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CANNES 1988 – PASCALI'S ISLAND
TRUST AND BETRAYAL
by Harlan Kennedy
"The story is ultimately about trust and betrayal, and that's what leads to the tragedy. Tragedy in the real Shakespearean sense. Pascali is a Shakespearean character: a man who could have had a very different life if he'd had the breaks, but he's somehow condemned always to lose." Speaker, James Dearden. Movie, Pascali's Island, first seen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
With its solidly built narrative – the kind you'd expect from the screenwriter of Fatal Attraction – the film is also drawn to the mystic nemesis of a distant, exotic time and setting: 1908, a generic Turkish-ruled Greek island in the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Based on a novel by Barry Unsworth, "it takes place at a point of decline and dissolution in history; the order is about to collapse," says Dearden. "I think that makes an interesting backdrop to a story."
At Cannes, Pascali's Island came into the "flawed diamond" class of movie – the film of a director who's found a gem-like story but hasn't quite found the right way to cut and shape it. It's heavy where it should be light, smooth where it should be sharply angled. But there's a dormant glitter that keeps one interested, keeps one hoping.
For his first bona fide feature film as a writer-director (he's done shorts and a TV movie [The Cold Room] as well as scripting Fatal Attraction), Dearden can't be accused of going for the easy buck. Viewing Pascali's Island, shot to kill on one of those enigmatic islands in the Med. where European art movies used to disport (L'Avventura, Il Mare), is about as relaxing as getting stuck in a vat of amber. Through the gorgeous haze of empire-setting light, all gold and rose and auburn, you can just about make out the pride of English acting – Ben Kingsley, Charles Dance, and Helen Mirren – wrestling with the adhesive yards of "literate" script.
Yet also stuck in the amber there's the germ of a brilliant notion. The thinking man's Fatal Attraction is lurking in there: without the yahoo sexual politics but with the idea of a hero yanked out of his moral depth after gently dipping his toe into the unknown – and with the idea, too, of a world at the point of change, as nervously poised for peace or war as the world today in the era of Reagachev arms talks.
Center screen is Ben Kingsley. "He's a spy working for the Sultan of Turkey," explains Dearden, "as the Ottoman Empire is finally dissolving. He writes his reports and sends them back to Constantinople. He's been doing that for 20 years, and yet for 20 years he's never had a report acted on or acknowledged. So he's living in a kind of existential limbo. Yet the money comes every month through the local bank, never getting any more, but arriving every month, buying him less and less but keeping him alive after a fashion." [Interjection by Kennedy: "I thought that practice was exclusive to FILM COMMENT. Please continue."] "Well, in part he's a metaphor for the writer, really. Tragic."
Ben Kingsley's Pascali is a compelling bird, best identified as an Ottoman-era Graham Greene antihero: one of those tangy spy-depressives who forever send bits of red tape out into the unanswering void, and then go home to douse their misery in the six o'clock Scotch and/or the wife. Like a Greene hero too, Pascali's epistles to the deaf cosmos are clearly a metaphor for prayer. In one dream – or nightmare – sequence, Pascali opens a giant door in a kind of celestial library and out tumbles an avalanche of papers, as if derisively to define Man as the sum of his neglected prayers and appeals. And indeed the protagonist's very name has enough religious-philosophical resonances to fill a trunk. Pasqua: French for Easter. Paschal lamb: the lamb slain at Passover. Paschalic: a Pasha's domain (which the island is). Pascal: French philosopher for whom prayer was a wager on God's existence.
This humble loser in the battle of lies, Pascali, sits alone on his island and waits for a great releasing moment of contact and recognition. It comes with Charles Dance, charlatan archaeologist and stand-in for the way England did Empire. With the entry of this character – and this actor – starts the problem patches in the movie.
In theory it's like this: "Dance has hired Ben Kingsley as an interpreter in the negotiations he's having with the local Pasha," explains Dearden, "to take a lease on some land he wants to excavate. And we gradually realize – and Pascali realizes – that Dance isn't what he appears. He's actually not an archaeologist at all, but a con man. But Kingsley has already become involved with him: both because he's attracted to this dashing, rather charismatic figure and because he's become a kind of voyeur on Dance's affair with Helen Mirren, who's a Viennese painter living on the island. And that leaves him exposed and vulnerable. And that leads to the denouement, which is ultimately tragic."
Sounds fine in summary. So what goes wrong in the movie?
Problem 1: Dearden hasn't quite found a way to make the "plot" unfold visually or cinematically. He's stuck with a work in which the narrative advances not through action but through deals, duologues, and discoveries-of-character. Or through sotto voce debates vibrant with metaphysical portent.
Problem 2: If there's no action in the plot, there has to be "action" in the acting. Kingsley does his best: the lightbulb eyes and the tremors of the loony singsong voice create a perverse charisma. But Charles Dance has, not for the first time in a film, an unhappy resemblance to a fish on a slab. This character should be the story's demon Messiah: awakening emotions apostolic and erotic, respectively (or interchangeably), in Kingsley and Mirren. But with Dance everything is super-cool, British, and as charged as a dead battery.
Problem 3: Dearden has lavished so much time and attention on getting these three characters right – with mixed success – that the Casablanca-style swell of supporting characters is underdeveloped. They're allowed a couple of scenes each in which to megaphone national tics and clichés: whether George Murcell's German arms supplier (from ze Gert Frobe School of Fat Cardboard Krauts) to English actress Sheila Allen's American matron, delivering shoot-me-down lines from the How-Awful-American-Tourists-Are repertoire. ("I'm so fascinated by these quaint old religious practices," etc... ).
Pascali's Island is itself a bit of a twitching body. But the fact alone that it twitches puts it in a class above other Brit films in the "Masterpiece Theatre Goes Oriental" genre. Unlike Jewel in the Crown or Gandhi, it is not remorselessly Anglocentric. There is a genuine attempt to make the Englishman one part of a culturally multifocus story, rather than our prime object of identification or hindsighted national opprobrium.
Further, the film is impressively ambitious in the Daedalus themes and philosophical echo chambers it tries to build into its structure. The three-way interaction between Islam, Christianity, and pagan humanism (Dance's object of desire is a Greek statue) suggests a point of history at which the thin walls between societies make us unsure which religious music we're hearing at any one time. Unsure, too, where religious dominion and temporal power-seeking begin and end. There are clear rhymes between the movie's strife-torn epoch and today's "religious" wars in Beirut or Belfast. T.P. McKenna's Irish Ex-Pat even pipes up with, "We Irish understand the frustrations of an occupied people."
Dearden's film also suggests the 20th century has been the first to usher in the notion of the chameleon Messiah. Different characters in the film take turns playing Christ. Kingsley has a dream of being crucified; Dance is "crucified" during his moment of triumph. And we sense a point in history at which the whole concept of the redeemer-savior has become diffused and secularized, food for human metaphor rather than the stuff of divine doctrine.
Add to this a few succulent resonances from the Old Testament – the goat being slaughtered on a doorstep is clearly a stand-in for the Paschal lamb, the animal sacrificed by the Israelites in Egypt to save their first-born during Passover – and we have a movie that is at least aiming at religious complexity even if it is frequently erratic in its marksmanship.
Chief enemy to focus and pungency is the pace. The tempo is remorselessly languorous, but Dearden thinks differently. "The unfolding of the story has a kind of inevitability, a sense of impending doom, that is bound up with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. That's what I was trying to capture. The slow turnings of the wheels of fate end up grinding the character, until we reach the point of final cataclysm."
When the film does spring into tragic overdrive at the climax, with a burst of rifles at Dance's doomed quarry and Kingsley's bursting run toward a baptismal sea, one senses at last that Dearden is knitting his ideas together. The Greek statue fulfills its hypnotic mission in the movie as an upmarket McGuffin: "What first drew me to the story," says Dearden, "was the terrible power of beauty. The implacable face of the statue that we see at the point of the cataclysm is very, very beautiful, the apogee of classical beauty, and at the same time it's Nemesis." And in the last scene Pascali himself is left, the story's man-island, little Pasha on his lonely Pashalic, awaiting death in a world loud with the silence of God and Sultan, and imminent with the brute dominion of the new order.
Whatever reception Pascali's Island gets, it's hard to see the same clouds of controversy being kicked up as were created by Dearden's script for Fatal Attraction. "Except with Turks and Greeks," notes Dearden. "We had a lot of trouble shooting Pascali's in Greece. The Greeks thought it was pro-Turkish and the Turks thought it was pro-Greek. It's one of those impossible situations where you can never be on the right side." But that debate is at least localized. Fatal Attraction spread its tremors of controversy across most of the Western World:
Why do you think the film raised so much dust?
I think it came out at a time when people were sensitized to all the issues they saw in it. To AIDS and infidelity on the one hand, and to the women's movement on the other, which is at a kind of crisis point in its proselytizing. Because there's been a backlash, a reaction against feminism, which I don't even particularly subscribe to.
What, the reaction or feminism?
The reaction. I've always considered myself a good, card-carrying feminist. And suddenly I'm attacked as being ideologically unsound. But these people are overreacting and reading into a movie things that weren't even intended. A lot of it stems from feminist paranoia about the "career woman" and what people are supposed to think of her and how Hollywood is supposed to treat her.
The fact is that a lot of the movie is a subjective story and was written that way. It's seen from the Douglas character's viewpoint. He's never offscreen, except for a few minutes here and there. And part of the premise – what interested me in the movie – is that other people are basically unknowable. The movie is a leap into the unknowable dark. It's always odd to wonder how many disturbed people there are in the world. Every day you read in the papers about some maniac with a knife or a gun. But it's always amazed me, given the number of people living on this planet, that it doesn't happen more often. And that's what Fatal Attraction's about. This apparently together, functioning woman is on the edge of psychosis.
What about the famous interpretation of the movie (Glenn Close equals AIDS squared)?
We deliberately left out AIDS, because we didn't want to clutter up the morality of the tale with a whole new morality based on the emergence of a fatal disease.
Yet the film has the moral seal-of-approval given by the Family Values lobby, which no doubt coo at the framed photograph of familial bliss.
I saw that as an ironic image. I think the music probably undercuts it by being "inspirational" at that point. But I didn't put the image in to suggest that here was this blissful, happily married family together again. I don't think anybody could think they'd be unscathed by what had happened. They're still scraping bits of Glenn Close off the bathroom tiles.
I always thought of Fatal Attraction as a Gothic fairy tale. It was a story of everyday life gone hideously wrong. The predicament is as old as time itself: the wife, the husband, the other woman. But I think the film tapped a very raw nerve in the relations between the sexes. For all time men have been doing it and getting away with it, and it's been covered over and laughed about. Then suddenly Fatal Attraction shows what really happens – and what a lot of women know happens and what a lot of men are afraid of women finding out. I think that's why women take their dates, their husbands, their new boyfriends to see the film and get their reactions. Because everybody relates to that particular dilemma. It's such a simple story about such an ancient situation.
Fairy tales of the threatened family are intriguing to find in the work of a filmmaker himself born into a major British movie family: one fortified by success and gentlemanly values. Dearden's father, Basil, was a filmmaker of the Old School (Gainsborough and Ealing) who also cranked out the odd breakthrough social-comment movie. He made two films laying into racial prejudice (Pool of London, 1950; and Sapphire, 1959) long before such views were fashionable. His Victim (1962) launched a pre-permissiveness assault on homosexuality laws and had Dirk Bogarde, then Britain's favorite heartthrob, committing boxoffice suicide by playing a gay, graying barrister. (After this, Bogarde had to auction off his cowlick and bedroom eyes and start acting seriously for Losey and Visconti).
Basil Dearden died in a car crash in 1971, when James was 21. "It was long before I could have talked to him constructively about film. Now I'd love to bring my problems to him, because you can't take them to other directors; life in the movie business doesn't work that way."
Despite gentle encouragement from Pop to stay out of the business – "Get a proper job, he kept saying" – young Dearden got incurably hooked on film at age 16. "I saw The Trial and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at my school film society." He frequented foreign movies in London, a sure sign that addiction was taking hold. "These films tended to be shown in fleapits around Piccadilly. I kept explaining to my mum that I wasn't seeing dirty films." Then, after Oxford University and a year as trainee in a cutting room, he made his first, eight-minute short, The Contraption (Berlin Silver Bear). The shorts grew longer, as they tend to, and culminated in Diversion, the movie he adapted later into Fatal Attraction:
Ah yes. Could I see it?
I'm not allowed to show it.
Well, it may turn up ten years hence. In some retrospective or other.
Dearden made his feature debut as writer-director on The Cold Room. Based on a thriller novel by Jeffrey Caine, the movie won Dearden a Special Jury Prize for Young Director at the Oxford Film Festival (an award in which I myself had some modest hand: I was on the jury and carried a box of Irish dynamite into the jury room: "Tread softly and carry a big stick with a short fuse.") The film also won the Special Jury Prize at Avoriaz in 1985. I had nothing to do with that.
There should have been a chutzpah prize for The Cold Room as well: for getting it made in the first place. "I'd bought the book, I'd written a script," says Dearden, "and I'd got a producer interested, Mark Forstater. But HBO, with whom we were dealing, spent three months thinking about it and then said `It's too European.' So off the top of my head I said, `Would it be too European if l could get George Segal?' No, they thought, it would be less European then. Well, I had no idea if I could get George Segal, but I knew someone who knew him, an agent, and he sent Segal the script. And Segal liked it and said he'd do it. So a half-brained, off-the-wall idea got the film made."
Dearden's next project is also an adaptation, a movie version of Jay McInerney's novel Ransom. This choice will intrigue anyone scavenging the Dearden oeuvre for patterns and parallels. The story is rife with Pascali-style echoes: a loner hero grappling with warring creeds and cultures on an island (Japan); a conspiratorial plot crowned by a sacrificial ending; a mysterious and elusive father figure; and religious resonances aplenty even in the hero's name (Christopher Ransom, which at the slightest pressure yields up connotations of Christ and Redeemer).
With a three-picture deal for Paramount now in his pocket, Dearden is clearly upping the ante on his ambition to make personal films and to make them his own way. But he's also aware that Hollywood isn't a place you go to expecting unlimited love and kisses and blank checks.
"The major studios can recut your film, they can take you off a project and replace you, they can refuse to publicize or even release a movie. But then they're not going to give you $10 to 25 million for you to make the film you want to make. So you have to waive certain rights and expectations.
"It's a balancing act. It involves diplomacy, compromise, subtle persuasion. And it's not a bad thing. A lot of directors are capable of excess. Studios, and collaboration in general, can be a healthy influence. We all need people to be objective for us. I've just come out of a long dark tunnel, 14 weeks spent editing Pascali's Island, and I couldn't tell you what the film's like any more. I can't be objective. It's great when an intelligent person critiques a film, and shows you something that's been staring you in the face for six weeks. I'm a great admirer of the studio system. My father grew up with Ealing; they were the best years of his life. It's great to be part of a big well-organized system that can supply sets, actors, expertise, continuous employment."
That king of studio system – the One Big Happy Family – scarcely exists any more. But the Hollywood community as a whole is probably the closest the world gets to it today. So for Dearden, if the director is something short of the untrammeled, self-sufficient creator he's often romanticized as, what then is he?
"He's the man who fights to maintain his vision of the film. Being a director's like being a general. You have to present a decisive front to the troops, otherwise they won't follow you into battle. In the privacy of your tent, you can look at the map and discuss plans with your fellow officers. But once you're on the floor there can only be one boss. Because things move too fast for you to stand around arguing."
So the director has to be a dictator?
"No. When I direct, I'm not a dictator. I'm not an autocrat. Just so long as we end up doing it my way."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE AUGUST 1988 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.