Style as Substance Example Number One: Enemy
Denis Villeneuve’s Toronto-set artsy psychological thriller, Enemy (based on Jose Saramago’s novel, The Double) is one of those rare films of exacting creeping style that elicits audible gasps from the audience. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a mild-mannered university history professor who repeatedly lectures about the dangers of losing one’s individuality under totalitarian regimes and muses over the cyclical nature of history and the rise of these totalitarian states – first viewed as tragedy, later as farce. The man oddly hates films, but he’s urged by a colleague to watch one in particular, and there he spots in a bit role as a bellhop his exact double. It’s not long before he becomes obsessed with tracking down his doppelgänger.
The first audible gasp (coupled with nervous laughter) was unique to the location where I saw the film. Enemy is boxed in by mesmerizing sepia-toned cinematography – grand scanning images of the Toronto skyline (never before used more monotonously menacing in a film). For those who have never been to Toronto, it’s a blisteringly modern landscape riddled with areas constantly under construction, giant cranes towering in the sky dangling precipitously over highway off-ramps next to skeleton frames of new office or condo highrises. Villeneuve (Canada’s premier auteur) perfectly captures this along with the city’s cold lakeside white-washed sheen (either by salt and snow in the winter, or heat in the summer – tinged deliberately yellow here by his camera). I had the luck of seeing the film while working in Mississauga, Ontario – a suburb of Toronto with its own unique skyline (highlighted by the famous Marilyn Monroe Towers, surreal condo highrises with hourglass shapes) also featured in the film. I experienced it at a Cineplex in downtown Mississauga right down the road from those lovely towers. When Jake Gyllenhaal’s character discovers the home address of his exact double to be on Rathburn Rd. West (unbeknownst to me prior to this in-film revelation, the very road upon which we sat watching the film!) the laughter and gasp from the small audience was priceless, and I suddenly felt as if I was a part of this unnerving conspiracy as I could see Jake Gyllenhaal’s double’s apartment from the parking lot of the theater!
The second gasp, one tinged with both horror and acknowledgement of the inevitable, occurs in the very last scene. Never has a cinematic dream ended more abruptly, and the sequence involves the culmination of the film’s disturbing spider motif, web-creating dictators who are either metaphorically or literally ruling over Jake Gyllenhaal and the Greater Toronto Area. Villeneuve has crafted a film that deserves mention alongside the most disturbing works of Bergman, Lynch and Haneke. It’s a frustrating, stylish, invigorating Freudian freak-piece loaded with symbolism and sex that is either a metaphor for adultery or an insular depiction of a man who doesn’t realize he’s living under a totalitarian state (where giant spiders have cast a web over his environs and soul - I’m not kidding, “Giant Spider Overlords” is one of the legitimate interpretations of the film). When the closing credits begin (showing more lovely shots of our Toronto) and The Walker Brother’s “After the Lights Go Out” plays over the images, you can’t help but laugh on the inside. Love it or loathe it, Enemy is a coldly calculated shocker-farce bound for cult status, and all I have to say to Villeneuve is bravo, monsieur.
Style as Substance Example Number Two: The Grand Budapest Hotel
There was a point in time in the past where I fantasized about throwing Wes Anderson from a train, where he would then be mauled by tigers or something like that. His unique brand of hipster kitsch had grown from charming to insufferable…but somehow the cinematic gods swung the pendulum back, and with The Grand Budapest Hotel he continues the upswing return to charming that began with The Fantastic Mister Fox. This confectionary piece…more of a snow-globe film than a cake…combines the best elements of his past two films (the aforementioned Mr. Fox and Moonrise Kingdom) as he uses his style (miniature sets, color schemes, old-school model-driven stop-motion editing of action scenes) to bring about a sense of whimsy and melancholy and nostalgia. Whereas Villeneuve’s dark-farce Enemy could be said to have fallen into the old trope of containing a film within a film (or a dream within in a dream), Anderson’s light-farce Hotel is told as a novel within a story within a flashback within a flashback (yeah, I think). In fact, it could double as the film Jake Gyllenhaal watches in Enemy, as that too seemed to feature a hotel, high society, romance and a bellhop! Here, too, it touches on the idea of living under a totalitarian state as the middle-frame story (an old hotelier telling a reporter the history of the once grand hotel) takes place in a fantasized version of Communist Europe and the flashback meat of the story (the history of the grand hotel) takes places in a fantasized version of Europe at the onset of Nazi occupation.
The cinematography of The Grand Budapest Hotel is intoxicating, capturing with its snowy twilight tinge what it must be like drinking absinthe on a cold-winter night in some old European village while telling humorous tall tales with friends. The music, from Alexandre Desplat, echoes the feelings and is amongst the famed composer’s loveliest. But what really anchors the film (and it’s here where I give Anderson the most credit for realizing his own faults and making up for that in the casting) is the performance of Ralph Fiennes, who with theatrical aplomb, creates a larger-than-life persona as a hotelier – a special kind of man’s man. With his performance contained within Anderson’s finely tuned snow-globe universe, Fiennes manages to create a sense of nostalgia for something you never thought you would feel nostalgia for – a prewar Europe where hoteliers could make a living as man-whores servicing rich old ladies while bound to a unique moral code of brotherhood and enjoying the good life of art, food and spirits. It’s a special kind of WTF feeling, a pleasing dreamlike one (as Fiennes’ character never looses that sense of self that Gyllenhaal’s character does), and acts as a counter-offer to Villeneuve’s fevered WTF nightmare.
Style as Substance Example Number Three: 300 – Rise of an Empire
Ages ago Zack Snyder’s homo-erotic macho-fascist piece of shit, 300, arrived on the scene as a novelty act with such a unique style that it could not be ignored. It was entertaining in its own sick way at the time, but it’s virtually unwatchable now. How in the hell, then, did they manage to pull off creating a sequel (where Snyder was thankfully replaced by Noam Murro) that not only improved upon the style, but was more unabashedly entertaining? Behold, the paradox of 300: Rise of an Empire – all blustering style, yet WITH substance. That substance (much like the substance of Anderson’s Hotel came from Fiennes) oozes from Eva Green as Artemisia – who one could argue might be the greatest cinematic female villain we’ve seen in the last twenty years (or maybe even longer). Just as The Grand Budapest Hotel would’ve been nothing but a pretty snow-globe without Fiennes, 300: Rise of Empire would’ve been nothing but an ugly comic book flick without Green. And, like Enemy and The Grand Budapest Hotel, 3oo: Rise of an Empire explores (in its own juvenile grand-standing way) totalitarianism and is structured as a story within a story as channeled through myth.
The film is narrated by the good Spartan Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey – who since the first film has risen to greater fame as a certain evil queen on HBO’s Game of Thrones) and tells the tale of some Athenian general rallying against the invading Persian hordes, whose naval wing is commanded by Greek exile turned madwoman, Artemisia (Eva Green). Oddly, this thing is simultaneously a prequel, companion piece and sequel as the events unfold before, parallel to, and after the original. But none of it matters when Eva Green isn’t on-screen. She seethes, growls, preens and rules over her army (and the film) with seductive ruthlessness while using her brains, body and internal fortitude. Eva Green molds her into an iconic badass, the film’s obvious villain, who you find yourself rooting for over the dumb lugs she fights. What was macho nonsense in the first film is turned into a man’s fantasized version of girl-power and feminism in the second film – as Gorgo’s narration turns out to be a rallying cry to rise up and crush Artemisia. The warrior women of this empire rule the roost, and by the time Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” played over the deliriously bloody elegant closing credits, every hot-blooded man in the audience was screaming with joy on the inside – we were all one in that moment. This is the exact kind of “entertainment” Jake Gyllenhaal’s history professor warns us about in Enemy – a distraction and myth crafted by a totalitarian state to nullify us.
With makes me wonder…what would Gorgo and Artemisia make of the spiders in Enemy and the faux-Nazis in The Grand Budapest Hotel? My thoughts inevitably circle back to the fetishistic opening moments of Villeneuve’s Enemy that take place in a bizarre sex club, and I imagine our ladies wouldn’t think twice about crushing them under their feet.
Written by David H. Schleicher