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I shall tell of another adventure that is all the more strange...” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

A film by Andrzej Zulawski Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A film by Andrzej Zulawski
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

This sentence was more or less lost in a late 1960’s translation of Kosmos. Sadly it would be that sentence that served not only as my introduction to a novel but to the Polish writer. Memory is a funny thing. While I forgotten most of the novel, it is that first sentence that stayed forever branded into my mind. I decided I needed to revisit  When I learned that Andrzej Zulawski was about to shoot a film adapted from Witold Gombrowicz’s Kosmos, I decided to refresh my memory beyond a single sentence. I expected to be confused as I did remember it had been clunky regarding translation. I was excited to discover that the novel that had been warded the 1967 Prix Formentor Award for literature had been re-translated from Polish into English. Yale University Press published Danuta Borchardt’s new translation of Gombrowicz since I had last thought of it.

Kosmos Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Kosmos
Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Witold Gombrowicz has always interested me. While he was a fiction writer he is equally known as a diarist. Where does his fiction merge into his reality and experience? How does the English reader know he/she is able to understand his prose’s complexity? German and French readers had better access to his work thanks to more accurate translations. My introduction to his work came with an understanding that he had to firmly defend his most popular work, Ferdydurke, from critics who felt it was satire. Satire had not been Gombrowicz’s purpose. His novels are known for exploring issues of identity and existentialism under the pressures of Nationalism and fast social change. But these explorations were made with a sense absurdity that tied closely to dark humor.

His characters are not fully developed. Their identities are fragmented by the repression, oppression and tyranny imposed by both culture and society. These characters roam about trying to formulate understanding of self/life under the strain and disturbing acts that forever alter the circumstances of being. And while there is a grim level of pessimism that leans against established institutional rule — Gombrowicz disagreed that his work was connected with nihilism, but the darkness is most definitely waiting.

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz's often mistranslated "Kosmos" is resurrected through another lens. Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Translated from Polish to German into French and fused into English. Witold Gombrowicz’s often mistranslated “Kosmos” is resurrected through another lens.
Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Revolutions, wars, cataclysms — what does this foam mean when compared to the fundamental horror of existence? …My literature must remain that which it is. Especially that something which does not fit into politics and does not want to serve it. I cultivate just one politics: my own. I am a separate state.” — Witold Gombrowicz, Diary. Published 1988.

The improved translation helped me in understanding that much of my frustration was something Gombrowicz intended. The characters navigating within his Kosmos are never fully fleshed out. We know that our protagonist, Witold  has trouble waiting to crush him back in Warsaw. We also know that Fuks hates his boss. But we never know what the trouble is or why the boss is hated. In fact we are given limited information about every character. The novel’s extremes and paranoias begin to feed the reader’s imagination. Every action and decision seems to be a reaction to matters we can never fully understand. This vastly improved translation offers more insight into Gombrowicz’s complexity but it also grants permission to not second-guess the awkward phrasing.

The new English translation for Kosmos provides an entirely different read. In the novel two young men seek refuge from the pressures and hardships they experience in Warsaw. They escape the city to what they anticipate will be the nourishing warmth of the country, but they arrive with mutual respective existential crisis and life fatigue. They will soon face a series of random incidents that begin to shift Wiltold further into paranoia, existential crisis as he feels threatened. Gombrowicz brings humor into the equation. Paranoias, fears and angst begin to leap off the charts of rationality. The characters magnify the situations and incidents. They soon feels less coincidental and can be assumed to be intended threats. Witold is unable to consider these incidents as “random.” The unexpected chaos signals pending doom.  His ideas of existence and identity are as fragile as they are extreme.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'the pretty' with 'the good.'" Jonathan Genet Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘the pretty’ with ‘the good.'”
Jonathan Genet
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Isn’t it true? I thought, that one is almost never present, or rather never fully present, and that’s because we have only a halfhearted, chaotic and slipshod, disgraceful and vile relationship with our surroundings.” — Witold Gombrowicz, 1965

Boris Neleop interviewed Zulawski after Cosmos had received its world premiere at Locarno International Film Festival receiving the Best Director honor. Neleop discussed the difficulty of finding accurate translations of Kosmos. The director agreed and pointed out that the film was based from the novel’s original Polish language.

Luckily, I’m Polish so I can read it. More luckily still, words like “bleurgh” in Gombrowicz mean nothing. What is it? Alban Berg, the composer? A cliff maybe? But in French it means the retching sound—bleurgh. Meaning you want to vomit. If you see a bad movie and someone asks you how it was, that’s what you say: bleurgh. So, it’s a happy coincidence.

Neleop attempted to engage the artist into a discussion regarding what he perceived to be a shared sort of spasmodic manner in both Gombrowicz’s novel and the great filmmaker’s work. Zulawski disagreed with the connection and seemed intent on avoiding the spasmodic with either work.

I don’t agree with you. I don’t think Gombrowicz is spasmodic: he’s quick, he’s rapid, he’s short and extremely rhythmic and… Do you know the word “caustic”? His writing is never hysterical. It’s caustic. It’s galloping but dry. I don’t think the actors are spasmodic at all. They are in their own delirium, but for them this delirium always has a profound logic. It’s not a bunch of mad men in an asylum. They are petit bourgeois. Witold wants to write a novel until he falls in love with this girl, who never has anything intelligent to say. His relationship with his young friend is really close, almost homosexual. So, it’s a complicated little cosmos.”

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014 Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

Andrzej Zulawski, 2014
Photograph by Marek Szczepanski

In answering a question regarding his decision to lift the novel out of its pre-war Polish context and moving it to 21st Century Portugal where a group of French people are living, Zulawski responded:

If Cosmos had been filmed according to the novel, it would’ve been a very depressing and ugly film. Why the hell should I see those terrible people? Sounds like a basically stupid question. It’s not. It’s like life. Why should I spend my life with ugly stupid petit bourgeois people? I won’t. I won’t spend my life in Hollywood either. I don’t like these people, I don’t like their stories. So it leaves you to stay alone for fifteen years. In my forest.”

Zulawski’s rejection of cinematic norms is nothing new, but after he made La fidélité he retreated. That film was released in 2000. He never retreated into a forest of seclusion, but it would be fifteen years before he made Cosmos. His return to cinema was not a safe one. Adapting a complex work like the Polish novel, Kosmos, was never going to be an easy cinematic proposition. And while his final film does articulate itself with some newly discovered levity, Cosmos has a great deal in common with some of his key works.

"Love me." Romy Schneider That Most Important Thing / L'important c'est d'aimer Andrzej Zulawski, 1975 Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

“Love me.”
Romy Schneider
That Most Important Thing / L’important c’est d’aimer
Andrzej Zulawski, 1975
Cinematography | Ricardo Aronovich

This film’s title is actually translated as The Most Important Thing is Love and Romy Schneider’s performance would have been enough to secure the film’s place in French film history. But there is far more continued within the frames than an iconic actor’s work. The film marked a new turn in filmmaking. Zulawski’s examination of the artist finding fulfillment in France’s mid-1970’s theatre scene leaves a mark. It is not so much the point of the movie that matters but they way in which that point flows off the screen. Visceral, angry, obsessive, compulsive and often frantic — L’important c’est d’aimer takes the concept of a tragic love story to poetic heights. The film’s fever-pitched passion and energy haunt the viewer long after the film ends. A contemplation regarding abysmal cinematic opportunities, the protagonist is often looking directly into the audience. While the film is realism it wants to push itself off the screen, into the theatre and run rampant. The characters Zulawski presents are not really all that odd, but the way in which they move, speak and propel is most assuredly eccentric.

"It doesn't hurt." Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance... Possession Andrzej Zulawski, 1981 Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

“It doesn’t hurt.”
Isabelle Adjani goes beyond the distance…
Possession
Andrzej Zulawski, 1981
Cinematography | Bruno Nuytten

Isabelle Adjani gave Zulawski the performance of a lifetime in one of the most confounding films of all time. No one was prepared for 1981’s Possession. Adjani’s work on this film was so taxing that it triggered a very real emotional break. It only takes one viewing to underscore this as valid truth. Adjani was dancing on a high wire without a net. Zulawski was able to inspire her to start her performance with emotional hysteria set at Level 5 and then required her to turn it up to Level 21 before the experimental film comes to a crashing end. It is a performance that has to be seen to be believed. Possession remains a testament to the talents of both the leading actor and its creator.

There are several ways to interpret Zulawski’s 1981 film. At its most obvious level it is an exorcise in Horror Surrealism hinged to turmoils of the psycho-sexual. And, from another perspective, it is a metaphorical depiction of divorce. And it is a matrimonial breakup that takes on apocalyptic proportions. Possession is completely unique, surreal and metaphorical study of identity it extreme crisis. And it is fueled by an inhuman and intolerable repression of control. This control might be that of a stifling marriage or one propelled by government control. Or it could be a combination of both. It doesn’t matter how one chooses to interpret Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession — it works from any vantage point.

The passage of time has not dulled its sharp edges. The special effects and gore are still jaw-dropping. This is an Art Film that has become Cult and it continues to spark provocative reaction. It took decades for this very personal film to find its audience. There are several different versions of Possession floating around — all the result of censorship. Mondo Vision beautifully restored this film several years back. It is an essential film for any fans of Surrealism and Horror.

"Are you lost?" Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love. L'amour braque / Mad Love Andrzej Zulawski, 1985 Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

“Are you lost?”
Francis Huster is the idiot gone mad with love.
L’amour braque / Mad Love
Andrzej Zulawski, 1985
Cinematography | Jean-Francois Robin

Andrzej Zulawski’s adapts Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a neon-drenched fever dream. 1985’s L’amour brace’s characters, sets, cinematography, editing and acting indicate that we might have landed in some alternate world. The film moves as if it was pulsating forward via an amphetamine, cocaine and whiskey fueled injection of psychotic convulsions. Zulawski’s experimental film is a twisted Neon and most certainly avant-garde. The film is violent, but the violence never feels “real” and the graphic sexuality is presented in paradoxically restrained ways. The only time the film seems to be able to slow down is when Sophie Marceau and The Idiot consummate to a point of erotic “enjoyment” — And, even then, it almost feels like the camera is so jacked-up it can barely wait to continue it’s frenzied trajectory.

Easily one of the most stylistically influential films to ever come out of French cinema — Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan among them. And it had an impact on music videos of the day. This world of thieves, addicts, artists, whores, drug dealers, pimps, terrorists, anarchists, perverts and lovers is chaotic but somehow organized. Mutually-conflicted screeching rants, dances and terrorism form into a sort of dancing race against time. Zulawski seems to be inspecting everything from political activism, perversion, addiction, insanity, rage, the theatre, criminal motivation, rebellion, sex and love — but through a camera that is dependent on hallucinogenics for vision. Like PossessionL’amour braque is completely unique unto itself. It is safe to state that no other filmmaker will manage to make a movie remotely like these two.

"That's why there are common saints. God's morons with a soul but empty brains." Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity... Szamanka / She-Shaman Andrzej Zulawski, 1996 Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

“That’s why there are common saints. God’s morons with a soul but empty brains.”
Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry fall into mutual insanity…
Szamanka / She-Shaman
Andrzej Zulawski, 1996
Cinematography | Andrzej Jaroszewicz

Andrzej Zulawski returned to Poland for 1996’s SzamankaShe-Shaman. Filmed in the newly freed Poland, the director brought the level of intense sexual obsession beyond expectation. It earned the nickname The Last Tango in Warsaw. While it is true that this film pushes further with graphic sexuality, it is seldom actually erotic. Boguslaw Linda and Iwona Petry push themselves to the extremes that are defined within the script. This might very well be the most challenging of Zulawski’s work. The cinematic provocation is not within the frantic obsessive actions and sheer frenzy, but lies far deeper within the film’s political and philosophical context. The two protagonists pursue their sexual and existential needs toward a deeply nihilistic end. Szmanka aches toward a brilliance that is almost impossible to endure.  Inexperienced actress, Iwona Petry, is near brilliant in her role, but she opted to end her acting career after Szamanka‘s release. Another interesting example of an artist agreeing to join the director on his journey but emotionally exhausted to the point of breaking once arriving at the destination.

Capturing "reality" in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame. Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory La fidélité / Fidelity Andrzej Zulawski, 2000 Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Capturing “reality” in photography while emotional intensity pushes it out of frame.
Sophie Marceau and Pascal Greggory
La fidélité / Fidelity
Andrzej Zulawski, 2000
Cinematography | Patrick Blossier

Zulawski’s La fidelity / Fidelity was released in 2000. The film’s plot is more conventional, but once again his characters burn with almost convulsive urgency. This film forges a path that left many viewers cold. Its highlight is Zulawski”s great love and former muse, Sophie Marceau. She is brilliant in the role and her director understands how to capture not only her beauty but her energy. Years later I remember thinking that it seemed a pale sort of entry to serve as this filmmaker’s final work. Luckily it wasn’t.

Available from Mondo Vision La femme publique Andrzej Zulawski, 1984 Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

Available from Mondo Vision
La femme publique
Andrzej Zulawski, 1984
Cinematography | Sacha Vierny

My admiration for Andrzej Zulawski runs deep and it is based within the realm of the personal. He was a brilliant artist who refused to be repressed, suppressed or held to any strict rule when it came to his art. And despite what some have attempted to insinuate, Zulawski was an admirable and kind person. His heart and passion shine through all of his films. Zulawski was always reaching into, under, over and well above the human need for love and understanding.

Even within the bleakness of Possession and Szamanka beats the heart of a very human filmmaker. I’ve decided not to touch on Diabel, La femme publique or On the Silver Globe  — these three films are unique masterworks that I am unable to address in a short blog. I will note that these three films are not really the best starting points for a Andrzej Zulawski neophyte, but then again — maybe they exceptional places in which to take that first plunge.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Boris Neleop’s attempt to engage Zulawski in a conversation about “spasmodic” characters is valid. Nearly all of Zulawski’s characters are extreme. While everything around them might be pushing inward to restrict / oppress — his characters refused to stay within the bounds of circumstances had designed. The need for knowledge, satisfaction, love and understanding leave them no choice other than to be extreme.

This auteur was always a bit sensitive when pressed to discuss the hyper energy or over-the-top passion found in his films. A word like “spasmodic” would make Mr. Zulawski recoil. He shut this sort of commentary so far out of his mind that consideration was no loner possible.

Mr.Neleop is correct: Witold Gombrowicz’s characters are a bit, well, spasmodic. And I suspect that it was their very nature that attracted the great director.

Victoria Guerra Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Victoria Guerra
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Zulawski had grown up with Gombrowicz’s literary work. My initial knee-jerk reaction toward Zulawski adapting Gombrowicz was that these two thinkers formulated thought in direct opposition to the other. I do not think Gombrowicz liked people. He thought and wrote about the existential, but these pursuits seemed formed from an essential repulsion toward humanity. This is interesting because his fiction is more than a little autobiographical. The way in which Gombrowicz creates the characters of his Kosmos is not kind. Zulawski’s entire film career was focused on the darker aspects of human nature — yet he loved people. He was a fighter and a rebel, but he was never anti-social. And he most certainly was not a pessimist. And, unlike Gombrowicz, he was not vain or concerned when it came to criticism or reward.

decorating lips. Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

She paints her lips as if with blood because she really wants to be an actress…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

I’m scared of the forests. In the midway of this mortal life I found myself in a gloomy world, astray. Gone from the path and even to tell, that forest, how robust its growth, which to remember only, my dismay. Renews in bitterness not far from death. All else will I relate discovered there.

Witold is frantically walking through the edge of a forest. Jonathan Genet has the look of someone from another era, but we already know that Zulawski’s Witold is a 21st century character. At first glance he could be a European fashion model, but his behavior is based within panic. He seems to be consistently on the verge of a mental break. When we meet Zulawski’s Fuchs, played by Johan Liberia, we discover they have traveled in a nice car. Fuchs’ name has been altered in spelling but he is still trying to escape the tyranny of two horrible bosses. In this new universe we know that his employers are high-end fashion designers.

While Wiltold is fragile and paranoid, Fuchs is robust and seemingly up for just about anything. Both behave in ways that lean toward the aberrant. Wiltold wants only to study, but he detests what he studies. Fuchs is primally focused on off screen violent sexual conquests. He reassures his friend that he plays safe, but bleeding wounds, bruises and other bodily issues are scars to his masochistic tendencies. And while it is never fully stated, these two friends would appear to share a bond that goes further than brotherly love. There are hints of a mutual sexual attraction and romantic fondness.

Something sinister is going on! Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Something sinister is going on!
Jean-Francois Balmer, Sabine Azema and Johan Libéreau
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Here, in Zulawski’s Cosmos, the two friends have run from France to Portugal. Fuchs is more lighthearted but still aches. Witold’s neurotic need to examine every move / object under his philosopher’s magnifying glass fractures his grasp of reality. The first thing Wiltold experiences after he secures his navigational balance is an encounter with a forest. It is one of the aspects of the world he hates most. As he rushes through the wilds of this forest he encounters the first of many grotesque encounters — a dead sparrow dangling from a string laced noose.

Soon he will discover ghost-like stains upon his rented room’s ceiling. These stains seem to be point toward something.

Fuchs also notices but is more curious than repulsed. The shape of a rake appears in the stain — and soon they discover an actual rake that directs their gaze upward to two small planks of wood hanging from a tree. The planks are tied together and hang by the same string from which the sparrow hangs. They hear talk of a chicken that was spotted hanging not too far away, but they never see it. And thus Wiltold and Fuchs begin to play a paranoid sort of game to attach meaning to these seemingly random signs. The game leads to an axe, a hammer, murder, death and metaphysical omens.

Madame is just overexcited... Sabine Azema Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Madame is just overexcited…
Sabine Azema
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

A murdered cat hangs in the courtyard of the Bed and Breakfast. An eccentric married couple have been renting two of their rooms to keep up with mounting expenses. The wife, called Roly-Poly in the Polish novel, is played with goofy  nervous energy by the ever stylish Sabine Azema. We never hear her referred to with the novel’s cruel nickname. Here she is known as Madame Woytis. We soon notice that the female head of the house has a tendency to abruptly shut off in mid speak / movement. Frozen like a photograph. Her beautiful daughter explains, “Oh, it happens to her when ever she gets overexcited.

The daughter is Lena who is married to a seemingly successful business man. He seems to be in constant meetings with a mysterious Russian client. Wiltold is immediately vexed by Lena. But it is her niece, Catherette, with whom he is smitten. Catherette has taken the position of housekeeper. She is devoted but worries her aunt, Madame Woytis, because she refuses to have her mutilated lip cosmetically re-defined. We are told she was in a bus crash. But her mutilation looks more biological in origin. Her lip holds an entrancing mix of disgust and erotic curiosity for both Wiltold and Fuchs.  The male head of the home is Lena‘s stepfather, Leon, played with unhinged lunacy by Jean-Francois Balmer.

"Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse 'The Pretty' with 'The Good.'" Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Tolstoy wrote that our biggest mistake is to confuse ‘The Pretty’ with ‘The Good.'”
Victoria Guerra and Clementine Pons
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Interactions with the family are beyond eccentric. This is a house of organized lunacy and chaos. When Wiltold meets Lena they shake hands maniacally and for an extended time. Soon they are “secretly” copying each other’s animated hand movements. But their odd flirtation is painfully over-the-top. Yet everyone around them is too preoccupied with their own strange non-senscial conversations that only Fuchs notices. The antics of this family appear and sound like something one would see in a  slapstick comedy. There is only one catch: none of it is funny. It is simply strange.  

Unlike Gombrowicz, Zulawski has no interest in making us laugh. He aims to throw his audience off balance. As frantic action and illogical dialogues ape the gestures/sounds of Keystone Cops — the film quickly forms into absurd surrealism. And yet, the film’s cinematography and musical score tease that we are watching some fucked-up romantic mystery. And these are romances and mysteries that seem unsolvable.

As omens of sinister consequence begin to mount the two visitors only become more confused. Wiltold takes a worrying turn when he starts to adapt to sinister cruelty. Ants roam through their food, slugs slither in butter, creepy beetles crawl out of Madame Woytis‘ soup, animals are killed, midnight axe chopping, mutilated lips, fever dreams and a priest who lets loose a swarm of flies when he drops his pants — all of which formulate a sense of doom. Witold is certain that this pending doom threatens to push him into The Void.

When tragedy does strike it fails to register as anything of consequence to the family. Leon takes to the wilderness singing out into what he points out is The Void.

"Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?" Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

“Why seek the hand of another when we have our two selves?”
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

At the film’s mid-point Wiltold has abandoned his studies. Instead he obsesses over Lena and her family. He becomes a willing participant in the sinister happenings that bother him. He turns to philosophical rhetoric for comfort, but begins to chart ideas into some vague sort of story. When we finally see a bit of his writing it is presented on his laptop screen. It is in French and not translated for non-French speakers, but it translates as:

The weight of here and now has become, like the beurk, decisive.

This is in reference to the nausea that begins to overpower Wiltold. Of course we think that Wiltold is writing a story, but there are more than a few hints that he is as motivated by cinema as philosophy. Zulawski has Wiltold and Fuchs poke fun at his own films. At one point it is mentioned that all of these strange happenings might make a good book, but Wiltold disagrees and figures it wold serve better as a movie. Zulawski’s cinematic puzzle ultimately tosses us into meta-film, but this is not an easy-out. It is the only resolution available for Witold, Fuchs, Lena and all involved.

Zulawski takes a poke at Gombrowicz. Of course he has been poking all along. When Fuchs offers a suggestion to the mysteries that have taken place, Witold pulls a bit of met-fiction by explaining his name:

“There’s a reason I have Gombrowicz’s first name. He never knew how to finish his novels nor their meaning.”

 

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski's Universe... Cosmos Andrzej Zulawski, 2015 Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Surreal, absurd, bizarre and without end. Welcome to Andrzej Zulawski’s Universe…
Cosmos
Andrzej Zulawski, 2015
Cinematography | Andre Szankowski

Andrzej Zulawski has said that Cosmos was not only his weirdest film — it was one of the strangest films he had ever seen. I do not agree, but his Cosmos does indeed present an alternative universe. And it forms and is presented in a bizarre range of ways and manner. There is an offer of love, but this universe refuses understanding. Zulawski’s Cosmos is simply idiosyncratic and would far prefer to leave its inhabitants with their own conclusions. But they should never give up or jump off into The Void. This universe is simply too magically odd to skip.

Find Boris Neleop’s interview with Andrzej Zulawski —  here

Mondo Vision’s restored Andrzej Zulawski’s films http://www.mondo-vision.com

Matty Stanfield, 11.22.2016

 

 

 

 

Cinematic Motivation is never more clear than when a film artist decides to create a personal adaptation of another’s work. Often the source material serves as a clearly stated guidebook for the film it inspires.

"Come on! Let's go." Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

“Come on! Let’s go.”
Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, when one is dealing with an articulate and strong-willed film artist, an adaptation will serve as a point from which the filmmaker can jump into aspects of the source that is either hidden with the corners of plot or that is sometimes simply not there. This is most definitely true of two films based on well-established and respected source materials.

In 1996, Claude Chabrol opted to translate a highly respected crime novel for the Big Screen. Fourteen years later a younger South Korean filmmaker, Sang-soo Im, who had studied to become a Sociologist, would decide to “remake” a classic 1960 Korean horror film.

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later. Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim The Housemaid / Hanyeo Kim Ki-young, 1960 Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Domestic Horror Taken to a Whole New Level. This is a key classic Korean film. A warped horror film that remains shocking 55 years later.
Kim Jin-kyu / Lee Eun-shim
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Kim Ki-young, 1960
Cinematography | Kim Deok-jin

Both of these filmmakers chose particularly well-known works. While it is clear that they both respected the works from which they would create two important modern films — neither had a problem with subverting core ideas to their respective cinematic intentions.

The Iconic co-founder of La Nouvelle Vague, Chabrol was not a sociologist but he was an astutely politically aware artist. Chabrol refused to label his work as “political” but it was. A self-proclaimed Communist, he did not live the life of a Communist, but he was often concerned with the plight of the struggling classes within French society. As the economic gap between the wealthy and the impoverished, one can see his societal frustration emerge in most of his films.

Friends or Conspirators? Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Friends or Conspirators?
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Chabrol was far less interested in plot as he was in the characters and their often odd choices and actions within the plot. This is not to say that plot was not important to Claude Chabrol. It was. But his plots are often pushed to the side of the screen so that the audience focuses on the ideas and the actions of the characters. Chabrol seemed to see very little use in explaining the nature of humanity. The actions and choices of his characters carry consequences and often push or pull the plots in various directions and shapes.

Sang-soo Im didn’t not pursue a life as a Sociologist, but he fully understands sociology and the rigid restrictions that exist between and among the ever-mounting class struggle of South Korea. Like Chabrol, he is normally focused on the way elitist concerns are forcing the working classes and impoverished further down the Korean societal ladder.

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A the South Korean Economic Gap Between Wealth and Poverty Grows, a woman plunges to her death. The opening sequence of
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

His films serve as often controversial commentary regarding his country’s leadership and the power that money play out in removing access to control personal choices and opportunities. Plot is more important to Im, but his characters’ motivations are often more required than chosen. For many of Sang-soo Im’s characters, there are no choices — only actions.

Ruth Rendell’s British crime novel, A Judgement in Stone, was published to great acclaim and success in 1977. This novel is best known for delivering the following blunt statement as it’s first sentence:

Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

Wham! And Rendell’s novel begins. Chabrol loved the novel, but he was not willing to limit the main character’s motivation strictly to illiteracy. It most certainly seems to factor into her choice, but it never feels like the chief motivation. This should not surprise anyone familiar with Chabrol. Chabrol has never been interested in motivation of his characters. They are human. When it comes down to it, can we really ever fully understand why someone does something?

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored? La Ceremonie Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Pushed down by their class or pulled down by personal struggles that have been ignored?
La Ceremonie
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A character he renamed, “Sophie Bonhomme” is played expertly by Sandrine Bonnaire. Unlike Rendell’s classic novel, we do not know that Sophie is illiterate immediately. We are also not ever completely sure why she is unable to read or write. We do pick up that she comes from a lower class background and that she spent a good deal of her young life caring for her ailing father. Perhaps education was not an option. Or, maybe, Sophie simply has learning limitations with which assistance was not available. Not being able to read or write is clearly a source of great anxiety and frustration, it never feels as if it is the most challenging aspect of her situation. There seems to be something far more worrying at Sophie’s core

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage? Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Reflection of doubt, self-loathing, frustration or a sociopathic rage?
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

In Kim Ki-young 1960’s The Housemaid, we follow the story of a composer and his pregnant wife who decide that they need to hire a maid to assist with the running of the household. What makes this old film so potent is it’s unhinged approach to horror. The newly hired housemaid is trouble. The film is surprisingly graphic and strange for it’s era. The Housemaid systematically engulfs the entire family into a state of domestic horror. Clearly insane, this maid spys, enjoys subversive behavior and prefers to catch/kill rodents with her own hands rather than rely on poison or traps. She thinks nothing of seducing the husband. But when she becomes pregnant she panics. The composer’s wife begs her to abort the baby by self-harm. She does, but then the crazy-bat-shit really hits the fan. The housemaid becomes a full blown menace who has no problem with evil tricks, torture and murder. Even children are not spared her cruelty.

Sang-soo Im basically throws this entire plot out of the window. His 2010’s The Housemaid is not a horror film as much as it is an erotic thriller. However, “thriller” is not an altogether correct label for this “remake.” Sang-soo Im has created an entirely different film. Essentially, it only shares the same title.

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only "chores" which quickly become more and more degrading... Welcome to Sang-soo Im's "Erotic Thriller" The Housemaid / Hanyeo Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Caring for their little girl and cleaning house are not the only “chores” which quickly become more and more degrading… Welcome to Sang-soo Im’s “Erotic Thriller”
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

This is the story of the poor soul hired by a cruel wealthy family. This family uses “politeness” with their servants as a device rather than a courtesy and any level of respect is nonexistant. The hired help are far below them. They exist only to serve and have little to no human value. And, in Im’s film the housemaid, Eun-yi, is not alone. She has an additional key duty and boss. She has been hired as both an Au Pair to the young couple’s daughter and as an assistant maid. Besides the husband and pregnant wife, she also reports to Miss Cho. Do-yeon Jeon plays Eun-yi and the great Yuh-jung Youn plays Miss Cho. Both performances are effortlessly realistic. When these two women are on the screen you almost forget you’re watching a movie.

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver. Youn Yuh-jung The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The Head Maid understands that to survive in the world of servant to a wealthy family one has to transform into a cold stone or face whatever added humiliation their masters plan to deliver.
Youn Yuh-jung
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Miss Cho knows the score, but is a strict boss. Nothing happens in this sleek minimalist home without her knowing. Constantly poking the newly hired Housemaid / Au Pair to do everything with perfection, it is hard for the audience to know if Miss Cho is friend or foe. It is not until the mid-point of the film, while she is attempting to relax in the servant’s bathtub she explains to Eun-yi why she is so hard on her:

You get up in the morning and think of what you have to endure. And, damn. It makes your gut hurt. But what can you do? Just breathe in deep and transform into a cold stone.

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty. Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Daughter and Mother or Conspirators? The Mistresses of the house know no limit to their cruelty.
Seo Woo / Park Ji-Young
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

At this point we realize that Miss Cho has been trying to teach Eun-yi to be precise and hard so as not to become any more a victim of this family than she already has to be.

We already know what Sang-soo Im has in mind. He begins the film in the tourist area of Seoul where the lower classes sweat and struggle to serve and clean-up after the tourists and middle class Korean party animals. Eun-yi is one of the working slaves. She sees a young women recently tied to scandal and ruin toss herself from a building. The tourists are shocked, but this serves as more of a curiosity and nuisance to the workers. Eun-yi, however, is shaken to the core.

Cleaning to please and entice... Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Cleaning to please and entice…
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Taking on a job as an Au Pair / Housemaid is a welcome change. She will be given her own room and will share her bathroom with only Miss Cho. At first it seems like a dream job. Her dream will quickly transform into a nightmare far harder than any cold stone.

Back in the lush but secluded mansion in Brittany, Sophie is struggling. While the family is polite and even kind, both the wife and husband seem to have an-ongoing debate whether or not they should “teach” the new maid how to do things exactly the way they like them done. The husband, Jean-Pierre Cassel, appears constantly unsatisfied about one thing or another. The wife, expertly played by Jacqueline Bissett, does not seem to disagree as much as she is hesitant to address what are most likely only minor issues that will work themselves out. Valentin Merlet plays their young teenage son who is seemingly amused by the situation. Their young adult daughter, Virginie Ledoyen, is the voice of concern for Sophie. She seems idealistic in her attitude toward the family’s “need” of a live-in maid, but there are numerous hints that this attitude is largely derived from a collegic life and is a passive-aggressive way to prod her father and step-mother.

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about "political correctness" than any ethical sense. Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Well-intentioned on the surface, but this wealthy family seems to struggle with their own level of self-entitlement. Their concerns and politeness seem to be more about “political correctness” than any ethical sense.
Virginie Ledoyen / Valentin Merlet / Jacqueline Bisset / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The truth is the Lelievre family appears to be fairly normal in their attitude toward their maid. There is a strong element of wealth-guilt within the wife’s interactions, the husband seems over-worked and uses humor to tinge his issues. The son and daughter are both normal children of upper-class privilege. No one in this family is cruel. And most certainly, there is no clear intent to be cruel. This, of course, is Chabrol’s clever way of making the audience squirm. It is hard not to like this family, but as the film moves forward — it becomes challenging to not be annoyed by their unintended treatment of Sophie as inferior and casual disregard for her personal time.

The wife begins to leave notes and lists of tasks she needs Sophie to perform. It is here we know that Sophie is unable to read or write. She clutches the note and runs to her small room where she keeps a child text on phonetics. She struggles to fit the letters and words to the codes in the book. Bernard Zitzermann’s cinematography gradually shifts into warped close-ups which add further distortion to the faces of the characters as they grimace, worry or think. It is an effectively disorienting effect that is not immediately noticed.

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie's frustration is beginning to form into rage. Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No educational assistance, illiterate, misfit or insane. Sophie’s frustration is beginning to form into rage.
Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As Sophie becomes frustrated, the camera moves in just a bit closer. Finally as she reaches her limit of frustration she begins to find clever but increasingly challenging ways to have the notes read to her so that no one will notice she is unable to read.

Eventually she turns to the one person outside of the family who she has met, Jeanne. Enter Claude Chabrol’s longtime favorite muse, Isabelle Huppert. As with all of her roles, Huppert doesn’t merely play her character — she seems to slip into Jeanne’s skin. Jeanne initially appears to be an eccentric and harmless townie who enjoys gossip and flops about as if she were a child. Jeanne and Sophie start to bond after she assists with one of the notes. It isn’t clear if Jeanne understands that her new friend is illiterate. What is clear is that she wouldn’t care either way. She appears happy to have made a friend. She is even more excited to have made a friend that gains her access to the Lelievre family home. Jeanne appears to have more than a few problems with the Lelievre family. She holds them in disdain. From Jeanne’s perspective, this is a family of fraudulent snobs.

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit? Isabelle Huppert takes a puff La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Scandalous Postal Employee: Child Killer or Mentally-Challenged Misfit?
Isabelle Huppert takes a puff
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

As a postal employee she enjoys peeping into other’s mail. A habit that rightly infuriated Mr. Lelievre. Much like we quickly come to understand about Mr. L he doesn’t care for dealing with issues in appropriate ways. He marches into the post office and accuses Jeanne. Playing innocent, Jeanne provokes his anger to higher level. She pushes every button she can find until Mr. L slaps her. Most likely a very bad choice of action. It isn’t long before The Lelievres decide to inform Sophie that they do not approve of her friendship. She is then advised that she is “free to be friends” with her (as if it is their choice) but she is “not allowed” to have Jeanne over for tea and watch TV in her private room — which seems like an antiquated sort of former servants’ room. This pronouncement seems to push Sophie to a whole new level of frustration. And yet, in a classic move by Chabrol, Sandrine Bonnaire holds back. We are never quite sure of what she thinks or feels.

A bit of fun or anarchy?Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

A bit of fun or anarchy? Isabelle Huppert / Sandrine Bonnaire
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Later Zitzermann’s camera starts to move in to slowly distort Bisset’s face as she regains her composure to return to the small party the family is holding. This distortion serves as a sort of signal that Mrs. L is losing her patience with her maid.

Back in South Korea, the newly hired servant is having some issues of her own. On a short family “holiday” the family and Eun-yi Li take off for the summer cottage in the winter. While the husband, wife and daughter sit in the warm hot tub, the Au Pair/ Housemaid is left sitting just outside in the cold. When the cute little girl, Nami, decides she wants to jump into the cold pool — Eun-yi tosses off her towel and jumps into the cold pool with her. The child then returns to the warmth. Eun-yi remains wet and in the cold. Even still, she doesn’t seem to mind.

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold. Jeon Do-yeon as The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The family relaxes in the warmth while their housemaid sits patiently in the cold.
Jeon Do-yeon as
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Later than evening after a disappointing attempt at sex with his very pregnant wife, the husband decides to pay his new housemaid a visit. As she hears footsteps, Eun-yi quickly puts her sweat shirt on. Before she has a chance to gather her thoughts the husband is making his moves. He insist that she have a sip of wine. Then he quietly says, “Let me have a look.” — he pulls the cover off the housemaid and proceeds to touch her body in a sensual tease. Clearly uncomfortable and confused, it is hard to tell if Eun-yi is upset or aroused. It doesn’t really matter. It is clear the husband isn’t going to take no for an answer even if she chose to demand it.

Would you like to suck your master's wine bottle? Does she really have a choice? Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Would you like to suck your master’s wine bottle? Does she really have a choice?
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

She submits and seems to welcome his touch and sex. Sang-soo Im is not afraid of eroticism. The two actors encage in a highly erotic sex scene. Despite the eroticism, there is an ever-present uncomfortableness about the scene. This is not implied. It is there. Be it a good idea or a bad one, this servant is willing to indulge her master. As she kisses his nude body, the husband takes on the role of “Sex God.”

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant "services" The Master... Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

A Questionable Seduction as The Servant “services” The Master… Erotica pushed to the limits of an R-Rating
Jeon Do-yeon / Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Clearly, he is more turned on by the adoration than by the woman. He flexes his muscles, drinks his wine and proceeds to have his way with “the help.” Their affair continues. The housemaid begins to fall in love with this self-absorbed man.

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant Lee Jung-jae The Housemaid Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

Master lost in his own fantasy. Master and Servant
Lee Jung-jae
The Housemaid
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-Deok

She also finds herself growing attached and devoted to the child, Nami.  Eun-yi reads a particularly disturbing fairy tale to Nami. Despite the gruesome story, the Au Pair expresses her feelings to the child:

“I love how you are such a good child. You’re not bad-tempered. You’re polite to me.”

Nami answers with the sort of honesty that only a child can provide, “Daddy taught me to be polite. It may seem like a sign of respect, but it’s really putting myself first.”

It is here we are once again reminded that Eun-yi’s experience of the world is limited. She does not think with duplicity, but there is a slight hesitation as she takes in the meaning of what this innocent child is telling her. Miss Cho understands this better than anyone: this family has no respect for anyone other than the people of wealth with whom they share the world’s glory.

Miss Cho continually attempts to both advise and warn Eun-yi that she is still young and desirable. She should leave this “Hell,” find a man and marry. Better to be poor with someone you love than to serve this “scary people.” In a moment of brutal honesty she informs the Au Pair/housemaid that “This job is R.U.N.S. Revolting, ugly, nauseating and shameless. I have wasted my whole life in this place.”

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first. The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The servant hired to mother the wealthy child who offers politeness as a means of putting her own interests first.
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Unlike Miss Cho, Eun-yi is unable to transform into a cold stone. Eventually this family pushes the young woman to the point of no return. She is meaningless to them. To the man she thought she loved, she is simply flesh with three holes for his pleasure. She is the object of bullying, intimidation and suffers a far greater indignity that seems to drain her of all hope.

“I am going to get revenge. However small, I have to do something.”

One gets the feeling that Miss Cho sees no way for this young woman to seek out vengeance on such a powerful family. This is prominent family who are firmly placed within the class structure of South Korea. And this family’s world is built on corruption and cruelty that seems to fit easily in a culture and society that is increasingly limited to the “have nots.” But Miss Cho does have some power. The young wife has had her twins. The family needs assistance like never before. Miss Cho quits and tosses part of her uniform on the metallic floor. Outraged, the husband demands, “What do you think you are doing?!?!” Miss Cho looks at him and almost trembling in rage answers, “What the hell are doing? You really like living like this?!?”

The quiet daughter, Nami, looks on with a concerned face.

The husband dismiss Miss Cho’s actions, “This is what these people are like. Just ignore her.”

The powerful feel safe in their cocoon. No one can hurt them. Most especially the common servants. He is wrong. Eun-yi gets her vengeance. It is twisted and horrifying. Sang-soo Im turns the tables on the vile family and on his audience. Nothing quite compares the viewer for what comes next.

Look what you made me do. Jeon Do-yeon The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

Look what you made me do.
Jeon Do-yeon
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

Back in France, Sophie and Jeanne finally fully bond over a lunch of freshly picked wild mushrooms and stale wine. As they eat and chat, Chabrol finally allows us some insight into this marginalized women. It is almost shocking when Sophie casually informs Jeanne that she has heard something about her. Jeanne pauses and indicates that she has learned something good. With a slight smile on her face, Sophie tells her that she knows Jeanne killed her own daughter. The response is equally odd. Unbothered, Jeanne calmly states:

“It’s not true. It was her own fault. Anyway, they couldn’t prove it. Want to see a picture?”

Besties! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Besties!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Within a few minutes we discover that Sophie murdered her ailing father and then set fire to their home which had just been taken from them to develop luxury condos. Realizing that they are both murderers, they start to giggle like two school girls. What makes this scene so chilling is it’s simplicity. Sophie had grown weary of caring for her father and the one thing she had was taken to make way for luxury living quarters that she would never be able to afford. So she killed her father and burned their humble home to the ground. Jeanne was a single mother unable to support a child. Whether or not the murder was intended is not clear, but there is no remorse. Life is easier without another mouth to feed and the demands of motherhood.

The family dismisses Sophie. She pushes them into a corner. They have no choice. She should be fired. But the head of the house terminates her like a angry man scolding a dog. Essentially, he will allow her some shelter and food for a short while until she finds new employment. Sophie is left to stew in what is clearly a sociopathic mind. As the family gathers to watch the live televised airing of an opera, there is a brief conversation. The family is relieved that they have done the right thing by firing their maid. The problem is that they have told her she can stay on for two weeks until she finds a place to live. Mr. L is cruel in his dismissal. The cruelty is completely understandable, but he has not thought about the anger that is seething just beneath the surface of Sophie’s calm exterior. This is their home. They are safe. No one could ever hurt them. Most certainly not some illiterate common maid. Everyone calm and secure, they settle down to watch the opera.

No time to worry about the help, it's time to enjoy the televised opera. Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

No time to worry about the help, it’s time to enjoy the televised opera.
Jacqueline Bisset / Virginie Ledoyen / Jean-Pierre Cassel
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Sadly, the peasants are outraged and demented. Sophie has secretly let Jeanne into the Lelievre home. The two angry women joke about the vile “bastards” siting in the library with all their fancy books, antiques, television and watching some bourgeoisie opera. And then, Jeanne discovers something in a small room just off from the kitchen: The Lelievre shotgun collection.

Before long Sophie and Jeanne are playing around in the kitchen with the guns. The family hears something. The son suspects that the “weirdo from the postal office” is in the kitchen. Mr. L gets up to send them both out but for good. Only the wife is hesitant. Maybe it’s better to leave it alone. But all three disagree. Mr. L makes his way to the kitchen.

Revolt! La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

Revolt!
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

 

 

 

Like The Housemaid, these two marginalized and angry women have come to a tipping point. Their “vengeance” is really more of a “judgement.” From the warped perspectives of two people who have been pushed or pulled down all of their lives, they only know a few ways to deal with their anger at a society that rejects them. Typical of the great Chabrol, the carnage that follows is delivered realistically and without any of the normal cinematic tropes the filmmakers often use when filming this sort of horror. Zitzermann’s camera follows. There are no editing tricks. There is no foreboding musical score. Even though we know what is coming, nothing quite prepares us for it.

As these two masterful, entertaining and disturbing films come to their close the viewer is left with several realizations. Perhaps the most important is the reminder that revolt or revolution is never an actual solution, but when one or two take place the impact is devastating and cruel. Neither Chabrol or Im are particularly clear at the close of their films.

In Chabrol’s universe, Sophie and Jeanne have committed horrible acts.

The Servants' Revolt Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert La Ceremonie Claude Chabrol, 1996 Cinematography | Bernard Zitzermann

The Servants’ Revolt
Sandrine Bonnaire / Isabelle Huppert
La Ceremonie
Claude Chabrol, 1996
Cinematography |
Bernard Zitzermann

However, one cannot help but wonder if this all could have been avoided. Why didn’t this community do more to assist this once desperate and struggling mother? Why hasn’t her minister and church attempted to offer her guidance? Instead a judge simply dismisses her and her action. Her church and minister find her crude and childish. They no longer want her help in their charity work or even want her at their church. Sophie is clearly struggling with the solitary life in Brittany, yet the family continually alternates between “hot” and “cold” in their interactions with the maid. They do offer assistance, but it all seems to come with pressure and sideways logic. This is a good family, but they prefer to stay within the confines of this cocoon reserved for the wealthy. They fully realize that they are lucky, but they never think beyond that point. It is as if they have developed a false sense of safety.

In Sang-soo Im’s universe the societal structure of South Korea has become so fractured between the wealthy and impoverished that there is almost a complete disconnect. As he brings this class struggle down to a contained plot of a newly hired maid, we see the plight of the workers being exploited by those to whom they serve. This family is evil. Only their young daughter seems to offer any hope for their redemption. Nami seems to see her world realistically. Her Au Pair has also given her a traumatic experience that will no doubt take form in some way. Which way is not entirely clear.

Unlike Chabrol, Im prefers to leave his audience with a strange and disturbing bit of Surrealism. The family is gathered outside of the mansion in the cold. It is Nami’s birthday. As her drunken parents wish her a happy day and tell her that the world is hers, Nami simply watches them and then walks slowly toward us in an ever increasing sort of fishbowl lens. The Housemaid had told her she was sorry and that she should never forget her. While it is unclear about the future of the world in the hands of Nami, one thing is certain. Nami will not forget The Housemaid. Neither will we.

 

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it? The Housemaid / Hanyeo Sang-soo Im, 2010 Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

The future is hers. How will she form or play within it?
The Housemaid / Hanyeo
Sang-soo Im, 2010
Cinematography | Lee Hyung-deok

 

 I last I hope we don’t. As the economic gap shows no sign of diminishing, it is important we take the time to re-evaluate the way we interact with others. And as racism has not been this ugly in decades, we better take a long hard look at how we allow our politicians to move forward. We are living in extreme times. It is time to “re-think” motivations, intentions and the way we respond.

Matty Stanfield, 9.1.2015

 

 

 

 

Within the first minute of Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film, Beloved, we are told that we are entering a cold and lonely house in 1865 Ohio. As Tak Fukimoto’s careful camera approaches this odd house we already know that The Civil War has only just ended and the legal abolishment of slavery is most likely only started to sink into the American culture. Barely two more minutes pass before we become aware that something paranormal is threatening this newly-freed African-American household.  Is it demonic? Is it a menacing ghost? It doesn’t take long before this dangerous force is openly discussed. The truly jolting aspect of these brief discussions is the passive manner in which the topics are engaged.

The film’s main character seems to be simultaneously depressed and almost relieved that her two young sons have just runaway. It is only a brief after thought that Sethe might have been able to hang on to her sons if she had made more of an “effort.” She ponders that maybe if she had moved her fatherless family to a different house or an entirely different place things might have worked out or be better. An old woman who we understand to be Sethe’s mother-in-law and grandmother to Sethe’s children, shakes her head and says “What’d be the point? Not a house in the country ain’t packed to the rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky our ghost is a baby. My husband spirit come back? Or yours? Don’t talk to me! You lucky. You got one child left, still pullin at your skirts. Be thankful.”

Within another few minutes the story travels several years in time. Baby Suggs, the wise mother-in-law, has died and Sethe’s daughter, Denver, has grown into a sad young woman. A weary but upbeat man shows up at the house. This is clearly an old friend. After the two friends catch-up we can see that there is a vaguely shared erotically loving connection here. Sethe leads her old friend, Paul D, into her dilapidated, creepy-looking old house. Barely into the house Paul D stops. Looking down the Sethe’s hallway he becomes terrorfied.

“Good God! What kind of evil you got in there?”

“It’s not evil..It’s just… It’s just sad. Come on. Just step through.”

Beloved Oprah Winfrey Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved
Oprah Winfrey
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey’s Sethe’s guidance is given to Danny Glover’s Paul D,  but it also also seems as if the audience is invited to enter into this home of profound loneliness, sadness, fear and hidden horrors.  Beloved is challenging, complex, graphically violent and viscerally disturbing film. Beloved is also almost as difficult to approach from a film criticism angle. Jonathan Demme’s movie, like it’s source novel is a masterful, shocking and cogently artistic work. It seems almost impossible that a white male filmmaker created this largely experimental neo-gothic and Feminist examination. It is a profound work, but the use of “horror” as metaphor sometimes creates results that seem almost oppositional to Toni Morrison’s brilliant and Pulitzer Price winning 1987 novel. It is hard to miss the allegory and metaphor contained within the pages of her book. The crucial ideas are not always so clear in the film adaptation.

As Alan A. Stone noted in his 1999 article in The Boston Review titled Oprah’s Nightmare, the esteemed and amazing media mogul “wanted Beloved to be an experience, not just entertainment. The film, like Toni Morrison’s novel, was meant to answer the question, what was it like to be a slave? In answering it, Morrison makes her readers feel, perhaps for the first time, the extraordinary psychological damage done by slavery. There is, says one of her characters, “a kind of madness that keeps one from going mad.”  

With the gift of close to 20 years hindsight, it is clear that Oprah Winfrey’s decade long desire to bring Morrision’s book to the screen is largely successful. Sometimes the movie’s success is achieved in spite of itself. No doubt, the idea of translating this book into a movie was more than a daunting task. This was a task that Winfrey was more than thrilled to pursue, but it was not just from her love of Toni Morrison and her book that drove her to get this epic film made — it was even more than passion. If you should ever read Oprah Winfrey’s book, Journey to Beloved, you will discover that Winfrey viewed the task as a personal requirement and unrelenting sense of duty. Toni Morrison’s novel is more than just an important literary masterpiece.

Epigraph: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”  Romans 9:25 Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade." Beloved by Toni Morrison, 1987

Epigraph:
“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
Romans 9:25
Dedicated to the Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.”
Beloved
by Toni Morrison, 1987

Toni Morrison’s novel is a vital depiction of not only the abhorrent and almost unimaginable horror of slavery — it is a work that strives to remind readers that while slavery might have been abolished in 1865, it still looms as more than just a lingering injustice. The United States legalized slavery of the past remains as a looming shadow of an entire race of people. Going even deeper, Toni Morrison’s novel ties the history of slavery accurately to the dynamics that run through African-Americans lives. Dynamics and understandings of faith, family, fatherhood and motherhood continue to be challenged by the remaining shared pain of a past that is horrifyingly still clutching onto the present.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is also inspired by Margaret Garner, a Pre-Civil War era slave who opted to kill her two-year-old daughter to save her from suffering the fate of slavery. This act shocked not only our nation but the world.

From the Cincinnati Gazette.  June 29, 1856

From the Cincinnati Gazette.
June 29, 1856

A famous trial ensued in which Garner was tried for murder. For those of you who may not have studied too much regarding the atrocity of our country’s Slave Trade and Slavery — it is important to note that it was far more common for mother’s to kill their children than is usually discussed. It was a sad reality and often hidden from view in more ways than one. However,  Margaret Garner was on the run from Slavery and her owners when her family was pushed into a small home as US Marshals surrounded to take them back into custody when she killed her daughter. This practice of filicide was suddenly thrust into public-awareness.

At the trial, Lucy Stone, an important American Abolitionist and Suffragist, took the stand to defend Garner. Not one to play into societal or cultural restraints of her time — Lucy Stone’s defense of Garner was based on a then very real but “unspoken” sexual “use” or more accurately “abuse” of white male slave owners toward their female slaves.

Unfathomable human cruelty -- except it not only happened. It was accepted.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Unfathomable human cruelty — except it not only happened. It was accepted.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

 

Something that had been a painful day-to-day existence for Margaret Garner. The concept of The Maternal has been perversely changed within the minds of many female slaves. Most tragically, it is not hard to understand how and why this happened.

Lucy Stone pulled no punch when she reminded everyone present (must of whom were demanding Garner’s execution) that the faces of Garner’s children shared as much in common with Garner’s white owner as they did with their mother. Stone then publicly and famously stated:

“The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?”

Oprah Winfrey  on set of Beloved Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey
on set of Beloved
Photograph | Ken Regan

Oprah Winfrey and her fellow filmmakers may have stumbled a bit in capturing Toni Morrison’s novel, but it is far too incremental to use as a valid criticism. If Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ movie made even one person seek out Morrision’s novel it would give the film merit. As it turned out the movie would inspire a whole new generation to read Toni Morrison’s unforgettable and rightfully unforgiving book. And while one could debate the differences between the film and the novel — it would be a mute discussion. Beloved, the movie, works incredibly well. Even still, it is interesting that Winfrey sought out a white filmmaker who had ever really even made one “serious” film. And that film, Silence of the Lambs, is both horrific and often satirical in approach. It even more surprising that she sought out screenwriter, Richard LaGravenese. A very competent white film writer, his work is often “hit or miss” — on the one hand he had written the screenplays for both The Fisher King (for which he received The Academy Award) and the highly underrated dark comedy, The Ref, but he had also written the screenplays for such duds as Diane Keaton’s Unstrung Heroes and Barbra Streisand’s off-kilter, The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Beloved's wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog's eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.  Oprah Winfrey  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Beloved’s wrath become temporarily fixed on the family dog. Sethe calmly forces the poor dog’s eyes back into their sockets. A scene that caused more than a few to flee the cinema.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It is difficult to understand her confidence LaGravenese could handle capturing the heart of this book. I don’t intent to dismiss LaGravense’s talent. It’s just that this movie operates within an entirely different “universe” compared to what one anticipates in his film scripts.  Though, Winfrey and Demme would later enlist both Adam Brooks and Akosua Busia to assist LaGravenese in screenwriting duties. Once again, Brooks is a white male who had only written one “successful” screenplay at the time, Meg Ryan’s ill-advised romantic comedy, French Kiss. As for Busia, she had become friendly with Winfrey during the production of The Color Purple in which she was a supporting actor. She had never written for the screen at the time. However, Winfrey was confident that would be a valuable member of the writing team.  As odd as these choices seem, they appear to have been good ideas.

A topic, concept and idea of great import and interest to Toni Morrison’s Beloved is “re-memoring” or “rememory.” This is a simple idea, but it was a new one to many if not all readers of Morrison’s brilliant 1987 novel. The idea is that our leading character, Sethe, is often found remembering memories. It is an idea not too far removed from PTSD survivors and the way in which the psyche often twists “reality” when trying to recall or revisit a past traumatic event. Beloved’s Sethe mental revisit to her past takes on this aspect of rememory in which memories serves as sort of triggers off-skewed or altered-perceptions of places, experiences, people and feelings that when described take on a level of unexpected power or — even more alarmingly, are recalled in almost distant or passive way.

Billie Holiday sang of "Strange Fruit" and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film's characters but our current reality. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Billie Holiday sang of “Strange Fruit” and the tragedies of Slavery continue to haunt not only the film’s characters but our current reality.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Rememoring is not accurate but it is a sad reality of surviving a life filled with unfathomable horrors. In the novel, it is clear that Sethe’s re-memoring is both a literal situation for the plot but also an allegorical emphasis for The African American Experience. It is also accurate in applying it to The White American Experience. However it must be stressed, that the full context of rememory related to past and current African-American Experience is not accessible in the same way and is limited in full understanding to Non-African Americans.

Maternal love comes with a cost... Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Maternal love comes with a cost…
Oprah Winfrey / Kimberly Elise
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

How could it be?

No White person can possibly know what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Person of Color much less understand the way the past refuses to stop impacting the lives of African American people. Even within the hearts of the most caring and politically-active White people, there are limitations of access.

The cruelty, unfairness and horrific ramification of Slavery and its lasting imprint on identities have been shaped by not only a horrifying history and current state of racial relations and self-awareness, but as Morrison asserts there remains a  devastating sort of Shared Cultural Rememory for African Americans.  A re-memory that haunts identities, understanding, self-value, societal value and the on-going cruelties that pollute the reality of being American. The concept does not just end there — it operates within the reality of the individual.

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than "reality" -- she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.  Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Sethe looks out of her cursed home and sees far more than “reality” — she still sees her past hiding, slumbering and waiting to return to reclaim itself or to seek vengeance. For Sethe, there is no peace.
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The impact of “rememory” from Toni Morrison’s novel illustrates how this “memory” is not so much a remembrance but a re-occuring reality. Just as it looms over an entire race of human beings, rememory is still happening to Sethe:

“what I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head … even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of whatI did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened.”

from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Perhaps one of the reasons Winfrey sought a highly originally talented and somewhat eccentric filmmaker as Jonathan Demme to helm her film is because she knew he would bring an insight that would be limited in understanding the immediate importance of Morrison’s novel, but oddly effective in bridging a stronger link to culture because of that limitation. There is something to be said of the way the movie begins.

Icepick Rage Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Icepick Rage
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Beloved begins as if the film director and the writers have assumed too much. Despite the success of Morrison’s novel, many of the people who first attended screening of this movie were unaware of it. Winfrey knew this. Demme’s assumption that his audience would be familiar with the novel immediately tosses the audience into a world of shock and cruelty that worked in the film’s favor.

I had read the book, but I remember my jaw dropping.

Kimberly Elise's "Denver"  faces her mother's past as directly as her mother.  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Kimberly Elise’s “Denver” faces her mother’s past as directly as her mother.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Wait! Is that Oprah Winfrey? What is she doing to that poor dog? Holy shit! Is Oprah pushing and hammering the dog’s eyeballs back into the dog’s eye sockets?!?! Did I just see that?  Hold up. Did that mirror just crack. Why are those two little boys so horrified? Why are they running away?  How can they leave their sad little sister all alone on the creepy stairs? What was whipping that poor dog around? Why isn’t Oprah upset? She walks by her daughter and folds clothes while this elderly woman lectures her that she should consider herself lucky.

This cinematic disorientation is so phantasmagorical, we’ve hardly caught our breath by the time Danny Glover’s Paul D shows up. As his character realizes that there is some sort of supernatural entity wrecking havoc in the house he is bathed in a light of red. Oprah’s character calms him down and he accepts what she says as truth. There is no hint of doubt. Paul D gets the situation and understands Sethe. The movie takes another unexpected turn in the eroticism shared between Sethe and Paul D.

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

It isn’t that the sight of Paul D nude and freshly bathed in Sethe’s kitchen is shocking. It is actually beautifully shot and quite erotic. As Sethe begins to open up and allows her walls to go down to allow Paul D’s comfort, we first see the deep scars on Sethe’s back. Paul D is not shocked or turned off. He caresses Sethe and accepts her beauty sensually. Her scars are a part of who she is, just as his weariness is a part of himself.

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D's comforts Beloved Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Sethe relaxes and allows Paul D’s comforts
Beloved
Oprah Winfrey / Danny Glover
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

The eroticism and love are beautiful. What jolted audiences in 1998 will most likely still jolt a new generation today.

There is something quite effective to see all of this happen and realize that we are seeing Oprah Winfrey realistically playing the part. Oprah is more than a “star” or “icon” — she symbolizes all that we hold dear. Raising herself out of the ashes of a an abusive childhood to the role of news anchor, to Chat TV Show host to actor to International fame. A fame she is not squandered on petty vanity — Oprah has always used her struggles, her intelligence, her charm and her power to help rather than self-promote. She changed the way we look at life, literature, art and always puts her money to fund assistance and effective change. Oprah Winfrey has saturated our world with good intention and hope.

She has played a crucial role in the shaping our culture for the better at very end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st Centuries in ways more profound than any politicians, the Steve Jobs, the Bill Gates or the Mark Zuckerbergs. A very winnable argument could be made that Oprah Winfrey is the most culturally significant person of our time. This presents a greater impact to Beloved than can be articulated.

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery Oprah Winfrey Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Physical and Mental Scars of Slavery
Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

It is revelatory to see “Our Oprah” in this role. It isn’t really so much shocking as it is a jolt and a reminder that there is a reason she has invested her money, her time, her energy and her skills into what appears to be such an experimental movie.

And of course, this presents the most unsettling aspect of the film adaptation. Is this a high art horror movie? It sure feels like one. But as soon as the audience settles into the idea that we are watching a sort of metaphorical horror film, Demme pulls us into rememory — suddenly we see the hope offered by faith and church revivals. We begin to feel Sethe and Denver soften with the presence of Paul D. Serving as husband, father, lover and protector — Paul D brings some hope, love and peace to this house of horror and sadness.

But don’t dare relax. All of that foreshadowing is about to take form from the depths of an old river.

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.  Thandie Newton as Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Grief, Sadness, Rage, Guilt, Pain and Human Horror Personified.
Thandie Newton as
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Is this is a manifestation of guilt? Of fear? Or is the reincarnation of the little girl that Sethe opted to murder rather than to allow her to grow into the pain of life as a slave? The origin of  Sethe’s Beloved is not so important. At least not immediately. Thandie Newton’s Beloved is a stunningly beautiful personification of a half-formed being. Drooling, reaching and seeming in pain — this erie beauty is almost incapable of calming. She clings to her mother, Sethe as if she will vanish without her mother’s comfort. She is equally odd in her relation to her sister, Denver.

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn. Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Tending to the chicken koop with her sister takes an unexpected turn.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

And Beloved begins to form an inappropriate erotic desire for her mother’s lover. Beloved is at once hope, love, threat, danger and pain formed into beguiling sexually-charged beauty.  Thandie Newton’s performance is as brilliant as it is problematic.

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed  Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

Thandie Newton drools as the half-formed
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimoto

The character of Beloved is an odd challenge to form into a character from every perspective. But perhaps the most challenging for the actor who must play this “idea” or “projection” of a human rememoried. All the more unsettling is that Newton’s style of acting deeply contrasts with the other three main actors. Winfrey, Glover and young Kimberly Elise all play their roles deeply grounded in natural realism. Their reactions may seem “off” but they feel like all-too-real people. Thandie Newtons’ performance is experimental — at turns animalistic, mentally-challenged, child-like, demonic and dangerous. It is as if she is from a whole other world or movie. As desperately as Sethe and Denver want Beloved to fit into their world, it is a losing battle and a desire that can never be fulfilled.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set Beloved Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thandie Newton on set
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

As the film soars through at just short of 3 hours that feel more like 90 minutes — the audience is pulled through a world of repugnant cruelty, torture and hyper-realistic violence. By the time 30 townswomen show up on the step of Stehe’s front door we are not even surprised to discover that they have arrived to perform an exorcism of the house, Sethe and Beloved. These women have joined as one to save this family from being completely consumed by a heritage of savagery, pain, sadness and trauma.

Beloved ultimately brought Sethe and her family true Hell whether it was intended or secretly desired. She does not exist independently. She has been summoned as much from Evil as from Good. She seems to offer forgiveness for Sethe but at a price that is far too high to pay. A truly insane Sethe is rescued by the community of African-American former female slaves. They pray and aim their crosses and Beloved who appears to be swollen with child is supernaturally sent back to the place from which she came. The exorcism appears to have worked. But there is faint feeling that this relief is only temporary.

As Paul D tries to comfort Sethe, she tells him that Beloved was her “best thing.” It is to the filmmaker and Danny Glovers’ shared skills that there isn’t the slightest feeling of the contrite or easy-solution when he tells Sethe that she is wrong. “Sethe, you are your best thing.

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Danny Glover / Oprah Winfrey
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Cinematography | Tak Fujimotot

Even if it will be a temporary moment of calm, one can’t but hope that Sethe and Paul D will be able to move on with their lives and share in the joys that Denver is able to discover on her own. But as much as the film seems to strain to create it’s own world, it is firmly tied to Toni Morrison’s extraordinary novel. Sethe and Paul D are not those of some freed slaves who can repress and dissociate from their past. They have tried but they can’t. Their true identities, suffered horrors and shared rememories have already forced a sort of reintegration of their selves. These are not fragmented people. It is not as dismal as it sounds, there is a freedom to be found in the truth. The problem is that the indignities of Slavery’s past do not seem to resolve. This is a wounded country whose scars run deep. It will take a hell of lot more than thirty Bible-thumping strong women to cast out the demons infested in our culture.

Where can we find hope?

I certainly do not hold any clue of an answer, but the one thing I take away from Oprah Winfrey’s dedication and sense of duty:

We cannot deny the truth. We must take ownership of the past. We must destroy the Confederate Flag ideology that would attempt to disguise racism as “history” or worse yet a false and evil “pride” in the wrong side of history.

The lingering rememory of Slavery's rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.  Beloved  Jonathan Demme, 1998 Photograph | Ken Regan

The lingering rememory of Slavery’s rape, degradation, torture and atrocities of an entire race continue to plague American Culture.
Beloved
Jonathan Demme, 1998
Photograph | Ken Regan

In the end, Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demmes’ film failed to fully secure “buy-in” and approval from Film Critics of the time. Audiences attended in mass when it was first released, but those audiences soon re-treated. Many mistake this film for a Disney Project, but in truth Touchstone Pictures put in little of the film’s budget. Most to the money they invested was in the form of distribution and promotion. The film’s budget is not clear. Estimates range from $50,000,000 to $80,ooo,ooo. The production was shared between Jonathan Demme’s production company, Clinica Estetico, and Winfrey’s Harpo Films. The rumor is that Winfrey put in $50,000,00 of her own money into the movie. The film ended up only earning just under $30,000,000 at the box office. It was issued to DVD but is no longer in-print. But Amazon.com still has plenty of copies remaining and the film is available for on-line purchase or rental. It is most definitely worth your time to experience it.

While Beloved failed to achieve the success it intended. It stands alone as a brave, powerful, unforgettable and truly profound film. An achievement born out of a personal sense of duty. While things may have gotten bumpy or even confused in translation — there is no denying its message. Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Demme created an amazing film against all odds.

Nothing can diminish that.

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997 Photograph | Ken Regan

Jonathan Demme and Oprah Winfrey on set, 1997
Photograph | Ken Regan

 

Jonathan Demme agrees with many of the film’s supporters that it’s ultimate box office failure can be blamed on Disney who wanted a quicker box office pay-off and pulled the movie just as “word of mouth” was started to be heard so that they could the ridiculous Adam Sandler film, Water Boy into the cinemas that were then occupied by the R-rated Beloved.

Jonathan Demme Vanity Fair, France, 2014 Photograph | FABRICE DALL'ANESE

Jonathan Demme
Vanity Fair, France, 2014
Photograph | FABRICE DALL’ANESE

In 2013, Winfrey was asked about the “failure” of Beloved. She is quoted as having said:

“To this day I ask myself, was it a mistake? Was it a mistake to not try and make  a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the Beloved book.”

Oprah Winfrey Hollywood, 2015 Photograph | Mark Seliger

Oprah Winfrey
Hollywood, 2015
Photograph | Mark Seliger

I refuse to accept that Beloved was a failure. If anything, we failed it.