In Parasite (Bong Joon Ho, 2019), the protagonist is a family. I will refer to them as the Family.
The Family’s son is Ki-Woo (Woo-sik Choi), daughter Ki-Jung (So-dam Park), father Ki-Tek (Kang-ho Song) and mother Chung-Sook (Hye-jin Jang).
The Park family’s mother is Yon-Kyo (Yeo-jeong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), daughter Da-hae (Ji-so Jung) and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).
Housekeeper is Mun-Kwang (Jeong-eun Lee), and her husband is Kun-sae (Myeong-hoon Park).
Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung look for a wi-fi signal in their bathroom because their phones have been disconnected for failing to pay their bills and the neighbor whose internet they’ve been scrounging password-protected their wi-fi service. In their semi-basement apartment, they rise on top of a raised toilet to catch a signal—their desperation to connect with the world in order to earn their living is comical but poignant.
The Family make a meagre living folding pizza boxes. They’re accustomed to talk their way out of problems and sweet-talk their way into resolving issues to get better pay. They even keep their windows open during neighborhood fumigation to kill crickets in their apartment for free. Despite being jobless and unable to continue their education, they are smart and amusing. But most importantly they are relentless in their pursuit of what they need to survive.
Their window may be a convenient public toilet for homeless drunks, but they have the right attitude to have a laugh and make life work.
Ki-Woo’s college student friend Min-Hyuk shows up unannounced. He brings a viewing stone as a gift, which is meant to bring luck and money. The Family finds the gift symbolic and serendipitous. This is the symbolic Catalyst for the Family’s internal journey and will reveal what money will bring to their internal lives.
Min-Hyuk also brings a Catalyst to kick off the Family’s external journey. He tells Ki-Woo that a rich high school student that he’s tutoring needs a replacement tutor while he’s studying abroad. Could Ki-Woo take his place until he returns? Min-Hyuk adds that he’s planning on asking the girl out when she comes of age. Even though Ki-Woo is not a college student, Min-Hyuk says he’s even more capable than those who are and, plus, Ki-Woo is his only friend he trusts to hand over his future wife. And just like that, Ki-Woo is up for an interview for a well-paying job and has the potential to increase his family’s earnings.
Ki-Jung, who has been failing art school exams, is crafty enough to forge a college certificate of enrollment for Ki-Woo. The Family is impressed by their daughter’s forgery skills and are already brimming with pride for their son’s future success. Aware of the irony of not having achieved anything to deserve their respect, Ki-Woo says this is merely a precursor to what he’s planning on doing with his life: go to college and get rich; so how is this a lie and a crime?
Ki-Tek says, “That’s my son. Man with a plan.” This idea of having a plan will come up between them again and will become a thematic thread throughout the film. Is there any point in having a plan for poor people like them? How likely is it that they will achieve it, or even if they do, couldn’t it all go away in an instant? Let’s explore the possibilities of their life plans coming to fruition in a world where the gap between the rich and the poor feels unbridgeable and find out just how unbridgeable this gap really is.
Debate – Break into Two – Debate – Break into Two / Kalashnikov Effect!
The first question that arises from the film’s Catalyst is: will Ki-Woo be able to get the job? But this is only one of the dramatic questions that will lead us into Act II. The overarching dramatic question for the protagonist, as in the whole Family is: will the Family be able to get out of poverty?
Parasite has a unique and progressive First Act Break (which is often a single scene) and it responds to multiple dramatic questions that rise only after the previous one is resolved. Here’s how it flows:
Debate I: Will Ki-Woo get the job?
Act I Break I: Ki-Woo gets the job, and then figures out a way to get Ki-Jung a job as an art teacher for Da-Song.
Debate II: Will Ki-Jung get the job?
Act I Break II: Ki-Jung gets the job, and then figures out a way to get Ki-Tek a job as the Parks’ new driver.
Debate III: Will the Parks get fooled into firing their driver and give Ki-Tek the job?
Act I Break III: The Parks fire their driver and Ki-Tek gets the job. Then the three of them figure out a way for Chung-Sook to replace the housekeeper.
Debate IV: Will they be able to get Mun-Kwang (the housekeeper) kicked out, and then have Chung-Sook replace her?
Act I Break IV: Mun-Kwang is successfully eliminated; Chung-Sook gets the job. The Family has infiltrated the Parks’ house.
Each Debate question presents a tougher challenge for the Family, and in turn each Act Break is harder to achieve. The end result—leading up to the final Act Break—is increasingly more surprising and satisfying.
Fun & Games
The Family have settled into their roles within the Parks household. It’s been tough but they’ve made it and now they get to enjoy it. They playfully go about fulfilling their tasks at the periphery of the rich.
There’s a small but significant glitch, however. Little Da-Song can smell something. Not knowing that all four live in the same house, Da-Song exclaims: they all smell the same. The dank basement smell they all share is a tragicomic challenge to their plan that suggests they may have the smarts to pull this off, but their smell gives away where they come from, who they are. Suddenly, we get a whiff of the internal conflict of the film: they can change their circumstances, but can they fake where they really come from? Can the poor ever belong with the rich?
When the Parks family go on a camping trip for the night, they get to enjoy the house as a family. If only they can sustain the pretense, life can be safe, enjoyable and ‘rich’ just like this.
If ever there was a love story filled with passion, admiration, jealousy and longing, it is the love story between the Family and the Parks, i.e. the poor and the wealthy. The Family needs the Parks to fill the great voids in their lives: money, comfort, warmth, ease, relaxation and joy.
The Family’s flirtation with wealth is palpable in the sequence where Ki-Woo reads his student (and now girlfriend) Da-Hae’s journal in her comfy bed; Ki-Jung takes a bubble bath flicking channels on TV; Chung-Sook enjoys a peaceful nap on the sofa; Ki-Tek steams in the sauna and gets a taste of the numerous whiskeys and gourmet snacks in the cabinet. And they all enjoy the ultimate luxury: drinking bottled Evian water.
This is where their plan got them, but how long will this romance last?
They all individually enjoyed the house and the riches that it offers. Now, they sit in the living room together as a family watching the rain falling outside, sipping whiskey. They give thanks to the Parks for bringing all of this into their lives, even drink to Ki-Woo marrying Da-Hae in the future and the two families uniting as one.
But then, Mun-Kwang, the previous housekeeper, shows up at their door—an ominous presence reminding them of who they used to be and still are. Midpoint is usually a positive note that is the reverse of the All is Lost. But sometimes, if the contrast between the bad (Midpoint) and the worse (All is Lost) is big enough, Midpoint can be a foreshadowing of the All is Lost. In this case Mun-Kwang’s breach of their fun times is only the beginning of the end for them.
Bad Guys Close in
Mun-Kwang looks grotesque—a reminder of what it’s like to be Outside of the bubble of the Parks’ house. From here on out, progressively unimaginable misfortunes will pile on the Family.
The Family discover that Mun-Kwang has been keeping her husband Kun-Sae in a bunker in the basement for the last four years to protect him from the mob to whom he owes money for his failed business.
Now, the symbolism of the internal journey of the characters is worth a mention here: Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae are the original parasites of the house feeding on the rich, but they’re also physically beneath the Parks’ living space, suggesting the rich is upheld by the poor, and that there must be a symbiotic relationship between the two classes; the rich are able to rise thanks to the work of the poor in a system of unforgiving hierarchy, and the poor are able survive by bottom feeding on the rich. This is the system the Family is now a part of.
Mun-Kwang pleads with her successor Chung-Sook: we’re all in the same boat, help me! But Chung-Sook isn’t about to give up on her newfound wealth and threatens to call the cops. But then, the rest of the Family spills out of the staircase and Mun-Kwang realizes that the tutor, the art teacher, the driver and the housekeeper are all related and have their own scheme in operation. Embittered by Chung-Sook’s refusal to help her, Mun-Kwang threatens to send Yon-Kyo a video to reveal the Family’s scheme even if it means that her own scheme will fail along with it. A battle ensues.
The shocking news of Mun-Kwang and the palpable conflict between the two set of parasites is bad enough, but then the Parks cancel their camping trip due to torrential rain and decide to retreat to their cozy home. Ki-Tek must put Mun-Kwang and Kun-Sae back in the basement; Chung-Sook is tasked with cooking Da-Song’s favorite dish; Ki-Woo must put Da-Hae’s journal back under her bed and help Ki-Jung in the impossible task of clearing up their decadent mess in the living room in under eight minutes.
It’s a cat-and-mouse effort to put everything back together and hide from the Parks as they innocently settle back in. Eventually the Family almost manage to sneak out, but Da-Song decides to camp in the garden under the rain and the parents happily settle down on the sofa to keep an eye on their beloved son. Ki-Tek, Ki-Woo and Ki-Jung get stuck under the coffee table inches from the Parks, close enough that the Parks can smell them.
Up until now we’ve been watching obstacle after obstacle to the Family’s external journey of clinging to their big break. When Dong-ik begins talking about Ki-Tek’s disgusting smell, bad guys begin to close in on the Family’s internal journey: they can get a taste for what it’s like to be rich, but can they EVER fit in?
Shame and fatigue descend on all of them when they not only have to endure the insults, but also witness the rich couple engage in a sex fantasy at their expense. As ridiculously obvious and cringing as this scene is, its effect is a deathblow on particularly Ki-Tek. He is transformed from his happy-go-lucky self we met in Act I into a devastated carcass of himself.
When they finally make it out of the house undetected there’s no joy in their walk back home; they’re forever mimed by the Parks’ piercing words.
But it’s not over yet! As they transition from the rich neighborhood of the Parks to theirs, they find that their whole neighborhood is flooded, sewage backflowing into their houses. They walk chest-deep into the brown waters of their house to save a few of their belongings. Ki-Woo uselessly rescues the viewing stone that was meant to bring money and luck.
Ki-Jung smokes sitting on top of the toilet seat that’s pushing up against her with sewage water—an expressive picture of a moment of peace for the poor.
All is Lost
Meanwhile in the bunker, Mun-Kwang takes her last breath. This death/loss may seem insignificant since Mun-Kwang was not a member of the Family. But since the story revolves around the Family’s losses in the pursuit of the rich life, their first murder becomes a sign of the humanity they’ve sacrificed along the way. This is exacerbated by the fact that Mun-Kwang was the only one of them who epitomized honesty, integrity and solidarity among her own kind, and so her death is a significant loss for them all.
Dark Night of the Soul
As Kun-Sae beats his head against the switches on the wall sending messages to the ether about his grief over his wife, Ki-Tek is in a dark place after getting insulted under rich people’s coffee table and then seeing their home sink into an underwater sewage. While Ki-Woo clings to the viewing stone as if to dear life, Ki-Tek has abandoned all hope: None of these people planned to evacuate their homes and end up on a dirty floor with hundreds of strangers, he says. “If you don’t plan, you can’t fail.” He no longer wishes his son to be “a man with a plan”, because after the journey they’ve been through, he knows, “nothing matters.”
Break into Three
Yon-Kyo finds the heavy rain that ruined their camping trip to be a “blessing in disguise” and plans a birthday party for Da-Song in their garden. Ki-Tek must accompany her as she shops for wine and gourmet food; Chung-Sook must set up the garden with tables around Da-Song’s tent to surprise him when he wakes up; Da-Song’s favorite teacher Ki-Jung is to bring in the cake and Ki-Woo is invited as Da-Hae’s special guest.
The Family is no longer stuck in the poverty-stricken world of Act I, but nor are they enjoying or suffering through the world of Act II. In this new day, Ki-Tek is unable to experience gratitude or awe; every sign of wealth and joy makes his skin crawl. Even Ki-Woo, instead of enjoying Da-Hae and his newfound fortune, says “Do I look like I belong in this house?”
We are now in Act III that brings together Act I and Act II, and shows us what happens when the two merge.
The entire birthday party is the bulk of Act III. Kun-Sae flees the bunker seeking revenge for his wife. All hell breaks loose and a violent fight between the Family and Kun-Sae ensues, sending Da-Song into a frightful seizure.
Here, the separation between the rich and the poor is more striking than ever. The Parks ignore the dying Ki-Jung, and Kun-Sae’s vicious attack on Chung-Sook does not concern them. They expect Ki-Tek to drive them to the hospital for Da-Song. As Ki-Tek is busy trying to save Ki-Jung’s life, Dong-ik bends over them to grab the car keys. Dong-ik’s reaction to their smell is what becomes the final straw for Ki-Tek.
Ki-Tek kills Dong-ik with an axe; Ki-Jung is dead; Ki-Woo is heavily injured; Chung-Sook kills Kun-Sae and barely hangs on to life. The birthday party turns into a bloody pandemonium.
A while later, the brain-damaged Ki-Woo looks for Ki-Tek who disappeared after the birthday party. He spies the Parks’ house from a hill that overlooks the rich neighborhood and figures out that Ki-Tek is hiding out in the bunker. He deciphers Ki-Tek’s coded letter to him delivered via the blinking lights of the house.
In his letter, Ki-Tek tells his son that he’s surviving by feeding off of another rich family that moved into the house after the Parks. Moved by his father’s letter, Ki-Woo does what Ki-Tek advised him not to do: he makes a plan to go to college, get rich, buy the house and rescue his father.
As Ki-Woo is perched in the cold night on a hill overlooking the rich neighborhood and pondering how he’s going to get in touch with Ki-Tek to encourage him to hang in there until he makes his big break, he’s experiencing the kind of disconnection the Family was experiencing in the opening scene of the movie when they were looking for a wi-fi signal to connect with the rest of the world.
Now, far more brutally and tragically, Ki-Woo is face to face with the enormity of his disconnection with the world of the rich and the Family’s distance from happiness and peace.
–Image Credit: UK poster by Andrew Bannister for Curzon Releasing.
Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) cracks up in front of his social worker at the Dept. of Health. His medical condition is apparent; he’s looking for help: “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.”
Arthur holds an ‘Everything Must Go’ sign on the street in a clown outfit. A group of guys runs off with his sign—the current source of his livelihood. When Arthur desperately chases them to get his sign back, they break the sign on his head and give him a beating. It’s the beginning of the end for Arthur. This violent unkindness launches an avalanche that will increasingly threaten Everything—his sign, his job, his pride, his sanity. His call to action is to do something about it.
This Catalyst moment has a one-two punch. It will be complete when Randall offers him a gun for his protection—the thing that will eventually propel him from the edge of Act I into Act II.
Joker has a beautifully expressive, methodical set-up. In scene after scene, we not only get to know Arthur, his colleagues, his mother (Frances Conroy), and the environment and society he lives in, but also feel his growing sense of loss and desperation. His neurological condition is expressed in a heartbreaking ‘Save the Cat’ moment on a bus, as he tries to make a child laugh but gets scolded.
The piles of garbage on the streets are physical and metaphorical manifestations of the level of poverty, neglect, intolerance and violence in Gotham. People are angry and on edge.
We’re also introduced to Arthur’s fantasy world, his escape from all of this. He longs to be acknowledged by his idol, TV show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He wants to hear that he’s special, that it’s okay that he lives with his mother because he takes good care of her like a responsible son. He wants his purpose and desire in life to be recognized: to bring laughter and joy to people. He wants a father who accepts him; that father figure is Murray in his fantasy. Becoming a successful stand-up and dating his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) are also parts of this fantasy world, in which he’s understood, respected and loved.
As a result of losing his sign, Arthur gets a warning at work. But even more strangely, his beating inspires his colleague Randall (Glenn Fleshler) to conspire against him. Knowing Arthur is not supposed to carry a gun Randall gives him one, acting like he’s doing Arthur a favor. The gist of Randall’s advice to Arthur is ‘if you show empathy and tolerate people’s wrong-doings, they’ll take everything from you.’ For the rest of the story Arthur tries to figure out if this is true: Should he succumb to what’s going on around him even though it hurts, or should he take matters into his own hands and fight back?
Arthur’s first debate question is: is he going to be pushed to his limits enough to use the gun Randall gave him? Is he going to blow over? Second, can he become who he wants to become? Is he a comedian? In a Taxi Driver-esque moment he gets a feel for his gun, pointing it at things. But he fires it by mistake as if the gun is more powerful than he. As he battles with his depression, we see he’s on the verge of suicide, bringing into light a third and bigger debate: should he kill himself?
Then he finds out about Randall’s betrayal: Randall gave him the gun specifically to get him fired. Arthur loses his job, possibly the only thing that tethers him to reality and sanity. And this final push tips him over into:
Break into Two
Arthur gets provoked on the subway. After clinging to his usual avoid-and-retreat tactics as long as he could, he ends up killing the three Wall Street guys who mess with him. His reaction surprises even Arthur at first, but by the third guy he’s intoxicated by his newfound power.
Fun & Games
The first sign of ‘fun’ in Arthur’s life comes immediately following the First Act Break—his first set of murders and taste for his alter-ego Joker. In a public bathroom he’s elated, finally alive. The first seed of violence has been planted; the change has begun. From here on out, he grows more confident, powerful, cocky. Even society is suddenly noticing him, applauding him. His fantasy world begins to intersect his reality when people glorify Joker and what he stands for.
Meanwhile, Gotham continues to deal Arthur blow after blow: his social worker abandons him because of budget cuts; his treatment and medications are cut off. His comedy act isn’t great either, but at least Sophie thinks “the guy who killed the Wall Street Three is a hero.” Arthur continues to be ignored and ridiculed by society, whereas Joker is bathed in fame and glory.
The gap between his Arthur-self and Joker-self widens.
B Story is generally known to be the love story, and in Joker there is one: Arthur’s fledgling relationship with Sophie. But B Story is also the story beat where the theme of the story is discussed and explored. Considering that Arthur’s relationship with Sophie is revealed to be another figment of his imagination, and because it doesn’t carry the weight of the themes of injustice and revenge, I will propose that the B Story of the film is Arthur’s relationship with his alter-ego, Joker.
It indeed resembles a romantic relationship, where he’s lured by Joker’s power and confidence, indifference and violence, all the qualities that will allow him to not only survive Gotham but also excel in it by receiving attention, recognition, respect and love. Arthur’s only chance of being complete and happy might be through achieving union with Joker.
Arthur’s relationship with Joker is where the theme of the story is tested: Show empathy and swallow injustice or fight back with anger and revenge. Slowly but surely Arthur’s delicate spirit which has no place in a society like Gotham gives way to Joker’s violent spirit spreading like wildfire all over the city. It’s almost as if the film’s theory is ‘evil attracts evil’; as long as the environment is corrupt and violent it will be fueled by things of the same nature and spit out foreign elements like Arthur. Arthur needs to be discarded because he doesn’t fit in Gotham, and Joker is what Gotham craves for and ultimately deserves.
Arthur finds out that Thomas Wayne—the future mayor—is his father (Brett Cullen). He takes this as shocking news as he thought of his mother’s obsession with Wayne as hopeful at best. But now he suddenly has a sense of belonging, a chance at being somebody. His Arthur-self is back in action when he senses a possibility for being a normal person with a father and a future. His new goal is to connect with his father and be acknowledged as a son. This is his only chance at turning his back on his budding Joker-self.
Bad Guys Close in
From Midpoint on there’s an avalanche of disappointments in Arthur’s life, pushing him closer and closer to his inevitable fate. He confronts his mother; she says, if people knew he was Wayne’s son, they would think he’s an ‘unwanted bastard’. He then confronts Wayne’s angelic, well-looked after son—the son that he could have been. He gets laughed at for even thinking Wayne could be his father.
On the other hand, the detectives are onto him asking questions. Hearing what Arthur might have done, his mother has a stroke. Murray, his idealized father figure, plays a recording of his stand-up and makes fun of him on TV. Gotham City is getting crazier; the violence and hatred on the streets are sky-high.
Despite everything, Arthur reaches out to his father. Predictably, Wayne does not embrace him as a son. Instead, he tells him he was adopted, that his mother is an institutionalized mental health patient.
From hospital records Arthur gleans further information about his past. He finds out his mother was accused of endangering the welfare of a child, that her neglect is what made him sick. It’s also revealed here that his romance with Sophie was imagined, echoing his mother’s alleged delusions about Wayne.
All this is too much for Arthur; he must do something, regain his balance somehow…
All is Lost
Arthur’s identity crisis is at its peak. He confronts his mother about who he is, and then kills her in her hospital bed. The only person who truly loved him is gone.
Dark Night of the Soul
Arthur practices his new identity as Joker—his transformation is well underway. He plans his appearance on Murray’s TV show, what he will say, how he will present himself, how his dream will finally come true, how he will kill himself…
Break into Three
Arthur puts on his Joker make-up; he dyes his hair green and his face white, plants a menacing smile on his face. This time he will not drift into Joker; his transformation will not be accidental. He will now wear Joker’s mask with intention; he will willingly embody him.
As he’s busy with his transformation, an opportunity arrives at his door: Randall pays him a visit and Joker kills him. There is poetic justice in his first kill as a truly-transformed-Joker, because Randall was the man who betrayed and pushed him into the abyss of evil in the first place, and now his 1st act self (Arthur) and 2nd act-emerging-self (Joker) merge with the death of the person who catalyzed his transformation.
Joker on the Murray show. There is no sign of Arthur in this new persona. He’s confident, cunning, disturbing, a full-on psychopath. The people of Gotham are aligned with Joker; Gotham found a home in him and finally he is at home in Gotham. As Joker openly criticizes the society, the system in Gotham, we believe it too: violence works, evil is king in this place.
The fully transformed Joker doesn’t kill himself like a tragic character; he kills Murray instead, his lifelong father figure and idol.
Joker later comments for the newspapers that his killing of Murray was a punchline to a joke, indicating he has no empathy left and cementing his life as a comedy. The thematic question of the film is now resolved: Arthur chose Joker.
Joker is institutionalized. Mirroring the Opening Image of the film where he sat across from a social worker, he now sits in front of a psychiatrist at a hospital. But this time he has no words in his journal; he does not want to feel understood; he has no use for empathy.
Gotham has devoured Arthur; Joker is all that remains. In Joker’s words: “Isn’t it beautiful.”
“Nothing is as it seems” was the thematic starting point when Nicolas Roeg envisioned the iconic horror-drama Don’t Look Now (1973). The phrase not only matches the recurring events in the film where John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) desperately tries to make sense of what he sees, but also informs the artistic rendition of the idea, “doubt what you see,” imbuing the audience with a sense of mistrust. The imagery and editing style of the film are aligned with this thematic statement, reaffirming the film’s status as not just an awesome horror flick but also an art film where every element is carefully and purposefully designed, performed, and built to elicit a specific response from the audience.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate a few of the many brilliant cinematic ideas packed into this groundbreaking film. I am yet to see an opening sequence as harrowing and evocative as the one in Don’t Look Now. The scene depicts the death of a child, but does so much more than that. First, the scene is set with two children playing alone by the water, the boy riding a bike through the woods, and the girl, Christine (Sharon Williams), wearing a red raincoat on a sunny day, playing with a toy soldier. Then, their parents are seen cozy by the fire; Laura Baxter (Julie Christie) reading books, John Baxter looking through slides until something catches his eye—a red hooded figure sitting in a church.
For the rest of the sequence Roeg evokes our senses by match-cutting shots and orchestrating a dialogue between the two pairs. He speaks to the non-linear logic of our emotional intelligence rather than to our linear, rational mind. The juxtaposition of Christine stepping into a puddle and the bike riding over broken glass helps us intuit impending danger. When John knocks over a glass and water begins morphing into the slide he is looking at, we get a visual cue that the figure in the church is signaling something ominous to him. The parents’ movements and gestures dynamically and tonally match the children’s movements so well that we sense an ethereal communication between them, and a sense of loss and grief seeping in before the inevitable occurs.
In the opening scene, Roeg also foreshadows the next chapter of the film where John restores a church in Venice and is haunted by a figure in a red raincoat much like the one sitting in the church on his slide, and his deceased daughter. In this chapter, John’s clairvoyance is the subject of focus and his encounters with the mysterious figure are the source of continuing suspense. Meanwhile, Laura, lacking her husband’s intuitiveness, finds solace in a blind old woman (Hilary Mason), who claims to make a psychic connection with Christine. Roeg masterfully turns the ordinarily non-intimidating duo of a psychic old lady and her chubby sister into an unlikely source of dread. Are these sweet old ladies sharing Laura’s pain and trying to help her, or are they preying on her grief-stricken fragility, sucking her into hell?
Roeg often challenges our preconceptions about people and images. A bishop can seem utterly menacing; beautiful Venice becomes a city of shadows and death; a grieving couple lacks in sentimentality and morose. By creating contrasts, Roeg succeeds in unsettling our expectations and driving us to growing disquiet.
Most notably, Don’t Look Now’s historic love scene defies our expectations relating to not only how we view a grieving couple but also how we view horror films. An unexpectedly long and elaborate sex scene, marking the couple’s first love-making since their child’s death, is intercut with the couple getting dressed to go out to dinner. The non-poeticized, non-glorified intimacy is graphically matched to the ordinary comfort and practicality of marriage. This 5-minute break from the suspense and uneasiness of the narrative is unusual and bold to put it lightly, but once again it plays with our assumptions about grief, love, loss, sex, and even genre.
Roeg tells a story unencumbered by rules, depicting life’s complexity, vulnerability, and discord. His editing style paints an overall portrayal of marriage and love rather than chronicling a straight-up thriller following a sequential set of events. Don’t Look Now resembles life not as it’s expected to be seen in movies but in its unclassifiable form.
Another surprising decision made in the narrative is to reveal the identity of the red-hooded figure in the finale. Up until the end, we’re under the impression that the figure may be a figment of John’s imagination, or that he’s trapped in a supernatural maze. But then, there’s a twist that ushers us into a room we don’t want to go in, and showing us the face of this mystery figure. The story turns an unexpected corner yet again. It’s easy to be on the fence about this change in direction because it might have served the film better to keep the unknown unknowable. Instead, it’s as though Roeg chooses to pay the horror genre his dues in that final, horrific beat.
As a well of inspiration for today’s filmmakers, Don’t Look Now is a powerful reminder of why we need independent cinema. For who else but an independent filmmaker would or could make a truly radical film? And without that bold attitude toward the complex machinery of cinema, how can we hope to advance the filmmaking tradition, break new ground? Providing the space, time and opportunities for unique cinematic minds like Roeg is an integral way to broaden our minds about where else cinema can take us. At his passing we must appreciate Roeg’s contribution to rethinking and reinventing the medium of film, and remember to support independent cinema so that new voices can follow in his footsteps.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on February 6, 2019.
What do we need to procure a powerful imagination? A childhood steeped in traumatic events, emotionally supportive family members, being exposed to various quirky people, enriching early experiences, long hours of solitude…. Ingmar Bergman in Fanny and Alexander, his ode to the origins of imagination, suggests that all of the above is true. Bergman’s semi-autobiographical farewell gift to cinema is a reflection on what nourished his imagination to create decades of outstanding cinematic work.
The first half of Fanny and Alexander is a series of anecdotes told from the perspective of Alexander (Bertil Guve) and his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin), and depicts a childhood that is well protected and crowded with family on the one hand, and is also detached and chaotic on the other. Family routines are woven with religious themes; a wealthy, almost decadent upbringing is balanced with equal treatment of the staff; the chaos of a night of celebration is spotted with unexpected liaisons. Amidst all the joy and chaos Alexander hides under sheets and tables, playing make-believe games and seeing statues come alive in what we can only assume to be the fertile soil of a safe environment from which to dream.
The ideal of a childhood responsible for fuelling Alexander’s imagination is one filled with art. The rich colors and images of Alexander’s home and family life come from paintings, antiques and sculptures, furniture, rugs and tapestries. The scenes featuring various eccentric members of the family and the Christmas dinner they share are filmed in glorious wide angles as if desperate to encompass as much of the beauty and warmth as possible, still more goodness spilling out of the edges of the screen.
Fanny and Alexander’s father, Oscar (Allan Edwall), manages a theatre and both Oscar and their mother Emilie (Ewa Froling) act in the family’s stage plays. Alexander’s proximity to the most dramatic of arts of its time is another source from which he dreams. But the lifeline to his imagination is briskly cut off when Alexander witnesses his father’s quick decline and death in terror.
This event marks Bergman’s transition to the next half of the film. Oscar’s reappearing ghost is not enough to comfort Fanny and Alexander as they dread moving into the home of their mother’s new husband, Bishop Edvard Vergerus’s (Jan Malmsjo).
Vergerus’s home is barren, grey, cold and his family’s manner is stoic and void of any affection and love. Vergerus’ children from his previous wife drowned, a bad omen that influences Alexander’s darkening tales of isolation and death.
It is interesting that Vergerus’s objection to Alexander’s imagination increases as Alexander embellishes his tales with horror elements. And the harsher Vergerus’s punishments get the more Alexander’s magical thinking inspires the supernatural elements in the film. The innocent wonder of the moving statue and the friendly ghost of Oscar in the first half ripens into the kind of magic that influences the events in Alexander’s life, blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
Following Fanny and Alexander’s rescue from Vergerus’s house, Alexander re-enters a life of art and imagination, but this time that life and the characters that inhabit it school Alexander in the art of using his imagination. In conversation with a puppet that claims to be God, Alexander is told, “different realities surround us existing alongside each other.” Later, Ismael (Stina Ekblad), another strange character living in the house that hosts and protects Alexander and Fanny from their stepfather, tells Alexander that there are no boundaries between people, even people’s minds. “People flow seamlessly into each other.” This gives Alexander the permission to imagine and actualize Vergerus’s horrific death. With the power of his imagination he is not only freed from his stepfather but also from the clutches of a stale and deprived life where imagination is forbidden.
Alexander wants to punish God, if God does indeed exist. The question of the existence of God is a recurrent dilemma for Bergman and Fanny and Alexander elusively but tenderly reveals Bergman’s spiritual evolution, that there are no boundaries between things, and therefore all is possible, all is God. The film is told from the perspectives of generations of people, men and women, rich and poor, ghosts good and evil, angels and monsters. Fanny and Alexander stands as a fairy tale of sorts, and yet Alexander’s childhood feels starkly real, his imagination reflective of a child’s candid reality. We’re gifted with a hypnotic epic picture from Bergman, at once captivating and freeing.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on December 19, 2018
With Thirst (1949), Ingmar Bergman, a visionary master of cinema, made his first contribution to the exploration of marriage — a topic he would return to most memorably in Scenes from a Marriage (1974). It is often argued that Thirst’s imbalanced and loosely connected storylines and intermittent flashbacks muddle the overall effect of the film, but the individual scenes stand as brilliant musings on relationships between men and women. Pieced together from a collection of short stories, the disconnectedness of the narrative can be excused. As an early example of classic Bergman themes and aesthetics, Thirst is an interesting piece to analyze due to its raw examination of the nature of men and women as two emotionally distinct species.
The film’s opening shot is of a river abundantly flowing and swirling away from us. Raoul (Bengt Eklund) walks out of the water, followed by his lover Rut (Eva Henning) struggling to stand up. Raoul goes back to help her — the first of several man-rescues-woman moments in the film. Their romantic outing continues with Rut’s discovery of Raoul’s marriage. Raoul wisely points out, “a man my age who isn’t married with kids is a failure, but it’s nothing we can’t work out.” This opening sets the stage for a series of dialogues exploring men and women’s place in relationships. Thirst often portrays men as arrogantly dominant and women capable of seeing the absurd truth of how they’re treated but instead of asserting themselves are driven to hysteria.
After suffering an abortion that leaves her infertile, Rut feels embittered by her painful relationship with Raoul. She marries Bertil (Birger Malmsten) and swiftly develops a thirst for alcohol and insistence on stirring up trouble. Most of the film focuses on Rut and Bertil’s train journey across war-torn, poverty-stricken Europe (an apt backdrop to a tumultuous marriage) and her constant attacks on her husband.
As Rut’s nervous breakdown ebbs and flows, Bertil recounts the story of Arethusa. Arethusa turns into a freshwater spring after fleeing from the river god Alpheus and the lustful Alpheus pursues her despite the impossible union of their waters. Bertil concludes “Two sexes can never be united, separated by a sea of tears and misunderstandings.” Rut and Bertil’s marriage is a prime example of the impossible union of the two sexes. In Bergman’s imagery their waters never mingle. Rut is a jittery, cocky, provocative, depressive woman circling Bertil like a shark and Bertil, though steady and numb, dances around her fluctuations, unsure as to whether he should submit or dominate, embrace or leave, love or hate.
In another storyline, Viola (Birgit Tengroth), a recent widow, Bertil’s ex-lover and Rut’s old friend from ballet school, battles with depression in her psychiatrist’s office. The long dialogue between Viola and her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren (Hasse Ekman) is a terribly on the nose but nevertheless incredibly revealing battle between the sexes. Rosengren denies Viola’s grief over her deceased husband and demands that she fall in love with him despite being married himself. He asserts, “Come away and break up a marriage. Do something worthwhile. Help yet another sleepwalking couple wake up from their illusions.” He also accuses Viola of never having loved her husband and sugarcoating her marriage now that it’s over.
In this unusual doctor-patient exchange Bergman suggests perhaps that a happy marriage is an illusion women cling to because they have a tendency to want things to survive rather than to perish. He also philosophizes on marriage as an institution based on an idealistic and unattainable union. This view may have some merit, but what’s interesting is his portrayal of Rosengren, which he uses to demonstrate the absurdity of men’s assumptions of what women need and how men can heal and rescue them. Unashamedly Rosengren expresses his own childish demands by attempting to persuade Viola of her presumed lacking: “Just be normal, don’t hold back… You need someone. Otherwise you’ll perish. Cry to me… Let go of your own self. Give yourself to me and I’ll deliver you.”
Increasingly comic in his desperation Rosengren continues, “I’ll carve out your real self. I’ll plow your virgin soil… I’m God’s representative on Earth.” Viola’s retort is equally hilarious: “You will not plow my soil!… You shouldn’t be treating people! I won’t be coming back. I’ve discovered I’m well.” Hopeless now, Rosengren delivers the final verdict on Viola: she will no doubt find herself in an asylum, as she is incurable. As heavy as this dialogue is and as much as it violates the rule of “show, not tell,” its over-the-top quality is what makes it work so well. Through dialogue, Bergman speaks to the tragic truth of how men viewed, and might still view, women and how it only makes sense that women were (and, perhaps, still often are) perceived to be destined for nervous breakdowns, depression, or at the very least loneliness.
Thirst’s exploration of loneliness is best personified in the character of Valborg (Mimi Nelson), who after suffering through relationships with men has become a lesbian and hopes to make a romantic connection with Viola, who rejects her coldly. Valborg is not only a loner as a woman surviving in a man’s world, but she’s also alienated as a lesbian. Her refusal to be associated with men is experienced as a solution to a problem, but it brings another layer of pain, a closing of doors in the search for love and comfort.
In his tri-layered tale of lonely women, Bergman presents a widowed woman, tormented and ridiculed; a gay woman, destined for misunderstanding and loneliness; and a married but unhappy woman, infertile, alcoholic, furious, unloved. In a harrowing scene Bertil knocks down Rut with a bottle, fulfilling Rut’s earlier prophetic judgment of men: “There isn’t a man who hasn’t brought ruin to a woman, one way or another.” A quiet relief comes to Bertil and the audience alike, until a new day begins and with regrets and longing they embrace. They are each other’s poison, but as aptly stated in the film, “hell in marriage is better than hell alone.” After what we have seen in Thirst, I predict it would be hard to agree with this statement, but for the famously melodramatic Bergman, a bad marriage still trumps loneliness.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on October 3, 2018
Three Colors: Red (1994) is not only the last film of brilliant Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski’s acclaimed Three Colors Trilogy, but also his farewell gesture to the art of cinema. It is fitting that a film marking the end of a great cinematic career should be about connection, truth, fate, disappointments, and passing of lessons learnt. The compassionate, naïve, and optimistic Valentine (Irène Jacob) and the jaded and cynical retired judge Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are two halves of the same apple, that is to say, two opposing sides of the aging filmmaker Kieslowski.
Out of compassion for a dog she ran over, Valentine delivers the wounded animal to its owner, Joseph Kern, an ex-judge spying on his neighbors’ phones. From then on Valentine’s world opens up to new and controversial ideas about life, love, privacy, truth, and justice. Kern proclaims there is more truth to be found in people’s secrets than in courtrooms. He laments the only reason people do good deeds is out of guilt, that true compassion doesn’t exist, and love is borne out of an inherent selfishness.
Valentine is repelled at first by Kern’s self-righteous ideas about invading people’s privacy to learn their secrets. She clings to positive expectations of people, an attitude which has survived a heroin-addicted brother and a jealous and demanding, but absent, boyfriend. She lives a life of impending disappointments and yet attributes love and optimism to all that happens around her. To reveal Valentine’s condition, Kieslowski often shows her alone in her apartment, waiting for phone calls, slipping or tripping, struggling with breathing through ballet postures, “hoping for peace and quiet.” Kern teaches Valentine from his vast experience what people can really be like, opening her eyes to secret truths about them. Valentine’s youth, and the naive optimism that comes from her youthful disposition, obstruct her from seeing life as it is.
The judge reveals to Valentine that his career was practically a sham, a string of mistakes and near-misses. Who’s to decide who’s guilty and who’s innocent, who will turn out good and who will not? Valentine’s initial judgment of the judge wavers. She loses her pride and learns humility. She begins to see that one cannot judge another based on what they do, that fate is malleable, and life changes directions by moments of chance. As Valentine’s youthful rigidity softens, Kern enlivens and garners hope for that same changeability. He begins to live out a missed opportunity that could change his life forever, through Valentine’s life still full of possibilities.
Meanwhile, Auguste (Jean-Pierre Lorit), a young judge whose life echoes Kern’s life so closely that he might be interpreted as Kern’s doppelganger, is betrayed by a woman who offers personalized weather reports by phone. Despite her prediction, a sudden turn in the weather almost kills Valentine and Auguste in the same ferry ride, once again asserting the unpredictability of life. The accident kills over a thousand passengers, but only Kieslowski’s main characters from the Three Colors Trilogy survive it. As demonstrated by the highly anticipated union of Valentine and Auguste, Kieslowski ends the trilogy with a note of compassion and hope for a new life with new possibilities.
In Kieslowski’s hands the crime of invasion of privacy turns into a meditation on connections between lives and choices, a bridge into a theme often found in his work: shared experiences, the smallness of the world, the mysteries of chance and fate. Kieslowski’s camera conveys the same theme cinematically. It wanders through the streets and apartments, settling on characters as if by chance. The camera movement feels like a breeze, as if to question “what is life?” Kieslowski depicts life like a loose cannon, taking this road and that, “so why not another?” it seems to be asking. All it takes is a look in another direction, an impulse, a signal from a quivering radio frequency, and life can be transformed forever.
The color red – with its many opposing symbolic meanings – saturates the screen, seen on objects, clothes, images, lights, dotting with precision every corner of the screen. Red means love, life, anger, caution, passion, life, death…. The color’s many meanings and contradictions denote the infinite potentials of a young woman’s life versus the many lessons to be learned from an old man’s life albeit its now limited possibilities. The color red is a fitting tie between all the characters of the trilogy and all the themes of Kieslowski’s artistic legacy.
Kieslowski was all too aware of the filmmaker’s position as a god of some sort, an all-seeing authority dictating the audience’s gaze, opinions and even feelings. In his last film, a judge, no less, is portrayed as one who has given up on delivering judgments, a judge who has accepted the impossibility of judging people and life. In his farewell film, Kieslowski entrusts his wisdom of a full life with the character of Valentine and his audience. He ushers her and us into a life of possibilities filled with infinite links and connections.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on July 13, 2018
Adolescence is a time of transition. Childhood slowly recoils in a cocoon and adulthood looms, almost threatening the child away. In Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, it is a transition so severe that it’s hard to know just what is about to emerge out of the cocoon and just what of the child will remain. The Fits is not only an allegorical poem about coming-of-age, but also a tale of becoming-a-woman. In the film, as in life, every girl goes through their own version of “the fits” to take their first step into adulthood (or more accurately, womanhood) seemingly unscathed, but forever changed.
From the perspective of Toni (Royalty Hightower), the film tirelessly juxtaposes the presence and gestures of boys and those of girls. Even Toni’s full name, Latonia, symbolizes her state of limbo between boyhood and girlhood. While “tomboy” Toni is partaking more actively in the boys’ world–wearing a sports bra, practicing boxing, training with her brother, surrounded by sweaty boys who eat pizza out of the box like hyenas–she’s intrigued by the girls’, perpetually lured into her nature as Latonia.
The world of girls is revealed evocatively. As Toni tests her feminine intuition, she observes an almost tribal dance-off among the girls–a sight she finds unsettling. The girls are fiercely competitive and daring, intimidating forces to be reckoned with. Toni drags her feet in her grey hoodie, while she’s practically showered by an army of bouncing girls explosive with loud shrieks and flashy outfits, boisterous laughter and chatter. Their abundant femininity is an onslaught.
The unique metamorphosis of girls becoming young women is brilliantly represented by an apparently contagious disease spreading like wildfire among a group of female dancers, who practice a powerful dance routine across the hall from an all-male, testosterone-pumping, tellingly disease-free boxing gym. The appearance of “the fits” evokes mass psychogenic illnesses where people mirror each other’s symptoms in a group. Numerous dance-off scenes where dancers mirror and outdo each other’s performance pepper the film to support such interpretation and help us make sense of the epidemic.
Beyond the fascinating connection between a psychogenic illness and girls growing into femininity, I can’t help but see the parallels between the seizures and the experience of menstruation that dominates the mood and behavior of girls in this age group.
When the seizures begin among the girls, it is clear that it’s an inevitable, distinctly feminine event that sets the boys and girls farther apart. Right after the first incidence of “the fits,” Toni’s brother warns her to not be like the girl who had the seizure: “she’s the craziest.” Then he goes on to boast about busting another athlete’s nose, showing off his opponent’s blood on a white towel, echoing the menstrual blood.
If the mysterious seizure symbolizes the sufferer’s inevitable transformation into womanhood, then the image of the bloody towel and the male warning that follows it suggest “the fits” is a metaphor for menstruation – an event traditionally associated with fear, shock and embarrassment. The male equivalent to this transformation is expressed as pride and achievement as evidenced by drawing of blood from an opponent. The interplay of what it’s like to be a girl as opposed to a boy is revealing.
As Toni nears her own version of “the fits,” she goes through other tribal rituals. She receives a tattoo from other girls, she finds her hands and nails smeared or painted with glittery nail polish, and she pierces her ears—another bloody tradition. These signs of transformation put more and more distance between Toni and her brother and the boys in general. One of them says in passing: “you’re one of them now.”
The scene on the bridge shows this shift beautifully. Toni runs up the stairs of a bridge where she often trains with her brother, but now she is alone. Her boxing moves soon give way to her dance routine, accompanied by the ritualistic sound of girls’ rhythmic clapping. Her familiar masculine way of being dissolves into an equally fierce but conversely feminine new persona. Her satisfied smile hints at where Toni feels she now belongs.
As Toni begins to feel more and more isolated from the other girls and weighed down by the imminence of “the fits,” her seizure-immune masculine side protests and resists. Her nail vanish chips away, her ears get infected, and she bounces basketballs off the wall and seeks solace in a punching bag. But by now she’s removed enough from the world of the boys that she can only watch them from afar. Much like the anticipation of menstruation among girls at this age, she begins to not only dread but also long for “the fits,” which she now realizes will be her key to finally and truly belong to her own tribe.
Once Toni also crosses that threshold into womanhood to the lyrics, “Must we choose to be slaves to gravity? Shouldn’t we be light, shouldn’t we be treasure,” the girls dressed in their sparkling costumes perform their dance routine with pride. They dance in all the major locations of the film as one body, one tribe, and one pride. Once “the fits” are behind them, and their femininity is no longer a source of fear but a source of joy, the girls glow with unprecedented power and light.
— This article was published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on April 9, 2018
Hopes and dreams are a significant part of who we are as human beings. Peter Bogdanovich’s Depression era comedy/road movie Paper Moon artfully reflects that human need for dreaming. Ryan O’Neil’s Moses Pray and Tatum O’Neil’s Addie make a pair that brightens the sullen backdrop with their determined expectation of good things to come. Addie’s cunning ideas and sharp attitude are just what Moses needs to survive the hopelessness that surrounds them. Despite the comedic buddy-movie sensibility of the film, Paper Moon focuses our attention time and again on the melancholy symbolism of a paper moon the duo delicately balances on as they go through their adventures.
When Paper Moon opens, life feels bleak. The landscape is dismal. Addie’s mother has just died. Moses’s desperate attempts at conning widowers for small profits halt as he attends the funeral. The eagerness with which Addie’s relatives unburden themselves of the newly orphaned girl represents the dominant mood. This is a world where even a nine-year-old girl needs to fend for herself.
It is significant that a funeral opens the film, sending the message that nothing lasts. As Addie smokes away her troubles in motel rooms, we are merely in an intermission before the next thing runs out on the couple. Sometimes it’s money, sometimes it’s a car, and sometimes it’s a companion that is lost. The temporariness of everything else is ironically what gives birth to a bond between the two misfits—the only one that promises permanence. On the surface, what holds them together is Moses’s two hundred dollar debt to Addie, but in truth it is their reliance on each other to keep their hopes and dreams afloat.
Trixie Delight’s (Madeline Kahn) appearance in the film threatens the fine balance between Moses and Addie. A perfect match for them, Trixie means competition to Addie. She’s a prostitute also looking for her lucky break, which she hopes to be Moses. Just as Addie plots to get rid of her, Trixie opens up to Addie about her true intentions. Her submission to failure is heartbreaking as she begs Addie to give her a break: “…if you wait it out a little, it’ll be over, you know. I mean, even if I want a fella, somehow I manage to get it screwed up. Maybe I’ll get a new pair of shoes, a nice dress, a few laughs. Times are hard.” Addie recognizes Trixie’s implausible, paper-thin dreams and lets her enjoy her brief moment.
The deputy that catches the duo for bootlegging, their most profitable venture yet, begins his interrogation with “Just when ya think ya got it made… Just ain’t made, is it?” Despite Moses and Addie’s comic disputes and amusing getaways, Paper Moon is imbued with cynicism. It keeps circling back to the same message: However hard you try, you’ll never get it made.
László Kovács’s cinematography echoes the tentativeness of achievement of money and success in Paper Moon. The depth-of-field of Kovács’s black and white photography makes every corner of the frame look in focus. The flat and crisp images invite the audience to pay attention to everything. As a result, the main characters on the screen are just as important (or unimportant) as the supporting characters, the set design, and even the surrounding landscape. By projecting a glasslike, fragile world, the extreme depth-of-field not only reduces the characters’ significance, but also gives the visuals a paper-like quality that accentuates the vulnerability of the characters’ goals and emotions.
The actual image of the paper moon appears at a carnival scene where Addie badly wants a picture of herself and Moses seated on top of the moon. Moses is too busy to grant her wish. Addie walks away from the booth deeply disappointed, saying, “He’s not my father.” Addie’s photograph sitting on top of the paper moon alone becomes her emotionally charged parting gift to Moses in the finale. Having been dropped off at her aunt’s house, the gift represents her relinquishing her biggest dream, that of belonging to him as her father. It is the image of lonely Addie sitting on a paper moon that softens Moses’s resolve to leave her behind. That and the fact that his car won’t start, which makes a meaningful comic reference to the pattern of things falling apart around them, conversely working to their advantage at last.
Roads are natural staple images of road movies. In the final image of Paper Moon, the road that leads to nowhere on the infinite Kansas landscape is photographed statically from behind Moses and Addie’s car. It is one of the few occasions in the movie where the characters face away from us. The image of the winding road leading to the unknown is a fitting one that marks the unknowability of Addie and Moses’s future. But fortunately for them, they are armed with their dreams, even though we know those dreams are barely clinging to paper moons.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on January 29, 2018
Every year I deconstruct my favorite screenplay of the year in a beat sheet format developed by Blake Snyder. This year it happens to be Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which just won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay and is a strong candidate for the Oscar in the original screenplay category among others. Enjoy!
Mildred (Frances McDormand) spots three deserted billboards as she drives along an empty road. A light bulb goes off in her head.
Mildred buys advertising space on all three billboards. This is the catalyst for action mainly for the police officials she’s targeting, but it also marks the start of Mildred’s journey into reaching out to the authorities and the public with her pain.
The billboards are unveiled, as is the story behind them. The various reactions to the billboards set up Mildred’s friends and foes as well as her personal motivation and goal. Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) is one of the few people whose opinion and feelings matter to Mildred, but even Robbie’s disapproval doesn’t stop her. While Mildred’s colleague from the gift shop (Amanda Warren) is her only supporter, her adversaries are many and furious. The main target for the billboards is Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whose terminal illness accentuates the conflict between the characters, but it is Dixon (phenomenally portrayed by Sam Rockwell) who takes it to heart and will have the longest distance to go in his transformation.
Throughout the film the biggest debate is about whether the billboards will stay up or not. Can Mildred be convinced to take them down, or not? First the legality of the billboards is questioned, and then Mildred’s resolve is tested by the police and the locals. Willoughby’s attempt at reasoning with her hits a dead-end when he figures that Mildred had already known about his cancer, but doesn’t care.
The billboards are the source of a battle of wills between Mildred and pretty much everyone else, and it looks like Mildred will win.
The last effort to get Mildred to take the billboards down comes from the moral beacon of the town, the priest. He says, ‘No one’s on your side about this.’ The central conflict of the story is alluded to: we will be exploring the possibilities of whether Mildred will succeed in pulling people to her side to bring justice to a now disregarded horrific crime. Will the police and the public get over their shame and discomfort to finally face the reality that such vile crimes are committed amongst them.
Mildred’s goal is not solely and simply forcing the police to solve the crime, but to remember it, face it, and do something about it, in their action and in their hearts.
Break into Two
Mildred coolly and beautifully reacts to the priest. The gist of it is ‘Get the f**k outta my kitchen.’ We now know that if this is Mildred’s response to a priest, the billboards are here to stay.
Willoughby on the other hand, having received his own ‘catalyst for action’ to solve the crime in his few remaining days, lashes out at his doctor for comforting him at Mildred’s expense. Willoughby is taking none of it, because he knows that as crazy as she is, Mildred is right and he now knows what to do. Both Mildred and her adversaries move into their second act of growth.
Fun & Games
Willoughby tries to make it right by giving the case another shot before he dies. Mildred responds to and deflates the increasing pressure against her and the billboards. In a beautiful and tragicomic one-two punch Mildred injures the town dentist and Willoughby coughs up blood into Mildred’s face during her interrogation. They may be on opposite sides of an argument but in this scene they share an intimate moment acknowledging each other’s suffering.
This is also the section where we go deeper into Mildred’s personal demons. Her guilt around what’s happened to her daughter (Kathryn Newton) and how her desperation for justice is mixed with her need to do right by her daughter. Her sense of failure crystalizes in her exchange with her ex-husband (John Hawkes). One more dimension is added to her guilt when she finds out her daughter wanted to move in with her father to get away from her and if she had she might have lived.
As Willoughby finds his own answer to his dilemma by plotting a premature but dignified exit, Mildred hits a peak point in her journey when she lets down her guard, addressing a fawn that symbolizes her daughter. We ask: Has she done the right thing by opening this can of worms when the case has little chance of being solved? Was it worth turning everyone’s lives upside down, letting the pains of the past resurface and dig deep into their hearts?
There is a dance that happens between Mildred and Willoughby and Dixon throughout the film. Willoughby fights her but he feels for her, even agrees with her. His parting gesture expresses his faith in the possibility of goodness in the world. He has manifestly joined Mildred in her quest for unification against rape and violence.
Mildred’s dance of compassion continues with a much different version of Willoughby in Dixon. Dixon, suffering from a slow-burning moral compass, questionable intelligence and typically male anger, is infuriated by Mildred’s position. It takes longer for him to unite with Mildred, but with Willoughby’s help he recognizes the goodness in himself that will move him closer to her.
It is in Dixon’s transformation that Mildred’s internal journey lies and it is in the B Story between Mildred and Dixon where the theme of the film is discussed.
Willoughby kills himself. As a result Mildred’s doubts and guilt about the billboards reach a new height. She now has to face a town outraged by Willoughby’s suicide, which they naturally view to be Mildred’s fault.
Bad Guys Close in
As a response to Willoughby’s suicide, problems escalate in Ebbing at a fast pace. The suicide has done no favors to Robbie’s already vulnerable position at his school. Dixon throws the ad agency guy Red (Caleb Landry Jones) out the window for putting up the billboards in the first place. On top of his grief over Willoughby Dixon loses his job, his one reason for leading a decent, lawful life. A creepy guy (Brendan Sexton III) threatens Mildred’s life when he walks into the gift shop claiming to be responsible for her daughter’s violent death. Willoughby’s widow (Abby Cornish) brings Mildred a letter from her late husband, further clenching Mildred’s heart.
Willoughby’s letter is a relief from the increasing tensions of the story, but it does nothing but further raise the stakes. Willoughby has done a good deed by renewing the monthly rent for the billboards, but this only results in somebody setting fire to them. The fire represents the culmination of conflict around the billboards, which will in turn give birth to Mildred’s most vengeful retribution yet.
All is Lost
Assuming it was the police that burnt down the billboards, Mildred sets fire to the police station. Little does she know that Dixon is in the building receiving words of wisdom from Willoughby’s letter, marking the beginning of a shift in his journey.
All is lost for Mildred as she realizes that in her rage against violence and injustice she almost killed Dixon and she now faces potential jail time and, most importantly, the loss of her battle.
Dark Night of the Soul
Thoroughly bandaged and imbued with Willoughby’s faith in him, Dixon makes amends with Red in the hospital. He’s no longer a brute, but a victim.
Mildred in her own way uncharacteristically softens when she goes out on a date with the town midget James (Peter Dinklage). She even shows signs of coming to terms with her ex-husband’s infidelity when she wishes well on his new relationship, advising him to treat her well – a common decency she herself didn’t receive.
Break into Three
The billboards go back up! The war is still on. In the meantime, as foretold by Willoughby, Dixon overhears the confession of a brutal crime against a woman. He may no longer be a cop, but he has a chance to make things right by Mildred after all.
Dixon’s potential offender turns out to be not the man who killed Mildred’s daughter. But, driven by the purposelessness of his life and his newly acquired taste for justice, he suggests to Mildred that they go after this guy anyway. He may not be the guy they’re looking for but he’s still a vile criminal, who’s ought to be punished. Mildred agrees.
Mildred drives along the billboard road with Dixon shotgun, going after revenge and justice. They know that neither of them is likely to pull the trigger on the guy, but that’s not the point. Mildred has succeeded in her feat: she drew attention to an unacceptable crime, fuelled the hearts and minds of the police and the public to stand against crime against women. And most importantly, she now has the support of Dixon, her unlikely partner in doing the right thing against all odds.
Massimo Dallamano’s What Have You Done to Solange? is a prime example of the 1970s giallo films where murder mystery often driven by sexual themes meets psychological horror. No wonder the popularity of gialli eventually gave birth to the American slasher movie: the core of this peculiar subgenre consists of gory violence powered by voyeuristic fascination and a basic whodunit plot shadowed by the gruesomeness of the central crime. ‘Solange’ showcases the elements of giallo in many ways and succeeds at expressing, and even exploiting, the societal obsession with sexual violence directed toward women.
‘Solange’s opening is a telltale sign that a sexually obscure series of crimes is about to unfold. An Italian teacher, Enrico Rosseni (Fabio Testi) and his high school student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) frolic on a boat when Elizabeth witnesses a crime where a man attacks a woman in the woods, penetrating the victim’s vagina with a knife. Unable to concentrate on fulfilling her companion’s erotic expectations, Elizabeth is met with accusations of making up excuses to avoid sexual intimacy. While assuring us of Enrico’s innocence of the crime for plot’s sake, this opening draws a suggestive parallel between young women’s romantic escapades and bloody violence rooted in sexual revenge. This proves to be an interesting combination, as the film goes on to explore young women being punished for sexual exploration, which eventually results in Solange’s (Camille Keaton) mental illness.
The association of female sexuality with brutal violence is a theme typical of gialli. In ‘Solange’ some of the murder sequences are shot from the point of view of the killer, putting us in the position of the mysterious man in the black gloves. Gialli are understandably accused of being ‘exploitation cinema’ as they provide voyeuristic access to women’s private lives and evoke identification with the experience of killing, which typically takes the form of punishment. While it’s easy to interpret the connection between women and violence in a film like ‘Solange’ as exploitation, it is also possible to see gialli as a reflection of the male psyche and an artistic expression of feelings of guilt and shame surrounding sex, an experience shared by men and women alike.
In ‘Solange’ young women are portrayed with a combination of sweet purity and bubbling, almost aggressive sexual curiosity. As Elizabeth and her friends transition into womanhood, they carry the essence of childhood along with an eagerness to transform into sexual beings. A pivotal scene in the film shows Solange being forced by her girlfriends to abort a pregnancy. They had shared a sexual adventure and now Solange has to pay for it with a painful, invasive procedure.
Somehow the abortion leads to Solange’s regression into an infantile mental state. Aside from the lack of logic in this—logic is not the strongest attribute of the genre—it is interesting that the punishment for an arguably premature experience of sexuality should be a return to infancy. It’s as if the film conveys a subconscious message here: if you do a deed out of step with your age, you might just entrap yourself in it. As Solange remains trapped in trauma-induced childhood innocence, her girlfriends go on to pay for their transgression by knives to their genitalia.
There is a sense in which the film speaks for the society’s intolerance for women’s sexual freedom. Despite the lascivious use of violent imagery to shock and entertain, ‘Solange’ displays undertones of our subconscious fear and guilt surrounding sex. The most striking example is the murder of Elizabeth. Because she remains a virgin, she escapes the usual knife-to-the-vagina penalty. Instead, she gets strangled naked in the bathtub, i.e. in her cleanest, purest form, as a red towel wraps around her legs giving the impression of blood gushing out from between her legs. Elizabeth is silenced for her testimony to the murder, but she is symbolically punished for her desire for Enrico, despite the fact that it never came to fruition. In ‘Solange’, women are not only subject to punishment for their actions but also for their desires. Coupled with the oppressive discipline of the school, tantalizing images of girls showering together peeked at through a hole in the glass, the film reflects on a so called ideal treatment of women and then shatters it mercilessly in an attempt to mirror our prejudices against women.
In the tradition of most gialli What Have You Done to Solange? suffers from incoherence in plot structure (Solange and her story only becomes central to the ongoing conflict in the last third of the film), lack of motivation for the protagonist to pursue the killer, awkward dialogue and unrealistic performances. But what it lacks in these domains it makes up for with its bold camerawork, slick production design, suggestive editing and artistic style.
No doubt the film succeeds in the realm of pulp horror pictures, but it is interesting to look more deeply into the genre’s popularity and interpret the sensational imagery of violence and eroticism, searching for its counterpart in our collective psyche.
— This article was originally published in Brattle Theatre Film Notes on September 26, 2017