Sunday, December 8, 2013
NO SUCH THING (2001)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
In NO SUCH THING Hal Hartley, who made his name with low-key naturalistic films like 1989's THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, attempts to provide a modernist take on the classic fable BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. By "modernist" in this case, I mean that his project involves undercutting the expectations of anyone who expects traditional narrative. Allegedly Hartley wanted his "Beast" to be played by avant-garde director Jean-Luc Godard, similarly known for movies devoted to breaking down normative narrative.
Literary modernism was in general not kind to faerie and fantasy, so it's a bit of a surprise that the film begins by focusing upon a genuine Beast (Robert John Burke), who lives in the wilds of Iceland, sustained by tribute from neighboring, regularly-terrified villagers. In contrast to the lion-like Beast favored by both Jean Cocteau and the Walt Disney Corporation, this Beast has goat-like horns and the ability to breathe fire like a dragon. In contrast to being a lord enchanted by magic, Hartley's Beast has no origins; he claims to have existed since the dawn of mankind, but has no idea how he came to be. Though he's remained hidden under the cover of his legendary status up until the 21st century, his tedious, unrewarding existence comes to an end when a gang of journalists come to investigate the legend of the monster, and he kills them all.
In the traditional story "Beauty" is drawn to the Beast because of her father's trespass against the Beast's privacy. In THING, the Beauty is the slightly dowdy office-worker Beatrice (Sarah Polley), and she's drawn to the Beast because one of the slain journalists was her fiancee. As she works for a major news organization, run by the acerbic "Boss" (Helen Mirren), Beatrice is given the chance to fly to Iceland and investigate the murders--
--at which point we see one of Hartley's first deviations from customary expectations. A normative narrative, be it an archaic fairy tale or a modern imitation thereof, would have Beauty on the Beast's door right away. Instead, Beatrice's plane goes down in the sea. She alone is rescued, albeit crippled. The Beast's story is put aside while Beatrice, sent back to a hospital in the U.S., endures a lengthy and painful operation that restores her to her normal status. In the film's best moment, when Beatrice leaves the hospital, people touch her for good luck, as if her miraculous rescue imbued her with godly power.
This sequence is Hartley's biggest flouting of the expectations of normal narrative; thereafter, she eventually makes it to Iceland, interviews the people in the Beast's neighborhood, and finally beards the Beast in his lair. But Beatrice has no obligation to stay in the Beast's company to expiate a parent's debt: rather, she pulls out a gun and tried to kill the creature who murdered her fiancee. The creature can't be harmed by guns, but he would dearly like to end his pointless life. Beatrice resembles the fable's "Beauty" only in that she is able to repress her horror of the unknown and speak with its living incarnation. Thus she learns that the Beast knows of one scientist who claimed to be capable of ending an immortal's existence-- one "Doctor Artaud," probably named after the founder of the so-called "Theater of Cruelty" in the 1930's.
At this point THING verges away the BEAUTY AND THE BEAST text almost completely, taking on more resemblance to 1933's KING KONG, a film which arguably patterned itself after the traditional tale. In exchange for helping the Beast locate Artaud, in order to put an end to the Beast's existence, he must follow her back to civilization and suffer the ignominy of being ballyhooed by the press, as well as swearing not to kill anyone no matter how aggravated he becomes. The Beast's ennui is such that he agrees, and eventually this Beauty does something worse than almost bringing about the Beast's death: she puts him on display for her own career-furtherance. Just to further puncture the romantic theme of the original story, during one of the Beast's publicity tours Beatrice, now somewhat famous herself, enjoys a one-night stand with a handsome stranger.
However, ignominy is not the Beast's worst problem. The Boss presciently comments that soon the average civilized viewer will become bored with even a miraculous being who can neither die nor be killed. The U.S. military and its grant-hungry scientists are interested in the Beast, though, for they take him prisoner and subject him to assorted deadly forces, indifferent to his sufferings.
Only here does Beatrice shows something akin to "love," though not of a romantic sort: she uses her celebrity to liberate the Beast and lead him to Doctor Artaud, who deduces that the reason the Beast is so invulnerable is because he fundamentally does not exist-- which is the clue to the oblivion he desires. Yet even here, Hartley ends the film enigmatically. Hartley conjures with the imagery of the Cocteau film, suggesting that as he dies-- if he dies!-- the Beast first transforms into something like a normal human man. But the film ends with a close-up of Beatrice's face, her expression ambivalent, which no doubt mirrors the expression of many who watched the film.
Though I myself prefer traditional narrative to ironic twists on same, I believe it's possible to devise an intelligent satire upon the template of "Beauty and the Beast." But like a substantial number of modernist works, Hartley's NO SUCH THING doesn't have much to offer beyond turning expectations upside down. Most of its jabs are at easy targets-- the bored consumer, scientists who prostitute themselves for funding-- and the relationship of the lady and the monster, rather than being interpreted in some radical new way, is merely pushed to the side as-- to quote the aforementioned Hartley film-- just another "unbelievable truth."