Posts Tagged tragedy
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…”
Into the high country we ride. A lakeside idyll, sometime in the 19th(?) century. The picturesque scene exists in an achromatic epoch, though the attire of a delicate young maiden (possibly with child?) and the scurry of a man on horseback allows for an informed guess. No matter, the dissolution of this harmonious vision is merely around the corner: assertive stooges escort the damsel (yes, with child) to a solemn, possibly religious gathering where her father, “El Jefe”, awaits. His power: self-evident (henchmen everywhere, all others silent in deference); its nature: to be left unclear. Who impregnated his daughter? The girl in question admirably attempts defiance in response to her inquisition, but this is clearly a world with little to no room for such feeble feminist stances. A few seconds later, her arm now broken, she cries out: “Alfredo Garcia!” – and Fortune’s wheel can halt its turning. Destinies have now been determined: Sr. Garcia’s head is to be severed to appease this vengeful patriarch, and he who commits the deed will be rewarded substantially. For those that have it, money can buy anything. For those that don’t, it can buy a whole lot more.
But wait! This is not the 19th century. Cars pile out from El Jefe’s compound as his lackeys begin their hunt, and stock footage of aeroplanes suggest a temporal proximity that inverts our understanding to date. Furthermore, we soon learn that Alfredo Garcia is already dead – a fact that the lackeys remain oblivious to, but which certain others are only too happy to capitalise on; the task of severing the cursed man’s head now considerably alleviated. (Sanctity is a concept that went six feet under long before our ‘new’, contemporary setting.) One such other is Bennie, our irascible host for the remainder of this macabre adventure. A barfly-cum-pianist, he lives inside a permanent hangover; a gringo out of water, prowling the sleaze-dens of Mexico in search of lost time – not even a poor man’s hero. He barks and he snarls, primarily at women (male chauvinism is the prevalent order here), and he sniffs out the scent of a dollar like only a lamentably unlucky loser could. Still, a swipe of a blade and a theft of a head and the future shall be his. As he insists to the gay hitmen who hire him: “Nobody loses all the time!” (Oh yes they do, Bennie.) Is this what life has come to? Profiteering from death? Amorality colours the walls of every bar, every motel room, every heart. The shattered dreams of our exhausted troubadour have no place in the realm of social reality, and so they must be relocated – forced to lurk along the peripheries of plausibility. But surely, there must be something else… anything else…
Love! Elita. A battered siren, former flame of Alfredo Garcia himself; a woman so entrenched in resignation that she embraces a would-be rapist with a tenderness that betrays her history of heartache (worry not, for she “knows the way”). Is she Bennie’s saviour? Together, they enact a desperate, tequila-soaked romance invested with the transformative passion of fatalistic hope. Her conscience is yet to be savaged to the point of disrepair, so she attempts in vain (half-heartedness?) to save him from Fate. She: “Jesus, just being together is enough!”; He: “No it’s not, baby. It takes pan, bread, dinero.” Alas, salvation is not an option here, and so the pair must succumb to the capitalist vagary that’s orchestrated by an oversized bigwig whose name they’ll never know. Dinero, after all, will help them withstand the increasing desertification of their souls. No longer will the rivers of their miserable, septic little world flow with sorrow: a skull for deliverance equals an escape from perpetual mediocrity. Yes, it makes perfect sense. In pursuit of their happily ever after, Elita leads Bennie to Alfredo Garcia’s resting place – and, in an eerie twilight assailed by invisible ghosts, they unearth his casket. Its door – a portal into an alternate universe – is creaked open, and Bennie stares into the abyss. A momentary existential crisis is swiftly discarded, and a sword is finally raised.
There’s nothing sacred about a hole in the ground, or a man that’s in it. Or you, or me.
Welcome to the death march! Was it not that all along? How misguided we were to believe otherwise. (Did we really believe?) The road to Hell is paved with bodies… carnage, everywhere. Beware the no-hoper armed with no hope; the loneliest man in the world. Heroism is dead. Machismo is dead. Love is dead. Somewhere, a headless corpse is filling the world with howls of laughter. Perhaps a coping mechanism? Futile and cruel. Horribly cruel. Even drink won’t solve this quandary – there will be no release from the charnel house of emotions that we’re in. What to do? Where to go? Gaze into a mirror (who’s the fairest of them all?)… no, it’s too much. Rambling soliloquies in the company of decaying flesh clearly make better sense. Alfredo Garcia turned out to be the perfect wife! Alas, Bennie is not the perfect husband. How pitiable this soul is. How despondent, how pathetic. Blistering sadness now overwhelms the universe alongside the irrational and the absurd. We must sink to the deepest depths of despair – to lose oneself is to find oneself. STOP! A revelation: this road trip must continue. Drive! Drive through the eschatological wilderness and towards the maker’s hacienda. Escape from the quagmire and persist in the quest for truth, a truth that’s ceased to exist… that may never have existed. (Cruel. Horribly cruel.) The impending victory will be pyrrhic, but fear not for at least we have the slaughter. Yes, slaughter: a bloody ballet; a mesmeric act of beauty that relieves us from a wretched, thankless existence. Surrender to it. Surrender to the slaughter, Bennie. Surrender to life.
“Hark!”, Ken Russell’s devils sing. But just who are the “devils” in 1971’s diabolical reverie of a film? All and sundry will eventually claim that Lucifer is synonymous with one Father Grandier, a charismatic priest and part-time theologian with a gluttonous taste for coitus. Why blame him for it? Savouring his role as an excitable vacationist in a garden of earthly delights, Grandier jovially surrenders to his carnal impulses, going so far as to reinterpret Catholic doctrine to justify his indulgence: Russell’s curious revision of the classic screwball exchange features a repartee between our newlywed protagonist and his spouse as they debate the scriptural merits of chastity, the former adamant in his belief that “even the most innocent lamb is destined for the lustful ram.” A Holy Man this preacher can never be – he preys on impressionable maidens during Confession, substituting absolution for speed dating as he exacts the repressed desires of his adoring devotees (“Now there’s a man worth goin’ to Hell for…”) and devours them as if they were the elixir of life. This fantastically hedonistic adaptation of Christian morality is not without its perils, however: after impregnating one such admirer, our so-called cleric abandons lover and child with icy disregard – Grandier’s mindset thus unclothed as one that’s willing to challenge traditional mores, but not so willing to face the consequences of his actions. With a gaggle of sexually-frustrated nuns driven to near-dementia through their collective appetence for our rock star-as-clergyman, it’s no surprise that the citizens of 17th-century Loudun will come to condemn this covetous Casanova as the Antichrist himself.
Yet Grandier is – alongside his wife – the only character who remains excluded from Russell’s titular accusation. Indeed, were it possible for angels to exist in the director’s nefarious dystopia then our flawed Father would probably be best placed to fill such celestial boots (if only by default). His introduction as a skilled public orator with a powerful command over his fellow townsfolk suggests that, in a different epoch, he’d achieve renown as a great politician rather than notoriety as a wayward priest; for all his personal failings, Grandier is a man wholly committed to admirable ideals. In an era defined by religious persecution, it is he alone who pleas for tolerance, urging Catholics and Protestants to live alongside one another in peace. It is he alone who rallies to his city’s defence when wealthy barons arrive to tear down the famed fortifications that shelter its inhabitants from external turmoil. And it is he alone who poses an affront to France’s corrupt statesmen – a group of eccentrics intent upon stirring a mass hysteria to further their own fervently prejudiced agendas. Despite his questionable ethics, Grandier’s moral authority over his parishioners is (initially) unconditional – so much so that his nation’s pernicious nobility will desperately contrive to discredit him, thereby clearing the final obstacle in their path towards absolute domination. Russell is judicious in articulating the institutional hypocrisy of the times, blasting the warmongering leaders and early-modern spin doctors that manipulate a precarious order with their chicanery; their unmitigated iniquities ultimately inducing an epidemic of paranoia that will lead only to carnage. (Familiar, some?) It’s these rabid, power-hungry members of the privileged classes who collectively form the director’s Satan incarnate; the naïve civilians who lap up their every fabrication playing the subservient demons who enable the film’s cataclysmic maelstrom to wreak its destruction.
There is a disease that afflicts Loudun’s residents, one that’s even more virulent than the bubonic terror which, having manifested itself early into the film, acts as an ominous signifier of the oncoming catastrophe. Consider The Devils‘ sets: an exercise in magnificently flamboyant artifice, a grandiose series of architectural blitzkriegs that pits classicism against modernism whilst pristine, caustically-white exteriors threaten to blind the viewer with a façade of innocence (tellingly, Loudun’s cathedral – Russell’s centrepiece – has its interiors swathed in black to emulate the rotting souls of its purportedly devout worshippers). Embedded within these spectacular designs are: crosses. Everywhere. Inescapable. The real plague. Nary a scene passes by without the director somehow implanting this most potent of symbols into his imagery: in the rare instance where it can’t be found within the décor, then it will be conjured with light and shadow; if it cannot be done with optics, then it will be constructed with human bodies (always, there is a solution – for always, there must be a cross). Russell envisions the symbol as a recalcitrant infestation from which there is no escape and, amidst the chaos of his vulgar operatics, its meaning becomes totally debased. No longer is this is a representation of Christ’s benevolent sacrifice – rather, it becomes an imperious instrument of emotional oppression. Religion in this director’s world is conceived as a hotbed of atrocity, subjugation and ephemeral ideals; the purity of faith overwhelmed by the political machinations of scheming superiors: “I pray that I may assist you in the birth of a new France – where church and state are one!” Grandier’s ordeal at the hands of this governmental subterfuge will come to exemplify the disaster that ensues when the two cited Goliaths unite, though the fate of his primary accuser – the hunchbacked Sister Jeanne who heads Loudun’s sex-starved convent – is perhaps even more profound in its tragedy. Russell ensures that this delirious fetishist of a Mother Superior is constantly framed behind bars, emboldening the sexual incarceration that suffocates her deleterious psyche, and inducing ever greater acts of mania from her bruised ego as a result. She, more than any other character, is the embodiment of all that can go wrong when religion is ruthlessly enforced as a social order instead of being embraced by wilful believers.
The cost of all this repression is devastating. Not least because the director expresses its damage by pushing the film to highs (or lows?) of garish, completely ludicrous excess that remain singular within his medium. The Devils communicates to its audience almost solely through the language of obscenity – and no taboo is left unturned as Russell fashions a boisterous, bombastic and boorish nightmare that upends any comprehension of human decency with its exuberant kitsch and vicious irony. Consider that, in under two hours, we’ll have witnessed: hornets deposited upon open wounds; crocodiles placed between women’s legs; candles being furiously masturbated; exorcisms by way of enemas (and giant clyster syringes); transvestite monarchs recreating Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. It doesn’t end there. The film’s most infamous sequence culminates with the “Rape of Christ” as a swarm of lascivious lunatic-nuns tear down a life-sized statue of their Redeemer and proceed to defile it – the director frenetically cutting between the orgiastic pandemonium and the sight of an onlooking priest, notably aroused by the entire affair. If Hell were really to exist, then surely it would look a little something like this, for in Russell’s vision the notion of “nothing sacred” is actualised to the point of absurdity. When an effeminate King Louis XIII (the director plays fast and loose with historical accuracy) turns up and exposes the possessed nuns and their deranged exorcist as frauds – thereby granting them the opportunity of a reprieve from their madness – the belligerents simply continue with the farce. These pathetic, tortured souls need to maintain their uninhibited masquerade; a lifetime of suppression has left them with bodies crippled by angst, yearning for any semblance of freedom to alleviate the self-created paucity within. In unleashing the full, titanic force of unexpressed desire and unfulfilled dreams, the director articulates the depth of these deficiencies with an understanding that goes so far beyond blasphemy that it reaches a point of spirituality heretofore unseen in the cinema. In this frenzied amalgam of perverse satire, visual panache and frenetic montages, Russell’s most heinous act is also his most beautiful. Positing the reformed Grandier as a contemporary Jesus, he substitutes a crucifix for a stake and rams the comparison down our throats in a cyclone of redemptive hellfire. Having lost everything that he once held dear, the charred priest looks skyward to his Saviour and tearfully decries the fate of his self, his town and his country – knowing full well that in both life and in death he will have achieved only this: fuck all.
A melodrama that refuses the melodramatic, a romance that discards the romantic, but a tragedy that wholeheartedly embraces the tragic – The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (1939) marks an early crystallisation of the tendencies that have come to epitomise Kenji Mizoguchi’s immeasurable contributions to film art. Scaling a summit of stylistic delicacy that he himself wouldn’t reach again for over a decade after its release, the director furnishes an archetypal tale of forbidden love with the intimacies and intricacies of detail, thereby negating the predictability of preordained heartbreak. His ill-fated lovers are cut from a familiar mould: Kiku, affluent (but talentless) heir to a popular theatrical dynasty, falls for Otoku, his baby brother’s wet nurse, after the latter breaks a wall of silence that shields the former from his professional inadequacies. A now standard Mizoguchian journey follows; a pathetic, poignant prolapse into poverty and perpetual misfortune that will eventually sever the coupling and leave each party stranded beyond the point of reconciliation. Throughout this plight, the director will launch deceptively indignant critiques against the codes and conventions of a society that so blindly sanctions such hardship, whilst casting a particularly sceptical eye on the rigidity of outmoded gender roles.
With his cinematic vocabulary at its most complex, Mizoguchi restrains his story’s dramatic tumults whilst nourishing areas of thematic agency that would otherwise remain concealed by the exuberant bathos of his narrative. Chrysanthemums consequently finds its emphasis shifted to length: both in terms of the duration and the framing of its shots. Aided by the director’s seamless dollying and unobtrusive pans, the film’s remarkable fluidity creates unbroken streams of passion that threaten to overwhelm with their raw power. Yet Mizoguchi is careful to maximise the potential of his newly-elongated dramaturgy, and so he studiously upholds the text’s aloofness: a respectful distance is maintained between the viewer and the intense, piercing sentiments of our woebegone heroes – and within the expanse of visual and figurative space that subsequently emerges, the director constructs his own running commentary upon on-screen action. The vicissitudes of Chrysanthemums‘ subtexts are thus explored with remarkable dexterity; the nuances within Mizoguchi’s technical mastery illuminating his lovers’ travails whilst simultaneously consecrating their interiority. Consider one of the director’s most impressive sequences, in which Kiku and Otoku encounter one another for the first time (at least in the filmic world): Mizoguchi documents this pivotal moment with an uninterrupted, five-minute tracking shot that gracefully glides alongside the duo during their impromptu moonlight stroll. He outright refuses to fracture the lucidity of this scene – hence, he avoids cuts and records in long shot, whilst masterfully using blocking to express what cannot be registered in close-up; the ongoing saga of who walks before whom (and in what proximity) substituting for a courting ritual, not to mention a wry critique of the power dynamics within the blossoming relationship. Otoku, despite the wounds that she inflicts upon Kiku’s masculinity, will eventually recede to a position firmly within the latter’s shadow – a position in which she’ll stay (not necessarily against her will) for the remainder of the film.
This exquisite, extended take is also a key exemplar of a decision that’s to become the central component in Chrysanthemums‘ stylistic framework: the adoption of what can only be described as the societal gaze. Mizoguchi’s camera here comes into its own as an independent analyst, assuming an active yet objective perspective that definitively reshapes his emotionally-florid scenarios whilst imparting reams of information that elucidate the internal workings of their environment. Thus, as the lovers take their midnight walk, the director makes a simple choice – to film them from a low angle – and, in doing so, immediately reinforces their social status (particularly in Kuki’s case), according these protagonists a modicum of respect that will swiftly dissipate in later scenes as their misfortunes escalate; this adversity reflected in Mizoguchi’s switch to high angle shots as they slide further and further down the socio-economic hierarchy. The chasm that the director enforces between character and audience now possesses an ulterior motive: to doggedly marginalise the heroes’ love story, thereby replicating society’s own condemnation of their inter-class affair. We peer at them from behind doorways (often with their backs to us), or in compositions that obfuscate their presence by foregrounding inanimate objects. Most stunning of all are the dynamic flights of fancy embarked upon by Mizoguchi’s camera, which effortlessly traverses through walls and even entire buildings in order to stay attuned to its subjects – the gesture augmenting the sheer artificiality of their man-made barriers; the Mizoguchian conception of “civilisation” thus exposing itself as yet another synonym for repression.
Transcending one’s social limitations is an aspiration that informs the very foundation of the director’s oeuvre, so when his camera soars his characters’ dreams soar alongside it. But these lovers’ torrid yearnings are undone by the constraints of Chrysanthemums‘ universe – the pressures of which Mizoguchi scrupulously articulates, even outside the successful implementation of his societal gaze. Note that the film’s narrative is divided into segments which observe Kiku and Otoku’s odyssey through criticial junctures over a five-year period. Each of these stages opens with a depiction of life inside the theatre to which Kiku happens to belong at that point, and a number of the director’s most inventive flourishes are to be found in centrepieces that recreate the art of Kabuki performance. Kiku’s inescapable theatrical background doesn’t simply allow the director to flaunt his stylistic flair though, it reinforces the film’s key theme by underscoring the idea of role-playing. Kiku’s familial tribulations exist because he refuses to conform to his father’s wishes as a man and fails to perform to his father’s expectations as an actor, thus leaving him no choice but to reject the patriarchal inheritance endowed to him – and along with it, the power of social status and the adulation of fickle audiences. Otoku’s dismissal by her employer is not unrelatedly brought about because she’s erroneously viewed as too “ambitious”, therefore breaking the code of conduct that’s silently imposed upon women of such lowly ilk. (Naturally, social mobility is discouraged at all costs by the ruling classes.) Mizoguchi is careful to forge a link between performance and predestination and, once established, he adroitly applies it to the romance itself. Neither protagonist here is particularly likeable: Kiku is a selfish narcissist almost through to the final scene, whilst the lachrymose Otoku’s predilection for total abnegation is as frightening as it is offputting. The film’s dramatic framework is recoloured accordingly – relentless in his impulsion of these archetypes, the director’s characterisations beg the question: where does this sorry tragedy lie? Is it a tale of forbidden love quashed by a ruthless society of oppressors, or is it a saga of two losers cruelly thrown together and making the best of a miserable situation? Mizoguchi’s bitter coda wisely elects to preserve the ambivalence, but it nonetheless reveals more than we could possibly wish to know about the world that he enshrines: no matter how fast we run, the roles that we were born to play will always catch up with us in the end.