Sunday, March 19, 2006

Freud and Frears, masters of psychology

If you were a Freudian psychoanalyst, sure, I'd tell you your central arguments are circular. But since Americans are such a bunch of naive empiricists I'll tell thee, Newsweek, nobody's silly "brain-imaging" and "rigorous testing" is ever going to confirm or deny Freud's teachings, or those of anyone else profound enough to see deeper into the psyche than a bunch of Prozac-dispensing professional optimists are willing to do. America is overrun with M. Homais-types who will never admit that life is terribly difficult, n'est-ce pas? and have enough respect for it to leave it at that. Or at least leave it chemically unaltered! Every parent and educator rushing off to douse their kid with Ritalin or Prozac is as much an accomplice to the culture of pot and Ecstasy as the covers of "Shape" and "Fitness" are to the cult of anorexia. Don't just blame Kate Moss here! No human being needs, or should want "abs of steel"-- they're unnatural, not to mention unsightly-- and the cause of "health" can breed a diseased aesthetic, and in short, disease itself, just as effectively and blamefully as the cokehead proselityzers of chic in the fashion rags.
Thursday was my first viewing of the "Dangerous Liaisons" dvd, another much-delayed first, since all previous video releases of the film (and, it has been alleged, the initial theatrical-run print itself, though I cannot confirm this from memory) have been quite awfully transfered, despite Warner Bros.' consideration in letterboxing the film from the very first. All the more considerate when we note that it is filmed in the divine 1.66:1 ratio that rules in European art house cinema. The print is not quite pristine, as is evidenced in the very first shot; but it is a great personal relief to enjoy the film without the washed-out inkiness of its previous home-viewing incarnations.
It's painful to reflect upon how what once held one's attention in ravishment now displeases, perhaps even bores a little. The opening scene between Merteuil and Valmont-- the wager-- opened new vistas for me as an adolescent, and through years of repeated watching I hung on its every word as desperately as the later, autobiographical sequence in which Merteuil elucidates her life philosophy. Today this godless bantering has an unpleasant, obvious odor to it-- it's better than Neil LaBute but it has the same unattractiveness to it. Nor can I quite admire the cadences of Hampton's dialogue here. From the getgo, that: "So, my dear, how are you adapting to the outside world?" --"Very well, I think." has a trite ring to it. I find that, contrary to many critics who were led to think Jean-Claude Carriere's "Valmont" dialogue fit for the mall, the "Valmont" screenplay allows Bening and Firth not only more natural, but more genuinely aristocratic cadences. But this is something that comes and goes in the Frears' film. When Merteuil''s voice lowers itself to penetrate Valmont's ear with the glad tidings "She's a rosebud" I can only exclaim to myself "Well of course!!" Sixteen-years old and in that Gothic convent, what the devil else would she be? -- And whyever did Stuart Craig select such a dank hole for Cecile's convent anyway? Are we in "The Castle of Otranto"? The Cecile story is handled badly throughout; even the moral dread I once felt during her "date rape" can hardly be mustered on account of Uma Thurman's (forgive me!) dreadful performance-- her dreadful presence I should even say, for whatever she's supposed to be it isn't believable. Even as a willing and debauched nymph for Valmont's continued plundering she feels like she belongs in a different movie, a different century very like. I won't venture to hazard whether Hampton adapts Valmont's story of an assignation with Mme. de Volanges (in the novel, revealed to be an outright lie) in order to insinuate that Valmont is debauching his own daughter, or at least leaving himself open to the possibility in a cavalier way (and why bother leaving in Cecile's miscarriage and his hopes of begetting Bastead's heir-- and why the devil "Bastead" anyway instead of "Gercourt"?). Nor for that matter will I get into the politics of "rape" vs. "date rape"-- heavens help us, Cecile's deflowerment plays like rape though her after-report (as well as her sudden decision that she rather likes Valmont's 'caresses') would tell the Camille Paglias of the world that this sinister Don Juan won his dreadful spoils fair-and-square-- assuming, that is, that the poor girl was actually "doing" anything wilfully in the midst of a series of interlocutions that were hardly merely Socratic in tone.
The strength of "Dangerous Liaisons" is thus uneven but surprising; as David Ansen blurbs it, what shocks is the force of passion that finally oozes from the film's "cold marble heart." There's a curious mix of artifice and its denial all throughout the film. Consider the notoriously jarring sound mix, with its pianoforte dynamics, all bangs and whimpers (I'd hire the whole team in a heartbeat if I were helming a picture). Though the surfaces are, of course, elegant enough, Philippe Rousselot's lighting is resolutely unglamorous, particularly in the tight midshots and close-ups of the film. The martial scabbrousness of Glenn Close's rouged lips is never softened and the rooms themselves appear throughout a bit "under the weather." At times the film looks almost like a cross between "Cries and Whispers" and the Godfather films, as in the pivotal scene, where that famous aria from Handel's "Xerxes" is sung and Valmont swings permanently out of Merteuil's orbit and into Tourvel's. Rousselot never lit a scene in "Interview with the Vampire" with such deathly pallor; you'd almost think they were trying to hide some anachronism sunk in the shadows, perhaps a wall of stereo speakers some playboy heir had installed to turn the salon into a disco. And somehow the novel's August-to-December timeline, apparently held to in the snowy denouement, doesn't intrude upon the film's exteriors in so much as the slightest hint of autumn color. That, it appears, would have been too "vital"-looking in a film depending upon a very stylized wanness.
As it is, that lack of exterior richness can become dreafully annoying. The confrontations in the park between Valmont and Tourvel are all powerful, and the green verdour, very occasionally dappled with a little pallid sunshine, serves as an effective backdrop, unobtrusive yet enveloping. But the "village" scene, where Valmont executes his policy of "charity", sticks out like a sore thumb, and is as ugly-looking as anything in Mann's "Last of the Mohicans". Frears' camera should never have risen upon this scene; that elusive intrusion of the crane makes it look all the more stagey and fake; that thatched hut belongs on a stage, not a film set. The shot that precedes the cut to the Gluck opera, with Mme. de Rosamunde's entourage strolling homeward from the Sabbath service, gives us the film's only moment of sensing a larger civilization in the ancien regime than the Sadean sodality the story bears down upon: it's a flash of Gainsborough in a moving series of Aubrey Beardsley's.
But I'm overstating it just a bit. It's a gorgeous treat to behold the frosty glade blues of Merteuil's upholstery, and then another treat to see the same blue trimming on a couch at Mme. de Volanges'. Valmont's home, when we finally get a glimpse inside of it, gives us a sense of the man of science, the philosophe, that Valmont could have been and, truthfully enough, probably is (the telescope in his bedroom is a nice touch. Does he pattern his sexual geometries upon those of the stars?). Most importantly, one notices how, in the Tourvel-dominated second half, strong pools of light begin to intrude in seemingly meaningful ways. By the time Valmont spurns her, in a scene of titanic raw emotive power, the bulbs of hearty white wanness sprinkled upon her walls and caressing her furniture feel like the invisible presence of a remote, sorrowful Pascalian god (note how "Christian Thoughts, Volume II" is the only overt literary presence in the entire movie). Well before this point, the film is sunk in blues: when Valmont has pity on Tourvel in her moment of weakness; while Azalon scopes out Merteuil's residence; and crucial confrontations have all begun to take place at night (Tourvel consulting with Mme. de Rosamunde; Valmont's final seduction of Tourvel; Merteuil's "beyond my control" instructions). Even the daylit scenes seem to take place in late afternoon, and one notes the crackling fireplace when Merteuil receives him.
Michelle Pfeiffer, always wan in her late 80s period (remember that intrusive cold sore in "The Witches of Eastwick"?) is at her very best here, and along with the pallor one may note how closely her facial structure actually makes her resemble the bonneted girls in many Fragonard pastoral scenes. As she yields herself up to Valmon't undressing in that unconsummated seduction scene, the raw pinkness of her ear and face, Malkovich's Orson Welles-like hovering over her, that exquisite intimate darkling blueishness surrounding-- it couldn't be more vivid or more perfect. Mostly throughout, and especially where it matters most, Frears and Rousselot create a riviting visual environment for these damning encounters, and I did not err too badly in my youth in taking this film for the ne plus ultra in cinematic treatments of passion.
Most importantly of all, "Dangerous Liaisons" served for several years as my standin whenever Paglia discussed Bergmann's "Persona" and its treatment of the human face, in all its varieties of expression and expressionlessness. The film is certainly an entry in that visual genre Sven Nykvist describes as "two faces and a teacup" cinema. The three principals, in their facial aggressions, aversions, and improvisations deliver a rich performance of these emotive registers. Watch how Valmont invades Tourvel's visual space as he paces behind her in the gardens, intruding over one shoulder and now another, or how the film cuts from him taking his seat beside her, up to the two of them in close midshot, and then up close with his face hovering at hers, telling her "All I want is to be . . ." Watch that silvery glisten in Merteuil's eyes, the light of intelligence become a quicksilver sharkiness, almost sickly, as she narrates her philosophical conversion: "I was fifteen when I came out into society. . . ." And in the mesmerizing final shot, as Glenn Close's face geologically morphs from Arctic glacier into volcanic plane, and then darkens and hardens into a lunar hemisphere as all light dissolves away into an incomprehensible blackness, we behold something fully as iconic and as psychologically absolute as the spliced Andersson/Ullman image in "Persona."
This demon without her masks, is she a mirror held up to our face?

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