More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2017 (19 to 26 October)
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St Stephen's Day
From Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst downwards (including Aaron Curry (courtesy of LA’s David Kordansky gallery), Beatrice Caracciolo (courtesy of Paula Cooper gallery, NY), and Robert Polidori (courtesy of Edwynn Houk gallery in NYC)), the closing titles of course give credit for the original artwork that Tom Ford chooses to show us, but not for the provocative images with which the film starts² (which, maybe, should not provoke ?). However, they might embody a sentiment to which Ford seems to have attached his name :
Unless the obtuse ontological point that Susan Morrow exists because Amy Adams plays her (and Jake Gyllenhaal, as her ex-husband (Edward Sheffield) and his novel's main character (Tony Hastings)) - the art in her show has to be less real than that of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst.— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 10, 2018
Since they are clearly pastiche, but Ford clearly also wanted them in Nocturnal Animals, the thing that asking us to credit them as works of art does is to deny Susan Morrow (pictured above) plausibility from the start even in the capacity of gallerist¹, and to undermine whatever is meaningful in including views of actual artworks in the film : after the opening, it might as well all be invented, for all that it matters.
When, around three-fifths of the way through Mulholland, David Lynch gives us the sub-text to the glossy surface that preceded it, he is not 'playing with our expectations' (as Belle toujours (2006) and this film both desire to do), but exercising the proper craft of film-making.— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) December 28, 2017
Here, the film within a film would possibly be of no real interest³, were it not for being contained in this film - which makes it of marginally more interest for being, through her imaginings of a novel in proof form, some insight into [the character of] Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).
Except that she has no real character⁴, except as a repository for Proustian recollection that leads to much-delayed guilt (and regret ?) : she is a void whom we see Edward Sheffield, her former husband, filling up (with text that we do not, however, directly experience), and from whom reactions are elicited.
(Abel Korzeniowski's principal theme for the film is of quality, and has all the fineness of one of Bernard Herrmann's most lusciously orchestrated themes, but - as if to emphasize the conceptual sterility of Morrow's interior world ? - two important moments, at the conclusion of the film within a film, are accompanied, respectively, by the unsubtlety of an absurdly-held tremolo, and the mimicry of a pulse.)
To be sure of the true mark of Symbolism, though, director Tom Ford gives us this curious detail on the night when the typescript is delivered : On seeing Morrow driving up, first, to the automatic gate that lets her car into her property - and as if it has never happened before - the head-lights reflect on the gate, blinding her, and she has to shield her eyes !
It is therefore not surprising that it appears, from ‘Communicating through Fiction : Tom Ford on Nocturnal Animals’⁵, that what appealed to the writer / director in Tony and Susan, Austin Wright’s original novel, was the idea of this device of communicating to someone through a work of fiction. Through a written work of fiction. And thereby communicating something that they had not been able to really communicate clearly.
That novel is, in case we miss it, Tony and Susan, i.e. the character in the book, Nocturnal Animals, and the person who compellingly reads that book (by the man from whom she divorced nineteen years ago).
Anne Brontë might have written in a way that endangered the structure of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, with around one hundred and fifty pages that we are to conceive of as read overnight. Even so, though Brontë risks breaking not so much the flow of the book as our attention by such a prolonged leap back in time, the fine impulse on her part here is to have us read – just at the same time when Gilbert Markham reads it – what informs his (and so our) understanding of where Helen Graham has come from, and so of who she is.
Whereas, with Susan Morrow and what her rememberings and her intense engagement with her ex-husband's fiction tell us, one is more reminded of James Joyce, dismissed by Virginia Woolf for Ulysses as a bell-boy at Claridge’s, scratching his pimples⁶. [Woolf also wrote, of Ulysses, Never did any book so bore me.] As with Belle toujours (2006), the entire conceit here is to have the film consume itself, as if a dragon ate its own tail : it begins, after an opening at a gallery, with the delivery of the typescript, and ends - with precious little in between - just after Morrow has finished a weekend of reading it.
Certainly, whatever proponents Nocturnal Animals has, one could not rightly claim of it (as Time Out did of something no less unworthy⁷) that the film offers a deceptive, philosophical and cautionary meditation, not only on age, appetite, pleasure, betrayal, mendacity, revenge and disillusionment but also in idle curiosity. (Largely, that seems more fitting to describe the films evoked by its empty establishing shots at a distance, Mulholland Drive (2001) and Sunset Blvd. (1950).)
Even if some reviewers / explicators have not imputed this motive [for example, Vulture and The Cinemaholic], is Nocturnal Animals essentially - as Belle toujours and Sleeping Beauty (2011) before it - no more than a wind-up, of the form that (purportedly) engages us with it, and then does something different ?
In the former (the alleged sequel to Belle de jour (1967), although it is hardly like Buñuel), Henri and Severine at the dinner-table is bad enough, but there are a thousand reasons why what is shown at the end of this film (even with a suggestion of a tear ?) could, in its own terms, just signify something other than what it seems to imply. (The writers quoted, who only consider the film in isolation, adopt the familiar tactic of making a virtue of an offence.)
For, as Vivian Mercier says⁸ about the conclusion of Samuel Beckettt's novel Malone Dies (Malone meurt), even the apparent ending is 'not conclusive' because, as happened before, Malone may have dropped his pencil.
And, perhaps, Beckettt seems ever so slightly more relevant to Morrow, because of that tear, and his succeeding novel The Unnamable (L'Innommable), as well as 'Rough for Radio I' (collected by Faber & Faber in Ends and Odds : Plays and Sketches) ?
Animator : Particularly with that tear so hard behind. It is not the first, agreed. But in such a context !
¹ Though the line neatly enough avoids establishing later where we are and why, devices such as it afford Susan the status of being a person of import, but who is just seen wandering around, looking at things, and barely in the film, in real time, except to put herself into the film within a film that she creates.
Maybe, in this professional life, Adams is precisely not meant to possess any conviction, but, whether as Jeanne, a gallerist married to Germain (Fabrice Luchini) in François Ozon’s In the House (Dans la maison) (2012), or the madly art-collecting Iona Aylesbury of Martha Fiennes’ Chromophobia (2005), KST has it in spades.
² We might have suspected that the video projection and sculptures on plinths were designed and created by the film’s art department and Tom Ford - as is confirmed to us Emerson Rosenthal in conversation with Shane Valentino, the film’s production designer, for VICE.
³ There seem to be undigested elements that are familiar from Funny Games (1997) or Wind River (2017).
⁴ Trivially, of course, she is no more real than the characters of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), whom we believe that we see her embodying.
⁵ Zacharias, Ramona (10 January 2017). CreativeScreenwriting.com.
⁶ Also quoted in the form The work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.
⁷ Written of Belle toujours [20–26 November 2008].
⁸ Beckettt / Beckettt (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979). Mercier writes that it is frequently assumed that death comes to Malone when his hand ceases to write on the last page (p. 175) - quoted in Anthony Davis' No Symbols Where None Intended (Belston Night Works, Bristol, 2nd edn, 1998).
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)