Reflections on Venus in Fur

Reflections on Venus in Fur

by

Howard Adelman

 

[Note: I have not written a review of this play deliberately. I did refer to a New Yorker review that I had read but could not recall or find. Georgia Klass in Winnipeg took note and found it for me. The review, “The Whip Comes Down” was written by Hilton Als, not Robert Risk as I indicated yesterday, and published in the 8 February 2010 issue of The New Yorker. It is a superb review for a superb play.]

In David Ides play, Venus in Fur, we have only one Venus and one fur in a singular semblance of an inversion of a representation – or so it seems. In actuality, we have multiple layers. There is the Western literary heritage of Greek drama and biblical writing in which the play is wrapped like a Christmas present. There is Sacher-Masoch’s’ life itself in the latter half of the nineteenth century. There is the representation of that life in  the character of Severin and Wanda in his novella. There is the adaptation of the novella for the stage and the re-presentation of those same characters in a very different medium and, hence, a very different way in the draft script. There is the audition for the adaptation which, in the process, transforms Severin and Wanda once again. Then there is the dynamic between the playwright/director and the actor who auditions that becomes the main source of tension in the play. Finally, all this is enacted with perfect timing, execution and virtuousity encompassing every one of these levels with instantaneous shape-shifting in the context of references to a life for both performers outside the rehearsal hall, lives that are being continually sacrificed to the dynamic between the writer/director and the actress in the audition that becomes a re-enactment of the play but on terms more and more set by the actor being auditioned, and all this in the context of a vague and ambiguous sense of a political context that is both absolutely irrelevant and precisely relevant to what is taking place on stage. If simply describing that is an accomplishment, think about what an achievement it is to turn this into a work of art.

Unlike Severin, the hero of Sacher-Masoch’s novella, who is inexperienced in the ways of love, a romantic envisioning as his ideal a woman physically treating him cruelly, the director/playwright, Thomas Novachek (Rick Miller) begins as the master of the situation as in all auditions where the actor appears as a mere supplicant. Thus, although there is the reference in Sacher-Masoch’s novella to and obsession with Severin’s aunt who wore furs when she held Sacher-Masoch down as a youth and beat him (a creation of his own youthful imagination or an actual episode?), the reference serves only a dramatic effect but does nothing to explicate the psychological drama acted out on stage let alone any political dimension. What Severin and Thomas have in common is that they are both aesthetes in search of perfection, Thomas on stage in the arena of representation and Severin as the protagonist in his own life as the main character in a novella presumably as an alter-ego of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch begin as radical contrasts.

A passionate and saucy New Yorker with a filthy mouth, Vanda Jordan rather than Wanda (played with absolute brilliance by Carly Street), enters and makes Barbra Streisand who plays Fanny Brice in Funny Girl look like a demure retiring flower. She is late for the audition. Everyone has left except the playwright-director who is frustrated after a day of unsuccessful auditions and he is anxious to get home to his fiancé. Thunder claps accompany Vanda’s tumultuous soaking wet entrance with a broken umbrella.

Only later when they recur will the thunder and lightning of The Bacchae throw light on what is taking place and only later will we understand that this is Semelê, daughter of Cadmus and mother of Pentheus being brought back to life in a new form on stage. Only then will we recall that Vanda’s swearing at the gods for her misfortune in the opening, that her cussing, has some depth of meaning. Vanda,, of course, true to type, at the beginning appears absolutely unsuited to the part of a sophisticated young and beautiful rich nineteenth century aristocratic widow. However, she turns out to have the acting skills and the hauteur of Maggie Smith. So the actress, Vanda, who auditions to play Wanda, a character common to a genre of Broadway and Hollywood comedies, is the very opposite of Wanda yet has to carry a huge weight of historical baggage as someone who misspeaks with a New Jersey or Brooklyn accent as she forces you both to forget and recall over twenty-five hundred years of art. As Severin says to the goddess Venus: “You have taught me what love is. Your serene form of worship let me forget two thousand years.”

The play is very different from Leopold von Sacho-Masoch’s book in a number of other respects, such as the relationship between the two main characters. Though there is playing at masochism, there is no real cruel and intensely physical beating ever. The play is NOT about masochism and an exploration of physical cruelty as the essence of love and of the male/female relationship more generally. (Severin as quoted in the play: “I will not reproach you with anything. You are a divine woman, but nevertheless a woman, and like every woman cruel in love.”)

The focus has shifted entirely to the  master-slave relationship rather than its expression through sado-masochistic infliction of physical pain. What is left is the phenomenology of the experience rather than the experience itself as the playwright/director and the auditioning actress inventively and continuously switch roles from playing themselves to playing the roles in the play and from who is in charge to who is following orders. And the switch between them takes place subtly but directly as the profane and earthy actress auditioning for the part asks to switch off the glaring lights above and, without waiting for permission, simply does so. The impertinent and brash actress takes more and more responsibility for directing and even writing the play and becoming the guiding spirit to realize the director/playwright’s vision. It becomes the story of a muse who comes to life just as Severin’s marble statue took on a real life form.

The adventure takes place in peeling back layers of an onion as we both weep and laugh at our tears, in the provocations of thought much more than physical bodily reactions, in the boldness of both conception and execution in spite of, in  fact, because of the minimalist but absolutely perfect stage and the restriction to only two actors in one uninterrupted 90-minute performance. The two milk the sensuality out of all this talk about sexuality in spite of what Jennifer Tarver, the director, may have thought she was creating with this excellent production. Like the writer/director in the play, what she created was something other than what she claims to have accomplished, and it, like the play within a play within a play within a play, etc.,  is an outstanding accomplishment. Indeed.  I long ago learned that a director, whether it was Leon Major in the planning of my play for the Crest Theatre over a half century ago, or Robert Gill who directed the play in the Hart House production, the director’s version need not coincide with the playwright’s idea nor with the audience’s actual experience once the play is performed. The play is more cerebral than carnal, more comic than crazy, more kooky than kinky, and more sensual than sexual in spite of all the talk about sex.

Unlike the novella which served as the inspiration, the play within a play avoids dream states and plays with the transition between fiction and imagination and the so-called reality of the audition simply through the imaginative acting skills of the performers. For the play, unlike the novella, is much more about the relationship of appearance and reality – in this Jennifer Tarver is dead on – for in Sacher-Masoch’s world there is only appearance. The imagined world is the only real world. In the play on stage, the imagined world re-imagines one imagined world and replaces it by another. The contract of perpetual slavery is re-enacted in the play but NOT the alternative deal, that if the signed agreement fails, the alternative is that Severin agrees to forfeit his life. The Hegelian dimension of the struggle between life as survival and desire in the novella is also missing from the play. Instead, we get a much more minimalist focus on lordship and bondage as existential states, of domination and submission. For in order to survive, an actor must audition and subjugate his or herself.

The novella is truly sensational in re-enacting mascochism, and never more so than, when, after a severe beating, Wanda leaves with her new lover. “Blood was already flowing under the whip. I wound like a worm that is trodden on, but he whipped on without mercy, and she continued to laugh without mercy.” In the play, this cruelty is referred to and performed as a kind of stylized dance, but there is none of the blood, the sheer evocation of cruelty, the fear and anticipation, the dread and the physical pain that we find in the novella. The psychological degradation becomes much more important. Most significantly, while Wanda leaves with her Greek lover at the end of the novella abandoning the whipped and tied-up Severin, the play ends with the playwright worshipping Aphrodite – Venus in Fur. The master of the script has become its slave.

The play is NOT about sado-masochism. Sado-masochism is a reference point and a way of costuming the play which is about gender relations and the issue of master and slave, lordship and bondage, behind and beneath the act of sado-masichism, but it is not about sado-masochism. Nor is it an erotic play though there is one quasi erotic moment when the playwright puts Wanda’s long leather boot on her legs slowly and evocatively zipping it up. But where does humour have a place in an erotic setting? It is like cracking a joke and laughing in the middle of sexual intercourse. So when Wanda asks Tom if he wants to put her boots on, he abjectly accepts and then she cracks: “On me, not on you,” or words to that effect. A great joke but hardly a foundation for an erotic scene. But that is as erotic as it gets – not much more than a glance at a Paris postcard with a joke on the side . If you want to experience eroticism and the suffering of a person enslaved by love, go see the movie, Blue Is the Warmest Colour for a fictional representation of eroticism between two females as imagined through a male director’s eyes.

In Ives’ play there is a reference to the book of Judith in the apocryphal bible. Sacher-Masoch’s book begins with a quote from ch. xvi, verse 7 of that book: “But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” This is what the play takes as the real essence of the novella and re-enacts on stage, not erotic sado-masochism. Perhaps in some sense an actor has to be a masochist to endure the humiliations of repeated auditions and rejections and perhaps directors have to be sadists in some sense to put actors through such cruel experiences. But in staging the inversion of that relationship rather than the process of gradual and even worse submission in the novella, we can better understand Ives’ play as an allegory about master and slave, seduction and being seduced, about plays and audiences and the sado-masochism is merely a metaphor for this much larger topic. There is none of the fear and pain that comes so alive in the Sacher-Masoch novella. Further, and ironically, instead of the representation of a sacred personage coming to life, instead of an “aureole”, we find a fictional character in a play playing another fictional character who transforms herself into the sacred Venus cum Aphrodite. We are transported from Roman to Greek worship through the epitome of the Greek imagination, the play.

Thus, Euripedes’ The Bacchae, looms much larger in the play than in Sacher-Macho’s novella where it is merely referenced. This is where we might have an implied political message, though Euripedes, unlike Aeschylus or Sophocles, was rarely subtle about his didactic message. In Sacher-Masoch, the equation of the heroine, Wanda, with the all-powerful and cruel Catherine the Great is direct. If I am correct, the political reference in the play, if it is indeed there, is subtle. For The Bacchae was written when Athenian democracy was in disarray; rational and responsible government had become dysfunctional. Is there some connection between the theme of inversion and displacement of the master-slave relationship with the accelerating decline of America as both a world power and a dysfunctional polity? I would have to see the play again to make a determination, but you can keep this question in mind if you have seen or go to see the play.

In Euripides’ play set in Thebes, the connection between the rise in dysfunctional politics and the increase of hedonism in general and the cult of Dionysus is unequivocal. Sacho-Masoch’s novella was written as the empires of the old order were proving dysfunctional. Is Ives suggesting that the rise of aestheticism into prominence is symbolic of what is happening in the political life of America where the Boston tea party at the heart of American ideology is being re-enacted in terms of a totally reactionary agenda and as a virtual cult? There is the parallel between the end of the Peloponnesian War which Athens lost and the series of wars from the Vietnam conflict to even the wars that America and her allies ostensibly won that have all turned into defeats for America and its allies as America retreats as a world power. However, Euripides’ message is not reducible to a simplistic contemporary political commentary. Certainly, neither is Ives. But the theme of submission, of reversals in roles and the seeming futility but nevertheless magical enchantment with attempting to realize an envisioned ideal are all in the play. Even the theme of surrendering to a higher power seems to dictate that every powerful empire is doomed to decline may be implicitly connected with the rise of the feminine into power politics and the decline of males as macho men.

But the cruelty and eroticism of Ives’ play lacks the graphic evocation of either the novella or the Greek play. If you have ever seen the Bacchae – I saw a very flawed production once – even if badly done, it is clear how important erotic and violent imagery are to the play. This is not the case in Venus in Fur. Perhaps this is because Ives’ play entertains and entrances more than it penetrates your soul. The unexpected is used to tease and enchant and turn the members of the audience themselves into mesmerized slavish witnesses to the turns and twists of the plot. That is why, at the end, you do not have the ecstatic moment of a Dionysian cultish service. Instead of arousing the audience to a pitch of sensuality, our intellects and imagination are excited.  

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Reflections on Venus in Furs

Reflections on Venus in Furs

by

Howard Adelman

 

Introduction

I am cursed. I was determined to take off today and write nothing. But I saw Venus in Fur by David Ives playing at the Berkeley Theatre. The show has been around for awhile and previously played at the Bluma Appel Theatre. I am delighted that I saw it at the Berkeley Theatre which seems so much better suited to the play. It is a fantastic production and a phenomenal play. If it is not playing in your city now, it will be very soon. It is bound to play all over the world and soon be on many high school curricula if it is not already.  There will be many amateur productions but they will be a real challenge.

I will not tell you very much about the play and what I will write I will save for tomorrow. In any case, I simply cannot. I usually replay a drama or a movie for the next day or two in my mind. Then I can barely remember it afterwards. In the case of this play by David Ives, it was impossible. There are just too many twists and turns, inversions and conversions. So instead of serving as a Dionysian critic entranced by the passion in the play, I will serve as an Apollonian commentator.

I had read a review of the play in The New Yorker by Robert Risk but that only came back to me this morning when I woke up at 5:30 writing this commentary in my mind. I went looking for The New Yorker but could not find it. So I only remembered that he, as well, loved the production he saw. And that was the only expectation I had when I walked into the play and read the credit notes which were about appearance and reality (recall my discussion of Plato’s allegory of the cave). But I had two advantages. I had written and published a great deal of commentary on the Adam and Eve story and always wanted to write a play about Adam’s seduction of Eve and how that story got turned into Eve’s seduction of Adam.

Secondly, when I was an undergraduate almost sixty years ago, my friend, Milton Zysman, introduced me to an author, Sacher-Masoch who was the source for Von Krafft-Ebing’s analysis of masochism of which I learned by first reading Arthur Koestler’s Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge. Koestler wrote that book under a pseudonym. The volume was a fat seemingly learned tome that was really a mixture of sexual experience and some knowledge dressed up in pseudo-scientific language that was actually taken to be an authoritative document on the study of sex. I was surprised to learn at the time that the book continued to be regarded as such almost twenty years later when I was an undergraduate. I delighted in exposing its fraudulent roots when I was a student twenty years later and I found that readers still took it as a serious contribution to science and thought I made the story up that Koestler had written the book to make a quick buck in Paris. So does fiction continue to trump reality.

I had read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a book that had a strong and everlasting influence on me, particularly on my strong negative attitude towards communism. Reading Darkness at Noon led me to his other writings, including this so-called scholarly study of sexology and other books on the subject. However, I could not recall ever reading Venus in Furs,. So that is the first thing I did this morning and is the topic of this blog rather than the play.

Venus in Furs

The 1870 sado-masochistic novella version that I read by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, a Galicianer like my mother, but a German rather than a Jewish one, was translated from German into English by Fernanda Savage. Sacher-Masoch had been born a century before me. His wife wrote under the pseudonym Wanda von Dunajew (yes, literally dunn-a Jew). Wanda happens to be the name of the heroine in Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel as well as the heroine of the book which the writer in Ives’ play has adapted for the stage. In fact, Sacher-Masoch’s wife, Aurora Rűmelin, introduced herself to her future husband because she had read his 1870 book and wrote a letter to him telling him that she was the perfect person to fulfill his desires; she would (and did) perform the role of a dominatrix. Evidently, if her 1906 sensational Confessions are to be believed, role reversals were endemic to their tumultuous relationship as they are in the novella and the play.

In Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Severin von Kusiemski, though not rich at the time until he later inherits his father’s property, is a nobleman from Galicia with enough income to lead a life of quiet sedentary leisure. Wanda Tartakovska is a very wealthy young and beautiful widow and only 24 years old. The two meet at a very small holiday home in the Carpathian mountains. Severin has the ground floor and Wanda the suite on the first floor above. 

Severin is an inexperienced aesthete, in love with the goddess Venus, love that is consummated in some sense when he views the portrait of “Venus in her Mirror” by Titian discussed in Ives’ play. In the portrait, Venus is nude except she is draped in a fur and it is cupid who holds the mirror up for her.

In the novella, Wanda dresses herself in furs as the Venus of Severin’s imagination and Severin falls in love with her.  She, the seductress, beguiles this inexperienced dreamer and, in turn, falls in love with his passion. She begins, however, as a natural force whose pagan philosophy is articulated by Venus in what turns out to be a dream. Venus articulates a philosophy of life based on “passion and of natural love, which is woman’s nature and makes her give herself where she loves, and makes her love everything, that pleases her.” She rejects the idea that love must bring with it pain. “We are faithful as long as we love, but you demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there—woman or man? You of the North in general take love too soberly and seriously. You talk of duties where there should be only a question of pleasure.” “Love, which is the highest joy, which is divine simplicity itself, is not for you moderns, you children of reflection. It works only evil in you. As soon as you wish to be natural, you become common. To you nature seems something hostile; you have made devils out of the smiling gods of Greece, and out of me a demon.”

And then come the thesis: “Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through his passion nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise.” And she continues. “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez.”

Other Choices

All this is revealed in a dream before Severin even gets to know his Wanda. Severin is woken up by his tall Cossack servant and he realizes he has fallen asleep with his clothes on in a chair with a book by the German philosopher Hegel open at a page. The book must have been the Phenomenology of Spirit with the page opened at the beginning of the section on “Self-consciousness” and its introductory discussion of desire and life. And then there is the description of the painting in that room somewhat different than the one above.

“A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.”

Soon, Venus, a real fictional woman (Wanda) dressed as Venus, will be sighted in the garden. Like the painting, her skin is marble-like and she is trembling like a cat though wearing the red velvet fur trimmed wrap. Unlike the painting in which Venus looks at herself with sparkling beautiful and admiring eyes, the eyes of the Venus in the opening of the novella are dead and stony. Further, in the novella she is trembling and sneezes twice in succession.

Severin and his friend discuss love, mastery and cruelty in the context of another book, Confessions of a Supersensual Man. Severin styles himself as a supersensual man. There is also the discussion of the Book of Judith from the Apocrypha. “‘The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.’ How ungallant these Jews are, I thought. And their God might choose more becoming expressions when he speaks of the fair sex.” 

There are thus alternative choices for desire – desire as voluntary self-sacrifice in the service of the female – masochistic love. Desire as pagan love and giving oneself to the temptations and desires of the moment without any future commitment. And then there is the divine biblical love of the bible in which one gives oneself in service to God, to a love of an abstraction rather than a sensuous presence, and in service, not to one’s own sensibilities but in the aspiration to be one with the divine. The book is dedicated to the exploration and advocacy on behalf of the first kind of love.

Stages of Seduction in an Erotic Masochistic Relationship

Severin delivers himself into the hands of a woman by seducing her with his sensuous talk of masochistic love whereas she starts by wanting a man who will dominate her. “”I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his innate (my italics and corrected spelling) strength, do you understand? And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman’s hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel.”

The conversation is very prophetic..Stage by stage the novella turns the roles around. Severin seduces his Venus into becoming the cruel one and accepting, indeed demanding he be her slave. He, in turn, is whipped into submission, forced to degrade himself and eventually to be subjected to a whipping by a handsome Greek she accepts as a lover. In the process, Severin’s infatuation with fur and with masochistic love is given a psychological root by Severin telling a childhood story of his experience with his aunt. “One day my parents drove to the capital of the district. My aunt determined to take advantage of their absence, and to exercise judgment over me. She entered unexpectedly in her fur-lined kazabaika,[2] followed by the cook, kitchen-maid, and the cat of a chamber-maid whom I had scorned. Without asking any questions, they seized me and bound me hand and foot, in spite of my violent resistance. Then my aunt, with an evil smile, rolled up her sleeve and began to whip me with a stout switch. She whipped so hard that the blood flowed, and that, at last, notwithstanding my heroic spirit, I cried and wept and begged for mercy. She then had me untied, but I had to get down on my knees and thank her for the punishment and kiss her hand.”

Greasy-haired Jews, the epitome of commerce and modern man  appear throughout the novel, as providers of art and needed artifacts, but also as the person who seduced the respectable woman with whom Severin once fell in love. Jews are regarded as very far from the supersensuous love for they are too in love with commerce and ambition. But they are minor sideshows, intermediaries and distractions. WOMAN is the main other protagonist. “No woman is so good or so bad, but that at any moment she is capable of the most diabolical as well as of the most divine, of the filthiest as well as of the purest, thoughts, emotions, and actions. In spite of all the advances of civilization, woman has remained as she came out of the hand of nature. She has the nature of a savage, who is faithful or faithless, magnanimous or cruel, according to the impulse that dominates at the moment. Throughout history it has always been a serious deep culture which has produced moral character. Man even when he is selfish or evil always follows principles, woman never follows anything but impulses. Don’t ever forget that, and never feel secure with the woman you love.”

Nevertheless, in spite of warnings, Severin signs the contract to be Wanda’s slave, a scene repeated in the play. Severin dedicates himself to serving as her slave as she diddles with him. The novel is very fast paced for a nineteenth century story, though, if I recall correctly, it was referred to in Ives’ play as turgid. Further, and surprisingly, it is full of sly humour as well as many twists and turns like Ives’ play. In the novella, Severin professes his love as a mixture of hate and fear in which the relationship of the sexes is presented as a battleground in which one partner must of necessity play the hammer while the other is its complement, the anvil. Severin can only worship a woman who treats him cruelly.

The novella reaches its culmination when Alexis Papadopolis appears on the scene and not only woos Wanda, but is the kind of man of whom Wanda always dreamed. “a magnificent specimen of man, No, rather, he is a man whose like I have never yet seen among the living. He is in the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion’s lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face—” And in the worst of horrors, Alexis lashes Severin under Wanda’s orders.

“The sensation of being whipped by a successful rival before the eyes of an adored woman cannot be described. I almost went mad with shame and despair.” Such is the cruelty of love which must by its very nature be cruel because men and women are unequal and one must dominate and the other be dominated: “whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”

That is the philosophy of masochism. That is NOT the thesis put forth in Ives’ play, Venus in Fur.

Narcissism

Yesterday evening, Nancy and I went to see the play, Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Vienna play, The Amorous Adventures of Anatol, at the Tarragon Theatre. This season we have been delighted and moved to see such wonderful productions as This is WarA Brimful of Asha, and No Great Mischief. But last night was a real disappointment and, given the seats we chose, we were trapped and could not slip out quietly and unobtrusively.

 

Perhaps the production was doubly disappointing because Morris Panych, a talented playwright and director in his own right, interpreted the play as just a piece of flaky Viennese pastry rather than a fast-paced farce with a dark centre that tells a tale of self-destruction of a vain, self-centred playboy in Freud’s world. (Freud, a friend of the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, would twenty years later publish an important paper on narcissism.) The whole pattern of the play is lost as Panych replicated the repetitive drawers of one of the most marvellous sets by Ken MacDonald (as well as uses of lighting and projection) in my recent theatre-going. The wall of compartmentalization apothecary multi-use drawers is used for doors, shop windows, peak-a-boo holes, and most of all store houses of memories by Anatol for collecting magical moments where each momento helps to recall, not the delightful creature whom he romanced, but just another of his own fanciful projections.

 

I have been writing about sociopaths and lying; a wonderful opportunity was lost to reveal the pathology of the condition through the lens of humour and wit. First, instead of a pathological specimen, we saw Anatol played by Mike Shara only as an indecisive neurotic romantic twit so self-absorbed that the audience cannot possibly identify with him. But that is the challenge – how to get the playgoer involved in Anatol’s progressive self-destruction. All we get is repetition as if the director is as entranced as the main protagonist.  And Max, as played by Robert Persichini, is only a heavy-footed befuddled friend taking notes The production never allows you to see why. Does Max truly befriend this romantic, self-deluded and lying romantic scoundrel with soulful resigned patience as his proffered advice is rejected? The friendship is then totally incomprehensible. The lines presented as just light banter along the lines of a TV sitcom never emerge as a series of ironic and perceptive takes on the narcissism of Anatol. Max should have been played as a cigar-chomping, witty scientific observer, not a hapless buddy.

 

Perhaps I am being too hard. The series of seven women were played absolutely wonderfully by Nicole Underhay; she succeeds in bringing out each of the character’s unique resilient properties as we progress from victim to each very different variation who can increasingly turn the tables on the self-absorbed roué. But Panych could have done so much more with Adam Palooza who plays all the silent mime parts of doorman, servant, waiter to valet. As the bondsman to a master of self-conceit and self-deceit he could have provided so much more of the body language to comment on this preening poppycock. 

 

In the first scene with Hilda where Anatol’s jealousy is revealed as an absorption in his own imagination with his projections on women of himself as an irresponsible serial liar, the projection we see on the much magnified apothecary wall of drawers is the word “Hilda” rather than a translation of the original “Die Frage an das Schicksal” which was an adumbration of the fate of Anatol as the playwright played with the double-sided meaning of shicksa and fate. So another opportunity to unveil the darker meaning of the drama was lost.

 

One of the issues is of memory. If everything we deal with is merely a projection of our self-love, and the self is just a handsome, boastful uncomprehending dolt, then there is no memory at all. For memory differentiates. Memory teaches, Memory enriches our lives rather than reflecting it back as a series of boring repetitious failures so that all an Anatol wants to do is undercut even the memories of others. When Anatol says at the beginning of the play that everything is hypnosis and magic, then the shameless use of magic and its limits dramatized in the first scene gets lost as just a theatrical trick.

 

When in Greek myth Narcissus rejected the nymph Echo because he was so entranced and enraptured with his own reflection in a the river that Narcissus turned into a flower, the theme of vanity and self-absorption that requires the other to be reduced to a projection of oneself and oneself to spend one’s time in love with their own imagination of the other that they will not even follow through with a hypnosis of the other to be confronted with the truth, for the only truth is their self-absorption; there is no empathy. There is no understanding. There is no self-conscious awareness. And if the director does not comprehend this, then the combination of flattery and sense of vulnerability, the haughty tone of his words and the fear of being shamed, the thin skin and the use of clothes as a protective body shield, the hyperbolic exaggeration and the absorption in self and minutiae cannot be understood.  

 

How could Anatol have such contempt for women he professed to be in love with? Because it was a projection of his own self-contempt. How could he spend so much time degrading others with whom he was intimate? He had to as the only way to protect himself from seeing his own degradation. Where was the rage demonstrated of the narcissist when his expectations were thwarted and his will was frustrated? The exploitation of his conquests comes across more as a kitten playing with a ball of wool than an outrageous misuse of an Other. Where is the flitting back and forth and dizzying movement between fantasies of conquest and imaginative humiliations, exaggerated sense of one’s own intelligence and shame at one’s total display of banality? They are in the words and structure of play but we could not find them in that production.

 

 

Amour (2012)

Amour, Not A Love Story

by

Howard Adelman

In the beginning of the 1960s, my friends and I all fell in love with the French film and winner of the Grand Prix, Hiroshima Mon Amour (HMA), directed by Alain Resnais who made what I remember as the first Holocaust film I had seen, Night and Fog. HMA was sui generis in its dazzling visual style and depiction of sexual passion, a film like nothing I had experienced before. What took place represented more the free associations of the interior of one’s mind than the linear narrative of films I had experienced up until that time which also portrayed deep and truly unequalled passion. But HMA was unlike the almost entirely direct linearity of Amour that I saw last evening, with the exception that Amour is told as a flashback.

Like Michael Haneke’s current Palme d’Or masterpiece, Amour, HMA is about a very intimate conversation that takes place between a couple in love, only in Amour the couple have been in love for half a century. HMA is also about memory and forgetfulness, only HMA is more of a discussion about the relationship over a day or so as the couple are separating after a brief affair. Amour takes you into the experience of loss of memories and faculties as Emmanuelle Riva, who plays the eighty something year old Anne in Amour, has a debilitating stroke and then another as we watch her deteriorate from a dignified and very classy beautiful older French woman into a helpless and totally dependent suffering vegetable cared for over some final months by her devoted husband Georges played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. I was totally embarrassed to learn when I got home from the film that the stunning and magnificent actress whom I had just watched, was the same actress fifty years later whom I had so devotedly loved in my imagination as the epitome of beauty in the sixties when I was a twenty-four year old youth.

Amour has one of the most powerful dream sequences I have every seen in a movie. Georges, the husband in this almost exclusively two actor movie, has a terrifying nightmare in which he experiences a new intrusion into his life, for death is the unwanted burglar who damages his front door at the beginning of the film and adumbrates the destruction that is about to ravage the beautiful bourgeois cultured life he and his wife, Anne, had constructed over a lifetime. He greets the threat with equanimity and some obliviousness while Anne is not only irritated by the threat but feels discomfited and very vulnerable, a sign of the emerging divisions that their two lives will now take even as they are locked together even more intimately than ever before.

However, with the exception of one humorous tale Georges tells Anne about an embarrassing funeral he attended at which the Beatle’s song Yesterday was played, there is no escaping the despair and anxiety. The nightmare is not a re-experience of a stressful event in the past that can be relieved by psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic therapy. In the nightmare, the elevator shaft is barricaded and boarded up, and the hallway is filling with a rising tide of water. Anne and Georges are besieged. The fear is metaphysical and ontological. The sense of extreme discomfort and perilous danger and torment is only relieved when Georges awakes screaming from his demonic nightmare, much to the amazement and puzzlement of his wife Anne lying beside him. But the film is a realist nightmare, a story told with unremitting and uncompromising honesty with a total absence of weepy nostalgia. When Anne asks for the old family photo albums, she flicks through the old photos and state simply but sadly, “C’est beau – la vie.”

Unlike HMA, Amour — in its traditional but almost surrealistically realistic transfixing and tender story-telling in all its meticulous, expressive and subtle detail — almost certainly cinematically references HMA, at the very least in its obvious contrasts. More significantly, and even more than HMA, Amour aroused fear of the process of dying, despair at the ravages of the seeming helplessness of all of us as we anxiously await this end and despair of society’s apparent unwillingness to let us depart with dignity in the face of a wasting illness. Even sealed hermetically in their apartment, Georges and Anne can only preserve a wisp of elegance in the fight against the inevitability of death but the not-inevitable but socially dictated horror of the process of dying. The view of the unforgettable performances of the two stars is unflinching but restrained as we watch from the perspective of a camera kept exceptionally still in contrast to the prevailing hyper-kinetic motion of contemporary movies. The cold, clinical and chilly distancing of the director makes the details of the life of Georges and Anne even more tender without any pandering sentimentality.

Both films are about failed relationships, though on the surface Amour appears to be about the opposite. In the backdrop of Amour we are briefly over several episodes in the film introduced to the failed relationship of Georges and Anne’s daughter, Eva, who is married to Geoff, a very famous British concert pianist and serial philanderer, only in contrast to HMA, the daughter is resigned to sticking it out even though her mother can barely tolerate Geoff’s British manners and his offsetting sense of humour which Anne can only take in small doses. Georges too sticks it out as the almost ideal long love of his life deteriorates and we in the audience voyeuristically watch as even this relationship disintegrates as Georges becomes her devoted care giver as Anne sinks into progressive dementia and her hand physically withers into a gnarled limb. It is difficult to know whether watching the deteriorating relationship between Anne and Georges or the deterioration of the physical capacities of Anne is more painful and harrowing to observe.

In Amour we do not have the documentary backdrop of the portrayal of the effects of the bomb on the Japanese people for Amour takes place virtually entirely within the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the elegant and very high-ceilinged but tired-looking Parisian apartment of Georges and Anne as if to tell us that a half century love affair between two people is an exceptional thing apart. Further, unlike the constant tension between the woman and her Japanese architect lover and their distinctive points of view, cultural experiences and styles in HMA, the only tensions between Anne and Georges take place over their different experiences of Anne’s stroke and the after effects after Georges is first startled by Anne’s beautiful but serene face haunted by a vacant stare as if she was wearing a death mask. Anne subsequently cannot understand why Georges is so upset at her behaviour and why he complains about her failure to respond until she herself comes to understand that she has had a stroke when she unsuccessfully tries to pour herself a cup of tea. While HMA was about the paradoxes of love and the divisions and tensions in the powerful attraction of two people who share so little in common but love, Amour is about two older pianists who have shared a lifelong love of music and deep appreciation of one another, but even that record of deep intimacy disintegrates under the ravages of human mortality just as , paradoxically, their lives intertwine even more intimately. We may live together for fifty years but inevitably we die alone. And without music! There is no soundtrack to either enhance or detract from the visual effect except when we hear a piano performance at the beginning, another piano performance by Anne’s former pupil at their home, and a CD of Anne performing which Gorges turns off. But Georges cannot turn off this excruciating process of dying. Instead of a music soundtrack through the film, we only hear desolate silences and sounds, a tap turned off mysteriously when Anne was otherwise in a coma, Anne’s desolate muffled grunts and her cries ‘I am in pain’ as she is bathed by a nurse.

Thus, both films are about impossible, romantic and poignant love stories that we rarely see, but Amour is much more of a horror film for it shows that even when the impossible becomes real, ravages of time and mortality and death will deal even that love affair a mortal blow. As a leader in the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND) in the early sixties, I was well acquainted with the enormous and widespread destruction nuclear weapons could and did make on human civilization and the personal lives of people, but I could still watch HMA. Now I am seventy-five years old. My brother-in-law just died and I watched the effects of pancreatic cancer on his body and spirit and the fact that his only wish to die with dignity could not be granted. Georges in Amour, with all his devotion to Anne, could also not grant her the same wish. Amour, by contrast with HMA, was just too painful and harrowing for me. I had to leave this brilliant masterpiece 30 minutes before it ended.