Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Week's Films

Here's how you know it's fall: the movie theaters are waking up.  In the last week there have been two--two!--films I wanted to see (and there's still The Master to go), and though neither of them were quite up to my hopes for them, it does raise hopes that after a disappointing summer blockbuster season, there might finally be more to buy a movie ticket for than big explosion and neat special effects.
  • Skyfall (2012) - In a way, Skyfall is the film I thought Quantum of Solace would be, but it comes one movie too late.  I called Casino Royale, the revamped Bond origin story which is beginning to seem like a blip in the franchise, a serious film about the creation of a ridiculous person, and expected Quatum of Solace to take Bond further into that ridiculousness.  Instead, it carried Casino Royale's earnestness even further into Bourne territory, establishing a faceless, heartless entity known only as Quantum as Bond's nemesis.  Though a dour, overly convoluted and rather tedious film, the promise it seemed to offer of a final confrontation between Bond and Quantum went some way towards justifying Quantum of Solace's existence, but Skyfall belies that promise and gives us a fairly bog-standard Bond story whose ultimate purpose is, as I expected from its predecessor, to provide Bond with all the accouterments of his character--the gadgets, the secret headquarters, the cars--and position the stalwarts of the series around him--the film introduces a new Q and a new Moneypenny.

    Weirdly, where Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace drew inspiration from the Bourne films, Skyfall feels like the Bond equivalent of The Dark Knight Rises.  The arc of the film--and the character--is from obsolescence, as everyone from his colleagues to the dastardly bureaucrats who dare to hold MI6 and M accountable to the public question whether the age of the Bond-esque super-agent is over, to acceptance, as Bond proves his mettle.  This is problematic firstly on the simple level of plotting--we spend the first half of the film being told that Bond can't do certain things, and then he does them; neither the limitation nor his overcoming it feel persuasive--and secondly because it completely abandons the ironic questioning of the Bond-ian tropes and ethos that made Casino Royale and even Quantum of Solace worth watching.  This time around, the questioners are depicted as small-minded fools nipping at Bond and M's heels, and we're meant to root for Bond's completely unironic embrace of his persona--to the extent that that embrace counts as the film's triumphant ending, despite the fact that Bond actually fails to achieve any of his goals in the story.

    By its end, then, Skyfall has brought the Bond franchise full circle, back to the campness of the Brosnan era--or even further, since by the end of the film every one of its female characters has either been killed or relegated to the secretarial pool.  This might still have been enjoyable if the film itself were not so absurdly overlong and messily plotted, lurching from one set piece to another without any sense of an overarching story to bind them all together.  Javier Bardem is nicely magnetic as the villain du jour Silva--the first proper Bond villain since Daniel Craig took over the role--though it is profoundly unfortunate that the film should have chosen to play his character as a gay predator.  Judy Dench takes the Craig-era films' fleshing out of M to its logical conclusion--the film is nearly as much M's story as it is Bond's--but that character arc is hemmed in by the demands of casting, and by the film's newly hagiographic take on Bond, which forces her, in its most absurdly sentimental scene, to quote Tennyson's "Ulysses" in Bond's defense.  Craig himself has sunk back to the blankness that bothered me about his performance in Casino Royale, but which I was persuaded was actually a choice to perform Bond as borderline sociopathic in Quantum of Solace.  It doesn't make him unsuitable for the role, especially as Skyfall defines it, but it does make his moments of vulnerability or doubt ring entirely false.  He's better when he's being blankly, and sometimes aggressively, charming, or when he responds to Bardem's threatening overtures with bemused flirtation--perhaps the only moment in the film in which Skyfall seems as aware of Bond's inherent campness, and as eager to play with it, as its two predecessors were.  Still, it's a performance that belongs in a more ambivalent, more cynical film than Skyfall is, and given the setup at the film's end it seems unlikely that we will ever see Craig take Bond apart as he is clearly capable of doing.

    Finally, one point about the film's reception: though I've been a little puzzled by the effusive responses Skyfall has received from critics, what I've found utterly infuriating is how little attention has been paid to the deep problems with the film's handling of female characters.  Perhaps because of the increased role that the film gives M, some critics have even rushed to declare Skyfall "a less sexist Bond film," but this is to ignore how ugly, offensive, and vilely misogynistic--even by the standards of this franchise--Skyfall's handling of "bad" Bond girl Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) is.  On the face of it, Sévérine fits a fairly standard template for her character type--she meets Bond, renders him some assistance on his path to finding Silva, sleeps with him, and is then killed--which might be why no reviewer has noticed the way Skyfall deviates from it--the fact that Sévérine is a rape victim, who is then raped again by Bond.  A victim of sex trafficking, Sévérine is terrified of Silva, her current owner, and begs Bond to kill him.  Their sex scene not only assumes that Sévérine--a terrified rape victim who believe that Bond represents her only chance of survival--is capable of giving meaningful consent, but involves Bond entering Sévérine's room without her knowledge, waiting until she's naked and in the shower, and walking up to her from behind while commenting on the fact that she's unarmed.  When Sévérine is killed, Bond stands by, stone-faced, makes no attempt to help or comfort her, and seems completely unaffected by her death for the rest of the film.  Obviously, misogyny is a major component of the Bond recipe, and for better or worse we've accepted that the Bond films use and discard their female characters, but Skyfall goes a step further by taking advantage of a real-world evil like sex trafficking.  It presents a story in which a wealthy, white, middle aged Westerner travels to Asia, meets a sex slave, promises to help her, has sex with her, and leaves her to the mercy of her captors (who kills her), and then expects us to root for him and forget about her.  While fannish and professional critics alike have rushed to praise Skyfall's handling of women, there's only one journalist I'm aware of who has pointed out how ugly it truly is, The Times's Giles Coren--but depressingly, he was forced to post his story on his wife's blog after the paper killed it.

  • Fill the Void (2012) - Israel's entry for this year's best foreign language film Oscar race is set in the wealthy ultra-orthodox enclaves of Tel Aviv.  Eighteen year old Shira (Hadas Yaron, who won best actress at the Venice film festival, where Fill the Void premiered) in eagerly anticipating being matched with a husband when her beloved sister Esther dies in childbirth.  When the family of Esther's widower Yochay (Yiftach Klein) suggests that he marry a widow in Belgium, Shira's mother Rivka (Irit Sheleg) fears being separated from her grandson, and suggests that Yochay marry Shira, an idea that they both initially greet with dismay, and then with growing but uneasy interest.  The stage is thus set for a romantic melodrama, and Fill the Void does frequently follow in the groove of this type of story, especially in the scenes in which Shira and Yochay's powerful, unspoken chemistry seems to fill the air between them, or when the camera is trained on Yaron's transparent face and tortured expression, as Shira is torn between duty, guilt, and desire.  At the same time, however, the film also bucks the conventions of its form, most notably by depriving us of its final act--though Shira and Yochay are eventually persuaded to marry, we never find out whether love and happiness manage to blossom between them, or whether one or both of them end up regretting the decision--and through an undertone of discomfort that seems to belie the happy ending that the characters themselves think they have achieved.

    Fill the Void is the latest entry in a stream of works that seeks to satisfy secular Israeli audiences' sometimes prurient fascination with the lives of the ultra-orthodox, but it is one of only a few whose creator is a member of that community, and the only one I'm aware of whose creator is a woman--writer-director Rama Burshtein, who received an honorable mention for the film at Venice.  Unlike secular-produced representative of this trend, which often focus on characters who transgress the orthodox community's strict rules, usually the ones involving sex--homosexuality in Haim Tabakman's Eyes Wide Open (2009), lesbianism in Avi Nesher's The Secrets (2007), an illicit romance between an orthodox girl and a secular boy in Yossi Somer's Forbidden Love (1999), which combines Romeo and Juliet and The Dybbuk--Fill the Void does not set itself against the conventions and expectations that rule its characters' lives, and in fact works very hard to humanize a worldview that a secular audience could easily be horrified by.  No one in the film ever questions the core assumptions that drive it--that the highest calling for a woman is to be married, and that to fail to do so would be a heartbreaking tragedy; that Yochay can't raise his son without a wife; that it is perfectly natural for very young people to marry someone they don't know at all, and with whom they have never even shaken hands--but neither are these assumptions the only driving force in their lives.  The characters in Fill the Void never buck tradition, but they temper their adherence to it with normal human emotion--love, grief, compassion, and even desire, all of which are delicately and convincingly conveyed through a spare but affecting script and strong performances, particularly from Yaron, Klein, and Sheleg.  Shira's mother meets great resistance in her efforts to bring about the marriage, perhaps most strongly from the men in her community, and Shira is repeatedly assured that the final decision is her own, and that she must choose to marry out of affection, not duty--and it is indeed her actions, at the end of the film, that help bring the marriage about at a point where it seems unlikely.  What's more, Burshtein, who if nothing else constructs her film as a fascinating, and stunningly shot, anthropological window into the world of the ultra-orthodox, often makes that world, or rather the parts of it that Shira moves in, a world of women.  It is through their perspective that the decision whether or not to marry Yochay is discussed, with strong voices heard for and against it, not as a result of male fiat.

    And yet for all that, I found it impossible to watch Fill the Void without feeling a mounting sense of horror at what Shira was doing, and I can't help but wonder whether that horror wasn't at least partially intended by Burshtein.  Certain aspects of the film's depiction of the lives of women in the ultra-orthodox community--the subplot about the unmarried older sister of Shira's friend, who grows more unhappy and more despairing as the younger women around her achieve their life goal; the state of near-nervous collapse that Shira finds herself in as she prepares for her marriage ceremony; the ceremony itself, in which Yochay covers Shira's face not with a veil but with an opaque cloth, as if making her disappear; the film's sudden, ambiguous ending--sent a shudder down my spine.  On the other hand, even if Burshtein intended me to feel that horror, it is also clearly not the only lesson she wants her audience to take away from the film.  The final act of Fill the Void is concerned less with whether Shira and Yochay will marry but with whether Shira can convince others that she wants the marriage for the right reasons (when she first seeks permission from the community's rabbi and tells him that she is agreeing to the marriage out of a sense of duty, he refuses to sanction it).  As much as it seems likely that Shira chooses to marry Yochay because of pressure from her mother, a sense of duty towards her nephew, and fear of becoming unmarriageable, she also seems to feel a genuine attraction to, and desire for, Yochay, whom the film constructs as a sort shtreimel-wearing Heathcliff, all brooding intensity and barely-suppressed passion (the casting of heartthrob Klein in the role doesn't hurt the likelihood of this interpretation).  That Shira wants the marriage with Yochay, and that at least some of her reasons for wanting it are entirely her own, is, by the film's end, no longer in doubt, but this doesn't make the limited role that her community allows her, the all-consuming importance that it places on her marriage, and her innocence and inexperience as she takes this irrevocable plunge, any less terrifying.

    In a way, Fill the Void feels like the Israeli film industry coming full circle--it makes a fine bookend to Dover Kosashvilli's Late Marriage (2001), the film generally credited with jump-starting the industry's stunning revival over the last decade.  In that film, the hero, Zaza (Lior Ashkenazy, perhaps best known today for playing the populist academic Uriel Shkolnik in last year's Footnote), is an unmarried thirtysomething doctoral candidate whose traditional Georgian family are eager to marry him off to a young, wealthy virgin from within their own community, but who has been carrying on an affair with Judith (Ronit Elkabatz), an older divorced single mother.  Zaza is more ambivalent about the marriage he's being pressured into than Shira, and he has more options to refuse his family (who for all their adherence to tradition are significantly less bound by it than the ultra-orthodox in Fill the Void).  And yet their experiences are very similar (both films even feature scenes in which Zaza and Shira "interview" potential matches, sent off alone with great ceremony for a brief, no-touching conversation in which they're to decide the course of their lives), with both characters finding themselves incapable of disentangling themselves from their family and community.  Fill the Void and Late Marriage both end with a wedding that answers the demands of tradition, but neither film is willing to commit to an interpretation, and tell us whether that tradition is going to bolster and strengthen their main character and lead them to happiness, or whether it has just destroyed them.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

The entire film was so appallingly nonchalant about Severine's death (and so much more intent on making Silvia at least somewhat sympathetic) that until I read Coren's review, I was convinced that 1. She had not died, but fainted or something, and 2. The theater I was in had a defective version with a missing few minutes. Or that I had nodded off, which had happened, but would have been strange here since I wasn't bored.

I wasn't familiar enough with canon Bond to know how to take this. I've got the affection by osmosis that one just acquires: the fun cliches and tropes that are just part of the cultural landscape now (exploding cufflinks, pristine tuxedoes, shaken-not-stirred); I saw "Solace" but it left very little impact on me (I couldn't give a plot summary now); and as a child I saw a scene on television where a woman hides a cassette tape in her bikini bottom, felt this was silly, and switched channels.

My point being, I guess, is the dead woman thing part and parcel of this? Because if so I'm going to have to retreat again.

-Camille

CrazyCris said...

Thank you! You've managed to find the words I couldn't to describe what was wrong with Skyfall! I was pretty much bored during the entire first half of the film, moving from set piece to set piece... And I too was upset by the treatment of Bérénice and Moneypenny's final position (what, she isn't cut out for a field agent so the only thing she can do is be a secretary?!).
The moment we were introduced to him I called Fiennes the new M. Just meeting him I was sure Judi Dench was heading out the door... *sniff* She was what I enjoyed most in this film!

Brendan Clay said...

I haven't seen Skyfall yet, but to anyone who is looking for Bond-style super-spy action without the misogyny and white male privilege, I can't recommend Modesty Blaise enough.

I just started reading the Titan Books reprints, and they have all the action, violence, and sex of the Bond franchise without the mean-spirited core that's at the center of the more popular series. It helps that Modesty Blaise as a character has both empathy and a past, two things that Bond lacks.

(Note: I haven't seen the Modesty Blaise movie, but I'm told it's straight-up camp and very different from the books and comic strip.)

Anonymous said...

"Still, it's a performance that belongs in a more ambivalent, more cynical film than Skyfall is, and given the setup at the film's end it seems unlikely that we will ever see Craig take Bond apart as he is clearly capable of doing."

The trouble is that people, at least in Britain, don't really want to see Bond taken apart. What they want, even after fifty years, is Sean Connery (seriously, go into any work or leisure place and people will still name him as the definitive Bond). And from what I've heard it sounds like that was the direction Craig tried to go in here.

Anonymous said...

(There's a typo in my post. I didn't nod off during Skyfall; I've nodded off in films before *during my life*. Badly worded.)

Kate Nepveu said...

Right, so I won't be using precious babysitter time to see the next Bond movie then, thank you kindly for the public service.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Camille:

It's certainly a lesser offense considering all the other things that are wrong with it, but one of the things that bothered me about Sévérine's death was how poorly done it was. As you say, it wasn't until a few minutes had passed that even realized she was dead.

It's fairly standard, as I say in the review, for Bond films to designate one of the Bond girls as the "bad" one and kill her off after she helps (and sleeps with) Bond. I haven't seen any of the classic Bond films, but in the Brosnan era there was at least an expression of sorrow at this death, and in the Craig era someone (usually M) would give Bond a dirty look and point out that the death was his fault (and in both eras the deaths happen off-screen, thus implying that if Bond had been around he would have tried to stop them). Plus, in pretty much every case, the murdered women had had some freedom to choose both their allegiance to the bad guy and the aid they give Bond which gets them killed, which clearly doesn't apply to Sévérine. That's not a huge difference, I admit, and I certainly wouldn't blame anyone who would shy away from Bond in general on the basis of this treatment, but I do feel that Skyfall takes it to even uglier extremes.

Anon.:

The trouble is that people, at least in Britain, don't really want to see Bond taken apart.

That's a bit surprising to me, since Casino Royale was so well-received. Maybe it wasn't as well-liked in the UK? I have been wondering how much of the praise for the film is due to the fact that at this point the only anglophone reviews for it are coming from the UK, and whether we won't see at least some sign of a more considered evaluation of its flaws and its misogyny once the US reviewers have their say this weekend.

Kate:

I wish I could say that the film is still fun if you're willing to overlook the awful misogyny, but it really isn't. There are some good bits, as usual for this franchise, but the whole is tedious and overlong. The ecstatic reviews are utterly baffling to me.

Anspen said...

The whole way the character of Sévérine was handled was indeed incredibly bad and, to me, seemed an example of the same problem as the entire film suffered from: parts seemed to be there because “they are part of a bond film”, without any real understanding how and why they work. When Bond girls are killed, this is almost always of screen or at least when Bond himself is not present. The give him in the William Tell scene not only agency but a gun and as well (one which mere seconds after Sévérine ‘s death he uses to basically escape) makes the whole thing seems extremely callous.

The shower scenes is worse. As an illustration, in an earlier Bond film “Live and let Die” (a blaxploitation entry in the series that certainly won’t win any awards for sensitivity) there is a broadly similar character Solitaire (Jane Seymour) which is also more or less a captive of villain. Apart from making sure that she isn’t sexually exploited (by a ridiculous and telling “she is a virgin” subplot) the script also ensures that she and Bond have several scenes before the predictable seduction and has her acknowledge her inevitable attraction to him. Still not a great progression of events but at leas there is a clear setup, and execution that keeps the hero more or less in the clear.

The other weirdly misogynistic part was M’s seeming helplessness at the end of the film. For all of her occasional bluster the movie gives her very much the role of damsel in distress, including adding the gamekeeper so she doesn’t have to traipse through the dark alone. To say nothing of the apparent uselessness of having Bond save her mere moments before she expires from her wounds anyway. All of which just seems to be there to give us the situation of the original films, including a male M.

Ultimnatly, as said in the review, the movie seems to want be “The Dark Knight” James Bond, a slightly campy 60/70s series made GimDark. It suffers from the same problems as those movies, an vague main character that isn’t real enough to be dissected, while not doing/having a background cast or plot line interesting enough to compensate.

Anonymous said...

Skyfall is Awful. Thank you for speaking out against it. I, too, felt sickened by it.

Gabriel M. said...

The Bond franchise is so repellent. I found Casino Royale more watchable than most of them, probably because I didn't have to watch Daniel Craig smirk as much as Sean Connery and Sean Connery personally is far more repulsive to me than Daniel Craig, and it did have some lovely opening credits, but it was still, alas, a Bond film. I'm also disappointed to hear they're getting rid of Judi Dench's M; I guess she has better things to do with her time but it was one of the franchise's few... I hesitate to call it progressive points.

I do think that the Craig run on James Bond is trying (ineffectually, it sounds like) to modernize a horrifically macho-jingoist 60s-70s icon, whereas Nolan's Batman movies turn back the clock on a series that's progressed somewhat since its inception: not to say that DC Comics are progressive, but they're more progressive than Nolan's convoluted and melodramatic fascist propaganda films. Either way, I'm starting to loathe Great Man mythology in pop culture. It's one of my least favorite things about superhero fiction.

I'm probably still going to see Skyfall on Ben Whishaw's account, but thanks for the warning on the Sévérine plotline. Have you seen the Running Corners "His Name Is James Bond" parody video? It's a bit crude, but funny and fairly to-the-point about the Bond series.

Foxessa said...

I did like Adele's rendering of the title song.

But I had been given this was the best Bond evah, and so different. Moneypenny is supposed to be wonderful.

But all this rape? No mention.

Thus I shall not see it. I had planned to. But I'm sick now anyway, my fall-out from the hurricane.

Love, C.

Jack Rodgers said...

I don’t agree that Severine’s death was ambiguous or confusing in any way; Silva fires his gun at her, she then slumps to the ground – where’s the confusion?

That being said, I’m pretty stunned that you’re one of the few critics to call Skyfall out on its lazy, half-assed plotting. I’m willing to tolerate a few coincidences or plot holes in my popcorn entertainment, but I walked out of the theater amazed that this was the best the franchise could do after a four-year delay. The screenplay felt several drafts away from completion, with most of the major events happening just because the writers needed them to.

Why doesn’t M flee her inquest if she knows Silva is on his way? Is she really so paralyzed by the panel’s censure that she feels guilty about interrupting them? Why not tell everyone what’s about to happen and evacuate the room? Why are Bond and Severine surprised that they’re captured by Silva’s thugs? Did they think that a squad of goons wouldn’t be curious about the random extra dude who just showed up on the boat and is headed to a paranoid supervillian’s private island? Especially since it’s well known at this point that Silva has a great deal of information about MI6, and thus, presumably knows who Bond is? (This would make marginally more sense if there was a scene on the boat in which Bond makes a mistake and his cover is blown, but the henchmen seem to recognize him on sight.) If Bond knows that MI6 is seconds away from swooping in and capturing Silva, why not use that threat to buy himself a little more time and try to save Severine? For that matter, why risk his own life by trying to kill six baddies at once if the cavalry’s just about to arrive? Why does he wait until the assassin in Shanghai blows his target’s brains out before he attacks him? (Boy, Bond really doesn’t save anyone’s life in this movie, does he?) Just to be a jerk? I realize Bond is supposed to interrogate the hitman in order to uncover who he’s working for, but then why not shoot him in the knee in order to incapacitate while his back is turned? Bond’s like two feet away from him when he makes the kill! And why is Severine in the apartment with the assassination target? To keep an eye on things? (I could be misremembering this, but I seem to recall that there were several other people in the room with the target as well and that they weren’t surprised by the murder, indicating that they were part of Silva’s small army. In that case, why hire a freelance assassin? This felt like a subplot that had a bunch of scenes deleted.) Finally, why is there so much “the Internet is magic!” nonsense in a movie released in 2012? I mean, all Q does is investigate Silva’s computer and it infects MI6’s security system so completely that it even unlocks the prison cells! And the whole facility was just built – how screwed would Silva be if it turned out that the cells didn’t operate on an automated system?

The Critic Wannabe said...

I am a tremendous Bond fan,and as I walked out of Skyfall, all I could think of was, "Am I missing something?" Because, as you said, almost all the reviews have been glowing. This was the most un-Bondian film I've seen, and yet another disappointment in a year filled with them. At least I'm not alone.

Anonymous said...

I think most of the ugliness around Sévérine's death stems from the film's muddled tone and script. Sévérine herself is fairly pointless, and easily the least developed of "Bond girls" in recent memory. She seems to exist only because someone involved in the writing process thought there needed to be an "evil" woman whom Bond sleeps with. It makes no sense to try to flesh out this "evil seductress" archetype (misogynistic, but hardly unusual in a Bond film) with a darkly tragic backstory that the rest of the plot will never address.

I think part of the reason why so many people have found her death confusing is because it defies what we expect from films, or at least Bond films. If the audience hears that a character is being held captive by a villain, we expect the hero to do something about it. He might fail, but he at least has to try; Craig's Bond can't even manage that.

David P. said...

The Invisible War just went on netflix. Curious about your thoughts on it. I was reminded by a piece recently on NPR interviewing a former Marine who had been abused in service several times.

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