Or transcendent love?
By the mid-fifties, newspapers in Europe, America, and — most of all — Japan, were “reporting” stories of young men who obviously couldn’t wait for the next world war. My guide to Japanese cinema of this era, Frederick Veith, refers to the rapid rise — and equally abrupt demise — of films and novels that played all too sensationally on the theme of taiyo-zoku or Sun-Tribe young males. This was the anxious/rebellious milieu addressed in Batsumaku Taiyoden (A Sun-Tribe Myth from the Bakumatsu Era), Yuzo Kawashima’s comedy made in 1957 but only released with English subtitles in April 2013.
Dead at 45 from congenital heart disease and alcoholism, Kawashima made over 50 film comedies yet remains largely unknown outside Japan. Indeed, his own country has only recently rediscovered him, though — having seen what’s possibly his masterpiece — I’m more than glad to find a “comedy” that so strongly underlines the credibility of the genre. I was also struck by the theme of double suicide, treated here with such dense ambiguity it “reappeared” in each of the four films I happened to view next. This might be the price of resistance to Big Themes: the more we try not to spot them, the more they jump up and bite us. Aiming to relax my guard, I’ll therefore also very briefly mention: The Terror (Roger Corman, 1963); The Big Blue (Luc Besson, 1988); The Believer (Henry Bean, 2001); and last but not least, Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012).
Four years after American troops had left Japan, “comfort women” — having satisfied the conquerors and enriched the regulators — now merely reminded the modernisers of an uncomfortable recent past. Naturally, these women would be consigned to history, and any dubious afterlife would be confined to books and films.
Kenji Mizoguchi crowned his own extraordinary career with Street of Shame (1956), a typically poignant study of the subject. Long available abroad, there can’t be much doubt this influenced Kawashima’s project, though with less “poetic” results.
In Kawashima’s opening, the camera moves down a narrow street of single-story buildings. It’s a sunny day, and a voice-over sunnily proclaims the imminent abolition of prostitution. But civic pride is tinged with odd nostalgia as we watch the last couple of GIs disappearing through a doorway with their girls. Expecting to follow, we’re told that, actually, this movie has nothing at all to do with modern Japan. Suddenly, it’s night in what appears to be a frontier town, and, but for the clothes, we could be watching a John Ford western. From a low angle, we see a couple of riders, pistols ablaze, galloping across the screen. Something’s thrown in the dirt, and a few drunks scrabble for it. If bizarrely shifting registers are your cup of green tea, this is a great start. But even with trainee director Shohei Imamura assisting, the New Wave was officially still a couple of years off. In fact, the overt artiness soon eases; and it’s as victims of simple confusion that we follow the drunks into a brothel. The voice-over “explains” we’re in the 1860s or Bakumatsu era, a time when an over-influential Britain and America were causing local “Sun Tribe” youths to plot rebellion — in this case an attack on the British Embassy.
The voiceover’s work apparently done, we notice that one of the drunks is in charge of the others and start hoping he might also lead us through the movie. A breezy type, one of his first acts is to order up a supply of girls, specifically requesting “no gloomy ones.” Masatoshi “Frankie” Sakai is playing Inokori — literally “Stayed Behind” — from now on referred to as “The Grifter.” Unable to leave the brothel until he’s worked off the huge bill he’s run up, he is, in fact, at the centre of all the succeeding action. But if the film becomes easier to follow, our new concern is that Sakai/Inokori will take over the show. (Imamura fears this is what happened). But as we discover, there are at least three sizeable subplots that provide not only balance but a sense of whizz-bang social animation — a vivacious microcosm again reminding some of us of John Ford. (Ford’s westerns were already having their effect in Japan, most famously on Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai, 1954.)
Meanwhile, a sober but still breezy Inokori proceeds to make himself useful as repairman, waiter, raconteur, etc. — none of which comes as a great surprise. What we didn’t expect was that amid the realities of brothel life — the penny-pinching management; the often sick, overworked girls; the use of the place as a “safe” venue for young taiyo-zoku plotters — there might be some hint of “over the rainbow.” The phrase is hard to resist, though it does no justice to Kawashima’s subtle underlying theme, the one he himself called “positive flight.” Glimpses of it are there in a repeated snatch of folk song, passed around several characters. Lyrics about crows — sometimes with shamisen accompaniment — overflow with melancholy. Like the blues, this is meant to comfort doomed lovers. (That’s us, by the way.) Also as in the blues, the hint of “getaway” is a euphemism for death — one often caused by a drug and/or alcohol overdose. In this “comedy” then, we’re introduced early to flight via suicide. Which is utterly negative, of course. Or is it?
Kawashima’s own best answer, I think, is given by an unlikely brothel regular — a farcically spot-faced book-seller whose visits are always well received by the girls. Though his biggest-selling genre is romance, it’s the subgenre of double suicide his customers like best: tales of a love so deep that the lovers refuse to be parted.
As escapism, this might well appeal to love-starved sex workers. But Kawashima draws us closer to the women than that, showing us not just the phony avowals of romantic attachment, designed to turn one-off clients into regular customers, but also the secret hopes that, one day, real mutual love will free them from lives of hopeless servitude. The silent suggestion is that, in contrast to the punishing practical demands of their work,the allure of double suicide lies precisely in its sublime impracticality.
Since Murasaki Shikibu’s wonderful Tale of Genji a thousand years ago, Japanese literature has been awake to a wide range of female points of view. Today, Murasaki is best known in Japan as a soy sauce; and in this context, Kawashima’s film must look almost as strange to home audiences as it does to those abroad. But, for all the potential confusion, there is, I think, a lucid discussion here, if not of Seven Types of Ambiguity, then of two distinct types of practicality: one with, the other without an element of active friendship.
Inokori, while serving his time, has taken care not to become too involved with anyone — romantically or politically. To avoid sex with the girls, he invents a cough — enough in the 19th century to suggest TB. Yet when his departure is imminent, three of the women want to leave with him, having found — in his non-aggressive cleverness and general practicality — an “ideal husband.” Meanwhile, all the women feel some empathy with him because — however breezily — he has been sharing their grim captivity.
Unlike them, of course, he’s free to go when the debt is paid — a brand of survivalism that could begin to look selfish, even cold. Helping prevent this impression, Inokori has a final scene during which, to save one of the girls from a threatening client, he leads a rather physically imposing chap away from the brothel. They wander around a local cemetery; and, though Inokori “forgets” the exact spot, he maintains the fiction that the woman is already buried there. As in most other scenes, the tone is casual: we’re not lapelled, for example, by over-emphasis on the bully’s ogre-like appearance or Inokori’s selfless nobility. Then, his energy for more fibs suddenly exhausted, he runs off into the distance. The End.
Concerning the director’s intentions here, I’m sure of only one thing: the prostitute whose grave was being sought is not dead — a broad hint that, though Japan’s modern government has decreed otherwise, the Death of Prostitution has also been greatly exaggerated.
Meanwhile, Inokori skedaddles. He doesn’t want trouble from the person to whom he’s been lying. And he’s not the type to hang around when no overriding need drives him to it. So why does this flight seem so natural and so strange? Imamura has revealed that the director saw Inokori as an idealised version of himself — a clever man whose gifts are underrated because of their practical orientation. Perhaps implicit here is a gift for escaping oversophisticated thinking processes — not just those that foster political lies and/or violence, but those that claim to nurture True Romance.
In context, then, Inokori’s flight is that of someone keen on his own survival but also able to take risks on behalf of others. As clever men go, he might even be considered kind. Kind enough, anyway, to free himself from the sort of “educated” lies that end in double suicide.
Roger Corman is certainly my idea of a practical artist, escaping blockbuster lies via the judicious use of not-always-low-budget genre. The Raven (1963) wasn’t a cheap movie in any sense and is recognised as a gem of comic horror. This is a tricky genre to get right, so — in the archives or modern productions — it’s always a joy to find good examples. But despite the recent DVD release, Corman’s next film, The Terror, seems likely to go on gathering cobwebs for a while. This is almost entirely due to a terrible technical transfer. [Editor’s note: A recent DVD/Blu-ray release from HD Cinema Classics shows a considerably improved image.] Despite that, you don’t have to be a hopelessly smitten Cormanite to find things to cherish even here: in the small cast every part is beautifully acted; and among the far from giant crew, again, everyone seems on the ball — not least in scripting and editing.
Strictly speaking, The Terror isn’t Poe. On the other hand, it’s the product of a team who knew and loved Poe’s work or, at least, could pretend as much very convincingly. As modern scholarship shows, Poe was quite a practical artist himself, being driven by not only “literary genius” but a sometimes mischievous, sometimes desperate urge to make a living. Meanwhile, the most gothic element in the film honours a trope first invented by the great writer: a man-and-his-house so closely identified that, when one falls, so does the other. Poe first used the idea in “Metzengerstein,” a vivid little tale from 1832, which — by the way — helps us understand what people did with their spare time before the age of film. Thus we find in the finale of The Terror, Boris Karloff’s character answering the call of his dead beloved and choosing to drown in his own fast-crumbling castle — building and owner dying together: double suicide as literary pun.
Before Le Grand Bleu (1988), the only Luc Besson film I’d seen was Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adele blanc-sec. (2010). This established Besson in my mind as a playful peacenik in the same seriously anti-militarist mould as John Lennon. There are still heroes, it seems, who don’t need weapons of mass destruction. Yet one still trembles for their safety, imperilled as they are not just by jealous enemies but by their own great spiritedness.
In Le Grand Bleu, Besson has fictionalised the lives of two record-breaking sports divers : Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca (Molinari in the film). Sometimes called free diving, this involves not only holding one’s breath for many minutes but — with basic equipment and supervision — allowing oneself to be pulled down through several hundred metres of water. Its tone intimate and reflective, the movie never rushes through its subject matter; so it runs for nearly three hours. Yet somehow it doesn’t surprise me that this was the biggest success of French cinema in the 1980s. The open skies, the sunlit cliffs and coastal waters of the Med are easy on the eye; but — as always — it’s the story that has to grip us. A boyhood-to-manhood friendship is, in fact, broken for a while and, in any case, always temperamentally out of sync: Mayol (Jean-Marc Barr) is the junior partner, ready to maintain at least a modicum of quiet charm; Molinari (Jean Reno) seems to know that, coming from him, “quiet charm” would freak people out; so he’s a wee bit in-your-face.
These personality differences, even more than the sports rivalry, play strongly enough to hold us to the end. And we know things won’t end with a beach party. We know because of the particular tragedy with which the story begins: the boy Jacques is helpless, held back by a crewmate as, gathering seafood below their boat, his father drowns. Along with references to work fatigue, dad’s home-made diving helmet has alerted us to this possibility; and, as Besson intended, the scene is only more harrowing by being foreseen.
In context, then, it’s not so very much harder to predict an ending with, in effect, the double suicide of Jacques and Enzo. Physically beyond breaking more records, deeply depressed by a future with nothing left to prove — this “explains” Enzo’s deliberate recklessness. Whereupon Jacques — having often felt a mysterious urge to stay at the bottom of a dive — also allows himself to be taken by the sea.
Besson’s fiction was suggested by the actual suicide of Jacques Mayol, though, in reality, the ex world champ hung himself at the age of 74. Meanwhile, Besson imagines connections between friends and rivals, between men and marine life that take us into the mysteries, not just of risk-taking, but of love.
The Believer (Henry Bean, 2001) is spun from the case of Dan Burros, the original so-called “Nazi-Jew.” In 1963, Burros killed himself when a journalist published an article exposing his Jewish background to a KKK group he’d just joined. Previously he had, indeed, been with a group of Nazi-inspired New Yorkers. It should be emphasised that Burros was not trying to expose these groups. Instead, he was acting out, as the jargon has it; and we don’t actually know why.
In the film’s flashbacks we do get the idea of a boy reacting against a tradition he feels is too passive, even to the extent of its being the cause of the Holocaust. In the final scene of Bean’s film, Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling) dies in a synagogue bomb blast, set up by his Nazi self. The last-minute warning to other worshippers stems, it seems, from a basic unwillingness to kill other people.
Though all this is fictionalised, the reality on which it’s based is surely one of the most bizarre cases of double suicide anyone could conceive — stranger than anything in Poe’s “William Wilson” or Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
Meanwhile, not least because of Gosling’s performance, this taut little film is a brilliant low-budget success. Despite the tripwires laid by such difficult subject matter, it never lurches into over-earnestness or blurts out glib “answers.” (As a Grand Jury prize winner at Sundance, it did threaten something of the sort — although, that is paranoid prejudice on my part.)
In my considered view, then, this is a film in the best traditions of drama documentary, especially as developed over the last 30 years by the brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne. One thinks, for example, of Rosetta (1999), where we’re also inside the head of a deeply troubled, potentially very violent young protagonist. And even if Bean and company were not following the Belgian model, ca marche.
Historically speaking, a single person reaching old age is not a rarity. A couple doing so together has, perhaps, been more noteworthy — until now, when so many of us are either there or heading in that direction. To this group, although I suppose Haneke’s title can be read as bleak irony, Amour speaks much more about love than about death, or even double suicide. Of course, it’s Haneke; so we expect an artist whose not-too-pretty painterliness will, yet again, haunt us long after a viewing. I don’t know this, but it wouldn’t faze me to learn that at some time or other he’s felt a deep response to Goya’s darkest sequence, Los Desastres de la Guerra. Maybe he’s also responded to Chaim Soutine’s animal carcasses, or the barely human skewered creatures of Francis Bacon, or those unsparing nude portraits by Lucian Freud. As for direct cinematic influences, it would truly astonish me if Haneke has not been influenced by the 20th-century Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer. That gaze, more static than unflinching, can make both directors seem almost unwatchably cold. And this does nudge us toward the place where none embrace.
But, also like Dreyer, Haneke is deeply interested in the possibilities of transcending what both accept as our generally harsh human lot. Even so, a story in which an old man kills his equally old wife before killing himself — in any honest account — is surely the last place we’d expect to find strong hints of transcendent love.
But they are there. Not that they’re very visible to the middle-aged daughter, or us, or even — most of the time — to the old couple. So where? Haneke, with enormous support from his leads, finds it, for example, in the unintentional slow-motion tango forced on this man and woman when — after her second stroke — he has to lift her into a wheelchair. Of course, for every moment like this there are scenes where even accidental hints of great love are not just absent but, it seems, banished for ever. “Mal. Mal. Mal.” This is the now permanently prostrate wife, weakly — gently, even — articulating what the husband feels must be emotional and/or physical distress, but expressed so oddly, so mechanically, he literally wonders what it means. All he knows is that, without food and, more especially, water, she will soon die. And he goes through a period where, for his sake more than hers, he tries to force her to hang on. Meanwhile, she has clearly signalled her wish to go, spitting out food and drink because she knows it will prolong the increasingly undignified process of dying.
In a nonfictional reality, perhaps also in a more perfect love — a more unselfish, less fearful one, at least — the old man would have gone along with his wife’s attempts to slip away by refusing nourishment. Though I hope Haneke’s film will help change things, until now it’s not been a very openly discussed fact that — far from the cruelly slow death society has typically imagined — very sick and/or very old people will, indeed, die quite quickly if allowed their chosen option of refusing food. In this fiction, the husband knows that, were she taken to hospital, she’d be immediately hooked up to feeding tubes. (This emerges in one of several anxious, sometimes bitter conversations with his daughter.) So the old man is trapped by fewer and fewer alternatives.
Finally, in a way that speaks — howls rather — of their pain, his and hers — he ends her life before, unable to go on without her for more than a few hours, ending his own. And this is when Haneke allows a startling Dreyer-like moment of transcendence. We have dreamed strange dreams with the old man before, so the scene in question isn’t entirely unannounced. Nevertheless, when he gets up off his bed, it’s a few seconds before we know that this is his last dream: his wife reminds him to put his coat on, and they leave their beautiful apartment to go for a walk. The apartment, by the way, has been repeatedly established by Haneke as a place so drenched with memories it’s an extension of themselves. The sense I got here was that, exactly unlike lovers in gothic romance, they have to disassociate themselves from this living space so as to go on together in eternity — a place where even the most culture-soaked of bourgeois abodes have lost all significance.