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Key Films #17

Femme Fatale [Brian De Palma, 2002]:
The film plays with the recognisable conventions of a thriller - the suspense, the intrigue, the encounters and deception - but beneath the hectic surface, it's a morality tale; a film about actions and their consequences.  This may prove problematic for viewers expecting a straight riff on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as the narrative throughout swerves off into unpredictable, often dreamlike sequences that show the psychological (as opposed to the physical) journey of its central character as she questions the personal and professional choices that have led to her current state.  Throughout, De Palma acknowledges the influence of images, making them central to the way the characters identify themselves.  The images used, both as a means of recording (in the conventional cinematic sense) and as a form of projection; where the characters see themselves (and others), not as how they really are, but as how they want things to be.  The emulation of the image is also a part of De Palma's ongoing deconstruction of the line between reality and fiction as it exists in the cinema.  The ability to manipulate and mislead, to allude and misdirect.  Although a story of "the self" - of a woman watching as her life unravels into chaos following a terrible betrayal - De Palma is still able to use this focus on images, and the influence of images, to enliven his set-pieces; to present a sense of a character looking at the reality and embellishing it, as if perceiving her own life as a scene from a film. 

From the machinations of the film noir - the influence of which is further defined by the evocation of the title as an acknowledgement of the character's self-aware consideration of her own persona; of the "role" that she's been chosen to play - to the presence of the media, surveillance and the notion of life itself as a drama, or spectacle, Femme Fatale is as much a dissertation on viewing and the relationship that each of us have with the cinema as about this character's own efforts to recognise the truth.  The opening sequence - a long pull-back shot from a fuzzy blued image of Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) on the screen of a hotel room television-set, as it eventually reveals the naked form of the film's protagonist as a ghostly reflection (already a character lost in a world of images) - establishes the themes of projection and self-analysis.  In the next scene, this character will take part in a daring heist.  The heist itself unfolds against the backdrop of the Cannes film festival, in which the reactions of an audience viewing a film are intercut with the concurrent action of De Palma's own movie; further supporting this relationship between the audience and the work.  However, it is through the realisation of the central character that the film finds its heart.  This character, effectively a good person - a criminal, but also a professional - makes a poor decision and, in doing so, finds her life thrown out of balance.  To find stability and to take stock, she imagines where this life will lead her, and through engaging with this dramaturgy as psychodrama, finds a direction, objectively, as if distanced enough from her own life, again, like a character in a film. 

The Masque of the Red Death [Roger Corman, 1964]:

In all honesty, I can't intellectualise the impact of Corman's film.  Although the narrative deals with intelligent themes, such as the corruption of innocence, or the perseverance of the human spirit at a time of great moral panic and unrest, the impression that I'm left with - the thing that seems the most remarkable and exciting, on reflection - is the presentation.  The look, the feel, the atmosphere of the film, is exquisite.  Often when approaching the work of a writer like Poe, the first instinct is to play up the darkness, the shadows, the gothic ambience that the bleak romanticism of the text might suggest.  Think of a film like The Black Cat (1934) by Edgar G. Ulmer or the recent Poe-affiliated work of speculative fiction, The Raven (2012), where the emphasis is on the darkness and decay.  With The Masque of the Red Death, Corman builds on the significance of colour expressive in the title, creating a lush, vivid, perhaps even "psychedelic" phantasmagoria of vibrant yellows, autumnal greens, cool blues and dripping deep reds.  Combined with the film's production design, which turns the castle-setting of the film's antagonist, the evil but charismatic Prospero, into an elaborate puzzle box - where the main hall is like a living chess board, and where the rooms blur into a series of dizzying corridors, like the cells of a mythical labyrinth - the actual filmmaking is nothing less than startling.

Some might argue that this is an appraisal of style over substance, but I would disagree.  The film has plenty of substance.  The setting of the castle itself functions as a microcosm of the upper-classes, where the decadence and debauchery stand in stark contrast to the poverty and sickness of the lower classes; those left outside of the safety of the castle's protective walls.  The contrast between the two worlds suggests the relationship between the "haves" and the "have-nots"; where the exploitation of the proletariat by Prospero and his men is indicative of the exploitation of the working (and sometimes even the middle) classes, as seen in our own contemporary societies.  The film is also about madness and about the corruption of the soul; where Prospero is inevitably brought down by his own greed and lust for power, and where the regime of an organisation, fuelled by a religion (albeit, a pagan one) that stands in judgement over those deemed 'unworthy', are brought down by a good-hearted young woman whose dedication to the ones she loves make her impervious to this debasing influence of evil.  All of these ideas are brilliantly evoked by Corman - an intelligent filmmaker and one with something to say - but it's the theatrical grandeur of the film that leaves the greatest impression.  Its images of death and its scenes of insanity, sacrifice and moral degradation are as powerful as anything in Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), with the added benefit of that ornate, almost "Bavaesque" approach to lighting and design.

Primer [Shane Carruth, 2004]:

A cold film - emotionally and intellectually - where the emphasis is on ideas.  As a presentation, the approach is detached and distant.  The camera barely moves and when it does the effect is constricting as opposed to liberating, as if the actual form of the film is closing in on the lives of these characters, fragmenting them; pushing them even further towards the margins, towards the edges of the scene.  The approach seems like an acknowledgement of the moral and ethical lines being crossed by these characters as their efforts to construct this machine - this mysterious object with the potential to bend time - gradually progresses from a simple hobby into a genuine obsession.  Although never clearly stated, the implication that the line between reality and fiction is being blurred is one possible interpretation; as the two characters begin to see things that are in no way scientifically plausible, but are given an added weight of believability by the film's low-budget aesthetic and through its focus on minimalist examination.  Another implication is that we're seeing the fragments of a story recounted by an unreliable narrator.  The occasional voice-over - introduced via an unspecified telephone conversation that incriminates the viewer - as "confidant" (or as co-conspirator) - clarifies certain facts, but also creates a feeling of uncertainty regarding the true nature of these events. 

It's a fascinating if sometimes frustrating experience, not just for the blending of the cerebral and the metaphysical with a kind of DIY sensibility that mirrors the creation of the object on screen, but in the subtle way the film forces its audience to go back and to reconsider the development of scenes, or the chronology of certain events.  It's a disorienting approach, where scenes occur and characters change in a manner that at first seems inconsistent; where one scene contradicts the scene that came before, compelling the audience almost to reinterpret the order in which these events play out.  We can only begin to make sense of things following the eventual revelation of what these characters have been attempting, meaning that the film works best in hindsight, like an echo of its own existence.  Ultimately, what I liked best about Carruth's film - more than its ambition or its independent spirit - was the self-reflexivity.  Throughout the film, the director himself appears as a character creating an object in his own garage, with the assistance of friends.  This object, which has the appearance of a primitive camera, makes possible the manipulation of time.  What is a film if not a means of sculpting in time; suspending it, collapsing days, weeks, months or even years into a handful of hours and minutes.  Much like the device that is created by the characters herein, it allows us to move through time and space, to see the subjective world of a character, through their eyes and our own. 


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