Monday, July 21, 2014

I Know You're a Good Guy

When Spike Lee's startlingly misbegotten remake of Park Chan-Wook's Oldboy came out recently, I read some comments that its badness shouldn't be too surprising, as Park's original had offered little to justify its strong cult status as a new classic Korean genre film.  This may be true, because that cult is pretty insane sometimes, taking as its baseline Harry Knowles, the rest of the Ain't It Cool News crowd, and Quentin Tarantino, who wanted to give Oldboy the Palme d'Or when he was president of the 2004 Cannes jury (considering Tarantino got voted down and the prize went to Fahrenheit 9/11 instead, it's hard to argue that his instincts were wrong).  In my experience, if there is a debate over who the real star of Korean genre cinema is currently -- and I realize the "movie nerd"-ness of it all is becoming unbearably thick -- then the current winner is Bong Joon-ho, whose recent, and excellent, Snowpiercer, not to mention a wave of love for his 2003 film Memories of Murder that has led some to favorably compare it to David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, has a lot of people forgetting about the old "it's so violent and crazy" hype that Park enjoyed.

Not everyone wants to knock Park down a peg or three, however.  His last film, the English language thriller Stoker was pretty widely embraced (though not by me, and I'm not alone), for instance, and anyway to forget his original Oldboy, which I haven't seen in ages, would mean forgetting Choi Min-sik's terrific lead performance, and I can't bring myself to do that.  But I admit, I do remain dubious about Park.  Oldboy was the middle film in Park's "Vengeance Trilogy," and the ball got rolling on that, and on his international career, with 2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which Kino Lorber and Palisades Tartan are releasing on Blu-ray tomorrow.  I'd seen the film before, long ago, back when it first hit video in the US, but that was it before checking out the Blu-ray yesterday, so I didn't really remember the scene where the four guys who share an apartment are furiously masturbating because they think the woman's moans on the other side of the wall are sexual in nature, when in fact she is suffering through the terrible pain of kidney failure.  Ha ha...ha?  These are the jokes, and Park can keep them, and this scene, which arrives early in the proceedings, made me uneasy that perhaps my memory of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, which was more or less a positive one, was deceiving me.

It wasn't, not entirely.  The masturbating guys aren't our heroes, for example, which I knew but felt a fresh wave of relief about anyway; that honor -- and "hero" isn't really correct but anyhow -- goes to Ryu (Shin Ha-kyun), a deaf mute factory worker and brother of the woman dying of kidney failure (Im Ji-eun).  She needs a kidney, and Ryu can't donate one because his blood-type doesn't match.  So he gets wind of some black market organ traders, who dupe him out of the money he'd been saving for his sister's operation, and one of his kidneys.  At this point a kidney becomes available through legal means, but now Ryu can't afford the operation.  On top of this, Ryu is fired from his job.  Desperate, he listens to the nonsensical plans of his girlfriend Yeong-mi (Bae Doona), a radical anarchist out of whose simplistic politics Park gets some good comedy mileage.  Anyhow, her plan is to kidnap the son of Ryu's ex-boss, later amended to the daughter of the president of a separate company, the suspicion hanging too heavily over the recently fired Ryu if they tried to shake down his direct boss.  So they kidnap the little girl (Han Bo-bae), get the ransom from her father Dong-jin (Song Kang-ho), and then everything explodes.

I'm slightly hesitant to explain just how badly everything goes, though it's necessary to point out that the "Mr. Vengeance" of the title can refer to more than one character, or possibly to a personified version of the concept of "vengeance" itself, vengeance being frowned upon in general, but it's sometimes hard to not at least understand it.  Park, in his particularly grotesque way, portrayed vengeance as useless in Oldboy, but as actually sort of redemptive and cathartic in Lady Vengeance, his third film of the trilogy, but asks for sympathy only in this first picture.  This is because neither man seeking violent retribution is a terrible person, both have pretty solid reasons to be upset, and on top of that their victims do, in a cosmic sense, have it coming, even if they're not terrible people either (some of them are terrible people though).  Even as one of the men crosses a terrible line, you can understand why he's crossing it.  The idea is similar to the one explored in Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, but for all his flamboyance Park doesn't make a big deal out of this.

So Park has a pretty batshit way of going about this sort of thing, but it's worth doing.  And for a film possibly remembered best for its viscera, nothing particularly bloody happens until about the 90 minute mark, at which point the film's three-quarters done (one of the film's leads isn't even introduced until about halfway through).  Until then, among the things you can enjoy are the insane tonal shifts, which in fairness is set up by that masturbation/kidney pain scene that I didn't enjoy at all, but it does give you an idea what Park's doing.  But watch Ryu, who has no wish to harm anyone for most of the film, playing around with the kidnapped girl while she watches TV.  While they're playing, she gives him some information that leads immediately to a horrifying discovery, and that shift could almost play as slapstick.  A mild form, but still, Park knows it, and the audience can make the same guess that Ryu makes, at the same time he makes it, so the slapstick moment is weighted with that little extra something for the audience and the character at once.

Marvel, too, at the plot turns that apparently you can get away with if you're making a Korean revenge film that an American audience would never allow in an American film.  The entirety of the second half of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance hinges on an unlikely character appearing in one place in one scene to do one unlikely thing and to never have any other impact on the film again.  And it's okay.  It works.  Listen, audiences, you internet nerds who watch movies for plot holes and plot contrivances:  look, it works.  You can do this sort of thing.  It's okay for a filmmaker to make stuff up.  Shhh shhh shhh.  It'll be okay.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 12: Don't Worry, That Guy's Gotta See Us

In 1970, the writer J. G. Ballard put together what I guess you'd call an art exhibit at London's New Arts Laboratory called "Crashed Cars," and as they say in England it did (more or less) what it said on the tin:  a collection of automobiles that had gone through the trauma of the car accident were presented to the public while a topless model interviewed the museum guests.  This was a controversial exhibit, as you might imagine -- according to Ballard the model was "nearly raped" on opening night -- but it wasn't some one-off bit of provocation from Ballard.  The idea from the exhibit grew from a section of his also very controversial 1968 book The Atrocity Exhibition.  This is chapter 12, entitled "Crash!", and it begins:

The latent sexual content of the automobile crash. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the latent sexual appeal of public figures who have achieved subsequent notoriety as auto-crash fatalities, e.g. James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus.  Simulated newsreels of politicians, film stars, and TV celebrities were shown to panels of (a) suburban housewives, (b) terminal paretics, (c) filling station personnel.  Sequences showing auto-crash victims brought about a marked acceleration of pulse and respiratory rates.  Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living, and later used one or other of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.

In my annotated and illustrated(!) edition of The Atrocity Exhibition put out by Re/Search in 1990, Ballard says in his note on the "Crash!" chapter:

This 1968 effect is the gene from which my novel Crash was to spring.  The ambiguous role of the car crash needs no elaboration -- apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and in many cases the two will coincide.  Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.

I'm terrified of death so I hear you, Jim, although I find it somewhat interesting that Ballard writes as though at least near fatal car accidents are a foregone conclusion in everyone's life -- he's not talking about fender benders here.  But of course terrible accidents are horrifyingly common, and the fear of them is ever-present, even if that fear is kept at a hum low enough to be easily ignored.  Ballard, on the other hand, took the actually everyday reality of fatal car crashes and in a way imagined removing the fatality.  This is a bad way to describe Crash, his notorious 1973 novel that remains as bizarre, unsettling, and shocking over forty years later, but that novel, which explores the eroticization of car crashes (which sounds like someone had ever so much as idly floated that notion before Ballard, though to my mind no one had; I feel this is a safe bet), does depict a group of characters who view the violent and sudden merging of industrial steel, plastic, rubber, and glass with human flesh and bone as life-affirming in the same way sexual intercourse can be, because to them these two things are synonymous.  That is to say "life-affirming," or "life"-affirming.  Crash is not a novel you might call, in the parlance of our times, "sex positive," and of course "life-affirming" is almost precisely wrong, except that the characters genuinely enjoy combining sex and car crashes, and they don't actually want to quit.  What is being affirmed?  Not life, okay, fine, but it's far too simplistic to say these people all have a death wish.  Even Vaughan, the insane erotic car crash guru of the novel, whose grand desire is to die in a literally orgasmic car crash that also takes out Elizabeth Taylor, even he doesn't have a death wish, not as we understand that concept.  Real people in our real lives could conceivably have death wishes, and one of the bracing aspects of Crash is its essential unknowability:  no one does or has ever done what Ballard's characters do.  Even if they have, they haven't.  Crash is not relatable.

In any case, "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror" is how Ballard described his reasons for writing Crash, Crash being the kind of book that is going to make people ask you to explain yourself, and so there you go.  Jump ahead a couple decades.  David Cronenberg, who as it happens made a film out of Crash in 1996, tells Serge Grunberg in his book David Cronenberg:  Interviews with Serge Grunberg, that a Canadian talk show host compared watching Crash to looking into a toilet.  Cronenberg notes that doctors advise looking into the toilet so you can see what's going on inside.

Cronenberg had been introduced to Ballard's novel many years before he ever finished reading it.  He tells Grunberg that he'd been given the novel by a film critic who thought, quite reasonably, that it would interest him.  Yet when Cronenberg started reading it he found it too disturbing -- this is David Cronenberg, remember -- and so didn't finish reading it until many years later.  It seems strange to me not only that Cronenberg would have a hard time getting into Crash but that he would need anyone to introduce him to it, or to J. G. Ballard.  It's less strange that anybody would make a film out of Crash than it is that Cronenberg hasn't spent half his career adapting Ballard's fiction.  The two men seem utterly sympathetic, psychologically, philosophically, and aesthetically.  No doubt there are divergences, but each has an approach to the world that includes obsessions with human transformation, machines, medicine, violence, buildings and hallways and flesh, and an almost apolitical fascination with the many ways a entire society can apparently share one mind, which it then loses.

So, Crash.  The plot, such as it is, is this:  actually, no, really quick:  J. G. Ballard named Crash's protagonist James Ballard.  This is worth mentioning.  The two men don't seem to share much else -- the fictional character is a film producer, which is both a very Ballardian occupation to give to a character, and not something Ballard himself ever did.  It strikes me as an surprising missed opportunity, or missed joke, that Cronenberg didn't name the film version Dave Cronenberg (he mentions this idea in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, but it doesn't seem to have ever occurred to him to actually do it) .  At any rate, in the film, James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deboraha Kara Unger) have what you'd call an open marriage.  The film begins with three sex scenes in a row (much like William Lustig's Maniac begins with a series of murder scenes), first Catherine having sex with a pilot in an airplane hangar, then James having sex with a camera operator in his office, and then Catherine and James having sex with each other while describing their earlier respective encounters.  Shortly after this, James gets into a terrible car accident.  His leg is shattered and a man in the other car is killed.  This man was the husband of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), who survives, and who James sees off and on in the hospital, sometimes in the company of a strange doctor named Vaughan (Elias Koteas).  James and Remington meet again in the lot where their wrecked cars are being held, and soon the two of them are having an affair.  Which sounds elegant in some way.  They're having sex in cars, and not long after she has introduced James to Vaughan, who it turns out is not actually a doctor but a man conducting some kind of grand experiment involving sex and car crashes, focusing his attention on famous fatal car accidents, such as those that took the lives of James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus, Nathanael West, to the point that he recreates these accidents, taking no safety precautions beyond those provided by the skills of the stunt drivers he employs (and who are evidently as invested in this project as Remington and James will soon be).  As a result, Vaughan is covered in scars, and attracted to wounds.  The first time James comes to realize what this man is about, Vaughan is recreating the James Dean crash for a small but enthusiastic audience.  At one point James asks Vaughan if he regards the Kennedy assassination as a kind of special car crash.  Vaughan replies: "A case can be made."

One of the most disarming moments in the whole film is when James, by this point deep into this erotic crash business, says to Vaughan, as the latter shows him pictures of the Jayne Mansfield crash, "It's all very satisfying."  He has a big smile on his face when he says this, and it's one of the few genuine smiles in the film -- James is practically guileless here.  Then he says "I'm not sure I understand why."  Well, sure.  Join the club.  By now, Vaughan has explained himself to James by saying his project is an examination of "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology," but when James says he's not sure why he finds this all so satisfying Vaughan replies:

"There is a benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us. For example the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form. to experience that, to live that, that's my project."

And the "reshaping of the human body" idea that he pitched earlier is just a non-threatening façade to test potential allies.

It's not that I don't think Vaughan believes what he's saying here, about a beckoning benevolent psychopathology and the liberation of sexual energy via car accidents and so on -- certainly the film provides ample evidence that this is his motivation (and not just Vaughan's motivation -- check out Holly Hunter in the scene where Remington almost freaks out because a crash test video freezes before the on-screen impact she'd been yearning to see).  However, I believe that the "reshaping of the human body by modern technology" is actually what is going on -- what is, that is to say, literally going on.  I don't know how else to explain Rosanna Arquette's presence in the film.  She plays Gabrielle, one of Vaughan's hangers-on, and her body has been badly disabled through what we can assume have been numerous, and probably quite often voluntary, car accidents.  She has what appear to be permanent braces on her legs and she needs a cane, or crutch, to walk.  But Gabrielle has taken all this and reshaped it to suit her aggressive sexuality, or it has unleashed that sexuality.  The braces and so forth are all black and mix with her black dominatrix-esque clothing.  When she and James go to a car dealership, she gets the attention of a salesman by seductively bending over one of the automobiles.  This is what Cronenberg shows us:
If Crash was a porn film, we'd of course be seeing something quite different.  But in some ways Crash is a porn film, for anybody in the world who might be into this (despite what I said earlier, I acknowledge that the existence of such people is conceivable), and to them the above image would be, well...and for James, too, who is soon having sex with Gabrielle, using her leg wound as a sexual organ.  Is how I've chosen to phrase that.

All of this brings to mind Cronenberg's The Fly, because if ever there was a film about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology, that's the one. In that case, Cronenberg was in blatant science fiction mode, extrapolating on old SF concepts (and an old SF story), the result being that his protagonist was shaped and reshaped by modern technology until he was unable to physically or psychologically function any longer.  I'm not sure how this is all that different from CrashCrash is of course less direct about it, but there is a science fiction element, an extrapolation -- the film's most ominous line comes from James when, after being released from the hospital, he asks Catherine if traffic is heavier now, and says that there seem to be a lot more cars on the road than there were before his accident.  So Cronenberg and Ballard are doing with Crash what Cronenberg did with Dead Ringers, when he approached the fact of twins as his own original science fiction creation.  Cars and car accidents and even a sexual fascination with death and violence all currently exist and have for some time, but Ballard and Cronenberg treat them like their own inventions.  What if the horse and buggy could dispense with the horses, where might this all lead?

In its treatment of sex and technology, I'm forced to think about Spike Jonze's recent Her, which now seems like a tremulous, watery, moony-eyed remake of Crash with Scarlett Johansson in place of car crashes.  Her, which is about a man who falls in love with his phone or some shit, doesn't necessarily believe that the potential for mankind to find sexual intimacy with computers is something to be celebrated, or rushed towards, but the best it can muster in terms of an emotional response to the idea is bittersweet melancholy.  With Crash, Cronenberg and Ballard have already been there, and "melancholy" isn't quite the word they'd use.  The people in Crash are rather happy.  They enjoy doing what they're doing, and it's absolutely terrifying.

It wasn't until I watched Crash again for this post that I caught on to what its basic narrative structure is.  Cronenberg has talked about how surprisingly easy it was for him to faithfully translate the novel into a screenplay, and if I had to guess I'd say it's because secretly this is the story of Catherine Ballard.  James Ballard may be the protagonist, and it's him we follow, but he falls under Vaughan's spell pretty readily -- he's the one who almost died in a car accident, after all, not Catherine.  So it's not James who has to be seduced into this world, it's her.  And she is.  There are linked images that help chart the beginning of the seduction and the end.  In the first, she's visiting James in the hospital.  Well before either of them met Vaughan, they were both, as has been established, pretty sexually free, and the scene opens with Catherine soaping her hands to aid her in giving James a handjob.
Later in the film, closer to the end, her seduction complete, literally, because she's actively having sex with Vaughan in the back of a car being driven by her husband, and we get this shot of her hand, covered in...secretions:

So how'd she get there?  She was evidently pretty willing to listen to arguments, because in the hospital scene, while she's taking care of James she's describing the damage inflicted on the cars involved in the accident that landed Ballard and Helen Remington in the hospital (and brought them to Vaughan's attention); if anything, Catherine is more able to associate what she's physically doing with what she's talking about than her husband, who actually, in this one instance, seems somewhat uncomfortable with these juxtapositions.  So she willingly drifts into Vaughan's orbit, but the key, the real turn, comes later.  Vaughan, James, and Catherine are driving together when they come upon an accident, a bad one, fatal.  Vaughan is excited taking out his camera and clicking away.  Catherine and James wander through the wreckage and blood and stretchers.  Catherine sees a woman sitting off to the side.  She was involved in the accident, and her face has been cut up. Catherine sits near her, and the look she gives the wounded woman is one of desire -- not a desire to have sex with the woman, though that would probably be all right with Catherine too, but a desire to look like her.

After this, Vaughan takes Catherine and moves her so that she's first standing beside, and then sitting in, one of the crashed cars.  A splash of blood is running down one of the doors.  Vaughan begins taking pictures.
What this is, what it is almost exactly, is a magazine shoot, Catherine is a model, and she knows it, and if she's nervous it's because this world is so unfamiliarly glamorous to her.  The blood and bodies and twisted metal and shattered glass are to her what parties and drugs and expensive clothes would be to someone else.  There's this little cult of psychotics that she has discovered through her husband, and she wants to fit in with them.  This yearning leads to the film's final scene (invented by Cronenberg) in which Catherine and James play a sex game that involves the two of them driving separate cars, and James forcing hers to crash.  When he goes to her, and lies in the grass beside her, just outside her overturned car, he asks if she's injured.  She says "No, I think I'm all right," and he says "Maybe next time."  Dreams can come true.

Not surprisingly, Crash was a somewhat controversial film.  The biggest stumbling block it faced was Ted Turner, who was the head of New Line at the time, and was so appalled by the film that he tried to stop it from being released.  An edited version does exist, but it does so alongside the uncut version.  Cronenberg tells a story about running into Turner years later, and Turner crowing to him about how he, Turner, had won.  Cronenberg says that he found this a strange reaction, as the film was released in the version he intended.  It took some doing, but it happened, and Crash is still readily available on DVD.  Long live the new flesh.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


It can be a surprising thing to learn -- and, if you're me, later to remember -- how, and I have to think of a way to say this that doesn't sound pejorative because that's not the tone I'm trying to strike here at all, compact the body of work of certain admired artists can be.  For every Ingmar Bergman or Alfred Hitchcock, each of whom made dozens of films, there is a Robert Bresson or Stanley Kubrick, both major directors who nevertheless each made only thirteen feature films apiece.  These things happen, the reasons for it can be and are various, and Kubrick himself encompasses all possible excuses so just go to him with your questions.  I don't mean to make too much of this, but it can kind of take you aback when you finally notice it, as I recently did with the work of Michelangelo Antonioni.  I've become particularly interested lately, you see, and the big surprising reveal is that he only made sixteen feature films; on top of this, if you want to start throwing around asterisks, one of those, Chung Kuo, China is a documentary and another, Antonioni's last, Beyond the Clouds from 1995, was co-directed by Wim Wenders.  That leaves fourteen on which the man's enormous reputation rests, and yet, even so, the gulf, in style and approach more so than in quality, between 1952's I Vinti and 1964's Red Desert, is enormous.

In the above example, Red Desert is a somewhat arbitrary example, though one chosen because I recently watched it, as I recently watched I Vinti, chosen less arbitrarily as it has just been released on Blu-ray by Raro Video.  While Red Desert is certainly less a synecdoche of Antonioni than L'Avventura or Blow-Up, but with its slow, almost somnambulant blending of decadence and calamity it would have to count as somewhat representative.  I Vinti, on the other hand, is, just for starters, so much chattier than anything else I know by Antonioni that I doubt I'd ever have pegged it as his film if I didn't already know it was going in.  I Vinti (which not at all incidentally means "The Vanquished") was Antonioni's second film, and is comprised of three thematically linked short films.  That theme could be simplified as "murder," or less simplified as "post-war murder" and again as "post-war European murder."  Which is me being glib, but not inaccurate.  The short films, each based on a true story, are called "France," "Italy," and "London," and each revolve around a certain kind of murder.  I'm inclined here to dispense with "Italy" right away, as it is the compromised odd-duck of the bunch.  According to Stefania Parigi's short essay included in the booklet that comes with the Raro disc, this short was originally envisioned by Antonioni as the story of a young Fascist who martyrs himself so that his act of terrorism will be blamed on a group of Communists. He was forced by censors to mute the politics nearly into ambiguity (I say nearly because the character Claudio, played by Franco Interlenghi does have a speech about traitors ruling Italy, and his belief that his particularly ideology would rise again, and given the character's youth and the fact that I Vinti is a 1952 film, it's not a big leap to imagine he misses Mussolini pretty badly), but even that got obliterated before I Vinti was released so that "Italy" as it exists as part of the complete film is a kind of weakly defined, apolitical story of a young middle-class smuggler who shoots his way out of trouble and later dies of injuries sustained in a fall.  It doesn't have much personality, in other words, and it's hard to see why Antonioni's already censored, but easily more vital story about Claudio blowing up a factory, which still exists in full and is included as an extra on the Raro disc, hasn't by now simply been restored as a part of the film.  But anyway.

Far more interesting are the other two stories.  In "France," a group of young people plan an outing with another friend named Andre, who they plan on murdering.  Ostensibly their motives are financial -- they talk about using his money to escape -- but they come from families that not only appear to be caring, but also well-to-do.  I Vinti is bookended by moralizing voice overs about this young generation vaunting the individual over all else and casting moral questions into the garbage as they model themselves after gangsters.  This all seems far too on the nose to have been Antonioni's idea, but in "France" there's something to that.  While by no means as explicitly about gangster films as Godard's Breathless, which was still ten years away, there is much that is chilling about the way Antonioni's characters are casual about what they plan to do, and it recalls the separation between what's cinema and what isn't that so fascinated Godard.  For the kids in "France," murder is a way to chase away the summer blues.  Of course, when it comes right down to pulling the trigger, that gun starts to feel a lot clumsier and more slippery than it had before, and the mouth goes dry, and all of this actual reality leads to the downfall of these vile little shits, but before we get there this story could actually just be about a pleasantly frivolous spent in nature, a film not entirely unlike People on Sunday.  The final scene is kind of ingenious, so simple and perfect in a way that calls to mind the best of short fiction as practiced by Tobias Wolff, for instance.

The last of the three films is "London," and like "France" it tells the story of a man who decides to commit murder with a terrible ease.  The murder has in fact already occurred when the young man named Aubrey (Peter Reynolds) approaches a newspaper reporter named Ken Wharton (Patrick Barr) and tells him that he's just found a dead body in the park, and for a fee he, Aubrey, will write about his experience for Wharton's paper.  Wharton agrees, and Aubrey, not at all disturbed by what has happened, keeps looking for more angles to get some work, or any case some money, out of this, until to no one's surprise he confesses that he murdered the woman, a prostitute, and isn't his confession worth maybe a couple of bucks?  The confession is genuine, and Aubrey is of course arrested.  The key to how Antonioni approaches this kind of material, which deals with the question of why a man would commit a murder for apparently no real reason, is that he doesn't try to answer anything.  The power, and the terror, of "London" is watching Aubrey tries to use a corpse as his means to get ahead in the world, but only as an afterthought -- that's not why he killed her.  Antonioni doesn't even make Wharton desperate to figure this guy out.  He just becomes depressed.  What's left to do besides that?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Monkey on the Moon

Alexander Sokurov has been making films since the late 1970s, but it wasn't until 2002 that he gained any really significant international accolades.  That was the year he released Russian Ark, a film shot on HD video in St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum, and consisting entirely of a single, 90-some minute shot.  I watched that film, coming to it somewhat eagerly, shortly after it was released on video, and found it rather enervating.  While Russian Ark was plainly meant to be a sincere and serious exploration of Russian art and history, it nevertheless played for me as a commercial for the coming digital revolution.  Of course that was twelve years ago, and as you can imagine I haven't revisited the film.  Still, whether or not my assessment was fair, that's what lingers.

I therefore -- and this I make no particular excuse for, other than "there are only so many hours in a day" and so on -- didn't spend a lot of time keeping tabs on Sokurov's subsequent career.  Despite my apathy I did pick up on the fact that his major work, the fame of Russian Ark's novelty be damned, was apparently this series of films about 20th Century dictators and the dangers of ideology, focusing on those involved in or who could be linked in some way to World War II.  Moloch from 1999 is about Hitler, Taurus from 2001 is about Lenin, and 2004's The Sun is about Hirohito.  I recently watched The Sun (and I have Moloch pending; Taurus isn't easily available in the US) and found it a singularly strange film, utterly tone deaf when it came to Americans, and American actors, and possibly similarly tone deaf when it comes to the Japanese characters and actors that make up the bulk of the project -- I wouldn't consider myself the last word on that one if I were you -- but nevertheless Issei Ogata's performance as Hirohito is strange in a way that at least creates an illusion that "Perhaps he was really like this."  Or more to the point, "This is the dramatization of a psychology it is beyond my capacity to imagine."  It's a bit of a mess, even visually, but compelling.

I was surprised to learn, as I watched the end credits of Faust, Sokurov's most recent film, from 2011, that it is the final part of the tetralogy described above.  The film, which Kino Lorber is releasing on DVD tomorrow, is ostensibly an adaptation of the immortal and eternally adapted Goethe classic, though everyone, including Sokurov, thinks it's a pretty good idea to not expect to terribly much Goethe from the film.  Shot in a boxy 1:1.33 aspect ratio (I know, I never mention that stuff, but it seems like something to be noted in this case, even if I'm going to scoot right along and never look back), this Faust depicts the titular doctor (Johannes Zeiler) as penniless and miserable, driven even to commit suicide by drinking hemlock, only to be thwarted when Mauricius, a moneylender -- that is, Satan -- played by Anton Adasinsky swipes the bottle, drinks the poison down, and doesn't die.

And so then one thing leads to another.  Sokurov's Faust is something of a picaresque -- the film is basically Faust and Mauricius travelling along together, with Mauricius proving his supernatural existence, the two trading philosophies, wallowing in a specifically Middle Ages variety of bawdiness, while Faust's great unspoken ambition, apart from having sex with a beautiful young woman named Margarete (Isolda Dychauk), is to fall ass-backwards into spiritual and moral enlightenment.  I've read complaints that the philosophy in Faust is just a warmed-over jumble of the classics, and yes it all does feel -- and this possibly even less kind -- somewhat regurgitated.  I also don't think it matters so much.  A scene in the first third of the film that takes place in a weird, otherworldly bathhouse -- one which is nevertheless literal -- over which Mauricius appears to hold sway, features Mauricius stripping naked.  His body is pear-shaped, and made of an alien swirl of grotesque lumps.  He also has a penis where his tail would be, if humans had tails.  You get the idea, maybe, but anyway, Hieronymous Bosch springs to mind.  This is an early reference, and that kind of almost comical repulsion feeds the mind of the film more than the long, windy discussions Faust and Mauricius ramble through.

Apart from Bosch, Faust feels like a cross between something by Peter Greenaway, one of his halfway traditional films like Drowning By Numbers, if that counts as halfway traditional, and Jaromil Jires's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.  Greenaway precisely because the words don't seem to matter (Greenaway himself would doubtlessly reject this notion, but I don't see him here at the moment, so pfffft) as they get lost in the more plainly significant action, and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders because of the sinister fairy tale, soft-focus, almost cheap fantasy of its visuals.  Faust looks like TV, and not of the New Golden Age variety we're all so deeply grateful to be living in.  His cinematographer here is Bruno Delbonnel, who recently provided the Coen brothers with a softer glow than they usually aim for in Inside Llewyn Davis, and you can see that sensibility in Faust, but the HD digital that Sokurov prefers (it's there in The Sun, too) does nobody any favors.  It's a visual approach that I honestly can't fathom, partly because with a budget of eight million Euros I have to think it could have looked better.  Along the way, Sokurov does things like distort the image by stretching it in a way that reminded me of that scene in Spike Lee's Crooklyn when the kids had to go live with relatives, and the house was shot in this stretched style to signify how alien it was to the main characters.  In Faust, though, it's employed rather more arbitrarily, or if there was a pattern I missed it -- every scene is as alien to Faust, and he reacts to it in the same way, as the one before (besides which, I seem to recall thinking that part of Crooklyn was that film's least successful section).

However, by the end of Faust, as he did with The Sun, Sokurov has overcome the obstacles he laid before himself, and the film, particularly the last half hour or so, redeems it.  In their travels, Faust has accidentally murdered, or anyway killed, Margarete's brother, and his subsequent guilt drives the film's action.  It's nice that the film finally has an engine, but more than that it inspires some of the film's strongest imagery -- the homunculus, for instance, and the geyser footage is really something.  On top of that, all the chatter from Faust and Mauricius comes down to something very blunt, a very primitive kind of enlightenment for Faust.  The characters have moved from the city and appear by the end to be in a pre-civilization world, and that's where things get hashed out for once and for all.  And curiously, the most directly illuminating words in the whole film are those from the end credits I mentioned, the ones that explain that Faust is the last of Sokurov's tetralogy about dictators and idealogues. In a very strange way, Faust tells another story of that type, and reveals a means of escape.

Monday, June 16, 2014

There's a Porpoise Close Behind Us

A wealthy banker named Favraux (Michel Vitold) is receiving threatening letters which demand that he provide financial restitution to people the author of these letters say are Favraux's victims.  If he doesn't do this, Favraux will be punished severely.  The letters are signed "Judex."  This strange form of altruistic blackmail comes into Favraux's life as his bank is about to celebrate an anniversary, and his daughter Jacqueline (Edith Scob) is to be engaged.  A private detective (Max Montavon) is hired to provide security against theft at the upcoming party that has been planned to commemorate both events.  We see Favraux planning stock market malfeasance shortly before an old man (Rene Genin) accosts Favraux, saying that he took the fall for Favraux, spending twenty years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because the banker promised that his wife and son would be looked after while he was away, and he would finally come home to wealth and security, but instead he came home to poverty, and news that his wife was dead and his son was missing.  He demands that Favraux help him find his son, but Favraux brushes him off.  Later, Favraux finds and murders the old man.  Finally, the night of the party arrives.  It's a masquerade party; everyone is wearing a bird mask, including a mysterious magician who wanders through the crowd performing tricks with doves.  A foreboding hangs over the proceedings because Judex has assured Favraux that if he doesn't do what's right, Judex will punish him mercilessly.  We know Favraux has done nothing that can be called right, and at the hour named in Judex's letter, Favraux suddenly collapses and dies.

Which brings us to about minute twenty of Georges Franju's 97 minute-long Judex from 1963, a remake and, perhaps more to the point, condensing of Louis Feuillade's five-hour serial from 1916.  The idea behind that above paragraph (which spoils very little) is to highlight for you how condensed, and relentlessly plotted and eventful Franju's film, which is being released Tuesday by Criterion, really is.  A great admirer of Feuillade, Franju (best known for his exceptional 1960 horror film Eyes Without a Face, also available from Criterion ) came to his films as an adult; nevertheless the spirit of this remake of Judex feels similar to the one that led Ang Lee to make Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that was at the time uncharacteristic for him.  In other words, both directors wanted to make a film like those that delighted and inspired them on the level of pure storytelling.  Plus other stuff.

And Franju succeeded.  Judex is almost ruthlessly entertaining, dumping plot twists into the mix by the bowlful, veering off into avenues that might appear at first to be dead ends, or perhaps merely  subplots, but turn out instead to be the main plot.  I confess I haven't seen Feuillade's Judex, but I have seen Feuillade's Les Vampires from 1915, and Judex -- Franju's Judex I mean -- put me in mind of that serial, and the way our main characters, such as the main detective, or the famous villainess Irma Vep, could drop out of the story for many episodes at a time to make way for long stretches of action the importance of which, however genuinely absurd it may be, won't be understood until later.  In Franju's film, who I understood to be our main villain changed twice.  In fact, Judex is finally not up against some wealthy conspiracy of evil, as the cold-hearted Favraux might indicate, but a couple of weasley street thugs.  Not terribly dissimilar to those times when Batman is seen punching out a mugger, but has that ever been the main plot of a Batman story?  Batman not being a random or irrelevant point of comparison?  I can't recall such a story, but that's fine in the end, because Judex (played, I just realized I haven't said, by Channing Pollock) is up against Marie Verdier (Francine Berge), who ultimately comes off as an inept Irma Vep.  But who ever said movie criminals always had to be bright?  It's funny how she never actually seems close to winning, though.

What is all of this in aid of, finally?  What I've been saying, I mean?  I don't know!  This movie is bonkers!  Les Vampires was bonkers too, but it was expansive.  It's craziness could stretch out.  Franju's decision to take a similarly (I think it's safe for me to assume this) mad and wildly excessive plot construction and run it through a compactor can't have stemmed only from the realization that they simply were no longer making 5-hour serials in the 1960s.  There's a fair amount of winking going on here.  Franju knows what's up.  Even if the plot of Feuillade's original also turns on a moment that perhaps can best be illustrated in print thusly:  "Well as it happens, I have an acrobat right here," that moment would, due to the considerable length of serials, exist among a grand sweep of events.  Franju's Judex works not as a grand sweep but as a mad dash, and Franju's approach to pacing here could possibly be regarded as intertextual.  Hey listen, I don't like that term any more than you do, but it can't often be applied to questions of pace.

Plus which, you don't have to accept Franju's winks.  Another thing his Judex does is make a case for the joys of pure plot, maybe the most derided aspect of storytelling, but without which a vast swath of world classics would collapse into mud.  Franju is playing around here, but he means it at the same time.  Here's a story that won't stop.  You can't watch the beginning and guess the ending.  And if Judex the hero is never more interesting as he is when dressed as seen at the top of this post -- he is, in fact, rather bland when he finally steps out as himself -- the nature of this kind of story is such that he can drop out so that more exciting people can take over, or maybe more to the point, who any of these people are doesn't finally matter much at all.  What matters, what's fun, what Franju is messing around with here, is the things these people do, and what the plot dictates must happen to them.  The plot can be pretty merciless, but Judex warned us it might be.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kick Me When I'm Down

Of the three filmmakers whose work I've found myself exploring thanks to the kind folks at Kino Lorber, British genre/sort-of-exploitation director Pete Walker (the other two filmmakers are Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean Rollin, for the record) is the one I remain least certain about.  This despite the fact that his stuff is the least complicated and most straightforward of the three by far, yet his films are so uneven.  He can be bluntly terrific, or he can take a genre premise that seems like it can't miss and, as he did with The Flesh and Blood Show, turn out something that is almost bizarrely tedious.  But when he's good, there's a sharpness to his ideas and a subtle weirdness to his stories that keep me, anyway, curious about what else he's done that I haven't gotten to yet.  Thankfully, Kino is releasing two more this coming Tuesday, and their curious ones.  More below!

House of Mortal Sin - Part of Walker's whole deal, supposedly, was that he would, at least on occasion, inject a social conscience, or a strain of satire, into whatever genre proceedings he was engaged in at the moment.  Or, another way to go, that genre film would have Walker's message right there on the surface, as plot.  See House of Whipcord, for example, or this film from 1976, House of Mortal Sin (aka The Confessional), which I gather is one of his more personal projects.  Walker said of it "I made that film because I went to a Catholic school where hellfire and damnation were rammed down my throat."  So you might think that this story, about a repressed, insane, and murderous priest (Anthony Sharp) who stalks the young woman named Jenny (Susan Penhaligon) who somewhat randomly winds up in his confessional, confiding her romantic travails, would wind up being fairly hysterical as far as its message is concerned.  But actually no.

Whatever Walker's faults, I've yet to notice him taking the easy way out when it comes to delicate subject matter (to a fault sometimes, as we'll see).  The reason House of Mortal Sin isn't the screeching condemnation of the very concept of Catholicism I'd feared it would be is because, to begin with, he doesn't allow Sharp's Father Meldum to be the last word on the subject.  In fact, he's presented as only the worst of a fairly decent lot.  Thrown into the mix to show that the Catholic faith can be warm, hopeful, caring, and like that, is Norman Eshley as a younger priest whose most flagrant subversion of the Church is to wonder aloud if maybe this vow of celibacy thing is really necessary.  Even then, when he realizes he's in love with Jenny's sister Vanessa (Stephanie Beacham) and that he can't deny it, he simply consults with one of his Catholic higher ups, they say "Hey man, I get it, go and have a happy life with her, you can still be a good Catholic without being a priest."  Take that, the Pope!

On top of that, and better for the film as a whole, is the fact that Walker (who conceived of the story before handing it over to his regular screenwriter David McGillivray) shows far too much pity for his villains here.  Father Meldrum is a villain and a hypocrite, but he's in an almost constant state of despair because of the confusion of incredibly strict morality and crazed, denied passions, not to mention loneliness and the aftershocks of what you sense was a pretty horrible childhood.  Sharp is wonderful in the role, giving a performance that is as moving as it is unsettling, and he's paired with  Sheila Keith, so memorably terrifying in Walker's Frightmare, and a murderer again here.  But this time she's given a whole speech that is not about murder, or any kind of religious fundamentalism, but rather about how her life might have been happy, but instead wasn't. She doesn't quite frame it like that, but that's what's going on, and suddenly House of Mortal Sin doesn't really seem like the critique of modern religion that Walker evidently had in mind to make.  Which isn't to say it's all roses by the end.  Like House of Whipcord, House of Mortal Sin has an incredibly bleak ending, one that works as horror and might indicate Walker's idea:  whatever their motives, these are the priests that are taking over.  Probably this was the gist, but I can't say it quite plays like that for me. Instead it plays as a sad and bloody story, one without an agenda.  So better, in other words.

Home Before Midnight - Okay, well then.  Here's the idea behind this one:  a young woman named Ginny (Alison Elliott) is hitchhiking home and is picked up by a young man named Mike (James Aubrey).   Mike writes songs for a successful pop band called Bad Accident (two things about Bad Accident:  the front man is played by Chris Jagger, Mick's brother, and based on the music heard in this film, Walker's conception of pop music in the 1970s is deeply nightmarish), and is therefore financially and socially in a good position to dazzle Ginny during the courtship the two engage in pretty soon after meeting.  Their relationship is sexual, things seem pretty good between them, until Mike finds the bracelet pictured above and realizes that Ginny, who he'd taken to be maybe 19 at the oldest, is, in fact, 14 years old.  Horrified, he tries to end the relationship reasonably, but actually because he doesn't think there's anything morally wrong with a 28-year-old man having sex with a 14-year-old girl, he lets Ginny talk him out of it.  So they keep going, until the truth goes public, Bad Accident starts distancing itself from Mike, and the truth of statutory rape becomes, as Ginny is questioned by her parents and police, an accusation of violent rape.

And oh, how we are meant to pity poor, guiltless Mike, who, at nearly 30, only wanted to have sex with a schoolgirl.  He frequently, and self-righteously, claims to have done nothing wrong, and since we know that he didn't rape Ginny it's easy to figure Walker and screenwriter Murray Smith agree with him.  There are little trumped up things, like Ginny's father smacking her ass and calling her "sexy" that make it clear that Walker believes there is a great deal of hypocrisy at play when guys like Mike get caught out and brought down in these kind of statutory sex scandals.  My own reaction to this point of his is "So what?" Because Mike's guilty, and all the more despicable for his claims of victimhood.  And for a while the film can be really confounding in the way it portrays Ginny as a girl whose behavior that eventually leads to Mike being arrested for rape is precisely that of someone not yet old or mature enough to be having sex with anyone, let alone an adult.

But while a lot of these faults remain faults to the end, Home Before Midnight does turn out a bit more thoughtful than it first appears.  A scene where Mike's father expresses his belief that his son didn't assault Ginny, but then admonishes for what he did do, and another when Mike's encounter with a pedophile forces him (though we don't see him do this, we can imagine it) to consider just what exactly he was up to with Ginny, even during their good days, reveals that Walker is maybe of two minds about all this, so that even the film's faults end up having a different texture.  The film is maybe not as level-headed as it could be, but it's smarter than it at first makes you think it is.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Cronenberg Series Part 11: There is a Vision of the Orient That I Have

In 1964, a French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot who was posted in Peking, China met an opera singer named Shi Pei Pu.  For twenty years they carried on a sexual affair as man and woman, one that included -- so Shi Pei Pu insisted she had born, and so Boursicot believed, or accepted, or who really knows -- a child.  By the end of it, it was revealed that Boursicot had been feeding secret documents to Shi Pei Pu and so both were arrested and convicted of treason.  In the course of the investigation and trial, it was further revealed that Shi Pei Pu was a man who, so went the story everyone told, had fooled Boursicot into believing he was a woman (the child Shi Du Du, later Bertrand, had been purchased).  The disguise seems to have stemmed from the fact that even in the 1960s, female roles in opera were traditionally played by men. The two of them did their prison time and were eventually released.  Boursicot had been only 20 years old when he met Shi Pei Pu, and Shi Pei Pu had been 26.  When their affair ended, both were in their 40s.  Boursicot attempted suicide in prison but failed.  Shi Pei Pu died in 2009 and according to the New York Times obituary, he and Boursicot had last spoken just months before Shi Pei Pu's death, and Shi Pei Pu had told Boursicot that he still loved him.  When contacted about his former lover's death, Boursicot said "He did so many things against me that he had no pity for, I think it is stupid to play another game now and say I am sad. The plate is clean now. I am free."

Now here's where it gets complicated.  In this lengthy article about the scandal, writer Joyce Wadler describes an evening when Shi Pei Pu described the plot of the classic Chinese opera The Story of the Butterfly:

Long ago in China, there lived a beautiful girl named Zhu Yingtai. The daughter of a learned man, she dearly wished to attend one of the imperial schools, but being a girl she wasn't permitted to do so. It troubled her, particularly because her brother did badly in school.

She made a plot with her brother; they exchanged clothes and she went to school in his place. She was a brilliant student. In school, she met a handsome boy, Liang Shanbo, and they came to love one another. Liang, however, couldn't understand the strange attraction he felt for another boy. Zhu, who was attracted to Liang as well, yearned to tell him her secret but refrained, not wishing to bring dishonor to her family. Then word came that she had to go home: her family had found her a husband. Finally, the girl revealed her true identity to her friend. Declaring his love for her, Liang asked her to marry him. But though she loved him, Zhu couldn't disobey her family.

"It is too late," she told him.

Zhu returned home. Distraught, Liang took his life. Zhu's family insisted she proceed with her wedding. She agreed, but said she must first go to her beloved's grave. There, beneath the willows, she threw herself on his tomb and died. Her family, finally understanding how much their daughter loved Liang, buried her beside him. The souls of the two lovers turned into butterflies and flew away together. And over the grave willow branches grew and intertwined.

Not, I think you'll agree, irrelevant.  However it's also not the plot of Madama Butterfly, Puccini's famous Japan-set opera about a selfish and cowardly American sailor whose casual marriage to a devoted and love-struck young Japanese woman named Cio-Cio-San (which translates, roughly, to "butterfly") culminates in his return to America and her years-long wait for him to return, and finally his abandonment of her, and her suicide.  It was this opera, not The Story of the Butterfly, that playwright David Henry Hwang used to shape the metaphors in his 1988 play M. Butterfly (an ingenious title), a heavily fictionalized telling of the story of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu.  The production originally starred John Lithgow and B. D. Wong, it was an enormous success, and it won the Tony for Best Play, among many other awards.  David Cronenberg being who he is, and in something of a replay his experience with Dead Ringers, when he knew the true story before reading the novel his film would eventually sorta kinda but not really be based on, Cronenberg had heard about the play but had neither seen nor, and was instead inspired to adapt it into a film by reading Wadler's article in the New York Times -- his knowledge of the true story mingled with the play being brought to him by his agents (he'd told them he couldn't wait another three years to make a film, and told them to bring him something "unusual") made a film of M. Butterfly directed by David Cronenberg pretty much inevitable.

In that film, Jeremy Irons (becoming the first lead actor to work with Cronenberg twice, something that has become more common recently) plays René Gallimard, a French diplomat in China, in 1964.  Gallimard is married to Jeanne (Barbara Sukowa), and is sort of timidly combative with his wasteful and dishonest colleagues in the embassy.  One night, an embassy-sponsored event puts him in the audience for a performance of arias from Madama Butterfly given by Song Liling (John Lone).  As mentioned elsewhere, at that time it was common in Chinese opera for men to play women's roles, but Gallimard is plainly ignorant of this -- this information is only given to the audience, almost in passing, much later in the film in a scene between Song and her Communist handler Comrade Chin (Shizuko Hoshi).  Anyway, Gallimard is struck by Song, and he seeks her out.  Song also seems interested in him, though initially she keeps a wary distance between them by explaining to him the plot of Madama Butterfly, an opera of which he was ignorant (he makes a point of telling someone at the event that he's fooled people in the embassy into believing he's cultured), and wonders how romantic a Westerner would find it if the races were reversed so that at the end an American woman committed suicide because the Asian man she loved had deserted her. Song says that Westerners would think she was mad.

At this point it occurs to me that to summarize the rest of the plot in the normal way would be at best redundant, because while M. Butterfly is fundamentally a work of fiction and not merely the true story of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, many of the essentials are the same, and those have already been laid out.  So what, in the film, is key?  Song's deconstruction of what she, and Hwang, see as the West's attitudes toward the East are, I've gathered, a very big part of the play (I confess with much embarrassment that I haven't read it), though this is severely downplayed by Cronenberg.  In both Cronenberg and Cronenberg and David Cronenberg:  Interviews with Serge Grunberg, he talks about meeting with Hwang and the two men disagreeing about Hwang's conclusions and criticism, but Hwang was apparently perfectly fine with Cronenberg taking the creative reins on the film (and for the record, the screenplay is credited to Hwang, and though guided by Cronenberg was, by Cronenberg's admission, almost completely Hwang's own work), so certain things that were strong in the play were tamped down, and other, more Cronenbergian elements took over.  Such as:  okay look.  I said things got complicated.

In the Times obituary of Shi Pei Pu, which Joyce Wadler also wrote (she would eventually go on to write a book about all this) it's mentioned that it was revealed in Boursicot's diary (treason was involved, I understand, but that still kind of makes me queasy) that before his relationship with Shi Pei Pu, his only sexual experiences had been with men, and in China he was looking to settle down with a woman.  This fact is hard to ignore when wondering about how he could have been fooled, which he has always claimed was the case.  Sex between him and Shi Pei Pu was always in the dark, they both say, and Boursicot was sensitive to her claims that Chinese tradition, and her own shyness, forbade certain things, such as ever seeing her naked.  Fair enough, and anyway I'm not out to prove Boursicot a liar, but how does all of this manifest in Cronenberg's film?  Well, again, Gallimard is married, so we can assume that he has had at least one heterosexual relationship in his life, but given everything else in the film I do have to wonder why the character of Jeanne Gallimard is even included.  Her existence as the lover who is thwarted does reflect Madama Butterfly to some degree, but she has so little impact on the film that this would hardly justify it.  Because look at what's important.  Though one or two shots play up a certain femininity, very little effort has been put into making John Lone look like a woman.  He dresses in women's clothes, and his voice has been altered (for better or worse), but the gender ambiguity is not played up too much.  This film isn't, as no one would be faster to bring up than Cronenberg, isn't The Crying Game.  Speaking of which, before going too far, here's what Cronenberg has to say (to Serge Grunberg) about that film, which came out the year before:

...the people who can't relate to [M. Butterfly], they are literalists, you know, and I think, unfortunately, The Crying Game put them even more in that frame of mind...Because it is a literalist movie.  I mean, only when the audience sees the guy's cock do they realize that he's a guy and then they feel betrayed, and it's all very straightforward really, But it's not subtly in certain ways, and it provided a context that encouraged people to say, "Well, it's obvious John Lone is not a woman," and so on.

At no point in the film does it ever feel like Cronenberg wants or expects the audience to think Song is a woman, because the only thing that matters is that Gallimard, for whatever reason, behaves as though she is.  But Lone's gender being clear and Gallimard's quick interest in Song does indicate something about his sexuality that is plain in the true story of Boursicot, but is only here to wonder and guess about.  In one scene, Gallimard has sex with another diplomat, a German woman named Frau Baden (Annabel Leventon).  In the scene, Gallimard walks into the bedroom and Frau Baden is nude.  He stops, and is taken aback, but he knows why he's there.  Why is he shocked?  He says "You look exactly how I thought you'd look without clothes on," a strange thing to say.  When Leventon made the film, she was about 50 years old, and maybe, although I sincerely doubt this, Gallimard is reacting to the fact that this 50-year-old woman resembles a 50-year-old woman, and Song, not to mention his own wife, are more youthful.  More likely is the fact in terms of the classical female shape, Frau Baden, well, you know, has one, and Song doesn't.  Possibly because when you get right down to it, that shape doesn't appeal to Gallimard, and never has.

Meanwhile Shi Pei Pu seems to have dressed as a woman only in his occupation as an opera singer, and as a spy.  In fact, as if the true story needed to be even more baffling, he met and befriended Boursicot as a man, and only convinced him later that he was a woman who had been raised as a boy.  The point being that this was evidently something he could do, not necessarily something he was.  In M. Butterfly, however, when Comrade Chin visits Song to talk about Gallimard, she finds Song in what they both refer to as her "disguise." Chin is disgusted, demanding to know why Song would dress like that when she didn't have to, when Gallimard wasn't around, and Song says it's because it's easier to play the role demanded of her by the Chinese government if she plays it constantly, if it, in other words, becomes her life.  Lone clearly plays this as someone telling a lie:  Chin found Song in a moment of comfort and relaxation.  There is no disguise here.

As Cronenberg says, it's all about transformation, and about our perception, and construction, of reality.  Although it wouldn't be a Cronenberg film if it wasn't also about the destruction of the transformation, the perception, and even the reality.  With a simplicity that borders on the invisible, Song and Gallimard begin to cross and blend and swap transformations, beginning in the prison van they're both loaded into after the trial.  Song is dressed in a suit and tie, and his appearance was presented in court as a means to shock Gallimard, which he dutifully was.  In the van, Song finally strips for Gallimard, but now, of course, Song claims to not want this.  Song has a cold disdain for Gallimard at the beginning of this scene (similar to the remorseless attitude Bouriscot claims Shi Pei Pu showed in real life), perhaps because Song is angry at Gallimard's hypocritical self-delusion, but eventually this all softens, and Song's love for Gallimard, and despair that this won't matter at all now, is shown to be genuine (as Bouriscot implied was the case when Shi Pei Pu made one last proclamation of love to him).  But Song is right, Gallimard rejects him.  His dissection of Puccini's opera wasn't wrong after all.  Hell, The Song of the Butterfly has somehow even transformed into Madama Butterfly.

But the swapped transformations continue.  In prison, Gallimard has become a performer.  He's a figure of mockery, now that his story has become an international scandal, and he gives the other inmates a show, a venue for them to laugh at him.  At the end of the film, he's giving his final performance.  He dresses like a geisha and talks about the unworthy men of the West and what they do to the women of the East.  When Bouriscot, who is still alive today, attempted suicide in prison, one can assume that shame and ruin, personal and professional, drove him to it.  When Gallimard successfully kills himself on stage -- as a character in an opera would die, on stage, as part of a show, regardless of the actor's ability to get up after the curtain fell -- it isn't shame but guilt and loss.  He still loved Song, but he convinced himself he didn't, or couldn't, just as he'd convinced himself to believe what Song told him, and as he'd convinced himself about his own sexuality that led to a marriage that he tossed aside like it was nothing.  And you know, maybe that explains Jeanne's place in this film -- to show how easily he could turn his back on her.  Of course, it's not guilt over what he's done to Jeanne that leads Gallimard to put that glass in his throat, nor the loss of her.  He was married to her, but she meant nothing to him.  It's Song who he treated badly, Song who he wanted and will never be with again.  The delusion is all his.