The Invention of Morel

 

“To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares,- to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost)”

- The Invention of Morel  (1940,  Adolfo Bioy Casares)

 

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

Vertigo

 

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

La Jetee

 

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

Les Carabiniers

 

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

Obsession

 

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

Body Double

 

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

The Strange Case Of Angelica

Frantic (1988)
Roman Polanski
English

There is always someone who’ll do you one better
 

FranticThe more one learns about the life and works of Alfred Hitchcock, the more one sees how influential he has been on the generation of filmmakers that followed. More than the techniques and cinematic devices that Hitchcock had helped shape and the themes that he consistently dealt with, it is his very methodology of working – the now-legendary precision of his craft, the authorial domination that he seems to have exhibited (Godard had once equated him to tyrants and dictators) and the relentlessness of his approach – that seem to intrigue many. Interestingly, it is these very elements that elevate the films of Hitchcock into the realm of personal cinema wherein the director seems to have exerted a ruthless control over his films’ world in response to the unruliness of the real world. Although many filmmakers, such as Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, have forayed into the distinctive universe of Hitchcock, few filmmakers seem to be completely obsessed with his art. Directors such as David Lynch, Brian De Palma and Roman Polanski, each in their own unique way, have been carrying on the legacy of the master filmmaker with spectacular results. The filmography of the latter, especially, betrays such an obsession with that of Alfred Hitchcock that one can almost predict the next logical step for the director.

The major theme that pervades the entire body of work of Roman Polanski is that of the fickleness of the boundary between Good and Evil – the ease of induction of the former into the latter and the (in)ability of Good to recover from this demonic metamorphosis. For Polanski, like Hitchcock, Evil is an undeniable fact that lurks and simmers just beneath a veneer of order, propriety and Goodness. Most of his protagonists transition from a world of safety and predictability into a chaotic netherworld – from superego to id, if you will – where all their cherished beliefs go for a toss. The Bates Motel is just a turn away from the main road. Even when he adapts from existing works of literature, as in The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971), Tess (1979) and Oliver Twist (2005), his interest has always been on what motivates men to cross over to the other side. This theme relates directly in Polanski’s films to the question of commonplaceness of Evil and the existence of fascist tendencies within each one of us. A Freudian might connect this to Polanski’s traumatic childhood in the Jewish ghettos. Furthermore, this abstract theme also forms the template for a more personal examination of the male psyche, its fears and its insecurities. Evidently, these facets are also hallmarks of Hitchcock’s films and Polanski’s triumph lies in appropriating these elements and imparting his own artistic vision and personal dimension to them.

Even a cursory glance at Polanski’s early films illustrates both the presence of this motif and Polanski’s preoccupation with Hitchcock. Knife in the Water (1962) and Cul-de-sac (1966) are clinical, minimalist studies of the male psyche, reminding us of films such as Lifeboat (1944), and are direct predecessors of the film under consideration. Repulsion (1965) is, in some ways, a companion piece to Psycho (1960) and presents a pretty, young woman Carol (Catherine Deneuve) struggling against the fear of sexual conformism and ultimately breaking down in an alien land. Chinatown (1974) gives us Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) driving around Los Angeles with a wounded nose (that reminds one of the impotent, plastered leg of L. B. Jeffries in Rear Window (1954)) trying to get to the bottom of the supposed conspiracy around him, a la Scottie Ferguson, and eventually getting sucked into the inevitable spiral of impotence and death. Unlike what Hitchcock does in Vertigo (1958), Polanski does not severe our identification with the protagonist and makes us share his delirium throughout. The Tenant (1976), Polanski’s greatest film, is a glorious melting pot of Polanski’s Hitchcock influences, specifically Psycho, Rear Window and Vertigo, the essence of all his previous films and his Napoleon complex. Despite its flamboyance and non-committal nature, the two mirroring halves of What? (1972) are redolent of Vertigo.

North By Northwest

Frantic

Frantic (1988) is no different, although one could argue that Polanski’s disillusionment with the American ideals, especially that of Liberty (Interestingly, he was rallying for the same against the communist regime of Poland in his short films), adds an extra layer to the proceedings. The very economy of the title – Frantic – recalls the directness of the titles of Hitchcock’s films. Written by Polanski and regular collaborator Gerard Brach, Frantic is a thriller in the vein of Hitchcock’s espionage films and follows Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) scouring the sunlit streets and dark underbelly of Paris in search of his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley). The film opens with the POV shot of a car travelling on the highway as if to suggest the imminent journey of the protagonist deep into his own psyche. In the car are Mr. and Mrs. Walker reminiscing about the city of Paris, where they had their honeymoon two decades ago. “It’s changed too much” remarks Richard. He might very well have been talking about their matrimony. The cab breaks down. The replacement tyre is also flat. Perhaps that’s how the Walker couple is too. The Walkers find another taxi to arrive at Le Grand Hotel and check in to Room 402 where a strikingly directed, 10-minute set piece unfolds.

As the couple indulges in amusing romantic talk that rarely shows signs of a crumbling relationship, we get occasional glimpses of Richard’s possessiveness about Sondra and a tinge of dissatisfaction on her part towards him (“Promises, promises”). Although there is no specific set of devices that Polanski employs for identification with a character (The first human POV shot comes only after the half-hour mark), thanks to his star persona, we immediately identify (in a positive manner) with Ford. We still see him as a charismatic, flawless, blue collar version of Indiana Jones. Richard takes a nap after a shower and finds his wife missing when he wakes up. Of course, one could resort to the old solution of labeling whatever happens after this as merely a bad dream that Richard has and that interpretation does have some validity. But whether it happens really or in his mind is really irrelevant for what is important is the profound change that Richard’s personality undergoes. It is after this incident that Richard leaves the safe and orderly world of conferences and hotel room formalities into a chaotic underworld of smuggling, murder, double dealing and racial politics. And it is in this precarious world in which Richard’s presumptuousness and superiority is revealed and regularly punished.

Paris is no more the city of love that he had seen twenty years ago. It is as “dangerous” and “dark” as the notorious alleys back home. In this unpromising climate, Richard embarks on a detective mission on his own, like Roger Thornhill, in order to “bring back” his wife, now that he has lost confidence in both the Parisian police and the American embassy there. He tries to make his way through his obstacles using the seemingly limitless amount of money he has got and, to an extent, succeeds. But eventually, money proves to be too weak a weapon to control and shape the unruly and the near-bureaucratic world around him. The world around him continuously reveals how powerless and unimportant he is. Ford is no more the omnipotent, omnipresent and the omniscient adventurer who could get an autograph from Hitler, escape from South American tribes and permeate the deepest of Indian caves with ease.  He has aged and is, truly, away from Hollywood. The medicine man becomes a drug user. The revered VIP is seen roaming around barefoot with a junkie. His sense of security and identity is dislodged piece by piece to the point that he indulges in fistfights with random strangers in a random apartment without a shred of dress to cover him. The hotel’s security officer suggests that perhaps Sondra is with “someone she has been thinking about” to which Richard reacts with amazement and denial. This is perhaps his biggest fear for Richard – of losing his wife and of her finding a better man (“There is always someone who’ll do you one better” he says, albeit in some other context). The possibility of that happening seems very high, given the status of their relationship. And this way, Polanski takes apart the myth of the American Hero – a man who simply has to be the best, there’s no two ways about it.

FranticOf course, the last half-hour of Frantic is a significant failure. For one, it contradicts the themes set up so far in the film. While, till now, Walker’s pride and smugness was stripped off layer by layer and his own powerlessness pointed out to him endlessly, the last half an hour restores his original status as an American Hero who can penetrate any setup and rescue anyone. What had been a nightmare till now (Ennio Morricone’s surreal score deserves applause) turns into a dream where every move of Walker’s turns out right and with expected consequences. There might be a reason to this incoherence. Polanski was apparently forced to cut 15 minutes of the film and change the ending (note that Polanski was considered washed out by now). I hear, from a not-so-reliable source, that in the original ending that Polanski wrote, Sondra turns out to be a double agent herself. This twist ending would have served two purposes. First, it would have made a political statement, although superficial, about America’s involvement in the Israel-Palestine conflict (The nuclear detonator is concealed inside the miniature Statue of Liberty; the film was made during the Reagan era). Also, it would have been the final blow to Walker’s ego. His worst fear – that his wife is with someone else and that he is not competent enough for her fantasies – would have come true.

The studio’s intervention is telling. By having Richard plan and win the climactic showdown and save his wife heroically, the studio’s move only reinforces the glory of American conservatism that the film had hitherto satirized (Surely, the Walkers are conservatives.  The Statue of Liberty a visual motif in the film. Richard mentions that they don’t vote anymore. Polanski and Brach don’t even give them token liberal statements to make). The Statue of Liberty which had till now been tossed around stands upright as the Walkers reunite. Additionally, the studio’s cut reestablishes the patriarchal structure of the Walker family that was threatened by the situation (It is only Richard who gets to give orders to his children). The whole point of the film is potentially undermined by the studio’s decision. Polanski would make amends for this blunder with his next film, Bitter Moon (1992), where too a couple plans to travel to the exotic east and rekindle their lost love. If the quintessential hero figure of Harrison Ford was the equivalent of Hitchcock’s Cary Grant, the stammering, insecure Hugh Grant would be that of James Stewart. In Bitter Moon, Nigel (Hugh Grant) ventures away from the boredom of his marriage and into his own erotic fantasy without a clue that he is still far from his wife’s. Polanski both brings down the last shred of esteem in the male character and the patriarchy that he embodies with the twist at the end (which is the kind of device that he seems to have had in mind for Frantic). Polanski, cleverly, even throws in gratuitous amounts of nudity, possibly, to appease the studio.

Interestingly, there is another film that achieves what Polanski’s film unfortunately doesn’t. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo serves as the inspiration for Frantic, with the male fantasy being destroyed and chastised by the mysterious woman he seeks. And perhaps David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), which I’ve not seen, deals with the same thing too. But Frantic is remarkably similar to Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Kubrick’s film has often been compared to Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999) because both films deal with secret societies and strange rituals. Kubrick’s film is, in fact, closer to Frantic than The Ninth Gate, in which Polanski was eyeing something else altogether. In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise plays Dr. Bill Harford (Richard Walker in Frantic is also a doctor and Harford is an acronym for Harrison Ford!) who is nudged into a cat and mouse game of pursuing his wife’s fantasies and trying to build his own. Tom Cruise is the direct successor, in some ways, to Harrison Ford. Both are the icons of the confident, self-assured man in Hollywood. No one would imagine the existence of a weak, possessive and insecure person beneath their flawless exteriors. Had Polanski made his film a decade later, my guess is that he would have most definitely cast Tom Cruise in the lead role. While Polanski’s planned ending stops at the male’s disillusionment, the destruction of his dream and his subsequent return to harsh reality, Kubrick goes one step further and proposes what might be done for reconciliation.

Le Salaire De La Peur (1953) (aka The Wages Of Fear)
Henri-Georges Clouzot
French

“When someone else is driving, I’m scared.

 

After his back to back successes with Le Salaire de la Peur (1953) and Les Diaboliques (1955), Henri-Georges Clouzot was considered a leading contender for the throne of “The Master of Suspense” and a force Hitchcock had to reckon with. Incidentally, Hitchcock himself was hot under the collar… Read More

The Happening

What if the air that we breathe could kill us? What is the effect of increase in human population on nature? What happens when humans settlements clear vegetation? How will nature react to it? Can science reason the reaction, if there is one? These are the issues explored in M. Night Shyamalan‘s latest venture The Happening. Observing his progressively ordinary series of films (With the probable exception of Signs (2002)) starting from his fabulous third feature The Sixth Sense (1999), one will be quick to pan his new offering often with a tinge of prejudice. But forgetting statistics and filmographies, The Happening is not half as bad as some may claim.

The Happening records the events that spread over one day in the life of Elliot (Mark Wahlberg), a science teacher in the city of Philadelphia. His marital relation with his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) is not all that great. His friend Julian (John Leguizamo) is the math teacher at the same school. As Elliot is discussing the mass disappearance of bees in the eastern coast of the country, he comes to know of strange happenings in New York city. It is found that people inhale some kind of toxin that disorients them both physically and mentally, prompting them to kill themselves in the most bizarre fashions. It is found that these events originate in parks spread to other areas too. No one s able to say for sure the reasons for such strange events and its restrictions to the eastern coast alone. There is a large panic resulting in people’s migration to safer towns and cities. Julian discovers that his wife is in trouble, hands over his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) to Elliot and Alma and goes after her. He does not return. As Elliot, Alma and Jess try to run for their lives from the spreading toxins, they try to find the various reasons for its occurrence.

Perhaps the best observation by the film is about the mentality and the rationality of the people before and after the 9/11 attack. After the terrorist attack, people have been attributing every petty inexplicable event to terrorism. This has not only resulted in the undermining of their rational stability, but also resulted in distrust of people in one another and hence more misery. Fear has been the central emotion in all Shyamalan films. The high point of the movie is this portrayal of the contemporary American mentality. The weird attacks keep reducing as we move from to denser to sparser areas. Hence the story strikes a relationship between the ever increasing plaguing of nature by the fast growing human population. In this way, the attacks act as cries from the nature against the human ravaging. The theme is made clear at the house of Mrs. Jones (Betty Buckley) when she chides Jess for taking a cookie without asking and says “Do not touch what is not yours”. This is the line that briefs the motive of the film. Yet another theme is the movie is about how people overcome their emotional isolation when they are forced into a physical one. Both Alma and Elliot realize their attachment to their wives when they are seperated by the large stretch of grassland between their cabins.

Unlike some of the previous Shyamalan movies (especially The Village (2004), which also dealt with people’s apprehensions but never decided what it wanted to be), the central theme of eco-conservation is evident from early on. But it mixes it with the right amount of thrill to avoid the film from becoming didactic. On the negatives, the film is way too predictable for this generation and fails to deliver what one expects from the maker of The Sixth Sense – an absolutely honest thriller with no thinking stuff. The cinematography by Tak Fujimoto and score by James Newton Howard faithfully underline what the director wants the viewers to feel. Mark Wahlberg’s performance is passable, but no one can ever believe this lad that seems like he is in the late 20′s to be a science teacher. The dialogues in the movie at many places are weak, to be euphemistic. Deliberately induced humour does not help at all.

M. Night Shyamalan, who has been evidently inspired by Alfred Hitchcock since the start of his career, treads the same path as his idol. Right from the habit of sticking to a single genre to the regular cameos in his films (and the occasional absence such as The Happening), Shyamalan seems to make his career a photocopy of the Master of Suspense’s. This time around, he has reworked the spectacular The Birds (1963) and tried to make it palatable to the post 9/11 audience. If it was the strange bird behaviour in The Birds, it is strange plant behaviour in The Happening. More verbose and explicit than its inspiration, The Happening has sequences that will force you to find similarities between the two. Right from the isolated country locales resembling Bodega Bay to the baseless worrying and reasoning of the people around, the film has “remake” written all over. The questions about the science of nature and the nature of science that was implicitly raised in The Birds is kept intact and even explained a bit. However, Shyamalan’s script comfortably adds an extra layer to that calls for environment preservation and control of pollution.

So, does The Happening mark the comeback of the director? Not Quite. Shyamalan, who gave us the genuinely original The Sixth Sense, is much more restricted this time and conforms to the time tested formula. I would say that The Happening is not his comeback, but definitely gives the director a little more breathing space in Hollywood and he can now gradually concoct a truly original script independent of industry needs. As for the recommendation, if you have seen the staggering The Birds, you can avoid this one and if you’ve not, The Happening is definitely a good option for you.

Verdict:

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