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by Garth Twa
Lightening rents the black sky. A castle – maybe monastery – sits high and forbidding on a distant hill. Eddies swirl in angry, bloated streams; foundlings are dangled. Crows screech from turrets; gargoyles loom with hollow mouths.
The Monk, the new film by Dominik Moll (Lemming; Harry, He’s Here To Help) has all the tropes of a sturdy diabolic horror film: thrashings of Hammer gothic, buckets of Roger Corman Grand Guignol and also – as a bonus, because it’s French – nods to Bosch, Breugel, Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Jodorowsky’s daylight surrealism.
Brother Ambrosio (Vincent Cassel), an orphan left on the steps of a monastery in Spain is a charismatic spewer of brimstone. The faithful come from miles to hear him preach and young maidens swoon at his vigor. He is a superstar for Jesus, with all the swagger that makes a celebrity irresistible, though for a man who’s taken the oath of the Capuchin order it’s perilously dangerous (and makes him guilty of at least two deadly sins and perhaps three commandments).
But evil is lurking, as we’re told repeatedly.
When a mysterious acolyte appears in a mask that hides his fire-ravaged face, things, of course, are not what they seem. So when a nun with quivering knees and a face out of a Van Eyck painting gets nothing from Brother Ambrosio but pompous and merciless penance, the trip wires of vengeance, temptation and hubris are laid.
Based on a book of ‘sulphurous reputation,’ as Moll puts it, The Monk was originally published in 1796, written in ten weeks by a 19-year-old named Matthew Gregory Lewis for – allegedly – the entertainment of his mother (a lewd novel about incest and matricide—Happy Mother’s Day!). It was shocking at the time. So blasphemous and immoral that even Coleridge (a bit louche himself) remarked, ‘if a parent saw The Monk in the hands of a son or daughter, he might reasonably turn pale.’ The Marquis de Sade was a fan and the surrealists embraced it: André Breton wrote, ‘It is infused throughout with the presence of the marvelous’.Antonin Artaud wanted to turn it into a film starring himself and Luis Bunuel actually did adapt it into a screenplay, filmed in 1972 by Ado Kyrou.
A fine pedigree of salaciousness then, but what could make a matron reach for the smelling salts in 1796 seems comparatively chaste to us now, a generation that has lived through The Exorcist, Deep Throat and Irreversible.
It is a beautifully toned piece of work and wonderfully unsubtle: Moll uses self-consciously old-fashioned effects, like iris transitions and double exposures (cue hellfire, cut to hellfire – actual hellfire) and almost parodic montage (after two young suitors meet, he cuts to a bee rabidly pollinating a lurid flower; I suppose seeing a train going into a tunnel would have been anachronistic). It is also easily one of Cassel’s most complex and brilliantly constructed performances. When Brother Ambrosio gets a whiff of female delights, Cassel is stupefied yet driven like a puppy in rut: holy, mad, confounded, all at the same time—‘very quickly he gave a name to the acting style I directed him to do,’ Moll says, ‘German-Japanese minimalism!’ That Cassel succeeds in making a recitation of the sixth psalm more erotic than the Penthouse Letters column is remarkable.
But the film is all foreplay. Or it’s all the right foreplay but for the wrong movie. Or the right movie but with the wrong foreplay.
What it isn’t is what it teases it will be.
It is not a gothic horror, or one of those sinister popery films with sly monks and naughty nuns, movies like Ken Russell’s nutloaf The Devils or Jerzy Kawalerowicz breathtaking 1961 film Mother Joan and the Angels, both of which The Monk echoes (because basically they’re the same film, with different degrees of artistry and sanity). What it is is the kind of film that France does best, an intimate character study of complex emotions, duty, passion, sensuality (there’s a reason repressed countries make better horror movies). Sure, there’s falling masonry, bells tolling whenever anyone says something ponderous and some crawling around inside graves by moonlight, but after a while we wonder, is the devil coming or what? All it boils down to is lust really, and as such probably not a good idea for a monk. Sure, it gets a little complicated (quite a bit more complicated), but it’s still just lust; the monster unleashed is only too human.
The devil is – as Mel Gibson, that sage of theological cinematism, knew – a woman. That’s also how Von Trier provoked us in Antichrist – male fear and hysteria over the mystery of women’s sexuality, womanliness as chaos, something to be feared, something certainly anathema to the Holy Roman See. But it is just one man’s downfall, not mankind’s. Hardly apocalyptic, and it hardly seems worth all the fuss.
by Garth Twa
This Must Be the Place opens in a classic gambit from the strip club, a slow reveal, a burlesque tease: slowly, luxuriously, we see varnished nails, crimson lipstick, and an extreme close-up of eyeliner being applied on a powdered, furrowed face. The eye is tired, blank, drained of vivacity or interest.
Pop to medium close-up and we gasp: Sean Penn in a zombie bouffant. Cheyenne (think Siouxsie—Sorrentino did) is the aging husk of obsolete rock star—mostly Robert Smith of The Cure (if Robert Smith of The Cure had suffered a brain parasite), with a touch of the dotage and affectless wheeze of Ozzy Osbourne, and just a smidgeon of late-career Anna Magnani.
Cheyenne is not at home in his body, in this time, in this world. He shuffles through his mansion without purpose, from kitchen to living room; restless, unable to sit, yet exhausted, he stands awkwardly staring at Jamie Oliver on TV. He can barely muster the labor it takes to blow a lock of matte hair out of his face. He hasn’t performed in decades, quitting the business after a young fan killed himself and he realized the pointlessness of goth pop in the face of real tragedy. Sunk in a life that he can’t bring into focus he lumbers through Dublin with shopping trolley like a walker so he won’t fall over. He shops in a soulless grocery market (the music piped in is the same as that used in the mental ward in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) but lacks the will or attention span to see it through. ‘I feel numb, burn with a weak heart,’ sings David Byrne in the 1983 Talking Heads’ song This Must Be the Place, ‘guess I must be having fun.’ He meets a teenage friend in a mall and is approached by a fan who puts a camera up into his face and flashes; Cheyenne barely reacts. ‘There’s something not quite right here,’ he says, an inkling that there might be more here, some embers still glowing in his heroin-toasted brain.
‘The way I go about making a film is to determine the character of the protagonist,’ director Paolo Sorrentino says, ‘once all the aspects of his character have been established a story comes out of them, but not before. It’s rare for me to start from the story and invent the characters.’ This Must Be The Place is, even more than any of his previous films, a character study. Sorrentino continues, ‘I find this is a healthy way to work. Usually when you’re imprisoned by a plot you end up with characters that are slaves to that plot and often you find yourself with quite sketchy characters because they have to obey the laws and rules of the story. I’m less interested in telling a story full of coups de theatre and more interested in showing a man’s nature.’
Sorrentino has forged a brilliant, singular niche chronicling spiritually dispossessed men aging gracelessly; a maestro of male menopause.
His films detail the crises when dreams become ridiculous adolescent fantasies and when accomplishments are totaled and don’t really amount to much; or, as a character says in Consequences of Love (2004), ‘The show’s over. Get used to it.’ In that film Titta (Toni Servillo) is a taciturn man of little trust and no friends, living in a Swiss hotel, a life as antiseptic as Cheyenne’s Irish Elba, without humor or engagement. Happy—or not unhappy; anhedonic, really—he periodically takes large shipments of Mafia cash to a bank. But his hermetic life is cracked open when he lets a barmaid into his affections. All ends badly, of course, reinforcing the idea that love is only transformative in the sense that ruins everything. Sorrentio’s first film, One Man Up (2001), is a double helix of failure featuring two men named Antonio Pisapia: one is a star football player (Andrea Renzi) whose injury cripples his future, the other (Servillo) is a pop crooner and housewife heartthrob (and also a cokehead and asshole) who gets caught with an underage girl. In The Family Friend (2006)—Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) is an ugly man and penurious loan shark who lives in a shithole with his bedridden mother and wears a potato poultice wrapped around his head. He insinuates himself into a local family, and particularly onto the daughter who is about to be married. Geremia is a toad wanting to be kissed by a princess, but he stays a toad, and she wipes off her hand. And finally, in Il Divo (2008), Toni Servillo plays Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister of Italy, going through his ups and many downs—the operatic corruption, Mafia links, and the humiliation of a trial that leaves him a broken man, cleaved with regrets; an inglorious end to an infamous career. But in all this despair the films are so much fun. They might all center on characters in dwindling free-fall, but they’re energetically and witty filmed, captivating and inventive.
Penn’s performance here is performance art. Few actors can push a character to such an extreme that, like a soap bubble, it could burst at any moment. One hesitation, one wink to the audience, and it would collapse. Marlon Brando could do it. Peter O’Toole can do it. Al Pacino can do it. It’s courageous and breathtaking.
Penn’s normal physical power is gone—Cheyenne has a fragile rigidity, like a chicken bone left in the desert in a high wind, his voice slow and tenuous, as though his body is lacking energy, or his soul lacking the will, to speak louder than a high-pitched asthmatic whine. But he is magnetic, his presence as irresistible as the gravity of a black hole. If he is floating and purposeless as a dead piece of space junk, his phlegmatic wife of 35 years, Jane (Frances McDormand) is earthbound and sure-footed: she grounds him, humors him, and without reservation loves him. ‘It’s a relationship in which the vague abstractedness of the man is compensated for by the unrelenting solidity of the woman who makes it possible for life to progress without traumas and useless dramas,’ Sorrentino says, ‘ I stole little bits from my relationship with my wife.’
This Must Be The Place is not a tragedy, even a fell-good tragedy like Sorrentino’s previous films. It’s a fairy tale, or myth, with an untested—and reluctant—hero yanked from complacency and ennui.
The force that bumps Cheyenne out of his inertia is a phone call from New York—his father is dying. So off he heads, contending with his fear his fear of flying, his fear of family, his fear of living, really. He kisses Jane goodbye, patting her on the shoulder like an old dog or unfamiliar child. Finally reaching America by boat, he is too late. At his father’s death bed he notices, perhaps for the first time, the holocaust tattoo on his arm. He is introduced to Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch)—who, besides being his father’s financial advisor, is also an rabid Nazi hunter (‘Those are our teeth!’)—and learns that his father had been obsessed with tracking down Aloise Lange, a Nazi who had been the camp guard when he was in Auschwitz.
‘Something’s not right here,’ Cheyenne says.
‘You even know about the holocaust?’ Mordecai snorts.
‘In a general sort of way.’
‘And your father. Did you know your father?’
‘In a general sort of way.’
Cheyenne broaches that, perhaps, he might continue his father’s search. Mordecai dismisses him, saying that Nazi hunting is ‘not for trendy boys like you.’ Besides, he says, Lange is only ‘small fish.’ Mordecai wants to hunt sharks. ‘Even Nazi hunters play by the rules of show business.’
It’s at this point I sat up, electrified, and thought: ‘What?’ This was not a movie about an aging musician being an aging musician, a Still Crazy, an Anvil!, a Spinal Tap (which would have been fine, especially with Penn). A befuddled ex-rock star as Nazi hunter? Delicious!
‘As a viewer I find the best films are those which don’t give me any clues at the beginning about what I’m going to see,’ Sorrentino says, ‘Usually my approach is that each film is the last film I’m going to make. And so when I adopt this approach I find it helpful not to waste the opportunity by sticking to one genre, but to dabble in all sorts of genres and stick to none of them.’ This is by far Sorrentino’s most clueless (in that way that makes the best films) movie, an exhilarating carnival funhouse.
This Must Be The Place is really a satire of the hero’s-journey film, less Odysseus than Candide. Instead of leaving a mundane existence for the fabulous, Cheyenne leaves the rarefied life of a pop recluse for the quotidian, but, seeing with new eyes, the ordinary becomes fantastic.
The film is as much from Sorrentino’s POV as it is Cheyenne’s: a cartoonish, even fetishistic, view of America that gives This Must Be The Place its hyperreal energy.
’I wanted to take on, shamelessly and recklessly, all the iconographic movie locations that have made me love this work since I was a boy,’ Sorrentino says, ‘New York, the American desert, the gas stations, the bars with the long counters, the remote horizons. American places are a dream and, when you find yourself in them, they don’t become real but continue to be a dream. I have this very strange feeling of being in a constantly suspended reality in the United States.’
This Must Be the Place is a love letter from an affectionate misanthrope, delighting in the ebullient self-delusion of America, the innocent overblown self-satisfaction, the unexamined eccentricity. Cheyenne’s trek through the heartland is not a dangerous one but instead a brilliant gallery of oddities and neutered archetypes, a shiny fairy tale of trailer park America (in actuality it’s a very dicey place for any freak—just look at the recent Republican debates). Sorrentino’s fluid camera is always moving, from one stunning idiosyncratic frame to the next, echoing both Edward Hopper and the Coen brothers: Cheyenne discusses tattoos with a well-inked homunculus in a bar (‘Do you like tattoos?’ the man asks. ‘I was just asking myself that,’ Cheyenne says, ‘I haven’t made up my mind’), meets another man in a gun shop (‘What sort of weapon are you interested in?’ Cheyenne thinks a minute. ‘One that hurts’ ‘I’ve got just the thing—you can kill not just with satisfaction, but with impunity.’), and even turns up at a David Byrne concert (who, incidentally, did all the music for the film with Will Oldham). In one of Sorrentino’s most thrillingly choreographed single-takes Byrne performs ‘This Must Be The Place,’ starting with a gravity defying go-go girl and ending on Cheyenne sobbing in the rear of the club, sublime tears of joy and desperate yearning. Cheyenne goes backstage. In the face of Byrne’s true art, true talent, he feels like a like fraud. ‘Why are we such good friends?’ he asks, ‘we have nothing in common.’ Byrne, Cheyennes realises, redefined the boundaries of art and music, while all he did was sing ‘depressed songs for depressed kids.’
The film is full of surprises. Sorrentino takes time to use the camera to tell jokes, mise en scene jokes—a willing suspension of narrative necessity—with a glee only equalled by (again) the Coen brothers. Sorrentino is a playful master in love with the techniques and possibilities of his medium.
by Garth Twa
In the opening single-take—the only exterior shot in the film—children are playing in the distance. We can’t see their faces, but, like animals in a zoo, we recognize their species: we see their group movements, their clan allegiances solidifying, their stances becoming more territorial. One boy, ‘armed’ with a stick (a matter of lexical contention later) hits another one, echoing the opening of 2001, A Space Odyssey—the blow has been struck, the true base nature of mankind has emerged, and there’s no turning back. On the soundtrack Alexander Desplat’s brilliant score moves from the plucky strings of a New York society film into increasingly insistent kettle drums. Two tribes go to war.
The parents of the all but anonymous boys get together to discuss the incident reasonably, as upper middle-class parents do. Penelope Longstreet (Jodie Foster) is the mother of the ‘victim’ (if the term even makes sense in the animal world), a superficially fair-minded liberal who works as a writer (marginally), spouts platitudes that seem less from the heart than a handbook, and knows the pain of sub-Saharan Africans because she’s spent months reading about them. Her husband is Michael (John C. Reilly), a door-to-door hardware salesman, specializing in flushing mechanisms, and is that particular kind of American lout where intellectual torpor is a badge of pride. Nancy (Kate Winslett) and Alan (Christophe Waltz) Cowan are the parents of the stick-wielding attacker (or the ‘threat to homeland security,’ in Alan’s words). She’s an investment broker, and—busy and harried—can barely suppress her disinterest in the homey affectations of Penelope. Alan is a corporate lawyer working for Big Pharma, and with a potential class-action disaster looming—on top of the ferocious and pitiless low-grade sociopathy that in his nature, and that all corporate lawyers need—his endurance of Penelope’s It-Takes-A-Village posturing is dangerously thin.
Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza (adapting from her own Tony Award-winning play) have relocated the action from Paris to Brooklyn, a judicious move as the self-delusional hypocrisy seem endemically American (‘The spirit of the play seemed to me more American than French and Brooklyn would be a likely place for this kind of liberal family to live,’ Polanski says). Essentially a chamber piece, Carnage plays out in real time, a breathless 79 minutes, the characters seemingly trapped in the home of the Longstreets, just like the bourgeoisie in Luis Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel. Here they’re unable to leave not because the capricious dictates of surrealism but because of their own class flaws—their pugnaciousness, their self-righteousness, their conceit, and the treatment of child-rearing as a competitive sport. And as in Bunuel’s film the patina of civilization soon crumbles and man is revealed in his true barbarism, the gilt of culture becoming meaningless (in Bunuel’s film the guests smash musical instruments to build a fire to roast a sheep that has wandered in—it’s Bunuel, after all—in Carnage, the tropes are less overt: instead of wrecking the furnishings it’s etiquette and cordiality that are demolished).
Polanski is a master of hothouse angst and repressive horror, and from the stifling confinement comes disintegration of the psyche: things get brutal on a boat in Knife in the Water, things get weird in an isolated castle in Cul de Sac, and Catherine Deneuve gets psychotic in Repulsion. That’s not even counting the stew-pot of unpleasantness in the Dakota Apartments inRosemary’s Baby, or Polanski’s own turn as a cross-dressing psychological abuse victim in The Tenant. Things are lighter here, of course, as Carnage is a comedy (albeit a comedy of horrors). It’s basically a fable, like Aesop’s, (or satire, as it’s called if it’s funny and mean) and in a way just as blatant. To wit: what the sons were accused of, the parents trump: bullying, teasing, pouting, name-calling, hitting, and tantrums (not to mention unregulated projectile vomiting); it’s not the children who are being childish. But Carnage, of course, is a whole lot more fun than Aesop. Tense, wrought with delicious unease, you first see the tripwires in Penelope. With her aggressive passivity she can’t let matters rest, a damaged tooth becomes, with the compulsive badgering of a nag, ‘disfigurement.’ Nancy is bored enough to ignore the goad, but her husband Alan—despite their lofty disquisitions on ‘honor’ and ‘duty of community’—is too alpha, and needs to swat Penelope down. He can’t ignore a challenge.
Because the film is too clever to be just an object lesson on the vacuities of two middle-class couples, the cycle continues and allegiances shift—civility reasonably gained devolves into uneasy detente then into open warfare—exposing repressed class resentment, clan fealty, and the struggle for pack dominance. The parts coalesce into a whole: war is, after all, war. Carnageis nothing less than a sardonic examination of man’s true nature.
Are we, as a species, just an adaptive animal with instincts and hungers (the reptilian predation of Alan, the leonine self-satisfaction of Michael), or are we something more than that (the lofty cliches of Penelope)? Is the brain stem—eat it, fight it, or fuck it—stronger than the cerebral cortex, the home of all goodness and fine manners? Is it ‘might makes right,’ as Machievelli noted, or ‘love conquers all,’ as Virgil would have it? ‘Survival of the fittest,’ as in the musings of Herbert Spencer after reading Darwin, or ‘What the world needs now is love, sweet love,’ as in the 1960s idealism of Burt Bacharach?
The cast is excellent, in parts and in the whole: Winslett, her contempt thrillingly modulated; Foster, never the easiest comedian, at first brittle then gleefully unhinged; Reilly, proving—after a year that has also included Terri, Cedar Rapids,and We Need To Talk About Kevin—that’s he’s one of the most nuanced actors working today; and Waltz, a master of the comedy of words, interruptions, hesitations, and inflections, his mockery timed with cold surgical precision.
So who wins? Considering the harridan that Penelope has devolved into by the end of the film, with her paltry, doubtful plea, ‘We have to believe there’s some possibility for correction?’ easily triumphed by Alan’s allegiance to ‘the God of Carnage’ who has ‘ruled, uninterruptedly, since the dawn of time,’ it’s no surprise. As Jodie Foster says, ‘Our ideas about morality are constructs and in fact we’re all very primitive. We’re all monstrous in some ways and if we took responsibility for that we’d probably be better off.”
Chilly stuff indeed. A hilarious and biting scale model masterpiece.
by Garth Twa
On the eve of the century, before all hell breaks loose, a new model of the mind is coalescing in Vienna. It is the early days of psychoanalysis, when the science was inchoate and a struggle is taking place—like in all nascent movements, from newly minted republics to artistic upheavals—to determine the face of it, to decide the politics of a new force that will change the world. ‘Do you think they know we’re on the way,’ Sigmund Freud says here, ‘bringing plagues?’
A Dangerous Method centers on an idealistic and impressionable Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), and he is just getting a sense of himself. He is easily influenced by the eminence of Freud and easily knocked off track by the irrepressible (which, psychoanalytically speaking, is not necessarily a good thing) psychotherapist Otto Gross (Vincent Cassel). Jung begins to buckle under the prescribed methodologies of the two men (disapproving superego and lascivious id, respectively) and has an inkling that there may be another way, a science that will help people find a way out of mental illness, not just label it. He is also under the influence of Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) a masochist and possibly nymphomaniac who arrives gnashing and gurning at his clinic in Switzerland, and who he treats, has unlawful carnal knowledge of, and sets on her way to becoming a leading psychoanalyst in her own right. Freud’s words are, Jung says, ‘carved in my heart: Whatever you do, give up any idea of trying to cure them.’
The fissure and split between Jung and Freud—the former exasperated by the latter’s insistence that all neuroses stem from sex on the brain, the latter impatient with the former’s ‘parapsychology and superstition’ and ‘self-aggrandizing shamanism’—plays in tandem with Jung’s troubled relationship with Sabina, and his overriding bourgeois guilt (and financial dependence on his wife). As Fassbender describes the characters, we’re seeing behind the iconic facades, seeing the ‘human beings with egos and the evident flaws under the archetypes.’ And he is excellent as Jung, stalwart and earnest. Keira Knightly is also very good, brave and uninhibited as she writhes her way through madness, and Viggo Mortensen is superb and contagiously having fun as Freud, mining the easy confidence and humor.
The screenplay by Christopher Hampton is elegant, and, as Cronenberg says of the production, ‘It was easy. We just shot the script.’ And that may be the problem.
It’s Cronenberg at his most un-Cronenberg. Gone is the visceral ick of his earlier films—hardly any blood, and just the barest smattering of corsets and spanking—and any suspense. The film is like well-wrought fin de siecle Habsburg cabinetry—sturdy, functional, slightly fusty—not a glorious mess like we know and love and expect. Normally with Cronenberg we’re deep into psychosis, subjectively, down in the dirty of our subconscious and nightmares. Here we’re in therapy.
The mise en scene is flat for the most part, the lighting is perfunctory. It felt like it could’ve been directed by anyone. As Viggo Mortensen quotes from a New York Times article regarding Freud (and applying it to Cronenberg with equal aptness) he’s the century’s ‘most effective disturber of complacency.’ That’s not the case here. Not, of course, that every Cronenberg movie needs a hot naked woman with a poison stinger in her armpit or gynaecological instruments for operating on mutant women or mugwump jizz or ‘insect politics.’ Or even the Dali dream of Spellbound, or the hypno-rings of Huston’s Freud; as Cronenberg explained, ‘I don’t come with an idea of putting a stamp on it in terms of visual style—the film tella you what ir wants. Style comes from what the movie’s about.’ This film was obviously reticent. It needed some of the Cronenberg personality in order to make it more than an efficiently shot script.
When Cronenberg was speaking about the labyrinthine nature of film funding, he said, ‘Things are strange out there.’ Although it nothing to do with the aesthetics of this film or any of his films, this struck me as what was un-Cronenberg about A Dangerous Method. The strangeness is out there; we’re looking in, from a distance. In the old days, with Cronenberg, things were strange in here.