Eyes without a Face: mad-scientist horror genre gets serious treatment with issues of control and identity

Georges Franju, “Eyes without a Face” / “Les yeux sans visage” (1959)

Lean and elegant in narrative style, this film treats a pulpy mad-scientist horror story in a credibly serious, in-your-face manner that extracts maximum horror from its subject. Shot in black-and-white, the presentation is crisp with some shots done from odd camera angles and features scenes emphasising contrasts in light and darkness that might recall German expressionist influences. The plot revolves around a triangle of Dr Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a dedicated plastic surgeon who lost his wife years ago and nearly lost his daughter in separate accidents; Christiane (Edith Scob), the daughter, whose face is horribly disfigured in her accident which was caused by her father; and Louise (Alida Valli), the doctor’s loyal assistant, who procures young women for him so he can transplant their faces onto his daughter’s deformed face. Yep, folks, that’s the gruesome tale and in most other film-makers’ hands this would turn into a B-grade shock-horror mad-scientist flick complete with a hunchbacked assistant whose eyes don’t stop rolling in opposite directions; but under Franju’s direction, the story becomes minimal and the characters are readily recognisable people who become all the more horrifying by their thoughts, words and behaviour. In particular Louise is a chilling character as she combines a warm, caring manner, the presentation of a polished middle-class lady, a clinical attitude to the girls as they undergo surgery and a devotion to Dr Génessier that goes beyond unquestioning groupie worship.

The acting is exemplary: the actors playing the main characters portray them as complex people whose motives driving their extreme behaviour are understandable. Dr Génessier feels guilt for causing the accident that deformed his daughter’s face and most likely believes he must save her at all costs to preserve a living memory of his dead wife (so there’s a hint of necrophilia as well). His skill with the scalpel leads him to believe that he can repair his daughter’s face in spite of past transplants that have all failed as will the transplant of the face of Edna Grünberg (Juliette Mayniel) which is shown in the movie. There is a subtle message here about human pride and arrogance in one’s own abilities and skills, coupled with trust and belief in technology, to overcome and control nature; this is reinforced by Dr Génessier’s imprisonment of stray dogs in the basement of his country mansion, to be used as guinea pigs in his transplant experiments. As the deranged doctor, Brasseur gives a calm, controlled performance: in some scenes he is kind and reassuring to a small boy; in other scenes he is professional if abrupt in manner. As said before, Louise is chilling and creepy in her contradictions but we understand why: she received a face transplant from Dr Génessier previously and it was a success. Valli is more expressive in her role, giving just the slightest hint of malice and gushy-ness, yet it’s still a restrained perfomrance: viewers get a sense that she wants a committed relationship with Dr Génessier but is reluctant to pursue a romance while he is obsessed with fixing up his daughter Christiane.

Scob spends most of her onscreen time as Christiane peering through a blank white mask and her eyes do most of her acting: they’re usually sad but are sometimes terrified and, towards the end, angry. Viewers see she’s just as much a victim as Edna and all the other girls before her; not only is she under her father’s total control – he even blanks out her existence to her fiance Jacques (François Guérin) and the police authorities by pretending to identify a corpse as hers and staging her funeral – but she is forced to be an unwilling participant in his transplant experiments. You sense that Dr Génessier is using Christiane as a guinea pig for improving his technique and methods as he is with his dogs. An unexpected delay in Génessier’s next face-transplant operation after the failure of Edna’s transplanted face allows Christiane to set free the new victim and to release the dogs as well.

Much of the movie’s focus is on Christiane so in part it’s a psychological study of a woman who becomes troubled by her passive participation, however indirect, in other people’s murders and must decide if she wishes to stay complicit or do something and stop being a participant. Franju makes the decision easier for Christiane in a way: all her previous face transplants have been failures so future ones are likely to be failures too: and even Louise’s apparently successful transplant is no assurance. If anything, the successful transplant has chained Louise closely to Dr Génessier so she is no objective role model. An existentialist message can be said to exist here: a person’s identity and sense of being are as much dependent on action or non-action as they are on her background and endowments. By taking action, Christiane discovers freedom, at the cost perhaps of ever being able to rejoin normal society and seeing her fiance again. On another level that most people would understand, Christiane must choose between surface appearance and conventional notions of beauty on the one hand, and inner beauty or moral integrity on the other. Scob is ideal as the delicate Christiane: eerily resembling Mia Farrow in her “Rosemary’s Baby” days, and angelic with long, slim arms and wearing pale floaty dresses, she seems the perfectly ethereal and helpless victim.

In contrast to the sharp presentation which often emphasises the shadows under otherwise bland exteriors, the film’s mood is almost dream-like. The mansion where Christiane lives looks sinister and even features a dungeon of barking dogs, not to mention the room where the operations take place. Scenes of the face transplantation and the transformations of Edna’s face on Christiane as her body rejects the face can be very graphic and upsetting in their clinical nature though the shots are short and the edits quick. The music score by Maurice Jarre plays a significant role: jaunty, carnivalesque yet hard, the harpsichord tones trill a repeated riff constantly and maddeningly whenever Louise turns up in her car to prey on unsuspecting young women; the music changes at the end of the film to something softer. The support cast exists mainly to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the police and doctors as authority figures and saviours. The film appears sympathetic towards women as victims of men and patriarchial structures and instutions. It would be too much to read into the film a message that victims should try to empower themselves; Christiane seizes her chance only because her father is called away by a fortuitous police visit. I don’t see her as a champion for feminism as the decision she makes to free herself may be purely personal or existential but people are free to see her however they wish. However Christiane and Louise are interesting contrasts as women: the younger woman as passive yet ultimately self-directing, the older woman as an active agent in thrall to a male authority figure whose desires she anticipates.

The film is worth a look for its streamlined, almost artistic presentation and its examination of control, identity and existence in its skeletal plot and considered characterisations. Some viewers may find the pace very slow, at least until near the end where it picks up quickly with Christiane’s release of the dogs. The screenplay was adapted from a Jean Redon novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, those writers of the novel “D’Entre les Morts” on which the Alfred Hitchock movie “Vertigo” which deals with similar themes (control of women’s bodies by men, necrophilia, identity and existence) is based.

Little Shop of Horrors: dark horror and farce in trashy 1960 cheapie

Roger Corman, “Little Shop of Horrors” (1960)

Here’s a cute comedy horror piece made on the cheap in just two days in 1960 that speaks to anyone and everyone afraid of demanding pets and children with ravenous appetites, rejection in love, overbearing hypochondriac mothers and dentists who go out of their way to inflict maximum pain on your gums! The film’s production values may have dated badly but its tale is as plaintive today as it was then. Nerdy and none-too-bright Seymour (Jonathan Haze) works in a florist shop in a poor section of Los Angeles or some other town in southern California. The shop is owned and run by Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) who bosses Seymour about. There is another employee, Audrey (Jackie Joseph), for whom Seymour carries a torch, so one day when Mushnick threatens to sack the young fellow for messing up a client’s floral arrangement, Seymour, afraid of losing Audrey, lets slip that he’s been caring for a tiny, frail hybrid plant that he bred. Mushnick allows him to bring the plant to work the next day. The poor little thing isn’t thriving despite the loving care Seymour has lavished on it.

By accident, Seymour discovers the pet plant partakes rather too much of its combined butterwort / Venus fly-trap inheritance and after several days feeding on salty protein liquid the wicked weed’s tremendous growth to gargantuan proportions with the appetite for, uh, more fertiliser to match forces the now borderline-anaemic Seymour to go farther afield and commit manslaughter. Two police detectives, so hard-boiled that when one of them suffers a family tragedy, he merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “Them’s the breaks”, turn up at Mushnick’s shop to enquire about the disappearances of a railway employee and Mushnick’s dentist. Mushnick himself is suspicious of the hybrid’s amazing growth and is aware of its secret (and even finds it useful for getting rid of a robber) but because the herbaceous horror is bringing his shop attention, business and money, he hesitates to tell the police what he knows and believes. In the meantime Seymour and Audrey start going steady but the plant’s demands – the freak can speak and can hypnotise people – soon drive the couple apart. When the monster finally comes into bloom and reveals to a crowd what Seymour has been feeding it, the put-upon young fellow, who had hoped to profit from the plant financially and win Audrey’s hand in marriage but now finds himself wanted and pursued for multiple murders, resolves to kill the flowering Frankenstein.

The acting and film-editing are nothing special – the editing’s just enough to eliminate obvious gore while still suggesting that various people help keep the plant well-fed – and the plot has many holes. If the plant can force Seymour to hunt for victims by mesmerising him, why can’t it stop him from killing it? Lashings of humour, in particular from Mushnick who exchanges droll repartee with the plant and from Seymour’s mother, and an array of hilarious characters that include a regular customer (Dick Miller) who eats flowers and a dental patient (Jack Nicholson in his debut acting role) who finds pleasure in pain and walks off with capped teeth (that’s capped as in knee-capped) enliven the basic narrative of the little plant that becomes a flesh-eating monster. Although Nicholson has only 5 minutes in the movie, his creepy-campy performance steals the show from nearly everyone else except the plant and maybe Mushnick’s Yiddish humour. The romance sub-plot provides further comedy and suspense which could have been milked a lot more for laughs and thrills: imagine if the plant had got jealous of Audrey and tried to lure her with hypnotism to its maw!

Somewhere in this schlocky horror picture show there’s a stab at how greed can get the better of what you know is right and how a person can be driven to derangement by accidental murder, love found and lost, and the bizarre results of home-based DIY genetic engineering that’s best left to Monsanto and its ilk. (Maybe not even that.) For a trashy cheapie made over half a century ago there’s a lot of energy in it and the dark horror aspects of family life, eating and symbiotic relationships between plants and animals are treated for laughs. How else to explain the enduring fascination this black comedy tale holds for people to the extent that it was remade as a stage musical in 1982 (on which the 1986 film musical and the 1990’s children’s cartoon series are based) and was slated for remake as a pure feature film in 2009? The dreaded dicotyledon continues to exercise its mesmeric abilities across the spatio-temporal divide long after its final bloom droops.

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.

Heavenly Creatures: a rich and dark dramatisation of a real-life matricide

Peter Jackson, “Heavenly Creatures” (1994)

Having made his reputation as purveyor of gory splatter horror comedy flicks to amuse teenagers and kidults, New Zealand director Peter Jackson made his jump to the mainstream film world with the drama “Heavenly Creatures”. The film is based on a notorious and sensational New Zealand murder trial that took place in 1954, in which two young teenage girls were charged with the murder of the mother of one of the girls themselves, and were sentenced to 5-year jail terms in prison, after which they were to change their names and never see each other again. Rather than focus on the actual trial itself, in which various psychiatric experts were brought in to ascertain if the girls were lesbian or insane, “Heavenly Creatures” details the friendship of the girls, how it developed and the intense fantasy world they wove together as their way of coping with social restrictions and pressures in the provincial conservative society of 1950s Christchurch in southern New Zealand.

Pauline Rieper (Melanie Lynskey) is a surly outcast at her girls-only high school until new student Juliet Hulme (Kate Winslet) arrives from the UK. Both girls discover they have much in common: they suffered from serious illnesses as children and spent time in hospital; they are highly intelligent and imaginative and share the same interests in music, watching movies, reading books and making up their own stories. As the friendship grows, Juliet invites Pauline to her home and Pauline is amazed to discover that Juliet’s family is wealthy and cultured in contrast to her own working class folks. Together the girls create a fantasy kingdom called Borovnia, populated with clay figures the girls make; the youngsters also dress up and act out the adventures of the Borovnian royals which they then chronicle in novels they eventually plan to publish in the US. Perhaps a film director will even make movies out of the books! Meanwhile Pauline’s mother Honora (Sarah Peirse) and Juliet’s father (Clive Merrison) start to worry over the girls’ intense friendship; Pauline’s mum drags her offspring to see a psychiatrist who can hardly bring himself to mention the dreaded “L” word. Eventually the parents meet and agree that the girls should be separated. Juliet’s mother (Diana Kent), having an affair with another man and sympathetic to Juliet and Pauline, suggests the girls can spend a fortnight together before Juliet is dispatched to a relative in South Africa indefinitely. During this time the girls plan to run away and plot to kill Pauline’s mother whom they believe is the instigator of their separation.

As the two girls, Lynskey and Winslet are excellent: initially Winslet looks too old (she was 18 or 19 years old at the time) to play a girl in her mid-teens but she quickly sweeps away any misgivings about her suitability as Hulme. Her acting seems florid for modern audiences unused to the way upper class English teenagers might have behaved in the 1950’s but in moments requiring real emotion, Winslet is realistic enough. As Rieper, Lynskey nails the girl’s complex nature as she goes from resentment at her lower class background to exhilaration in Juliet’s company to a kind of puzzled alienation at losing her virginity. The emotion in Lynskey’s face, depending on changes in her character’s circumstances as she interacts with Peirse and other actors, is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie; the girl’s not a beauty but her face, often framed in close-up, is a real study of changes in feeling and mood. There is an electrifying chemistry to Lynskey and Winslet’s interactions that apparently continued beyond the film itself; in a weird case of life imitating art, the two continued to call each other Pauline and Juliet after filming ended! The acting support is top-notch as well, bringing out a strong impression of the social gulf that exists between the Riepers and Hulmes and which leads Pauline to despise her background, particularly her mother who’s the disciplinarian in the family in contrast to Juliet’s easy-going and rebellious mother.

The film’s approach is strictly narrative and realist: told from Pauline’s point of view, using the girl’s actual diary extracts as the source for Lynskey’s voice-over monologues, “Heavenly Creatures” presents the events leading up to the murder without taking either the girls’ side or their parents’ side. The social and economic context in which the girls meet and create their imaginary world, itself both a witty and cheeky commentary on the culture they’ve grown up with and a place to express their rebellious tendencies and frustration at social expectations of them, emerges as the elephant in the room that informs the girls’ fantasies and breeds the resentment Pauline feels for her family and mother. The fantasy world of clay figures, mediaeval castles, Italian operatic arias and English gardens, sometimes laid over the real New Zealand landscape of green fern forests in which the original Maori culture has perhaps been extinguished, is presented as appearing more real than real life itself and often intrudes with bloodthirsty relish in Pauline and Juliet’s day-dreams. Jackson’s attention to replicating details of New Zealand life in the 1950s looks accurate and captures the flavour of both the warm if claustrophobic working class life of Pauline’s family and the languid, free-wheeling life of Juliet’s family. Fantasy sequences featuring adult-sized clay figures and recreations of scenes with US actor Orson Welles from Carol Reed’s famous 1950s film “The Third Man” are often droll, wickedly funny and slightly sinister at the same time.

The cinematography which takes in panoramic and bird’s-eye views of the wide plains of Canterbury province in southern New Zealand is often very beautiful; the plains and the lush green forests could be symbolic of the girls’ desire for freedom and self-expression. By contrast, old newsreel scenes of mid-20th century Christchurch before the movie’s opening credits show a city that could have existed anywhere in Australia or New Zealand of the same period, apart perhaps from a shot of the Anglican church that was damaged in February 2011 by an earthquake.

It’s a pity that the film doesn’t go beyond the murder and show the voyeuristic and prurient aspects of the trial which would have demonstrated the sexually repressed and hypocritical side of 1950s Christchurch society in dismissing the girls as “evil” while salivating over the trial’s details through the newspapers of the time. Hints that the girls may have lesbian tendencies are explored tastefully: Pauline finds her first sexual experience with a man an alienating non-event and the scene in which the girls embrace and kiss in their underwear in bed could be construed as acting out parts for their novel – after all, someone has to play the prince! – as well as suggesting a sexual aspect to the friendship. Juliet plays a dominating role and Pauline is her adoring acolyte in the relationship. The film doesn’t dwell much on the family dynamics that encourage the girls to retreat deeper into their shared fantasy: there is no hint of the conflict in the Hulmes’ marriage (though there must have been as the mother has a lover and the parents are as alike as the proverbial chalk and cheese) or in the Riepers’ relationship even though hte movie clearly shows Honora as a dominant character and her husband as a bit child-like.

Although “Heavenly Creatures” on the surface is a straightforward fictional retelling of a real-life drama with no apparent agenda, its themes of sensitive, intelligent individuals who try in their own way to cope with the restrictions their society places on them and the frustrations these cause, of how the fantasy worlds people create reflect their culture and help them cope (or not cope) with their reality as it changes, and the psychology of teenage girls together give the film a richness that informs the acting and fleshes out the drama with dark Gothic imagery. There is a gentle suspense that with the moderately fast pace builds quietly and inexorably to the horrific climax.

Les Diaboliques aka The Devils: psychological horror film thin on plot but thick with suspense, claustrophobia, tension and twisted endings

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Les Diaboliques” aka “The Devils” (1955)

At first “Les Diaboliques” doesn’t seem anything like director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s previous film “Wages of Fear”: one is an action thriller about four truck drivers who undertake a dangerous journey and the other movie is a psychological horror study of two murderers. Look closely though and the similarities are there: there is a great deal of unnerving tension extended through most of the two movies that culminates in more than one climax, with a twist at the end; and the action takes place in an unsympathetic universe where people are exploited by other people in particular social, political and economic environments. The exploited characters may be driven to take whatever action they can, no matter how morally questionable that is, to free themselves from exploitation and to restore meaning and purpose to their lives. “Les Diaboliques” follows two such people who take what is clearly unlawful action to free themselves. One of the two experiences a new kind of prison, a psychological one, that threatens her health and her life as well.

Christina Delasalle and her husband (Vera Clouzot and Paul Meurisse) run a boys’ boarding school in Paris. She teaches several subjects and he as principal attends to the administration and paperwork. Michel is also having an affair with a teacher, Miss Nicole Horner (Simone Signoret) and moreover flaunts the romance openly so even the children giggle about it behind Christina’s back. He abuses both women physically and mentally but though she is unhappy and despondent, Christina refuses to divorce her husband due to her strong religious beliefs. Nicole, also unhappy, suggests to the wife that they work together to kill Michel. Christina hesitates at first but agrees. The women lure Michel to Nicole’s apartment in a small village during a public holiday when the school is closed and the boys have gone home; they get the tyrant drunk and drown him in a bath-tub full of water. They drive his body back to the school and dump it in the muddy, leaf-covered swimming pool. A few days later, the women find an excuse to drain the pool, only to discover the corpse has disappeared.

Bizarre incidents occur that suggest that Michel could be alive or his ghost is haunting the school, leaving Christina and Nicole seriously rattled. Christina starts searching for Michel’s corpse and meets retired police detective Fichet (Charles Vanel) who is personally interested in the case and begins to snoop around the school for clues in spite of her protests. While Fichet conducts his investigation, the women argue and bitch about who is more guilty of murder, and end up falling out. Nicole packs her bag and departs the school, and Christina is left alone and vulnerable to strange goings-on at night that hint that Michel is not only not dead but has come to harass her.

The tension and unease that extend throughout the movie are sustained by a combination of various filming methods and tricks such as the use of close-ups of objects or actions, odd camera angles and particular rotations of the camera as it follows an action or takes in an image; and clearly defined characters in Christina and Nicole whose differing personalities and views on morality highlight their susceptibility to pangs of conscience while the murder remains undiscovered and unsolved. Viewers know their alliance will be very short-lived. At the same time the teachers seem to have more than Michel in common and there are hints of a developing lesbian relationship with Nicole the bossy leader and Christina the passive, girlish partner. Signoret plays the forceful Nicole well. Vera Clouzot, wife of the film’s director, has a tougher job playing a resigned, submissive woman burdened by despair initially and then by guilt and self-abasement after the murder, but she holds up her part adequately enough. In the climactic bath-tub scene, Clouzot’s reaction to what she sees coming out of the water seems wooden and a little overplaying of fright and terror wouldn’t have gone amiss. (Slightly hammy acting in this scene would also support this writer’s idea that Christina might be playing Nicole and the other school staff for fools as suggested by the film’s coda that involves a boy and his slingshot.)

The film is at its strongest in scenes where Christina, though physically weak from nervous stress and guilt, leaves her bed at night to investigate an intrusion into Michel’s quarters at the school and walks through dark corridors towards a lit room; here the camera’s roaming, the snappy editing, the odd shots of moving legs or gloved hands sliding up bannisters, the unusual points of view emphasising the length of corridors or door angles illuminated by flashes of light from behind, and close-ups of Christina’s wide-eyed terror, all increase and prolong the tension to the movie’s climax. The voyeuristic style of filming which forces the viewers to follow and share Christina’s fright recalls the methods favoured by Clouzot’s more famous contemporary Alfred Hitchcock. “Les Diaboliques” also shares with many of Hitchcock’s films a black humour, especially in scenes between Christina and Fichet, who insists on offering his investigative services for free, and in scenes involving Nicole’s apartment neighbours who complain about the noise of the running bath-water above them.

Though the world where “Les Diaboliques” takes place is a depressingly mean-spirited and restricted one where characters exploit one another for selfish personal gain and freedom can be gained only by transgressing social and moral rules set up by equally selfish others, the whole movie seems thin compared to Hitchcock’s more layered, psychoanalytically influenced thrillers like “Vertigo” and “Psycho”.  Plot discrepancies are very noticeable in “Les Diaboliques” and the audience needs to fill in blanks such as: how does Fichet work out what Nicole is doing with Michel’s corpse? what’s going on with Christina after two people are taken into police custody? could Fichet and Christina have been working together? – as director Clouzot, perhaps deliberately, leaves much unexplained about Christina’s fate after the end credits start to roll. Also if Clouzot had given a bit more back-story to both Christina and Nicole and allowed Michel a more rounded personality than simply making him a petty dictator, viewers might have felt more sympathy for the women as they struggle with their guilt, bad consciences and trying to justify to themselves and to each other that what they did to Michel was what he deserved. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and stereotyped: Christina as the passive, submissive good-girl wife who finds it difficult not to do as she’s told, Nicole as the icy bossy-boots schemer and Michel as all-out misogynist who marries only for money and dumps women when he sees fit.

“Les Diaboliques” is still worth a look though for the two trick endings and the way in which Clouzot builds up and maintains unease, suspense, and a sense of claustrophobia in the lead-up to the climax. Apart from this, the movie isn’t otherwise remarkable in the way it unfurls the narrative and yours truly has the feeling it sticks fairly closely to the original source material.

The film was based on a pulp crime fiction novel “Celle qui n’était plus” (known in English as “The Woman who was no more”) by Pierre Boileau and Pierre Ayraud aka Thomas Narcejac. According to legend and depending on which version of the legend you hear, Clouzot beat Alfred Hitchcock to the film rights to this novel by half an hour to several hours after finishing “Wages of Fear”. Boileau and Narcejac later offered Hitchcock the film rights to their next novel “D’entre les morts” (“The Living and the Dead”) which the British-American director made into “Vertigo”. Hitchcock must still have been a bit sore at losing the film rights to the earlier book as he set out to beat Clouzot at his own game and the result was the famous “Psycho”. Between “Les Diaboliques” and “Psycho”, viewers certainly will think twice about taking long baths or hot showers!

Wages of Fear: mesmerising film about character, motivation and meaning of existence in an uncaring universe

Henri-Georges Clouzot, “Wages of Fear” (1953)

On paper, this movie’s plot looks so simple, even kindergartners would yawn at it: an American oil company offers to pay “big” money to four truck drivers to transport two loads of explosive chemicals from a remote town somewhere in Central America to an oilfield. The route they must take winds through rough country over often unpaved roads, there may be obstacles in the way and the loads themselves are so volatile that the slightest vibration in the engine or the smallest bump in the road could set them off. How then could Clouzot make a movie lasting nearly 2 1/2 hours out of this scenario? How can anyone make a long truck journey interesting and tense for an audience to watch for over an hour? The answer is that Clouzot made this particular trip more than just an adventure thriller flick: “Wages of Fear” is as much a study of character and motivation, a test of courage, loyalty and morality under extreme circumstances, and an indictment of a society in which people hold life and nature in low regard and readily exploit other people who allow themselves to be debased to the extent that their own lives become expendable.

The movie divides into two unequal halves: the second half contains the actual trip itself and has all the action and suspense but the first half, about an hour, gives viewers the backgrounds of the four men and their motives for wanting to carry out such a suicidal job for measly pay in conditions that in part were deliberately created or neglected by their employer. The setting is in a poor town, Las Piedras: hot, dusty, rainy, isolated with no work for the various European expatriate refugees who have come here for various reasons. They sleep, drink, laze about and make nuisances of themselves with the locals. Four such men are Mario (Yves Montand), Jo (Charles Vanel), Bimba (Peter van Eyck) and Luigi (Folco Lulli) who waste their days away in their own fashion: Mario is having an affair with a local girl, Linda (Vera Clouzot), and both plan to get away from Las Piedras if Linda can save up enough money. Jo, an ex-gangster, has a mean streak and is prepared to kill for selfish and petty reasons. Luigi is a warm-hearted if perhaps simple-minded baker. Bimba is a quiet type who was once imprisoned by Nazis and forced by them to work in a salt mine.

They are among several men answering the call of the local branch of the Southern Oil Company (SOC) for drivers to carry explosives to an oilfield some hundreds of kilometres away. A fire has broken out and nitroglycerine is urgently needed to put out the flames; the company is forced to load cans of the stuff onto two old trucks and recruit drivers at short notice with little safety preparation. Understandable of course but we’re not supposed to ask why safety precautions at the oilfield weren’t carried out in the first place. (And using explosives to extinguish fires? … uh, hmmm …) Assume that, like the real-life BP, the oil company here has little regard for safety in the workplace and environmental concerns, and cuts corners if it can with impunity. Anyway, applicants have to travel to the company compound – the company managers and their staff live in their own town in comfort – to undergo driving and medical tests: Luigi has a condition, caused by previous employment with SOC, that shortens his life-span and for that reason is hired as one of the four lucky driver duckies. Mario and Bimba, being young and fit, are also picked as is Smerloff (?) with Jo an alternative driver should any of the four fail to turn up for the job. Jo waylays Smerloff and gets the job.

As we expect, the trip itself isn’t a smooth ride: the truckers have to negotiate at least two obstacles which involve backing and turning the vehicles around on a damaged bridge with rotting wood planks overlooking an abyss and removing a boulder blocking the road. Bimba and Luigi, driving on ahead after Jo weakens early during the trip, meet with an accident that leaves a crater filling up with oil from a damaged pipeline which becomes a third obstacle for Mario and Jo. The suspense is extended across the entire time the trip takes place: the pace is leisurely but increases steadily and so does the tension; the cinematography is lean with close-ups taken at critical moments – truck-tyres scrabbling on slippery boards, a wick being ignited, Jo looking exhausted and perhaps inwardly beating himself up for his moral and physical weakness – and featuring an incredible montage sequence at film’s end that alternates between dancing couples and a truck swerving from side to side on a dangerous mountain road to the tune of Johann Strauss’s “The Blue Danube”. There is also a mesmerising sequence of images of huge fires billowing and sweeping across the screen like hell brought to reality at the oilfield where Mario delivers the explosives. Indeed a number of scenes near the film’s end, beginning with Jo’s death, could be construed as climaxes in the film’s narrative. The acting is sparing and efficient, enough for the movie’s plot and purpose, though Vanel as Jo puts in a great performance playing a man forced to admit to himself if not to others that he is a coward, that his physical and mental strength are fading and failing him, and that the other drivers despise him for his greed and lack of support. But as the quartet overcomes each obstacle, the strain on their endurance becomes obvious: Luigi coughs more, Bimba reminds himself of his experiences in the salt mines, Jo becomes ill or tries to run away and Mario ends up losing his temper and behaves callously in a way that will cost Jo his life.

Superficially the film is a test of four men’s courage and ability to withstand pressures placed partly by themselves and by others: at stake is their self-esteem and sense of masculinity as well as their lives. Mario, initially presented as a self-centred layabout who treats Linda badly, ends up loyal to the undeserving Jo and mourns his death. Jo discovers that with each new ordeal he encounters, his fear increases, demonstrating that whether you face one or 100 frightening situations, you never get used to fear; on the contrary, you become more fearful and less brave. His fatal accident merely manifests the inner broken man he has become. On another level, the film doesn’t celebrate Mario and his fellow truckers as heroes: they were greedy and foolish enough to accept a job without proper safety measures from a firm they know to be unscrupulous and slapdash in its treatment of its employees. Even so, they are heroic in the way they cope with whatever is thrown at them. Jo with all his fear doesn’t come off too badly, facing agonising death and nothingness with relative calm, though this is dependent on Mario offering comfort.

There’s a strong existential aspect to “Wages of Fear”, a philosophical point of view that suggests the universe is indifferent to the fate of humans and capricious to boot; under such conditions, individuals must make meaning out of their lives, however cheap and ignoble the means are. The tragic coda in which circumstances and human arrogance collide illustrates this notion though some viewers may find this part of the film as a heavy-handed and unnecessary addition to the narrative.

The political aspect of “Wages of Fear” is all but ignored: viewers may well wonder what kind of government ruling the country allows towns like Las Piedras to exist and permits foreign, especially US, corporations to trash the environment with impunity and to use the local people as slave labour to extract oil and other resources, the income from which won’t benefit the true owners at all. Also we never find out why people like Mario, Bimba, Jo and Luigi came to Las Piedras in the first place, though viewers who know something of the post-1945 history of the world and of Europe and Latin America in particular may be well aware of the political turmoil and that erupted after World War II and the large-scale movements of refugees displaced by war and poverty that occurred as a result.

Highly recommended watching, preferably in a fixed spot such as inside a building, and not in a truck or semi-trailer carrying dangerous chemical loads or equipment.

Delicatessen: amusing dystopian black comedy that overdoes the oddball edge and comes out looking twee

Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, “Delicatessen” (1991)

How to describe this droll French movie that tackles cannibalism in a light-hearted manner? It’s at once a dystopian horror black comedy and a character study of sorts featuring romance, thriller and drama elements, all flavoured with a distinctively twee style. Unemployed Louison (Dominique Pinon) is a clown by profession looking for somewhere to stay in a future Paris which looks very much like a ghost town in the middle of a desert where the air is perpetually dusty and food is in short supply. He discovers an apartment block advertising for a handy-man with a vacant unit as part of the job package. He is accepted for the job by landlord Mr Clapet (Jean-Claude Dreyfus) who runs the delicatessen on the ground floor. Little does Louison realise that Clapet plans to fatten him up and kill him to provide a source of cheap meat to the other tenants in the building. As he keeps busy (and skinny) doing maintenance around the tumbledown building – and there’s plenty to do in the various tenants’ units – he meets Clapet’s daughter Julie (Marie-Laure Dougnac) and over time they fall in love. Julie’s all too aware of what Papa Clapet has in mind for Louison so one night she sneaks out of the building and descends into the sewers to contact a group of vegetarian terrorists calling themselves the Troglodistes and to appeal to them for help in rescuing Louison from the chop.

It’s very cartoony with characters that are one-dimensional in an extreme zany way. The colours of the film are sometimes bright, almost fruity, but more often brown, grey, dark and dirty. The filming is done from odd angles that exaggerate some characters’ facial features or an aspect of their personalities, or to emphasise the peculiarity of the insular world they live in. Fast editing keeps the action and energy flowing in several parts of the movie. The actors are quite good, especially Pinon and Karin Viard who plays Clapet’s mistress when they are either bouncing on the Clapets’ creaky bed or dancing as a couple in Louison’s apartment (though it’s possible some computerised tweaking took place in the dancing scene). True, the acting can be very mannered with characters appearing to play up to the screen and the camera itself encouraging them to exaggerate expressions for viewer laughs and sympathy. Dreyfus plays his villain role in a straight buffoony way and Dougnac, aided by her round-faced, fair-haired angelic looks, nails the shy and awkward Julie for most of the film, at least until the last half hour when Clapet and Louison’s showdown takes over and everyone and everything must conform to the shaky plot’s exigencies.

With an original premise drawing on several genre influences, the plot understandably weaves among graveyard humour, Grand Guignol melodrama, steampunk science fiction, horror suspense, action and boy-meets-girl / boy-loses-girl / boy-regains-girl romance. In trying to be everything or nearly everything at once, it becomes patchy and fragile indeed. Subplots centred around Clapet’s tenants that look promising remain just that, promising, and the potential for black horror humour in the tenant who constantly attempts suicide but is always let down by her Rube Goldberg mechanical arrangements, or in the basement dweller who cultivates snails and frogs for food, remains stalled or repeats itself. The Troglodistes aren’t just a sidetrack to the plot and a hindrance in the murderous Clapet’s way and so the plot fumbles towards a climax that clamours as much for laughs and guffaws as for tension and suspense.

The movie suggests that in the not-too distant future of severe food shortages and other scarce resources, society will retreat into the past with women dressing in kitschy mid-20th century work fashions, people watching old musicals on black-and-white TV sets and everyone resorting to, uh, drastic hunting, gathering and hoarding methods when shopping for groceries. Motifs that appear here and which sometimes resurface in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s later films include an emphasis on the lives of oddball outsiders living isolated lives with the director showing sympathy for those who often break mainstream society’s rules and conventions but are otherwise well-meaning; a fascination with mechanics and technology on a human scale; and one individual’s victory over a whole bunch of murderous neighbours and quite useless guerilla fighters in spite of odds against him. Together these motifs suggest Jeunet is critical of many aspects of modern French society: there may be subtle criticism of bureaucracy, an obsession with maintaining appearances and how mainstream society treats its most vulnerable and downtrodden victims.

How well “Delicatessen” stands the test of time as a cult movie is a big question: visually it’s a treat and enjoyable to watch and sections of the movie that feature comic music syncrhonisations are very clever, perhaps too clever, but the quaintness and oddball style seem too deliberate and overdone. The main characters aren’t quite flesh-and-blood human enough to carry the oddball overload on their shoulders and the minor characters stay frozen in their eccentric routines due to the limited screen-time allocated to them. A longer playing time of about 10 – 20 minutes devoted to more character development and resolving the subplots – so that the lady trying to kill herself gets her wish fulfilled but in the way she least expects, perhaps by being buried under an avalanche of snail shells or frog skeletons – and a bit less on layering the film with one eccentric detail after another might have brought more light and warmth out of the film’s dark Gothic settings and plot. For all its layers of black comedy, optimistic romance and Gothic drama, at the centre of “Delicatessen” is something a bit cold, unemotional, even a little sterile.

Early Summer: visually stunning film with message about effects of change on families

Yasujiro Ozu, “Early Summer” (1951)

Calm and serene with a thin plot, “Early Summer” looks at a family and the changes it undergoes as a result of one of its members deciding whether or not to marry. The movie is set in early 1950’s Japan which was under American occupation and associated social influences at the time. Noriko (Setsuko Hara) is a clerk in her late twenties under pressure from her parents and her married brother at home to find a suitable husband. Even her boss at work jokingly suggests she should meet an old school friend of his to see if they’re a good match for each other. Noriko sweetly bats off all these hints that she’s nearing her meat-market use-by date and should be settling down to obedient, passive housewifely duties. Her social set divides into singleton and married-women camps arguing the pros and cons of singlehood and supposed wedded bliss so she’s well aware of what she’d be walking into if she got that gold band on her finger. Interestingly, the one person who doesn’t hassle Noriko about getting married is her sister-in-law who’s harried by two small sons who are spoilt by their grandparents.

The visual style of “Early Summer” is highly commendable: the camera positions place considerable physical space between us viewers and the characters, and the cameras themselves are set at table height or at the level Japanese people traditionally kneel down to eat at low tables when at home. Deep focus fixed-camera shots are used so people are often filmed in the background having conversations or doing things while framed by doorways, furniture and other interior fixtures. If the camera moves at all, it is to track people coming towards it or going away from it, or to pan slowly across the screen over a nature scene. The effect is to give “Easy Summer” a static, almost stage-like quality and viewers will feel very much like voyeurs peeking into people’s private business. The very minimal acting places psychological distance between us and the characters. By forcing such physical and psychological distance, viewers observe the story as it develops and don’t get deeply involved; this helps to reinforce the film’s theme about how change affects families and the relationships within them for better and for worse. We shouldn’t get upset if people suffer as this may be a short-term effect of the change and there may be long-term benefits; equally a short-term benefit may lead to adverse long-term effects.

“Early Summer” observes the pressure Noriko is put under to conform to tradition and expectations under social, political and economic conditions that aren’t static, and the frustrations and distress that she experiences when social custom clashes with changing reality. At first she’s unwilling to surrender her freedom, financial independence and closeness to her relatives but after continued pressure from family and friends alike, she suddenly decides to marry a widower with a child. The irony of her decision is that her relatives disapprove of the idea of a proven family man as husband over a man aged 40 years who’s never married and might not be family-man material; and Noriko’s impending marriage means her income will be lost to her family so her brother and his brood must move to a smaller house in Tokyo and the parents must live in the country. The hypocrisy and shallowness inherent in forcing a woman to marry purely to preserve social standing and harmony without thought for practical consequences become apparent.

The acting is so sparing in its expressiveness as to seem stereotyped: most of the women are chirpy and giggle a lot; the men stick to one mode of expression throughout the film so Noriko’s boss is usually jovial and her dad and various other aged people usually act bemused at the pace of modern life. Hara does a good job within the limits set by director Ozu at portraying a woman who hides her anger, sorrow and despair behind a cheery and upbeat façade.

Scenes of restless nature (beach scenes of rolling waves near the beginning and the end of the film, a scene at the end of rippling wheat ready for harvest) and of the Tokyo cityscape reflect the ongoing and impassive nature of change. The small children with their obsession with model train sets and demand for lollies and gifts are the focus of a small subplot emphasising generational differences.

Slow and reserved it may be but “Early Summer” isn’t at all stodgy; it just glides by, inviting neither scorn nor sympathy for its characters. The film does suffer from not being in colour which would enhance Ozu’s style of filming by adding depth to deep focus shots. Mood and atmosphere might be improved with appropriate colour choices in the interior and costume design. Unfortunately for Ozu, the technology to film in colour was never available to him, Japan at the time being an impoverished country ruined by war policies pursued by its governments in the 1930’s – ’40’s, and by the time the country’s film industry could afford colour filming (some time in the mid-1960’s), Ozu had already died.

One aspect of “Early Summer” that some viewers might find troubling is the fatalistic attitude expressed by Noriko’s parents in their new digs in the country when they kid themselves that they’re happy and shouldn’t ask for more in life. Their facial expressions suggest their confusion, unhappiness and feeling of being tricked or trapped in some way at the way things have turned out as a result of their daughter bowing to convention and tradition. This moment captures very well the bewilderment of a society caught up in political, economic and social changes not always of its own making.

The Fringe Dwellers: gentle comedy with limited message about a family struggling with racial prejudice and discrimination

Bruce Beresford, “The Fringe Dwellers” (1986)

Based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Nene Gare, this gentle and minimally made movie is a compassionate look at the plight of an Australian Aboriginal family struggling with poverty, racial prejudice and culture shock and the effect these have on a young teenage girl in the family. When we first meet them, the Comeaways are living in a shack in a shanty-town on the edge of a town in rural Australia: they don’t have electricity or hot water on tap of course but what they lack in material things, they make up for in close family support and ties. One of the teenage girls, Trilby (Kristina Nehm), dreams of the family moving to a better house and neighbourhood where blacks and whites live in harmony and trust, and of completing her education and being able to get a job and work on equal terms with white people in the city. When Dad (Bob Maza) gets a steady job, Mum (Justine Saunders) moves the family to a Housing Commission home, and Trilby and her younger brother (Dennis Walker) get to go to school regularly, it really looks as if the Comeaways will pave the way for other families in the shanty-town to shift out of poverty into a brighter future. Uh-oh, things don’t turn out the way Trilby had hoped: the extended family arrives at the Comeaways’ new home and various relatives park themselves permanently on the furniture or the verandah and glue themselves to the TV set and in Mum’s make-up kit; the food and electricity bills shoot up without a corresponding increase in the family’s income; and Trilby’s parents have problems paying the rates on time. Unable to cope with the noise and the family’s financial problems on top of schoolwork, Trilby turns to a young bronco-rider (Ernie Dingo) for comfort and companionship but ends up falling pregnant to him. Eventually Dad deserts the family and everyone is forced to move back to the shanty-town shack.

Much of what happens to the Comeaways is played as gentle comedy which portrays starkly some of the problems and issues the family has to deal with. The members are able to bat and swat outright racial bullying in the streets and at school but racial discrimination doesn’t end there: when Mum and Dad have problems making ends meet, the town offers no help or guidance to them. Social isolation would appear to be a problem for Mum but apart from the appearance of a friendly neighbour who invites her to her place for afternoon tea the film skirts over this issue. The parents struggle with low self-esteem and trying to fit in with their white neighbours’ ways in spite of their poverty; at the same time, they’re obliged by their cultural background to share their house and possessions with their relatives who take advantage of them. The neighbours’ reactions to the Comeaways’ presence are difficult to fathom.

The acting is well done if minimal, in keeping with the film’s pared-down style. Characters tend to be resigned to their fate and restrained emotionally with only Trilby actively rebelling against the status and place predetermined by society for her and her people. The Comeaways accept their lowly lot in life but are always hopeful that one day things might improve. However, such improvement will come at a cost: in a scene near the end, when Mum tries to console Trilby after the birth of her child, she refers to the destruction of their native culture and knowledge – the possibility of reconciling material advancement with preserving First Nation cultures, values and knowledge isn’t entertained. This is probably the saddest moment in the film, not least because it indirectly leads to Trilby having to choose between staying with her people and accepting what they accept, and following her ambitions and ideals by going to the city. The climax when Trilby makes her decision and literally cuts her ties to her family and culture in the hospital’s toilet room is shocking and heartbreaking, though curiously the film continues with Trilby going home with her family and no-one saying anything; there are not even any subtitles to suggest that she might have stayed a bit longer in hospital for some psychiatric treatment.

Nehm is outstanding as Trilby who wants better for herself and for her family but comes under terrific pressure from both her own culture and the expectations of Western society; her performance in the women’s toilets scene is quiet and powerful, the character raising her arms as if in question or supplication and her appearance becomes almost Christ-like and sacrificial. (She sacrifices more than just a baby.) Saunders and Maza as Trilby’s parents provide comedy and drama in turns, and each is credible in both: Maza’s character is torn between the demands of his breadwinning role and his natural inclination to take things easy and have a good time, and Saunders’s Mum does the best she can keeping the family together with the limited knowledge and resources she has with a sunny though fatalistic outlook on life. Among their people, actions speak much louder than words: Maza’s scenes outside the Housing Commission office where he’s just about to pay his rent and where he gambles instead the money away, and the strain and guilt of his behaviour as these show on his face, are something to behold in this respect. A subplot beckons when a white teacher discovers Trilby’s young brother has artistic talent and gives him a sketchbook but doesn’t come to more than that.

The cinematography is beautiful and colourful, as might be expected in a movie where remote countryside is everywhere: the ambience of the town with its small shops and pubs is evident. Something of the small-minded outlook of the white townsfolk and the racial prejudice that exists is always present.

The ending calls for a sequel which would follow Trilby’s adventures in the city and how she copes with city life, particularly the psychological aspect of it, but to my knowledge this has never been made nor is it likely to be made. Viewers can be certain though that whatever happens to Trilby when she leaves the town, she will always remain a “fringe dweller”, never really at home in any society, including the one she was born into.

Unfortunately the film’s narrow focus on the Comeaways’ struggle personalises their problems to the level of neighbours and other people they have direct contact with, and says nothing about how racial discrimination and prejudice are institutional in their society. Discrimination is reduced to a matron at a hospital or a teacher or school student being nasty to the Comeaways but that’s all. But how did Trilby work out in the first place that being a strict nuclear family living in a house would be a way of breaking down the physical and psychological race barriers? Either someone taught this to her or she’s picked it up herself and rationalised the idea as the “ideal” way of living for her people if they are to advance socially. Seems like the one person most brainwashed and prejudiced against the worth of Aboriginal culture and its values is Trilby herself. In this respect, the film can be unintentionally patronising towards the people whose interests it aims to defend: it suggests that Australian Aboriginal and other First Nations people can overcome discrimination if they adopt the ways and the thinking of Western society but never offers the idea that Western society itself could learn something from these people’s cultures.

Palindromes: dark comedy fable of Western society’s exploitation of children and value of life

Todd Solondz, “Palindromes” (2004)

A dark comedic fairy tale about a girl trapped in a life that goes around in circles, “Palindromes” does have the air of something unfinished (as it should, I suppose) but features some very strong and delicate acting performances. Aviva is a young girl on the verge of puberty who desperately wants to have a baby: we don’t know why as she never gets the opportunity to properly express her reason but we suspect that a baby would give her the unconditional love that Aviva’s parents assure Aviva they give. She loses her virginity to a family friend’s son, Judah (Robert Agri), and becomes pregnant. Aviva’s mum Joyce (Ellen Barkin) hits the roof and, between tearful bouts of smother love and shrill histrionics, forces the unwilling girl into having an abortion at a clinic. Complications during the procedure render Aviva permanently sterile and after the operation, she runs away from home. She hitches a ride with a truck driver, Bob (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who abandons her at a motel. Aviva wanders around the countryside and finds shelter and comfort in a foster home for disabled children run by a Christian evangelist, Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), and her husband (Walter Bobbie).

Aviva is accepted into the family and even joins the children’s pop-singing group but soon discovers Papa Sunshine has engaged the truck driver, Bob, to kill a doctor who performs abortions. Aviva, infatuated with Bob, leaves the family and accompanies him on his assignment. They drive into a suburban neighbourhood and pull up at the home of the doctor who performed Aviva’s operation. Bob accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter as well as the intended victim and he and Aviva flee to a motel. The police soon surround them and Bob, anguished about what he has done, commits police-assisted suicide. The cops return Aviva to her parents who celebrate her 13th birthday by throwing a family party. Some time after the party, Aviva again meets Judah, now named Otto, and the two have sex. Aviva, believing she is pregnant, is happy and at peace.

The choice of eight actors to play Aviva illustrates how the character of Aviva essentially stays the same despite the different opinions others may have about her, how Aviva might feel about herself as her body undergoes puberty, and how changes in her circumstances might affect her behaviour and responses to people and situations. Such differences are reflected in the height, age and general appearance of the actors who play Aviva. Viewers quickly pick her out even when she lies to Mama Sunshine and her brood, and says her name is Henrietta. The girl seems passive and easily influenced by others, and her vague, generic character (her name is Hebrew for “life” so she must be taken as a representative of humanity generally) won’t endear her to viewers, though near film’s end when she meets her cousin Mark (Matthew Faber), who tells her free will and the ability to change are fictions and everyone’s actions are predetermined by their environment and genetic history, she argues fairly passionately in a faint, deadened way that people should have hope and can change. The most notable of the several Aviva players is Sharon Wilkins who plays the Mama Sunshine Aviva: her performance embodies the previous performances and experiences of the younger Avivas and adds genuine feeling, a sense of having suffered trauma and an attitude towards her adoptive family that varies from wariness to cautious enthusiasm in the family’s get-togethers. Though Wilkins is much bigger and taller than her fellow foster siblings in the family pop group, she conveys the sense of being a young girl so effectively that she blends in successfully with the weeny warblers.

Ellen Barkin is superb if creepy as the self-centred Joyce who, with her husband (Richard Masur), showers Aviva with toys and material possessions but fails to give her the two things she most needs: love and some form of spiritual or moral guidance. As viewers can guess, the mother is most genuine emotionally when told of Aviva’s abortion going awry; through Aviva’s dim, semi-conscious gaze as it were, we see the woman rage then collapse against the doctor. Debra Monk is also effective as the mother substitute Mama Sunshine who offers what Aviva’s mother doesn’t; her beaming smile, clucky mother-hen style and occasional tears may however mask a steely authoritarian nature that exploits her charges’ disabilities and charm as tweeny Christian pop singers for profit. Of the several child actors in the film, Alexander Brickel makes the most impression as the chirpy foster child Peter Paul who doesn’t miss a beat in cheerfulness even when he takes Aviva to the garbage dumps to look for aborted foetuses.

The film lampoons both the mainstream secular suburban life with its spiritual and moral sterility, and its mirror in the Christian evangelist family which, though accepting of people’s physical imperfections and embracing the unwanted disabled children with warmth and love, is just as much a moral desert where money and differences of opinion are involved. The extreme family types don’t seem very outlandish due to Solondz’s direction under which everyone tends towards a deadpan, almost frozen-faced standard of dialogue delivery unless a situation calls for emotiveness. If the film takes a stand at all on any moral issue, it may be to suggest that, regardless of religious or socio-economic background, children can be vulnerable victims of extreme indoctrination and exploitation by parents, especially if the parents use the children as tools to fulfill their own needs for self-worth and validation. This can create situations where children become trapped in a hell not of their own making, for which they don’t have the knowledge and resources to escape, and end up as adults recreating that hell for their own children.

Ultimately as the film’s title and the most significant characters’ names suggest, people here end up zinging between two extremes in a situation or two sides of a problem or issue but never achieve a resolution or breakthrough. Though not a work that will appeal to most people, “Palindromes” is a brave if not very successful attempt to address difficult and controversial issues about the value of life, how it is abused and exploited by others for personal gain, and the effect that such exploitation might have on people’s lives and society generally. Solondz seems to have a pessimistic view of humanity’s potential to break out of structures and patterns that no longer have any value or meaning, and this vision makes the movie bleak and hopeless.