Friday, 28 May 2010

Cassandra's Dream

Some notes [spoilers included]:

Cassandra's Dream (2007) is a continuation of a premise that began with Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and continued with Match Point (2005). In all three films, the protagonists are driven to murder for the purpose of self-preservation, and in all three films it is evil that triumphs over good. Cassandra's Dream - with its parallel themes of moral corruption and exploitation - is arguably the bleakest of the three, if not the bleakest film of Allen's career thus far. Whereas before, an audience could have expected the charm of his characters or the natural wit of his dialog to dilute or detract from the heavy sense of dread that plagues these stories of crime without punishment, the general tone of Cassandra's Dream is that of almost unremitting despair.

From the very first scene and the introduction of these characters - working-class brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) - there is a certain expectation of tragedy; a set-up to that final, chilling shot of the boat itself - the 'Cassandra's Dream' of the title - and its personification of the greed and recklessness that will eventually lead these characters to their inevitable doom.

The boat in the film becomes a fairly obvious metaphor for a certain kind of high-risk get-rich-quick attitude that motivates these characters in their scheme; setting in motion the actual elements of the plot, as well as creating the moral/philosophical conundrum at the centre of the drama. It is the presence of the boat that both begins and ends the movie; bookending it with two very different figurative interpretations: initially representing the hopes and aspirations of these characters - driven by the memory of a similar boat once owned by their uncle, a self-made millionaire, and that promise of greater fortune - before eventually coming to represent the folly of this kind of blind ambition and the struggle between right and wrong. Through the final shot of the film, the boat takes on an almost supernatural presence, reconfiguring itself as something more akin to the car in John Carpenter's film Christine (1983); i.e. an actual cursed object of pure malevolence! Such thinking is in keeping with the line of thought expressed by the father (John Benfield) of these two characters when he says: "the only ship certain to come in is one with black sails."

The sense of tragedy here is stated through Allen's frequent allusions to Shakespeare and the Greeks; where the dark-hearted morality of the characters is further suggested to by the play (a story within the story), and the deliberate references to the legend of Faust. Through this, the relationship between the two brothers and their deceitful, manipulative uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) could be seen as a sort-of modern-day retelling of that particular story's moral core. More import however is the influence of classical film-noir; an unconventional reference point for Allen and one that he approaches on his own terms, with none of the ironic post-modern self-references favoured by the majority of mainstream American filmmakers. The noir-elements are there throughout, but are subdued by Allen's characteristic late-period naturalism; loose framing, characters interacting both in and out of shot, near-natural light, etc.

One can only wonder how different the critical reaction to this film might have been had Allen decided to shoot it as an exercise in genre deconstruction; something closer to the Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino project Grindhouse (2007), or the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), where the director could deliberately play up to the codes and conventions of low-budget Hollywood crime pictures of the 1950s, incorporating a laconic voice-over track, black and white cinematography and a Miles Davis jazz-score. Which poses a question: would some of the more hostile critics have been able to better appreciate the intelligence of what Allen was attempting to achieve if such superficial stylistic flourishes had been used to diffuse some of the more straight-faced sincerity of the drama as it is?

Speculative 'film-noir' comparison shots created by the blog author for the purposes of illustration:

The direct-references may have worked brilliantly in an earlier film like Stardust Memories (1980) or Shadows and Fog (1991), where the creative nods to Fellini or German Expressionism were used to help identify the world of the film - establishing an immediate cinematic shorthand for the audience before getting into the complexities of the plot - but that's not what Cassandra's Dream is about. At this point in his career, Allen is too much of a master to engage in this kind of superfluous homage. Instead, like the great French filmmaker Jacques Rivette, he is a director who takes the elements apparent in the script and uses them to complement the more personal or philosophical ideas that are central to the development of his characters; making the same kind of film again and again - from Melinda and Melinda (2004) to Scoop (2006) to Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) - regardless of its genre of theme.

In the visual sense, the framing of characters throughout seems to be significant in emphasising the relationship between these two brothers and the particular choices they make. In the very first scene, Allen has positioned at least one of his characters on the wrong-side of "something." For example, in this particular frame, Ian, already behind bars, is gesturing towards the boat, convincing Terry that buying the vessel is the right thing to do, just as he will eventually convince him, against all better judgement, to commit a murder.

Later in the film, Allen has both of his protagonists framed behind a set of bars, as if to further convey the notion of characters on the wrong-side of the law.

The film is less heavy-handed with its references to Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) than Match Point, or even Crimes and Misdemeanors, but that isn't to say that such elements aren't there to be appreciated. The appearance of the police at the very end of the film - adding a sort of Greek chorus motif to bring the story to a close, reiterating the central plot-points and the actual theme (for lack of a better word) - is a consciously literary device, and brings to mind the similar use of the police at the end of Match Point. The murder, when it does occur, is perhaps even colder and more brutal than the double murder in the film aforementioned, if only for its particular context. We know these characters and expect them to make the right choice. We get a glimpse of their victim, who seems, on first impression, to be a genuinely nice guy; someone who is successful at what he does, but who hasn't forgotten where he comes from; still taking the time to visit with his ailing mother before jetting off for his next destination. We can infer from conversational snippets that he's attempting to "do the right thing", making him the complete opposite of the two central characters, or their uncle, whose corrupting spirit forever hangs over them.

In the development of the narrative, the old-fashioned deal with the devil motif is well used, with the suavely manipulative but no less abusive presentation of Uncle Howard offering one of the great contemporary film-noir villains; a man who is looked on by his family as a hero, but has nonetheless reaped the rewards of his existence through violence and intimidation. The connection between Uncle Howard and Ian in particular is sketched out in several scenes, as Ian proves himself to be a character much closer to Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors, or Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Match Point: someone capable of committing a murder, but also capable of walking away from it. Without the character of Terry, the film would have been just another retread of these earlier films. It is only through Terry that Allen is able to provide the moral contrast that those others films lacked; bringing the emphasis back to the family, the suggestion that "family is family, blood is blood", and how such ideas can be distorted when it's murder for personal preservation.

The differences between these characters are suggested through two individual moments of reflection, which also establish the attitudes of these two related, though very different characters. In the first we have Ian, draped in a towel - having just made love to the waitress that works at his dad's restaurant - surrounded by his possessions. The character is defined by these objects, which illustrate the superficial obsession with status; the PowerBook, the CDs, the flat screen television that captures his reflection. In contrast, the image of Terry, already broken and pensive, overwhelmed by the floral-print wall paper and homely furnishings, is trapped by this ordinary domestic milieu, when all he really wants is to provide a better life for him and his girlfriend. The disparity between these two related characters is what drives the story forwards, pushing these two characters beyond their own personal limitations until the bleak catastrophe of the final.

Although the film works incredibly well as a conventional thriller, or perhaps even as a continuation of the theme explored in the two films previously mentioned, the best way to approach Cassandra's Dream, in my opinion, is as a film about ideas. A film where the relationships between characters or the references to certain literary standards, is continually suggesting new ways of looking at these scenes, or other potential stories that are suggested beyond the more conventional crime/drama narrative. Once such story could focus on the relationship between Ian and Terry's respective girlfriends Angela (Hayley Atwell) and Kate (Sally Hawkins), and how their lives may continue, together or apart, after the inevitably shocking discovery of the film's final act.

The two scenes we see from the play offer clues to this story, if only through staging. In the first scene, we have two male characters, one scheming, the other oblivious, and a woman reclining on the bed. The woman in the play is a representation for the "something else" that these characters, specifically Ian, are striving for. In the second scene, the bed is empty; two women sit at the table, alone, just as Angela and Kate are left at the end of the film.