24.3.15

Belle De Jour

The shot that encapsulates the whole film might be the one establishing the final scene, in which Séverine's house is overlayed with the forest from her fantasies – the two worlds of reality and the imagination reunited. Séverine is a bourgeois housewife whose husband is completely devoted to her. Her masochistic sexuality is suppressed, and she cannot be intimate with him. Buñuel and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière apparently talked to prostitutes, madams, psychiatrists and psychologists in order to compile real material for the film and try to portray female desire accurately.* Carrière stresses that they (being male filmmakers) were amateurs in the field, but it's nonetheless interesting that there's very little that smacks of the male gaze in the final film. Deneuve wasn't happy with the shots of the black see-through veil, but on the whole nudity is sparse and the camera cuts as soon as the sex starts. Buñuel seems more interested in exploring the weirdest sexual kinks he can find, all with the intention to make us let go of our hang-ups and accept the crazy people we are. The violent but beautiful criminal youth is little more that a plot device. The spirit of the film is probably best embodied by the louche Michel Piccoli, a rich libertine who is entirely at ease with humanity's perversions, and whose interventions help Séverine come to terms with her sexuality, and finally reunite her with her husband.


*Séverine's masochism grew out of the need to fit the character into the plot (supplied by a novel Buñuel didn't much care for), so only a particular facet of female desire is explored in the film. Carrière claims rather grandly that Belle du Jour is the first film to successfully try and do so, but I'm tempted to indulge him on that score.

22.3.15

The Diary of a Chambermaid

"In Buñuel's films, all men are facets of the libido, all women resemblances of love" says David Thomson, my trusted guide to the history of cinema. Much as I disapprove of this reflex to assign genders to character traits, it's difficult not to warm to Jeanne Moreau – who seems to have wandered out of heaven and into a depraved and dangerous 1930s French countryside. Surrealism and symbol are a muted presence. We meet Little Red Riding Hood and the huntsman at the beginning, but the latter is a useless clown, and the former is unable to defend herself from the wolf in the forest. She is raped and killed, and the chambermaid takes it upon herself to avenge her death. In an early scene she hands the little girl an apple – perhaps suggesting that what men see as temptation is only ever supposed to be kindness. The villain is an intriguing creation, swearing loyalty to army, religion and nation, a believer in order in every particular. But he corners Moreau, and accuses her of having the same soul as he does. Is this true? Thomson's reading makes me doubt it. Moreau is a worldly Parisienne. Everyone in the countryside assumes she used to be a whore – but she's there to reflect what others want to see in her. She's the vehicle for Buñuel's critiques, and an angel caught up in the obscene affairs of human beings. She's not a real person.

18.3.15

'The same poverty then extends over human life as extends over the countryside if the weather is overcast. Overcast weather, when the sun is filtered by the clouds and the play of light goes dim, appears to "reduce things to what they are". The error is obvious: What is before me is never anything less than the universe; the universe is not a thing and I am not at all mistaken when I see its brilliance in the sun. But if the sun is hidden I more clearly see the barn, the field, the hedgerow. I no longer see the splendor of the light that played over the barn; rather I see this barn or this hedgerow like a screen between the universe and me.' - Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share

15.3.15

Céline and Julie Go Boating

Hard for me not to read things in a feminist direction, and with this film I won't try. It's funny to me that most of the discussion around its themes centre on memory and storytelling. I think Rivette is only interested in the former as a function of the latter – how stories interact with our own memories and experience. But all of that ignores the central movement of the film: that of two women claiming agency of their lives and the stories they tell.

And they do this through each other. Céline impersonates Julie and disarms her childhood sweetheart, the conventions of romantic love and the pathologies of male desire. Julie returns the favour by impersonating Céline, calling out her exploitative employers at the cabaret and the pathological male desire it services. Both run away from the restrictive worlds of love and work, which they find boring and patronising.

And they are sucked into the drama of the haunted house, where two sisters pine for an unreachable widower (who rather than wiving one of them appears more interested in the housekeeper). These ghostly ladies revolve around the uncertain affections of a dour Byronic hero, and their mania will lead to the death of his young daughter. Céline and Julie, having saved each other, conspire to save the child from the restrictive story she is trapped in. They invade the narrative, making the ghostly ladies dull and ridiculous by comparison. And they end up escaping from it all, with the young girl joining their troupe.

Arguably, Rivette's focus on running away into the imagination is not a serious response to objectification, which eventually requires engagement with the worlds of love and work in order to end it. But the portrayal of Céline and Julie's solidarity – with each other and with all young girls caught up in other people's stories – mitigates that. Their irreverent example is practical up to a point. You need the space to reject the dominant narrative before you advance and change it. And 40 years on, this film definitely feels like part of that advance.

Promethea

Reading Promethea, a slight narrative weighed down past breaking point by fantastically illustrated lectures, makes you realise how didactic a lot of Moore's work can be – from the treatise on anarchy in V for Vendetta to the coach-ride through history in From Hell. I don't have a problem with that necessarily. Part of my job involves thinking about how to express complex ideas visually, so I'm all for comics taking up the same challenge. My problem is with what Moore is saying.

Little of it is outright wrong, although some of the kookiest bits are hard to stomach. At one point Moore talks about our DNA somehow 'projecting' the idea of the double helix into our brains. He also gives serious credence to the notion that our consciousness developed as a result of taking psychedelic drugs. This is mad hippy uncle stuff, and it's difficult to forgive.

But most of the lectures are about a way of looking at the world – one which I don't find particularly helpful. Moore divides reality into the material and the immaterial, the latter is the domain of the imagination and it bears some similarity to Plato's Realm of the Forms. Like Plato, Moore says that "the worlds inside and outside us have the same structure, the same pattern". This assumption underpins the Republic, and it is entirely groundless. There is no reason to suppose that the ordering of the virtuous mind somehow corresponds to the ordering of the virtuous polity.

Moore doesn't go that far. Instead he is at pains to explain how ideas can transform the 'real' world: "changing the world is like changing your mind. It's just that matter's thicker and more viscous than imagination, so it takes longer". But Moore's idea of a shared imagination is selective: there is "no tax, no property" in the Immateria, even though these things are ideas too. Likewise, war and conflict are the result of a failure of imagination, they are not a part of it. Moore's Realm of the Forms only contains those things Moore sees as virtuous. Nietzsche's notion of the inescapable conflict between human beings and their ethical systems, which powered the moral universe in Watchmen, is abandoned.

The cosmology in Promethea is very different. Moore sees the workings of 'magic' in the creation of the universe – noting (correctly) that the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity all appear finely tuned to support the development of habitable planets and intelligent life. This is a modern variant of the teleological argument popular at the turn of the 18th century and demolished by Hume in the Discourses on Natural Religion. Moore also insists that science can have nothing to say about human consciousness and the imagination, despite the efforts of cognitive science to do just that – an endeavour often self-consciously extending the 'science of man' project initiated by the Scottish Enlightenment (I am a partisan, if you can't already tell).

Moore's vaguely defined apocalypse involves abandoning the material plane entirely. This does not actually happen at the end of Promethea – humanity pretty much continues as before, conflicts and all. There is one interesting suggestion as to what this rapture might look like, but it's in a throwaway reference to "virtual space". If technology eventually allows us to abandon our bodies entirely, that would involve a radical transformation of our consciousness – a real end of history. But this is not a future Moore is interested in charting. Instead, his transfigured humanity is a little more open to the kinds of spiritual esoterica Moore finds attractive, but otherwise unchanged.

All of which is to say again what I said about From Hell: when it comes down to it, I would pick Nietzsche over Plato. But the damage caused by all this wooly thinking is so much more evident in Promethea, because the lectures are the only reason for reading. Plot and character are sacrificed in order to make room for Moore's philosophy, and if you can't buy his theories, important character beats like Sophie's reconciliation with her mother fall flat. There is little left to admire beyond the superhuman efforts of J. H. Williams III to illustrate Moore's musings. He does them far more justice than they deserve.

6.3.15

I disobeyed because the law was not
The law of Zeus nor the law ordained
By Justice, Justice dwelling deep
Among the gods of the dead. What they decree
Is immemorial and binding for us all.
The proclamation had your force behind it
But it was mortal force, and I, also a mortal,
I chose to disregard it. I abide
By statutes utter and immutable –
Unwritten, original, god-given laws.

Sophocles (trans. Seamus Heaney), Antigone

2.3.15

Wolf Hall

I wrote about the first book here, I've not read the second. The BBC adaptation wrapped up last week, and it's a near perfect piece of television drama. Imagine Game of Thrones if it was just about Varys and Littlefinger and all the gratuitous sex and violence was scaled back to zero. Instead there's Mark Rylance carefully climbing that Tudor greasy pole.

Mantel's big theme is how politics works in an autocratic state. To borrow from my post on the book: Cromwell has to remake England to service the king's whims. He has to get up in the middle of the night because his sovereign has had a nightmare, and his position is secured because he is able to provide the most flattering interpretation of the dream. Careers are made and unmade in such moments. Everything rests on the disposition and desires of a single all-powerful man.

I remember the book being a bit harder on Thomas Moore – Anton Lesser portrays him more sympathetically. Cromwell does do everything he can to make Moore compromise, but Moore is too proud and stubborn. Nonetheless, the audience is left with the sense of a society where freedom of expression is policed, and can be curtailed if you get on the wrong side of the king. Cromwell is a dissenter in private, but his job is to be the arm of the theocracy in public. His stoicism may be prudent, but it is by no means just that Moore should die for staying true to his beliefs.

22.2.15

Silver Linings Playbook

This is romantic comedy pure and simple – a genre exercise with the twist being that both star-crossed lovers have a mental illness. Bradley Cooper is bipolar and Jennifer Lawrence has bouts of depression. There's the supporting cast of wacky characters, most notably the superstitious gambling addict Robert De Niro as Cooper's dad, and there's a race for your love 5 mins before the credits roll.

What lifts this beyond the ordinary is the dark side to the humour. Bradley Cooper's episodes are used as a source of comedy, although Russell is careful not to descend into caricature – the point of the film being that people with mental illness are people too. Then there's the swooping camerawork, making full use of point-of-view shots and constantly pulling in to close-up: a visual reminder of how in your face and disruptive Cooper's illness makes him. Fittingly, there's a celebratory circle around the first kiss before the camera rushes back the street leaving the couple as pinpricks. The mania almost literally rushes out of the story. Normality is restored. Like I said: romcom pure and simple.

19.2.15

50 Shades of Grey

I haven't read the books, and watching the film was a lesson in expectations management. Every review I read started with a denunciation of the film's politics, and lamented that the director (a respected artist) was forced to work within the confines of delivering an R rated film (as opposed to an X rated one) and with E.L. James's dialogue and persistent demands for more sex scenes.

Which is fine. On the politics, it's clear enough that Christian Grey is a creep at best whose main seduction trick appears to be having lots of money. He stalks Anastasia Steele, breaks into her house, and disrupts her relationship with both her parents. If she wasn't so dazzled by his dreaminess, she would take out a restraining order and sue him for harassment.

But this is fantasyland. Although it plays to the trope of the aristocratic sadist, 50 Shades is more faithful to the Twilight model of romantic melodrama (the books started life as fanfic). But Edward's fear and repression of sex is here replaced by Christian's fear and repression of love. Which in some ways is an improvement on the original.

But in other ways not. By the end of the film Christian stands condemned in the eyes of Anastasia and the audience, and it is heavily implied that his fondness for BDSM is pathological and caused by some kind of extreme childhood trauma. The idea that those of a kinky sexual persuasion can be perfectly well-adjusted demon-free human beings is sadly missing from E.L. James's narrative. Secretary this is not.

And yet despite all these political problems and the ridiculous dialogue, I do admire Sam Taylor-Johnson and her two leading actors for managing to do so much with the script and portraying female desire so well. Although Christian's issues (described as "50 shades of fucked up" – the only nod to the title) provide the main source of narrative tension, the film would have worked out better with all of that stripped out. 50 Shades as straight-up erotica would need little narrative propulsion beyond Anastasia discovering the joys of sex with a hunky rich guy. One hopes that such a prospect would have been just as wildly popular as the creepy Christian audiences have had to settle for.