The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VIII

James Bond, released from the custody of the Miami police, exits a helicopter at Dimitrios’ villa and stumbles upon an unexpected, gruesome sight: the body of Solange, tangled in a hammock.

M takes the opportunity to twist the knife:

“Quite the body count you’re stacking up. She was tortured first.”

Whether M is scolding him or testing him remains unclear. This same ambiguity will trickle over into Skyfall.

At any rate, Bond does not take this well. The camera slowly moves in on Bond’s face, allowing us to scrutinize Bond’s discomfort. He looks away as he nakedly lies to M about how much he had told Solange. Bond exposed himself, and, in his hunt for the villains, has now become indirectly responsible for an innocent’s death.

The Craig Bond films are uniquely preoccupied with the death of women. In Casino RoyaleQuantum of Solace, and Skyfall, a grand total of five women die through their association with Bond. This trope becomes something of a crutch for the film cycle–indeed, Quantum of Solace will essentially rehash Casino Royale‘s narrative beat with Solange, with similar chastisement for M–but it also creates this sense that Craig’s Bond, insofar as he remains 007, remains trapped in a repetitive cycle. He’s a variation on Scottie Ferguson from Vertigo: a man perpetually losing women who are really all the same woman. Spectre will release Bond from this cycle.

So it is fitting that this midpoint of Casino Royale, in which the film focuses on the character’s central dilemma, takes the form of two back-to-back conversations with the two most significant and strong women of the Craig era, Judi Dench’s M and Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd. Each, in turn, puts Bond under the microscope, confirming just who this Bond is, and beginning to ask just who he might become. Both of these women will pull him in different directions.

The Craig era does not indulge the classic structure of Bond films insofar as the standard-issue “mission briefing” trope is concerned. This standard-issue Bond formula component still appears, but it is always repositioned or reworked. This sequence at Dimitrios’ villa, excluding the Solange bookends, may be the closest the Craig films come to giving us the standard-issue exposition dumps that characterize the traditional M/Bond briefing scenes.

M portrays Le Chiffre as a schemer who made a fortune on 9/11, painting him as a War on Terror profiteer (there was additional dialogue cut from the scene that took this to even further lengths). Bond’s thinks that M merely wants Le Chiffre dead (“Do you want a clean kill, or do you want to send a message?”), again underlining his short-sightedness. Bond thinks of himself only as a killer. M wants information.

When Bond suggests that M knew that Bond wouldn’t let the case go, M replies:

“I knew you were you.”

This ambiguous statement qualifies, on one level, as “trailer dialogue” (as previously noted, dialogue designed more to sound “cool” rather than have any real meaning), and M certainly has already delivered her share of it in Casino Royale. Nevertheless, this serves as a fitting expression of M’s caginess. She refuses to let Bond see what she genuinely thinks about him. It’s a power play and a kind of self-preservation; she needs to always be able to see Bond as a pawn, not as a friend.

The primary cinematic reference point for Bond and Vesper’s meeting on the train is Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, and if Casino Royale‘s dialogue doesn’t achieve that same elegance, the chemistry between its leads is tremendously strong and elevates the sequence. Eva Green was a tremendously keen casting call. On the page, Vesper’s part is rather thin; Casino Royale reduces her relationship with Bond to a series of clear bullet point scenes rather than anything more organic. Green, who is often among the best aspects of any film in which she stars, gives Vesper an enigmatic allure beyond the script’s meager characterization.

Bond and Vesper’s initial banter serves well enough (“I’m the money” up to “What looks good?”); the Bond dialogue never gets too preposterously over-stylized, and Craig and Green play off of each other well. In Fleming’s novel, Vesper is little more than a glorified secretary, but in the film, she is smartly made an official of the Treasury who has the power to deny Bond additional funds. Thus the film’s Bond/Vesper relationship unfolds as an ongoing power struggle. Bond films gesture at this sort of give/take relationship all the time, but very rarely do they give the relationship the time and attention to let that dynamic play out with any sort of narrative weight. In this regard, Casino Royale sets the high-water mark for a Bond/Bond girl relationship.

When the scene takes a leap forward in time, we find that Bond has been explaining the rules of poker to Vesper (one of many such moments in the film; the filmmakers clearly did not trust the audience to be able to track with the twists and turns of the card game). This serves as a lead-in to an absurd-but-memorable scene as Bond and Vesper both analyze and dress-down the other using nothing but the few details they’ve observed in their brief meeting together.

Bond’s observations about Vesper are much more plausible than her observations about him. He lightly touches on her childhood (she’s an orphan, he surmises), but focuses most on how she presents herself professionally, an attractive woman trying to prove herself in a world of men. In order to give her the upper-hand, the film has Vesper making some deductive leaps that, outside of the world of Bond fantasy, seem fairly absurd; she deduces just from the way he wears his clothes some fairly detailed notions of his biography.

Vesper notes that Bond wears his suits with “disdain,” which again reinforces the “working class” streak that defines Craig’s Bond. Vesper speculates that this stems from Bond’s school career (at “Oxford or wherever,” she states; per Fleming, Bond attended Eton and Fettes), where he was acutely aware that he wasn’t one of the rich kids surrounding him.

That said, whatever disdain Craig has for the trappings of wealth has not prevented him from pursuing fashion. His trendy look separates him from the more subdued, classically British attire that defined Connery or Dalton, who were the embodiment of Hardy Amies’ maxim that “a man should look as if he has bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care and then forgotten all about them.” Craig’s Bond, with his gelled hair and snazzy designer looks (in Casino Royale, he wears Brioni, and in the following films, he wears Tom Ford), could have stepped out of a photo spread from Esquire.

The scene would be considerably better if it didn’t pause to inject gratuitous product placement in regards to Bond’s Omega Seamaster, which may be the most egregious and offensive moment of product placement in the entire Bond canon. In terms of checking-off the elements of the Bond persona (Vesper talks about his suits, his watches, his work), mentioning expensive wristwatches would have been quite enough.

In summing up Bond’s attitude to authority–he’s an orphan, and thus inclined to seek for surrogate parents in the form of “Queen and Country”–Vesper effectively summarizes what will become the fundamental cornerstone of the Craig Bond character. The Craig era concerns itself primarily with “Bond the orphan,” repeatedly turning to the question of Bond’s origins and familial drama. The dominant question of the Craig era is whether or not this damaged Bond can break away from the surrogate family structure he has found in MI6 and create a new, genuine family.

Bond’s smirk after Vesper exits never fails to make me smile. The element that best sells Bond’s attraction to Vesper is that Bond just seems to be having so much damn fun when they’re together. We’re having fun, too.

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