Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Temptation of St. Tony

Each individual element in The Temptation of St. Tony seems to command a certain attention for its bold and bizarre singularity, and yet its cohesion of varied elements may end up being what I favor most of all. I could, as many have, name a plethora of points from which the director could have taken inspiration, but the ability to interweave such a disparate collection of tones and styles within what struck me as an impressively coherent coalescence seems a rare feat. If I were to associate certain characters’ actions with those in a Roy Andersson film and later feel the walls closing in on the frame like a Philippe Grandrieux film and at other times swear that I was following a man trapped inside the oppressive world of Kafka’s fiction I think this is to the filmmaker’s great credit, as all of these elements surely belong together in one ominous and subtly terrifying family. The ability and willingness to shift styles and tones is a rare one, or perhaps it is common but uncommonly results in films that garner commendation and recommendations due to its imposing difficulty and high rate of failure. Whatever the case, all of this variation works and I think its successes are only compounded by the episodic framework of the film. By segmenting the film into sections it, at least in my probably unusual mind, creates a sense of concrete segmentation wherein each set of stylistic variations are isolated within a smaller pool of referents. Having said that, there are some sections which contain a far greater set of stylistic variations and never miss a note in spite their bulk, so this may merely be a theoretical benefit whose effects become largely illusory in the final analysis. Or perhaps its necessity varies with the material. It seemed important at the time. Regardless, the cornucopia of variety amounts to nothing without balance, or at least the perfect imbalance, and it is here where I think the film truly shines brightest.

Each section of the film features some element of dissonance between subject, mood, and style, something which emphasizes disorientation both within the camouflaged narrative and with respect to aligning distorted perspectives with their counterparts in reality. Looking back I can grasp hold of a tangible narrative thread, albeit a thread which at certain points seems to slither between my fingers and comes to an abrupt end at a menacing, fanged head, but regardless of the eventual transformation it seems continuous throughout. With respect to reality the question becomes a bit more complicated, like an unending sequence of bobbing and weaving between the film’s satirical jabs, constantly struggling to regain orientation. The opening sequence itself portrays an apparent contradiction in terms – mourners indifferent to another’s death in a nearby car accident, and the contradiction is further stretched into absurdity by an odd confrontation between the car accident victim, a Bentley, its seats, the apparent owner, and grief. While it is a jarring break from reality, it does not appear to be a simple inversion of expectations, nor is it pure non sequitur. This odd blend of absurdity, always shifting in its composition and expression, achieves a sense of dissonant black humor which I found myself constantly baffled by, and completely in love with. The situation mentioned cannot be broken down to a simple matter of class division, as the accident victim and Tony alike pay more heed to the condition of the car than the condition of the injured, and yet the injured man doesn’t seem to be an absolute caricature, as he eventually becomes overwhelmed. Tony seems a bit callous, and this is certainly exacerbated by his subsequent encounter with the dog, and yet he eventually comes to be the film’s closest example to a paragon of virtue. Such are the bizarre shifts in tone and implication which forever defy clear categorization. Apparently the temptation of St. Anthony is a mythical event which tells of the trials of faith of a saint by a group of demons, yet Tony seems to have kept the company of a set of his tormentors for a while and is more a victim of elements of society which have up until the film’s timeline remained just outside of his view. It is as if Tony has been living in Wonderland but was simply unaware of it, and the girl in white that leads him down the deepest rabbit hole seems to confirm this thought. Rumors of the film centering on goodness seem centered completely around the rants of a preacher during the middle of the film, or perhaps an obviously facetiously presented speech in the theater, but the confusion of categorization seems to indicate the film’s success in breaking new ground. Whatever influences shaped the film, the result is a beguiling compilation of absurd moments realized in a cacophonous symphony which left me enthralled viscerally and gawking intellectually at a bizarre cavalcade of absurd paradoxes. Paradoxes are difficult to construct and delightful to tear apart, though, which is what makes the film so fascinating.

The role of 'the girl in white' who is rescued from the police station and becomes the object of obsession for Tony later in the film is particularly interesting both in the way her character relates to Tony as a man and also how her character is involved in several sequences which called to my mind several tropes or iconic scenes. Already I have hinted at her role as the white rabbit in Alice and Wonderland, leading Tony into the phantasmagoric nightclub, with her white clothing featuring in at least her first two appearances (and perhaps tellingly not featuring in the nightclub). The first appearance is itself a trope, a damsel in distress who literally sings the praises of the man who comes to her aid. The sounds of her singing close out the first chapter, and by her reappearance as a white woman amidst a sea of darkly clothed men she becomes an icon, whether an inhabitant of an existing icon or trope or forging her own I can’t quite pin down. This sequence introduces the first complication in her interaction with Tony: already it is established that Tony is married to a wife who is increasingly (but not unusually, in the world of the film) unstable when Tony offers the girl in white a ride home, which introduces the imminent possibility of another lingering trope. Tony and the girl appear to be on the verge of inciting a romantic fling when her father, rightly perturbed with Tony’s presence, destroys the illusion of such a romance developing ‘against all the odds’ (another trope mimicked, but now contorted), especially as the odds happen to be sitting in the next room. That this scene transitions immediately into a scene between Tony and his wife at the theater seems fitting, as the relationship between his wife and the girl in white seems sensibly intertwined with the wife’s newfound extramarital sexual interest that is now matched by Tony’s own interest. The emphasis on this sexual contrast comes to the forefront when the girl in white finds herself in the club, forced into another helpless situation. By the end of the chapter, however, she will have faced the trope of the helpless girl and horror’s ‘final girl’ trope with a brutal inversion. Her initial abduction recalls a more vicious telling of the opening scene of Kafka’s The Trial, a work the film shares many qualities with. That the abductor is not apparently a government employee doesn’t discourage the inference, given the behavior of the police earlier in the film. As the film goes along it seems to increasingly contort the girl in white’s relationship to tropes and iconic scenes, and by the film’s finale she becomes a raw variant of an iconic scene from a film many black comedy fans will recognize, a cherry on top of a long sequence of what seem to be direct references to other works. In this way the film seems to use not just social and psychological referents but also intertexual referents in order to craft absurd inversions of expectation. I don’t find the similarities cumbersome, and it in fact brings to light an interesting aspect of the film’s ingenuity: the whole of the film does not recall anything directly, yet there seem to be no end to the reference points people claim to see in the film. Whether illusory or intentional I find it an interesting element of the film's multifaceted construction, and the practice of quoting other films and literature has an extensive precedent, so it’s certainly something to consider as an intentional and enriching aspect - especially when the tropes and references become inverted and distorted, providing a context for contrast along to provide some footing for the diverse range of intrinsically bizarre and absurd elements.

I’ll conclude with a brief note on the aesthetic of the film in the club sequence. There are a multitude of elements which make this sequence’s realization exceptionally bizarre, disorienting, and jarring. There are certain individual elements which lend themselves to disorientation, like the pairing of a non-diegetic drone and the suppression of diegetic sound in combination with a handheld camera and a distorted lens, but this effect alone becomes entrancing. Interspersed in the sequence are long shots of the room, close-ups of grotesque figures eating, and Denis Lavant performing with a miniature accordion atop a demolished piano, a disorienting element all to its own. This ground level display becomes contrasted with the imposition of a sense of space and place by introducing a shot of the menacing Herr Meister character looming over the performance from high above. Once the elements of the room become increasingly familiar the women are rushed in, the scene changes its composition, and all of a sudden departs completely into a familiar and comfortable outside setting. This false sense of security and familiarity is soon upended in the dramatic transition to Tony trapped in his cage, occupying a prominent portion of the left side of the foreground while he helplessly adjusts to the disorientation imposed on him and the viewer equally. By this point I was completely enraptured and ready to applaud someone. The theater was empty, though, so I held back. While I think this sequence is the most well composed in the film, it is certainly not an aberration, nor does it comprise the entirety of the film’s techniques and strategies to augment the various eye shieldings and sexual advances and other less important elements in the film. Feel free to contribute your own comments – this is a film where a collective effort can only help.

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