means an even more terrible fate for Marguerite too as the accuser, placing Marguerite in an impossible situation according to the sexist and doctrinaire rules of the time. Marguerite would be brandished a liar and heretic through the failure of her husband’s muscle rather than through any reasoned parsing of her testimony, and whilst Carrouges himself certainly risks violent and gruesome death in the hunt for satisfaction, still rather pleasant compared to being burned alive. Marguerite doesn’t even learn this until they’ve travelled far too far down this road to turn back, but she successfully maintains a façade of adamant poise in front of the hearing. Carrouges, knowing that Pierre controls the local courts and can therefore ensure Le Gris’ acquittal, as he does, instead petitions the king for the right to trial by combat, which means weathering a hearing presided over by the king and his Parlement including church elders. Le Gris, for his part, turns down the plea by a cleric, Le Coq (Zeljko Ivanek), to take advantage of a loophole that will let the case be heard in an ecclesiastical court instead, nullifying the risk of the combat, insisting that to do so would be tantamount to cowardice and a tacit admission of guilt, which means he is, more subtly, a victim of a similar bind to Marguerite.
At the same time, the contemporary likenesses are hardly disguised as the film’s driving concern is winnowed down to the offence done to Marguerite, an offence that to gain any kind of justice entails risking still worse suffering. The hallowed cliché of “he said, she said” trotted out in ambiguous accusations of sexual misconduct played here as a particularly lethal game of chicken. The problems identified in the period are the problems of today when it comes to such matters. Marguerite has the right to have her accusation taken at face value and seriously delved into, but faces the presumption that she’s a pawn, or a harlot, or a conspirator in her husband’s desire to revenge himself on Le Gris, who himself has friends in high places who can stymie any semblance of justice, and so she must submit to questioning tantamount to another form of rape as her sex life is probed. Meanwhile by this stage she’s grown heavy with child, an event that might be the ironically late fulfilment of her marriage contract with Carrouges or the product of Le Gris’ assault. It would be more than a bit rich to call Scott the inventor of Hollywood feminism, but what he did do was create, with Ripley for Alien (1979) and later Thelma and Louise (1991) and G.I Jane (1997), templates for how popular cinema approaches such things. Marguerite is a particularly potent extension of this facet of Scott’s oeuvre, in the way her presence is used to purposefully unpack the kind of warrior mystique Scott served up so ripely in Gladiator. But she’s also something of a critique of that iconography of strong women. Marguerite is at the mercy of the men around her, be they officially protective like Carrouges or predatory like Le Gris, and her attempt to stand up for herself never really escapes this zone. The Last Duel dismantles the idea of the white knight standing up for his abused lady, but it also firmly reminds that the kinds of empowerment fantasies we see in a lot of movies today are just that.
Carrouges’ self-perception laid out in the first chapter is undercut in the second and finally laid totally bare in the last, particularly when his reaction to Marguerite’s rape is revised from calm sympathy to one of raging peevishness, seeing himself wronged before Marguerite and demanding she prostrate herself so he can try and efface Le Gris’ imprint on her. It’s an ugly scene that largely dispels what little sympathy one has for Carrouges by this point. But the film succeeds in being more nuanced than expected on this score. Carrouges’ anxious desire to sexually please his wife whilst knock her up avoids the standard vignette in a lot of recent historical dramas of a brutishly indifferent husband, and even in this scene there’s the feeling this is another of Carrouges’ incoherent emotional expressions, beset by the absurdly provoking notion that he can literally fuck Le Gris’ taint out of his wife’s vagina. Driver has perhaps the most perfectly medieval face to appear in cinema since Ron Perlman with the added advantage of being considered handsome, and he gives perhaps his best performance to date as Le Gris, particularly in his playing of the crucial rape scene(s) where he seems to be acting a little drama to which he’s written the script in his head with scarce reference to reality, a playlet in which he’s the ardent suitor locked in a game of erotic hide-and-seek with a proper but lusty lady, much like the games played in Pierre’s chambers every night. Indeed, Scott films one such game, which culminates in the beginning of an orgy, and then recreates the framing in Le Gris’ version of his attack on Marguerite, suggesting the degree to which his reality is by this point forged by the bubble he lives in.
The shift to Holofcener’s presentation Marguerite’s viewpoint adopts a similar tactic to Affleck’s but with a different frame, ticking off chick flick clichés. Marguerite contends with her haughty and critical mother-in-law Nicole de Carrouges (Harriet Walter) whilst being left alone with her for long stretches of time, and hangs out with her social circle amongst the real castle wives of Normandy like Marie (Tallulah Haddon) as they assess the local male talent, with all agreeing Le Gris scores high in the looks department, casual fun which provides another bitter consequence as Marie later resents Marguerite for her accusation against Le Gris. Marguerite weathers her returned husband’s anger over showing excessive quantities of boob, having adopted the queen’s latest, risqué fashion, and experiences bewildered frustration over her primary function, trying to bear children for Carrouges, with her clueless husband shooting blanks and leaving her resolutely unsatisfied, although in her inexperience she has no way to express this, much in the same way her husband cannot himself articulate his most powerful needs.
More substantively, Marguerite is able to put her intelligence and learning to beguiling use in running Carrouges’ estate and expertly assessing Le Gris’ real character whilst seeming to charm him, a foray that leads her to ultimately agree with her husband that Le Gris is a cunning but facetious personality, but also backfires as she hooks Le Gris’ interest. Comer, hoisted to prominence playing a globetrotting assassin in the TV show Killing Eve, gives a formidable and completely different performance here that immediately and firmly establishes her as a major movie actor. She’s particularly interesting in portraying not just the more spectacular dramatic moments, but in touches like her Marguerite suddenly crying whilst trying to sustain a conversation with Marie, and her slight air of pleased self-approbation as she reports her observations of Le Gris to her husband as they dance and notes the advantages in her way of handling problems. A crucial moment comes late in the film when the Carrouges matriarch confronts Marguerite and accuses her of stirring up dangerous strife to suit herself, and mentions that she herself was raped once when young, a secret she kept for the sake of avoiding more trouble, exposing a vast gap not simply in attitude towards such a crime between her and her daughter-in-law but in their methods of survival, as Marguerite notes the cost such stoicism has inflicted, solving nothing, salving nothing.
Alien Covenant achieved a mode of brilliant self-indulgence for Scott as a garish self-satire, restlessly rearranging and re-enshrining horror and melodrama canards whilst using them as fodder for the theme of a creator moving forward with eternally dissatisfied hunger, inventions both great and flawed left in a billowing wake. The Last Duel encompasses a similar reflex, albeit it more applied, in its triptych of auto-critiquing storylines. As well as allowing Scott to revise and complicate his own popular mythologies, The Last Duel unifies strands of his cinematic reflexes evinced throughout his career. Scott’s exactingly wrought and densely layered visual tableaux have sometimes been purely decorative but in his best work also support his attempts to weave a holistic vision of a created, or recreated, world, in movies as diverse as Blade Runner (1982) and American Gangster (2007). The latter film tried to do something most similar gangster films avoid and show how the criminal enterprise worked from the mastermind to the junkie at the bottom of the food chain, shedding light on the antihero’s wilful blindness to the misery he causes, and The Last Duel exhibits the same top-to-bottom thoroughness. The Martian (2015) was more jocular and light-footed in its similar preoccupation with process, exploring the manifold forces human and cosmic required to save one stranded human being. Blade Runner wove dreamlike visual textures from a rigorously detailed setting, and touched on a similar fascination for the depth of the cinematic frame as a zone where every grain or digit can contain meaning, most particularly in the long sequence of Deckard exploring a photograph for clues in the mystery he was unravelling, a sequence of which The Last Duel can be described as the feature-length extrapolation.
The business of husbandry is codified in a sourly funny and cunningly layered vignette, in which Marguerite looks on in bewildered anxiousness whilst her husband gets furious over a big black stallion breaking into the stall of his in-season white mare and trying to mount her. This potent unit of imagery comes straight out of Shakespeare’s Othello but converted from verbal usage to visual. This image doesn’t just comment on their marriage and the impending act of sexual violence, but delves to the bottom of things, establishing how everything in this world is the attempt to desperately control the power of natural forces over the tentative stability of social structures, a world where dynamic, daemonic urges are scarcely leavened by fear of hellfire or a well-swung mace, and the weak are at the mercy of the strong. More subtle but most vital as a visualisation of theme and character are the three different versions of one kiss, which Carrouges bids Marguerite give Le Gris as part of their ritual of reconciliation. What is for Carrouges a glancing, purely polite gesture is for Le Gris a striking moment of chemistry and for Marguerite a perturbing signal, conveyed through both the actors’ actions and the variation in Scott’s camerawork. Such dramas that eventually finish up consuming a nation’s attention, as well as ultimately threaten three lives, can pivot on such fleeting yet intense moments, infinite realities packed into such junctions of human attitude.
The portrayals of the rape itself in both Le Gris and Marguerite’s chapters, again exemplifies the filmmaking care even in showing something that isn’t pleasant to watch. Small details tellingly differ – where, say, Le Gris sees Marguerite leaving shoes behind her like a saucy maiden discarding clothing, Marguerite remembers as simply accidental in the course of her flustered fear – and so too does the visual language. Scott holds back for the most part in Le Gris’ version, filming mostly in wide shots that emphasise the physicality of the event, Le Gris as lanky coyote after Marguerite’s darting roadrunner, before concluding with a point-of-view shot of Le Gris looking down at Marguerite’s face in contorted profile. Le Gris’ version of sex is duly pornographic, defined not by connection but by the erasure of need, and his self-created fiction resumes as he makes his apologies and leaves. In Marguerite’s version the shots are more intimate and urgent, climaxing in a long close-up on her shattered expression as Le Gris penetrates her and then leaves her, the storm having visited and then departed like some deeply ugly and surreal dream, reminiscent in a way of the imagery of violation and sudden, sundering ugliness in Alien.
The attack can only be properly avenged in the trial by combat, which means the Carrouges must work tactically, making their friends and social circle unwitting confederates by telling them and using them in the project of forcing the King to pay attention, circumventing Pierre’s control, essentially the medieval edition of a social media campaign. The hearing the King calls eventually sees the parties grilled by legal minds, a sequence that’s used to encompass the most egregious aspects of the period’s approach to things like sex and justice. The young monarch, Charles VI (Alex Lawther), essentially treats the event as a particularly juicy entertainment, whilst the duel itself is a spectator sport that’s also like watching a movie in that everyone has their rooting interest. Scott builds suspense as the film nears the duel as the potential price Marguerite must pay becomes clear, a truth that displaces the tension over Carrouges and Le Gris’ fates onto her, as she stands up to her irate husband with intense and righteous anger but then finds both a source of solace and further worry when she has her child and wonders if the infant will soon be orphaned after such a long effort by the parents to have him. Carrouges meanwhile is left isolated in both his alienation from Marguerite and most of the onlookers who want to see him fall, and Damon does an excellent job in invoking pathos in the character even when that’s not the focal point through his stolid, chastened affect as the moment of confrontation with mortality looms.
The duel, when finally returned to, represents an apotheosis for Scott in terms of sheer moviemaking craft, capturing with concussive immediacy both the awful violence of the fighters and the nightmarish state of watching it with the certainty that life and death acted out on the sand is also one’s own fate being settled. The cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, with its stern, frigid, muted grey-blue palette only swapped out for the honeyed glow of candlelit interiors, mostly rejects the penchant for beauty found in Scott’s other historical films, and here become furious and alive in a way that feels as cutting-edge as anything Scott’s ever shot – beautifully dashing tracking shots cleaved brutally with inserts of mounted camerawork pursuing the duellists into the joust. Thunderous editing of both images and sound helping lend you-are-there palpability to the shattering lances spraying splinters, horses colliding with walls, and cold steel blades sinking into soft warm flesh, and none of it seems to be augmented with special effects, a particular blessing in this accursed moment in action filmmaking. Every blow and movement communicates physical effort and cost. What it isn’t is a cheer-along struggle of good and evil, even as Scott finally allows Carrouges to become what he wanted to think of himself as, the plucky, honourable underdog with a righteous cause, as he faces not just Le Gris’ unexpected fearsomeness in the fight but the general disdain of the aristocrats in the crowd, including Pierre, who want their charming favourite to win.
The fight comes to its terrible, gruesome end as Carrouges manages to outwit Le Gris and tries to force him to confess, before showing his dagger into the man’s mouth, a bloody and awfully intimate mirror to his assault on Marguerite. Carrouges, still faintly hapless even after proving himself awesomely tough as he needs the king’s cue to face and embrace his released wife, now exhibits sufficient poise to offer Marguerite to the crowd for exaltation as well, before leading her to an under-construction Notre Dame, whilst Le Gris’ corpse is hung up naked and pathetic. Even Pierre is offered a moment of pathos as he’s left clearly mourning his friend. Carrouges fails at being a hero but finally triumphs in offering the crowd a better story, of a knight who has vindicated his wife. Scott nonetheless suggests the awful, lingering bleakness under the relief nonetheless as he cuts out the noise of the cheering mob and has only the sound of Marguerite’s strained breathing on the soundtrack as she rides in slow motion. A brief coda does give a modest dose of reassurance as Marguerite is glimpsed as a happy mother whilst Carrouges has gone off to get himself killed in the Crusades. But it’s with that image of Marguerite after the duel where the film should have ended, with that feeling that won’t go away, like standing on the beach with a colossal wave about to crash down upon you.