IMAGE = MAGIE
“Cinema,” as a term and concept, will always remain at the mercy of personal taste and interpretation; it means different things to different people. So it will therefore remain a topic open to discussion, whether we’d rather classify today’s cinema as yet the latest exercise in showmanship and special effects brought to us by Tinseltown, or would prefer to see the term applied exclusively to respectable product from the art house circuit. Nevertheless, everyone should be able to agree on the following definition: what exemplifies cinema as the seventh art is the medium’s ability to show rather than tell, to entertain, move, or educate its audience through moving pictures. Any self-respecting filmmaker worth his mettle, therefore, will think first of trying to communicate with her audience through purely visual means. It is a staple of the aesthetic program of this forum that the essence of ‘true’ cinema only reveals itself in moments of photogénie: sequences that make narrative involvement or comprehension subservient to the exhibition of pure audiovisual alchemy. Film buffs are eager to collect and cherish these trinkets in their highly-personalized jewelry box of ciné-memorabilia, precisely because these moments expose the true nature of the medium: cinema is an imaginarium, a wicked piece of machinery for dreams and dreaming, fueled by a daisy-chain of iconic images. Or, as director René Clair would have it in 1923: “Cinema is that which cannot be told in words. But just try and explain that to people spoilt by thirty centuries of chatter – poetry, novels, plays.”
A common trend in art criticism today is to celebrate art that leads us to a deeper understanding of specific socio-political spheres (homosexuality, poverty, racial or ethnic minorities, political oppression, etcetera). Indeed, art often credits itself with the responsibility of drawing our attention towards that which deserves but often escapes our full attention. An important art film festival like Cannes has lately been in the habit of presenting its top prize to works that raise ‘awareness’. Over the last decade we’ve seen films like The Pianist (2002), Elephant (2003), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Entre les murs (2008) take away the grand prize, all of them boasting political or morally relevant content. This trend is a direct heir to late cinematic modernism’s political streak when directors like Jean-Luc Godard or Chantal Akerman used the medium as a politico-conceptual think tank: the cinema as an essay or a critical instrument for reflection. Their spirit lives on in the work of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl. Unfortunately, art cinema’s venturing into the political arena goes hand in hand with a paranoid consideration of the image as a surface that cannot be trusted, a conception that has led to a deep distrust of the kind of cinema that takes the beauty of its images to be its chief attraction.
Luckily for us aesthetes, there are still a few directors working in today’s ‘commercial’ art cinema who continue to do justice to the medium as a magical enterprise. These directors decree the beauty of the image to be the driving force behind their creative vision and let their aesthetics take center stage. The result is a cinema that reinvents itself as phantasmagoria, in line with the earliest tradition of moving pictures and far removed from art cinema’s contemporary drive to political correctness. Particular examples include films that use the language of silent cinema as a gimmick such as The Artist (2011) and Blancanieves (2012), Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) whose hyperkinetic sensorium adheres to the logic of the cinema of attractions, or Léos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), a film that is strung along a wonderful machinery of tableaux. Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (2013) or Lars Von Trier’s latest two exploits, Antichrist (2009) and Melancholia (2011), also dabble in this tradition because of their frequent lapses into scenes that are purely pictorial.
Evidently, Terrence Malick’s most recent To the Wonder (2012) also fits this category for its rendering of a specific spiritual sensibility and memory of a relationship lost in a symphony of light, landscape, streaks of skin and Olga Kurylenko’s mermaid’s eyes. What unites all these films, then, is their attention to the visual attributes of their art, their devotion to telling their story in pictures, offering up the film as an object worthy of aesthetic contemplation. It boggles the mind that, in Belgium and elsewhere, the critical consensus surrounding To the Wonder could be more or less summarized with the statement that Malick’s film is a cinematographic tour de force, but one in which the images are drained of all meaning (some reviewers even compared the film to the empty spectacle of a luscious perfume commercial). Such a beastly remark about a film that develops its formal qualities as a new visual language to push the boundaries of the medium towards new and glorious heights would make poor René Clair turn over in his grave.
It is only to be expected that many of the directors working in this tradition are hardcore cinephiles. As a result, some of these films are partly made up out of recycled film tropes. This is a typically postmodern strategy that reveals these films as partaking in an incestuous discourse in which only the veneration of its own history and ontology is at stake. Let’s take Holy Motors as a preliminary example. By using a vast register of intertextual references (ranging from Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage to Eadweard Muybridge’s kinetographic experiments), Carax presents his film as a meta-reflexive meditation on the medium of cinema itself. Still, the film is much more than a conceptual exercise and Carax lives up to the requirement postulated by Howard Hawks: make good scenes. Or in the case of Holy Motors: “tremite et fascinate”, unsettle and captivate.
Another congregant in the cult of the ‘incestuous’ cinema is Chan-wook Park’s latest piece Stoker (2013). Stoker is a breathtakingly beautiful little package whose every frame denotes a love for the image, but at the same time does not fail to comment on the specific image traditions it so devotedly refers to.
COMING OF AGE IN THE POSTMODERN AGE
With Stoker, Chan-wook Park has succeeded in creating a wonderfully artificial microcosm. By now fans of the Korean director know that he delights in graciously splicing the art cinema with a dash of the fantastic, as was seen in such films as Oldboy, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Mr. Vengeance, and most recently, in the 2009 vampire drama Thirst. Thirst did particularly well in Cannes, not a slight feat for a film that took Émile Zola’s classic novel Thérèse Raquin as a starting point and then added to it a few notes of vampirism. Throughout the history of cinema, the genre of the fantastic has proven to be an ideal laboratory for stylistic experiment, whether through the crazy blending and splicing of genres (take for example Andrzej Zulawski’s portrait of a marriage going on the rocks by letting his star actress Isabelle Adjani copulate with a tentacle monster in 1981’s Possession) or via the implementation of new techniques and technologies (an image of Georges Méliès in full satanic dress, up to no good and ready to startle his audience with a witches’ brew of trick photography, springs to mind).
Stoker plays around with several genres: it is at the same time an exhilarating thriller, an allegorical fairytale, and a conte érotique that allows an absurdist streak of humor to invade the premises. Most of all, the film belongs to the coming of age genre, a type of film that focuses on the trials and tribulations of a youngster reaching adulthood. These films take the mental and sexual growing pains of their protagonist as their primary subject. In Stoker, eighteen-year-old India (played by Mia Wasikowska) reluctantly remains in the care of her mother (Nicole Kidman) after the death of her father Richard. Their congregation of two is soon joined by the ravishing Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Charlie seems just about perfect. A handsome devil, intellectual mastermind and worldly traveler, he finds no resistance in winning over mother Kidman’s affections. India resists, but is soon completely infatuated. Quite a recipe for disaster as the vigilant viewer who knows his film history already guessed: Teresa Wright was right to be suspicious when her Uncle Charlie appeared out of nowhere in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
The coming-of-age film usually turns to cinéma vérité techniques to illustrate the Entzauberung of the youth’s mindscape against the harsh reality of the outer world, as attested by famous examples from François Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cent Coups (1959) to Catherine Breillat’s À ma soeur! (2001). Still there often is something of the phantasmagoria about it, especially when the genre turns both to Lewis Carroll and Sigmund Freud to come up with its often overtly symbolic tropes and motifs. This type of cinema is characterized by erotic imagery shot through soft focus lenses à la David Hamilton, but also includes equally stylized but infinitely more intelligent and poetic exercises such as Jaromil Jireš’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Louis Malle’s Black Moon (1975) and Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004). It is to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders that Stoker shows the greatest resemblance, and Park clearly carries a deep affection for the film. This makes his homage to Valerie run threefold: he recycles a great deal of Jireš’ masterpiece in the thematic underpinnings of his film (Valerie’s near-womanhood was designated by a pair of earrings, India’s is marked by the transition from a pair of brogues to a pair of high heels), almost literally appropriates a stupefying quantity of shot compositions, and stays true to the dreamlike quality of the film by presenting his characters in a variety of phantasmagoric tableaux.
With regard to the film’s aesthetics, Park exhibits a singularity of vision that he is not afraid to push through. Every single frame testifies to the director’s keen sense for artificial stylization. This is a fondness Park reflects in the color-coding he imposes on his characters, related both to dress and environment. For Mia Wasikowska, the palette contains flavors of blue, white and dove grey. At critical points in the story, her eyes flare up with turquoise colored intensity. For Kidman, whose natural ‘frigid’ look has earned her the persona and reputation of ice queen, Park wisely chose shades of profondo rosso and tangerine dream. These color schemes help materialize the inner dichotomy between mother and daughter and represent their characters in different stages of sexual bloom: Mia as a girl that has not yet been initiated into the pleasures of the flesh and Kidman as a lavishly cultivated femme fatale. Even the spaces where both women reside carry on this trend: Mia’s bedroom appears ascetic and innocent, while Kidman’s lair is a hothouse of exotic flora, a bedroom fit to match any vamp’s boudoir.
Park’s knack for elaborate mise-en-scène continues in his staging. One scene involves a morning’s dispute between mother and daughter that Park intensifies by illustrating the generational gap in a strikingly pictorial manner. While Mia lounges in an easy chair that seems fit for someone twice her size (the director never wastes an opportunity to present his heroine as a girl younger than her years), Kidman enters the right side of the frame where she comes to a standstill. Their discussion takes place while both characters maintain their position. In this way, the viewer immediately understands that the gap dividing these characters over the span of the Cinemascope frame functions as a device to clarify the shaky footing.
In addition, Park lets Kidman’s entrance initiate a whimsical display of colors, as Kidman’s fiery hairdo instantly reverberates with the carrot-colored ceramic plate we see hanging above Mia’s head. And when after a minute or so Kidman springs forth an unseen cup of coffee from the lower region of the frame – one whose content exactly matches Mia’s chestnut hair – one cannot help but chuckle at Park’s mannerist embellishments that are only rivaled by the attention to color coordination found in the cinema of Jacques Demy.
THE IMAGINARIUM OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK
Stoker was conceived as a tribute to the cinema’s grandmaster of suspense: Alfred Hitchcock. This makes the film a breeding ground for a lot of intertextual play, and Park not only merrily appropriates the anchor points of Shadow of a Doubt, but also leaves room for a wide variety of Hitchcockian references. These range from the furnishing of Richard Stoker’s office as a taxidermist suite in the style of Norman Bates to the portrayal of Charlie himself as a bird of prey when he encircles one of his victims in a phone booth framed against the backdrop of a roadside motel, a little jest that makes the worlds of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1962) collide. Park also stages Charlie and India’s first encounter in a re-enactment of the stair sequences Hitch employed to express the shifting degrees in power between Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton.
As is indicated by the title of the film, Stoker also picks up the metaphor of vampirism used by Hitch to augment Uncle Charlie’s ominous presence, even if Park fools around with the trope in a more perverted way. In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten was suspected of being the male counterpart to the cinema’s first on-screen vampire, Theda Bara, a lady-killer in the literal sense of the word and primarily after his damsels’ fortunes. Matthew Goode on the other hand only has designs to feast on Mia and Nicole’s sexual energy, an intention he makes clear by sipping from a glass of wine dated 1994 – the year India was born. Park also drew inspiration from another cinematic model to aid his stylization of Goode’s character, namely that of The Visitor played by Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), a reference Park renders explicit by fashioning Goode’s dress and style of acting after the languorous Stamp. What makes Park’s Charlie so interesting, then, is his understanding of the character as a composite of movie villains. This makes any psychological characterization quite unnecessary, as we are made to understand him as a reprise, a new embodiment reiterating old film tropes.
WHAT LURKS BENEATH THE SURFACE
That all of these appropriations identify Park as a cinephiliac director should be clear. But more importantly, it should also be clear that he does not lose himself in an endless recycling of tropes and images. Park uses his explicit dialogue with Hitchcock’s oeuvre as a way of directing the viewer’s attention to the subversive subtext of his cinema. When he was working within the studio system, Hitch was forced to tone down his crude and somewhat morbid sense of humor: under the auspices of the Hays Office that warily screened the studios’ output for morally reprehensible material, there was not much room for divergence. This does not mean that films like Shadow of a Doubt or Psycho did not include their share of sexual innuendo, just that Hitch’s true capacity for perversity only came out in a film like Frenzy (1972), made on British soil. Rather than seeing Frenzy as a break with the master’s former sense for elegant suspense, fans immediately understood the film to be a continuation of Hitch’s zest for the grotesque. Stoker honors this violent streak in Hitchcock’s oeuvre by handling its themes of sex and death in a way that can come off as shocking to the faint of heart. And where Hitchcock only hints at the sexual tension between Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten, Park takes this subversive note as the starting point for his film.
In Stoker, Park exquisitely recreated the Technicolor universe of the studio film from the fifties, not least by virtue of his excessively pictorial style of mise en scène that would turn many a director from Hollywood’s Golden Age pink with delight. Large parts of Stoker’s action take place against a handful of clichés we specifically associate with the cinema of the fifties: the roadside diner (the ideal hang-out for the cool cats in India’s class), the high school beau on his motorcycle, the dinner sequence that stages a Nicholas Ray-like battle between parental authority and youthful rebellion, and so forth. By selecting these topoi for a story that is inherently perverse, Park mischievously points to the currents of subversion coursing through many of these films: although the Hays Office screened the studio’s output for content that flirted openly with moral depravity, it cast no stones at the wild, sensual exuberance of the Technicolor film, an instrument fit to sublimate the most intense feelings through theatrical stylization, extravagant acting, visual opulence and general artifice. These specific parameters distinguish the cinema as the phantasmagoric medium of choice, and Park salutes it.
Seen in this way, Park made a film that is both a conceptual exercise and a love letter to the magical properties of the medium, a cinematic work that goes against the grain of the requirement for socially identifiable and politically relevant content mandated by today’s critics by celebrating its own aesthetics, by putting the lie to critical naysayers who uphold the viewer’s incapacity to look behind the lure of the image and only applaud films that ‘unmask’ the mechanism operating behind the fantasy. The art film should not be wary of beauty but celebrate it as a way to meaning and truth that are not necessarily made inaccessible through ideology. Unfortunately, films that appear apolitical because of their primary focus on aesthetics shall perhaps always be regarded with a certain degree of suspicion. Still, a work with an excessively pictorial flair such as Stoker actually does more than initially meets the eye. Its glossy surface may be its most immediate attraction, but inside there are worlds waiting to be explored.