Looking Back: Venus in Fur

Roman Polanski’s new film, Based on a True Story, will shortly be making its premiere at Cannes. Here’s my take on his previous picture, 2013’s Venus in Fur.

Venus in Fur belongs to Roman Polanski’s wife, Emanuelle Seigner. Seigner has appeared in her husband’s films before (as a French smuggler in Frantic, a sexual dynamo in Bitter Moon, and the Devil herself in The Ninth Gate), but her magnetic turn here outshines any of her previous appearances. Adapted from the play by David Ives, Venus in Fur remains fixated upon the complexities of femininity (and masculine ideas thereof), and Seigner proves to be a spectacular vessel for these mysteries. Seigner’s age has only sharpened her raw sensuality; her sly eyes have never seemed more entrancing or ravenous. As the enigmatic, vital Vanda, she runs nearly the whole gamut of expression, never allowing the audience or flustered playwright/director Thomas Novacheck to get a lock on her true persona.

As Polanski elevates his wife, he also humiliates himself, situating David Ives’ one-room play as a autocritique by casting his dopplegänger, Matthieu Amalric, in the part of Novacheck. Amalric, for his part, delivers an admirably twitchy performance, and commits himself wholly to his character’s pomposity. Novacheck’s mortification, Venus in Fur‘s ultimate object, makes of a mockery of sadomasochism, as well as any artists who would disguise their own perversions as art. Polanski has explored this territory before–Venus in Fur serves as an extension and revision of Bitter Moon–but he has never so brazenly made himself the butt of the joke.

This brings a level of playful complexity to Venus in Fur that eluded Polanski’s previous film, the rather slight, albeit enjoyable, Carnage. Like Venus in FurCarnage tries to derive intensity from intimacy (it, like Venus in Fur, is an adaptation of a one-scene, one-location play), but its antics were too cartoonishly broad, too dependent on the wild gesticulations of its cast, to tap into the existential terror that runs as an undercurrent through Polanski’s best work. Even if Polanski’s direction in Carnage showcased something of his confident formal mastery (as always, Polanski’s attention to geography is impressive), but he improves on that work here, elegantly tracking the ever-shifting relational dynamics between Venus in Fur‘s dual leads, with Ives’ play offering Polanski some outrageous visual gags in addition to all the witty verbal sparring.

It would be in very poor taste to describe how it all concludes. Polanski has always taken great care with his endings, and, as with 2009’s The Ghost WriterVenus in Fur‘s finale both exceeds and improves upon the preceding material. The film’s final moments are not unanticipated in terms of narrative content, but in execution, they are positively bracing, finding a sublime balance of the ethereal and the grotesque. For Polanski, humiliation is its own kind of art form.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part VI

Bond’s break-in to the Ocean Club’s security office may be the most uninteresting scene in Casino Royale. This moment consists of Bond looking at conspicuously-branded Sony technology products and matching timestamps, a silly demonstration that the Bond of 2006 is hip enough to know his way around the tech of its era. This all over-complicates and draws out what should be a straight-forward version of a “Bond identifies his target” narrative beat, offering us little visual or narrative pleasure to distract us from such tedious questions as “How did Bond know exactly which security camera would show him his target?” and “Why wasn’t the GPS signal Bond pulled from M’s laptop be sufficient to identify Dimitrios?”

The film thankfully bookends this brief scene with more interesting moments. Bond trashing the Goldfinger-lookalike’s car delivers some welcome levity (particularly when punctuated by Bond’s “I don’t give a damn” car key toss), and the scene that follows the break-in offers our first glimpse of this Bond’s roguish charm. Despite the character’s savagery, Craig’s Bond frequently displays extraordinarily good manners, at least in verbal terms (if you need confirmation, look no further than this oddly hilarious clip compilation).

The way Craig draws out the word “compelled” in his exchange with the desk clerk serves as a good example of Craig’s occasional playfulness in regards to dialogue. Craig’s Bond generally has a more muted approach to language; he’s a quiet, internal, intense character in general, and his speech has more efficiency than elegance. His witticisms and puns, when he does deliver them, do not have the same spirited quality that characterized the more memorable puns of Connery or Moore. This tends to keep the focus on Bond’s physical presence, rather than his sound. But every once in a while, Craig draws out a single word and really sinks his teeth into it (see also the way he delivers the word “skewered” when talking with Vesper on the train).

The Craig films do not celebrate Bond’s promiscuity the way the classic films do, preferring to punish and scold Bond for his callousness and detachment. However, as much as these films frown on Bond’s approach to women, they also glamorize it, uncomfortably applying the same have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach that often characterizes’ the Craig films’ approach to violence. The weaponized, warped masculinity that defines Bond-as-killer feeds directly into his seductions. Craig’s Bond seduces women with the same force of will with which he dispatches his enemies, relying on displays of strength and intensity that, particularly in the latter films, cross the border from flirtation into overtly threatening, bullying behavior. In Casino Royale, he’s a bit more restrained. He wins over Solange primarily by staring her down while smirking.

In a somewhat misguided attempt at a “Lady Godiva” moment, Solange rides (awkardly) along the beach on horseback, clad only in a bikini. This is but a preface to the real spectacle, when Bond emerges from the sea, clad in absurdly-tiny baby-blue swim trunks, and catches her eye. This recreation of the famous Honey Ryder moment from Dr. No (one that was also homaged in Casino Royale‘s predecessor, Die Another Day) demonstrates one of the key shifts that occurs within the Craig era: Bond becomes the films’ primary sex object.

Indeed, no prior Bond has ever had such a gratuitously-sculpted physique, and the Craig films make sure to show it off with great regularity. Even when Bond remains clothed, his clothes are tailored in such a way as to draw attention to the musculature underneath (even his suits will seem painted-on at times, straining to contain that large chest and biceps). The women in these films get showcased, no doubt (Casino Royale, in particular, has two moments where it enjoys the spectacle of beautiful women walking in beautiful dresses), but there’s a comparative chasteness to how they’re presented when you look at the treatment of women in the prior Bond films. Take, for example, Bond’s brief interactions with Solange in his bungalow: she remains clothed in an attractive dress, but his shirt’s unbuttoned, and the camera lingers on his abdominal muscles. Even if you only go as far back as the Brosnan films, the emphasis tends to be the opposite.

Naturally, this all ties right back into the Craig era’s emphasis on posing, fixating on Bond’s movement and posture. This, incidentally, sustains the film’s numerous card-playing sequences, the first of which occurs during Solange and Bond’s second meeting. There lies little drama in cards shifting and changing across green felt (though Casino Royale does its best to manufacture it by creating preposterously “epic” poker hands around which the course of the film’s poker games pivot), but there lies some drama in watching Craig carefully adjust and shift with each new turn in these card games. Martin Campbell, in cooperation with Baird, does a marvelous job of paying close attention to these subtle changes and how they reflect the shifting power balances throughout the games. Here, as Bond plays with Dimitrios, Craig’s body language expresses Bond’s calm control as he goads Dimitrios into humiliating himself.

Dimitrios has little to define his character beyond an ill-temper and an apparent affection for classic cars. Likely due to the creative mandate to scale Bond back after the excesses of Die Another Day, there seems to be an apprehensiveness about making things too colorful and bizarre, so outside of Le Chiffre himself, most of the supporting villains lack a little flair. (Early drafts of Casino Royale did more with the character; Dimitrios was originally a version of Krest from Fleming’s short story “The Hildebrand Rarity,” a wife-beater preoccupied with a rare fish, and Bond killed him by stuffing said fish down his throat.) At any rate, the film at least situates Dimitrios in fairly well-built scenes, and his two direct encounters with Bond (both the card game in Nassau and their lethal confrontation in Miami) are highlights of this section of the film.

Solange’s character template has recurred throughout the Bond films as a cornerstone of the Bond movie formula: the sacrificial lamb who aids Bond and pays the price. Never before, though, has a Bond film lavished so much attention on it as a dramatic pivot. Casino Royale frames Bond’s dalliance with Solange as part of a behavioral pattern, illustrative of his recurrent use and abandonment of those around him. Bond serves as a vessel of death for both his foes and his allies.

The banter between Bond and Solange leaves much to be desired (consider this lamentable exchange: “Why can’t nice guys be more like you?” / “Well, because then they’d be bad”). Casino Royale, and the subsequent Craig films, will really struggle to give Bond and his cohorts genuinely clever repartee. Thankfully, in this film at least, Craig is mostly able to work his way around the clunkers. Bond’s initial interactions with Solange does give us one rare display of Craig’s Bond simply having a bit of boyish fun, both by playing a light joke on Solange and by briefly taking his newfound prize–the iconic Aston Martin DB5–for a spin.

Aside from that moment, the impression one gets from this scene is that Craig’s Bond indulges pleasure only when it doesn’t distract from his mission. When he finds out that Dimitrios is on the move to the Miami, he quickly tosses Solange aside (though not before ordering her a parting gift of caviar and fine champagne), and speeds off. Sex doesn’t offer as much of a thrill as the hunt does.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part V

Casino Royale takes a turn for the familiar as Bond travels to Nassau. As if to signal the film’s turn to classic Bond formula, the Bond vamp roars on the soundtrack as a sea plane lands near the Atlantis resort. Bond, looking quite fashionable in a gray linen suit, disembarks and looks out at the harbor to glimpse Le Chiffre’s yacht cutting through the waters. (In a subtle nod to the Fleming novels, Bond wears a short-sleeved white shirt with his suit, an alleged fashion “no-no,” but an affectation that both Fleming and his literary creation shared.)

The film then introduces us to Bond’s new automobile. A BMW? A Lotus? An Aston Martin? Nay, it is but a modest Ford Mondeo! As one of the features of the film’s “Bond begins” arc, Bond hasn’t yet earned his trademark “fancy car,” and will now have to slum it by using a commonplace rental car like the rest of us mere mortals. If Casino Royale must have overt product placement, this isn’t such a terrible way to integrate it into the film. At the very least, this has some payoff when Bond wins the DB5 a few scenes later. On the other hand, the attention this montage draws to the vehicle, like a later call-out to Bond’s watchmaker, passes beyond the boundaries of good taste.

Despite the character’s strong association with luxury, Bond regularly demonstrates contempt for extravagant wealth in the Ian Fleming novels. Bond’s dislike of the upper classes shines through in moments like his journey to the Blades Club in Fleming’s Moonraker, where Bond muses about how out of place he seems among the upper classes, or in Goldfinger, where Bond gets a taste of the high life thanks to a rich acquaintance and recoils from it in disgust. Yes, Bond’s taste for fine food, fine wines, fine cars,  and fine watches all finds its root in Fleming, but it might be more properly said that Fleming paints Bond as a man of particular tastes rather than a man of extravagant tastes. In fact, Fleming regularly expounds on Bond’s affection for scrambled eggs, and notes Bond’s affection for spaghetti bolognese and cheap red wine, not exactly models of culinary decadence!

Consider this description of Bond’s car from Thunderball, which mingles a disdain for the elite with an appreciation for the fine automobile as fine machine, rather than status symbol:

“Bond had the most selfish car in England. It was a Mark II Continental Bentley that some rich idiot had married to a telegraph pole on the Great West Road. Bond had bought the bits for £1500 and Rolls had straightened the bend in the chassis and fitted new clockwork–the Mark IV engine with 9.5 compression. Then Bond had gone to Mulliners with £3000, which was half his total capital, and they had sawn off the old cramped sports saloon body and had fitted a trim, rather square convertible two-seater affair, power-operated, with only two large armed bucket seats in black leather. The rest of the blunt end was all knife-edged, rather ugly, trunk. The car was painted in rough, not glass, battleship gray and the upholstery was black morocco. She went like a bird and a bomb and Bond loved her more than all the women at present in his life rolled, if that were feasible, together.

But Bond refused to be owned by any car. A car, however splendid, was a means of locomotion (he called the Continental “the locomotive” . . . “I’ll pick you up in my locomotive”) and it must at all times be ready to locomote–no garage doors to break one’s nails on, no pampering with the mechanics except for the quick monthly service. The locomotive slept out of doors in front of his flat and was required to start immediately, in all weathers, and after that, stay on the road.”

So, in Fleming, Bond’s affection for fine automobiles stems not from a love of the status they carry, but in their quality and dependability, in their usefulness on his missions and to his pursuit of a thrilling lifestyle. Similarly, the Rolex Bond adopts in the Fleming novels was a demonstration that Bond had selected what was, in Fleming’s time, an extraordinarily well-made and durable tool, rather than a flashy sign of upper-crust decadence.

This hasn’t been exactly replicated in the Bond films, which have tilted ever more in the celebration of luxury. Whatever factors have contributed to this, the most essential is the desire to deliver true cinematic spectacle through the thrill of beautiful people enjoying the best of everything. So in its current state, the Bond series gives us impossibly exclusive cars (the Aston Martin DB10 used in Spectre was created for the film, with a production run of ten automobiles total), exceedingly high-end watches, ostentatious clothes, which all give the sense that Bond–or his employers–have extraordinarily deep pockets. This has been compounded by Bond’s increasingly anachronistic status, which tends to position him as a reminder of a more elegant era. This was strongly signposted during the Brosnan years, where Bond became an explicitly-defined avatar for old imperialistic Britain, accosted for being a “dinosaur” and a “stiff-assed Brit” out of touch with the times (Craig’s Bond gets a bit of this, too, but not in his first two entries).

Even so, some of the Bonds preserve a bit of that original Fleming dynamic. Certainly Connery–who Fleming originally accused of looking like a “bricklayer”–has a roughness that distinguishes him from the more mannered upper crust (which especially shines through in the scenes where, as in Goldfinger‘s dinner with Colonel Smithers, he interacts with the British elite and seems both somewhat bored and out of place). This carries through into Lazenby’s relatively rugged performance, too, who turns down a small fortune in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Well-poised, well-mannered Moore remains the most aristocratic of the Bonds, even if he retains an impish streak beneath his gentlemanly air. It’s during his era that Bond begins to feel more and more like a man out of step with the times (even if he does sport bell bottom trousers in his 70s films), a sense accentuated by the degree to which Moore visibly aged throughout his long tenure in the role.

Dalton’s Bond defies easy categorization, but more than any other Bond, he avoids clear iconization. Dalton returned Bond, however briefly, to being a weary, working professional, and he generally avoids flashy displays of wealth. He seems very well-educated (in The Living Daylights, he has a knowledgeable appreciation for classical music, and Licence to Kill has Bond making puns based on Hemingway titles), but does not appear especially beholden to any old-fashioned notions of Britishness. Instead, the emphasis seems to have been on making him seem like a contemporary action hero; Licence to Kill even has Bond abandoning British tailoring for popular American styles.

Then there’s Brosnan, who embodies bits and pieces of all of his predecessors and becomes a kind of man-outside-of-time, an embodiment less of an actual character than the very idea of Bond as it existed in the public consciousness at the time of his run. Brosnan may be accosted for being a figure of the past, but he never really feels like he belongs to it. He seems more like a timeless constant in a changing world. Brosnan’s Bond rarely finds himself in situations that would define his own class status, but he blends in seamlessly among the very wealthy, and is typically draped in the the sort of apparel that would appeal to a wealthy businessman with good taste.

Craig’s Bond, returning to the roots of the character, has a pronounced “working class” streak. Craig’s Bond doesn’t start out with a luxury automobile or a perfectly-tailored dinner jacket. He has to obtain these relics of Bond-dom as part of his journey from mere human being to cinematic icon. Nothing underlines this as much as Bond arriving at the exclusive Ocean Club, only to be mistaken for a valet by a demanding patron (somewhat modeled after Bond’s iconic foe, Auric Goldfinger). In return, Bond ruins the patron’s day by damaging his vehicle, and then later twists the knife when the patron realizes that Bond is actually one of the hotel guests.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part IV

Bond’s actions in Madagascar have repercussions, both for his employers and for his foes. When Le Chiffre receives the news of Mollaka’s death, he’s hosting a private poker game on his private yacht. (One of the participants, Madame Wu, is played by Tsai Chin, who appeared in 1967’s You Only Live Twice. Her character reappears during the high stakes poker game later in the film.)

Casino Royale has a clear sense of the psychology and bearing of its protagonist, but flounders a bit when it comes to its antagonist. Bond’s introductory scenes are tight and confident, but Le Chiffre’s initial scenes feel less like fleshed-out scenes than a list of bullet-points: Le Chiffre uses an inhaler, he weeps blood from a wounded eye, he calculates advanced statistics with ease, he loves poker, he plays the stock market, he becomes vaguely threatening when he encounters an obstacle.

At least Mikkelsen infuses the character with an icy menace that prefigures his extremely memorable turn as Hannibal Lecter (although his Le Chiffre has very little of Lecter’s twisted hedonism). One of the pleasures of Mikkelsen’s performance lies in the way his composure gradually breaks down as he meets with setback after setback until we reach his nasty, desperate final moments with Bond.

The material introducing Bond’s superior, M, plays a bit better. As I noted earlier, Judi Dench’s M is the most significant holdover from the Brosnan Bond years. Dench entered the franchise to memorable effect in 1995’s GoldenEye as an embodiment of the shifting sexual and international politics in the wake of the Cold War. Brosnan’s Bond went through some rough patches with M, and she chastised him now and again, but a clear fondness developed between them. If what they shared wasn’t quite friendship, it was nevertheless a warm, mutual respect and trust.

The Craig films build a different trajectory. The Brosnan films present M as a newcomer, fighting to establish a new path after the Cold War, but the Craig films present her as a world-weary, scarred veteran of the secret service. The uneasy respect between Bond and M comes with some substantial suspicion, as well as a note of codependency (something Skyfall will accentuate and develop to great effect).

This “distant mother”/”wayward son” dynamic serves as an extension of the Craig era’s heavy emphasis on Bond’s psychology. Casino Royale will only lightly touch on the way the death of Bond’s parents plays into their dynamic, but that’s enough to invite us to fill in the gaps.

Dench’s first scene here plays to her widely-recognized talent for extracting humor from displays of grouchy exasperation. The scene lays things on a bit thick; Dench has been able to do more with less, and she seems to be straining just to keep up with all the wordy dialogue. Additionally, M’s indignance seems somewhat unwarranted given the circumstances.

Her “I miss the Cold War” stinger repositions the franchise in alignment with a new political landscape. As the following installments will emphasize to an even greater degree, the realm of espionage is murkier, the lines between the heroes and villains less clear. These early scenes in Casino Royale set the stage for an ongoing struggle between Bond, M, and the political bureaucracy that will carry on throughout all four Craig adventures.

Indeed, this Bond has an anti-authoritarian streak that far exceeds that of his predecessors (who, outside of a few instances, acted like professionals following orders, even if they bent the rules on occasion). Only in movieland could breaking-in to his superior’s apartment, the location of which is apparently a state secret, be anything other than a career-ending violation (to say nothing of stealing his superior’s credentials and hacking into her computer!).

Reading Skyfall back into Casino Royale enriches this scene by suggesting that M’s relationship with Bond is actually the latest iteration in a series. Skyfall reveals that M is instinctually-drawn to surrogate son figures with exceptional talents and a willingness to flout the rules, which provides a kind of explanation for her willingness to overlook Bond’s substantial shortcomings.

M discovers Bond in her apartment just after he has made use of her (Sony) computer, which apparently has unique access to a call-tracing program. How Bond got her password, address, or name is left a mystery. When questioned about it, Bond becomes smug, a brief reappearance of the know-it-all Bond of old. I like to imagine that Bond actually seduced the information out of a lower-level MI6 clerk. (Curiously, the suggestion that M’s identity is a state secret will never really come up again in these movies. For what it’s worth, props used in the making of Skyfall list M’s real name as Olivia Mansfield.)

“We’re trying to figure out how an entire network of terrorist groups is financed and you give us one bomb maker. Hardly the big picture, wouldn’t you say?”

Coming to understand “the big picture” isn’t just the nature of Bond’s character arc in Casino Royale, but it’s actually the arc of all four Craig films, and it plays out on both personal and political levels. We’ll have more to say about the ways the later films play into that when we get there.

“I understand double-0’s have a very short life expectancy, so your mistake will be short-lived.”

Craig delivers this line, a surrogate child’s bitter rejoinder to a surrogate parent, with melancholy self-awareness. He’s acutely aware of his own death wish.

“So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman?”

Craig’s Bond compares himself to clergymen with surprising consistency. He does so here, and then later in Quantum of Solace and Spectre. (Skyfall might offer a childhood rationale for this, due to the priest hole and chapel that lies on the Bond family grounds.) Like a priest, Bond has set himself apart from the rest of society, but while a priest gives life, Bond takes it.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part III

It’s not difficult to imagine a version of Casino Royale that begins with the Madagascar chase, omitting the black-and-white pre-title sequence altogether. Which isn’t to suggest that the opening sequence is extraneous (though many of the “origin story” elements of Casino Royale are a gloss on the story rather than essential narrative components), but that the Madagascar chase also serves as an introduction to this new Bond. It’s not just one of the best action scenes of the series, but one of the best action sequences of all time: a kinetic character study.

The Bond franchise may have helped establish the action film genre, but the Bond films do not contain many exceptional examples of action filmmaking. Yes, the series contains a lot of breathtaking stuntwork, but that’s not the same thing. In the classic films, the actual nuts-and-bolts filmmaking in the action sequences tends to be dependable and efficient, but rarely venerable. To the credit of director Martin Campbell, his second unit director, Alexander Witt, and editor Stuart Baird, Casino Royale‘s Madagascar sequence feels as tightly-constructed as action films get, a perfectly-paced series of inhalations and exhalations that maintains a clear sense of geography over a complex environment.

That environment gets an appropriately Bondian introduction by way of a mongoose/cobra fight that feels like it could have come straight from Ian Fleming. There sadly isn’t much travelogue in the Bond films these days–the films’ pacing has become too aggressive to allow for it–so there is a tendency in the recent films to establish some colorful details up-front and rely on them to suggest the exoticism that the Bond films once wallowed in. Given that the rest of this sequence will reduce “Madagascar” (a combination of on-location shooting in the Bahamas and some backlot material) to some slums, a construction site (admittedly set against a strikingly-blue ocean), and a run-down embassy, this touch is appreciated.

Classic “movie Bond” might have strolled into this slum looking somewhat out of place (perhaps Roger Moore’s Bond might have even pulled out that safari suit he sported in Octopussy), but Casino Royale‘s Bond attempts to blend in with apparel that could have been borrowed from Jason Bourne’s wardrobe. As ever, though, Bond still sports an expensive watch, a visible hint of Bond’s taste for the finer things in life. (Costume designer Lindy Hemming gradually introduces the formal attire we associate with Bond throughout the film, building up to the ostentatious three-piece suit that punctuates the final scene.)

I noted the importance of body language to Craig’s performance, and just look at how great he looks during these introductory moments, leaning back against the wall like some immovable tree trunk, only to spring into action when things take a turn for the worse.

Casino Royale routinely juxtaposes Bond’s skill with his impatient hot-headedness. This supports the “Bond begins” arc of the film, but will also end up being maintained in subsequent installments (Craig’s Bond grows up a bit, but he will always be something of a blunt instrument and a rebel). This tense exchange with Carter is the first clear story beat to play with the idea (though, as my friend Jack Rodgers suggested to me, the first true example might be said to occur in the pre-title sequence, when Bond initially fails to drown his target and thus puts himself at risk of being shot). Carter’s exaggerated incompetence contrasts with Bond’s control, but Bond will break his cool soon enough.

Mollaka, who we’re told is a bomb-maker, is the first of a series of relatively-forgettable lower-level assassins and middle-men that we’re going to be introduced to in these early chapters of Casino Royale. In classic Bond fashion, Casino Royale‘s terrorists aren’t ideological. They’re opportunists, scrubbed of real-world specificity. In the Bond films, evil is generally a matter of sinister, shadowy economics. Bond even muses aloud about whether or not this bomb-maker has insurance.

Mollaka’s scarred face, a standard-issue villain disfigurement, does little to distinguish him in the pantheon of Bond henchmen, but the character has the benefit of being played by Sébastien Foucan. Foucan, a practitioner of parkour, brings his own dazzling brand of stuntwork to the sequence. A film couldn’t ask for a better special effect than Foucan’s effortless and fluid contortions as he leaps from obstacle to obstacle.

Craig is, by some measure, the most physical Bond (again, the influence of the Bourne films–Bond is now not just an adequate brawler, but a masterful close-quarters fighter), and he’ll weather some tumbles that should maim or kill him. To keep Bond from coming across as too invincible, the Madagascar sequence keeps him consistently in the position of underdog. Mollaka will make find a shockingly-elegant way around some obstacle and Bond will be forced to quickly improvise in a messy-but-efficient way. There is no better demonstration of Bond’s problem-solving approach than when Mollaka gracefully slips through a small vent, and then, to pursue him, Bond throws himself full-force through drywall.

Craig’s Bond lightens up a bit in the later installments as the films attempt to bring in more of the “classic” Bond sensibility, but here, he has no time for witticism. He’s too focused on his prey. (An earlier version of the chase gave Bond a brief callback to iconic Bond dialogue. When Mollaka tries to shoot him on the crane, Bond was going to utter a variation on Dr. No‘s “You’ve had your six,” but this was cut from the film. I suspect this is the reason for the slightly-strange edit during this beat.)

Bond’s single-mindedness reaches its peak when Bond causes an international incident by infiltrating the embassy of the fictional nation of “Nambutu” in order to obtain his target. There’s a note of old-fashioned imperialism in the way Bond’s intrusion lays waste to the embassy, even if this incident is used as the movie’s most dramatic illustration of Bond’s recklessness (note that M later chastises Bond for causing a major political incident, not for any collateral damage left in his wake). Additionally, the rebuke Bond earns for his actions here is somewhat weakened by the implicit validation the story gives him by rewarding him with valuable intelligence.

That intelligence, a consolation prize Bond receives after he abandons his initial goal of taking Mollaka alive, comes in the form of a text message with the word “ELLIPSIS” (a word presumably chosen by the screenwriters because it sounds vaguely mysterious). Thus begins Casino Royale‘s awkward relationship with technology, which, thanks to product placement, only exists in the form of conspicuously-branded Sony products. The subplot begun here becomes a fantastic example of the narrative over-complication that plagues all of the Craig Bond films.

Looking Back: The Immigrant

James Gray’s new film, The Lost City of Z, is currently showing in theaters and is making some waves. I thought it might be worthwhile to dust-off my review of his previous picture, 2013’s The Immigrant.

James Gray’s The Immigrant has one truly magical moment: a performance by operatic tenor Enrico Caruso for the poor souls stuck in limbo on Ellis Island. His voice soars and fills the space of the sparse room, and at once the world is stunningly, astonishingly alive with sublime music. It’s a recreation of an actual historical event, but the setting and performer are so marvelously incongruous as the transcendent briefly cuts through the thick melancholy and gloom of sorrowful tale.

According to Gray, The Immigrant is an attempt to capture something of opera’s blistering sincerity and emotional resonance (in particular, it was inspired by Puccini’s agonizingly tender Suor Angelica). If nothing else, Gray certainly succeeds in capturing opera’s earnestness. The Immigrant delivers old-fashioned melodrama (there’s a touch of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables here in its protagonist’s beatific suffering and in the film’s final, surprisingly merciful moments) with a very straight face. If only The Immigrant had some passion.

The story centers on the seedy underbelly of New York in 1921, but the tactile reality of the period is sublimated beneath restrained, tasteful beauty: Gray’s ornate vision is, essentially, romantic, and he has little interest in getting his hands dirty. His direction is ever at a remove from the events on screen, unwilling to break from its stately manner to surprise or startle. The Immigrant‘s parade of prostitutes seems positively demure in the golden-glow of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, and Chris Spelman’s score accentuates the proceedings with quotes from notable opera scores by Puccini and Wagner. But even Spelman’s score shies away from emphatic emotion. It’s as though Gray is so petrified of tipping into sensationalism that he embalmed the film.

Opera, after all, thrives on its expressiveness: it’s sincere, but bold and immediate, interested in the vast emotional peaks of passion and hate, love and desire. The somewhat-aimless script certainly tries to find such moments, but never guides its characters in ways that make these moments reverberate. It’s evident from the film’s conclusion (which, to its credit, features one of cinema’s most magnificent shots, and one for which Khondji deserves an Oscar nomination) that what Gray is hoping to achieve a sense of of spiritual awakening in the wake of unrelenting grief, but he never quite finds the right road to that destination.

Perhaps, with a stronger script and a shift in Gray’s direction direction, the film’s central trio of performers (Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) might have balanced out Gray’s reserved aesthetic approach. The script only seriously begins to adopt its more melodramatic form about halfway through the film, as the film’s victimized, desperate protagonist, Ewa, finds herself caught between two cousins, Bruno and Emil, both of them manipulators who offer false promises of hope. It’s a dynamic that is insufficently balanced and explored.

Of the three, Phoenix’s performance seems the most miscalculated. Phoenix invests Bruno, Ewa’s manipulative pimp, with all the manic energy of his performance in The Master, but the role of Bruno actually demands for something more delicate and nuanced. His earliest scenes, where he strikes an appropriate balance of charm and menace, are the most promising, but the script unfortunately shifts Bruno from manipulator to madman. Released from his constraints, Phoenix’s energy essentially steamrolls over the character, and so when we get to the finale, which demands a great deal of precision, the character is awash in a sea of mannerisms and grunts that obscures, rather than clarifies, the character’s complexity and emotional entanglement.

As Bruno’s cousin, Emil, Renner is the film’s most charismatic presence, a charming rogue with a a career as a touring magician. For the dominant amount of his screentime, the film positions him as the kinder, more viable love interest to Phoenix’s Bruno (Renner’s introduction coincides with Caruso’s performance at Ellis Island, signalling the hope he represents). His courtship of Ewa plays out with a tedious inevitability, and only in his final scene does the film effectively move past the bullet-points of their relationship and reveal a dark undercurrent of sadism running beneath his boyish exterior. It’s too little, too late, though, and rather than play with that tension, the film abruptly sidelines him.

Then there’s Marion Cotillard, who, as Ewa, continually modulates between wide-eyed anguish and cold determination as Ewa suffers in hopes of freeing of her sister (who is effectively imprisoned on Ellis Island immediately after their arrival). Gray seems rarely interested in Ewa as a person beyond these tragic circumstances, with Khondji’s lens continually framing her as an unearthly icon of suffering. The film offers too few glimpses of the Ewa who existed before this tragedy, of an Ewa with different dreams and pleasures. Of all the film’s failings, this is perhaps its most unfortunate. Only in seeing Ewa as a person beyond her immediate struggle can we truly appreciate the depths of her anguish. If The Immigrant is, as Gray claims, “a verismo opera written for an actress,” it’s one that never gives its lead actress an aria.

The Facts of Death: Casino Royale, Part II

Casino Royale‘s delightful title sequence evokes the dust jacket of the first edition of the Ian Fleming novel. Title designer Daniel Kleinman, a true asset to the franchise since he came on-board with GoldenEye, takes the card/casino motif and runs with it: crosshairs become roulette wheels, spades become bullets, and thugs disintegrate into cards. Bond stalks through this cartoon world as an unstoppable threat, dodging attacks and his assailants, until he stands alone, staring defiantly at the viewer (it has always bothered me to an irrational degree that this final image of Craig has clearly been distorted to stretch him out vertically; the effect just seems so unnecessary).

The title sequence briefly breaks out of the cartoon surrealism for a “real world” image of Bond’s “00” status being confirmed in a computer system, clearly a holdover from earlier drafts of the script, which proposed that the entire title sequence should be built around Bond’s ID being printed, which was a rather prosaic idea that was thankfully discarded for this more hypnotic dream. This makes it the only other Bond title sequence to break into the “real world” other than Casino Royale‘s predecessor, Die Another Day.

Chris Cornell’s machismo-injected rock anthem, “You Know My Name,” fully evokes the burly, headstrong essence of the bulked-up Bond of Casino Royale, and it ranks as one of the better Bond songs when all is said and done. Sure, it’s extraordinarily cornball–practically all of the Bond songs are (it’s a feature, not a bug)–and it sounded dated even back in 2006, but it’s vibrant and fun and catchy, even if the odd sound mix used for the film doesn’t do the song many favors.

It may be utter folly to parse Bond song lyrics, which are typically nonsensical in the extreme. But I intend to make a habit of paying the lyrics at least a little attention in this series, in part because there seems to have been a concerted effort on the Craig Bond songs to truly reflect the narratives of the films (which is not something that has always been true of the Bond songs). As far as “You Know My Name” is concerned, I’m struck by these lines, in particular: “I’ve seen angels fall from blinding heights / but you yourself are nothing so divine.” Given the Craig era’s heavy emphasis on Bond being a orphan, I find it tempting to read the line as a oblique reference to the death of Bond’s parents, who tumbled to their death in a fatal climbing accident (“Skyfall,” the name of Bond’s ancestral home in the Craig film of the same name, has a similar resonance).

Composer and “You Know My Name” co-writer David Arnold weaves instrumental versions of “You Know My Name” through his score as a proto-theme for Bond, given that the Monty Norman/John Barry theme has been held for the end credits. It’s very high praise when I say that that the “You Know My Name” cue has more than enough swagger to fill the gaps left by the Bond theme’s conspicuous absence. The theme may actually be underutilized in Arnold’s score; it gets full statements in a few “scene transition” moments, but the lengthy action scenes cry out for a robust, fist-pumping statement of the theme that never arrives.

The titles lead us into the muddy backlot of Pinewood Studios! Sorry, “Uganda.” It’s not exactly a convincing mock-up, and, it’s not the only time that Casino Royale can seem a little cheap (indeed, Casino Royale on the whole will feel fairly artificial, giving it all a slightly more cartoonish vibe than its successors). It’s a brief scene, so it’s easy to forgive the fakery. It’s not as easy to forgive the clunkiness of the writing as we’re inelegantly introduced to three major players here in quick succession: Mr. White, Le Chiffre, and Steven Obanno.

Let’s start with Steven Obanno, played with gusto and menace by Isaach de Bankolé. Obanno belongs to the Lord’s Resistance Army, though the film never specifies that detail in dialogue. Earlier drafts of the script did more to establish the bizarre religious ideology of that group (in the script, Obanno had a short anecdote about the child soldier who ends up playing pinball in the scene), but in the finished film, his “Do you believe in God, Mr. Le Chiffre?” is reduced to a non-sequitur that has nothing to do with anything. (It is a sample of what I call “trailer dialogue”–dialogue that sounds “cool” when taken out of context for a promotional video, but really means nothing at all in-context. I’ll be using this term a lot when we get to Quantum of Solace.)

Jesper Christiansen’s Mr. White gets some very fine material in the sequels, but in his introductory film, he is just a man in a suit. The dynamics of his organization (later films label this organization “Quantum,” which will later be retconned as being a cell/project of SPECTRE itself) and his relationship to Le Chiffre remain pretty ambiguous throughout Casino Royale. Does Le Chiffre work for Mr. White? Is Le Chiffre merely holding on to Mr. White’s money? The sequels suggest that Le Chiffre is a full-fledged member, but, on its own, Casino Royale might be read as suggesting that he’s independent. Certainly this scene indicates that they are peers, with the concluding shot of Mr. White staring after Le Chiffre hinting that Mr. White has his suspicions about Le Chiffre’s tactics.

Then there’s Le Chiffre himself, played by the dependably-great Mads Mikkelsen. Le Chiffre’s first memorable action is to take a puff on an asthma inhaler, an odd character tic that comes from the Fleming source material. This establishes Le Chiffre’s unique vulnerability; in a long tradition of Bond supervillains, all malevolent and brooding, Le Chiffre emerges as being merely a middleman, a middle-tier criminal who only turns especially savage after Bond puts him in a tight spot. It’s a nice change of pace, although there’s little in the action or dialogue here that memorably plays off of this new dynamic.

The filmmakers do seem to have hedged their bets a bit, though, in giving the character a sinister appearance to balance out his vulnerability. Mikkelsen has naturally imposing features, and the film goes one step further by giving him an eye deformity (one that has no precedent in the source material). It’s outrageous and gratuitous, but also appealing in that traditional Bond way, where villains manifest their own decadence through physical grotesqueness. The eye deformity will add a note of menace to all those close-ups that become so critical later in the film.

Stuart Baird’s editing is typically commendable throughout Casino Royale, particularly in the action sequences, but there is one odd beat toward the conclusion of the sequence where the negotiations between Le Chiffre and Obanno are punctuated by a strange cut to a glowering LRA soldier. The soldier hasn’t been a player in the scene up until this point, and it breaks away from a sequence of edits that seems to be resolving the three-way power balance between Obanno, Mr. White, and Le Chiffre. I suspect this edit is made because this particular LRA soldier actually appears later in the film alongside Obanno and that they want to set-up that threat, but the character’s later appearance needs no set-up.