The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part XII

Dinner scenes have traditionally been a staple of the Bond formula, though they have dissipated with time as the series has come to privilege the spectacle of action over the spectacle of sensuality. Even during extended dinner scenes, films, for both practical and aesthetic considerations, tend to deny viewers the spectacles of stars chewing. Not so here. While enjoying caviar on a cracker, Craig’s Bond chews and talks with his mouth full. The Pierce Brosnan Bond films, as we have noted, presented Bond as a manicured image, and the Craig films have carried on a similar preoccupation with posture and presentation. The difference lies in the way that the Craig films sustain and frequently highlight the tension between the image and the man.

This moment of Bond consuming food, in all of its human awkwardness, coincides with a nice bit of banter between Bond and Vesper in which Bond’s constructed image briefly slips away. Bond attempts to charm Vesper through a manufactured line only to provoke her laughter. Bond, deflated, becomes sheepish and awkward: “I thought it was a good line.” Vesper clarifies that she wasn’t laughing in derision, but pleasure: “It was a very good line.” How easily, though, Craig’s Bond returns to his performance just a few moments later. Vesper asks him, “It doesn’t bother you, killing those people?” He responds, with typical deflection, “I wouldn’t be very good at my job if it did.”

Bond takes notice of Vesper’s Algerian love knot necklace, which will become an object of greater scrutiny in Quantum of Solace. This necklace was given slightly more attention in earlier drafts of Casino Royale as a clear set-up for the sequel, in which Bond was always intended to find Vesper’s Algerian boyfriend (Casino Royale was conceived and approached as a two-film enterprise, though the planned narrative emphasis for Quantum of Solace evolved during that film’s production). The necklace is a beautiful, expressive prop, a kind of leash for Vesper, but, also, in its spiral motif, a kind of callback to Vertigo.

The awkward, vague mechanics by which Bond suspects that Mathis is working for Le Chiffre set up a hazy, unfulfilling narrative trajectory in which Mathis’ ultimate allegiance remains ambiguous (though M hints that he’s innocent, and Quantum of Solace carries that thread and fully exonerates him). The moment where Le Chiffre suggests that Mathis is on his side stands out as some especially clunky signposting, as though the filmmakers were aware that Bond’s exclamation of Mathis’ name at the dinner table was a moment of profoundly weak dramatization and desperately needed some reinforcement.

Bond’s pursuit of Vesper, which builds momentum and then jarringly cuts things short with an astonishing, disruptive stunt, makes a spectacle of Bond’s failure. The destruction of Bond’s car, a glittering, expensive Aston Martin, serves as a keen visual introduction to the torture sequence that follows. Bond’s fleeting victory at the casino now gives way to emasculation and near-castration.

Casino Royale does not wholly commit to the wanton sadism of the sequence from Fleming’s novel, but it nevertheless feels like an astonishing break from anything that preceded it in the film franchise (even the savagery of Licence to Kill feels somewhat tame when compared to Casino Royale‘s torture scene). Looking back, there’s something astonishing about the way in which Casino Royale skated by with a PG-13 rating. The filmmakers did try to stack the deck in their favor by leavening the scene with some humor, even if it is of a very dark, nasty stripe, and were seemingly successful (when I saw Casino Royale in theaters back in 2006, this scene got the biggest laughs of any scene in the movie).

The sequence remains stark, fixated on the human body and the mechanics of torture (here, Le Chiffre’s implement for inflicting pain is a thick piece of rope, which allows for the camera to capture its horrifying sway; Fleming’s novel had Le Chiffre using a carpet beater, undoubtedly a less cinematic implement). Phil Meheux’s cinematography casts everything in shadows, the orange tones of sweaty, shiny flesh standing out against the dark background. Craig’s imposing physique has been the subject of the camera’s attention before, but where he seemed imposing before, his form now seems fragile and impotent.

The undercurrent of homoeroticism in Le Chiffre’s attention to Bond here (“You’ve taken good care of your body,” as well as his final vulgar threat to Bond) establishes a kind of precedent for Craig Bond villains, who are consistently presented with a kind of ambivalent sexuality. That Bond has been typically positioned as the embodiment of heterosexual fantasy juxtaposed against villains who are coded as homosexual or somewhat deficiently masculine is hardly a novel observation. Indeed, that dynamic hardly originates with Bond. Pulp storytelling, as a default position, often reinforces masculine fantasy. But the dynamics of desire are always somewhat slippery, and therefore pulp storytelling is also the arena in which cultural notions begin to fracture and self-implode. With Craig’s tenure as Bond, Bond’s default position in this schematic feels less fixed than ever before.

Craig’s Bond does his best to maintain his sense of masculine ego, egging Le Chiffre on and then attempting to humiliate him with a scatalogical put-down when Le Chiffre tries to confirm his position of power and control. The scene, as written, leaves a lot to be desired (Mikkelsen and Craig are both to be credited with cutting through some of the exposition here), but Craig invests it all with such ferocity and haunting despair that it achieves greatness. The moment that leaves the greatest impression are those seconds where Bond’s strained laughter gives way to shudders and sobs, his bravado crumbling before our eyes.

Le Chiffre tells him that he and Vesper are expendable, and Bond registers Le Chiffre’s words as truth. Bond’s only possible victory over his opponent lies in willful resignation, in his refusal to yield even in the face of brutal death. This is the path Bond takes. But Bond and Le Chiffre are not the only people playing the game.

 

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