Obsession & Old Pearls; My Cousin Rachel (2017), dir: Roger Michell

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you

And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you

 

A cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (performed by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca) was chosen to dress the film’s trailer and I believe there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne’s du Maurier 1951 novel of the same name, written and directed by the South African director, Roger Michell. I’ve previously watched the original 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton so the instant comparison in my head favoured the most recent version. The film’s cinematography by Joseph LaShelle elevates the beauty and elegance of British countryside (the story unfolds in a Cornwall estate) and the excellent performances. In fact, My Cousin Rachel has a theatrical feel in its directing and acting, as the cast is responsible for thrilling scenes that focus on dialogue and atmosphere. Speaking of which, the lush score composed by Rael Jones designs a mysterious and gloom frame.

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Throughout the film I developed tension and discomfort that kept me company all the way through the end, which I welcomed like a breath of fresh air because it concluded my agony and sadness. The exquisite photography was enhanced by the film’s Victorian setting, where we meet a woman, Rachel who is suspected to have committed slow and well-calculated murder by poisoning her husband. Rachel, portrayed by the masterful and powerful in all her performances Rachel Weisz, is a unique specimen of her sex. She is astonishingly beautiful and cunningly seductive. Weisz brings a dark and tragic tone to her character that lies under her confidence and disarming sexuality.

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There is great mystery surrounding Rachel as not only the facts of her past are only speculated upon but also because her every sentence and full-of-meaning looks promise an insight into her soul while in contrast, they give ground to further confusion. Accused of having turned into a sinister and grasping wife who, as the cherry on top has viciously got rid of her husband, she starts a love affair with Philip, her late husband’s nephew.

Admittedly, Rachel is neither trustworthy nor frank but she should not be placed on the other tip of the scale either, in my opinion. It is wisely said that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. She’s passionate, sensitive and kind but also smart and shameless. She apparently has come to the realisation that only by achieving her financial and marital independence she can become her own person and enjoy a free life and thus, employs every mean to accomplish her goals.

It is often forgotten that in times when women were eternally dependent on their fathers and husbands, seeking independence took great courage and could trigger survival instincts similar to those of an animal who’s fallen into a deathly trap and fights for its life.

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Sam Claflin creates a magnetising and tormented Philip that falls unexpectedly in love and loses all reason. As Claflin mentions in an interview, Philip is a boy who believes he’s a man, and he successfully plays that part as a student and a loving nephew up until the point when his whole world crumbles: the man who raised him and considers his father, his Uncle Ambrose dies and leaves cues that incriminate his wife.

There is such childishness, innocence and naivety in Philip that turn him into an almost antipathetic character as he is perceived as a weak, google-eyed, untrained puppy and thus, idiotic in his altruistic acts of love. However, Philip doesn’t lack a darker side: he is possessive, impulsive and ill-tempered with violent outbursts that remind us that even the most gullible people can cause great harm. In his defence however, Philip who hasn’t interacted with women growing up is the most vulnerable prey for an experienced and manipulative woman that also happens to be his first love and sexual experience.

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In all his inner mess and outrageous, most eccentric and neurotic behaviour, he never loses one friend, the sweet and protective Louise (Holliday Grainger). Louise is not the opposite of Rachel but demonstrates another kind of strength and confidence. She is plainly in love with Philip and despite having to put up with his insults and a broken heart, she remains a loyal friend and gains our respect and admiration.

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Did Rachel poison them, or didn’t she?

She did! I believe that when Ambrose’s mental state was permanently affected by his brain tumor, she chose to poison him and set herself free from an abusive – despite it being none of his fault – husband. Later on, when Philip became asphyxiating, she had to bring back her poisonous herbs, only to regret it shortly afterwards – perhaps moved by his love and devotion, or feeling pity for his foolishness – and decide to see to his health.

The beauty in stories that leave you wondering is the complexity and sincerity attributed to the characters in the process. When a film achieves confusion to such extent then it has provided an interesting tale of mystery, deceit and complicated personalities.

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Finally, there were some incredible scenes beautifully-executed by Weisz and Claflin. Let’s take their first encounter for instance, where she offers him tea and cake, and he needs to lick his fingers from the melting butter. In the original film, it’s a comment lost between the lines and Burton’s sterile response is easily forgotten. In complete contrast, Michell and his performers take those lines and make an erotic, uneasy and utterly memorable scene out of them. The same stays true for the scene of whispers exchanged over a whipping Rachel, Philip’s outburst and many others.

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After the film you might want to read Du Maurier’s novel, listen to the lush and dark original score, remember a time when you were innocent and gullible in the matters of love, look up how many poisonous seeds exist in nature, debate whether Rachel is guilty or not, and finally make yourselves a hideous, healthy brew while pondering about the irresistibly seductive people you’ve met in your life so far.

Erotic Thriller or A Tale of Sadistic Deceit; The Handmaiden (2016), dir: Park Chan-wook

Park’s recurrent themes are prevalent here as well as sadism, deceit, violence, sex, revenge and freedom intertwine, by weaving a thrilling and sensual tale of dramatic proportions.

For weeks I’ve been passing by the film’s poster and each time it caught my eye! I was curious but I remained stubbornly away from trailers and reviews until I finally visited the theatre this evening. I needed a genuine thrill for a change but as the Rolling Stones wisely mark, you can’t always get what you want….

I might not have had the most intense experience but I liked the film as a whole. It was engaging for the most part thanks to the stirring narrative and the surprising twists and revelations. The visual art of its photography, the aesthetically masterful shots and the purposefully created costumes are some of the strongest elements of The Handmaiden. The film is a psychological thriller with a sufficient character study and sparkling sensuality. The photography is amazing by praising landscapes and interiors and by indulging us with portraits and aesthetic sexual frames.

Although, I recognise that The Handmaiden is an artful creation I did not achieve immersion into the story, or identification with any of the characters. As a result, the end arrives and despite the classic conclusion where ”the good prevail, the evil are shattered”, I am not experiencing catharsis or satisfaction (with the exception of the destructive activities that take place in the library).

The acting style adopted in the film matched inappropriately overtone facial expressions with scenes that would have benefited of strict focus on sensuality and sexual tension. As a matter of fact, I believe the last sex scenes (that also happen to last the longest) did not add to the story or the character study. The film is ultimately sweet and romantic with scenes that spur laughter in the place of tension and focus, interrupting transportation into the narrative and disconnecting the senses.

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In contrast, I particularly enjoyed Hideko’s (the lady’s) theatrical readings of Marquis de Sade’s works. Her performance is spotless, stunning and gripping. Also, the bathtub scene where Sook-hee employs her amateur dentistry knowledge to smooth her lady’s tooth provokes titillation and excitement far more than the more graphic scenes that the protagonists share throughout the film.

Finally, the way Park chooses to deliver the story is brilliant and the three-part storytelling reveals the different perspectives and inner instincts of our two heroines (1. the handmaiden’s, 2. the lady’s, 3. the story’s epilogue). The first two parts consist of repetitions that enhance the cinematic experience instead of tiring viewers (an arguably rare thing!) as moments are revisited from different angles and previously concealed facts are revealed.

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After having watched  The Handmaiden don’t be surprised if you want to wear colourful gloves, have sex, visit South Korea, read a chapter from one of Sade’s scripts, or if you happen to have a nightmare about wet, dark basements and gigantic octopuses.

Reality strikes at dinner; Perfetti Sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers) (2016), dir: Paolo Genovese

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I will start by saying that I absolutely loved, loved, loved the film!! It is realistic, funny, cruel, and tender. The idea in its core is simple, and yet brilliant. Seven friends meet for dinner and one of them suggests that they put the “black boxes of their lives”, in other words their phones on display and make their use public for the night; calls, texts, social media activity etc. The film’s epitome is that it is wiser to admit we do not really know anyone, and to avoid games that set our secrets at the risk of exposure.

As Dr. House wisely had been proclaiming for 8 seasons….

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There are three couples in the story (or four, if we count Peppe and his absent “girlfriend”, Lucilla) therefore, it is only natural to assume that infidelity is part of the many and varied revelations of their turbulent night together. Rocco (Marco Giallini), a plastic surgeon and his wife Eva (Kasia Smutniak), a therapist have a teenage daughter, then Lele (Valerio Mastandrea), a lawyer and his wife Carlotta (Anna Foglietta) have two young kids, and finally Bianca (Alba Rohrwacher) and Cosimo (Edoardo Leo) are the newlyweds. Peppe (Giuseppe Battiston), a school teacher, is a divorcee who is in a serious relationship for the first time in many years.  The guys in the group are childhood friends, and the dynamic of their relationship represents a perfect image of male friendship and the instinctive collusion among them, which leads to a phone trade that is a major turning point in the storyline.

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It is a funny coincidence to watch the film only a few days after I experienced a personal revelation of my own; someone I have known my entire life and strongly believed to be incapable of infidelity (due to his reserved nature and fear of criticism), turned out to be an expert in deceiving his family for years. Bizarrely enough, infidelity is not what one would expect in a relationship-centred film such as this, as most twists are generated under adultery’s deceiving umbrella. Despite my prejudice regarding the cliché presentation of cheating in films, I was served with a delicious secret that stripped friendship of its virtues and established cynicism’s eternal reign over human actions.

One room-set films inevitably resemble theatrical plays and therefore, should have particularly dynamic performances, an original script, and well-written dialogues that can strip their characters in a revelatory and cathartic way such as, Polanski’s Carnage (2011),  Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Mankiewicz’s Sleuth (1972), Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1966), etc. Perfetti Sconosciuti meets all the aforementioned criteria for delivering a memorable cinematic experience that reminds us of how complicated and secretive people can be, even the ones we could swear we know best.

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The performances are spotless, and the cast is evidently carefully chosen for their parts. No wonder the film managed to collect nine  David Di Donatello nominations, winning in the Best Film and Best Script categories. Drama builds up gradually, following the calibre of the respective revelations, and by the end of it everyone is numb and hurt. However, smart and humorous lines bring out the funny side of it all. Some of the themes around which the film revolves are parenting, love, sex, fidelity, separation, homosexuality, acceptance, hypocrisy, guilt, psychotherapy, relationship with exes, work, lawsuits, and of course the Eclipse, with the moon being the only supporting actor.

People in their 30’s (and over) can easily identify with the characters who are married (or in serious relationships), some of them with kids. In contrast, viewers in their 20’s, like myself, could treat the film as a cautionary tale about the consequences of keeping secrets from your significant other, and your friends in the future when life might become incomprehensibly confusing and hard. Having watched the film, I am tempted to suggest the game next time I meet up with friends for dinner in order to have a first-hand experience of the damage that such an intrusion of privacy can evoke (while enjoying biodynamic wine, naturally…).

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I adored the final scene where we are shown how the night would have ended, if the group of friends hadn’t played the game. It got me thinking which scenario would be best; the brutality of each other’s inner, indigestible reality served on a cold platter, or the continuation of hypocrisy and secrecy?! It is tempting to imagine a reality where everything is out in the open and thus, there are no deeper layers of people’s lives and feelings. On the other hand, drama goes hand in hand with human relationships and for some it would be a shame to separate those two… Also, it is undeniable that a sense of liberation and catharism occurs for all parties involved when something that has been kept a secret with great cost and mental effort is finally exposed.

Personally, I would choose to play every time.

Nocturnal Animals: A violent romantic thriller (2016), dir: Tom Ford

 

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Leaving the theatre, I felt I was never going to smile again. I had been walking for about half an hour before I reached home, feeling absolutely numb and hurt by what I had been witnessing for the past 2 hours. “Nocturnal Animals” is an incredible and a dark film, with a three-dimensional storytelling structure, an incredible cast, and an emotionally charged score by Abel Korzeniowski. Tom Ford calls it a “cautionary tale” and with good reason still,  I will call it “the lurking nightmare of missing your one chance for happiness in life”.

The film is a thriller and a strong, pure, and piercing drama about regret, revenge, and unfulfilled love. The storylines are directed with frenetic energy that is complemented by beautiful images and sounds. The film’s pulse is unnerving due to the unconcealed, rough reality that is artfully and brutally crafted by Ford, whose second work lacks the elements that made people accuse him of being a pretentiously stylised filmmaker in his first work, “A Single Man” (2009).

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The Basics: 

The film was adapted by Ford himself from the 1993 novel, “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. Admittedly, it demands considerable talent and ability from both the director/writer and the cast to convey the intertwined storylines with clarity and undisturbed flow of emotion. Therefore, I am happy to say that despite its complexity and richness, the film is incredible in the sense that the details and allegories that were carefully placed across the narrative evoke pervasive emotions.

Amy Adams breaths life into Susan, an art gallery owner who leads an affluent life who represents the image of an accomplished and stylish woman (a role model for the western civilisation, perhaps?). One day she receives a manuscript of the first book that her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) wrote and has dedicated to her. Susan barely gets any sleep at nights, so he used to call her a nocturnal animal, and that is how he named his novel. The ex-couple hasn’t had any contact for the past 19 years, and we learn from Susan that Edward was unwilling to talk to her when she contacted him 2 years prior. Susan is unfulfilled with her job and unhappy in her marriage (her cheating and cold husband, Hutton is Armie Hammer). She starts reading the novel in her stylish, lavish yet empty and hollow home when everyone is gone for the weekend.

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The story in the book follows a peaceful Texan (like Edward, and Tom Ford..), Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter through a nighttime road trip in the middle of nowhere. At one point, they are harassed and forced out the road by another car whose passengers are meant to turn their life into a horrific nightmare. The sequence of the scenes that follow, I believe are one of the most disturbing and tense in cinema, as they are filled with agony and suspense in a roughly realistic background. The next morning finds Tony devastated in the company of Detective Andes, portrayed by Michael Shannon, following the trails of the previous night’s incidents. A year after, Tony has a chance to avenge his family but that would mean that he needs to redefine himself and his limitations.

3 stories: Reality (Present – Past): Susan reads Edward’s novel and expects to meet him during his business trip in L.A. shortly. Interwoven into real life and fictitious events, we see the flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship. Fantasy: The story of the novel unfolds between the real events and flashbacks. Viewers are called to make sense of the parallelism between the protagonists’ past relationship and Tony’s painful story.

My Thoughts:

My curiosity was piqued right from the beginning, when Susan receives the novel. I wondered what were the events that led to their separation that spurred his inspiration for a book. Having watched the film, I realise that it wasn’t so much the reason of their break-up, as to its consequences, meaning the psychological impact it had in his life (and hers..). The book works as her punishment and his revenge.

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“Do you feel your life has turned into something you never intended?”- Susan

Susan projects power, accomplishment and composure. Her younger self however, wished to break free from the conformity of bourgeoisie, and passionately declared that she was completely different from her mother. She chooses to embrace the way Edward perceives her to be and she finds liberation and self-esteem by his side.

In contrast to Susan, Edward is confident about his calling to be a writer, he is also thoughtful and very sensitive, which is the opposite of what Susan has been brought up into. He reminds Susan that she has what it takes to be an artist herself and introduces her into a less pragmatic and sensible way of living. Susan’s initial instinct is to embrace the unknown beauty of freedom and self-acceptance, and so decides to marry him. Initially, she is called to justify the marriage to her mother, but later on (2 years approximately..) she has to justify it to herself, as she feels unhappy in it, despite her love for Edward.

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Is it inevitable to turn into our mothers? 

I do not believe that “We all eventually turn into our mothers.” (says Susan’s mother, played by Laura Linney), but I do believe that our mother’s (and father’s) voice does not leave us throughout our adult life. It is our job to seek our true self, buried under numerous years of constant influence and manipulation (conscious or unconscious) by our parents, in order to set ourselves free and find the life that suits us best, not others.

Our heroine, Susan made a step toward her truth, then she got scared when her real life did not resemble the one she was “supposed” to have, so she left her loved one and found a more “suitable” match, and career path. Nineteen years later, Susan has accomplished things that have definitely made her mother proud. She feels “ungrateful not to be happy” in her privileged life but she is simply not! The truth is that her love for Edward has never left her, nor the idea of the life they could have had together. She burdened with guilt for having given into fear and doubt, about not having believed in him the way he believed in her, and for having robbed him of the chance to become a father when she aborted their child (“I believe this is going to hunt me for the rest of my life.”~ Susan).

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What scared me the most?

The extent of feelings: Edward experienced excruciating pain from the ending of their relationship, which led him to the darkest places of his soul where he was able to conceive his allegorical, haunting story. The violence and pain that I witnessed in the scene where the family confronts the 3 troublemakers won’t leave me anytime soon. My stomach was tight and I could barely breathe while I watched those relentless psychopaths attack and ruin the lives of an innocent and happy family. I can only imagine that the helplessness we see in Tony, is the same as the one Edward felt. It is unsettling to think that someone might could feel so devastated by the end of a relationship that these feelings of anger and loss would translate into a story of such despair and agony.

Misjudge love, and make the wrong call: I must admit that I have never felt so strongly about anything/anyone, let alone a romantic relationship that could instantly evoke identification with the characters. However, the film conveys sentiment with such intensity that it affects even those who like myself, do not have a similar story in their past. In addition, it helped that I can perfectly relate to Susan who struggles between what her gut tells her, and what cynicism and borrowed logic dictates her to do.

It is believed that love is rare and thus, precious. It is scary to realise how easy it is to underestimate your partner, reduce the importance of “love” and thus, reject your feelings (as well as your partner’s). To make matters worse, it is also commonly held that second chances in life can be rare, which significantly reduces our chance to find happiness. I might be slightly pessimistic in that respect but don’t you find major decisions in life to be intimidating? Some people are firm in their decision-making but what about those who struggle with making their mind? (even about what chocolate bar they are going to buy.. they pick one, eat it and then regret they haven’t bought the other one…). I wonder, how willing we are nowadays to fight for our relationships? In a time where intimacy and sex are acquired quickly and easily, are we perhaps consumed with our perception of the “ideal relationship” that makes all others (the real ones…) seem expendable? Are we always on the look for the next, the better partner that is around the corner?

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Edward’s plead to Susan stayed with me:

“When you love someone you work it out, you have to be careful with it, you don’t just throw it away. You might never get it again.” 

I feel the film presents a clear warning as to how we should treat the ones we love, as apparently true love is rare. It took Edward 20 years to let go of the ghosts of his past, and being a writer he found a rather creative way to do so but imagine an ordinary person trying to manage the psychological burden, and struggling to discover a non-destructive way to release the pain… In addition, Susan’s story shows that when you launch on a new path, having left ruins behind you, chances are that it will haunt you for the rest of your life and will sabotage your potential happiness.

My views on guilt is that we should rip ourselves from what we were taught to feel remorse about and reshape our moral code. However, Susan’s guilt is not distant and moralistic but alive and personal. She is guilty about the abortion, and the impact of her cruelty towards Edward but she is mainly guilty about the life she made for herself, in other words about ignoring her true feelings.

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The End

Despite his great suffering Tony still remains a “good man”, which is mistakenly perceived as a weakness of character (especially in Texas…). In the end he kills Ray, the alpha of the criminal group (exceptionally portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose powerful performance reminded me of the obsessive tension that Tom Hardy projects on-screen), and accidentally (or not?) kills himself. It is questionable whether he would ever be able to get over such a violent and cruel part of his life, the loss of his loved ones and the person he has become therefore, his redemption comes with his death.

It is evident that in Edward’s mind Susan’s betrayal takes the dimension of Ray’s actions towards Tony however, I believe that Susan can identify with both Ray and Tony. In the beginning of the film, Susan admits that she has been thinking intensely about her ex-husband, which means that she had already started putting things together as to the reason why her life feels so empty and cold. By the time she reads the end of the book, it is beyond doubt that she experiences the same feelings as Tony who cries in despair that he “should have tried harder to protect his family”.

The cross that Tony is wearing, is the same cross that Susan has around her neck, and the red couch the Tony’s wife and daughter were found raped and murdered belongs to the apartment where they used to live together (not to mention that when Susan calls her daughter, she imagines her lying in the same position as the women in the novel). I loved the scenes where the parallelism is drawn between Susan’s and Tony’ s reality, especially the one where we seem them posing as tormented statues in the bathtub.

I feel that Edward is aware that Susan is unhappy and regrets her decision thus,  Tony is the expression of her own suffering as well. Despite the fact that Edward was deemed the weak one, it is Susan that was betrayed by her own self, due to her weakness to make a leap of faith and trust he instincts instead of the cynical world around her. As a result, just like Tony, Susan was deprived of her child and husband that the nocturnal animal took away, and in order to redeem herself and reach a catharsis she needs to “kill herself”, meaning the person she pretends to be and has been responsible for her bad decisions. By following Tony’s (and Edward’s) example, she will be free of her past regrets and will be able to find peace in her present life.

The closing scene is the proof that Edward truly did let go of his past and is no longer concerned or affected by Susan. And it is the perfect vengeance because during the hours that she is waiting for him to show up at the restaurant, she feels more and more convinced of her horrible, incorrigible mistake.

“Life on hold” summarises “The Remains of the Day” (1993), dir: James Ivory

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I must have been around 12 when I first watched the film. It was among the Academy Award nominated films that were part of my “to-watch” list and I was determined to cross it out, despite the fact that the trailer had not triggered my curiosity. The strict environment of the British society of the past century used to cause me some sort of agony as a viewer, perhaps due to the suppressed feelings that these storylines are woven into. So I sat down and watched it, only to end up feeling unfulfilled and frustrated. I was so angry that “nothing happened” between the characters, even after the second chance they were given to reunite and finally, admit their mutual affections. Twelve years later, the film had a completely different effect on me and I would like to write about that.

The film is an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel and introduces Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), the butler at Darlington Hall who is taking a trip to West Country to visit Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), a former housekeeper (at least 20 years back..) and convince her to resume her role. We follow Mr Stevens during his journey and discover their background story in flashbacks.

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“What I do find a major irritation are those persons who are simply going from post to post looking for romance.” ~ Mr Stevens

Mr Stevens considers his duty to be the highest principle in life, and the explanation for his self-imposed oppression is provided in the first part of the film. His father, a butler himself, has instructed him to place obligation and dignity above all other virtues. As a result, Mr Stevens becomes a servile, loyal and reliable man that allows himself a single ambition and desire; to serve his master to the best of his abilities.

The mask of duty and blind devotion that he wears in order to practice his profession make me wonder whether this unnatural avoidance of intimacy is a comfortable nest he has made for himself, and therefore blaming it on the job requirements could just as well be a convenient excuseI mean, what if he was a gardener, or a chauffeur, wouldn’t he still have found a way to abstain from earthly pleasures? (well.. except for smoking his cigars). Could the firm obsession with his responsibilities as a butler be a mere excuse for protecting himself from the uncertainties and dangers that lurk behind experiencing feelings? I realise of course that I might be projecting my own intentions and thoughts onto his, as I often trick myself in building walls that hold feelings away from my warm, cosy nest of a reality (yet by employing much less dogmatic means than his…).

However, one thing is certain and masterfully conveyed though Hopkins’ performance, Mr Stevens HAS feelings but he constantly suppresses them and often treats Miss Kenton with cruelty (e.g. after having exposed her affections ~in a subtle way~ he finds her crying and dismisses her once again by asking her to attend to a house chore). Acknowledging that fact about the film we can detect a certain similarity with “The Age of Innocence” (1993), “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), and the “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), in all of which duty prevails over sentiment.

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“Yes. I am a coward. I’m frightened of leaving, and that’s the truth. All I see out in the world is loneliness, and it frightens me.” ~ Miss Kenton

The most heartbreaking scene of the film was their final separation at the bus station after having met after 20 years for the first (and last) time. However, the most painful and emotionally charged scene shows Mr Stevens being surprised by Miss Kenton in his room while reading a romance. Hopkins’s defensive body language and piercing stare contribute to the profound sadness I experienced as a viewer. The way he is observing her from up close and the hunger of his gaze could be those of a painter who has only one chance before she disappears forever, only a few seconds to grasp every detail on a butterfly’s wings so that he can portray her most accurately later.

Miss Kenton is a sensible, smart, hard-working woman who does not share Mr Stevens’ extreme views on duty. She is shaken when Lizzy (a housemaid) abandons the stability and future prospects of her job and appoints love as the most fundamental possession in life. She feels tired of waiting for Mr Stevens to express the slightest sign of affection so that she could still hold on to her hope for a more intimate relationship. Following an outburst she experiences that same evening he suggests they put an end to their briefings and in fact, replace them with the exchange of notes. She quickly apologised (“They’re very useful. It was only tonight.”) but the damage was already done. The scene made me wonder whether he traced her apologetic tone and chose to ignore it in order to punish her, or he simply did not possess the ability to spot her emotional state. This is a perfect example of how delicate the balance was between their estrangement and their friendship. A parallelism was drawn in my head; it reminded me of the way I approach a stray cat; I want to earn her trust to feed or caress her and although I do my best not to frighten her, one wrong move, a sudden wave of my hand perhaps, and she’s gone.

Miss Kenton returns from her pleasant evening, announces her decision and confronts Mr Stevens about his cold treatment. She finds a subtle way to highlight how significant his presence is in her life. Personally, I perceive her example about his mannerisms to be translated as such: “You are important to me, so I observe you and I know you well by now. I love the face you make when there’s too much pepper in your food, just like all the little things that make you so unique. I love telling stories about you because it makes me feel closer to you.” 

Despite being shocked by Miss Kenton’s marriage announcement Mr Stevens religiously keeps up his masquerade, and so he does 20 years later when she spares him from having to make his offer only to have her refuse it. The kindness of her character surprised me, as well as her endless efforts to bring emotion in the centre of their conversation, by being open about her feelings about her husband, Mr Stevens, and her life inventory.

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Lessons I learnt from “The Remains of the day”:

  • Do not allow yourself to strive to be only one thing, invest in various roles in life instead. What good will it do you if you strip yourself from the joys of life, in order to be the best employee? In the long run your life might seem deprived of meaning, or even worse seem like a terrible waste. In Mr Steven’s case, he realised toward the end of his life that the noble man he had served for many years was far from perfect and superior in judgement (He was labeled a Nazi sympathizer and a traitor due to his naivety, and died a broken man). Be open-minded and prepared for your emotional needs to potentially shift later in life. By being proactive and adaptable, and by leading a multi-faceted life, you don’t risk facing a dead-end street along the way.
  • Always express your feelings and be honest with yourself and others, even when your pride is at stake. I will not repeat cliché phrases regarding a lifetime’s  length however, regret is a terrible punishment we inflict upon ourselves. I believe it is a punishment because we always face a choice and we should normally prefer the route with the lowest emotional cost. Regret seems to be the premium emotional burden. Therefore, we ought to realise that placing our safety and risk aversion above a new, desirable prospect is a conscious choice that we make and has repercussions for our future. I suspect that if Mr Stevens had been entirely honest with himself and had chosen to act upon his impulses instead of burying them, he would have allowed himself a far more fulfilling life than the one he led. In other words, he would have been happier and would have made others happier, which is the ultimate duty of us all.

I’d like to close with an extract from the novel that contains the essence of the story:

“In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had…..There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.” ~ Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Lessons I learnt from “A Place in the Sun” (1951), dir: George Stevens

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This a story of an ordinary man who tastes the extraordinary only to realise that life gets cruel and canny the moment you start believing that you could achieve your wildest dreams. Montgomery Clift delivers a captivating, raw and heartbreaking performance as George. Elizabeth Taylor, as Angela embodies the perfection of privileged youth with the addition of deep emotion and the purest intentions. Shelley Winters, as Alice molds a desperate and doomed creature with the help of her distinctive fragile, high-pitched voice and her haunting gaze.

Watching the film I found myself coming up with a few questions spawned from the story, which could be considered my personal moral take-aways of the film. The situation of the tragic figures fermented due to the norms of an obsolete society however, if we gaze upon it with a fresh mind there could be found intertemporal truths and problems.

The reason for that lies on our primal instincts for survival that represent the core of our human nature. Also, tragic circumstances or the so-called “ironies of life” have never ceased to torment our pitiful, mortal existence and they never will. In moments where our survival is threatened, we need to make decisions that help us prevail and move forward in life. They could, nonetheless pose a threat to our well-established truths about ourselves and the things we consider ourselves capable of.

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Q: What makes the better girl (or guy)?

“I love you. I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.”, George confesses to Angela.

This quote is so rich in context as it adumbrates the source of George’s infatuation with Angela. She is the American Dream, the socialite you see in newspapers, graced with charm and elegance. In other words, her social status in combination with her kindness and genuine sentiment make her the perfect girl, a true Miss America. This divine existence also happens to accept and love him unconditionally right from the beginning (like almost every love declaration in the 50’s cinematic dramas), which makes him feel included into a world of wealth he is dreaming to become part of.

Alice, on the other hand is the chain that would forever hold him captive into poverty, misery and a destitute life.In the beginning, his need for human touch and intimacy in a strange city drew him to her but when new opportunities were born and his dreams started to materialise, Alice represented his past rather than his sunnier future.

A: The fact that you can imagine your future life with her/him because your ambitions for personal and social growth will be better achieved beside her/him. 

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Q: How much should I insist? 

It is painful to watch the scene where Alice, after having discovered the truth about the nature of George’s vacation, goes up to the lake and threatens to expose him. When they meet at the bus station she even goes on saying: “I’ll telephone the newspapers and tell them everything, and then I’ll kill myself”.  Harrowing  is also the scene where she describes her dreams about their common future, even though it becomes clear to her that her plans disgust George.

When blackmail, guilt and duty are the only incentives of a romantic relationship, the future seems bleak. Exerting pressure on someone who is emotionally unstable and clearly unwilling to share your dreams while on boat in a secret, dark location, then who is to be blamed if you end  up at the bottom of Loon Lake keeping company to the fish?

Beyond doubt Alice is the greatest victim of the story as she was desperate and totally dependent on George’s intentions. However, having the justice on your side is not a guarantee that you will get what you deserve. The more exhaustively demanding you become, the more you risk the danger of unleashing the monster inside others.

A: Body language and logic hold the key. The signs of intense distress are universal and easily recognisable. You might be in love and in need but circumstances shift quickly, therefore before placing your full trust into someone and becoming completely vulnerable, you should be sensible enough to prepare yourself for the worst possible scenario. 

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Q: What stands between my ambition and me?

George wants to be loved and feel included. The warmth of his expression when Angela describes her affectionate plans for their upcoming vacation together is deeply touching and transmits this relief that we all feel when unconditional love and acceptance knocks on our door (and with the promise of a luxury life as the cherry on top).

It is a fact that the obstacle is his girlfriend and future mother of his child, Alice and some people could argue their child as well. Abortion gets sadly off the table pretty quickly (although, it wouldn’t harm them if they looked for another doctor…) so Alice’s options are the stigma of promiscuity for the rest of both their lives (yeap..that is off the table too), or a respectful upbringing of her child inside a marriage.

George needs to choose between his happiness and that of Alice. Nowadays, resorting to spurious means could only be perceived as madness however, during an age of unbowed social norms, the only solution for him could be given if she were to disappear from the face of the earth. Of course, he grew up with a mother that served God and asked him to be ” a good boy”, which makes him more prone to guilt than murder.

A: In similar cases only the law and your moral code. An excellent choice of lawyer and a generous budget can save you from the legal repercussions of your murderous activities. Your moral code is initially formed according to your upbringing, but it can significantly change though your life. 

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Q: Guilty, or not guilty… ? 

“Things happen, you just don’t stay the same” – part of George’s apology to Alice.

George has suffered from poverty and social disadvantage all his life and just when his circumstances ameliorate, comes a “baby bomb” to shudder his chances for a better life. The tragic element of the story and George’s personality are the two reasons why I personally empathise with George. He is humble, hard-working and self-motivated, shy and private with his shoulders always leaning forward, covered by a shadow of melancholia. In other words, he does not fit the profile of a relentless, selfish, manipulative man, like the corrupted Tom that murders Dickie and assumes his identity in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) to serve his best interests.

For George, who did not commit the premeditated murder but didn’t do much to save the drowning Alice either, the answer to my question lies in his prevailing sentiments and desires at the moment of the accident. What was he thinking falling in the water and listening to her screams? The interesting fact is that George doesn’t feel guilty up until the moment the priest suggests this way to unveil the mystery of his culpability. Asking him why he was physically unable to save her, what was crossing his mind during those few seconds.

Bizarre suggestion I would say… George wanted Alice dead for days and was handed the perfect opportunity to get rid of her without murdering her but by letting life take its course, so naturally his thoughts might have been “Is this God’s intervention to save me from a miserable future?! I could finally be happy with the woman I love!”, which is a very humane thing to do but not a highly moralistic, Christian thing to do apparently, thus the priest decides that “Then…in your heart was murder” .

My opinion is that no matter what he was thinking at that exact moment, he was already a sinner at heart. However, my question is this: Why should he blame himself out of a suggestion of what guilt means? It is perhaps for the best interest of our mental state not to ponder on theoretical and moral questions that could lead to our pointless torment, especially when there is nothing to be done (Alice was already dead.. not to mention that he would soon be dead himself).  Finally, it might do some good to admit our fragile nature and be more lenient toward our selfishness (as long as no one dies in the process of course…).

A: Guilt is there only because your environment taught you how to generate, preserve and feel it and it’s up to you to change that.