Monday, 31 January 2011

Triangle

Some notes [spoilers included]:


I. Introduction:

The opening titles introduce the theme of recurrence, and in doing so, create a visual representation of the premonition. Already the film is establishing an emphasis on repeated themes, shifting realities, and the echoes of past and future events. As the words form and fade from screen, each reiteration of the title brings with it a greater clarity. The words, as they drift further away from us, becoming smaller in scale, like the Aeolus as viewed from the capsized yacht, come sharply into focus.


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:

This presentation of text, illustrating the idea of perception through the various layers - as the repetition of the same word brings us closer to the true meaning - is probably one of the most intelligent uses of creative screen-titling seen in recent cinema. It isn't just another instance of style over substance, or an attempt to give an independent UK/Australian co-production a mainstream Hollywood veneer; instead, these titles inform the audience, right from the very beginning, of a particular structure and approach; creating in the mind of the viewer a certain expectation, of narrative, perspective, or the manipulation of events.

The three repetitions of the title, like the three sides of an Isosceles triangle (which itself looks almost like the sail of a ship), are different elements of a single theme. As our mysterious heroine enters this world, which throughout seems to be suspended in time (as if trapped between a moment of life and death), she tries desperately to change the outcome of events, either through the manipulation of other characters, or by leaving clues for any potential future manifestations. However, as with the presentation of the title, each recurrence is not something new, but simply the same thing repeated; an echo of an event, replicated, unceasingly, like the notes of a record caught on an endless loop.

Each return, each re-emergence, is only a new form of repetition. Like the film's central character, the more of these repetitions we grapple with, the closer we get to an actual revelation.


II. Premonitions:

The first image: a toy boat, capsized in a child's paddling pool; already writer/director Christopher Smith is offering the audience a deliberate premonition of events. This toy boat, drifting on the still waters, may seem fairly innocuous, especially as Smith attempts to present the calm, everyday exterior of his suburban location; however, as the film develops, and the narrative twists and turns through fractures and skips that change our interpretation of events with every new progression, this seemingly common, everyday image, will be repeated on a far grander scale. First, as a literal presentation: as the yacht this character sets out on is hit by a particularly violent thunder storm and is capsized. This event is further referenced later in the film, after the mood switches from staggered confusion to an expression of very real life and death violence, where an on-stage mural depicts the sinking of a huge ship, once again caught within the storm.


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:

Of these two echoes, it is the first event - the capsizing of the yacht - that seems to throw the film's narrative into chaos. It is here, in this sequence, where the film plays into probably the greatest association of the title, the infamous Bermuda Triangle.

However, the reference to that particular 'triangle' is deliberately misleading, since the film eventually draws us away from this initial suggestion, establishing a secondary line of thought that is much more interesting and creative. When the character spots a drifting ocean liner, sailing unmanned and unattended through the mists, they (and we) assume that this vessel is an actual ghost ship. Questions are raised; where did the ship come from; where is the crew; where are the passengers? But these questions become less important as the film develops and the characters begin to cogitate about what the ship actually is and more importantly what its name represents.

Victor: The Aeolus?
Downey: Aeolus was the Greek God of the winds and the father of Sisyphus; a man condemned by the Gods to the task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again.
Victor: That's a pretty shitty punishment. What did he do?
Sally: He cheated death, or... no. He made a promise to death that he didn't keep.

The discussion here offers a new perspective on the events previously witnessed; the storm, the destruction of the boat, the ocean-liner that appears, miraculously, as if from nowhere; more of an imposing prison ship with its rusted barred exterior than a luxury hotel of the sea. However, it also offers a new significance to the seagull; the bird, first seen drifting across the suburbs of this supposed-to-be west-coast America (but actually Queensland, Australia), and later seen following the boat as it departs from the harbour.

Throughout the film, the significance of the seagull will be one of the main questions that we return to. What does it mean? Initially we might suspect this bird to be a representation of death; the great shadow that hangs over Jess and her friends, seen, backlit against the sun, shortly before the storm and the impending destruction of the boat. However, as the story builds and progresses, we discover a new significance. The bird is not simply a premonition of death; it is a harbinger to the accident - not seen until later in the film - which kills Jess' son and sets the wheels of the plot in motion. Like Jess, this seagull has cheated death and like her is now attempting to find a way out of this maze of false endings and counterfeit realities.

If we attempt to straighten the film's chronology, finding the most convenient in-point as a foundation to this story, then the seagull is with Jess from the very beginning. A different kind of visual premonition in this instance, as later in the film - when the events roll back to what was effectively the first scene - we see on the wall of Jess' house a painting. A painting of two seagulls, backlit by a circular, stylised orb (within an orb) that represents the sun. Is this a retroactive precursor, of one seagull becoming two seagulls: already creating a kind of recurrence; a duplication or repetition, like the various, otherworldly manifestations of Jess?


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:


III. Reflections and Repetitions:

As the events are repeated, each repetition brings with it a new manifestation of the survivors. This element of the plot gives Smith the opportunity to play with the compositional aspects of his film; filling the Aeolus with great floor to ceiling mirrors that literally multiply and fragment characters within the frame. This is given an even greater element of depth by the use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, where the general look might recall, on a superficial level, an almost retro 1960s style split-screen effect, or even an actual strip of film. However, the framing, and in particular the use of the full 'scope image, seems intended to overwhelm the audience with the literal, on-screen sense of various recreations of time.

Here, the mirrors aren't simply a visual representation of the repetition or recurrence of events; they illustrate the possibility of parallel realities existing side by side. It is that same sense of worlds within worlds, best illustrated by the dramatic set-up of Lewis Carroll's Alice-adventure Through the Looking-Glass (1871), which hint towards ruptures in the character's psychology. The symbol of the mirror itself, as a portal or a gateway into another realm, is a familiar plot point from earlier horror films, such as Poltergeist III (1988) or John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness (1987), as well as the more familiar personification of Narcissus, and the idea that the mirror exists to entice and eventually trap those who spend too much time studying their own reflected gaze.

Here, the mirror traps these various manifestations of the character and her doomed companions, but the reflection, as in the reflection of events, isn't always a direct recreation. Like all mirror images, there is a sense of physical abstraction; everything transformed left-to-right and right-to-left, creating a copy but also something of a potential doppelganger. This particular idea brings to mind the presentation of the famous painting by the surrealist artist René Magritte, titled in English Not to be Reproduced (La reproduction interdite, 1937), where the idea of the reflected self as a new manifestation (existing in a world within worlds) is made all the more clear.


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:


Illustration from Through the Looking-Glass by Sir John Tenniel, 1871:


Not to be Reproduced by René Magritte, 1937:

It isn't simply the repetition of events that creates in the mind of the viewer the connection to the myth of Sisyphus or the role that the Aeolus plays in forcing this character to accept the futility of her own mortality, but the repetition of certain significant objects. If the mirror symbolises the repetition of the self, then these objects present the slowly developing clues that lead, inevitably, to that final revelation. Smith frames these objects with the same repetitiveness; establishing for the benefit of the viewer the noteworthy similarities between, for example, the heart-shaped pendants against the pile of dead seagulls towards the end of the film.


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:

However, these shots, which communicate the central theme of the narrative, also establish a sense of uncertainty pertaining to the main character's emotional state of mind. The psychological aspect, which could be seen as a possible interpretation of events, at least before the film's final twist, is an element that Smith uses to keep the audience on their toes; deliberately misleading us, in the Hitchcockian sense, with these clues and associations that show Jess as a character physically removed and to some extent emotionally withdrawn. Maybe it's in the film's broader references to Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining (1980) or the deceptive homage to Friday the 13th (1981) that convince the viewer that there is something much more conventional or straightforward to these scenes of horror and suspense; a haunted house/ghost ship story combined with a generic stalk n' slash picture with obvious nods to Knife in the Water (Nóż w wodzie, 1962) or Dead Calm (1989)?


The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1980:


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:

For most of the film, the audience is left wondering whether it is the actual sense of confinement that comes from the ship (here a surrogate for the haunted Overlook is Kubrick's film) or the seemingly dissociative behaviour of Jess that is causing the almost irrational fracturing of events. However, the eventual revelation of the car crash, or the true nature of Jess (as both a mother and a character) in the moments leading up to her death (or what we assume to be a death), reduce these elements to nothing more than knowing nods to the genre; stylistic MacGuffin's that tap into the greater game being played between Smith and his potential audience.


IV. Fractures:

As with the on-screen reflections and repetitions, Smith uses the mise-en-scene to introduce the idea of fractures, or spaces between characters and events. The windows and mirrors that previously showed the recurrence of characters also illustrate the breaks in personality; creating further representations of replication, albeit, as a single, splintered form. The presentation reminds me of a line of dialogue from Dario Argento's horror masterpiece Suspira (1977), which again, hints at the relationship between the self (in the psychological sense) and the power of the mirror as a prison that traps us, exposing our flaws and weaknesses: "bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but broken minds"


Triangle directed by Christopher Smith, 2009:

Part of Jess' journey in the film is discovering her own strengths and weaknesses through a particular form of self-analysis that comes from the unique ability to observe her own actions from a distance. In witnessing the events play out, again and again, and each time attempting to fix the things that hinder her in the attempts to retroactively save her own son, Jess is able to realise her greatest failing as a human being. We can only assume from this that the death of her son is the fracture that causes the narrative to break off in a different direction; the peak, the point of this triangular bend in time that causes the story to re-start, repeating events, while never quite reaching a conclusion.

It is in this particular idea of the fracture that I feel the significance of the title is most evident. A triangle, which, geometrically, has three sides meeting in the middle, creating a point, is very much like a broken version of a conventional narrative storyline. If we think of a predictable narrative as a straight-line, moving in one direction from beginning to end, then the narrative of Triangle is transformed by events that break the narrative flow at a specific point, causing the story to then repeat itself. Not necessarily from the beginning (as a circular narrative might) but from a significant point in time. This notion of the narrative as something that develops, drops, rolls back and develops again plays into the earlier reference to Sisyphus, pushing his boulder to the top of the mountain (itself an almost triangular shape) only to watch it roll back back, down to the beginning, repeating the same action endlessly.


An illustration of the 'conventional narrative storyline' against the narrative of Triangle, created by the blog author:

If the narrative was circular, then all things would converge at the beginning before repeating from start to finish. Instead, the potential bend in the storyline suggests at least three possible beginnings, or at least three possible ends. The story stops and starts repeatedly from several different points in the timeline; sometimes beginning on the boat, other times beginning on the ship, and eventually taking us right the way back to the very first scene of the film, where those once arbitrary artefacts (the toy boat, the spilled ink, the seagull painting) now have a far greater significance on events. However, even here, we're still not sure if this is really the beginning or if there are indeed further ruptures and breaks in this narrative that go deeper, backwards or forwards, through time.

Maybe this all points back to an alternate story; the story of Jess' son: an autistic child with obsessive compulsive disorder, who spends all day, day after day, painting a picture of a ship's rescue; painting and re-painting images on images, each overlapping, until multiple variations exist, layer upon layer of the same thing. It is only then that a new story is revealed.