Saturday, September 10, 2011

An immoral conundrum as a love story

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee)

There is a moment towards the end of 'Lust, Caution' where the two main characters give each other a series of looks. It lasts for quite a while and there is no dialogue. It's not necessary - the protagonists tell each other what they are thinking simply with their eyes. We know exactly what they are thinking - or at least are given the opportunity to make up our own mind. We also know a fraction of a second before she delivers the killer-line that she will say it. It's a great moment which made me gasp. Up till this moment in the film, I feel that Ang Lee has given us one big tease. Is she, isn't she? Is he isn't he?

'Lust, Caution' is quite obviously a take on Hitchcock's Notorious (something Lee has gone on to say as much in interviews). But anyone coming to this film expecting a romantic thriller, will be sorely disappointed. This is a completely different kettle o' fish. The heroine of 'Lust, Caution' is most assuredly on her own here. There is no Cary Grant to save her from the villain or, more to the point, herself - Ang Lee fondly reminds us of this when our heroine sees Penny Serenade at the cinema and we have the spectacle of Grant's big close-up bearing down. It's a very touching moment and a subtle reminder that this tale will probably not have a happy ending. I imagine a clip from 'Notorious' would have been a bit too obvious but in another scene we do see her crying over Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo (Grant's co-star in 'Notorious' and the original spy/whore).
It's interesting that we also catch a glimpse of a poster for Suspicion. In that film Joan Fontaine's ingenue marries Cary Grant's probable killer. The moral dilemma that story kicks up is clearly brought to mind here. But that film is ultimately too timid - studio pressure meant that the morally explosive climax of Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley writing as Francis Iles) was expunged for the film adaptation in favour of a much tidier 'safe' ending (Hitch wasn't happy and neither are we). The twisted morality of 'Malice Aforethought' is much closer in spirit to 'Lust, Caution' than 'Suspicion' for sure.
But it's 'Notorious' Lee is most interested in here. At least as a counterpoint.
Anyone who knows 'Notorious' will know the differences - not just in plot but in pacing and narrative. 'Lust, Caution' is as much an espionage thriller as Brokeback Mountain is a Western (not much then!). Characterisation is poles apart also. In 'Notorious', Ingrid Bergman's Alicia is a drunk and treated as a tramp (Personally I'd like to think she was just a hedonist who liked a good time or two - which to the more prudish and judgmental among us equals a tramp anyway). Cary Grant comes along and persuades her to become a spy, to seduce the Nazi, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) in to bed so they can find out what he and his fellow Nazis are up to in Rio. Of course, Alicia is initially reluctant for many reasons. But Dev knows she's been round the block a few times - she knows the difference between work and play, and she goes along with the plan very much with her eyes wide open. And essentially what follows is a love story pretending to be a spy thriller - at the heart of 'Notorious' is a story of redemption through love. The spy element is the 'mcguffin'.
But it is still a thriller.
'Lust, Caution' on the other hand, with its deliberately slow pacing and intense eroticism, is something else entirely. One thing it is not, is a thriller. At least not in its conventional sense.
Although the 'heroine' of 'Lust, Caution' is not a virgin when she meets Mr Lee, she is very much an innocent. The clumsy, and tragically comic, fumbling 'sex lessons' she endures with one of her fellow resistance troupe is certainly no real learning experience for life or for what she has to do. Unlike Alicia, she is an innocent to men and sexuality - she wouldn't find it so easy to distinguish between 'work and play'. Like Alicia she is 'Mata Hari' - she "makes love for the papers". A spy. Unlike Alicia, she is practically a child. But she is also an actress.
So, what are we seeing? Is Wong Chia Chi an actress giving a convincing performance for fear of risking her life? A naive innocent? Is this even a love story? It's a severe test of our empathy if it is.
Here, we are not given the luxury of knowing what she is really thinking. That's were the tension comes from. That's its genius. It's also its biggest flaw.
I don't think we ever truly know what the heroine is really feeling - is she acting, is she falling in love with Mr Yee? Or is it maybe a mixture of both? Possibly. Over the course of a little under three hours I don't think we ever truly know. In the same way, we know practically nothing about Mr Yee - his actions, what he is feeling. We only know what is told us - what is spoken about by the troupe of resistance fighters, what they believe: that he is a collaborator and torturer.
But we never see it! (Only once, I think, does Mr Yee talk about it). Is this dishonest of Lee? Or do we really need to see it?
Maybe it's not important. After all, Wong Chia Chi never sees it so why should we? This is her tale.
The first real clues to Mr Yee's true nature become blisteringly apparent in the first time they have 'sex' - a scene of such brutal ferocity that it gave me a knot in my stomach - he beats her with his belt and rapes her. For the audience, it's very easy to see the corrupting monster he is from this scene. Maybe this is how he has treated his (female) captives? It's not hard to imagine. But for the naive innocent Wong Chia Chi, I think it's entirely possible to imagine her seeing this brutal act as making love - how would she know any different? She's no Mata Hari or Alicia Huberman. She doesn't know men.

I don't know. Even after a second viewing, I'm still undecided if I really like Lust Caution. I certainly find it hard to engage with the main characters.
Ultimately, the ambiguity of the heroine's motivations and the inscrutable characterisation of Mr Yee not only alienates much of the audience but also leaves the film open to accusations of immorality - is this really a love story? And if so, do we empathise with a woman who is very likely in love with a monster?
Is it enough to say she is an actresst, even more than that, an innocent. I would say that, by the end of the story, she has certainly become a little infatuated with (inscrutable) Mr Yee and so her naivete means she makes a terrible decision. Whether he is in love with her is an irrelevance almost. It's too late.
If she - or we, the audience for that matter - were shown Mr Yee's crimes, this would be a very different story. Motivations would be black and white. Whether this would have made it a better film or easier to understand is a moot point. I do feel though, it would have been an easier film to forget.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tilda, the cold-hearted child-catcher... Tilda, the saviour

Julia (Erick Zonka)

As shamelessly biased as I am towards the monumental abilities of our transcendent goddess of cinephilia that is La Tilda of Swinton (she is, without any shadow of doubt in my mind, the greatest living screen actor), I was still a little in awe of her raw, not to mention brave, performance as Julia. She is utterly convincing as, let's be honest here, a quite repulsive woman. Someone who, at the very least, is profoundly flawed - a self-centred alcoholic lush who cares about no-one and wears her propensity towards self-destruction on her sleeve. Who then goes one step further towards obliterating any last vestiges of sympathy she may have elicited from the people around her and us, the audience, by doing the unthinkable - kidnapping a child for ransom.
If that isn't bad enough, the rough treatment she metes out on the boy is nothing short of spiteful and cruel. Her careless attitude is unflinching (locking him in the boot of her car till he shits himself, screaming obscenities at him while waving a gun in his face, gagging him and leaving him tied to the radiator of the motel room, abandoning him in the Mexican desert at night). It's deeply upsetting to watch and you wonder how you can engage with this mascara smeared devil. And yet yes, we are still rooting for her! Highsmith fans will be smacking their chops.

It's not until the last 40 minutes or so, when the mother instinct breaks through the seemingly hard-as-nails but still very brittle exterior, that her humanity and compassion spills out at last. (It's been an emotional slog getting there so our relief is palpable). As she awakes (from a night of filth with her Mexican trick) and her poor wretched captive tyke is led in to her, bathed in the warm orange and yellow glows of a South American sunrise, the dispossessed lush and motherless son seem to bond. It's a profoundly moving scene (reminding me a little of the restorative feel that the later scenes in Irreversible invoked) and just about stops you wanting to kick Julia into submission. Can Julia redeem herself? Well, she does try - she really does. Unfortunately for them it may be too late for redemption, as events take a terrible turn and spiral even further out of Julia's control and we wonder if anyone will get out of this alive?

The ending is frustratingly abrupt but also kind of perfect - I'd love to know how things panned out but whatever happens next is a whole different story of course and nothing is better than our imagination for filling in the gaps.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Love? Pah!

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

As near accurate a portrait of the perfect love affair and its literal death are rendered here explicitly and so utterly, that it's jaw-dropping closing moments will floor even those hardest of hearts [I can imagine the disappointment of the archetypal couple, hoping for a romantic diversion to affirm their own burgeoning amore: she persuading him that it's not a sentimental chick-flic, while secretly assuming it is and he, all harrumphing scepticism, ending up being the first one dribbling tears and snot into his half-empty pop-corn bag when he realises they're probably doomed].
The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams is deeply involving. They're total opposites. She's very internal, reserved - a little too inscrutable [to the point that some will empathise less with her] but her restraint does what it's supposed to - unwittingly pulls us in. Williams is exquisite with restraint [as just one single heart-stopping shot in Brokeback Mountain will testify]. He's visibly emotional, always (self)analytical, his heart not just on his sleeve but worn proudly like some shiny enamel badge - all gamboling immaturity that drags us along for the ride. If it was anyone but Gosling we'd be gagging.
With her quiet intensity & seriousness and his openness & sentimental nature, in some ways it's quite a gender role-reversal for a love story. But this chalk and cheese characterisation is also an early alarm-bell of the cracks to come and not only do they ignore it but so do we - who in life hasn't ignored those warning signs while skipping along the wishful-thinking path? Hopeless romantics will wax lyrical about the attraction of opposites, that spark of instant amore, the clash that is only a hurdle on the path to 'true' love. But that's the point of opposites - they have a tendency to end up being exactly that. That's the real tragedy here. The real tragedy of love.

It's the first Great film of 2011. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll want to fall in love. And then you'll wanna run screaming the other way.
And then run back again of course!

originally published on Flixter February 2011

Thursday, September 01, 2011

In defence of the superficial... oh, the glamour!

Arabesque (Stanley Donen)

Arabesque has the unfortunate handicap of being Stanley Donen's follow-up to the rather more revered and more polished Charade. It's unfairly dismissed as a poor imitation of it's predecessor. That Gregory Peck is a poor man's Cary Grant and that the film is, at best, camp hokum and at worst lazy and boring. Even a Bond rip-off! No matter. 
I will say I have never been a huge fan of Gregory Peck. I have always thought him a little too cold and wooden. His granite façade often seems impenetrable to me. There are one or two exceptions (the campy but under-rated Duel in the Sun always comes to mind). The label of poor man's Cary Grant is maybe a little too harsh but sometimes is rather fitting. Here though, the character of Prof. Pollock is a rather fusty and naive character. A 'wet fish' if you like. So the first time we see him he has literally driven his pupils to sleep with his dry lecture. He is a quintessential stereotype and Peck fits the part like a glove. Cary Grant, at this point in his career, was the very epitome of cool suave and knowing sophistication. He just wouldn't have been right for the part. He wouldn't have sent anyone to sleep and he certainly would have seen through Yasmin (Sophia Loren) from the outset.

Arabesque is not a pale imitation of Charade. It's just a less subtle pastiche of Hitchcock. The line between pastiche/homage and actual rip-off is often a thin one and always subjective of course. But it's more problematic with Hitchcock because many of his films are templates - he invented and perfected a lot of the rules and techniques of the spy/suspense genre we now take for granted. Arabesque and much of the spy/suspense genre films from the 60s, including the Bond films, are remakes or variations on the 'formula' perfected by Ernie Lehman and Hitchcock in North By Northwest - the sophisticated hero, armed with witticisms if not a gun, the cool and beautiful heroine who is not what she seems and who beds the villain as well as the hero, the famous landmark set pieces and breakneck chase sequences, the charming villain surrounded by loyal & lethal henchmen and so on (while on the subject, two Hitchcock regulars were considered when making the Bond films: Cary Grant was considered for playing Bond and Bernard Herrmann was considered for the score. Imagine how much more Hitchcockian Bond would have felt with those two elements in place)

The sequence at the racetrack is most definitely a send up of the racetrack scene in Notorious. In Notorious it's a scene about restraint and is played for tears. A heartbreaking Bergman is reduced to tears as she is rebuffed by a seemingly uncaring Grant. In Arabesque, Donen keeps it light and frothy; plays it camp - Peck and Loren overplaying the cloak and dagger routine by speaking in 'la-di-dah' clipped tones and Loren in an improbably large hat. Just as this is a tongue-in-cheek wink to Notorious, during the finale, where our heroes are chased into a field of green crops and are attacked by the villains with farming machinery, we get a joke on the crop-duster sequence in North by Northwest. But these are only a couple of very obvious references - Arabesque is full of them, some more subtle than others, and that's why it's such fun.
That and Sophia Loren looking utterly splendid - she is given a different Dior outfit for every scene and when Peck meets her for the first time, and utters "Hello... helloo, hello, hello helloooo!", you are with him with every coo!
The villains are thoroughly camp if slightly inconsequential. Alan Badel as Beshraavi, like Blofeld with his cat, is never without his falcon on his arm and never takes his dark glasses off - I think it's meant to be intimidating. It's not - you just keep expecting him to walk into the furniture. He also seems a little too interested in dressing Yasmin in new shoes rather than threatening her with anything more physical!
And all the Arab characters are just Brits with painted faces - mostly not even bothering with an accent. Which of course only adds to the camp value.
Mix in Henry Mancini's fantastic score and Christopher Challis' distinctively psychedelic and very sparkly camera-work (lights, mirrors and reflections just about everywhere) and Arabesque feels totally of its time and genre - glamorous, sophisticated, huge fun and completely superficial. What's not to enjoy?

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