There are few situations to which the opening lines of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House are not pressingly germane:
No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.
Often spoken of as a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House is more rewardingly read as a portrait of a fragile mind under intense pressure. Scarred by decades of servitude to a sick and deranged mother, Eleanor Vance is a woman who carries her reality with her like a snail carries its shell. While the novel’s melody is dominated by Hugh Crain’s house and the miseries that befell his family, the harmony is all about the way that Eleanor picks things up and uses them to fashion a world more comforting and endurable than absolute reality. Everyone needs a little cup of stars.
One of the great joys of Jackson’s novel is the way that she manages to blur the boundaries of the real, the supernatural and the outright hallucinatory without ever bothering to draw attention to the lack of subjective difference between these different categories. For Jackson, this uncertainty is so universal that it simply does not merit commentary… it’s all one big sordid mess. Many films and books have been drawn to this ambiguity but while great works such Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw or Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Red Tree and The Drowning Girl add their own ingredients to the ambiguous brew, most works that use these tropes yearn for clear dividing lines between the metaphorical and the concrete, the material and the fantastical, the sane and the insane, the true and the false. This is why you are more likely to encounter the carefully nested realities of films like Inception and Jacob’s Ladder than you are the happy ambiguities of a film like Total Recall or The Descent. Though definitely a film with a clear dividing line between reality and fantasy, Francois Ozon’s Sous le Sableis a film that is intensely relaxed about the ambiguities of madness.
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FilmJuice have published a lengthy piece written in celebration of the recent re-release of Charles Laughton’s legendary Night of the Hunter.
This piece was a real joy as it gave me an excuse to not only rewatch the film for the first time in a while, but also to do some research into Laughton’s life and refamiliarise myself with some of the better works of German Expressionist cinema. I wrote quite a lengthy piece about German Expressionism for Videovista a few years but my understanding of that particular cinematic milieu has solidified somewhat and hooked up with some much larger thoughts I’ve been having about the relationship between psychological realism and fantasy in the psychological thriller genre. In my original Videovista article, I spoke about Expressionism in terms of:
Expressionism emerged as a reaction to impressionism. Impressionism, as practised by the artists Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir attempted to break down the boundaries between subject and background in order to produce paintings that were almost like snapshots: images that were exacting reflections of the world itself. Expressionism reacted against impressionism by rejecting the call to represent the world ‘as it is’. Instead, expressionists favoured representations of the world that ‘expressed’ the artists’ attitudes towards the subject matter. They did not reflect the world, they abstracted from it. A key work in the development of expressionism is Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893), in which the insane flowing colours of the background, the pale featureless visage of the screamer and the dark figures in the background express not merely a person screaming but rather a state of inner turmoil, paranoia, alienation and insanity.
Now I say far more straightforwardly:
The most influential work of German Expressionist cinema is undoubtedly The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Told entirely in flashback by a man who turns out to be an inmate in an insane asylum, Robert Wiene’s film is a hypnotic mess of light, shadow and unsettling angles. Too fantastical to be real and yet too raw to be fictitious, Caligari’s story of love, murder and sinister sleepwalkers is best understood as an emotional landscape, a realistic portrayal of what the real world feels like to the person telling the story. The light and darkness of Caligari’s world are absolute because they are absolute in the mind of the madman just as they might be in the mind of a child. This is the exact same idea that lurks behind the myriad eccentricities of Laughton’s Night of the Hunter.
Rather than seeing the film through the gauze of southern gothic, I view it as a quite explicitly psychological piece: The fantastical nature of many sequences and effects are not reflections of a world that is in itself fantastical but rather a reflection of how that world feels to the children and how children (and everyone else for that matter) use the culture they have consumed in order to make sense of the world around them. It is only natural that the world should resemble a fairy tale when the only time you have heard of evil priests and murderous ogres is in the pages of just such a children’s story. Far from being limited to the children’s worldview, Night of the Hunter occasionally switches to other worldviews such as those of the mother, a friendly drunk and a horny teenaged girl. This is a film that not only reaches back to a cinematic vocabulary that was largely unknown to 1950s American audiences, it also takes those Expressionistic techniques and takes them to the next level. Night of the Hunter is a film that is literally decades ahead of its time.
As DVD box sets and online streaming slowly replace broadcast TV as primary delivery systems for televised drama, industry people have begun to cast about for the next great thing to fill middle-class evenings. After the Golden Age of American TV came the discovery of gritty French crime dramas such as the magnificent Spiral, the abortive popularisation of Italian dramas such as Inspector Montalban and the increasingly potent and influential Nordic gold rush including The Killing, The Bridge and Those Who Kill. Less showy but more substantial than many of these post-Wire police procedurals is Adam Price’s Borgen, a political drama about the first female Danish Prime Minister that eschews the infantile patriotic sentimentality of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing in favour of real political engagement with Denmark’s many social and political problems. Given the success of Borgen and ‘Nordic Noir’, it is hardly surprising that the Danish film industry should attempt to use the visibility of Danish TV to help promote their national cinema. Aside from being written and directed by one of Borgen’s writers, Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking (Kapringen) is so filled with Borgen cast members that I suspect Lindholm may have driven up to the set in a large van and kidnapped them using promises of gravlax and crispbread.
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A little while ago, I was planning on writing a book about psychological thrillers. I thought it might have been a good idea because I wanted to read a book about psychological thrillers but nobody appeared to have written one. While the project was eventually dissolved by the dawning realisation that nobody would publish a book about psychological thrillers written by me, my attempt to pull together a list of great psychological thrillers brought me into contact with Rene Clement’s Plein Soleil. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s classic existential novel The Talented Mr Ripley, Plein Soleil struck me as a fascinating misprision… a failure to comprehend the original intent of a work that nonetheless produced something of considerable beauty. FilmJuice have my review of Plein Soleil, which is now available in the UK for the first time in altogether too long.
Set in the strange demimonde created by wealthy American socialites slumming it in Italian hotels, Plein Soleil tells of a penniless young man who attaches himself to a much wealthier man with a far more forceful personality. In Highsmith’s original text, the relationship between Ripley and his prey is a sort of existential magnetism, a void that attempts to fill itself by consuming a much more substantial person. Intriguingly, Clement and Delon present Ripley not as an existential void but as a sort of unquenchable hunger… a man with nothing who wants everything and who will stop at nothing in order to get it. Indeed, even Anthony Minghella’s stylistically dull adaptation of the book presented Ripley as a sexless figure whereas Delon’s Ripley is all about Marie Laforet’s fragrant Marge:
Delon’s Ripley is an absolute masterpiece, a creature of malign and yet unfettered grace, the male libido chiselled into marble and made socially acceptable by the strategic use of smart haircuts and tailor-made suits. Think Bond unhitched from Queen and Country.
Another thing that struck me since filing the review is that Plein Soleil has a very similar setting and cast of characters to Antonioni’s now burdensomely-canonical L’Avventura; both are about beautiful people in a beautiful place and both films use that beauty to highlight the beautiful people’s complete lack of interiority. In L’Avventura, the mediterranean is a dull grey slate dotted with jet black protuberances while that of Clement is a washed-out nightmare where only the most brutal and beautiful fear to tread.
Re-visiting Plein Soleil was a real treat that only continues to confirm my feeling that Anthony Minghella’s Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Talented Mr Ripley is actually the weakest of all the Ripley films while Clement’s adaptation and Liliana Cavani’s take on Ripley’s Game remain sadly under-rated.
Directed by Jacques Rivette (one of the big beasts of the French Nouvelle Vague) Secret Defense is best understood as a sort of inside-out psychological thriller. What I mean by this is that while most psychological thrillers use the language of film to convey what it feels like to be in a particular psychological state, Rivette’s film looks beyond what the characters are feeling and focuses instead upon the insane realities of what it is they are doing.
The film opens as research scientist Sylvie (Sandrine Bonnaire) is approached by her younger brother Paul (Gregoire Colin). Obviously troubled, Paul presents Sylvie with photographic evidence suggesting that the charismatic and ambitious Walser (Jerzy Radziwilowicz) might have been involved in the death of their powerful father. Initially dismissive of her brother’s conspiracy theories, Sylvie soon becomes worried that Paul might be planning to do something stupid and so decides to ‘save’ her brother by travelling across the country in order to kill Walser herself.
At this, point, most directors would have used either the relationship between the siblings or their historic links to Walser as a means of exploring Sylvie’s character and explaining her decision to seek revenge on her brother’s behalf. However, rather than following this well-trodden path, Rivette devotes twenty minutes of the film to a largely dialogue-free train journey during which Sylvie sleeps, tries on sunglasses, changes trains and gets drunk. The sheer crushing boredom of this section beautifully demonstrates the depths of Sylvie’s madness and obsession whilst keeping her actual emotional state firmly at arm’s length. Indeed, the reason Secret Defense runs to a colossal 170 minutes is that each of the film’s revelations comes only after a succession of missed phone-calls, awkwardly silent breakfasts, gloomy afternoons spent sitting around, and seductions embarked upon solely to give the characters an excuse to not talk to each other. In fact, this cycle of avoidance, confrontation and acceptance repeats itself endlessly throughout the film but without much insight ever being gained.
The point of the film is that it takes considerable time and energy to both keep and reveal family secrets. Much like the intelligence services alluded to by the film’s title, Sylvie works hard to break through a wall of silence and once that wall is finally breached she pointedly refuses to reveal the family’s secret to her troubled younger brother. There’s simply too much at stake and he wouldn’t understand anyway.
By focussing upon the characters’ actions rather than their exact motivations, Rivette emphasises not only the irrationality of the characters’ actions but also the social nature of many psychological states. When Walser finally lets Sylvie in on the family secret, Sylvie lashes out at her mother and then immediately forgives her; it is as though she has passed through a veil from one world into another where secrecy and even murder make perfect sense. Thus, the decision to keep the characters at arms’ length results in a truly devastating psychological truth: all human behaviour seems irrational and insane when deprived of its cultural and psychological context.
THE ZONE has my review of Michael Mann’s recently re-issued psychological thriller Manhunter.
To put it simply, I adore this film. I adore the moody electronic score, I adore Dante Spinotti’s ridiculously colourful cinematography and I adore the way that Michael Mann lines up his shots. However, what I particularly love about this film is the way that it treats the character of Hannibal Lecter as a painstakingly-repressed dark side rather than a scenery-chewing panto dame:
When Graham visits Lecktor in the hospital, we are told it is because he is hoping to rekindle the creative fires that allow him to project himself into the mind of a killer. However, rather than simply visiting Lecktor in the hospital, Graham reaches out to the disgraced psychiatrist in the hope that his superior understanding of human nature might shed some new light on the case. This act of deference to Lecktor’s superior expertise is deeply troubling when considered alongside Mann’s cinematic blurring of the line between psychologist and psychopath. Indeed, by having Graham turn to Lecktor as part of his own creative process, Mann seems to be suggesting the existence of a symbiotic relationship between the two men. In fact, one could interpret the scene as a sort of vision quest in which the creatively frustrated Graham turns to his painstakingly repressed dark side in order to unblock the empathic powers that will allow him to solve the case.
Mann’s take on Lecter is particularly fascinating as this film was adapted from Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon (1981) before Harris even wrote The Silence of the Lambs. In other words, this is a vision of Red Dragon that is completely untainted by the decision to reinvent Lecter as some kind of brain-eating antihero. Released on an absolutely flawless Bluray that makes it look like a brand new film, this re-issue offers an excellent opportunity to rediscover one of the best and most under-rated psychological thrillers of all time.
FilmJuice have my review of Pål Sletaune’s psychological thriller Babycall.
The film tells the story of a mother and child that are placed in a witness relocation programme after their abusive husband and father is sent to prison. Intensely nervous and over-protective, Anna refuses to allow her son to sleep in her own bed until she purchases a baby monitor that allows her to hear him sleep. However, once the monitor is plugged in it begins picking up horrific sounds of abuse coming from another device in the same apartment block. Assisted by Helge, a man whose status as the son of an overprotective mother allows him to understand the woman’s desire to protect her son, Anna begins investigating the source of the noises only for her entire life to begin unraveling.
At the heart of Babycall is the complex, unhealthy but ultimately humanising relationship between Helge and Anna. Fresh from her success as the original cinematic Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace offers us a veneer of faceless maternal anxiety that slowly peels away, revealing more and more humanity as Anna becomes more and more detached from reality. Similarly impressive is Joner who manages to find strength, courage and likeability in a character whose life has been defined by a cowardly willingness to apologise for the actions of a monstrous and tyrannical parent. These twin performances, though entertaining to watch in their own right, provide a sound human basis for what could all too easily have been a directionless attack on abusive parenting. The power of Babycall lies not in the decision to confront the issue of abusive parenting but rather in the capacity to make these types of parent appear sympathetic. Indeed, we feel for Anna because she is afraid and because she loves her son but when that love produces individuals as broken as Helge, we have to ask whether maternal love is really the unambiguously positive thing we have always assumed it to be.
Flawlessly paced, psychologically compelling and full of brilliant twists and turns, Babycall is not only a fantastic psychological thriller, it is also a very brave film indeed. Without wanting to give too much away, it might be worth seeing Philippe Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long (2008) before you see Babycall as both films tread quite similar ground (albeit in very different ways).
People with an interest in well-executed psychological thrillers might also want to check out Sletaune’s previous film Next Door (2005), which I reviewed over here.