Death and the Politburo

In case the trailer didn’t already give it away, Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a comedy. Its dialogue bristle with sharp, satirical thorns. It is at turns witty, goofy, absurdist and madcap. It is also like one of those works of art that, when you first look at them, seem to depict a rabbit or a beautiful young woman – but then you realise that you’re actually looking at a duck or an old crone, and once that realisation has set in, it’s difficult if not impossible to again see what you thought you saw at first. Once that moment has set in, The Death of Stalin becomes something much darker. The verbal humour remains, but it is revealed to be the poisonous icing on a meal that tastes of ashes and death.

The Death of Stalin

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E, S, A, R, I, N, T, U, L…

In the hands of a different cast and crew, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Le Scaphandre et le Papillon) could have been bad – or worse, it could have been absolutely nothingy. Of course the real-life premise is memorable and impressive – locked-in syndrome, being a prisoner inside your own body – but making this work as a magazine article or even a book is very different from making it work as a film. Without a keen directorial vision, this would’ve turned into the worst kind of movie-of-the-week.

I’ve never seen any other films by Julian Schnabel (the sheer silliness of his name may have kept me from watching his earlier work), but based on this film I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open for Basquiat and Before Night Falls. The movie isn’t overburdened by directorial flourishes, but Schnabel has a strong sense of the visual, in the real scenes as much as in those that take place in Jean-Do’s imagination or are inspired by his words. Talking of which, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir (the film could be described as a sort of making-of of the memoir, but that would be far too banal a description for what Schnabel achieves), strikes a deft balance between the visual and the verbal. It hums with the energy of words – Jean-Do is filled with language, even if his condition doesn’t allow him to express them easily. Each word is a battle, each phrase is a war – at least at first, but one of the refreshing aspects of the film is that the women who help the man express himself are all French beauties of the Emanuelle Seigner type (and one of them looks like a Gallic dead ringer for Naomi Watts), and Jean-Do is the kind of man who falls in love, at least a bit, with every woman he sees.

The lightness that the film has, derived equally from Bauby’s ironic tone (he isn’t afraid of laughing at himself and his situation) and Schnabel’s visual idiom, doesn’t detract from its darker side, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. The horror of Jean-Do’s situation makes especially the first twenty minutes almost unbearable at times. Schnabel doesn’t need to emphasise this – he shows, quite simply and unflinchingly.

I’ve only just finished watching the film about an hour ago, so my first impression is still fresh and might change. However, throughout the movie I kept thinking of another film, this one by Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar: The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro), also a true-life story, based on the struggles of a Spanish quadruplegic fighting for his right to die. Both films are centred on men who have been taken prisoner by their failing bodies; both men are full of life, yet have been deprived of the ability to life as fully as they desire; and both The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and The Sea Inside use similar imagery, especially the ocean and seaside. To some extent they feel like a French and a Spanish take on similar issues and would make near-perfect companion pieces.

Isn't the resemblance uncanny?

On a different note: we’ve added another HBO series to the already considerable list. It’s called Wome, at least if you ask Michael Palin:

And like so many HBO series, it’s got a pretty cool title sequence. Enjoy!

Where hearts were entertaining June

“I think we lost him.” That is still one of the most chilling final lines of any movie I’ve seen. (Another very effective last line, and one of my favourite, would be: “Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘The World is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”) And whatever else you may think about the film, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil has one of the most effective endings in film history.

On the whole, I like films the way I like my sharks: single-minded. (Okay, that wasn’t exactly the most successful simile this side of Metaphysical Poetry.) Films that are trim, lean, effective. I also like the sprawling epos, but if a film is messy – if it’s jam-packed with ideas and images that in the end don’t really lead anywhere – I tend to lose patience.

Brazil is a big mess of a film. Terry Gilliam isn’t exactly a disciplined film-maker, and Brazil is one of his least disciplined movies. There are dozens of scenes, incidents and characters that seem to be in the film because it seemed a good idea at the time. It’s garish, cartoony and unfocused – very much like its central character, really. Nevertheless, for me it’s the best, most affecting dystopia on celluloid.

Part of this is Gilliam’s success at using a handful of characters and actors to anchor the film in some sort of emotional reality. Yes, so many of the characters remain flat cartoons that are there for a joke or to make a point (which usually kills a film’s credibility for me), but then you’ve got Mrs. Tuttle’s anguished “What have you done with his body?” or Michael Palin’s greatest creation, Jack Lint… or Sam Lowry, Jonathan Pryce’s funniest, saddest part ever. The forlornly happy look on his face at the very end, after he’s “escaped”, still breaks my heart. And the interrogation scenes are still both funny and frightening (although I could do without the “pinball prisoner” scene).

Would the film be better if it was more focused, if Gilliam had been less sprawling, running off in several different directions at once? It’s impossible to say – a streamlined, single-minded Brazil would be an entirely different movie. Sufficient to say, though, that Brazil remains my favourite Gilliam film, even after a dozen viewings. And its happy ending is the saddest ever filmed.

Just make sure not to watch the “Love Conquers All” edit, unless you have an unhealthy fascination with watching road accidents as they’re happening – or if you can dissociate yourself enough from what you’re watching to observe, clinically, how a different edit can change a film into a grotesque mockery of itself.

Oh, and while we’re at it: one of the most fascinating (Un-)Making Of documentaries must be Lost in La Mancha, which documents the disastrous production history of Gilliam’s take on Don Quixote. If you ever want to see a mad ex-Python as unwitting King Lear, or if you have any interest in how films come about, check it out.