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When the infamous Vincent Canby reviewed Fellini’s Casanova he spent some time praising what he saw. It almost feels as though he wanted to like flawed movie, but as he reached his closing summation he issued a frustrated dismissal:

The production is gigantic, but the ideas and feelings are small. One longs to go home and listen to Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”Vincent Canby, New York Times, 1977

"And Now...after four years of preparation and production..." Fellin's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976

“And Now…after four years of preparation and production…”
Fellin’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976

Mr. Canby was not alone. Even Woody Allen seemed to take a stab at the film. As Alvy and Annie Hall wait in a cinema ticket holders line, they are forced to listen to a pretentious fellow film-goer rant about the Federico Fellini’s latest self-Indulgence. The latest work was Fellini’s Casanova. I suppose one could argue that Mr. Allen disagreed as he magically pulls Marshall McLuhan into frame. Alvy has the enjoyment of seeing the esteemed media philosopher bring the pompous jerk down to size.  Alvy‘s contempt for this cinephile has more to do with forcing his opinions on everyone around him. No defense is made for Fellini’s Casanova. It is doubtful that the narrator and that film’s title character would find much in Fellini’s adaptation of Giacomo Casanova’s Storia della mia vita or The Story of My Life. The doomed movie simply serves as a jumping point for a great comic bit.

"What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!" Annie Hall Woody Allen, 1977 Cinematography | Gordon Willis

“What I wouldn’t give for a large sock with horse manure in it!”
Annie Hall
Woody Allen, 1977
Cinematography | Gordon Willis

Vincent Canby’s review of the then long delayed Italian production was a fair and astute critique. If you are familiar with Canby’s style of criticism — he gives the movie a thumbs down, but also manages to praise more than a little of what he saw unspool on the screen. This is not something he was prone to do.

I’m not an expert on Federico Fellini, but I have had reason to watch this film quite a bit in the last two years. In that time I have also researched a good deal regarding the troubled production of Le Casanova de Fellini. As the genius mind often does, the great filmmaker had become obsessed with translating Casanova’s memoirs. His obsession had nothing to do with Casanova. He was fascinated by a man whom he considered to be an evil character.

As Fellini’s film well charts, Casanova did not love. The existence of his being relied upon sexual encounters with no connection to the objects of his interests. Interests would be the best way to term it. Fellini’s Casanova does not even really lust. It was only after shooting began that Fellini began to feel a level of empathy towards his title character. It would be this change of heart regarding his Casanova that would end up framing the entire film.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

The production began with a fundamental problem. His key financier, Alberto Grimaldi, had some very strong opinions about who would play Casanova. These two iconic figures of European Cinema entered into a battle of the wills. Grimaldi insisted that Fellini cast one of several major movie stars of the era: Brando, Redford, Newman or Pacino. Eventually Grimaldi gave in a bit and suggested Michael Caine. It is interesting that the producer even attempted to reign-in the auteur.

Fellini could never be reigned in. He got his way. He cast Donald Sutherland in the role. It was a bit of an odd choice, but it makes sense. Mr. Sutherland was a solid movie star, but not at the titan level of Grimaldi’s suggestion. He knew that Sutherland was a true actor and he also knew that he would not need to wrestle with the typical American Movie Star Ego. Fellini also saw a sadness in the deeply skilled actor. Sutherland’s casual approach also seemed to offer a sort of open canvas upon which he could paint. Or to be more precise — Sutherland was a tall thin form he intended to sculpt.

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Donald Sutherland Re-Imagined…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini put his star through the paces, but Sutherland was stellar and did all and more than was needed. Fellini had hired him to play an unlikable and hopelessly alienated man. Before and when the shooting began Federico Fellini held the character in contempt. He had Sutherland’s head half shaven, applied a prosthetic nose, chin and other odd distortions served totally re-shape Sutherland. The actor looks the same from every angle. His face and being have been largely restricted. Often the only English speaker in front of the camera, he was not always able to communicate effectively. His eyes are really all he had to utilize on his own. At times it feels as if Sutherland is little more than a puppet with Fellini orchestrating his every move. Surprisingly this restrictive appearance serves Fellini’s purpose effectively, but not well enough to distinguish Sutherland as an essential player within the film.

The film was shot under extremely tight supervision and behind the closed gates of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. Nothing about this film looks real. Quite the opposite, the entire movie feels like a gorgeous formation of a nightmare. Cold, barren and yet full of things to look at — Fellini’s Casanova is even more obscure than the far superior Fellini Satyricon. This is Surrealism to the infinite. As one expects, every actor on the screen is interesting to study. As is often the case with later Fellini, the grotesque is magnified. The movie is as much perversely disturbing as it is often stunningly beautiful. Anyone who doubts that Fellini was not calling and insisting on every single choice can be satisfied to discover that he had an articulated explanation for every aspect of the movie.

 

Only the actors are real... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Only the actors are real…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

If one wonders why the production design suddenly replaces actual water with black garbage bags, Fellini had demanded this odd choice to his esteemed Production Designer/Art Director/Costume Designer, Danilo Donati. The director chose to replace water with plastic garbage bags to serve as a metaphor for Casanova’s fraudulent identity and fruitless self-journey. Fellini knew exactly what he wanted and refused any level of compromise. As he was walking his actors through a key scene involving nuns, Fellini discovered a feeling of empathy for Casanova.

He quickly came up with two incredibly complex studio set ideas which changed the point of the film and would serve as cinematic bookends within which to hold the film. And these were not simple last minute decisions. They were complex and expensive. Donate and the artists at Cinecittà Studios had to continually succeed against tight deadlines. It speaks volumes for Federico Fellini that his cast, crew and the studio artisans did next to no complaining. The filmmaker was beloved and respected. Only the best work was put forward for their director. And it shows in the finished film.

 

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fighting the choppy sea of plastic garbage bags…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

The opening scene of Fellini’s Casanova is remarkable. An ornate and rowdy crowd assembles on the city’s banks waiting for something to emerge from the water. Impossibly complex rigs and tethers begin to pull and strain — a huge statue of Venus begins to emerge. The swelling crowed slips into jubilation as the Goddess of Love begins to peer out over the very real water. It is as if she is rising from the water as a blessing of desire, lust and love. Sadly the ropes and levers quickly buckle. The rigs and ropes snap under the strain. The giant statue promising erotic love and happiness slips forever lost to the bottom of the ocean. It is as if all hope for satisfaction and happiness has sunk. Nino Rota’s brilliant musical score adds to the potency of the visual. This is how Fellini’s Casanova begins.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

It is far more than grim metaphor. The failed attempt to raise Venus out of the water is never corrected. The film ends with a striking return to the film’s early warning sign. As Casanova attempts to find some form of connection and solace, he will realize that he is standing alone on a vast area of frozen water. The peering eyes of Venus are looking up at both him. Venus’ cold eyes are forever frozen beneath the lonely womanizer’s feet. It all sounds amazing, but one needs to be aware that this is a two hour and thirty-five minute epic of calculated iciness.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

A pal recently suggested that Fellini’s Casanova must be a bit like Ken Russell’s Lisztomania. But this is not a good comparison. True, Ken Russell’s highly experimental and comic-book take on everything from Franz Liszt to Richard Wagner to anti-semitism to WWII may be overtly eager, but there is sense to Russell’s unhinged film. If a person knows their history, Lisztomania is filled with an intentional goofy sort of logic that ties to the truth of the people and situations it satirizes.  Ken Russell was also smart enough to keep his film under the two hour mark by twenty minutes. He keeps the pace up with the surreal actions taking place on the screen.

 

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness... Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race... Lisztomania Ken Russell, 1975 Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

It is quite manic and strange, but there is logic to the madness…
Roger Daltrey, Rick Wakeman and Paul Nicholas ponder the horror of a Master Race…
Lisztomania
Ken Russell, 1975
Cinematography | Peter Suschitzky

Beyond the fact that both films were greeted negatively by critics and audiences, there is really very little that actually connects the two films. Lisztomania is a Surrealist’s absurd study of music composers connected to the rise of Facism presented through a Looney Tunes like lens. This interpretation is really not that far off base.  

Fellini’s Casanova has no interest in history. This epic film is steadfast in its indifference to logic, time or space. The lover, his reality, his Italy and even the horrific Inquisition are not based in any realm of reality. When those support beams and ropes break and Venus sinks to the bottom of the water — so do the film’s strings to logic. Additionally, the movie is not particularly well paced. Fellini’s Casanova takes its time. However the sets, the costumes, the odd assortment of actors, Rotunno’s cinematography and Rota’s haunting score aid in the propelling motion of the gloomy plot.

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A huge phallus carefully placed into frame…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

As laborious as it sometimes is, Fellini’s Casanova is visually unforgettable. I cringe as I write the following words, but as Woody Allen’s pompous ticket holder annoyingly laments,  Fellini’s Casanova is painfully self-indulgent. This fact does not mean that there isn’t a great deal of value to be found in this excessive film. A couple of DVD and BluRay distributors have managed to secure limited releasing rights to this film. One even claimed to have fully restored the film to its initial flawed beauty. Those claims have yet to demonstrate any truth. However a restoration should be coming in the not too far future. When it does eventually arrive, I do think  this 40+ year old film warrants owning for home viewing.

I know I’ve just criticized it fairly harshly but… Well… Um, yeah. I really do suggest purchasing a copy when it does become available. Fellini’s Casanova is a brilliant mistake!

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

This experimental epic failed in the 1970’s and it fails now, but not without a great deal of interest. Fellini’s Casanova is a visually stunning mess. Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is even better than usual. Danilo Donati and the work of Cinecitta Studios is truly other-worldly. Incidentally, Fellini’s film flopped — but Donati won an Academy Award for the innovative costume design. Nino Rota’s score is beautiful, effective and iconic. Chances are you have heard the melody even if you’ve never seen the movie. Odd, grotesque, surreal and lovely —  it is virtually impossible to look away from the screen. Even with a running time over two hours, Fellini’s Casanova is not a dull experience. It just isn’t much fun. This is a true flaw.

Fellini approaches his subject with a strong degree of hubris and judgement. Despite the perversities on display, this film is highly moralistic. The dialogue is often smartly witty, but never comical. This is another critical error. Fellini has checked his sense of humor outside the studio. There is no fun to be found within the gorgeous frames of his Casanova. As if in opposition to the dire tone is the clunky manner in which the film has been dubbed. It’s not that the voices fail to match the mouths as much as it is the intelligence runs against the film’s grain. The actors often appear to be lost within their director’s Mise-en-scène.

 

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

Donald Sutherland lumbers his way through the film. He is essentially nothing more than a sad puppet at the mercy of his filmmaker’s whim. In a strange way, Sutherland’s performance works. Though watching the film now it is hard to wonder if it wasn’t just dumb luck. Vacant, sleepy and possibly bored — his confusion plays directly into the director’s ill-advised endeavor.

It is truly vexing how Fellini has opted out of offering any rays of humor or sexiness in his translation of the infamous Seducer and supposed Lover of women. This film is not the erotic adventure you might anticipate. It is actually un-erotic. Casanova‘s libido and desire have long been lost. Fellini’s film is not just a study of an aging womanizer — it is focused on the tragic existential journey of man who has failed to connect any meaning to sexuality. In fact Fellini’s Casanova does not appear to have ever connected to anyone or anything. This is a lover who’s identity and meaning have gone limp. …both figuratively and literally.

 

Seducing a robotic woman... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Seducing a robotic woman…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Clearly Fellini is pointing a finger at the growing sexual revolution. It is a point not off-mark, but it is consistently made in a haze of staggering showmanship that is often so bad it works its way ’round to being somehow valid.

A man who never speaks ill of women does not love them. For to understand them and to love them one must suffer at their hands. Then and only then can you find happiness at the lips of your beloved.” — Fellini’s Casanova

This character does not dislike women. He is simply indifferent to them. It doesn’t take long to realize his two-way street dilemma. The women do not care about Casanova either. They are only interested in his ability to sex. And sex he can. At least this is true in his youth. But the sex is presented in a dry and often disgusting manner.

Win! He has fucked! Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Win! He has fucked!
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I think some first time viewers make the mistake of associating this movie with the nunsploitation of the 1970’s. Do not expect that. Sure, the nuns get on the action, but Fellini has no interest in providing even a glimmer of titillation. Yes, it is visually interesting — but there is nothing remotely “naughty” here. It is intended to trouble, worry and depress. Like the bubbling sexual revolution going on just outside the film studio’s gate, Fellini’s Casanova is fucking to prove something.

Sex as sport. Sex as a game. Sex as a dare. Sex as a way to avoid. Sex as a weapon. Sex to hide the pain. Our lover fucks till he can fuck no more. The sexuality expressed in the movie feels like a harbinger of doom. With hindsight this is an interesting perspective. When Casanova finds himself in a sexual tryst with a robotic woman it is visually fascinating, but intellectually heavy-handed.

 

A gift of something to love for the title character... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

A gift of something to love for the title character…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

I find it interesting that the inclusion of this robotic doll of a woman was something Fellini dreamed up just after he began shooting. On the one hand this is a brilliant bit of story telling. Casanova is unable to connect to a living woman. Here Fellini offers him a fuck doll to end all fuck dolls, but there is a major problem. Casanova can pour his sexuality on her without any fear of rejection, failure or need to care. It is a poor choice that Fellini refuses to let up on the dreary tone. Casanova‘s tragic plight with the robotic woman could have been more clever if we were allowed to chuckle. But we are offered no relief from the gloom. Casanova‘s ice cold fuck doll feels like it might be the one thing that Casanova can love. The problem is obvious — a robotic fuck doll is unable to reciprocate love.

Doomed and slipping into the shadows... Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Doomed and slipping into the shadows…
Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

And here we see the simultaneously effective but disappointing cinematic bookend ending. Casanova is left spinning with his love object atop a frozen bay. Peering up at him is the drowned concrete Venus. She is simultaneously a representative for his empty life as well as a goddess who judges him.

It is impossible to deny the artistry. And while the film is too long, it really is not boring. Fellini supplies plenty of eye and ear candy. The movie also has more than its share of WTF Moments. These moments are as not off-putting as they are simply interesting. A film like this could never be made today.

And while I really do disagree with the comparison to Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, it is easy to make the connection. Each film allowed both master filmmakers to pursue their respective visions without interference or restraint. But it must be noted that Russell’s vision and purpose is never placed above the viewers watching out there in the dark cinema. Fellini opted to simply dive into his obsession. A more fitting comparison might be to Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-fated and self-financed indulgence into the movie musical, One From the Heart.

Another director's obsession resulting in a cinematic error. One From the Heart Francis Ford Coppola, 1981 Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

Another director’s obsession resulting in a cinematic error.
One From the Heart
Francis Ford Coppola, 1981
Cinematography | Storer / Garcia

But this is not really fair. One From the Heart is neon beautiful and features some amazing musical work from Tom Waits, but it requires true grit to sit through it. In the case of this 1981 Epic Flop, the director’s passion is dull. There is something maddeningly fascinating about Fellini’s Casanova. If you see it once, you will want to see it again. If you make it through One From the Heart you will want to demand a cookie for your effort.

It should be noted that Fellini’s infamous cinematic misstep continued to be challenged with production woes. This was in part due to Fellini’s last minute major changes of fancy but other issues came up. Much of the film was stolen and subsequently lost forever. The notorious theft was actually aimed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. A great deal of shot footage was forever lost. This included an entire sequence involving actress Barbara Steele. She was unable to return to Italy for reshoots. Sutherland and the other actors made themselves available. Fellini’s Casanova was delayed almost two years.

Fellini's Casanova Federico Fellini, 1976 Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

Fellini’s Casanova
Federico Fellini, 1976
Cinematography | Giuseppe Rotunno

 

When it became clear that the film was a fail Federico Fellini was crushed. It is important to note that he had considered this his finest work up to that point in his career. It is not difficult to understand how soul-draining a film’s flop can be for its maker, but there is an added measure when it happens to someone of Fellini’s abilities and stature. Fellini’s Casanova was an epic fail. But an epic fail from a cinematic master like Federico Fellini is still a masterful design. Being dull or uninteresting was simply not possible for this cinematic genius. This is a film that merits watching. And if you happen to love experimental film — you will most likely love this oddly flawed cinematic gem.

 

La Casanova de Fellini Federico Fellini, 1976

La Casanova de Fellini
Federico Fellini, 1976

Fingers crossed that we see it arrive to DVD/BluRay in a truly restored/remastered version soon!

Matty Stanfield, 6.16.2016

 

 

 

 

 

When I hear or read “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!” I want to curl myself into a cataclysmic ball of rage and explode. No. The horrors and challenges in life that do not kill you do not really make you stronger. In reality they make you cynical, confused, damaged and tired. When discussing the survival of child abuse trauma we enter a whole new realm of fresh Hell.

Jean-Luc Godard Editing "Weekend" Paris, 1967 Photographer | Unknown to me

Jean-Luc Godard
Editing “Weekend”
Paris, 1967
Photographer | Unknown to me

For me this saga continues. It isn’t like I’m not fighting like hell to resolve it. But as I’m so tired of hearing: “There is no time limit on these things.” or “Let’s just take it day by day and further develop coping skills” or worse yet, “But you are getting better!” But I push onward and forward as best I can. I don’t know, maybe I am stronger because of what I endured or survived. However, I can’t help but thing I’d be more effective had I not had to survive such things. I suspect I’d still be strong. Who knows? It is hardly worth considering. As much as I hate this phrase, it does hold true: “It is what it is.

And sometimes we just don’t have the ability to change “it.” The “it” just sits on us as we try to understand exactly what “it” needs or wants so that we can be free of the weight. Damage is impossible to avoid. If you are 30 and have not been seriously damaged in one way or another – you are most likely not actually living life. You are probably avoiding it. Sadly, some damage is more significant than other types.

And this brings me to Film Art.

And chaos reigns. Surrealistically, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are working through some of life's cruelest turns. Antichrist Lars von Trier, 2009 Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

And chaos reigns. Surrealistically, Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg are working through some of life’s cruelest turns.
Antichrist
Lars von Trier, 2009
Cinematography | Anthony Dod Mantle

Much to the bewilderment of my love, my family and my friends — I often find “comfort” in the darkest of film. Steve McQueen’s Shame is especially important to me. As is Christophe Honre’s Ma Mere or Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream or Lars von Trier’s Anitichrist.

These are very bleak and almost apocalyptic movies. Yet, each one seems to offer me a chance to escape into someone else’s personal horrors and remind me that not only am I not alone — but it could be ever so much more worse. These films also offer resonation and catharsis.

Sugar-sweet brain candy cinematic manipulations tend to annoy me. I find no means of escape within them. If one is particularly good, such as Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein — if I’m in the right mood I will love watching it over and over again.

Persona Ingmar Bergman, 1966 Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

Persona
Ingmar Bergman, 1966
Cinematography | Sven Nykvist

But if one of those toxic waves crash into me I’d much prefer to watch Ingmar Bergman’s Persona or David Lynch’s Earaserhead. Another couple of films that provide me with escape is Luis Bunuel’s Belle de jour, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and Ki-duk Kim’s Pieta. As well as David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now or Godard’s Weekend. All of these movies project complex ideas and themes that require the mind to focus and think about what is being shown (or often not shown) — therefore, I find a way to temporarily escape my problems.

I jump into the problems and horrors examined in these dark films.

A serial killer roaming through the canals of Venice are the least worries facing Julie Christie as she and her husband face the despair, grief, isolation, guilt and tragedy of loss. Don't Look Now Nicolas Roeg, 1973 Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

A serial killer roaming through the canals of Venice are the least worries facing Julie Christie as she and her husband face the despair, grief, isolation, guilt and tragedy of loss.
Don’t Look Now
Nicolas Roeg, 1973
Cinematography | Anthony B. Richmond

The resonation most likely comes from the one actual gift of survival: The ability to understand. While I do not suffer with Sex Addiction or an inability to connect beyond the sexual, I do feel an understanding and empathy for those who suffer with it. When life teaches one that his/her’s worth is tied to sexuality, it leaves that individual with every limited abilities to connect and encage. If ever mankind is haunted by demons, they are manifestations of Self-Loathing, Isolation and Loneliness. The two characters in Shame roam about a blue-toned Manhattan lost, unsure, impotent and desperate.

"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Michael Fassbender Crushing under the weight of human damages SHAME Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
Michael Fassbender
Crushing under the weight of human damages
SHAME
Steve McQueen, 2011
Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

Neither knows how to escape their respective prisons. The actors, Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan do not even need much dialogue. So strong are these talents, they can convey more with a glance, a gesture or most powerfully for Mulligan — in the singing of a song. Mulligan’s deconstruction of the standard, New York, New York, belongs on a pristine shelf of the perfect actor moment.

"If I can make it there..." Carey Mulligan SHAME Steve McQueen, 2011 Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

“If I can make it there…”
Carey Mulligan
SHAME
Steve McQueen, 2011
Cinematography | Sean Bobbitt

In her hands and voice, the infamous anthem becomes a defeatist glimpse into grief and regret.

In Ki-duk Kim’s dark and angry, Pieta, we are stolen into a world of injustice, cruelty, betrayal and vengeance. Min-so Jo plays “the mother” to Jung-jin Lee’s “son.” Both navigate with minimal use of words. Contrary to what one might expect from the often soap-opreaish work one normally sees these two actors in, here they are both given the freedom to fully explore the veins under the skins of their characters.

Ki-duk Kim’s film is a set-up for both the viewers and the two leading characters. There is nothing holy to be found in this Pieta. The catharsis of vengeance comes with a price that I can only believe is absolute truth. While one might fantasize of extracting vengeance, the reality is far removed from the pleasure we might expect.

Jung-jin Lee opens the door to the parent, Min-so Jo, who abandoned him with a knife at the ready... Pieta Ki-duk Kim, 2012 Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

Jung-jin Lee opens the door to the parent, Min-so Jo, who abandoned him with a knife at the ready…
Pieta
Ki-duk Kim, 2012
Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

Being a survivor, I often find myself imagining what I would do to my attacker if I could and how very happy it would make me. However, being a survivor has also taught me how to examine the tragedy from all sides.

There would be no happiness or pleasure in securing vengeance even if I could. My attacker has long since died. The bitter truth is that we humans are complicated animals. The reality is a child not only needs the love of his parent, he requires it. No matter how cruel a parent might be, there is something in us that needs to be able to love that person who gave us life. And while I have no children, I’m mature enough to know that a parent can feel great love for a child and still manage to deeply harm him/her.

It is a set-up. Despair, Grief & Anger turn to Vengeance.  Min-so Jo Pieta Ki-duk Kim, 2012 Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

It is a set-up. Despair, Grief & Anger turn to Vengeance.
Min-so Jo
Pieta
Ki-duk Kim, 2012
Cinematography | Young-jik Jo

The insanity that drives the parent to such acts in many ways has nothing to do with the love they might feel for the child. It is a tricky proposition to understand and requires a great deal of emotional logic to place this in the appropriate context, but often a victimizing parent is a victim themselves. The strange and very twisted truth is I know my father loved me. I know this to my core. I also know that he damaged me in ways beyond repair. Despite this, when he died I felt no relief. I only felt grief. A grief far deeper than I had ever felt before or since. So much unresolved and so much confusion. As the characters in Pieta secure their “need” for revenge — there is no turning back. They reduce themselves to the level of the victimizer. The “victory” comes at a price too strong to bear.

It is interesting and very telling that I seem to avoid films which tackle the subject of fathers raping, harming and emotionally abusing their sons. Perhaps this is too dark for even me. When I see a film addressing this it rings too close to my own horrors and confusions related to my late father. It is as if I need a bit of distance. These kind of conflicts involving a mother and a son are distanced enough from my life that I’m able to find something to gain.

Perhaps the most confusing film in which I find escape is Christophe Honre’s controversial and often banned film, Ma Mere.

"Wrong isn't what we're about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it." Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Wrong isn’t what we’re about to do. Wrong is wanting to survive it.”
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Very loosely adapted from the infamous and posthumously published George Bataille novel which intended to shock as a way of both societal and cultural commentary — Christophe Honre had something a bit different in mind. Honre is very intellectual filmmaker. He is almost cliched French. He will stubbornly create a grim musical that refuses denial by a culture which seems to hold little value or appreciation of film musicals. He likes to force his hand. With the great Isabelle Huppert as his leading lady, Bataille’s novel is transferred to the modern day Canary Islands. We are expected to already know that this beautiful place has long succumbed itself to serve as both a tourist destination and a location for anything goes morality. Public sex, sex workers and fringe-dwellers litter the beaches and fill the after hours bar-hopping mall where the characters wonder about in the film’s first  act. Honre does not care to focus his attention to that.

"The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit." Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“The pleasure only begins the moment the worm is in the fruit.”
Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

In the film version of Ma Mere, he seeks to tell the very complex, grim and perverse relationship of damaged mother to her damaged son. This is not a sexy movie, but it is very much about sexual experimentation, humiliation and a vexingly profane philosophy that the mother is hellbent on searing into the mind of her barely adult child. Louis Garrel has been raised by his strict Catholic grandmother — a family decision to “protect” him from his depraved parents who have long been exiled to The Canary Islands far from their families. We learn a great deal about the family history in the most casual of ways. Isabelle Huppert’s performance is a below the belt gut punch of realism over what must have appeared as absurd in script form.

Yet as Isabelle Huppert delivers a stream of profane and almost comical ideas, it is never funny. It feels real.

As Garrel’s “son” grapples with his own torn feelings about the loss of his Grandmother and her faith, he is also pulled toward this cruel version of a mother. While he may be technically adult, he is an innocent. He desperately craves the love and acceptance of his mother. He is unable to filter this need.

As she leads him into her confused and brutal world of psychological cruelty, BDSM and most certainly sadomasochistic rituals, the son becomes a sort of pawn with which his mother cannot decide to crush or love.

Victim turned Victimizer Isabelle Huppert and "Friend"  Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Victim turned Victimizer
Isabelle Huppert and “Friend”
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

We learn that her marriage to his father was born of statutory rape. Most likely he himself is the result of this rape. The film goes farther than it needs, but it is clear that the mother’s abuse is a conflicted result of anger, insanity and love.

As I watch these two almost surrealist characters perform their tragic dance, I do feel a worrying reality to it all. And of course this is the point of Ma Mere. We love our mothers. Our mothers love us. It does not mean they are not capable of inflicting cruelty beyond measure. The mother could just as easily be replaced with a father and a daughter for the son. But Mon Pere would be even more controversial and serve the idea of the film in an even more complex way.

Even his early childhood nanny can't seem to stop the son from desperately seeking the love of his mother... Dominique Reymond and Louis Garrel  Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Even his early childhood nanny can’t seem to stop the son from desperately seeking the love of his mother…
Dominique Reymond and Louis Garrel
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

Most importantly, Christophe Honre’s film never seeks to eroticize or celebrate the profane actions of its characters. It also  does not seek to judge them. It doesn’t need to. As Ma Mere grinds into its abrupt and deeply disturbing end, the tragic implications of human damage are clear. Worst yet, they seem to be on-going.

"Maybe now you know desire reduces us to weakness." Isabelle Huppert Ma Mere Christophe Honre, 2004 Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

“Maybe now you know desire reduces us to weakness.”
Isabelle Huppert
Ma Mere
Christophe Honre, 2004
Cinematography | Hélène Louvart

While none of the above is my experience, I relate enough to feel the resonation of the art. It acts as a catharsis. I take a great deal of solace in knowing that I caught and understood what I “survived” soon enough to ensure that the abuse stops here with me. But in an all too clear way, what I survived has not made me stronger. The tragedy of what happened to me follows me constantly. And like the son in Christophe Honre’s tragically forgotten film, the implications seem on-going.

Matt Stanfield, 9.20.2015

An Adam Sandler