17.7.16

The Passion of Anna

"My philosophy (even today) is that there exists an evil that cannot be explained – a virulent, terrifying evil – and humans are the only animals to possess it. An evil that is irrational and not bound by law. Cosmic. Causeless. Nothing frightens people more than incomprehensible, unexplainable evil."

That's Bergman on the film – suggesting that it has an almost Lovecraftian undertone. In fact a good way to read it is as a kind of existentialist horror film. We get some rather unsettling images of the carcasses of mutilated farmyard animals. The culprit is unknown, underlining Bergman's emphasis on the inexplicability of human evil. But the gruesome acts instill a sense of fear and suspicion in the community that spurs a local gang to find and punish a scapegoat. The account of the punishment is delivered in dialogue, mainly because it's too awful to depict visually. Anna's description of the death of her husband and son in a car accident is also grim going. Passion is not as hard to watch as Shame, which was made at the same time and shares many of the same preoccupations. But it's uncompromisingly unpleasant nonetheless.

My emphasis on it being an existentialist horror film is not flippant – in one of the key monologues towards the end, our protagonist Andreas describes the humiliation of failure and how the inability to assert himself against the world leads to a withdrawal from society. He shares his malaise with Ava, who is trapped in a marriage with a rich, aloof and sarcastic husband, and is also unable to pick and fulfill her own life project (she refuses to have children after a miscarriage). The husband is probably the most well-adjusted character, but he's also a bit of a creep, unconcerned by his wife's infidelity and subtly driving Andreas into debt and servitude. He's an amateur photographer who understands that photography cannot capture personality, just surfaces. That outlook is underlined (and perhaps undermined) by the insertion of four interviews with the four leading actors separately discussing their characters.

But clinging to illusions turns out to be even worse than disillusionment. Andreas's violence is the result of frustrated self-loathing – the realisation that he is a worthless human being. Anna cannot process her own failures, and instead fabricates a fairytale of her happy previous married life. Although she insists on the need for people to find a truth they can believe in and live up to, that imperative turns out to create hostages to fortune. If life doesn't comply with your truth, you change it, violently if necessary. Better to kill your family and remember them lovingly than go through the pain of seeing that family crack under the pressure of real life.

One of the ideas Bergman was playing with when making Passion and Shame was of Fårö (the island where he shot many of his films) as "the Kingdom of Hell". Although Bergman prefers to gloss the evil in Passion in a transcendental way, you can also read it as a malaise caused by the subjugation of the individual by society. Anna must cling on to her belief in her perfect marriage because of the ideals and expectations that surround her. Likewise, Ava is unable to escape her lofty and remote husband because she is forced to be a jewel in the crown of his many achievements. Andreas is a failure – he can't even fix his house properly (as the opening scenes make clear). He's not the embodiment of what we expect of the male hero.

The interviews with the actors is one way of getting to the notion that these characters are playing roles foisted onto them by the tyranny of society. The darkness of human hearts is not put there by an incomprehensible creator, but by a director making a film. And one way of surviving is to recognize that these are roles to be inhabited when needs must, and then cast off when you find something better. This is not something Bergman allows for here (interestingly, he now thinks inserting the interviews was a mistake). In Passion, nothing better is available, and the characters end up walled off against each other, wandering alone in a barren landscape. Human interaction is a recipe for hypocrisy, which leads to either delusion or nihilism, with violent consequences. Genuine communication is only possible once our propensity for roleplaying is recognised. In Passion, we only get to see it when the actors speak about their characters – when they step out of their role and have the freedom to reflect on it.

10.7.16

Ninja Scroll

This 1993 anime gets grouped alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira as being classics reasonably well-known in the West. It's an expertly crafted wuxia (martial arts) film, with very stylish and frequently gruesome fight scenes, a complex story which unfolds well, and every narrative thread tied up nicely at the end. That doesn't distract from the sometimes rather troubling genre conventions it exemplifies. As expected, the hero Jubei is an itinerant warrior who refuses to play by anyone's rules but his own – a particularly attractive fantasy for conformist Japan. His attitude echoes that of Guts in the manga Berserk, who feels nothing but disdain for those too weak to avoid exploitation.

But exploitation is inevitable in the world of Ninja Scroll. Jubei is forcibly recruited by a wizened, wry (and unexpectedly wiry) government spy as a foot soldier in a secret war between the Tokugawa Shogunate and a rebellious lord (the so-called 'Shogun of the Dark'). Neither side in the conflict are particularly noble – all elites in feudal Japan use, abuse and discard those lower down the social hierarchy. But interestingly, rather than struggling against the evil empire, our protagonist's role is to protect it from something worse – factionalism and the civil war that raged before Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated all comers and established his regime. The film reinforces the notion that you will be chewed up and spat out by those above your station, and that this is a price worth paying. No matter how individualistic these ronin are, they can't escape co-option by the political powers that be.

And then there's the women. Jubei crosses paths with a feisty poison-taster and clandestine ninja called Kagero – rescuing her from being raped by the first of what turn out to be eight superpowered adversaries. The poisons Kagero has imbibed mean she is unable to sleep with, or even kiss, someone without them dying. Her independence and fighting prowess is bought at the expense of a complete neutering of her sexuality. Rather unbelievably, it turns out that Jubei can and must seduce Kagero in order to neutralise the poison he has been infected with. His relationship with her for the most part of the film is huffy and disrespectful, but he is nonetheless steely enough to refuse to sleep with her on these terms, choosing death before dishonour. Celibacy is the route to heroism for both characters, even though both (particularly Kagero) are objectified and sexualised to some degree.

This is in marked contrast to the bad guys, of course, who all seem to be sleeping with each other. And not just with the opposite sex either, which adds an extra homophobic tang to proceedings...