A note on “Marriage Story”, written and directed by Noah Baumbach
By: Masood Sabet
Annie Hall is the epitome of Woody Allen’s wry comedy, aimed at the intrinsic irony of relationships; “a guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.” When Alvy gets wind of Annie’s taking an interest in living on the West Coast, he unleashes his derogatory remarks towards the city of angels; “a city where the only cultural advantage is you can make a right turn on a red light!” Even when Annie points out an objective and clearly visible advantage of the city, the cleanliness, Alvy retorts: “Because they don’t throw their garbage away, they make it into TV shows.” Alvy is not the only New Yorker who brutally criticizes what they call the superficiality and shallowness of Angelenos’ outlook on art. Noah Baumbach in Marriage Story takes advantage of the same conflict to tell yet another love story, but this time the story unfolds in a way that makes the hero reevaluate what he’s come to know as logic and common sense, in order to be able to understand and come to terms with what seems to be completely illogical and incomprehensible to him at first: Nicole’s wanting to break off a seemingly perfect marriage.
In regard to form, Baumbach’s film is truly a work of art. It opens with introducing the characters through voice over. But it’s not the objective vision of the creator, but the perception of the main characters from one another. This casts an aura of uncertainty which blankets the whole narrative and works absolutely in its favour. “It’s always been Charlie and Nicole,” a friend of theirs says. Another one says he feels his parents are splitting. This time, we’re not going to go through the same old story of “just another couple” getting a divorce. Charlie and Nicole have been the image of the ideal couple, living the dream life, with shared ambitions and goals. Here starts the longing for the truth, as a result of the intriguing contrast the director has created in the beginning. What’s gone wrong?
The state of Nicole and Charlie’s relationship is projected on two occasions, through two iconic frames. In the first one, they’re going home after Nicole’s last performance. They get on the same train, Nicole sitting and Charlie standing opposite her on the other side. Charlie’s looking down at her and Nicole is looking back up. When the distanced couple arrive home, they sit to talk. Nicole is as cold as the shiver than runs through your heart when you realize your beloved has fallen out of love with you. But suddenly, when the subject veers to her TV pilot, for a moment, she becomes as soft as a teacher’s pet. Nicole can’t help but intellectually be in Charlie’s awe. She always has been. That’s what’s held Charlie atop his ivory tower. Nicole still needs his approval. “I wouldn’t know, I don’t watch TV.” says Charlie, with the TV on right before him. Nicole doesn’t read the letter at the counselor’s office because she’s intimidated by Charlie’s presence as an intellectual authority, or with a different perception, a judgmental “dick”, as she puts it later. Charlie gives Nicole a note on her acting that night: “In the end you were pushing for emotion.” He says. Nicole claims she can’t cry on stage, then takes her leave and goes to her room, with tears all over her face. It’s as if she’s had an epiphany: There are no equals, there’s the puppet and there’s the puppeteer. This is not a life but acting on a stage!
The other momentous frame is one at the end of the climax, where a sobbing Charlie has knelt before a standing Nicole, who’s comforting him after an intense exchange. Here comes Charlie’s epiphany: The page has turned, the reason has ended, he’s lost! He should’ve taken this game more seriously from the beginning. But he resisted till the last moment. Charlie hires his first lawyer out of sheer formality. Bert has a meek and submissive personality, which falls in contrast with Charlie’s, who’s competitive with a go getter attitude. Bert intends to comfort Charlie for failing to get into Broadway. “It’s very competitive, I imagine” He says. That, right there, is an enormous red flag which obviously shatters Charlie’s nerves. He’s completely out of focus, he needs to rethink everything, his mind’s racing. He’s not in control anymore, and that would never sit well with his character. He didn’t fight, because he didn’t want a fight. Now he does, and Bert is in no condition to be a suited sidekick on this new adventure he’s cooking.
Fail-safe is an admired film directed by Sidney Lumet in 1964. It’s the story of a squadron of American ‘Vindicator’ bombers to nuke Moscow in case of a nuclear Armageddon. From the very moment they receive the order, absolutely nothing could deter them from pursuing their mission, even if it’s a direct order from the commander in chief. To these pilots, they would never fly if the world weren’t coming to an end. Nicole would make a good pilot in that squadron! She’s locked on one target, with only one objective on the horizon: she wants to strike out on her own. She’s come to adamantly believe that this is the only way to redefine herself in a way that suits her aspirations.
Charlie takes a lot of “space” and leaves little for Nicole. He’s got a dominant personality, and his relationship with Nicole’s family, especially her mother, is one for the books! Nicole’s thirst for empathy is what drives her towards the path with Nora. She’s at the end of her rope, and she needs a voice. Nora knows how to make her open out, and Nicole’s only looking for an excuse. She’s seeking allies, and it warrants a few white lies. “then we have children and they lose interest” Nora says. And Nicole admits, whereas her look says she could hardly identify with Nora’s situation with her ex-husband, but why not? It’s simple and easy to explain. Besides, she has the material for the case: “Also, I think he slept with the stage manager, Mary Ann.” She confides to Nora, while she knows that Charlie’s short-lived affair, given the circumstances, was never a deal-breaker in her book. She even rewards her some-ten-year-old son for pooping and lets him sleep by her side at night. That’s how she’s determined to win.
If we’re to believe Sandra’s story of her “dead gay husband”, Nicole’s life has been voided of a powerful father figure, until she meets Charlie. No wonder it takes her two seconds to fall in love with him. But now it’s been a long while and she’s even given birth to a man of her own, her son, Henry. This new-found courage to seek a different life without Charlie could temp any Freudian therapist to invoke penis envy. But the story is far beyond a mere psychological diagnosis. Nicole needs to be understood, but it’s easier said than done. This miscommunication, which continuously widens the gap between them, has mainly originated from a language barrier. “he’s always clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell,” writes Nicole about Charlie. As if the language doesn’t accommodate this new consciousness; it simply couldn’t be articulated.
Charlie finally releases his anger and frustration by putting a hole in the wall with his fist. “You’re fucking insane, and you’re fucking winning!” If someone’s being persistently “unreasonable”, people call them insane. But now, in the post-reason era, the line between sanity and insanity is blurrier than ever, but Charlie’s the type that is among the last to abandon the collapsing castle. He never wanted to be like his father. This burst of temperament and this monster who’s being awakened within him is his ultimate anathema. It’s high time he came to terms with this incomprehensible predicament. By accepting Nicole’s terms, Charlie finally succumbs to what he used to call insanity. He’s always wanted to be in the winning team, and now after a fierce fight he finds himself defeated, and nothing tells more about defeat than the image of a “tired” bleeding soldier, lying down on his face on the battlefield.
Come forth into the flame, become a moth, become a moth!
Make yourself a stranger and destroy your own home
then come dwell with the lovers! Come dwell with the lovers!”
Man has come a long way in pursuit of a shred of certainty. Alas, the further we endeavoured, the less we’ve found. What we have become to call virtue has proven so transient over the ages, that our “moral compass” has been rendered useless in this chaotic magnetic field of ideologies and creeds. Whichever way we turn, we can still see the shadow of doubt, an ever-present shade of uncertainty which clouds our minds, individually and collectively as a species. The established world order, founded on the destruction and blood brought about by two gruesome world wars, has long been losing its momentum. But post November 2016, this deterioration crossed a threshold. Since the “catastrophe” struck, political pundits, columnists, psychologists, philosophers and anthropologists have been desperately brainstorming to present a legitimate explanation for what happened, mostly in vain. Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, in its deepest layers, is an insightful observation and a coherent argument on a major turning point in the advance of human civilization.
Quichotte, a man in the winter of his life, abandons his job and the comfort of his retirement life and sets off on a journey, seeking true love! And the beloved is one Salma R, a former star of Bollywood and today an eminent TV host settled in New York. Later we find out that a stroke has been an influential precedent to this turn of events in his life. Since he’s abandoned reason, now he’s free to create his own reality, with an imaginary son, a sidekick, a teenage Sancho. On an odyssey from the south, Atlanta, town to town to the north, they encounter curious events that represent an insight into a divided nation. Racism and Xenophobia, stoked by the new rhetoric having taken over the State, are rampant and the tone of the skin could still be a curse, even a death sentence for the darker side of the spectrum. Immigration has long been a recurring theme in Rushdie’s works, a constant condition of his main characters from the early years.
Hegel, being the culmination of German philosophy in 19th century, is very well known mostly for his Dialectics. According to Hegel, there’s no truth to anything in the world except for the Whole, which he called the Absolute. He claimed that a constant struggle between the opposites, Thesis and Antithesis, moves the history forward by creating a new predominant reality, Synthesis, at each turning point. ‘He says that America is the land of the future, “where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the world’s history shall reveal itself, perhaps in a contest between North and South America.” He seems to think that everything important takes the form of war.’[i] States, according to Hegel, are not there to serve the interests of individuals, but they have a higher purpose: define virtue and set forth standards of ethics. The landscape stretched before Quichotte, is an urban battlefield. The established order has been challenged with a brand-new antithesis that takes it to extremes. It defies the current reality as a whole; “facts are not facts” anymore. “The world stopped making sense. Anything can happen. Here can be there, then can be now, up can be down, truth can be lies. Everything’s slip-sliding around and there’s nothing to hold on to. The whole thing has come apart at the seams.”[ii] Hegel professed that “in every age, there’s one nation which is charged with the mission of carrying the world through the stage of the dialectic that it has reached. In our age of course, this nation is Germany.”[iii] Since Hegel this accurately predicts the rise of German Reich and Nazism some hundred years in advance, the question is, how much should we be concerned?!
Quichotte is the tale of a journey, unfolded simultaneously in two opposite realms: intellect and sense. While the Hegelian intellectual revelation is unrolling in the background, Quichotte embarks on his quest for love. He departs from reason, and sets foot in the first of seven valleys of love, which is a direct reference to The Conference of the Birds, a literary masterpiece of Persian literature, written by Attar, a celebrated figure of Sufism, also defined as Islamic mysticism. “What if Kierkegaard’s right? If you can never really know. Only have faith.”[iv] And faith is all Quichotte has. He believes that when he unites with his beloved, the TV host, the world will come to an end, which is the seventh valley of love: Poverty and Annihilation. Incidentally, this is literally where the world is heading in Rushdie’s novel. The sky seems to be collapsing into wormholes that are sucking our world into demise and oblivion. But one man has a plan: Evel Cent, another Indian immigrant, who has foretold this day long ago, and with his unbounded fortune, has devised a portal into a “Neighbour Earth”, where the laws of physics are to be defined as we go, a completely different world, a novel reality, a newborn Synthesis. On a metaphorical level, the laws governing the new reality could not be predicted by rational thinking, which is constrained by consciousness and knowledge, both of which will take a giant leap forward upon entering the new world.
Rushdie stretches the story from the US to the UK, implying a resemblance between the two nations, in terms of recent developments in political and social scenes. It’s a revolution in a global scale. The rise of demagogues one after another by a domino effect, who blatantly disregard what used to be held as common sense. The conventional demarcation of ideologies and political views is fading away. The binary concept of Left and Right has long been challenged intellectually, but this time it’s finally falling apart in practice. Quichotte’s voluntary renunciation of intellect guides him and his beloved through the portal safe and sound, although not knowing what rests ahead of them. But the outside world is immersed into chaos and falling to pieces. Has 21st century man, some two hundred years after Hegel, reached a level of consciousness to prove him wrong? We’ll find out when the time comes, we’ll discover as we go.
[i] Russel, Bertrand, History of Western Philosophy (Routledge, London and New York, 1996) P.668
“An apology for the devil: it must be remembered that we have heard one side of the case. God has written all the books.” (Samuel Butler, 19th century British novelist)
It seems that we have entered a new dimension, in which the conventional common ground is too shaky to accommodate our co-existence any longer. A new reality where our artificial and fragile social cohesion is wearing off and the civilization as we knew it is falling apart. We didn’t even realize when we made the transition and jumped through the wormhole. We were probably too busy contributing to the eternal economic growth, adhering to the norms laid down by the new God: a non-edible high-quality piece of paper we hold against light to affirm its authenticity. “My death makes more cents than my life.” is the boldest joke in Joker’s notebook, a departure from the senses, indicative of a revolution against almost everything we used to hold as Objective and True. “Joker” is a quite successful endeavor to hear the other side of “the case”.
Joker depicts a pernicious transformation of a man, from a meek little fellow into a creature the senses would call a “monster”. Arthur keeps taking blows one after another from the society, but all this suffering and humiliation has not yet brought him to the point to wholly succumb to his “insanity”. His metamorphosis is not complete until he kills the one he used to hold dearest. Arthur is living in a new reality now, where “Arthur” is no more. The veil has been torn. When he finds out the truth about his childhood, it triggers a chain reaction that eventually pulls the stool out from under the feet of any form of objectivity in his life. The remnant of his sanity is blown off by the revelations about his narcissistic and delusional mother. Now he’s Joker, no more tethered by any sense of morality. “Isn’t being funny subjective Murray? Just like good and evil?” He says to Murray. He’s the one who defines his own virtues now. After killing the rich kids on the train, Arthur was still reluctant to allow himself to fully enjoy and embrace the euphoria. Joker is only too happy to do it for him! He doesn’t kill Murray because he had derided his performance on his show. He kills him because he has always held him as a father figure.
Todd Phillips is not unfamiliar with the concept of evil on earth. He starts his career as a filmmaker in 1993 with “Hated: GG Allin & the Murder Junkies”, a documentary about the notorious punk rock performer GG Allin, probably the most controversial figure in the field. Allin defied all forms of social norms and values and took this to extremes. His live performances dripped in blood and feces and even his funeral was a circus of incredible profanity, at his own behest! The director’s firsthand encounter with this character has obvious influences on his creation of Joker. Allin too had been invited to a number of conservative talk shows on TV, all of which ended in disaster, except no one was shot in the head!
Todd Phillip’s Joker, in many regards, holds a mirror against Christopher Nolan’s DarkKnight. Neither have utilized any superpowers or supernatural occurrences in the narrative. Batman owes his gadgets and extraordinary abilities to his family’s limitless fortune, and Joker on the other hand acquires his power out of utter poverty and misery. Batman seems to be the product of a choice, whereas Joker’s coming to existence is an inevitability. Phillips, in Joker, recreates the scene in which Thomas Wayne and his wife are murdered in front of Bruce, Gotham’s future force of “good”. But this time, the camera stands behind the murderer, the viewpoint has reversed, the murder is not seen as a heinous act but a rightful and just retribution; they had it coming!
“The origins of Joker were disputed, but on one fact everyone, passionate supporters and bitter antagonists, was agreed: he was utterly and certifiably insane. What was astonishing was that people backed him because he was insane, not in spite of it.” Joker’s first killings on the train are seen by public as an act of rebellion against the domineering and exploitative upper class of Gotham. Long years of injustice and corruption has brought the society to the verge of a complete collapse. No revolution is complete without a thorough overhaul of the virtues based on which the society was built in the first place. “The world stopped making sense. Anything can happen. Here can be there, then can be now, up can be down, truth can be lies. Everything’s slip-sliding around and there’s nothing to hold on to. The whole thing has come apart at the seams.” The long-established system has become so oblivious to the concerns of the masses, while relentlessly tending to insatiable demands of the big capital. The underdog seeks a voice, an outsider, an antithesis to the current order, the one who shoots straight, on live TV, right into the eye of the voice of the established order. Now the “mentally ill loner” is the hero, revered by large crowds chanting his name in the streets. “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” It’s the attention he had longed for all his life, clinging to every shred of his sanity. Alas, at long last, insanity wins!
 Rushdie, Salman, The Golden House (Jonathan Cape, London, 2017) P.243
“…The whole world had one language… they said to each other, ‘come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly… come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens.’ …the Lord said: ‘If as one people, speaking the same language, they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so they will not understand each other.”
Since time immemorial, or more accurately, the Cognitive Revolution, the man has been perpetuating a futile crusade against the highly insecure Lord of the old testament, to bring people back together and resume the construction of the Babylon Tower, to reach for the heavens, to become god. The search for the Eutopia has given birth to myriad ideologies, religions, creeds and philosophies, all seeking a common ground, an all-encompassing tenet. The question still stands: what brings people together? A shared belief? A common social class? Mutual interests and concerns? Speaking the same language? Maybe each to some extent, but all such imaginary and subjective ideas have proven to be transient and volatile. As a sentient species, the man in his core, under all the trappings of civilization and its implications, still finds the strongest and most enduring bonds in a shared suffering and pain. Roma is the story of two women, Cleo and Sofia, who form a tacit alliance to get them through a difficult patch and eventually guide them to their redemption, in a patriarchic society, transitioning into modernity and facing the consequent struggles and clashes, Mexico City in the early 1970s.
Roma has a conventional three-act screenplay, with Cleo in the centre and two main sub-stories: Sofia’s struggle to survive without Antonio, while some atrocities of the infamous “Mexican Dirty War”[i] is being unfolded in the background. The struggle in the political and social scene is ubiquitous, and a nation is being born anew amid this exhaustive turbulence. Cleo is a servant to an affluent family, comprised of the patriarch (Antonio, a doctor), his wife Sofia, and their four young children. The conspicuously novel visual style of Roma is evident from the first scene. During the whole intro, the camera is looking down on the pavement, then it tilts up as if rising from the dead. Cuaron’s realistic mise-en-shot has presented itself in the form of consecutive smooth pans to the left and right, and only occasional tilts and dollies. When introducing the main characters, the patriarch comes in last. It’s the end of the day and father has returned home. A huge Ford Galaxy pulls up on the driveway and the incessant sound of the horn calls upon the servants to open the gate for his majesty. The camera takes us inside the car with rare formalistic close shots and editing. The scene is inconsistent with the predominant visual form, probably indicative of a character incongruous with the world of the narrative, who must leave. We don’t see his face yet. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is playing on the radio like a fanfare fit for a king, a hand holding a lit cigarette puts the gear in drive and the car slowly moves forward into the narrow garage, which can hardly contain the big car. Sofia and the children have already formed a welcoming committee at the door. The car’s headlights drench their smiling faces in a white glow and depicts the stereotype of a happy middle-class family as propagated by American advertising companies in the 60s and 70s. This cartoonish order is to be disrupted by crises which encumber the lives of the two female protagonists and test their strength and endurance. But for each other’s help and support, neither would succeed. Cleo gets pregnant and Sofia is abandoned with four young children. It takes them both a while to find their feet in this daunting new world.
If a coffee psychic saw an airplane in your cup, she’d probably tell you that you’d have a journey up ahead. At the beginning of the film, the reflection of a flying plane on the wet ground is indicative of a dream and an inner journey for Cleo. She’s a lousy maid; sloppy and heedless. The ever-present dogshit and urine stains in the garage constantly signals her utter disinterest in what she does for a living. But she is a mere village girl, an underdog in a constant struggle for survival, with no prospects and nothing on the horizon. Dream is a luxury she can’t afford. Even if she has one, it is shattered by a cruel and unfair reality, analogous to the reflection of a flying plane in the blue sky, frequently disturbed by cascades of foam and dirt.
Cleo’s baby is conceived in a hired room. After which Fermin puts on a martial arts performance for her, using the shower curtain rod for a sword. He’s completely naked, reminiscent of a primate with a simple tool, a crude masculinity as an archetypal attribute. Fermin is the materialization of what Carl G. Jung would call the first level of Cleo’s Animus’s development, “a personification of mere physical power, an athletic champion or muscle man”.[ii] Cleo’s is a lowlife, a hired thug. She needs to grow past this primitive level, but this is so far-fetched of a dream for a “fucking servant”.
Antonio goes to Quebec for a conference. While leaving, he steps on dogshit and surprisingly doesn’t seem to mind at all. Sofia could have probably guessed that no conference would be so exciting to deserve such eagerness. Shortly after, it transpires that the conference was only a scam for the doctor to run away to Acapulco with his mistress. Cleo and Sofia’s first response to their crises, like a natural reaction, is to try and appeal to their men in the hope to soften their hearts and bring them back. Cleo finds Fermin on a bare field somewhere outside the city. He’s practicing martial arts with tens of his gangmates. It’s such a spectacle and a bunch of people are watching. They are training, as Fermin puts it, for “something like the Olympics”, which refers to the Corpus Christi Massacre in Mexico City on 10th of June 1971. Their group is a government-trained paramilitary group known as Los Halcones (The Falcons). A popular celebrity is there to keep the gang motivated for the important upcoming mission. Professor Zovek is a TV personality, whom we have earlier seen on TV in the bar where Cleo and Adela meet their dates. Here comes a nudge to the right direction for Cleo. At the end of the training, Zovek lectures the crowd on how to train minds. Subsequently, he performs an act, which he claims requires total physical and mental focus, and only Lamas, martial arts masters and a few great athletes could do. It’s an awe-inspiring scene; Zovek, blindfolded, stands on one leg, with her palms touching above his head. The sun is blazing in the background and a plane is crossing the clear blue sky. It’s not a reflection in a pond of dirt anymore. It’s come above the ground. The trainees and onlookers alike try to imitate the move, but all in vain. Among all the stumbling and buckling figures is Cleo, on one leg, with her eyes closed, and steady as a rock. Now it’s Lamas, martial arts masters, a few great athletes, and Cleo! This experience would come handy for her, when later struggling with her inner demons.
In a pivotal scene of the iconic movie of The Matrix (1999), agent Smith says to Morpheus: “Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered… it was a disaster. No one would accept the programme. Entire crops were lost… I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery.” When Sofia first realizes that Antonio was unlikely to come back, she asks the children to write a letter to their father and remind him how much they love him, in the hope that this last resort would do the trick. She’s devastated and desperate. Hadn’t it been for the matriarch’s suffering of the same kind, a pregnant Cleo would have been immediately sent back to her village. It would never be reasonable to keep her. But “pain doesn’t listen to reason. It has its own reason, which is not reasonable.”[iii] Sometimes an atrocity for the upper-class is a blessing for the lower. On the other hand, suffering of the lower could translate to prosperity of the upper. Isn’t that what Marx calls Class Conflict, which drives societal change? But this is obviously not a case of social conflict. On the contrary, their resonating sufferings drive them towards a mutual objective: redefine themselves as women without men.
In an early scene, Cleo and one of the boys are on the roof, lying on their back, head to head, like two opposing arrows. There’s also an apparent juxtaposition of two different hair and skin colour. They are playing dead. Cleo seizes the opportunity to rest her eyes a bit. “I like being dead.” She says. Death is her nirvana. Later in the hospital, Cleo, four-month pregnant, is watching the newborns behind a big window. All of a sudden, everything starts shaking. It’s an earthquake, and a powerful one (most probably a fictional event, since there’s no record of any significant earthquake in Mexico City in 1971). Everyone is frightened; some run away, and some kneel to pray. But Cleo, as if in a trance, stands still, hoping to embrace death as the only plausible way out of an ominous fate for herself, and a predetermined miserable life for the baby inside of her. The cross of suffering she’s carrying is not leading her to her salvation on Golgotha. A more accurate analogy for her is Sisyphus and his boulder. She wants to break this hopeless cycle; she wants a way out. She wants to die. In the end, it’s the same dark force which propels her towards the gushing waves. She has the same look and determination, looking straight forward like a sleepwalker, as if called upon by a heavenly voice up ahead in the ocean.
Besides Cuaron’s masterful directing through the entire work, there’s one particular scene which epitomizes his artisanship; a deep focus photography with a twist. Cleo’s baby is born dead, and they let her hold her for a last goodbye. A formidable shot perfectly conveys the anguish. While you cannot take your eyes off the baby being wrapped up on a table in the background, the camera insists we keep our “focus” on Cleo and her chaotic inner world. The baby is dead, but a monster in being born inside of her: Guilt. A few hours earlier, in the store, Cleo sees Fermin again, with the same clothes, another emphasis on the archetypal quality of the character. He’s pointing a gun to her swollen belly, while his gang are murdering students in broad daylight. Cleo’s water breaks, as though Fermin has pulled the trigger, and this is blood dripping off of her on the ground. The fear and hatred that she feels towards Fermin finally trumps her maternal instincts. But such a stigma takes an extraordinary courage to admit. There in the hospital, the baby being prepared on a deeper plane out of focus, the real crisis is looming over Cleo’s mind. Now her enormous hatred for Fermin is metamorphosing into self-hatred. The only way to redeem herself from this excruciating pain and unbearable burden of guilt is to make a great sacrifice. In the climax of the film, she throws herself into the ocean and miraculously manages to save the children. She steps on the shore, as if redeemed by John the Baptist, and finally utters: “I didn’t want her to be born.” Later in the car, returning home, that subtle smile on her face implicates an inner peace after a long devastating battle with her demons.
With the climatic incident comes Sofia’s growth too. She’s sold the giant Galaxy and bought a small Renault, one that could conveniently fit in the garage. Antonio is not coming back. She takes her children along with Cleo on a two-day trip to the ocean, so he could come and take his belongings, mostly bookcases, and not the books. The source of knowledge, enlightenment and power for the modern woman stays. Cleo saving the children is the last leg of Sofia’s inner journey. They return home. It looks different and a new order has been established. Cleo goes back to her daily chores. In the last scene, she’s ascending to the roof with a basket of laundry, an airplane is flying in the distance, this time well high up in the blue sky. She’s still a servant, but she’s bestowed the privilege to have a dream.
[i] An internal conflict between the Mexican PRI-ruled government, backed by the US, and left-wing student and guerrilla groups in the 1960s and 1970s under the presidencies of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría and José López Portillo.
[ii] M.L. Von Franz, ‘The Process of Individuation’ in Carl Jung ed., Man and His Symbols (London 1978) P. 205-6
A review on Fellini’s “8 ½” and “Juliet of The Spirits”
By: Masood Sabet
Milan Kundera in his most celebrated book, Immortality, writes: “There are certain paths in life which from the very beginning place a person face to face with great immortality […] Uncertain. It is true, even improbable, yet undeniably possible: They are the paths of artists and statesmen.” [i] Statesmanship and fame have a natural bond analogous to that of a system of cause and effect. No statesman will deny that what drives them through their daunting endeavors is what they articulate as “legacy”, what they leave behind. The bigger their legacy, the higher their place on the ladder of immortality, but there’s no denial that they’re all on the same ladder. But what about artists? Is this insatiable desire for immortality what motivates them for creation? Man’s longing for immortality is in fact no more than his fear of death. In all filmmakers, Woody Allen is the one who’s expressed his fear, anxiety and despair in the face of death, which goes all the way back to his early works, at an age when “you are young and life is long”, and death is hardly more than a literary tool in the hands of romanticists. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen. I want to live in my apartment.”[ii]
In another view, the works of an artist could be construed as an attempt to seek or reveal the truth. This stance on art, however, has hitherto achieved little more than “art for ideology” and propaganda art. Besides, it wouldn’t be the product of a well-informed mind to take the artist’s perception of truth for truth itself. On this it is worth quoting Pablo Picasso: “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that’s given to us. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”[iii] The very moment the artist picks up the pen (or brush for that matter), he’s set out to create a work any generation at any time could relate to. Defining a clear-cut methodology to achieve this immortality, just like any other form of subjective reality, is becoming ever more elusive. But observation and experience could provide us with a theoretical framework which guarantees the immortality of a work of cinema to a remarkable extent; a theme free of entanglement of time and location, relating to human aesthetics, and a significant form. None of these criteria has anything to do with the creator’s perception of truth. However, they do enable the artist to make his/her art relatable to collective human experience, regardless of their position on the axes of time and space. Carl G. Jung, by discovering the revolutionary concept of collective unconscious, has somehow illuminated the road to immortality for the artist. Jung by introducing the idea of “Archetypes” has placed the cornerstone for a thorough scrutiny into human mind. Fellini, in his two immortal pictures, 8 ½ and Juliet of the spirits, has consciously and masterfully taken advantage of archetypes to produce a cinematic rendition of the “inside world”. By a closer look into these two celebrated works of the Italian maestro, we can observe that what the artist gains in the end is much greater than what he had consciously set out for (truth or immortality) in the first place. The artist creates to redeem himself. He’s seeking salvation. Setting out for immortality is not what accounts for a successful artistic endeavor but seeking redemption is a significant driving force which propel the work towards immortality.
8 ½ is the story of a filmmaker who, midway of his new project, can’t remember what he’s making anymore. 8 ½ is Fellini’s self-reflection. Guido, Marcello Mastroianni, has a vague image in his mind of his protagonist: “He wants to grab everything and devour it. He can’t give up a single thing. He changes direction every day for fear of missing the right path. He’s slowly bleeding to death. This is how it starts. Then he meets this girl at the springs […] She’s beautiful, but young and ancient, a child, and yet already a woman, authentic and radiant. There’s no doubt that she’s his salvation.” Claudia (Cardinale), dressed in white, who Guido meets first at the springs is the materialization of this mystical and enigmatic woman, who evidently represents the Anima of the filmmaker. It’s Claudia, who in the end, by contributing to Guido’s growth, makes him able to finish his film. Is response to all Guido’s concerns, Claudia repeatedly says: “He doesn’t know how to love.” Guido, who has lost all hope to finish his film, desperate under the massive pressure of the producer’s demands and reporters’ difficult questions, decides to leave the film halfway through. But suddenly, in a moment of creative inspiration the page turns. Guido (Fellini?) lines up all the characters of the film (his life?) all in white: the father, the mother, the priest, the teacher, the wife, the mistress, … and himself as a young boy in a white cape, playing a flute, marching forward leading a group of clowns. All are forgiven on Guido’s judgment day. He is not a victim of other’s sins anymore. This is his great leap from entitlement to responsibility.
A strict catholic upbringing is presented as a primary culprit in development of all Guido’s inner conflicts and the illicit tendencies he has always tried to deny and suppress, or at least keep them concealed from others. The old Cardinal’s voice still rings in his eras: “Salvation is only possible through church.” A constant sense of guilt has been burdening him since he was only a boy, without him even knowing what sins he had committed. One of the first women in Guido’s life was his first encounter with this perplexing experience. La Saraghina, the half-crazy middle-aged woman, treats little Guido and his friends with a dance in exchange for some paltry contribution. The woman has long been ostracized by the society for her “sinful” past, but by church and its followers in the town, La Saraghina is not a mere sinner, but a materialization of sin itself. Sinfulness, symbolized in Guido’s black hat and cape, was bestowed to him not by La Saraghina, but by his parents and church’s associates. They punish little Guido by making him wear a paper cone hat and write on a piece of paper on his back: shame, a tremendous burden he carries like a cross, a dark cloud which has cast a shadow over his whole life. Guido’s forgiving of everybody is aimed eventually at forgiving himself. He accepts everyone for whoever they are and whatever they have done to him in the hope that his wife (Luisa) could find the same generosity in her heart to forgive Guido. He wants his wife to go back to him. Guido, on this precarious journey of his has another help: Jean Lumier, the movie critic, who represents the archetype of Wise Man, a character brought from the “outside” world to assist Guido with his critical insights; a job arguably well done.
Fellini’s life, personal and professional, is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. For “La Dolce Vita”, Vatican firmly denounces him and the Pope himself calls Fellini “The Public Sinner”.[iv] It’s unrealistic to deny any association between Vatican’s renunciation and the film’s incredible success at The Oscars. Fellini lived in a time in which the majority of influential intellectuals and artistic circles overtly expressed their progressive ideas, most of which inherently opposing the values church represented and upheld. Fellini’s contemporaries in Italian cinema are no exception, so it might come as a surprise when we hear he had been a faithful voter to Christian Democratic party and had openly expressed his opposition to May 1968 movement in France. The Wise Man on the other hand, provides the filmmaker with a legitimate explanation: “Are you optimistic enough to believe that in this confused and chaotic world, some people’s ideas are clear enough that they belong exclusively to the Left or to the Right.” And again, in another scene he says to Guido: “You set out to denounce, but you end up an accomplice.” About the end of the film, when bombarded with hard questions about God, nuclear bomb, love, pornography and other highly complex issues, Guido refuses to answer and takes refuge under the table.
Fellini in 8 ½ bares himself naked with whatever he believes in and traits and tendencies he himself is not very proud of. Fellini’s ultimate objective with 8 ½ is self-revelation and its fruit: redemption. In fact, this is the conflict the film lacks in the beginning which almost brings it to its knees. The film critic in his first dialogue with Guido days: “On first reading it’s evident that the film lacks a central conflict, or philosophical premise.” In order to achieve this, Guido must bestow his most precious possession. In the end, the lost piece of puzzle falls into the place and a sharper image of the protagonist is developed before Guido’s eyes; he’s been standing in front of a mirror all along.
Fellini, after this revealing inward venture has yet another debt on his soul. He needs to seek the forgiveness of an earthly god of his: his wife. In the path to redemption from his sins, he is to create another cinematic redemption story, this time for his wife (Giulietta Masina). “Juliet of the Spirits” is born right after 8 ½. However, by seeing the film it transpires that the story of Juliet’s salvation is in fact another manifestation of Fellini’s inner conflicts. Juliet of the spirits with a similar theme (redemption) and a different protagonist is still exploring the dark recesses of Guido’s mind. Fellini’s unconscious has used the story of Juliet’s salvation as a vessel to seek his own. And tell me if it isn’t the essence of history of art.
Juliet at the peak of her midlife crisis suspects that his husband has been having an affair with a young model. The only sign of the mistress in the film is her name and her voice we once hear from the other end of the telephone line. Gabriella’s physical absence in the film is an effective strategy to keep the spotlight on Juliet and her inner world. She’s facing a decisive and horrendous dilemma: to persist on her ascetic way of life in accordance with her pious upbringing or succumb to the temptation of adopting a hedonistic lifestyle, following the suit of her newfound neighbour, Suzy. Conflicts of this kind are ubiquitous in the film. On the night of her wedding anniversary, Juliet and some of her guests hold a séance. Two presences are sensed by the participants: first Iris and then shortly after, Olaf. The former seems to be amiable, but the latter expresses massive animosity and aggression. These manifestations are portents of two antithetical worlds. Iris in Greek mythology is the name of the goddess of the rainbow and the messenger of the Olympian gods, and Olaf (originally in ancient Norse) means ancestral heritage. Iris advises Juliet to follow Suzy’s lead, whereas Olaf represents a strict catholic rearing, and constantly reminds Juliet of the flames of the Hell. The next day Juliet meets with her doctor on the beach, who condescendingly derides all these “supernatural” experiences: “Tell your husband to make love to you more often. There’s no better cure for evil spirits and toothache.” Subsequently, in the very same setting, she first meets Suzy.
An important archetype which frequently appears in Juliet’s story is The Horse. A pair of white ceramic horses can be seen in the background of most interior scenes in Juliet’s house. However, this symbolic use of horses is mainly reflected in her dreams. Horses frequently appear in Juliet’s dreams and each time in different forms and states. Horse in Jungian psychology is an archetype which represents suppressed basic instinctive desires. This archetype “has been closely linked with our instinctive, primal drives … could signify instincts out of control … evokes intense feelings and unbridled passion instead of cool, collected thought… the flesh and blood incarnation of powerful forces bottled up within us that we wish we had the guts to saddle and ride.”[v] This archetype first appears in Juliet’s dream in a very grim state. Two emaciated horses with another one dead and decaying. In the contrast, in one of her later dreams a beautiful and adorned horse with a majestic mane enters her room.
Animus is another archetype introduced through Jose, the bullfighter friend of Juliet’s husband’s. Jose is a man of romance and danger; the two things Juliet has been deprived of the most. “It’s not the sword that kills the bull, but our magic in evading him.” At this moment, Giorgio, imitating a bull, playfully attacks Juliet, and she amateurishly throws herself in Jose’s arms. She still has a long way to go to match the agility of a matador. Juliet’s childhood catholic school teacher, with his bearded face and piercing look, is another ever-present figure in Juliet’s dreams. In one of these recurring dreams, little Juliet is acting on stage for a school play. She’s playing a saint who refuses to deny the Christ and is set aflame alive as punishment. Juliet’s salvation is the moment she unties her own self as a child, who’s tightly bound to a blazing bed. After this redeeming dream, a cheerful Juliet goes outside, and we all know where she’s headed; wherever she wants!
Iris reminds Juliet of her grandfather’s young mistress, also played by Sandra Milo (Suzy). In Juliet’s childhood memories, her grandfather, yelling and ranting, storms in and interrupts the school play. Although shunned by church and his family, the grandfather gets on a primitive aeroplane and flies away with his young beautiful mistress by his side. In Juliet’s dream, her grandfather returns to accompany her in this pivotal journey of hers. “Let’s say goodbye to those boring people.” And then they wave goodbye to the massive crowd of ghosts and figures who have been wreaking havoc in Juliet’s mind; the clairvoyants and their crowds, her doctor and his companions, her pleasure-seeking neighbours, her friend Laura, who’s killed herself for love, Jose, the Spanish bullfighter, priests and their congregations, and others. It’s only her grandfather who stays with her in the end.
Sandra Milo, who plays Suzy and Iris, is the one who appears in 8 ½ as Guido’s mistress. The juxtaposition of Juliet and Suzy is highly reminiscent of that of Freud’s Madonna-Whore complex. And this is Fellini’s unconscious which casts a shadow over the theme of Juliet’s salvation. Madonna-Whore complex, which appears in more severity in people with strict religious upbringing, makes men put all women of their lives in two opposing categories: Saints and Whores. Freud writes: “Where such men love, they have no desire, and where they desire, they cannot love.”[vi] Love for such a man is divided into heavenly and earthly. The former is glorious and innocent and the latter, burdened with one of the seven deadly sins: Lust. The image of “Mother” is man’s first contact with the concept of heavenly love. In one of Guido’s dreams, he sees his mother who approaches him for a motherly kiss. This innocent expression of love however, in a sudden twist, turns erotic. Guido attempts so hard to push the woman away, but what he sees in front him is not his mother anymore, it’s Luisa, his wife. Juliet doesn’t belong to any of these extremes anymore. She’s neither a Madonna (her old self-image) nor a Whore (her neighbour in Juliet’s perception). She’s now the woman Fellini has been seeking in his dreams. A woman who he could love and make love to.
A prehistoric hunter has followed the trail of the wounded prey for hours, and the night is falling upon him. Now he is at the heart of a dense jungle and knows that returning to the colony without game is not an option. He is well aware of the real threats in the dark befalling him. He is terrified. He has seen numerous men fallen by venomous snakes, devoured by fierce tigers, or beaten to death by an agitated gorilla. He has heard the stories and learnt some lessons; which ones to avoid, which ones to fight, and which ones to run from. In the pitch-black night of the prehistoric jungle, with its impenetrable grasp which blocks even the palest ray of moonlight, our hairy ancestor is surrounded by all sorts of monsters lurking around him. He is afraid of what he has seen, but horrified by what he could imagine. His boundless power of untethered imagination is playing tricks on him. It is the curse accompanying every blessing. Man has always been terrified of being abandoned. This actually has driven him into forming societies and consequently, with this unraveled skill among other species, was able to conquer the world. Man is highly apprehensive about the idea of being left alone with himself, for he knows what his elaborate mind is capable of creating: gods, ghosts, fairies, spirits, and countless demons. But are these mere figments of his abstract imagination, or materialization of what is actually lurking inside of him? And it’s the latter that horrifies man the most. It is the real horror. Every horror filmmaker has a choice to make: take the blue pill for blissful ignorance and enter the world of so-called supernatural, or the red pill and opt for the realm of reality and psychological horror. The former gives the director an expansive playground, but hardly goes beyond a form of entertainment, and the latter is potentially more rewarding and transcends the work to a form of art.
The main narrative of the haunting of Hill house is a skillful dramatization of a grim phase in the life of a family susceptible to mental disorders, along with the story of how each one of them coped with the tragedy, in multiple sub-narratives. Most of the story is narrated thru the eyes of the eldest son, Steve, who now as an adult is a writer of ghost stories. The first book of his, as it transpires, is loosely based on the events surrounding the tragic death of their mother on a mysterious night. Every member of Crain family has sought a way to propitiate their demons or harness their inner monsters awoken by the traumatic event. A dire genetic spell is cast upon them thru their mother, who evidently suffered schizophrenia. Steve is the healthiest sibling, for he has transformed this threat into an opportunity, which has manifested itself in the form of artistic creativity. The narrative has two skeleton timelines: present time and the time which pivots around the mysterious night. The latter is narrated as if an adaptation of Steve’s first book, “Hill House”. This actually has given Flanagan a wider playground to maneuvre on. Every seemingly supernatural event in the narrative has the potential to be explained in clinical terms. If something ever gets out of hand, which occasionally does, the blame for breaking the seal of realism falls upon Steve, not Flanagan’s narration. This is one of the most ingenious plans the creator has devised to develop a powerful, high-quality drama.
Mr. Dudley and his wife, Clara, had served the Hills and thanks to their generosity, they live in a place of their own near the house. Now they serve the new owners, the Crains. After a powerful storm hits the house on a horrific night, Hugh Crain and Mr. Dudley are trying to remedy the damage, which seems to be graver that what they had thought in the beginning. Some cavity walls are flooded, and they are both desperately looking for the source. To facilitate this arduous endeavor, Olivia Crain has produced an updated blueprint of the house. A blueprint which astonishes both men at first sight. She has repeatedly drawn a floor plan of their dream house, about which the couple had been dreaming and talking for years. The horror of the stormy night has triggered an irreversible degradation in Olivia’s state of mind. When Mr. Dudley sees the blueprint, he launches into an eerie speech to convince Hugh to send his wife away for a while. This scene epitomizes the ubiquitous confrontation of the two opposing forces driving the narrative forward. On one hand, Hugh is the voice of reason. He vehemently believes and constantly asserts that he can fix everything. “Prayers are not really our thing.” Says Hugh to Mr. Dudley, who on the other hand is a man of faith with an unshakable belief in saints and spirits. The narration, like a pendulum, sways back and forth between the two interpretations. The writer has a plan for everything and has meticulously arranged the scenes as steady drips of revelation. Besides, he has Steve’s book as a fail-safe, and also as a means to sensationalize the story without consequences in real life.
Steve has never seen a ghost in his life, but his book is apparently infested with them. When he, as a young boy, renovates an old vanity to cheer up his troubled mother, he first-hand witnesses a severe case of visual schizophrenia. And later when he finds her in the twins’ bedroom talking to herself, he’s having an encounter with an auditory twist of his mother’s grim disorder. What his mother sees in the mirror, and her exchange with imaginary twins in their bedroom have both passed Steve’s imagination before they reach our eyes. Nelly and Luke in the mirror are not what his mother actually had seen (or imagined having seen to be precise), but Steve’s rendition of the incident.
Olivia’s latent schizophrenia and her childhood tragedy of losing her father, when she was only five, provides the substrate for her ensuing dementia. Now, crushed by frustration, she only needs a nudge to succumb to a complete detachment from reality. A nudge which would be faithfully provided by one Mrs. Dudley. For she, too, has gone thru the unbearable grief of parting with a beloved one, in her case, a stillborn baby. As if this is not terrifying enough for Olivia, Clara has lots of gloomy stories to share with her about her former mistress, Mrs. Poppy Hill, who would be the dream companion of Olivia’s to her doom. “What’s scarier than losing a child?” “Nothing!”
Mrs. Dudley has perfectly accomplished her mission by planting the seed in the fertilized land of Olivia’s mind. Then she goes on to water it by telling her about Poppy’s children and their ominous fates. Clara doesn’t even spare Olivia with the gruesome details of the story. “She was choking on her own body for no reason. Just trying for air, like the room was under water. And shaking like she was in the hot squat…and I held her little hand and sat on her side, and it took days, it took weeks, for her to quit gulping that watery air, quit gaping at me like a fish on the beach. But finally, she did. She breathed ragged and hard and she went stiff. One of her eyes turned red as blood, and she’d shake, she’d shake so bad the bed would shake, and when she started shaking, it went fast. She dangled. She died.” Poppy’s children had died of prevalent diseases at the time, but Clara casts an accursed vibe upon the story. Olivia can’t survive another parting. She needs to take matters in her own hands.
Why do the Crains think the house is haunted? Because they have simply heard it from the locals. In order to reinforce this foundation of his narrative, Flanagan introduces an outsider. A police officer comes to Hill house to investigate the remains of an old corpse Hugh had found inside a cavity wall. As it transpires, the body belonged to William Hill, who had bricked himself in the wall as a result a full-blown dementia. “Folks around town always talk about this place. Is it [haunted]?” Says the police officer. “Yeah, a few of my kids sure think so.”
Despite Clara’s obvious role in pushing Olivia over the edge, and also fueling the children’s curiosity and wild imagination, she is not cast as a villain. She’s simply a narrow-minded woman who’s naturally biased in favour of supernatural angels and demons. She has long been in a struggle to repress her anguish over the death of her baby. She may not have the faintest clue that her stories might have been awakening some real demons, who eventually place the fate of a whole family in peril and claim two lives.
Nelly and Luke are the most affected by the incident. They were only sex years old at the time and they could never recuperate from the last encounter with their tranced mother, and her subsequent sudden and enigmatic death haunts them forever. Luke resorts to Heroin to ease the pain and Nelly suffers sleep paralysis and schizophrenia. The bent-neck lady is represented as a reflection of her own macabre fate, but bear in mind, the real bent-neck lady has passed thru Steve’s imagination. Nelly meets Arthur, a sleep technologist, and they get married short afterwards. Arthur’s knowledge and patience and Nelly’s intense love for him, hand in hand, manage to restrain the monsters deep down in the dungeons of Nelly’s unconscious. However, luck is not on her side. She’s “doomed”, just like her mother. Arthur dies of aneurysm one night, and this brings back the bent-neck lady into the picture, more powerful than ever. This is the last straw for Nelly, after which she staggers into a full-scale depression, from which there’s no return.
Nelly’s death brings back the dysfunctional family back together. But what actually brings them closer to each other is not her death per se, but the guilt they all have been bearing since. There are many potentially detrimental psychological reactions to the death of a loved one. The survivors tend to reinforce critical negative thoughts and attitudes towards themselves representative of their past association with the deceased. This seems to be a natural mental reaction to reduce death anxiety. They blame themselves for whatever she’d blamed them for. Moreover, the circumstances of her death don’t leave room for their convenient exoneration from one blame: neglect.
The guilt has manifested itself in the form of a horror, shadowing the lives of the survivors. After all, as Theo’s lover tells her in a dream, “guilt and fear are sisters.” The guilt of the Crains over Nelly’s death is too much to bear. Steve comes to help again. This time he’s here to redeem not only himself, but the entire family. He writes another book: They all return to the house to confront the old ghosts, and they all get a second chance to beg Nelly for forgiveness, for whatever they had felt guilty since she was gone. Nelly lives on long enough in Steve’s imagination to unburden them of the cross they have been carrying on their shoulders and set them all free of the agonizing horror encapsulating their lives.
A review on “The Square”, directed by Ruben Östlund, 2017
By: Masood Sabet
“How much suffering can one impose upon those now living for the sake of those who will follow? And can we be sure that those who follow will be any better off?”
Where do we draw the line between personal responsibility and self-sacrifice? In the time of the triumph of pleasure over contentment and prosperity over happiness, making this distinction is harder than ever, if you bother to bear the concern. It is true that all these abstract concepts are merely figments of our imagination, but no one could argue with the fact that a distinct line would resonate with one’s cognitive characteristics and respond to their psychological needs. The needs which, if not satisfied, could lead to a destructive split of personality and the distress it consequently brings about. Christian takes his daughters to the X-Royal museum for a private excursion and some quality time. At the entrance of one of the new exhibitions, Östlund presents us with the main theme of his work. The children have to choose between the two passageways; the arrow to the left says: “I mistrust people.” and on the arrow to the right we read: “I trust people.” “The Square” is a journey for Christian from the former to the latter.
The story of The Square revolves around Christian, the eminent curator of the X-Royal museum of Stockholm. He is preparing to host a new exhibition when a bunch of con artists on the street manage to put up a show and rob him of his mobile and his wallet. Through the film, we come to observe that Christian has a very reserved personality, like a wild deer, easily startled and born to run, not to fight. It is after one and a half hours into the movie that we realize he has two daughters, most probably an indicative of a broken marriage, about which we don’t get any further information whatsoever. The robbery breaks Christian’s equilibrium in favour of “I mistrust people.” The Square is a quest for Christian to restore the equilibrium. Meanwhile, he’s fighting on three fronts: hosting a controversial exhibition at the museum, the aftermath of his bland and awkward fling with the American reporter, Anne, and his clumsy affair to retrieve his stolen belongings. The occurrences in these three sub-narratives hand in hand bring the protagonist to the point of growth.
“The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” This sounds like a sanctuary for Christian, for it encompasses the very issues he’s struggling with; overcoming his trust issues and defining the extent of one’s personal responsibility towards the society. After Christian records his apologetic message to the boy, who he had wrongfully accused for stealing and caused him trouble with his parents, he goes on: “…these problems (social inequality) can’t be solved by individuals alone. Society needs to lend a hand too. It’s not enough that I admit I was wrong and apologize to you in a video. There are bigger, structural problems involved that society needs to deal with.” Personal responsibility, as an inborn duty of every individual as building blocks of a modern society, as opposed to self-sacrifice, which is always commendable due to going beyond what’s expected from one, and trust versus mistrust are not the only dualities contemplated in the deeper layers of The Square. The director also tries his chance on the thin ice of classic and modern art, and briefly dwells on freedom of speech versus political correctness.
Many have seen the square as a satire on the modern art. However, this judgement sounds a bit far-fetched if we remember one of the first dialogues of the film. Christian, after a long night of partying, sits for an interview with Anne. It’s here when he accents the subjectivity of the concept of art, by defining and clarifying the duality of exhibition and non-exhibition. “If we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?” And this argument proceeds to reach “the crowded moment of mega exhibition” If we believed every man-made object is a work of art, why couldn’t the man himself be worthy of this distinction? Isn’t “Square” itself an exhibition in which a man has been put on display? The modern art is a fight for the artist, a relentless battle for the creator. Every work in classic art is an inspiration, with a clear-cut answer for every question and an impregnable belief system. Modern art, on the other hand, presents its audience with a puzzle, and instead of providing them with an answer, hits them in the face with yet another question by provoking them to think. We have a juxtaposition at the beginning of the film; the exhibition of piles of gravel in the museum and the disgraceful removal of an old statue of Karl XIV[i] from the courtyard. On the toppled statue it reads: “The love of the people is my reward.” For the modern man that’s just an empty sentiment and definitely not a good enough answer to his concerns. A four-in-four square is to replace it.
Julian (Dominic West), who’s obviously based on Julian Schnabel[ii], is being interviewed about his new exhibition at the museum. Among the audience, someone keeps interrupting them by yelling out obscene words. It transpires that the man is suffering Tourette, a nervous system disorder involving involuntary and repetitive movements or sounds. When someone finally explains it to the audience, everyone accepts the situation and moves on. Östlund creates the same situation in another scene where Christian and his colleagues are discussing the new exhibition with the two young publicists. No one seems to mind the baby’s disruptive noise. Julian’s exhibition, piles of gravel and huge empty spaces, is clearly reminiscent of Classical Zen gardens, created first at temples of Zen Buddhism. They were intended to imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance [iii], which sounds more like a manifest for minimalism. An unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings might be the best-known motto of Buddhism. Human beings might bring themselves to accept the actions and deeds of the nature, animals, babies and people with proven disabilities, but when it comes to their peers, they see only two ways before them; fight or run. This intolerance is originated from our expectations, which yet again is another cause for unhappiness according to Buddhism.
“Welcome to the jungle. Soon you will be confronted with a wild animal… if you try to escape, the animal will hunt you down. But if you remain perfectly still, the animal might not notice you.” This brings us to the magnificent “monkey performance” by Oleg Rogozjin (Terry Notary), a powerful spectacle which was inspired by the real-life Ukrainian artist, Oleg Kulik. Kulik’s was however a biting dog performance. The monkey enters the room filled with affluent and elegant financial contributors to the museum in a glamorous setting, a truly grotesque contrast. The animal goes straight to Julian, which could be construed as a mockery of the modern art. But it could also mean the opposite. The two modern artists are in cahoots to set the scene and build the atmosphere for what comes later.
Anne is pictured as a naïve and not-so-intelligent woman who never realizes that she had been Christian’s third choice at that night, after the girl on his lap leaves and another one ignores his sloppy flirtation. Anne’s approaches to him after that night only makes her look more miserable than she already is. But her presence helps us witness a fierce act of Christian’s mistrust through his perverse resistance to let the condom go. Anne comes to the museum to confront Christian a few days later. “I think you are interested in using your position to attract women and to make conquests.” Anne is not a good judge of character either. Christian doesn’t enjoy sex, and him going from one woman to another does not qualify for being called conquests. It’s more of a defense mechanism to avoid confrontation with his fundamental challenges. But this strategy of his has started to backfire. He can’t run forever. His mistrust in people is facing him with consequences from which there is no escape. It’s late at night. Christian arrives home with his two sleepy daughters, not knowing that the young boy is there to “make a chaos” with him. Christian gets upset and inadvertently shoves the boy down the stairs, into the darkness. This unprecedented act of violence shakes him to his core. He goes back home. Enough is enough. He needs to face his daemons. He goes back down, dives into the garbage bins, looking for the boy’s phone number. Christian in the middle of the pile of garbage, and under a pouring rain in a top shot in a spectacular way resembles the famous shot of the same type in “Shawshank Redemption” when Andy (Tim Robbins) makes his escape from the prison. This is Christian’s redemption. This is the moment of growth. He finds the boy’s number and calls him: “The person you are trying to reach is not available.” The boy’s job is done, and he is thrown into the shadows. Christian’s video message, which will never reach the intended recipient, is a dialogue with himself, a contemplation on how to implement and consolidate the new order. He soon needs to be ready for his press conference.
Pedro Almodóvar, the head of the jury who gave Östlund the Palme d’Or, cited the film for depicting “the dictatorship of being politically correct. “…That is terrible and awful and more horrifying than any other dictatorship,”[iv] Christian’s catharsis first manifests itself in his resignation. He never apologizes for the content of the video, for he’s not responsible for it. He is stepping down not because of the dictatorship of politically correctness. He’s doing it because he simply hasn’t done his job. One of the reporters at the conference shares Almodóvar’s concern with Christian. He happens to have a response for that: “I made a mistake. The clip was published without my approval. This has nothing to do with my own opinions. We’re talking about the museum and my professional role. What is it you don’t understand about that?” After the clip went viral, when Christian first meets with Elna (the lady with the cute dog), he vehemently persists in his belief in freedom of speech: “this is my conviction.” and when asked to comply with any probable outcome of the board meeting on the issue, he refuses to make any promises. Resignation is his own decision. This is where the new Christian draws the line.
“There are socialist, capitalist, monarchical, democratic, anarchist, feminist, patriarchal, egalitarian, hierarchical, left-wing, right-wing, reformist, racist, free love, nuclear family, and many more utopias. Utopia has an inherent contradictory nature.”[v] When it comes to symbolization, a square could have countless interpretations, but what all those have in common is the notion of an order introduced or imposed by man. Burrhus F. Skinner, American celebrated psychologist, in his novel, Walden Two, has introduced the author’s own idea of a utopia. The nature of this utopia is of no consequence compared to the way he implements it. He starts with a microcosm and volunteers. The illuminated rectangular shape in the museum’s courtyard is the artist’s idea of utopia, all the sixteen square metres of it. The only thing you need to bring is trust.
[i] The king of Sweden and Norway during the nineteenth century