Somewhere, in the endlessly barren landscape of the American West, there lurks a beating heart.
How fitting that Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar should commence with an explosion in the Red Rocks of Sedona. After all, the director will come to show little regard for the codes and conventions that govern his mythological, Western setting – so indeed, why not launch a full-scale offensive against so beloved a terrain from the outset? (This won’t be the last such onslaught against the scenery either.) Already, Ray signals his subversive intents, whilst appropriately prefacing a film whose narrative will rest upon a fulcrum of emotions that are primal, piercing, passionate – and yes, explosive.
Into this paroxysm rides our eponymous cowboy: lonesome, remote, and not really a cowboy at all. Following the initial blasts, he sights upon a stagecoach robbery (certain conventions need to be upheld) and observes detachedly – the safety of distance cocooning him from his conscience. Heroism is an archaic, if not quite obsolete concept in our director’s universe, failing to sufficiently account for the bruises and scars that are etched upon the human psyche by experience. Johnny may not have said a word to this point, but a perception of him has already been cultivated: aloof, enigmatic and jaded. His is to be a journey from apathy to empathy, passivity to activity; his ongoing refusal to capitulate to valour – despite the numerous opportunities afforded to him – will backfire until there is no choice but to concede to a chivalric code (albeit a castrated one). And still he’ll do so only reluctantly, with his own vested interests in mind.
There is a woman. Yesterday’s love, still in bloom. Her name? Vienna. What a woman! More handsome than beautiful; the appearance apparently mirrored in her character: “Never seen a woman who was more a man. She thinks like one, acts like one, and sometimes makes me feel like I’m not.” – The Great Emasculator. She is to play our protagonist (Johnny offers simple diversion), and her very presence causes archetypal gender roles to convulse into fits of confusion. We meet her from below, a dominatrix on a pedestal peering down at her male admirers (of which there are many, so captivating is her sexual ambiguity), completely in her element. This is her saloon, built from sweat and “exchanged confidences” – here, she will answer to no one and lord over everyone.
A man can lie, steal and even kill, but as long as he hangs on to his pride he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once and she’s a tramp. Must be a great comfort to you, to be a man.
Yet Vienna is full of contradictions and ensnared between gender roles. Her dilemma is the need to successfully negotiate a compromise between her conflicting identities. Following her emphatic introduction, we bear witness as she dines with a potential business partner – using her wiles to charm, maybe even seduce him if necessary. Alas, the scene swiftly dissipates as a hostile party from the local town arrives, thereby prompting the hostess to turn into a potential gunfighter as she whips out her holster and springs into action. This uneasy clash between coded femininity (sex) and masculinity (violence) finds itself amplified by Ray’s decision to borrow the ideal of ‘the domestic paradise’ – central to many a “woman’s picture” – and recast it as the key frontier of his unorthodox Western; the saloon-as-home-as-fortress thus becoming a natural extension of its mistress’s subconscious, with its red, sandstone walls suggesting an interiority that penetrates much deeper than mere shelter or warmth.
Moreover, Vienna displays a keen maternal instinct; a necessary antidote to the wounded machismo that surrounds her. Several times, we see her cradle a submissive manchild in her arms, at one point going so far as to feed a slain fugitive from a bottle (albeit a bottle of whisky – this is Nicholas Ray’s picture). Her compassion and desire contrast with the grit and resilience that define her entrepreneurship – which nevertheless smacks of displaced prostitution, as she and the business are inextricable to the point that the saloon wears her own name. Vienna’s defiance is borne from necessity, not choice (options are limited for spinsters-in-waiting), and her world is still a man’s world, even if it’s one whose patriarchy derives not just meaning but also authority from its women. This peculiar social order births consequences that are staunch in their disregard for tradition: men now become the sex objects, subservient to the whims of commanding proto-feminists. (“You remember, I don’t. That’s the way it goes.”) All the while, Ray slyly inverts Jungian psychology as his trouser-clad females repossess the anima, forcing unto men the animus, with the film itself actualising either type: it looks like a shoot-’em-up, but reads like a romantic melodrama (or vice-versa).
Naturally, boys will be boys, but their tendency to mindlessly brawl in the name of genre (the power of the Western compels them) is offset by their own increasing feminisation: in the midst of one such near-brawl, Johnny – donning a pink shirt and a patterned china teacup – strolls down between the opposing sides and casually declares that all a man really needs is “a smoke and a cup o’ coffee”, a distinct regression (progression) from the gun-crazy chauvinism towards which the scene was headed. With Johnny and his gender unable (or unwilling) to perform to expectation, even the sphere of violence now finds itself regulated by women. Vienna’s domination over the men is underscored by her ability to continually strip them of their guns, and in one instance she actually caresses an ex-flame’s pistol in order to pry it from his hands (she fails, but the subtext is glaringly obvious). In addition, almost the entirety of the film’s bloodlust stems from an indomitably feminine source: Emma, the obsessive arch-rival of our protagonist and Johnny Guitar‘s own Wicked Witch of the West, whose ruthless quest to obliterate her adversary will culminate with a historical, all-female duel.
Emma’s contempt for Vienna knows no bounds, though its roots remain intriguingly unclear. We hear that she’s in love with “The Dancin’ Kid” (a moniker commonly and appropriately shortened to “The Kid”, for he leads the film’s involuntary outlaws), an implication that would fit neatly into the torrid psychosexual planes of the drama: Emma wants The Kid who wants Vienna (thus driving Emma insane) who wants Johnny. In these entanglements of yearning, it’s the women-as-men who hesitate to express the depths of their feeling – their hunger expulsed into their surroundings, whose rich, near-decadent colour schemes lustrously articulate the magnitude of this unspoken longing. For Emma, dressed as if a wayward puritan, “hesitation” turns into outright repression, riddling her deceptively meagre frame with violent spasms of self-loathing, which in turn electrifies her relations with her foe. With her capacity for love stifled, this deranged villainess is left solely with hate – and so it is the object of that hate who must function as the object of desire; her confrontations with Vienna generating the bulk of the film’s awkward sexual energy. In a world dominated by forlorn characters she is its most pitiable, her anguish self-mutilated to the point of no return.
A posse isn’t people. I’ve ridden with ‘em and I’ve ridden against ‘em. A posse is an animal. It moves like one and thinks like one.
Pure hatred needs greater outlets than ineffectual stand-offs however, and Emma exploits the weaknesses of the male townsfolk to whip up a moral panic against Vienna and her perceived cohorts. Her savagery is astounding: where all others display an aversion to needless bloodshed, Emma remorselessly heads straight for the kill like a rampant berserker; her murderous hysteria insatiable (“HANG THEM!”). In moments of indecision, she takes on the role of a proselytising evangelist, lambasting any deviations from socially-sanctioned norms and preying on her audience’s innate fear of outsiders. It’s here that the film veers into the ethnographic; critically observing as an entire community is moulded into a lynch mob by a charismatic bigot, leading to an all too familiar scenario in which the majority attempts to expel and then exterminate the undesirable minority. Law and order is disregarded – the town’s Marshall is first ignored and then silenced – as the purported civilians attempt to pulverise the supposed outlaws (Ray asks: who is really who?). The inquisitions and coerced testimonies that occur as part of this strife invite comparisons with contemporaneous events in the US (which makes the film’s indictments of such acts all the more audacious), though as with so many texts set in a mythical past, Johnny Guitar‘s assertions tend to transcend time. When Emma damns the outsiders as a “filthy kind” and makes an inflammatory remark about “new people from the East”, she posits the film in a universal realm that mournfully reveals an acute understanding of human behaviour: just why are we so fearful of others? Fortunately, our director will display no such fear – on the contrary, he chooses to embrace those that are deemed ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, whilst wholeheartedly sympathising with the predicaments faced by the socially-ostracised: crucially, the outlaws’ only serious crime is viewed as a self-fulfilling prophecy, occurring as a direct result of Emma’s own spite. Hate, in the end, will only breed more hate.
It’s just like it was five years ago. Nothing’s happened in between. Not a thing… You got nothin’ to tell me cos it’s not real. Only you and me – that’s real. We’re having a drink in the bar at the Aurora Hotel, the band is playing, we’re celebrating cos we’re gettin’ married and after the wedding we’re gettin’ outta this hotel and we’re goin’ away so laugh Vienna and be happy – it’s your wedding day…
Oh, to be happy. Of all the problems that afflict Nicholas Ray’s characters, the pursuit of this elusive state of mind is surely the greatest. The director’s undying love for his outsiders exists because he knows that life has inflicted pain and hardship that has left them in perpetual disrepair, ill-equipped to undergo such inevitably-futile voyages. The inhabitants of Johnny Guitar are haunted by this knowledge. Surely, one of the most poignant scenes in Ray’s entire oeuvre must be that in which Tom – Vienna’s quietly loyal right-hand man, who spends much of the film hiding in the background (“just part of the furniture”) – utters the following upon his deathbed: “Everybody’s lookin’ at me… it’s the first time I’ve ever felt important.” The moment’s incongruity merely amplifies its sorry power, exhibiting the director’s belief in the sincerity of the individual truth; his camera stringent in its commitment to allow chronic misfits the time to say their piece. Vienna, Johnny and even Emma are cut from this tradition of desperate romanticism, where sorrow is the deepest form of human expression and where suffering must be paramount. Why else would Vienna choose to live in so hostile an environment? Why else would Johnny stay behind and protect her? Neither is capable of taking the easy route out (both are probably unaware that an easier route exists), preferring instead to elevate plausible realities (love, safety, security) into intangible fantasies – kept at arm’s length, but nonetheless clung on to at all costs. (One notes that even the very notion of ‘Johnny Guitar’ is an artificial construct, conceived by its bearer as a means of escaping his violent past.) Unfortunately for them, theirs is not a world that takes kindly to such delusions. So it is that we experience the film as an operatic foray into melancholia; a chromatically-resplendent, generically-schizophrenic surge through a tempestuous wasteland in which our heroic anti-heroes suffer beyond even their own wildest dreams. At film’s end, Vienna will have lost her home, her finances, her friends and finally, her foes. What else is there to do at this point but kiss the lover that survives alongside her? Kiss as if there were no tomorrow… no yesterday… no today. Kiss – because when all else has been destroyed, the fantasy must live on.
Fascism is born in the mind. We live secure in the knowledge that such minds collectively form little more than insignificant minorities in contemporary Western societies – but how much of that knowledge is based upon material fact, and how much is self-delusion? The capacity for bigotry exists somewhere within us all. And although in most cases it lies dormant (or at least translucent enough to be wilfully ignored), such volcanoes of devolution may not need the strongest of catalysts to awaken from their respective slumbers. After all, for most the delineation between normality and brutality will remain forever untested. Could it be, then, that our moral boundaries are more precarious than we’d like to believe?
Juraj Herz’s The Cremator dives head-first into the degenerative psyche of one Karl Kopfrkingl – an eccentric, somewhat awkward bourgeois fantasist who lives for social advancement. This oily, rotund character rigidly maintains his aura of respectability, priding himself on his familial and professional roles (both, for him, are fundamental status symbols). In terms of the former, our protagonist appears nigh-on faultless: the patriarch of an immaculately nuclear household, his only visible “flaw” (in Czechoslovakia c. 1938) is an overly-effeminate son and heir. And with regards to the professional, few are likely to relish their careers as much as this eponymous cremator, who zealously forges fantastical links between his own incineration of the dead and the Tibetan Buddhism of the Dalai Lama in a sincere attempt to garner validation for his work. Unfortunately for Kopfrkingl, society is slow on the uptake when it comes to the self-perceived benevolence of his undertakings, leaving him with an inferiority complex that he’ll do anything (anything) to conquer.
Bulging at the seams with its director’s visual flair, The Cremator‘s primary intent is to disorientate the viewer into incertitude. Sharp, angular compositions; quasi-abstract montages; a random deployment of fish-eye lenses; extreme close-ups that dissect and distort the human body – all contrive to impair our comprehension of an otherwise straightforward narrative. Herz’s most cunning tactic finds him cannily abusing the audience’s trust in the integrity of the audio-visual relationship through his editing: by frequently resting his camera upon Kopfrkingl’s face (as the character espouses the garrulous monologues that so pervade the film), the director lures us into a misappropriated understanding of on-screen action. On certain, unpredictable instances however, the camera zooms out to reveal a backdrop which deliberately contradicts that of the preceding shot. Thus, the dialogue continuity enacted by the protagonist is deftly exposed as an illusive device that unsettlingly conceals scene-to-scene transitions, quietly disembowelling our awareness of space and time.
Such strategies prove emblematic of the director’s diegetic formation, conceived as a dynamic duplicate of the paranoia-inducing frameworks that one more commonly associates with the horror genre. And indeed, in many respects the gruesome content of the film lends credence to his designs: given its portrayal of Nazism’s inevitable onset and the consequent upending of a tenuous national order, The Cremator effectively invites murder and mayhem into its boudoir. Less expected, though, is the macabre humour that incises its way throughout the proceedings, perplexingly undercutting the emotional intensity of the drama at hand. Kopfrkingl is riddled with bizarre quirks and idiosyncrasies – consider his casual insistence upon removing cigarettes from others’ mouths, or the wryly comical over-ardour with which he discusses his “Temple of Death”, or especially his ritualised hair-combing procedure, in which he caresses the heads of his corpses before brushing his own thinning locks – and Herz doesn’t waste the opportunity to take potshots at those of his ilk. It’s soon discovered that this ‘perfect’ family man acquiesces to his adulterous impulses with laughably ordered regularity (“only on the first Thursday of the month!”); his fastidious observance of socially-sanctioned morality a mere ruse for the simmering amorality within.
Equal parts drama, horror and satire, Herz’s anxious synthesis of tones builds – alongside his stylistic erraticism – the backbone of a brazenly eclectic approach to his material. The director exploits this schizophrenic modus operandi for two immediate ends: first, to imaginatively mould his deranged protagonist’s fragmentary perspectives into a subjective narrative of insightful vigour; and second, to goad the viewer outside of his/her standardized comfort zone until they’re assailable enough to be ambushed by The Cremator‘s disturbed nucleus. This core displays an aggressively historical bent, with the film’s integration of its late-1930s political context giving rise to the condemnation, not to mention the allegories (the Third Reich can be substituted for any other totalitarian state), that one would envisage from so curious a premise. With these reference points in mind, Herz’s high-octane tributes to the German expressionism of yore play exequially, striking purposefully and powerfully at the cultural magnitude of all that was lost following Hitler’s rapid, ruthless ascendancy.
Of course, Herz’s bereavements go well beyond the artistic; his plot acting as an eerie pre-emptor of the human tolls that would eventually become synonymous with National Socialism in practice. The director’s shrewdest study however, concerns that more intrinsic element within the ideology’s (and, later, the regime’s) rise: the gaping void of compassion. We realise early on that Kopfrkingl is a morally-deficient hypocrite, but his idealistic fluidity nonetheless startles with its accelerated descent into opportunistic savagery. Notice, for example, the slippery transience of his patriotism: initially identifying himself as “purely Czech”, he then discovers “a drop of German blood” before allowing himself to be cast as a fully-fledged Übermenschen. It’s this final transformation which initiates a similarly mercurial attitude to his own family (all of whom have been “tainted” by his wife’s Jewish heritage), pointing the way towards a Final Solution with its contemptuous dismissal and subsequent destruction of these purest of human relationships.
Whilst nourishing a culture of audience bewilderment, The Cremator‘s surface flair dualistically invents a cinematic nightmare through its visual rendering of Kopfrkingl’s psychosis. Herz exploits his myriad of techniques to create an acute psychological proximity to his deranged antihero; the intimacy marking the disquieting pith of his thesis: the style in itself stupefies, but it’s the exposition of the internal hysteria which horrifies. The director swims deep into Kopfrkingl’s troubled pneuma, bringing each of the character’s malevolent ailments to the fore for audience scrutiny (one shouldn’t be surprised when confronting a mirror image or few). Understandably, the natural effect of such devotion is to inhibit character development elsewhere. But therein lies the strength of Herz’s achievement, for Kopfrkingl’s inundation of the narrative itself becomes a commentary on the subservience accorded to and extracted by the tyrannical lunatics of past and present – the incubus being, of course, that the character is not so much a lunatic as he is a capitalist everyman and overeager conformist. As the director lurches towards his frenzied finale, the reduction of human life to anonymous archetypes fails to diminish the harrowing implications of the injustices on-screen. We need not know people to comprehend the impact of their suffering. As Herz so persuasively argues beneath the hysterics: knowledge is overrated, and empathy is everything.
Perhaps the film’s most poignant ongoing thread is the conspicuous lack of a female presence to counter the fascistic manoeuvrings of the men. Kopfrkingl’s soliloquies saturate the narrative with his pseudo-tender male chauvinism, objectifying all women (only when viewed through the prism of sexual desire can they be granted the gift of speech) and relegating their voices to the non-diegetic orchestrations of the soundtrack. Composer Zdenek Liska imaginatively moulds the sounds and strains of this feminine oppression into choral harmonies of cherubic splendour – exalting the female voice as a communicative medium of unparalleled ethereality. As our protagonist sets about extinguishing this vital life-force with methodical precision then, the absurdities of the director’s vision gradually fade away to leave only the excruciating barbarity that they once sheltered. The Cremator thus bares its teeth as a tale of loss. A loss of values, a loss of integrity, and finally – most devastatingly – a loss of humanity: that virtue which needs to be upheld against all odds. In Juraj Herz’s spiritual replication of the Nazi terror, one man’s failure to do so allows the horrifying to swiftly, effectively morph into the tragic. And as Kopfrkingl’s numerous descendants continue to remind us, that tragedy very much remains an ongoing reality.
Foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth the hell,
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view in thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
- Lady Anne, Richard III
Tragedy is an addiction, and few films can claim to understand this existential malaise better than L’important c’est d’aimer. The brainchild of Andrzej Zulawski, surely the most idiosyncratic of all great Polish directors, this is a work that heedlessly severs all connections with the cerebrum in full-throttled pursuit of its fleeting heart; the latter a diaphanous fugitive in an entropic wastescape of savaged dreams and slaughtered desires. Notorious for the delirious excesses of his cinema, Zulawski here exercises a modicum of visual restraint that reaps wrenching rewards. Feverish eroticism, perhaps the hallmark of his oeuvre, is thus supplanted by fervent emotionalism – though the director’s provocatory emphasis on expression above all else remains uncurbed, giving free rein to the temperamental convulsions that both define and plague his characters. In his attempts to decipher these characters’ feelings, Zulawski tangos with forces that are as cataclysmic as they are cathartic, as profane as they are profound. Accordingly, the film hinges upon an axle of erratic extremes; a torrid farrago of quietly potent melancholia and explosively crude melodrama that’s driven by both corrosive animalism and redemptive humanism. But even if his cinematic canvas keenly revels in all this chaos, the director’s overarching intent is never beyond doubt: within its feculent panorama of degradation and sleaze, his film pulsates with empathy, with sensitivity, with spirituality. As its English-language title so boldly declares, everything boils down to That Most Important Thing: Love.
In a world populated by a bizarre brood of gangsters, perverts and raging queens, Zulawski narrows in on a trio of tormented losers – all three damaged beyond repair, and reacting against their latent misery with differing (but equally calamitous) methods. Maybe life has failed them, or maybe they have failed themselves; either way, the rotten stench of disappointment intoxicates the film, incapacitating the characters’ respective psyches. (Love becomes synonymous with pain, and masochism therefore assumes a healing potential.) Corruption is rife, with all individuals subservient to a cycle of exploitation that rears its head in the form of debauchery and leaves its legacy with the glorification of debt. Zulawski’s piteous love triangle is therefore rendered motionless by each participant’s woeful belief that they owe something to another, a misguidance that exposes their fragilities and leaves them open to catastrophe. Even so, any attempts to emancipate oneself from these chains are rapidly, viciously curbed by the malevolent entities that lurk within the film’s darkest precipices. And while passion freely consumes the wannabe-romantics and instils in them a desire for change, it’s not enough to counter the noble allure of self-sacrifice: as Nadine, the tragic heroine of the piece, offers her body to her devoted admirer Servais in recompense for her own debt, the latter denies his sexual impulses – choosing instead to preserve the purity of his love in a realm where such ideals are nothing but archaic.
Zulawski’s enrapturing opening sequence, in which a softcore porn shoot momentarily lapses into tenderness before devolving into a violent brawl, initiates an undercurrent of self-reflexivity that channels its way throughout the story at hand. When Nadine, the film-within-a-film’s reluctant star, is instructed by the tyrannical director to not only have sex with a bloodied (and presumably dying) character, but to also scream “je t’aime!” whilst doing so, the actress stumbles – for she, too, is guilty of sanctifying love. It’s here that Servais, then an onlooking photographer, announces his presence by capturing the fading star at her tearful, lowest ebb: “I’m an actress… I do good stuff. I only do this to eat.” Instantly enamoured with his subject, and also able to relate (the ensuing scenes divulge his own complicity in the very same industry) Servais implants himself into the mundaneness of Nadine’s everyday existence. There, we encounter Jacques, her neurotic cinephile of a husband (their marital home is littered with publicity photos and movie posters) who feebly disguises his perpetual sorrow with an endless series of tics and quirks. Quickly, swiftly, a crisis is born: the creator of images and the lover of images both vying for the affections of the image herself. Meanwhile, Zulawski uses Servais’ devotion (the photographer borrows $20,000 to finance a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III in the hope of salvaging his beloved’s career) to contrast the highbrow world of the theatre with the lowbrow world of pornography – only to then realise that, of course, there is nothing to contrast.
As his drama unfolds, the febrility that one associates with the director’s imagery remains somewhat tempered, his visuals appearing to capitulate to those staples of classical cinema: narrative and performance, here unerring in their potency. But although the content of his frames is subdued in comparison to his more opprobrious efforts, Zulawski’s camerawork is surely the most fiendish that it’s ever been – a wilful, almost gleeful exponent of the fatalism that haunts the film; perhaps even an antagonist in its own right. Restless and constantly roving, his camera performs a frenetic, interrogatory dance around its victims, as if to hound out their clandestine feelings before laying them bare to the barbarism of the outside world. This beleaguering ballet is interspersed with jarring close-ups of our protagonists’ vulnerable visages in moments of torture, their defencelessness devastating amidst the stylistic onslaught instigated by their director. Coerced by the camera into a series of claustrophobic corridors and stairways, it’s little wonder that these characters react so illogically to the saga that overwhelms them. And yet, Zulawski has the audacity to turn a blind eye to the ailments that he inflicts upon his creations, frequently cutting a scene as the height of its sentimental prowess – as if he can no longer bear to contain the anguish that he so readily nurtures. The effective simplicity of these tactics endows his work with an emotional architecture that’s every inch as baroque as the more visibly ornate stylisations that would follow. Though, as reflected within the film’s key domestic settings (has any filmmaker ever used décor and space as adroitly as this?), his is a structure that’s in evident decay – illustrated by vast expanses of emptiness with glimpses of disordered clutter; the banality of his mise-en-scène concealing just how poignantly attuned he is to his characters’ psychologies.
Towards film’s end, there’s a notable instance where Jacques’ own disordered clutter breaks free from its confines (both mental and physical) and subsequently lays waste to his living space, swamping it with the images that prove so dear to him. It signifies a final attempt to engage with his twisted demons, a valiant endeavour to feel alive that’s realised all too late. In Zulawski’s hands, love is our lifeblood, and the requisite catalyst for the salvation of the soul. But this director’s depiction of that most important thing is saturated with hurt and fraught with pain; debilitated as little more than an ideal to be mauled by the obligations of our habitual lives. As his frayed narrative tears itself to a closure, it’s not love that unites his tangential threads, but a sense of impending doom. Converging in the name of a preordained tragedy, his characters frantically attempt to forge meaningful connections in the ruthless universe that they inhabit. Is this really love, or is it plain old despair? As the lyrical orchestrations of an eerily familiar Georges Delerue motif elevates its destructive misfits unto the plane of the mythical (a reference to “le mépris“ late into the film posits the text as the disfigured descendant of a more prominent tale of broken romance and its relation to art), Zulawski performs a feat of inversed escapology that dispels all such concerns. With the narrative swelling to its inevitable crescendo, for once the director resists the temptation to cut away prematurely. Lingering upon his final, irrevocable scene, he immerses the viewer in unbridled agony and harrowing beatification, compelling us to bear witness as love – that of the doomed, hopeless variety – transcends and transfigures, divulging and affirming its unimpeachable irrationality once and for all. Finally then, Zulawski locates the heart for which he’s been searching – and, in a direct mirror of the film’s opening scene, he delivers those words for which we’ve so desperately been yearning: “je t’aime… je t’aime…”
Has the desire to transgress ever been as giddily infectious as it is in Daisies (1966)? Though constructed in a manner that stubbornly defies all forms of categorisation, Věra Chytilová’s cinematic acid trip is inseparable from its context: a Czechoslovak “New Wave” feature whose title anticipates Flower Power and whose content foretells the Prague Spring, this eerily prescient film is practically a revolution unto itself. A brisk, seventy-minute shot to the senses that counters the counterculture with its anarchic bravado, Daisies teems to the brim with a psychedelic mêlée of absurdism, Dadaism and nihilism. Whether or not the director would care for such heady philosophies is another matter altogether, for the bulk of the film’s tone is informed by a swaggering rambunctiousness that cogently eulogises the sheer joy of rebellion. It’s this blissful irreverence which thereby reveals itself as the name of Chytilová’s game – and it’s a game in which she has few, if any peers.
Plot and characterisation are but peripheral concepts in this most capricious of satires. Two young women – the exact status of their relationship remains unclear – decide on a whim to go “bad”, and accordingly proceed to run riot in the society to which they had previously subscribed. Daisies‘ shrewd trump card is to have Chytilová running riot alongside them, with both the director and her protagonists thus working in tandem to recreate the rapture of liberation from their respective orders. As the film’s insouciant duo upend and overturn social codes and conventions, Chytilová entirely rescinds the rules of narrative filmmaking, instead choosing to illustrate her gifts as a radical aesthetician. Formal eccentricities are abound: rapid-fire jump-cuts and photomontages, flagrant discrepancies in film stock, and an erratic use of colour filters all serve to electrify her canvas – doing little to unite the disconnected (though interrelated) scenarios, but nonetheless intriguing the viewer enough to function as some sort of visual glue that coagulates the film (Chytilová unsurprisingly revels in the paradox). In Daisies‘ most startling setpiece, the director redefines her spacial parameters, splicing the actors with their settings and embedding them into a cinematic collage that astonishingly renders both foreground and background impotent – the helpless victims of a cubist assault upon the frame.
Any attempts to locate substance in this impenetrably florid exercise are audaciously repelled by the filmmaker’s commitment to ambiguity. In a rare, coherent piece of dialogue, one of the girls tellingly enquires: “Why do they say ‘I love you’? Why don’t they say, for example, ‘egg’?” By querying the sanctity of such an emotionally-loaded phrase, she subliminally points towards an endemic breakdown in everyday communication (if “I love you” has no meaning then what does?) – a concern that Chytilová upholds by exalting action over words and supplanting spoken language with film language. But therein lies the key to the text, for as nonsensical as Daisies aspires to be, its avant-garde farce is not beyond comprehension; fragments of a political agenda are readily discernible upon overcoming and interpreting its visual ingenuity. What, for example, does one make of a character’s decision to slice up phallic food items with a pair of scissors whilst a pining lover professes his devotion down the phone? Or how does one construe the ritual exploitation and subsequent repudiation of all potential “sugar daddies”? Resistant though the film may (quite rightly) be towards feminist labelling – why should all female-centric efforts with a woman behind the camera be instantly suspected as such? – it nevertheless soars as an exhilarating celebration of femininity itself. How refreshing a subversion it is to witness women embracing their bodies, minds and spirits in such reckless abandon, with only the most superficial of needs for those creatures that we know as “men”.
And yet, both director and audience are acutely aware that such indulgences cannot last. Certainly not in a state where citizenship and obedience take precedence over gender and sexuality. Perhaps Daisies‘ sole instance of sincere profundity resides in a sequence that maps the women’s reactions to society’s silent immobilisation of their rebellion: as the males that they challenge now learn to neutralise their delinquency with blanket disregard, our heroines’ ensuing confusion exposes the fundamental need for attention that predicates a successful insurgency. In refusing those needs, the social order unmasks itself as a sterile leviathan; its mundane surfaces an inadequate disguise for the formidable foe which quashes resistance with little hesitation. Surely, sadly, it is naïve to expect anything but. The incendiary merit of Chytilová’s despondent finale – where the “bad girls” offer up a vain appeasement by going “good”, only to then get crushed anyway – derives its weight from the opening montage that it mirrors: a ragged chassé between shots of a turning flywheel and scenes of man-made destruction; the implication of cyclical carnage and the futility of revolutions colouring the picture from its outset.
Within these stark bookends however, the director scribes a manifesto whose guiding principle is exemplified by Daisies‘ most gleeful escapade: a whimsical jaunt in a nightclub, where our beloved twosome throw caution to the wind and replicate the headlining act by dancing and drinking to their hearts’ contents – much to the distaste of their bourgeois comrades. The joie de vivre of partaking in this caper is a welcome contagion that uncovers the film’s deepest, most revelatory tenets by (typically) asking a series of questions. Is it more worthwhile to be a passive observer who engages with society, or an active participant who engages with life? Would we rather exist for a century as unquestioning conformists, or risk an early death by living but for a few brief minutes? For all Chytilová’s glorious abstractions and cryptograms, the mystery of where her film’s allegiance lies is not really a mystery at all – betrayed during Daisies‘s runtime by the iconoclastic potency of her vision, her immortal, concluding tribute merely adds icing to the cake:
Dedicated to those whose sole source of indignation is a messed-up trifle.
As the erroneously-maligned 1980s drew to a close, an unheralded revolution was only just beginning. Deep in the outermost fringes of the arthouse circuit, there emerged O sangue (1989) – a feature which plays like an overeager cinephile’s fever dream. Its director appears to perceive the act of homage as paramount (the spirits of Bresson, Nicholas Ray and The Night of the Hunter are unavoidable), whilst his aesthetic strives to emulate the misanthropic weight of a classic noir; a gloomy, evocative score doing much to complement the attempt. Perhaps the most luxuriously photographed effort of its decade (so breathtaking is its beauty that the work seems almost polychromatic, despite being filmed in black-and-white), this meandering, enigmatic depiction of disenfranchised youth ultimately suffers from the reverence of cinema over subject. Though wondrous to look at, the film remains too consumed by its plethoric romanticism to fulfil its commitments to Lisbon’s forgotten adolescents – O sangue ends up sidelining its characters’ struggles in a manner reminiscent of the wider society that appears oblivious to their existence. At this early stage in his career, its director Pedro Costa can be deemed only a proficient poseur.
Nevertheless, in spite of his debut’s limitations, the seeds for Costa’s future upheavals have already been sown. O sangue may be glaringly anomalous in his oeuvre (its veneration of surface sheen would prove uncharacteristic, whilst the film’s opening, discomfiting slap to our protagonist’s face marks the only act of outright kineticism that the director has indulged in to date), but it initiates a series of concerns and motifs that would be explored more thoroughly in the ensuing years. Definitive themes are already visible: social maladjustment; emotional deracination; traumatising histories, both personal and political. Especially pertinent is his presentation of the makeshift family: a group of impoverished individuals forming bonds of protection, guided by the misleading ideal of “safety in numbers”. Given that O sangue‘s primary achievements are technical however, its ramifications upon the director’s output naturally follow suit. Costa’s jarring pre-eminence of close-ups begins here, with characters that stare directly back into their audience, as if to condemn our own collusion in their invisibility. The sterility of a modern, urban world is exposed and its latent inequalities excoriated as shots of intimidating, high-rise apartment blocks are contrasted against the ramshackle homes of the downtrodden (no filmmaker uses architecture more creatively, with frames often segmented multiple times over to punctuate the concealed incarceration that’s synonymous with these habitats). Above all else, O sangue is crucial for inaugurating its director’s ability to locate grace in the unlikeliest of settings; his unparalleled compositions managing to invest the ugly and/or mundane with an elegance that’s as redemptive as it is remarkable. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa may well be a poseur – but he’s one with vast reserves of potential, just waiting to be fully realised.)
By the time of Casa de lava (1994), Costa has made the first of his quantum leaps forward. Never again would he make the mistake of abandoning his characters in pursuit of pictorial bliss – from here on, the director is on a quest for truth, searching for an aesthetic that would do justice to the marginalised subjects whom only he considers worthy of immortality. Still, the allure of his cinematic heroes is yet to be curbed, but where O sangue struck predominantly derivative notes, Casa de lava seems only inspired in its tributes. Conceiving the film as a loose remake of Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, Costa relocates his action to the island of Fogo, Cape Verde, and borrows the basic outline of the earlier story: a Western nurse finds herself transported to a distinctly un-Western society in order to care for an incapacitated (in our case, comatose) patient. This template aside, Casa de lava draws its power entirely from its own director’s stylings. Gone are Tourneur’s chiaroscuro hallucinations, replaced here with spectacular long-shots of Fogo’s volcanic landscapes and intimate snapshots of its inhabitants. Costa nurtures his burgeoning taste for ethnofiction: at times, the film seems to detach itself entirely from the constraints of narrative and uninhibitedly wanders into the surrounding community; a documentarian’s portraiture of a lost civilisation. As insatiable as this impulse for observational research is, the director remains dedicated to his reinterpretation of the classic text. His heroine is thus moulded into an entitled imperialist in a culture that she completely fails to comprehend (“Speak Portuguese!”): her condescension towards the native islanders astounding, her inability to grasp their customs revealing, and her myopic view of her own self-worth sickening. Costa scrutinises the unbalanced relationship between the colonialist and the colonised, sparing ample time for the latter in an attempted redress. Yet the director is astute enough to recognise his own status as an intrusive profiteer in this scenario and, therefore, his own inadequacies in depicting the local mores. His masterstroke is to counteract with a series of tactful elisions that sanctify the manifold mysteries of his environment, whilst simultaneously demythologising its innate exoticism – Casa de lava subsequently becomes a haunted ‘prison film’, with Fogo the jailhouse from which all its residents wish to escape. “Not even the dead rest here.” (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has already established himself as the cinema’s foremost poet of cultural displacement.)
Ossos (1997) offers another seismic shift (ostensibly to the left) as the director returns to Lisbon, and specifically the ghettos of Fontainhas – the destination to which Casa de lava‘s immigrants-in-waiting are invariably headed, and a location from which he himself hasn’t exited since. Fuelled by his experience of deprivation in Cape Verde, Costa decides to raise awareness of the poverty in his own backyard to staggering effect. As always, the director relies upon close-ups and ellipses as means of expression, but his Ossos finds itself more frequently susceptible to elongated takes than its elder siblings and, significantly, it redirects our gaze towards acts of narrative potency that the cogitative filmmaker of yore would have excised. Thus, we now squirm as a young father marches into the city with his newborn child in a bin-bag (the intent: to exploit the baby as a begging tool), and we gasp in horror as his teenage (ex-?)lover attempts to asphyxiate both herself and the very same child by opening the valve of a gas cylinder – the infant’s resultant wheezing frightening in its authenticity. O sangue‘s affectations seem light years away as Costa charts the mental and physical dilapidation inside Fontainhas with unembellished verisimilitude, forcing us to glare at the individuals from whom we’d ordinarily turn away. That’s not to say that Ossos is lacking in either formal ingenuity or positivity in content, however. Indeed, the film introduces one of the key innovations in its director’s move towards a new, slow(er) cinema: the density of soundscapes. Costa’s fertile aural backgrounds contradict the solitude and destitution within his foregrounds: children playing, adults brawling, police sirens blaring – the vibrant rhythms of the outside world are audible and cogent, alerting the viewer to the sheer strength of the neighbourhood’s off-screen’s presence. Accordingly, a sort of diasporic vitality materialises, stabilising the bottomless despair of the film’s characters and neutering any readings that pass judgement upon Fontainhas itself. For all their woes, Costa’s delinquents retain a fierce sense of dignity and pride, which translates into a community whose resilience the director deems worthy of admiration, in spite of its numerous, neverending problems. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa has become cinema’s most eloquent champion of the disenfranchised.)
With In Vanda’s Room (2000), Costa takes the realism of Ossos to its logical extreme, and at last fulfils his promise of obliterating the behemoth that is the narrative cinema. This remains the most decisive of the director’s breaks with his past. Although Ossos took strides towards a deeper understanding of its locale and its residents, it exposed a filmmaker who wasn’t entirely at ease in his settings: much like in Casa de lava before it, Costa again uses a nurse from his own social class to function as his vantage point into an alien planet. In Vanda’s Room dispenses with this tactic and discards all traditional cinematic tools alongside it. Filming on digital video, the director uses the freedoms afforded by the new format to completely immerse himself in Fontainhas, now recast as a grimy purgatory in the process of being demolished by an unseen authority. Here is where the fusion of documentary and fiction becomes blurred to the point of appearing seamless, with Costa fixing his gaze upon the locals (many of them seen previously in Ossos, including the titular Vanda) and punctiliously weaving the minutiae of their day-to-day activities into a stream of loose vignettes that refuse exposition. In almost everyone’s case, those activities are bound to a cycle of substance abuse that’s impossible to repel. As the march of oncoming bulldozers amplifies with each passing hour, Fontainhas – or, at least, the director’s conception of it – finds itself overwhelmed by a network of hopeless addicts, and neither Costa nor his ‘characters’ withhold the details of their dependencies: broken needles, mangled veins, crack-induced spluttering – everything is laid bare before our eyes in a hyperreal opiate haze; the most poignant scene in the director’s entire oeuvre featuring Vanda and a possible lover discussing the effects of their addictions upon their respective healths, aware that they’re headed towards self-destruction but incapable of emancipating themselves from their fates. For once, Costa also indulges in the politicisation of his work. Characters express discontent at their marginalisation (“It’s the life we’re forced to live.”) and rant against the state of their nation (“Our country is the poorest, the most pathetic of all.”), but the director’s criticisms aren’t always so vociferous. In one instance, Vanda steals a discarded model boat, declaring the scrap “an antique!” to her ageing mother with childlike enthusiasm, only to then wonder out loud: “Don’t you think I could get at least 5,000 for it?” – Costa recording the fact that it’s here, on the peripheries of capitalism, where commodification is at its most toxic. Surely the most morally potent of all the director’s features (the implications of looking away from the screen aren’t lost on the viewer), In Vanda’s Room is a breathtakingly claustrophobic memoir of social subterraneanism at the dawn of a new millennium; a film that cultivates a shared intimacy between audience and text which ends up redefining the very experience of spectatorship in the cinema. (At this stage in his career, Pedro Costa is his generation’s most innovative purveyor of filmic realism.)
Finally, we reach Colossal Youth (2006). To this point, the director’s filmography has offered the perfect auteurist case study – each effort building upon the last, developing and refining his cinema with the goal of attaining an honest transparency that will appropriately serve the anguished souls within his frames. Colossal Youth attains that goal. This is the apotheosis of a two-decade journey; the monument that seals its maker’s place in the pantheon. It borrows heavily from his previous offerings: the faces and the sounds, the mysteries and the languor, the distant yet palpable empathy. The delineation between reality and fiction continues to be inscrutable (DV is now established as the format of choice), whilst the political inclinations of In Vanda’s Room are now given centre stage. More than Casa de lava, this is Costa’s “zombie movie”, boasting an utterly passive protagonist (Ventura) who roams the streets of Lisbon in search of blood (his offspring) – shuffling languidly from place to place, arms dangling down the sides of his lanky build; a doomed sleepwalker. To accommodate Ventura’s taste for impermanence, the director’s scope becomes both broader and more complex: drug addiction remains a fact of life, but the local government’s social regeneration policies offer a reprieve from this bleakness – and yet it’s these very same policies that destroy the celebrated unity within Fontainhas, dispersing its former slum-dwellers into a complex of formidable condominiums whose geometric splendour chills with its glacial afterglow. It’s this officially-licensed disintegration of community that provokes Ventura’s amblings; our vagabond/patriarch intruding upon nearly every scene as he searches in vain for the ‘family’ that was so coldly stolen from him. Costa uses this first-generation immigrant’s experiences to deconstruct the understanding of ‘home’ and decompress the concept of ‘time’. Colossal Youth thereby exists in a fluid state of perpetual limbo, vacillating between past and present, Cape Verde and Portugal, squalor and affluence; an anthology of unfulfilled life, complete with digressive memories, immobilised dreams and unreliable oral histories. The director’s humanism is now at its zenith, and as he walks alongside his aimless zombie he consistently transforms the allegedly mundane into high art – daring us to question his motivations as he immortalises his protagonist’s existential crisis with shots of mesmeric grandeur. This, too, becomes the tale of Costa’s ontogeny: his role has progressed from that of mere director to that of an alchemist extraordinaire, capturing unremarkable stories from undesirable individuals and moulding them into dilemmas of monumental gravitas. His is a universe that has come to demand radical modes of perception and reception, but it’s one that offers enormous rewards for such pliancy. Only in Colossal Youth – a virtual fugue state on film – can the act of a (possible) son chopping an apple for his (possible) father seem genuinely revelatory; the greatest gesture of tenderness that mankind is capable of. Now, with the film’s omniscient, epiphanic power in his armoury, the revolution is complete. There can be no more denials: at this stage in his career, Pedro Costa must only be saluted – for it is he, by a considerable distance, who is the most important filmmaker working today.