You have all the weapons you need. So fight!

The following is a scene by scene appreciation of the film Sucker Punch. 

It recommended only for those who have already seen the film.

A Girl Alone Centre Stage

We begin in darkness. We always begin in darkness. It is the nature of our condition. On awakening we might find the world to be bright and full of sunshine. It may be that we wake and find ourselves still in the middle of the night, our heart beating fast from the sensation of nightmares we want to escape from.

But that darkness has a flavour of it’s own. A sense of possibility. Darkness can be that blank canvas through which the most dazzling visions might be projected.

Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder’s much-derided 2011 film, is a pretty dazzling sequence of visions. It has been accused of flooding the screen with too much information; too much information, perhaps, to take in on a single viewing. The worlds, so meticulously crafted but chasing on each other’s heels might feel like just so much noise in our heads. Sometimes a little reflection helps.

But it all begins with darkness and when the light comes, it is not the sunlight of a bright Summer morning or the moonlight of racing hearts and nightmares. It is the artificial light of a proscenium arch theatre. An old majestic-looking theatre in which we are the audience waiting for the show.

The curtain is dark and barely visible to our eyes at first. Above the curtain, and the first thing to be illuminated is the carved figure of an angel, her wings stretched wide arching over the stage. In the auditorium around us, four or maybe five house lights radiating a dim whiteness, not powerful enough to illuminate our environment or let us see more of where we are. The theatre seems familiar, though. It is the kind of theatre that some filmmakers, especially David Lynch, use to create a third way of seeing; one composed neither of daylight nor moonlight. Not nature but artifice. And the lights themselves hum.

A voice, a sweet mellow feminine voice, the kind that warms a room, close and intimate, speaks. “Everyone has an angel; a guardian who watches over us. We can’t know what form they’ll take. One day, old man. Next day, little girl. But don’t let appearances fool you. They can be as fierce as any dragon. Yet they’re not here to fight our battles, but to whisper from our heart, reminding us that it’s us. It’s every one of us who holds power over the world we create.”

While this voice talks to us so intimately, we pull closer to what we can now see is a pleated red velvet curtain. The angel slowly disappears into the black space above the screen, the cinematic version of the proscenium arch. As if highlighting the artifice, we see the Warner Brothers logo, the one invented around the late-1930s appearing, as if projected, on to the curtain. This curtain rises and quieter than the narration, there is a soft echo of music. Another set of curtains appear with a different logo, this time for Legendary Pictures, with its strange interwoven shapes printed on velvet. This second set of curtains part, as if drawn by invisible stagehands, and the stage itself, the first set of the film, is revealed. It is a theatrical simulation of a young girl’s bedroom. We can see the the back wall of the theatre behind the set. The flies which raise and lower flats (new backdrops) are visible against that bare brick wall. There is no pretence that the set in front of us is anything other than a constructed simulation of reality. A theatrical fiction. The set design has arched shapes, the arch of the golden latticed bed head, the arch above the shelves, the arch shapes of the gobo lightning flashes. This world of arches does not exist outside the theatre. Neither, for the next hour or two, shall we.

In the centre of the frame, sitting on a bed is a girl with pig-tails. Her hair is blonde as sunlight, two lamps on each side of the bed pick out the brightest thing on the stage. And as she sits there, unmoving, the camera keeps moving towards her. Closer and closer so until the world that was behind the set, our sense of our own reality, disappears. The world of stagehands disappearing so that that which is not real is all that is left. The artificial world has become our only reality. The proscenium arch invisible to us now. We must never forget, however, that this new world is not a real world. We must never, for a second, forget that these actions and characters are an illusion, a performance here for our pleasure. We must never forget that we are taking a journey into make-believe. 

The camera pulls in to an old-fashioned radio, the kind with a dial where you had to negotiate with white noise to find the right frequency. From that radio, the echoing sound of music. ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’. The opening refrain repeated over and over, echoing. The song itself has not yet begun. Time seems very still. Frozen. Who is this girl? Why is she at the centre of the stage? Why is her back to the audience as if her identity is a secret? It’s as if her identity is something the director wants to withhold or make us question.

As the camera pulls closer to the girl, our perspective changes as we move from one reality to another. The theatre has disappeared. There is no proscenium arch. There are no house lights. As we pull around and see Baby Doll (Emily Browning) sitting on the bed clutching her knees, shaking almost imperceptibly in the storm there is no theatre, no audience, no spotlights. Cinematic sleight of hand has transformed the set into a closer facsimile of the real world. The windows, through which the lightning flashes and the thunder crashes, are clear glass rather than some trick of the lighting department. And these windows are not arches, as the gobo windows were, but curtained. What was theatrical is now cinematic. Over and over again, we shall see a change from one version of reality to another. As the camera twists around one of the characters, we will have to re-adjust our view. 

Despite the bright blonde pigtails and the pink pyjamas, Baby Doll is no child. Emily Browning’s large eyes, with excessive false eyelashes and full lips give her appearance a strange combination. Like the set, she is not a real child but there is a facsimile of childishness that we are supposed to see through. Why she has chosen this style for herself? Maybe someone has chosen it for her. Is it that someone wants to imagine her as a child or for the world to see her that way? This adult actress is playing the role of a vulnerable and frightened child haunted and hopeless in a dark looking room in the middle of a thunderstorm. It may seem clichéd and maybe that is the point. This world is one of the many different genre worlds we shall visit over the next two hours. This stop, gothic melodrama. 

As the thunder crashes again, Baby Doll looks up. The film cuts for the first time. With Baby Doll out of focus in the foreground, a tall man in sharp focus stands tall and ominous in the gloomy doorway of her room. His face looks grave, deeply lined, old, carrying the weight of the worst imaginable news. His clothes dark and formal. He carries a case, the kind used by doctors and we know that’s what he is. His glasses glint as he shakes his head. There is nothing left that he can do. 

Baby Doll gets up and, with an urgency made ironically more explicit by slow motion, runs past the doctor and into the corridor. In another room, a sheet is drawn over the face of a woman; her mother. A nurse in a starched white uniform stands in the corner of the room looking on as Baby Doll’s heart breaks for the first of many times in this sequence. The orchestral score has elevated a moment of the Annie Lennox/Dave Stewart song and sustained it giving it an operatic intensity, sounding a little like a church organ at a funeral into an orchestral sound that feels like the notes of a church organ at a funeral. Everything is slow, the heartbeat of the thunderstorm breaking slowing, the deepened shadows of the house and everyone in it, every sensory choice carrying us into the externalised emotional tumult of her despair. 

From outside the window, we see a younger girl enter the room and stand next to Baby Doll. This girl is a real child, no false eyelashes or platinum blonde hair in pigtails. This girl, a real child, cries out. “No.” It is the first diegetic voice in the film. Baby Doll puts her arms around the girl. This is her sister and she wants to protect her from the reality of death. Despite all these childlike aspects to her appearance, she is the elder sister, the protector but she cannot hide the truth of their mothers death. The younger girl has the strength of sincerity. She doesn’t want things kept from her. She collapses to her knees and as her knees hit the floor the soundtrack intensifies the crash. Baby Doll joins her sister kneeling on the floor and her knees crash in a similar manner. It is the younger more real seeming child who leads. The younger sister’s fist is seen twisting the fabric of the sheet unintentionally causing the sheet to pull back from the still, marble-like face of their beautiful mother. 

We cut to the Stepfather as he watches the Doctor leave and then turns to face the two young girls with a half-smile. In the manner of all melodrama, this villain is a character of purest malevolence. He is smiling at their despair. The lightning and the storm are his friends. He loosens his tie. With the doctor gone and the mother dead, now he can do what he wants with those young girls. Baby Doll looks up at him, tears trickling down her cheek, horror in her eyes, knowing full well what evil future lurks in his black heart. Maybe he has already done something to her. Maybe he has already used her. The implication is there. Otherwise why should her anxiety be greater than just the grief of loss.

Cutting to a graveyard, no improvement to the weather, we see a coffin in a grave from above. The camera twisting slowly as Baby Doll’s sister throws a single rose into the grave. The two sisters wear black hats dwarfed by the larger dark circles of open umbrellas. Only the Stepfather’s bald head is open to the elements. He doesn’t care about the eternal rain. In his evil intentions, he is pure and elemental. Baby Doll looks at him from across the grave. He has a shovel in his hand. His head tilts as he looks back at both the girls again anticipating what he plans to do with them. The camera cuts to the point of view of the mother in the grave, the Stepfather unemotionally shovelling dirt on top of us. The dead are in darkness now and can do nothing to help the sisters.

Cutting to another place at another time, the Stepfather looks at the closed envelope bearing the words ‘Last Will and Testament’. He reaches into a busy drawer, where a gun is resting foreshadowing, but he takes a letter opener, breaks the seal on the envelope his face hungry with anticipation. He expects everything to become his. The expression on his face changes as he reads what is inside. The camera jump cuts into the lines, “…bequeath my worldly possessions to my two daughters”.

His hunger is transformed into rage. His arms sweep across the desk knocking everything to the floor. Then, he drains a bottle of whisky, holding it vertically so we can see the liquid emptying into his large overbearing frame. His face reddening with the drink.

In another room, Baby Doll is watching her sleeping sister with maternal compassion. The young girl shifts in her sleep, dreaming peacefully, unaware of the horrors that are flooding Baby Doll’s mind. Baby Doll kisses her forehead, a small gesture of love, knowing that she may not be able to protect her when she feels unable to protect herself.

From the fireplace, we see the enraged Stepfather tossing the remains of his bottle into the fire. Even though the bottle was empty or near empty, the flames rage up filling the screen as though doused in petrol. The look on his face is a hatred beyond anything rational. It is as though he is a demon-possessed by pure evil and anger. But why? Because of the flames, the booze, the injustice of wanting to have it all and not getting it, or simply because melodrama needs a good villain. 

Baby Doll closes the door to her sister’s room behind her only to see the out of focus shape of her Stepfather filling the hall, his outstretched arms reaching from wall to wall lookin like a monster who cannot be defeated preventing any hope of an escape. He will have her now. This would not solve any of his financial problems but this man is not a rational creature, not in Baby Doll’s eyes. The drink has exacerbated his anger and his lust. The lightning of this never-ending storm flashes behind him. 

Aware of the danger to her, she runs for the safety of her room, trying to shut the door behind her, but he is bigger and stronger and is already halfway inside as she tries to slam the door. He grasps at her and pulls at her pyjama top. A button flies off almost exposing her chest. She lashes out and claws at his face with her fingernails, scratching his face deeply with the ferocity of a cornered panther, scarring him. This does not slow him down and he pushes the door open with his greater force. The seemingly gigantic button from her pyjama spins on the floor in the foreground in slow motion as, in the background, he advances upon her. But thinking Baby Doll is perhaps a little too ready to defend herself, he has a change of heart. After looking at Baby Doll for a moment, he turns away from her and looks at the closed door of her sister’s room. 

In a close shot, we see him locking the door to Baby Doll’s room, locking her inside, powerless to do anything to stop him from attacking her sister. In an extreme close up of the keyhole, we can see a single eye looking at him with horror knowing what he intends to do. The camera pulls closer and closer until the eye is massive, filling the screen. Then we see him, reflected in her eye, moving to her sister’s bedroom. He’s undoing his tie and looking directly back at us, at Baby Doll. He smiles that villainous half-smile goading us into fury at his perverted malefic intentions. This is an impossible view for him but the expressionistic and difficult shot has the maximum emotional impact on us.

The sister slips past him as his eyes follow her. He was too slow but it doesn’t matter. The younger girl has nowhere to go. We see her backing into a closet surrounded by coats as if walking backwards through this closet could eventually open up a safer world. The door thumps. Keys jangle in the lock. The lightbulb shakes in close up as she cowers beneath it beneath it and out of focus. 

Baby Doll climbs out her window reaching for the drainpipe, wet and slippery in the rain. She must escape. As she grabs hold of it and her body swings outside, it is clear how precarious her situation is. Slowly she tries to lower herself but she is forced, inelegantly, to drop to the ground. 

The Stepfather violently kicks through the young sister’s door as she hunches up hopelessly and helplessly beneath him mirroring the position that Baby Doll was in during the first shot. As he advances on the sister, he turns and sees Baby Doll, in the corridor, she is in soft focus as the gun that we first saw in his desk drawer is raised into sharp focus at the centre of the screen. He smiles at her as if he knows she will not fire it. He has relied, for much of his life, on the gentleness of women. But this time he has misread the situation. Closing her eyes, she fires the gun and the lightbulb smashes. Shards of glass fly away in slow motion from the flaming filament. Frustrated, she shoots again. This time, the bullet passes through his wrist and he grabs at it, nursing it. A jet of steam escapes from a punctured radiator. 

The dynamic has changed. Now it is the Stepfather who cowers on the floor. Baby Doll runs to her sister, but her sister is lying on the ground, still. She lifts her as if trying to find the life in her. The body, however, is limp as a rag doll in her arms. She feels something wet and looks at her fingertips. They are covered in thick dark blood. Heart’s blood. It becomes clear to her that in trying to shoot and scare her Stepfather, she has killed her sister. 

She howls. 

While she is howling, the Stepfather picks up the phone and starts dialling. 

Baby Doll advances towards him, pointing the gun at his face. He raises a hand to protect himself. Now he is afraid. Now he is holding up his hands to please stop. He is pathetic and just wants to live. He is a low beast now. A cornered beast. A whimpering thing. As if moved by his helplessness into being unable to finish the job, she runs away, again in slow motion dropping the gun that, having done the worst thing she could imagine, she no longer wants to hold. The gun clatters on the floorboards as her feet pound against the wooden boards. 

Baby Doll sits by her mother’s grave, the wreath clearly visible, her eyes a mass of teary mascara. She turns to face something higher than herself. She looks lost and pathetic now. The effect of what she has done weighing on her.

Uniformed police in raingear advance towards the camera, the beams from their torches cutting through the mist in the night air like spotlights cutting through the tobacco cloud in a theatre. As seen from below, they look like giant figures. It would be impossible to do anything to escape them. 

The Stepfather points her out to a policeman. He still bears the scars of her attack, but he looks calm and rational now. He is not the kind of man who would attempt to rape a young girl. The police can see that. Anyone can see that. With the strobing red lights of the police car pierce the air behind them, he looks quiet, sober and respectable. He knows exactly how to play the game of life and that game favours people like him. 

Baby Doll sits, listlessly, hopelessly, held down by three people as a syringe someone injects something into her arm. A blanket has been draped over her shoulders. All is lost. She has no fight left. She does not care what will happen to her now.  

Next thing, we see her asleep in the car beside her Stepfather as the car careens through the rain flecked world. Baby Doll looks comfortably numb. The camera glides across the car and we see the title of the film “Sucker Punch” spelled out in trickles of windblown rain. 

As the car drives up the hill through the gate announcing Lennox House, rays of sunlight streak through the deep grey clouds and crows fly over the sign. The mansion on the hillside is framed like one of those great gothic characters; the Bates House, Castle Dracula and Manderlay all rolled into one. The melodrama may be grim, the story ugly but the setting has all the beauty of romanticism. Of something made by men looking like it belongs as part of the landscape as if forged by the natural world.

Over the soundtrack, the voice that introduced the film continues “You can deny your angels exist, Convince ourselves they can’t be real. But they show up anyway, at strange places and at strange times. They can speak through any character we can imagine. They’ll shout through demons if they have to. Daring us, challenging us to fight.” 

They can speak through any character we can imagine.

They’ll shout through demons if they have to.

These two lines seem significant. There are a lot of characters and a lot of them are shouting like demons. Is it possible that they could be there for our benefit? That the worst and the best are all part of what enriches our soul.

The music ends as two men in white drag Baby Doll from the car waking her up in the process. The Stepfather pulls up the collar of his coat to protect himself from the inclement weather still being threatened by the sky. He is acting the role, all of a sudden, of someone who doesn’t care for the cold and the rain, but in every earlier scene, he seemed to be revelling in it. Baby Doll falls to the ground crying out when she sees, suddenly and for the first time, where she is.  

In the ground, with a few spare sprigs of long grass waving in the breeze, is a large granite sign. ‘Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. Brattleboro Vermont’.

This opening sequence takes up no more than six minutes of screen time. The extreme close-ups, views of enormous buttons, slow motion running, smashing lightbulbs, views through keyholes, from open graves, reflections in eyes and various other techniques are reminiscent of Hitchcock, Bava, De Palma and Argento; the master visual stylists of the cinema. With its suggestions of libidinous debauchery including child abuse and incest, the opening sequence could have been torn from the pages of De Sade’s Justine with Baby Doll as the virtuous heroine trapped in a world where virtue has no place.

Gerard Plunkett, in the role of the Stepfather, steals the screen with his mixing of overplaying and subtly underplaying the melodramatic villain. It’s a minor masterpiece of casting. He knows how to make an audience hiss and this is an incredibly hissable villain indeed.

The arrangement of the music is also unusual and stirring. Tyler Bates and Marcus de Vries have taken a familiar song and given it a texture that draws out the theme into an orchestral and vibrant piece of work. That it is Emily Browning herself, providing the vocal for this cover version of Sweet Dreams adds something to its power. 

Sweet Dreams are made of this.

Who am I to disagree?

Travel the world and the seven seas.

Everybody’s looking for something.

Some of them want to use you.

Some of them want to get used by you.

Some of them want to abuse you.

Some of them want to be abused.

There is a sinister tone to this song that has long been put into context by its admirers. While not often seen this way, the lyrics seem packed with weariness and ironic dissatisfaction with life. Everybody’s looking for something… They aren’t living. They’re looking. Travelling is a chore. Some want to abuse and some want to be abused… And this is the danger. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives decide who we shall become. If we paint ourselves as victims, we may feel most comfortable in the role of a victim. Some make villainy that much easier by being attracted to the tall, dark and abusive. In the case of Baby Doll in this opening sequence, all she wants is to save herself and her sister. But the theatrical setting and the framing of the sequence as pure melodrama, as extreme in its way as the interruptions to the main narrative with zombies and demons. There might be no wicked Stepfather. This whole story might be a story reinvented and redesigned from small elements of things that might have happened in the real world. It’s so much easier to see the world with heroes and villains but not necessarily better.  

The Stepfather is an archetype. He represents an idea of evil masculinity; all control and anger. If he can’t have his own way, he will hurt, maim and kill. The artful nature of this sequence leads us into the film as a whole or, as I think the set-up implies, that this is part of a dramatic rendering which the film must exaggerate to give the heroine more strength. And the heroine of this story is something of an enigma.  

Welcome to the House of Fun

I don’t know what Sucker Punch is about. Let me put that another way. I don’t know wha Sucker Punch is supposed to be about. And in many ways, it doesn’t matter. It might just be that a certain amount of ambiguity is what was intended. I’ve heard it said that it was intended to be a critique of geek culture. I’m not entirely sure what geek culture is but I can’t imagine a $98 million film gets greenlit on the basis that the maker wants to critique a sector of his audience. That Zack Snyder, himself, has said that he wanted to make a “fuck you” to a number of his fans probably shouldn’t be taken too much at face value. Directors, when publicising a film, are apt to say all kinds of things. If Snyder does have some kind of antipathy to geek culture, it isn’t really obvious from the film. What we do have is a group of women, heroines, who seem to be living concurrently on several planes of reality that intersect at key moments. It could be that one of those planes of reality is supposed to be the real reality and the others are supposed to be fantasies or projections from that reality and I may speculate on many possibilities while talking about the film here. The heroines of the film might emerge as creations of each other. All the levels of reality may be fantasies. Alternatively, none may be fantasies; a multiverse of different worlds which have emerged from different conditions. Personally, I suspect that proscenium arch at the beginning of the film which will recur again and again, is our truth. That this is art constantly reminding us that it isn’t supposed to be taken for reality. 

That the villainous men in the film are akin the lowest kinds of monsters and demons in any fantasy is interesting. Men are usually the villains of melodrama but they are also the heroes. Here, men do not save women. They are larger and more aggressive than the women, but they are cowardly, selfish, abusive and lacking all heroic qualities. Fairy tales tend to have wicked stepmothers and benign but weak fathers. Here we have a deceased mother and a stepfather so brimming with evil that we cannot help but ask what such a good woman saw in him (assuming she was a good woman, which may be an error). What charm did he have that covered or justified his desire to abuse young girls? How Baby Doll fights off her stepfather shows the most vulnerable-looking child-woman, a Snow White figure of innocence, being able to scar a man twice her size with her considerable claws. In seeing him cower under the muzzle of her gun, he appears far weaker and more scared than she does. She only fails in her attempt to free herself from his avarice and lust because she shows compassion towards him as he whimpers and shrinks from her. She cannot, however, do anything to hide from her guilt at having accidentally killed her beloved sister and has no real will to protect herself from what comes next. She didn’t just neglect her sister and allow her to be raped. She fired the shot that ended her life. But Baby Doll will become something more. She will be the one who gives life to those who have lost it. She will be that corner of the psyche that we turn to when cynicism has stopped us from believing anything is possible. 

This is not evident at first. Baby Doll, after arriving at the Lennox Hospital, does little more than stare at the world she is being led through. She seems passive but she also sees things in detail. A mother and a father wait in a gloomy room. The mother looks at her gloves while the father fingers the brim of his hat. Why are they there? What are they waiting for? Doors clang, heavily bolted doors cut off all means of escape. Tiles are broken. Metal looks rusted. This is not the cleanest looking of hospitals, but the nurses appear with cold faces and starched white uniforms and hats just like the nurse who was at the bedside of Baby Doll’s mother. This is not a world that smiles. 

At the end of a long corridor, standing in front of a wire mesh gate, we catch a glimpse from her point of view of Blue Jones (Oscar Isaacs), the second major antagonist of the story and the man who shall be her undoing. In this reality, with his dark fringe and shadowy eyes, he looks just like an orderly, a good looking orderly perhaps, but an orderly nevertheless. Around his neck is a key that tings when she sees it. On it is written ‘Mt. Pleasant’. He tells her Stepfather that he is going to take her into the theatre where Dr Gorski is going to take a look at her because she likes to see all the new girls. The language already suggests something quite different from a mental hospital. Maybe the world that they shall shortly slip into is his ideal of how things should be.

“Don’t worry Dad,” he tells the Stepfather. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’ve got everything under control around here.”

As she is led down along the cell ridden corridor, Baby hears the maniacal laughing of one woman still under lock and key. Then Blue kicks open the door to the theatre and the set on the stage is identical to the set of Baby Doll’s room at the beginning of the film. There is a blonde woman on the stage. We can’t see her at first but it looks like she is playing the role of Baby Doll.

Blue smiles at the Stepfather as a beautiful and elegant woman steps on to the stage. This is Dr Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino). Gorski uses the theatre to help the girl with their issues. Blue smiles mockingly…“Polish therapy. It’s really quite a show watching them act out who touched them or beat them. Dr Gorski seems to think it helps. I’m not so sure, but whether it does or doesn’t won’t matter much to you because once we take care of a little bit of business there won’t be any of that for this one. She’ll be in Paradise if you know what I mean. And all your troubles will be over.” 

While Blue talks, we see Rocket (Jenna Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) at a table together. They don’t look like heroines. They look used, damaged, troubled and drugged. They look back at Baby Doll as if taking her in for their own particular reasons. It’s not obvious at this stage that these will be her allies in the other worlds. They will be the ones who believe in her. 

We then see the girl on stage from a closer angle, her hair hangs loosely about her face. She looks tired but still unusually beautiful. This is Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish).

Blue continues telling the stepfather what will happen. “I don’t have a doctor on staff who does lobotomies, but there just happens to be one scheduled to come in. He’ll be here in five days so I’ll just forge her signature. I’ve done it a dozen times.”

Baby Doll can hear all of this, we see her face in close up as she listens to each of these men. She knows what is going to happen to her in five days but it doesn’t seem to matter because she has no power here at all. So she says nothing. There is nothing she can do about this situation.

Dr Gorski starts talking to Sweet Pea who is sitting on the bed on the stage; Baby Doll’s bed, Baby Doll’s stage. 

“I’m going to start your music,” says Gorski, her neck long, her hair immaculate, her body clad in a subtly checked skirt suit that tells us she takes great care of her appearance, that she has an immaculate sense for details. “You are safe. It’s all safe. Now relax. And just let go. It’s like we talk about. You control this world. Let the pain go. Let the hurt go. Let the guilt go. What you’re imagining right now, that world you control; that place can be as real as any pain.”

Listening to this, “What you’re imagining right now; that world you control. That place can be as real as any pain”. Obviously, when looking at any movie it isn’t necessary to find clues in every line of dialogue, but Dr Gorski is a psychiatric doctor who uses drama as therapy. Are all the interwoven stories of Sucker Punch part of that therapy?

In the scenes that follow, Baby Doll is seen going through the motions of her last five days in the asylum before the lobotomy that will destroy her mind and kill her ability to remember. During those five days, a soulless empty time, we see her taking information from the hospital. While we don’t hear her speaking, she notices certain things in the hospital. An orderly with a lighter in front of a sign prohibiting smoking and another sign that says, ‘In the event of a fire all doors will automatically open’. She sees a map showing the various corridors and doors behind Blue. She sees the knife used by Cook, sharp and lethal. She also sees, again, the key around Blue’s neck. After seeing these things, we see her undergoing therapy with Dr Gorski. Here she is talking. Here she is telling a story. But we do not hear what she says. While she speaks a metronome is ticking away. Why? A metronome is normally used to keep rhythm for rehearsing musicians. Why would a metronome be ticking in the office of a pscycho-analytic office? Is Dr Gorski already making the world musical or, as is sometimes the case, is she using the metronome as a hypnotic aid? The crossing of the theatrical and musical experience with that of psychoanalysis, drugs and hypnosis is all hinted at in this one brief scene. If Dr Gorski knows what she is doing and is aware of all that is happening around her, maybe there will be no lobotomy. After all, if you kill the main character in the first few minutes of the film (or reduce them to a vegetable) what direction can the film take after that.

But in the next scene, topping this montage of events, we see Baby Doll strapped to a chair, fully conscious, as a doctor (Jon Hamm) goes to work on her with a hammer and orbitoclast (the pointy little implement used for carrying out lobotomies). The sharp end of the orbitoclast hovers over her eye as the doctor raises the hammer and then… 

“STOP!”

You’ve got to help me. I’m the star of the show, remember? 

“This is a joke, right? Don’t you get the point of this? It’s to turn people on. I get the sexy little schoolgirl. I even get the helpless mental patient. That can be hot. But what is this? Lobotomised vegetable? How about something a little more… commercial, for God’s sakes.” 

Our reality has shifted. We aren’t in a mental hospital any more. That was just a show; a piece of theatre. Like all theatre, it seemed real while we were in the middle of it, but now we have moved to another reality we can see that it wasn’t real. None of it was real. This is real. Sweet Pea is the one pretending to have the lobotomy because Madame Gorski (not Dr Gorski now – now she’s the Madame of a brothel and maybe she always was) wants to keep the shows fresh. Sweet Pea demands to be released and it turns out that the doctor is no longer a real doctor but Amber dressed as one. The nurses are Rocket and Blondie, now playing roles in this bizarre rehearsal of a bizarre show. There are also women dressed as policemen with torches. There’s a priest. All these other characters filling the stage seem to be from Baby Doll’s story as if the entirety of what has gone before is part of this strange rehearsal of a very strange show.

Does this shift reflect a self-awareness on Snyder’s part? These women are, after all, paraded to entice the punters into wanting to enjoy their bodies without seeing them for what they are. Sweet Pea is, in her own words, is the star of the show. But what does that mean in a brothel? Why does Madame Gorski care more about art and telling a story than she does about just getting the clientele all hot and bothered? Oddly, it is the star who is complaining about the lack of appeal to punters. Why does she care? The director is the one who wants to take the story into a darker area than is appropriate in a girlie show. Is Madame Gorski standing in for Snyder? Is he the one who, knowing he must satisfy the demands of a big-budget film, would like to make something darker? Has he taken up the mantle of the good doctor offering us all a cure for our psychological trauma in a film whose posters made it looked like a piece of popcorn entertainment filled with sexy young women?

Hollywood, like a good brothel, is built upon giving the public what it wants. It isn’t art. It’s a delicious artifice there to satisfy hard-working punters looking for an hour or two of distraction. When the Oscars come around, all those who have made their money producing blockbusters try and look very noble by only nominating the films that are “about something important”. But for all of us who enjoy Hollywood for its ability to entertain and see through the lies of Oscar bait for what they are, that “something important” is never very important at all. The millionaire producers and studio heads didn’t make their money from Oscar bait, they made their money by giving the audience what the audience enjoy. We pay to see for exciting melodramas where the girls are pretty and the men good looking. We pay them for colour and spectacle. We pay them for stories where the girl, about to be lobotomised, is saved at the last minute by Bruce Willis who is only so late because traffic was a bitch. 

Sucker Punch doesn’t do this. Instead, it takes us into this other brighter, but even more sordid, reality. A reality not of a single miscarriage of justice added to corruption within a mental institution but a reality in which women only exist as toys for unpleasant men to exploit. 

In her complaint about the new direction of the cabaret Sweet Pea has a very valid point. The sexual appeal of lobotomised vegetables is very niche. So niche that it is hard to believe it would ever inspire the big spenders to spend more in the bar or on the girls. Far from being a fringe theatre that might put on strangely kinky productions highlighting the injustice of forced lobotomies, this is a classy looking place. It doesn’t look like a brothel at all. It looks like a nightclub with gambling and drinking, girls and well-dressed gangsters movie. 

So, we have moved from the gothic to the baroque. The colours are warmer. Here is a different kind of movie altogether. It has the high-life version of low life flavour of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge along with its colourful décor. 

After her star-of-the-show tantrum, Sweet Pea is invited by Blue to meet Baby Doll dressed up as “the sexy little schoolgirl” that Sweet Pea was talking about. But then Blue, himself, is now no longer the orderly quietly organising lobotomies on the sly. Now he is the pimp/owner dressed in an elegant white suit sporting a Clark Gable style moustache (creating the impression that the piece is set somewhere in the late 1930s rather than the 1960s as the makers suggested). And the Stepfather is there too… Only now he is not a besuited gentleman but a Catholic Priest. 

Sweet Pea takes one look at her and says, “Don’t tell me, the priest brought you here from the orphanage to lose your virginity, right? Oh, let me rephrase that. To sell it.” Sweet Pea smiles at this. She has accepted her position as a high-ranking whore and sees the world through the prism of her cynicism. But there is a deeper feeling than merely a jealousy of the younger girl, the cuter girl, the one brimming with the kind of innocence that a certain type of man will be innately drawn to. Sweet Pea immediately sees Baby Doll as an aspect of herself and that scares her. It’s that part of her that might not so easily accept a dismal life over risk. She refuses to show Baby Doll around (because she is so busy and important) and delegates this to her sister, Rocket. 

The stepfather/priest touches Baby Doll on the shoulder and says, “Bye my dear,” his voice filled with synthetic concern and piety. Baby Doll reacts to this by spitting in his face which ignites his fury, the same fury we have seen when he was the Stepfather. His face screws up and he yells at her. “You’ll get what you deserve when the High Roller comes. I hope you rot in here.” 

Zack Snyder, the director and screenwriter of Sucker Punch, began his career making pop videos. Generally seen as a popular director of commercial blockbusters, his filmography is one of the oddest of any big-budget filmmaker. He could be the most downbeat director to have ever made blockbusters. Having Zack Snyder as the director of superhero movies based on comics is like having Ingmar Bergman directing The Care Bears movie. This may be one of the reasons his movies have been so genuinely controversial with his detractors foaming at the mouth with rage as he turns Superman into a complex and troubled character and Batman into a bloodthirsty avenger.

The recent campaign to Release the Snyder Cut of Justice League is one of the genuine cultural phenomenons of the last few years and shows that for all his detractors, Snyder has just as many rabid supporters. It is hard to think of many modern directors who have such cultural sway as to incite fans to force a studio to spend so much money on creating a director’s cut lasting 4 hours.

His first feature was Dawn of the Dead. It was a kind of non-remake of George Romero’s legendary zombie film. While Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was famous for its lumbering blue-painted zombies in a shopping mall, Snyder’s film also featured a shopping mall but that’s where any similarity ended. Snyder’s zombies run about in a manner more akin to the broken vampires of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend

He followed this with an adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 (itself one of many versions of The Battle of Thermopylae). Widely regarded as one of the most faithful adaptations of a comic book in movie history, 300 established a particular style in ways of showing combat. His use of slow motion has time slowing down and speeding up according to how deeply the director wants us to experience the intensity of a particular moment. 300 made a kazillion dollars and had young men shouting “I am Sparta” in Gerard Butler’s best Grecian Scots accent for a good few years. 

This was followed by his adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Any adaptation of a work by Alan Moore is destined for controversy as Moore has never liked Hollywood adaptations of his work. Snyder’s work is therefore often damned sight unseen by admirers of Moore and deemed too long and difficult for those who don’t care less preferring their comic book movies simplistic and kid-friendly. As with Dawn of the Dead and 300, it was not a film that gloried in escapism. It was as dark and grim as the work that inspired it. 

Sucker Punch was made after Watchmen and is the only one of Snyder’s films that is not an adaptation. 

There are very few films to have pissed off quite so many people. 

Snyder’s reputation before Sucker Punch wasn’t bad. Not everyone loved his first three films but his unique style and the unique quality of his work was accepted. His reputation after Sucker Punch was less positive. If the film really was intended as a “fuck you!” to certain members of the audience, it was pretty successful. The vitriol followed the film around for years… Why… Well… I won’t get into it here. This is already destined to be a very long blog post. Suffice to say that if Man of Steel (Snyder’s Superman film) and Batman v Superman divide public opinion, that divided public opinion probably started here with Sucker Punch

Firstly, and importantly, Sucker Punch is a big-budget film. Some people find the idea of someone spending tens of millions on any kind of film a troublesome thing. Villages could have been fed for lifetimes on the money spent on this one film. Reservoirs could have been created. Housing could be built by the thousand etc. But for every penny spent on a big-budget film (especially those without A-list stars eating most of the budget), countless people are employed. Money is never really being tossed away into the void. But the idea of spending so much on one movie, especially an art movie (which despite its marketing campaign, Sucker Punch definitely is) rubs many people up the wrong way. 

Secondly, it’s a difficult movie. I’m writing an overlong blog post about it and even I don’t know what it’s about. I have theories and the internet is alive with myriad theories. Some of them are fascinating. Some seem a bit of a stretch. But, again, a lot of people prefer their Saturday night entertainment to be clear and easy to follow. Sucker Punch isn’t that. It’s perplexing and difficult. It’s what we used to call “a thinker”. 

Thirdly, a lot of people out there look at a film, made in 2011, which is partly about the abuse of women by men. They see a lot of beautiful actresses in short skirts and skimpy outfits and some kind of puritanical fuse blows in their brains. 

But mostly, people complain about the shallow characterisation within what is a noisy indigestible spectacle. On the surface, this is a valid point. I am still baffled as to how, even after the massive success of 300, Zack Snyder was able to get Sucker Punch greenlit. There aren’t many $82 million art films. It probably broke even for the studio… just… but I cannot even begin to imagine how the film was pitched to the studio executives. 

“It’s about this girl who is about to be abused by her stepfather who accidentally shoots and kills her kid sister, gets committed to a mental hospital and is, maybe lobotomised but during the operation sees the hospital as a high-class brothel. In the brothel, they put on these big dancing shows and she decides to escape by getting certain items that she can only get by dancing and flying off into a fantasy world where she fights off demons, orcs, dragons, steampunk zombies in world war one and robots. She does this while dressed in a kinky schoolgirl outfit. It’s a kind of critique of the objectification of women in comic book culture.” 

“Sounds like a winner. How much do you want?”

“About $82 million.”

“No problem. But after this, you’re making Superman.”

Don’t worry, I won’t bite very hard

Peeling her sexy nurse wig off, Rocket leads Baby Doll away from the priest and Blue into a corridor with red and gold patterned wallpaper and drapes. The corridor has the same geography as the corridor in the asylum, but it has glamour and theatricality. Not the dead blue-grey of the asylum but all the glitz of the theatre. Even the light shades are like those in the theatre at the beginning of the film. Rocket has an easy-going jovial personality. She speaks very matter-of-factly about the nature of what they have to do. They may be performers but the reality is much more basic. Showing off a room with the most ornate decorations, purple curtains, candelabras and a red bed, piled high with silk cushions, that revolves as Rocket sits upon it, she tells Baby Doll, “Blue owns the club. And we, my dear, are the main attractions.” 

As the bed spins, during the reverse shot of Baby Doll the picture of a dragon on that wall behind her looks like it is emerging from her head. She might appear to be a sweet and vulnerable schoolgirl right now; a victim whose past is a series of hardships, but inside her and about to emerge is the heart and soul of a dragon. A creature of anger and violence. 

“The club’s a front for his business,” Rocket continues, “Guns, gambling, medications, special favours. He brings in his clients and we’ve got to make them feel, you know, special.”

Like Sweet Pea, Rocket has accepted her fate. Baby Doll cannot. Baby Doll looks constantly shocked, wide-eyed, confused, uncomprehending. But she understands it all too well because she knows what men are in this world. When Rocket points her to look through the port-hole window to the kitchen, we see Cook, overweight and red-faced man, violently chopping meat. Cook is a caricature of gluttony and he is viewed with absolute revulsion. He does the most natural thing he could do on seeing two women sneering at him. He blows them a kiss. A comic moment that has severe consequences later in the film. 

While the two walk through the corridor, young women walk past in dance rehearsal gear giving the impression that this is less a brothel than a dance academy (like the one in Dario Argento’s Suspiria – all roads lead back to Argento). 

The rehearsal room is a beautiful shade of teal which contrasts with the healthy flesh tones of the girls doing bar exercises. While they work on their pliers, Amber, Blondie and Sweet Pea are gossiping about the new girl and her supposed virginity. Sweet Pea tells them not to get attached to her because Blue is saving her for the High Roller. The High Roller, they suggest, only likes virgins so whether Baby Doll is a virgin or not matters. But there is an implication in this that If she is given to the High Roller that is the end of her in some way. Sex in the world of prostitutes is hardly such a life or death matter. Why shouldn’t they get attached to her? Is the High Roller some kind of serial killer?

“Everybody gets a dance, a routine,” Rocket tells Baby Doll as she stretches at the bar. “We practice it, practise it and practise it and the men come and watch us perform, and if they like what they see… Well, you’ll see tonight. 

Then we move into the night club setting. Red velvet curtains again, this time fringed with gold. The house lights are down but every table has a lamp illuminating a drink or two. To the right of the stage a small band with a closed tinny sound and on stage, holding a drink in one hand and a microphone in the other, stands Blue. Beside him, as he does his intro to the audience, Madame Gorski swings her hips, dancing, sparkling in a tinselled silver lame dress. Blue’s interaction with the audience is cheesy, vulgar and full of vanity. He casts a faux lecherous eye over Gorski. This is his world, his fantasy. He thinks his audience loves him. “I see some new faces out there as well as some familiar ones,” he says with a wink while Carla Madame Gorski continues to sparkle. 

“Hit it!” He tells the band throwing his glass, casually, off the stage. Gorski slides up and down his body, while he starts singing a Butlins cover version of “Love is the Drug” 

I troll downtown the red light place.

Jump up bubble up – what’s in store?

Love is the drug and I need to score.

Showing out, showing out, hit and run.

Boy meets girl where the beat goes on.

Stitched up tight, can’t shake free.

Love is the drug, got a hook on me. 

While he is singing we see the events leading up to the real cabaret.

Girls in extreme close-up applying deep red and violet shades of lipstick.

Fake eyelashes extended even further and made even blacker by thick applications of mascara.

Garter belts are attached sensuously to fish-net stockings.

Gorsky gets behind Blue and plays a game of using him. The game of dominance and submission between them constantly switching. She slaps him, claps in his face playing for his attention as if she owns him. 

Whiskies are poured, money changes hands. Gambling chips are thrown over the green baize surface of a gaming table.

We see the dance numbers in short clips, jumping from scene to scene. Blondie, looking like an Arabian belly dancer, twirling while wielding a scimitar-like blade. Sweet Pea, like Joan of Arc, burned at the stake red paper flames licking at her gyrating body as lightning seems to strike before she ascends to Heaven wearing angel’s wings. Sexy nurses led by Rocket, dance around giant hypodermic needles. Amber a French maid surrounded by high-kicking hat-check girls who could have come from a Busby Berkeley number. 

One customer gets out of line starting a fight and shooting out a light bulb (another one). The pearls of a chandelier fly through the air. In the end this customer is thrown into the street landing in a heap of garbage.

It’s a strange production number and it does feel as if it is a pop video advertising moments from a longer series of numbers from the film. It feels as if Sucker Punch could have been one of those strange dark themed musicals like Cabaret or Chicago but it never does. In fact this scene has the only moment of diegetic singing in the whole film. The rest of the songs in the film are just on the soundtrack.

This number, like so much else, reflects the themes of the film. In particular, about half way through, the entire curtain is transformed into a giant keyhole reminding us of that shot through the keyhole at the beginning of the film but also of the idea of a key being important.

Baby Doll watches the performances of the girls from the side of the stage as if she can see in them the key to her escape from this reality. It’s all about the dance; the routine. It’s all about catching our attention so that we look the wrong way and don’t notice the sucker punch that will knock us out.

That night, as if haunted by where she is, Baby Doll weeps in the bathroom while Sweet Pea and Rocket lie awake in the dormitory they all share. It is Rocket who goes to console her and be with her on her first night in this terrifying place. Whether it is this which is the cause of her tears or whether it is something else, something more disturbing, is hard to say because we don’t know what is real any more. We know she might be having trouble adapting to life in a brothel, scrubbing and cleaning up after everyone like Cinderella, but this version of Baby Doll has just been dragged here from an orphanage. The other story, the story that opened the film, is a facade invented for Madame Gorski’s show. 

The following day, as Baby Doll is scrubbing the floor, Rocket is working in the kitchen dragging enormously heavy bags across the floor. Cook views her with contempt while eating the most deliciously greasy-looking sandwich. He doesn’t care about the mayonnaise on his cheek. He is living his life of gluttony to the max. Thinking she is being very clever, Rocket sneakily steals some unsweetened baking chocolate. Cook, quite reasonably, grabs what she has stolen and instead of apologising or excusing herself, she viciously slaps him across the face. He then turns into a bit of a rapist (as many of the men in this film appear to do with regularity) and holds her down with his considerable weight upon her.

Hearing Rocket’s shrieks, Baby Doll comes to her rescue, sneaking up behind Cook, taking one of the knives from his belt and holding it to his throat. 

“Let her go, pig,” she says showing a different side to her character to anything we have seen before this moment. She isn’t pathetic now. Now she is quite capable of killing a man without a second thought. 

He raises his hands as he stands up. Rocket is released. “I didn’t mean nothing,” he says. “I was just having a little fun.”

The two girls run away and go to their dance rehearsal. 

You have all the weapons you need

Back in the rehearsal room, Madame Gorski stands in the centre of the room, her face a mask of heavily applied make-up. Sheer black around her eyes. A high black collar encasing her straight dancer’s neck. Her hand leaning on a polished wood stick. She counts as Sweet Pea tries to get the number. 

“One two three four five six seven eight. Two two three four ARMS six seven eight. Stop! Stop.” Sweet Pea holds her position, gradually letting her hand drop as Gorski approaches her. Gorski fixes her with a dangerous expression, barely hiding her rage and disappointment. “Where are you right now? Are you with us or not?”

The dynamic between Gorski and Sweet Pea has changed. Sweet Pea was the star of the show, but there is a new girl. Maybe the new girl will be better. Maybe Gorski knows, as they all know, that someone is needed to dance in such a way that can truly free everyone from this bizarre world they are a part of. She tells Sweet Pea to take a break and calls on Baby Doll. “Come here. Let me look at you,” she says pointing at her with her stick as if it were a sword which could run her through at any moment. 

Blue strides into the rehearsal room accompanied by his henchmen. This is not unnoticed by Gorski. “I’m going to play you some music okay?” says Gorski. “And I want you to just relax. Feel the music. Open your heart to it. Let it in. And when you are ready, I want you to dance.”

Sweet Pea goes and stands by Blue, her face is full of anxiety at the idea that she might be replaced by this younger girl. Is there something between herself and Blue. Was she once his favourite girl? It looks like there is some kind of feeling there, a sense that she wants Blue to see her rather than anyone else.

The intro to Bjork’s ‘Army of Me’ plays. Baby Doll stands in the middle of the room listening to it. Looking around at all the faces which are looking at her, fixed on her expectantly. A worried frown forming as if she feels nothing at all and has no sense of wanting to dance to this music. 

Blue flashes Gorski a look suggesting that there’s nothing here, and Gorski feels it straight away. She shuts off the music and approaches Baby Doll. 

“If you do not dance, you have no purpose and we don’t keep things here that have no purpose. You see your fight for survival starts right now. You don’t want to be judged? You won’t be. You don’t think you’re strong enough? You are. You’re afraid. Don’t be. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!” She bangs her stick on the floor. “Again!”

Blue looks bored, disappointed. He starts to turn away as if about to leave. His eyes revealing a tiredness that he has felt a million times before on seeing the girls that didn’t quite turn out to be something special. Sweet Pea looks down sensing that this new girl, far from taking over from her is going to be destroyed. Rocket, however, looks on at Baby Doll full of cautious faith. As the intro plays again, we see Amber willing her on. We see Blue heading out and suddenly for some reason not obvious to us turning back, seeing Baby Doll in a new light, and having to look more closely at what she can do. Madame Gorski beats her stick against the hard floor to the rhythm of the music. We see the tape whirling, the sound level spiking, the silver end of the stick striking the hard wood floor in close-shot. 

Then we pull into an extreme close shot of Baby Doll’s eyes. She closes them, her lashes providing an absurdly broad black canopy. Then a snowflake, a huge decorative symbolic looking snowflake, floats down and settles on her eyelash before melting into a drop of water that clings on to those long black lashes, reflecting everything around like a crystal or a diamond. As her eye opens the droplet slips away and the camera slowly pulls out to reveal a different colder light on her face. Her bright blonde hair blowing in the wind. Her eyes darting around trying to find some aspect of the world she is in which looks familiar. Smokey breath slips from between her lips like steam on a winter’s day. The camera moves around her. She is not in Lennox House any more, but in a feudal Japanese square. Wintry, cold, snow hanging in the air. A world stained by cold white winter. As the camera pulls further back, Baby Doll becomes a small part of this landscape. A huge temple dwarfs her. The only sign of warmth or light being a lantern within that temple. Where is this? When is this? 

Baby Doll walks hesitantly towards the temple and up the icy steps. Inside we see thousands of glowing candles glittering behind the cold iron framed wooden doors. The music starts to fade as we see a sage, a monk, an inhabitant of this temple, oiling the blade of a katana. Slowly running a small white cloth down the ornately decorated blade as she walks confidently toward him, no longer the silent and traumatised Baby Doll of the opening scenes.

Now she seems to be filled with intent. 

“Shoes,” he says.

“I’m sorry.”

“Your shoes. You’re tracking snow everywhere.”

“I’m sorry,” says Baby Doll looking for footsteps behind her. There is no snow. “Shall I take them off?”

“That time has passed,” says the Wise Man as if this is part of a lesson. Life is irreversible. What is done is done. This Wise Man is played by the actor Scott Glen, an actor whose deeply lined face carries a certain quiet gravity and had already done so for a while. Not the kind of man one would expect to see in feudal Japan, perhaps, but exactly the kind of man one could envision as a master who would lead the way for the young and confused. In a short exchange with Baby Doll in which she shows greater maturity and understanding of herself than in earlier moments of the film, he asks her what she is looking for. 

“A way out, I guess?”

“You guess?”

“No… I know… I need to get out of here.”

“Freedom.” Freedom is her goal. Her principal goal. Not to be a slave. Not to be an object that is used and abused by those who have something to gain from her. “I’m going to help you to be free,” he tells her. 

“What do I have to do?”The priest opens up a black lacquered box and inside is an ornately designed handgun with a chestnut grip, three magazines and several very small totemic looking toys, one with rabbit ears. Indicating the box and the katana, the priest says, “These are your weapons. When you take them you begin your journey. Your journey to freedom. You will need five items for this journey. The first is a map. Then fire, a knife and a key. The fifth thing is a mystery. It is the reason. It is the goal. It will be a deep sacrifice and a perfect victory. Only you can find it. And if you do, it will set you free.” Short uncomplicated sentences. Simple, straightforward language but, in the classical style of a metaphysical trial, loaded with information that, at this stage, seems opaque and, which some might argue, remains so. She must face her demons. She must conquer them through violence although the violence that she uses may or may not be real.

After being led back into the courtyard, the priest indicates what awaits her. We get a shot of the three armoured demonic entities she must face as her first challenge. The central one wears a kasa, a conical wicker hat, the other two are wearing helmets, one with horns. 

Baby Doll walks toward them, her high heels clacking on the stone steps. The demons growl, steam coming from them as they growl, their eyes glowing demon red. The steps they take thunder, the camera subtly shaking under the force of their impact upon the ground. 

The well-used blade of a giant-sized long-handled broad sword clatters and scrapes across the icy ground causing sparks to fly. The blade has dents in it, possibly from the bodies it has scythed through. 

A murder of crows caw as the first demon of the three advances toward Baby Doll. She is tiny by comparison to him. Her midriff is bare. Her skirt is short. She looks exactly like a small doll as the demon huffs and puffs at her. We see her from his point of view. Her eyes wide and vulnerable looking. 

He roars and starts to swing his blade, she starts to pull the katana from her back, but not quickly enough. The demon kicks her with a force so great that she goes flying into the temple, looking like a small toy. Her body hurling over the candles and breaking the stone floor behind as her body hits. The tiles are broken by the impact of this tiny girl raising as many questions about what she is made of as what the tiles are. Long grooves dug through the ancient stone by the force of the impact. Masonry collapses around her. 

The demon smashes his way into the temple breaking the doors as though they were made of matchwood. His rage, not definable or comprehensible. He must kill and destroy her and there is no condition to this. Single-minded, destructive, unstoppable. No reason. Smashing through the candles as heavy metal guitars screech on the soundtrack feeling like that rage. He attempts to finish her with his sword but she leaps to one side avoiding his killer blow. But, after this, she takes back blow after back blow and her size and frailty don’t make her significantly vulnerable to his attacks. She has the quality of all superheroes in their fights. It isn’t just the force that she can bring to the fight but the force that her body an absorb without breaking. She can take an impact that would easily destroy a normal human being and get up to fight some more. We are in the world, now, that does not obey any of the same laws of our own. Soon, the temple is aflame from all those candles. 

The demon leaps up into the air, like gravity does not exist here, and, in slow motion, descends towards Baby Doll, the action speeding up as the blade strikes beside her causing a shockwave that sends her body flying into the air. When he swings his blade against her katana, despite the massive difference in size and weight, the Katana can parry every blow as if they are evenly matched. The effort may cause her pain but she does not go down. When he swings his blade across at her she is able to leaps over it, again in slow motion, somersaulting over every subsequent blow until she manages to slice through his calf. Rays of light, like those from the sun itself, bleed out into the air and the demon looks at her knowing himself to be finished before she cuts a similar wound in his neck forcing him to collapse to the ground with a crash. 

The choreography of the fight sequence makes an interesting comparison to the choreography in the earlier dance sequence. Baby Doll leaping around, dodging masonry, splinters flying around her, hurling her sword up at the second demon before climbing up his body and shooting him four times in the eye and surfing his body as it crashes to the ground, seems more than just a dance. As in 300, Snyder chooses to slow the action down when he wants to guide the viewer’s perceptions into really experiencing a particular moment. A great deal of work and effort has gone into the acrobatic training and choreography of these sequences and he doesn’t want it to fly past in the blink of an eye.

After having destroyed the second demon, Baby Doll walks away from the temple which collapses into a heap of rubble behind her. Bjork’s ‘Army of Me’ rises on to the soundtrack again as if to bookend the entire sequence with the song. She pulls her katana out of the ground with some effort, like King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone, and the sound of the blade coming free is synchronised with the track. Framed against a valley, all shades of blue, the third demon sprints toward her. She lowers herself to a crouch and a whirlwind of snow rises as if by magical forces around her. At the last moment, she leaps and slices through the demon almost imperceptibly. Light bleeds from him. The crows fly across the screen disappearing into the sky. A pillar of light draws the life force from the demon as it staggers, only half aware of being finished, and stumbles to the ground. Baby Doll lands inches from the camera with a crunching sound. She breathes heavily in the now silent wintry air. 

When she raises herself from that crouching position and stands, she is back in the rehearsal room. The entire sequence has lasted less than ten minutes and we shall not return to this version of feudal Japan again. This has been a world unique to that sequence of the film; a separate world, another reality. The third reality. 

Rocket and the other girls applaud the dance. They have not seen what we have seen. As Baby Doll stands breathlessly, the world of demons and fighting seems to be somewhere else, somewhere distant, something to do with the music. Rocket says “What was that?” We might be thinking the same. What was that? What did that have to do with this world? We might have bought the first shift in reality from a mental hospital to a brothel if we were watching the film, not focusing, we might not have noticed any change in reality at all between the asylum and the brothel. But this was very different. And Baby Doll was not just some little girl. She has insane powers in that world of monsters. Blue is genuinely shocked as if the rock upon which his foundations are formed has been shattered by her dance. He walks away and Baby Doll notes that. Madame Gorski claps too but it is a slow deliberate kind of clapping. Maybe she too knows that the fabric of their world is about to change completely. While they have not seen her fighting demons, they have seen something and that something was not what they believed this ‘little girl’ was capable of. 

The music, as much as the sequence it accompanies, has left us with a question about when we are. This world and everything about it looks like the 1930s, certain aspects of technology are more modern (and the makers have said that it was supposed to be the 1960s) but Army of Me is not a song that could have existed in that time. The production itself would have been impossible, but the vocals and the instrumental elements of the song would have been unfamiliar and alien to these characters. But here they are not. The characters just seem to take this intrusion of anachronistic music in their stride (unless, just as we have seen another world that they haven’t, they heard a different piece of music). The same musical anachronism could apply to the arrangement of ‘Love is the Drug’ but why ‘Army of Me’. The tempting answer would be, ‘because it sounds cool, fits the action and suits the director’s mood. But there’s something more to the lyrics. As with many of the songs used, the lyrics seem to be commenting on what is leading the protagonists and us through this world. 

The lyrics… 

Stand up!

You’ve got to manage.

I won’t sympathize anymore.

And if you complain once more

You’ll meet an army of me.

You’re all-right.

There’s nothing wrong.

Self-sufficience please!

And get to work!

They sound like Dr Gorski, “You have all the weapons you need, so fight.” Tough love. Be strong. Or the song could echo Baby Doll’s superconscious mind. The situation may be dire, but she has to find a way to meet whatever fate has thrown at her. Being a victim is not an option even when victimhood seems all that is left. “I won’t sympathise any more”. Even if the demons were only in her fantasy world (and this is a very strange fantasy for a 20-year-old in 1960s Vermont), she can rise and become someone, seize control, become self-sufficient even when it is beginning to look like she can have no agency in this story at all. 

And this, I would suggest, is the real set-up for the film. 

The opening scenes of her trying to fight off her abusive stepfather, then being committed to Lennox House. Then switching to another version of that same place as a high-class brothel, full of colour, in which the women are owned by one man but have come to accept their slavery. Is it better to endure the pains of their profession and their lack of freedom than to risk extreme punishment or death? 

Baby Doll knows that there is another possibility. She knows that if the situation is that dire, there is absolutely no reason to accept it. If things are so terrible, then it is better to fight to escape them and be punished or killed for that attempt than to live on and accept that situation merely complaining about being a victim.

This might be what Blue has seen in her dance. It is not the dance of a sexually programmed robot (which is what we might think he wants from his toys and possessions) but the dance of someone who shall always be free. Oscar Isaac captures the look of horror of a man who has realised that he cannot truly own that which he has always assumed to be his. Baby Doll will never be his toy. It is the very fact that she can be such an erotic being, a sex-positive woman rather than a passive cipher of men’s desire, that shows she can never be manipulated in the manner of someone who just goes through the motions. Maybe this is what drives Blue into wanting her all the more. Maybe this is what drives him to the brink.

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Once that dance has taken place, other worlds are available to all the characters in this film. No reality that we see is the entire reality. It’s too tempting to suggest that one level or another is the real world and all the other worlds are imagined by the main character or are projections of their fantasies and insecurities or even of stories told to Dr Gorski, the psychiatrist. But, in fact, none of these levels are reality. We are, after all, sitting in a cinema or watching a video in which the opening scene is of us watching a stage within a screen. None of these realities is our reality. To the audience, especially the audience who shall see this film only once, all are equally real or equally unreal.

Having impressed with her dance, there is another scene set in the girl’s dormitory. All the inmates/hookers sleep together in this dorm as if they are staying at a girl’s boarding school. Here they are, lying in their cots, all girls together discussing their philosophy of dance.

Sweet Pea condemns Baby Doll’s dance as “all that gyrating and moaning.” We haven’t seen any gyrating or moaning but we have to believe it was there for Sweet Pea to see (maybe all who see Baby Doll dance see whatever they want to). “A dance should mean more than just titillation,” Sweet Pea continues. “Mine’s personal. It says who I am. What the heck does yours say?”

“It says I’m going to escape from here,” replies Baby Doll. “That I’m going to be free.” 

Sweet Pea looks at Baby Doll with a withering cynical expression and says, “Well, send me a postcard from Paradise.”

Paradise. The word is loaded. Does she mean it as a mythical wonderland or a reference to death? Blue has already told the Stepfather in the asylum world that Baby Doll will soon be in Paradise. There will be countless references to Paradise throughout the film.

Sweet Pea’s cynicism is understandable. She has accepted her incarceration and subjugation. She believes that life is just this. An empty and horrible world where men exploit and use women and there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Sweet Pea, reading a book, can escape in her mind and, maybe, in her dance. But she doesn’t believe that any of these girls can be free. She will live there as a property of Blue being the ‘star of the show’ but carrying no hope in her heart for a world that is better or a place where she could be free. There is a contradiction, at the very beginning of the brothel sequence, Sweet Pea complained that the lobotomy sequence wasn’t enough of a turn on but here she complains of Baby Doll’s dance being too much gyrating and moaning. There are moments where her personality and Baby Doll’s show a certain interchangeable quality. 

When Baby Doll talks of her plan, Sweet Pea says she doesn’t want to hear her plan and extends that to “none of us do.” She can speak for all the other girls in the dormitory. It is as if she controls all the others as if she is the superego. Rocket, however, is interested in hearing the plan and immediately Sweet Pea’s authority as cynic and fatalist is undermined. Blondie reveals that three other girls have tried to escape and died. But remaining in the club with the volatile Blue seems a lot more dangerous. Blondie is filled with fear and that fear will be her downfall. Sweet Pea isn’t filled with fear but she knows what cannot be done, what hasn’t been done before and is therefore impossible. Her sense of practicality is the foundation of who she is and this has been threatened by the hope embodied by Baby Doll. In fact, Baby Doll is slowly transforming herself into a messianic figure for the other girls. She will lead them to salvation even if that salvation is only available to one and that one may be the only one who was ever real in any sense at all. 

The following scene shows a switch in perspective which will change everything and this is underlined by how the scene is shot. 

We are in a dressing room. It’s a remarkably luxurious dressing room for backstage at a girlie show, which is little more than a brothel. This dressing room has huge mirrors, larger than those in most theatrical dressing rooms. I’ve seen smaller dressing rooms in West End theatres. These huge mirrors have multiple lights and are decorated with ostrich feathers, crystalline beads, family photos and postcards.

Rocket tries to win Sweet Pea around by relating how Baby Doll saved her from an attempted rape by Cook. As she does so, we pass, in one continuous shot, through to the other side of the mirror and find ourselves looking back on the original Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie, from the other side of that mirror. 

This moment is easy to miss. I missed it the first two times I saw the movie. Maybe I was still reeling from the preceding scene with the Japanese demons. But the camera moves around the sitting figures until we are in a completely different room in which everything is the other way around. The same postcards and pictures on the mirrors. The same writing on the wall… All left to right and legible. Having seen the way this film was shot on the Dutch blu-ray, this was intended to create the impression of numerous realities existing side by side.

Figures in the mirror do what we do. They are reflections of us but there’s always that sense of them living in a different world. So the world of the brothel reflects the world of the asylum and both are reflected in the heroic scenarios that will be faced while Baby Doll dances. Alice stepped through the looking glass and ended up where? 

On the reverse side of the mirror, no truer than the first side, Sweet Pea, who has been resisting any kind of pleasantry towards Baby Doll decides that she will go along with the plan to escape. She is convincingly persuaded not so much by the brilliance of Baby Doll’s scheme but by the fact that all the others are doing it and she feels they are more likely to get caught without her. She, after all, is the one rational mind. She would be the one to make a lunatic plan a plausible one.

Everyone agrees to steal the items on the list, the list given to her by the wise old man in the temple: Map, fire, knife and key. She doesn’t mention the fifth thing; the unknowable thing, the one that will require great sacrifice and offer true freedom. The plan is simply that while Baby Doll is dancing the other four girls will steal those items. 

Sweet Pea objects that they’ll be doing all the work while Baby Doll prances around with an alibi. Baby Doll says, “As long as I’m dancing, they won’t even know you’re there.”

How does she know?

Because Baby Doll has always been centre stage in the film, she is the one we think of as the main star, the primary protagonist. This is how she and Snyder and the whole cast trick the audience into not noticing, despite numerous clues throughout the film, that Baby Doll may be an illusion; a construction and a reflection of another psyche. She doesn’t talk with such assurance and confidence, or at all, before the lobotomy scene. And the lobotomy scene was interrupted by Sweet Pea playing the role of Baby Doll in the surgery, saying “no”. And we are asked who gets off one watching a lobotomy?

Good question. Why was the lobotomy there? It could be that Sweet Pea and the others are a construction in the mind of a deranged young girl, but that seems unlikely. It could be, as I have suggested, that all these levels of reality are equally true for the filmmakers. After all, they are all taking place within the same cinematic universe. Maybe the world of Sucker Punch could be its own multiverse that characters slip between endlessly. A series of mirror worlds intersected by a lobotomy that may or may not be real. And maybe that lobotomy could be the way that certain types of entertainment can pacify the audience into not noticing the world around them that is real.

As Baby Doll goes through the items and where they can be found, her memories are not from the brothel world but the hospital world. She saw the map, the lighter, the knife and the key when she was being taken around the hospital. She knows where they are and who they belong to. Snyder makes it clear that she is looking back into this other reality even if we have forgotten those moments because the colour scheme shifts so noticeably. No golden lighting. There is a map and the lighter and knife in the world of the brothel are just golden-hued versions of those in the asylum. Will grabbing those items in this reality mean they will also be grabbed in the other?

Sweet Pea says that if Blue catches them stealing these things they will be dead. Rocket says, as if spouting a truism she has only just been made aware of by the possibility of escape. “We’re already dead.” And maybe they are. In a film that bends and breaks reality so constantly, it doesn’t seem a stretch to keep speculating. Death, here, is a metaphor for a life lived as a slave but what if it is also literally true on another of those layers of reality. What if it is only intended to be Sweet Pea that is still alive imagining or living through this moment? What if the others are her imaginary friends or memories of real friends long gone? Aspects of her personality with Baby Doll being that optimism and hope and courage that was lost at some point.

It is Sweet Pea, however, who must tell Blue that Baby Doll is about to dance again so she can make a copy of the map in his office. Sweet Pea suddenly knowing and believing that Blue has been so captivated by Baby Doll’s dancing (and in love with her, as later becomes apparent) that she can manipulate him. She underestimates his level of paranoia and the need to maintain control but that is another issue. She has, to some extent, bought into the idea of the escape. 

The escape-from-prison genre will always trigger memories of prison camp stories seen every holiday, such as The Colditz Story and The Great Escape where the set-up is first the plan, then the digging of a tunnel or getting certain items, then the escape from the prison itself but then, most dangerously (in The Great Escape – the most popular film in the genre) negotiating the hostile territory outside the prison, finding their way through a hostile world and evading recapture. Here, however, the escape from the brothel is assumed to be the final hurdle. But the brothel, like the asylum, is only a partial reality. In many ways, the idea of the prison in Sucker Punch shifts constantly. In The Prisoner (the 1967-68 TV series with Patrick McGoohan), the tone of each episode shifts the nature of the priority in each episode. The Prisoner is aways trying to escape from the prison but the nature of the prison is not just to keep him incarcerated but to break his mind. In one episode of that series, Hammer into Anvil, Number Two, the de-facto governor of the prison apt to change from week to week, after proving to be particularly sadistic and murderous, is tricked by Number Six, the protagonist, into developing greater and greater levels of paranoia until he ultimately destroys himself. There is an echo of this in how Baby Doll plays Blue. Blue seems, on the brothel level, to have a kind of absolute unquestioned control over his environment, but Baby Doll shakes the foundation of his world driving him into a state where he would no longer be fit to hold this position of authority. Where those around him can see that he is not stable enough or disinterested enough to run the business.

The looking glass world is itself a punishment. It’s nice to live in a more colourful world for a while but usually there is always an urge to return to the familiar one, even if the more familiar world is bad. Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz could live in the beautiful multi-coloured world of Oz with her delightful friends, but all she wants is to get back to Kansas in black and white poverty. Alice doesn’t want to be through the looking glass or in Wonderland. Familiarity counts for a lot. Baby Doll has no reality to get back to but Sweet Pea does. There is a loving family left behind (making us wonder how she was committed to any kind of institution in the first place unless she did something like kill her sister by accident). She has these wonderful friends here in this brothel who need to get away, stop being used (like the various schoolgirls in Tag), but she accepts the brothel reality like one of those prisoners who have become institutionalised. Baby Doll is that piece of her soul that insists upon freedom, at any price. Get out of this nightmare. The Alice in Wonderland connection is heightened by the use of Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit” during this next fantasy sequence.

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.

And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all

Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall

Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call

He called Alice when she was just small

When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go

And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low

Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Knight is talking backwards

And the Red Queen’s off with her head

Remember what the Dormouse said

Feed your head, feed your head

While the drug references may be vivid and create a hurdy-gurdy sensibility, it is that reminder that we aren’t in any kind of reality we can understand. The rabbit is also one of the totems carried by Baby Doll. In the following sequence, probably the action highlight of the film, all five women are called into service. It’s not just Baby Doll with powers here. It’s all of them.

The Trenches

Baby Doll looks at herself in the mirror, takes a deep breath and slowly moves her body from side to side as we pull closer and closer to her, the music slowly growing louder and more prominent. She is looking at herself in the mirror, but she is also looking directly at us, into us, seeing beyond our normality. Flakes of ash appear behind her. The camera slowly circles her, the other women in the dance studio blurring into insignificance as the view transforms. The vista of a battlefield appears in front of her. This seamless transition from one world to another already feeling natural. Explosions bursting softly on her horizon into clouds of black ash. 

Pulling back, we see that she is back in her schoolgirl costume, with her katana sheathed across her back. The vista ahead of her expands into a sweeping vision of No-Man’s-Land. Barbed wire, sandbags shoring up around trenches. Zeppelins and triplanes flying through the deep dark clouded sky. The sound of explosions popping and whizzing like fireworks in the distance. Here we have war on a grand scale. Rising towers of deathly smoke dissolving into the sky and adding to the bleak grey landscape. It could be Flanders in World War One. Stumps of trees rising like spikes from the muddy ground. Forests and fields burnt. Villages, once inhabited by families. Towns full of life transformed into a killing ground. 

The sight of Baby Doll in her schoolgirl uniform, thighs and midriff bare, is absurdly incongruous. How does she belong here? We know this world. We know it is not a place for katana-wielding schoolgirls. But then this WW1 is just a little heightened. Maybe a little too much action for a war that was weeks of sitting doing nothing followed by a mass slaughter or two. In a fantasy WW1, anything is possible. It may not be a realistic setting, but it taps into something in the psyche. It is the field of madness and despair. Here, however, we have Baby Doll with her katana. The symbolism is clear. Through art, we can transcend the worst horrors that life puts in our way. Baby Doll has made herself, in this reality, a mythical heroine. 

It is in these grand-scale worlds that Baby Doll rises and becomes a different person. That core self that tried to save her sister is her natural persona here. Always ready for action. Infinitely more capable than she could have possibly imagined. 

 Blondie calls her name. “Baby,” She says. “He’s coming. He’s going to start the briefing.” Blondie, wearing long leather gloves and carrying an automatic weapon, has also changed. There is no sign of the earlier reticent self. Here she is self-assured and ready to put her life on the line. 

Baby turns and joins the others in a beatifically ruined cathedral. God ray shafts of light fall diagonally through the ruin. Despite most of the walls bombed to rubble, there is still a stained glass window. The wise man steps towards the five girls who stand to slow attention, Sweet Pea being the last to stand. He is no longer a monk-like character shining katanas and talking in aphorisms. Now, he is a colonel wearing a long coat and peaked cap that half obscures his face, and he isn’t offering wisdom. He’s giving orders. 

“All right,” he says. “Here’s the drill. The Germans are preparing a report for the Kaiser. It’s a map that shows troop locations and trench layouts. Their field commander is sending the map via courier back to Germany on a zeppelin today.”

Sweet Pea looks at him from under a cowl, she maintains that same sceptical look as when she was talking to Baby Doll in the magic mirror room. “How do we intercept it?”

“You’re going to cross No-Man’s-Land, enter the enemy trenches and take the map from the field commander’s bunker before the courier can reach the zeppelin.”

Rocket smiles, “Sounds like fun.”

Except it doesn’t. It sounds terrifying. This would mean certain death if these five women were normal soldiers. But then, there is nothing normal about them and nothing normal about this situation. Do they know they are in a fantasy world or do they simply have a sense of their abilities? Or more than that? Is it that here, in this other world, they know that the key to victory is not in hiding and cowering in the face of horrific suffering and death? The key is confidence and bravery. This is what makes the World War One setting so poignant. The inherited concept of The Great War is that it was a pointless stalemate in which all actions launched by the generals would end in certain death for all those who went over the top. The movies and so many of our ideas that we take from the movies, have usually represented World War Two as a glorious battle against evil full of strategically undertaken missions with cigar-chewing heroes whereas World War One was bleak and horrific. Nobody is chewing a cigar, but Amber chews a lollipop. Our heroines have some of the personality quirks of those heroes on a mission. They are dressed not in uniforms but in styles that represent their characters. 

As above, so below. The map is the goal. The map is all. The map symbolises knowledge and intelligence, the very qualities embodied in the character of Sweet Pea. Baby Doll may be the one with the plan, but Sweet Pea can see the danger in it. 

As the girls walk through the trenches in glorious slow motion with explosions bursting behind them and around them, they are unscathed. They are quite unlike the deflated and tired trench soldiers. While the depiction of the trenches here is hardly realistic, there is the impression that these soldiers are war-wearied young men. Our heroines, on the other hand, look like creatures from another universe. 

Blondie lifts the face of a boy who could be anywhere between 12 and 16. Her expression is nonchalant. The boy has little interest in Blondie. He looks directly at Sweet Pea as if he knows something about her. She sees him. She truly sees him. She feels the reality of a child in the trenches. It’s not a joke to her. 

The Wise Man shows Amber her mecha, a powerful robot-like walking vehicle that can take a ridiculous amount of damage without being destroyed. It looks like a living tank. She climbs inside, her torn jeans showing that underneath she is wearing fishnet stockings; impractical for most war zones, but fashion is part of the show. Once inside, the machine lights up with monitors and lights that illuminate her lollipop chewing face. She’s enjoying this. She is a million miles from the enervated troops, beaten by endless battles, underage, half dead. She’s on fire. 

The briefing continues: “German doctors and engineers have worked out how to return their fallen to the front lines. They’re using steam power and clockworks to keep them moving. So, don’t feel bad about killing them. They’re already dead.”

Don’t feel bad about killing them they’re already dead. Dead like the girls in the brothel. Don’t feel guilty having your fun, they aren’t worth anything. They don’t feel anything. They’re already dead. 

As if to lead them in their mission, The Wise Man takes out a pair of zombie-like German soldiers with a rifle (even though they are manning a machine gun that could well be an MG 08 firing hundreds of bullets at a time). He turns to the girls and says, “Remember ladies: If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. Oh, and one last thing, try and work together.”

If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. A meaningless piece of feel-good wisdom that was used as a propaganda phrase during WW2. What do they stand for? What could they stand for? Freedom? Life versus death. Death, according to Rocket, is their existence in a brothel. So, to find a way to escape the brothel, they must vanquish the living dead. And it is easy to be one of the living dead if you don’t stand for something, in The Wise Man’s meaning. If they don’t believe in freedom as a goal worth risking your life for, they might end up believing Blue’s lies about helping them and taking care of them. 

It might also be worth mentioning that, as the demons in feudal Japan, bled light when Baby Doll sliced their arteries, the German soldiers bleed steam. This calls back the radiator pierced by Baby Doll’s bullet when she accidentally shot her sister. 

As they march fearlessly across No-Man’s-Land, bullets whizz musically past us, none of those bullets connects with our heroines because their boldness, like the boldness of all movie heroes, disables the enemy’s ability to shoot straight. 

Gas-mask-wearing zombies explode. 

Fokker triplanes take nosedives into the dirt. 

Baby Doll shoots down an aeroplane with her handgun. 

Amber flies her mecha up among the triplanes and zeppelins taking them out with ease. 

Blondie single-handedly shoots an entire battalion of soldiers standing atop some sandbags. 

Once across No-Man’s-Land, the women dive into the enemy trenches. It is in those trenches that the fight begins. 

Blondie gets a tomahawk with which to attack and pierce the armour of each enemy soldier. When she strikes at them the whole steam-powered system keeping them alive is disrupted. On pulling the tomahawk from one of their bodies, there is a satisfying hiss as the steam that powered them bursts into the air. 

Rocket has a more gung-ho attitude to combat than her sister, leaping into situations there is no obvious way out of and enjoying the thrill of fighting more and more of them. Sweet Pea, in contrast, looks like every moment is a struggle. Neither chewing lollipops nor throwing axes, she does what is necessary. Every cut and thrust for her is vital to keep her friends and herself alive. Even in this world, she feels like the adult, the older sister. 

Baby Doll gets into the enemy bunker and iron doors shut behind her. She faces the decaying fleshed evil visage of the bunker commander. As in feudal Japan, she has to show great athletic prowess. She leaps and twists and slices with her katana. The fight ends with the whole bunker collapsing and a chase through the trenches to get the courier. The courier, however, leaps into the sky and hitches on to a rope ladder attached to a zeppelin. Thankfully, zeppelins are famously combustible. A well-aimed shot is enough to render the blimp into a firey ball, scarily reminiscent of The Hindenberg. and a w who jumps up and clings to a rope ladder attached to a zeppelin which will not be enough to protect him from Baby Doll. The mecha stamps on the bunker commander as he is about to kill her. Baby Doll grabs the map. The End. 

The whole sequence would be an impressive finale to any action film, but being merely one of four major action sequences, it was probably only half-digested by audiences. Snyder is not an exponent of minimalist cinema. 

This show might be yours but the girls and you are mine

When the dance is over, we see Blue much more confident and happy than the last time. Maybe she could be his, this dream girl. Maybe he could also use her to ingratiate himself and raise himself in the estimation of the Mayor. Madame Gorski doesn’t want this. She doesn’t want Baby Doll, who doesn’t even have a costume, to dance in the show. 

“She doesn’t need that bullshit. She’s perfect.”

“That is not for you to decide, that’s for me to decide. It’s my show and I say she’s not ready.”

Blue exhales and looks at her with sleepy eyes. “Clearly I have offended you,” he says, “and I apologise. Here’s the thing…” And his expression changes swiftly from sleepy and playful to something scarier and more sinister. “This show might be yours but the girls… And you… Are mine.” He draws her close to him, close enough to kiss. “Right? You’re mine and if you need a stronger reminder of that, you let me know, Okay?”

“It won’t be necessary.”

“So with or without your blessing, she’s going to be on that stage tomorrow, all right?”

Gorski affects a weak and scared laugh. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Atta girl. All right. You look fantastic by the way.”

This dynamic between controlling men and the women who love them is all too real (highlighting the performances of Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino). Blue is good looking, charming and intelligent, but he has the air of a spoiled psychopath. In the hospital, Gorski was the one in control, but Blue undermined her by authorising the lobotomy, and faking her signature. In this reality, Gorski is his. She is there only because she gives his establishment the veneer of respectability. It has shows, little pieces of theatre. It isn’t just some knocking shop. But Blue is a gangster used to getting everything he wants. Gorski wants to make art, even if that sometimes means shows about lobotomised girls that might fail to turn on a paying audience. Blue is a violent pimp. He couldn’t care less about any other art than the art of making money and being able to wield influence. As long as people will come and pay to see the girls, he couldn’t give a crap if the show is any good or not. If the Mayor likes his show, he can become more powerful, or so he believes. What he would do with power or influence, however, is a little vaguer. He already has the power of life and death over Baby Doll and maybe over everyone else here as well. What greater power does he need? The only power he truly lacks is power over himself.

Gorski’s world has just disintegrated in this scene. She thought she had some say in the way things worked, but Blue has just made it fundamentally clear that there is no way out of the brothel. Maybe she was once a working girl herself and thought that she’d risen to be something better. Blue has let her know that she is nothing. He’ll still offer a shallow compliment, “you look fantastic by the way”, but he is the spoiled child in this scenario and he has enough power to stay a spoiled child. He says that almost robotically as you’d say good fight to someone lying bloody on the floor.

Blue returns to his office feeling that he has the whole world under his control. But he can’t help being a paranoid control freak. As he leans against the photocopier with a drink in his hand, he notices that it is warm. It has been used. His eyes cast around the room for signs of anything out of place; anything which isn’t exactly as it should be. He puts his drink down, puts his glasses on (vanity having prevented him from being seen by others wearing glasses – and we’ll never see them again in any reality), and examines the map on his wall. He can see something is off so he pulls out the drawing pin from the top left-hand corner and sees that instead of just one hole, there are two. Someone has taken the map down, copied it, and put the map back on the wall thinking he wouldn’t notice. But they don’t know him. Of course, he would notice. 

Blue’s eye misses nothing. Maybe that’s how he was able to establish such control in the first place. That’s why, in another reality, he can replicate Dr Gorski’s signature allowing the lobotomy to take place. Noticing every stroke and curl in her penwork. His vanity and thuggery create the impression that he might not have other abilities, but he does. The world would be a nicer place if everyone with bad intentions were an idiot. Blue is no idiot. This is the mistake the girls make. This is why the other girls who tried to escape, the ones mentioned by Blondie, died trying. They all had a plan but they falsely assumed that they were smarter than Blue or that he might not notice what they were doing.

Later, Madame Gorski tells the girls,“Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you will cease to live.” She is quoting Mark Twain but why does she say this in particular? What illusions is she referring to? Does she see that they live by their dreams of conquest and accomplishment in other worlds? After all, what other illusions could she be alluding to? Maybe her illusions about being a great artist creating art for art’s sake when, in fact, her creativity and professionalism is a sidebar to the industry of selling young girls to the highest bidders. Maybe the illusion she held, which has now been shattered, is that Blue loves her or values her in some way. 

In Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes, Anton Walbrook as Lermentov asks Moira Shearer’s Victoria why she wants to dance. She pauses as if, at first floored by the question, looks down to one side and responds with another question. “Why do you want to live?”

With a half-smile on his face, he says, “Well I don’t know exactly why, but I must.”

Victoria says, “That’s my answer too.”

In The Red Shoes ballet goes beyond life itself; dance is something to which one must sacrifice one’s life completely. Even death can be part of the performance. In Sucker Punch, Madame Gorski has similarities to the impresario Lermentov. She wants to create something that transcends the world of the brothel and seeing something that does moves her beyond measure. She knows, as reminded by Sweet Pea, that the brothel/night club is there to turn men on and make them feel happier, but she doesn’t want to live without purpose and her purpose is to create pure dance; dance as art that takes us beyond our normal concerns and ideas. The knowledge that Blue, this bully who only cares about his own advance through the ranks of criminal influence, should dictate the course of her art is sickening to her. The girls must dance provocatively to fulfill the basic purpose of drawing in the punters, but their performance is still art. Blue doesn’t need all that bullshit if a girl has the natural appeal of Baby Doll. We never know what Baby Doll’s natural appeal is because we only see the world she sees. Maybe her dance is transcendent. What we see is an escape into worlds of violent action where she, like the others, is a force to be reckoned with. All anyone else sees is her dance.

The Mayor and His Fire

The scene where the Mayor enters the night club is almost exactly halfway through the film. As a figure of absolute power, what Blue would most like to become, he is the epitome of what power and money can bring. His expectations are high. He someone that everyone must kowtow to and praise if they want to get on, or even stay in business, in this world. He is the fire who can make things happen or burn things down. On a more literal level, he represents fire to the girls.

When he visits the brothel, he is Amber’s customer. She is the one he chooses to sit with him. She complains about the Mayor because he smokes these big cigars which bear the name “El Jefe” (the boss), he is after all, the big boss.  

Sweet Pea says to Amber, “I’ve never seen him without a big stogie in his mouth.”

Amber responds, whining, “I hate those cigars. I can never get that stink out of my hair.” The stink of the boss. The stink of smoke and fire. And it has to be Amber because she’s the girl he likes most. She is the creature loved by power; she has the gentlest personality. Amber is the one who defended Baby Doll before knowing her. She recognises fear and vulnerability and that compassionate quality suits the feminine archetype. Being the most feminine, she is therefore the one most likely to be enjoyed by the king.

In the asylum level of reality, the mayor is just an orderly who guards a door and carries a lighter. We first see him standing in front of the sign saying that the doors will automatically open in the event of fire. In this world, the brothel world, he’s the same in many ways. He’s still overweight and unhealthy looking but the attitude of petty resentment has been replace by this sense of the world bowing down before him.

When he walks, doors open for him. He strolls in slow motion flanked by flunkies. He can meet the world at his own pace and the world can meet him. The fur-trimmed coat and hat remind us of an impresario of an old school, but not a Lermentov. His kind of impresario is more the Harvey Weinstein type, raising money for movies and taking payment in starlets. The way he takes in and surveys the world around him, missing nothing, reminds us of Blue. His power comes from having the courage to look at and own the world missing no detail. Never letting a decimal point get in the way of making a fortune. Blue looks small as he kisses the Mayor on the lips. The sensual fleshy lips of the Mayor enjoying the subjugation of this young handsome man. All flavours are his.

A rap mash-up of Queen’s ‘I want it all’ and ‘We will rock you’ is melded with the rap lyrics by Armageddon externalise the Mayor’s thoughts: 

I hold my money with my left, got the world in my right pocket,

Smoke a stoke in my right in between counting my profits,

Poker face as I soak up the taste of display of women on my sofa,

Doing the type of things I love so much,

But so what, I’m sleazy it’s not easy being Joe Smut,

I could fund a small war and start a recession, the big dog, the boss hog,

What I want is the question

Ostentatious power dripping from his every pore, he takes off his coat and underneath is a jacket of black and gold. He runs his cigar between his pouting upper lip and his nose, lights it with his dragon lighter. Never glancing at Amber as she drapes herself over him. She has made herself up and dressed to please him, but she is nothing to him but an adornment, a temporary accessory to his opulence. Beauty means nothing to him. He just cares about what it says about him that he can possess it. 

He blows a smoke ring which, for just a moment, appears to take the shape of a devil. Then, under the spotlight, Madame Gorski parts the curtains and appears on the stage talking to the Mayor. He acknowledges her because Madame Gorski is higher up the chain of importance in life. She deserves acknowledging. 

In the asylum level of reality, he cannot be a mayor or a mafia don. He is just a guy who tells people what they can’t do. This could be his dream of himself. Holding all the cards and all the power. He gets limited respect in that reality, but here he gets it all.

“It is my pleasure,” Gorski lies, “to introduce to you, this little Baby Doll.”

A stagehand opens the curtain and there is Baby Doll, dressed in a corset and looking strangely vulnerable (although we know that this appearance is a deception). The Mayor, who can ignore Amber, for some reason, cannot ignore Baby Doll. His mouth falls open as she sways gently to the music. The camera moves away from the Mayor to catch Blue standing there with a look of rage on his face. This rage could be due to him having found that Sweet Pea has betrayed him and copied the map. It could be that he is simply in a state of rage because he is giving this vision of Baby Doll to a man with more power than he has and he wants her for himself. His desire, perhaps love, for Baby Doll is, by this stage, so intense that he has started to feel he is losing control of himself and his carefully constructed world. 

At the end of Baby Doll’s dance, the Mayor stands up and gives her a standing ovation. His cigar is a tower of ash, it has been burning throughout here act and he hasn’t moved. The ash makes a crashing sound as it breaks apart on hitting the floor. He has been so entranced by her dance that he hasn’t moved a muscle. On the Mayor applauding, all his underlings must applaud too.

Blue, his anger dissipated by watching Baby Doll dance, has tears in his eyes. Blue is crying. Art has broken through. And this can’t be just “gyrating and moaning”. Whatever it is that everyone is seeing in Baby Doll’s dance is enough to break someone like Blue into tears.

Art and beauty can act as a kind of hypnosis. In Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome, the protagonist is a woman so affected by great works of art that they render her unconscious, unable to function (a condition first reported by the author Stendhal). Baby Doll’s dance seems to incapacitate anyone who sees it in much the same way. Not a mere erotic performance but something greater. Once her dance is over, nobody will transformed to some state of satori. The venal will go back to being venal. The mediocre will return to their mediocrity. But while confronted with the dance, they cannot move, they are in another realm.

The plan for the theft of the Mayor’s lighter was a terrible one. That Amber is missing at the end of the dance and the Mayor’s beloved golden lighter is also missing leaves little if any doubt as to what happened. The man that Blue most wanted to impress would have been furious at the theft. This damages Blue’s standing in the world he has been advancing through.

Of the four sequences, the one taking place during the theft of the lighter is the one that is the least satisfying. Brilliantly executed and designed, it is the most confusing. Unlike the clear sides of the World War One sequence, there are knights fighting orcs and the orcs seem to be protecting a dragon. Baby Doll, Rocket and Sweet Pea are tasked with fighting the orcs while Amber flies the plane and Blondie provides air support. The cinematogaphy is amazing but we don’t get a sense of whose side we are on in the conflict. It’s just about killing a baby dragon and stealing the fire producing crystals from its throat. When the knights finally storming a castle filled with orcs, break into the castle, it appears that our heroines are killing them too. 

It opens with the Wise Man wearing a pilot’s uniform giving the instructions about slitting the throat of a sleeping baby dragon, which might represent Baby Doll herself. Babies being murdered cold-bloodedly does not have a pleasant connotation even if the baby is a dragon, not to me anyway. To murder a sleeping baby is not heroic. It is monstrous. The small heartbreaking sob of the awakened mother dragon pushing at her dead baby with her nozzle hammers home just how uncomfortable this idea is. In such moments, I often ask myself if I am the only one troubled or if this was the filmmaker’s intention. Are we supposed to be appalled by this sequence or are we supposed to support it. Myths and legends are full of babies being killed for the good of the world.

But a baby is a baby

Do you want to be free? 

Does freedom justify an act of infanticide. 

Why is that the only way? 

That the girls accept this goal with so few qualms, no qualms at all in fact, makes it difficult to see where their moral compass is. It seems to illustrate the thoughtlessness of heroes once given a quest which is echoed in the thoughtlessness of the plan to steal the lighter. A plan that can only end in the most immediate detection.  

The Bond of the Theatre

In the dressing room, Blue finds the girls celebrating, drinking a toast to a job well done.

“Cheers.” Laughter.

Such inappropriate jubilation. He sarcastically raises a glass to the women celebrating, “Cheers?” he says. “What are we celebrating? Who should I be congratulating?”

“It was just Baby Doll’s first time on stage,” says Sweet Pea with a matter-of-fact look. “You know how scary that can be.”

Blue raises his glass high, “The bond of the theatre. I mean, what else could it be? It’s not like any of you have anything to hide, is it? No.” He moves extremely close to Sweet Pea, close enough to smell her perfume or her sweat. “It’s not like anyone was in my office messing with my shit. No. It’s not like people are missing things. You know like small, little objects here and there.” He moves just as close to Amber grabbing her body because she is his to grab and do with as he pleases. “No. No. That would be outrageous. That would be crazy. Right? Because we have such an obvious explanation for this exuberance. It’s the fraternity of performers. It’s the adrenaline from the curtain rising… Maybe this is my fault. Maybe I’ve just become too familiar with you girls.” He grabs Blondie, harshly, by her hair and drags her. “Maybe I need to make an example of someone, you know, re-establish the parameters of our relationship. What do you think? Blondie? Girls?”

He lets go of Blondie, pushing her with a thud into the makeup table. His face a mask of controlled rage. His whole persona now devoted to striking terror into their hearts. They need to fear him more than they fear the misery of their existence, more than the misery of their daily humiliation. He must be a demon to them.

“And what about you?” he says, pointing at Baby Doll. 

She folds her arms, the gesture cutting him off from her, showing him that she is not open to him or his threats. “You think you’re special don’t you?” And she half-smiles as if to say this doesn’t work with her. “Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If I was not about to make a small fortune on you with the High Roller, I would take you right now and I would pop that little smile right off your face.” Her expression doesn’t weaken or soften because she knows that not showing that he can get to her is part of her power. The other power being that she has exerted some force over him with her dancing. He doesn’t even realise how deeply in thrall he is to her or how close he is the precipice.

“It saddens me that I have to resort to threats with you girls. I thought we were past that. I need this bullshit to STOP! Out of mutual respect, let’s get things back to how they were.”

He walks away followed by his goons. 

This is how bullies assert their power. The language he uses might be used by a parent chiding a misbehaving child. He’s disappointed. The implication being that he has been too kind with them when, in fact, he has never shown any true kindness to them at all. He invokes the idea of mutual respect but there is no mutual respect and never has been. These women are given no more respect by him than sheep on their way to slaughter. To him they are property; things. He does not see women as human because, in his mind, they lack power and that is the only thing that could make them worthy of his respect. He respects the Mayor and the High Roller because they do have power. Or, at least, the power that they have is not something he recognises. He just knows that a certain kind of language and behaviour has always worked for him in his dealings with women. Women are useful property so he shall keep on using that language and behaviour without any consideration or thought for the people he is speaking to. This is part of his weakness. He can use and abuse and he is intelligent enough to see what is happening around him, but he doesn’t see any deeper than this.

The Blue Jones’s of this world get away with abusive behaviour for a long time because it is hard to stand up to that physical strength and it is easy for people to become demoralised and not realise that they are being abused. On a subtler level, employees can be made to remain in the same organisation for their entire lives by being made to feel that they could never get a better job. What if all the women in this room rose against him. Would his two stooges be enough? But bullies always know where their power begins and ends. His words alone will strike fear into their hearts and re-establish the status quo. He is used to these women being demoralised and afraid. But Baby Doll is new and she has nothing to lose. That gives her a strength that the other girls did not have before. They have become conditioned to accept their fate as slaves. Baby Doll on another level of reality, has found that imminent death, concentrates the mind. The High Roller and the Lobotomy surgeon are the same man, and she still senses this. How can you threaten someone who has lost everyone they love and who knows they are about to die?

Only when he is gone do we see that in spite of all this, Baby Doll is shaken. She feels what she knows to be the case. Someone is going to die by this man’s hand and she doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone else being killed by this monster. The bond of the theatre that Blue sarcastically alluded to is a reality for Baby Doll. These other women are now her sisters and she doesn’t want them to live on in this hell but she doesn’t want them to die either.  

Sweet Pea thinks the same. She says, with a sad kind of satisfaction, “Well, so much for that little experiment.”

Rocket looks at her uncomprehending. To Rocket, nothing has changed. They are still dead if they remain.

“If he catches us for real,” says Sweet Pea, “it won’t be a lecture. You saw him.”

It is Rocket who refuses to give in. “I’m finishing this. We are all finishing this.” And it has a cause… Of all the girls, Rocket has been the most inspired by Baby Doll putting her neck on the line to save her from Cook. She believes in Baby Doll in a way she hasn’t believed in anyone for a long time. Even if Baby Doll might be having second thoughts, Rocket isn’t. She will finish this no matter what.

Can you keep a secret?

Blondie is weeping as she goes to steal the reel-to-reel tape recorder from the rehearsal room so that they can immobilise Cook and steal one of his knives. Unlike Rocket, however, she has lost her courage. Blues threats have worked on her and she is torn between her fear and her loyalty to her friends. She collapses into a heap on the floor as Madame Gorski comes out of her office and sees her. Gorski is not a psychiatric doctor in this reality, but something carries over. Personalities have their echoes in each level of reality. And the therapist attitude has carried across to Madame Gorski.

“What’s the matter,” she says, “Did someone hurt you?”

“No,” says Blondie trying to recover herself and get up. “It’s not like that. It’s really nothing.”

Madame Gorski stops Blondie from getting up and says, “Clearly, it’s not nothing. Hey.” She strokes Blondie’s hair. “You can tell me. I am good listener.”

“Madame Gorski… Please…”

“I know that look,” says Gorski, her voice lowering to almost a whisper. “You think you’re all alone and that no-one can help you. There is a way to fix anything. Now… tell me what is wrong child.” 

Blondie almost smiles and nods. “Okay. Promise you can keep a secret?”

Madame Gorski says, in unison with Blue who has just arrived, “Yes.”

Blue, face unseen holds out his hand, there is a ring on his little finger. Madame Gorski looks as pained as Blondie. She is expected to kiss the ring. She is expected to be loyal to Blue. A ring on the little finger is a sign that he is a member of the mafia or a similar crime family. Kissing the ring is a sign of loyalty to the capo. She might not want to help him destroy the girls but she has already taken a kind of oath and this oath means something more than her humanity.

There are no secrets which can be kept within such a structure, not from the boss. The Mayor may be a higher figure, much like the High Roller, but to Gorski, Blue has high status and Blondie will be broken by them.

In the kitchen, Rocket and Baby Doll are asking where Blondie has got to. Baby Doll suggests that they give up now. Her plan isn’t worth everyone dying. Sweet Pea is right. “We got this far, right. That’s more than a lot of people could have done. How bad can the High Roller be anyhow?”

It’s Sweet Pea who comes in and says, with a change of heart, “Don’t you have some work you should be doing.” She hasn’t come to help them. She’s come to keep them from getting killed. This is her line. It’s not about believing in escape or the future. It’s about helping prevent the others from getting killed. It is Sweet Pea who gets Amber to put on the radio so Baby Doll’s dance can distract Cook while they get his knife. 

Amber tosses Sweet Pea the broom which makes a delicious whizzing sound as it flies into Sweet Pea’s hands. She uses this to jam the door handles together. Again, as with the lighter, it’s a terrible plan. As soon as the dance is done, Cook will know that his knife is missing. They don’t realise, however, that this bad plan is even worse than they realise and Blondie is busy blabbing everything to Blue. We know there is no hope at all.

The table is cleared. Potatoes are spilled carelessly rolling across the terracotta tiles, the water they were in spreading like a slow wave across toward the exposed copper wiring of the radio.

Baby Doll stands on the table leaving Cook to say, “What the hell are you doing?” while Rocket sits him down, with an earth-shattering thud, into his chair facing Baby Doll like a passive audience of one. Amber checks the porthole windows on the kitchen door, turns and nods. The radio dial is turned until a cover version of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by Alison Mosshart and Carla Azar plays. 

Rocket whispers gently in Cook’s ear, “You’re going to want to watch this.”

The song begins:

“Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. 

It is not dying. It is not dying.” 

The water edges toward the copper wiring, promising some kind of disaster. 

“Lay down all thought. Surrender to the void.

It is shining. It is shining.”

In a close pan around Baby Doll’s head, the colour scheme shifts become suffused with yellow. We are in another world. A world with ochre mists and a distant gas giant with orbiting rings, much like Saturn, is hanging in the sky beyond. An alien world; an alien landscape.

The four remaining heroines, Blondie having been waylaid by her unintentional treachery, are on a helicopter pad on this alien planet. The Wise Man is by the helicopter now dressed in a futuristic-looking black windbreaker. “Ladies,” he starts. “This is what’s on our dance card for tonight. The bomb, code-named ‘Kitchen Knife’ is on a hijacked train. It is protected by a couple of dozen mechanised guardsmen. The idea is simple: Take care of the gunmen, deactivate the bomb, then steal it. The code numbers for the bomb and the jet packs for your escape are in that duffel.” He then turns to Sweet Pea, his voice softening meanngfully. “Sweet Pea. I’m glad you changed your mind.”

She nods. She looks austere, serious. She means business. Maybe more so than anyone else because for her it is not a game of escape. It is the lives and deaths of her friends. 

“You know,” says the Wise Man, “for those who fight for it, life has a flavour the sheltered will never know.”

The helicopter ascends, with a turn, into the yellow air. the song continues: 

That love is all and love is everyone. 

It is knowing. It is knowing.

Listen to the colour of your dreams

It is not dying. It is not dying. 

The helicopter swoops around rocks as it pursues the train. Amber launches a missile from the helicopter that blows off the back end of the last compartment of the train speeding on the tracks below. An unsubtle and far-from-stealthy way in. But now, the other three can jump on board and carry out their mission. 

Once on board the train, they battle with robots. Beautiful, gleaming, reflective robots. They fly and somersault and blast their guns and time speeds up and slow down. Robot heads explode, shattering like glass, like bulbs, as they are shot. Like all the enemies in each of these action sequences, they are absurdly easy to kill. So easy, in fact, that our heroines might become overconfident and miss something important while they revel in their powerful fighting styles. Baby Doll’s katana slices through metallic bodies as if her sword was a red hot knife burning through styrofoam. Sparks fly through the air as bullets enter robotic casing. 

After fighting their way through a couple of carriages filled with these robots, they encounter the bomb. It is at this stage that something goes wrong. At this stage that something which had not been seen causes a problem.

The bomb has been deactivated and Sweet Pea blasts the roof of the train off and boosts Baby Doll through the gap on to the roof. Amber brings her helicopter in close and lowers cables from the helicopter so the bomb, after deactivation, can be taken away. Sweet Pea and Rocket are removing the rivets that hold the bomb to the floor of the train. This seems a more strenuous task for them than all the leaping and fighting. As Sweet Pea attaches the cables by their hooks to the bomb, Rocket, still loosening the rivets, does not see a robot hand springing back to life. Everything seems okay and Amber tries reeling in the deactivated bomb, but it’s caught on something. Rocket realises that they have missed one of the rivets because it was hidden under half a robot that they think they took care of. That robot, now alive, growls terrifyingly and slaps Rocket so she flies into the wall of the train. The robot then reactivates the bomb. Baby Doll shoots the robot, but it is too late. When Rocket comes around her jetpack is leaking steam or gas just like the life force of one of the reanimated German soldiers or that radiator accidentally shot by Baby Doll.

The bomb starts talking “proximity warning.” The girls all know that something is wrong. Badly wrong. The bomb is no longer deactivated and if they don’t get out of there quickly they will all die. But Rocket can no longer get out of there because her jet pack is leaking all the gas that makes it work. The situation is dire.

It is at this point, that we see Baby Doll’s view of the world returning to the kitchen. The music has stopped because the water has reached the copper wiring shorting out the radio. sparks fly from the affected wiring. Small flames. The camera moves into the radio, silent, dead. Baby Doll looks around suddenly aware that her ability to mesmerise has fused out. Cook’s eyes come to life. The red veins criss-crossing his face reminding us of the blood pumping inside his overfed countenance. Without the music, Baby’s dance stalls. Cook breaks out of the stupor that Baby Doll’s dancing has put him into. As he blinks away his befuddlement, Sweet Pea sneaks a knife from behind his back. He turns to face Sweet Pea and his face transforms itself into a bestial snarl. He pushes Rocket off him and gets up.

His wheeled chair slides back across the terracotta moving the wire out of the water.

Sweet Pea is frozen, holding his knife, looking at the giant awoken.

Cook slaps her hard across the face and the knife clatters to the floor.

Amber looks at the knife at her feet, considering it, horror filling her.

Cook draws his second knife, as it is pulled out, it sounds like a sword scraping against the ground.

Cook pulls the knife back ready to lunge into Sweet Pea.

From the ground, Rocket starts to get up.

We see the radio again as it begins to stutter into life.

Rocket throws herself in front of Sweet Pea as if about to take the brunt of Cook’s attack.

Suddenly, however, we are back on the train in the alien world.  

The train is still speeding towards the giant city. For a moment, Baby Doll looks confused as if she doesn’t know which world she is in.

Rocket tells Amber over her comms that the bomb is still active and she shoots at the cable Baby Doll is closest too sending Baby Doll flying off into the sky still attached to the helicopter by a wire. Sweet Pea tells Rocket they have to go but then sees that Rocket’s jet pack will not work.

“I’m on full burn,” says Sweet Pea. “We’ll go together.”

“It’s not going to carry the both of us,” says Rocket.

“We have to try.”

“Okay,” says Rocket, “We’ll try. But you have to promise me two things. The first thing is, dont get mad about this.” And Rocket sets off Sweet Pea’s jet pack blasting her up and away from the train. Baby Doll grabs her in mid-air as they float through the yellow clouds. Rocket stares up at Sweet Pea as the countdown goes from 10.

The last thing that Sweet Pea sees of her sister in this world is that brief glimpse during the countdown as the train speeds into the heart of the city before exploding, destroying the city and everyone living in it along with Rocket. 

The mission has failed. 

Rocket is dead. 

If we see that world as a real place, everyone is dead. It has been slaughter on a grand scale. Only Baby Doll, Amber and Sweet Pea survive the massive explosion. 

Baby Doll closes her eyes at this terrible sight, tears once more rolling down her face. When she opens her eyes again she is still sobbing. But is she sobbing because of what happened on the alien world or is she sobbing because of what she sees right in front of her eyes in the kitchen. is back in the reality of the kitchen. Cook pulls his knife from Rocket who he has stabbed. Rocket who is moaning in pain, bleeding, dying while held by Sweet Pea continues what she was saying in the other world, the first clear and unavoidable link between those two realities. “The second thing is… . When you get home when you get free, you tell mom I love her.”

Rocket ran away from home because she wanted to be free of her parents. Sweet Pea went after her because she didn’t want Rocket to be alone and in danger. Now Rocket is dying all she can think of is wanting to tell her mother how much she loved her. Sweet Pea promises. Rocket dies running her fingers through her sister’s hair. 

But it is not dying. The soundtrack has told us as much. This is just one of those classic movie deaths. A subtle and sweet passing of being there to not being there. No agonies or indignities. 

Psychadelic death. 

Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. 

Lay down all thought, surrender to the void. 

The death on the train is mirrored by the death in the kitchen. Is there another death in the asylum? Do all the realities correlate to each other? If the worlds are so different, how can a conversation begun in one reality continue in another?

Your father, your lover, your employer

Blue and his henchmen burst through the doors to the kitchen. The broom is broken like matchwood. 

Before he even looks at the girls, he looks down at the mess and what was once Rocket. “Oh my.” Walking towards the giant, whimpering and hunched up Cook, says, “What did you do, you simple inbred idiot?” 

Sweet Pea shrieks holding her dead sister. Blue turns around and looks at her. He tells CJ, one of his henchmen, to get her up on her feet. As Sweet Pea screams and thrashes he says, “Yes, yes. Now Look.” Raising his voice he yells, “I want to look at what you did.”

She screams even more. She could tear the world apart.

Blue yells as if to show that his anger is greater than hers, “Look at what you did, you bitch!” She looks down at the body and her screaming subsides as if she could believe that she has done this, that she is responsible. Blue has the power, at the moment of her greatest pain, to make her believe that she might be responsible for someone else murdering her sister. He gives Amber her slot in the show and tells her to go get ready. Amber stands there weeping. Blue shouts at her. “Go get ready.” The camera shows us the floor in front of her. The knife that was there is now gone. He tells CJ to take Sweet Pea to the closet. Rocket told Baby Doll earlier in the film that when Blue wants to punish the girls he locks them in the cleaning closet. Sweet Pea needs punishing. He knows, despite his show of rage, that her rage is greater than his and there is nothing he can do to keep her in line now. He needs time to think.

Then he walks up to Baby Doll bending down so his face is even with hers and says, “As for you… It’s showtime.” She weeps too. She knows, or thinks she knows, that showtime is a return to that living death she was promised.

The next we see of Blue, he is peeking around the red curtain to watch the High Roller enter his club. The High Roller is dressed in a white tuxedo with a bow tie, making him look a bit like Rick Blaine in Casablanca. This is another man that Blue envies. Another man who has it all. Two beautiful women in elegantly sparkling identical dresses, both with white fur stoles around their necks, sit on either side of this him. He is a million miles from the Mayor. This is a man who exudes the kind of class that goes beyond mere riches. He is handsome and the world is at his feet. As if to match this final occasion, Blue is also wearing his most colourful suit. His jacket grey-silver-blue, catching the light. His eyes fix on the High Roller for a little too long.

In the dressing room, Baby Doll is wearing a different version of her schoolgirl uniform. White to emphasise her status as virgin and covered in sparkling glass jewels. Gorski caresses her face. “The High Roller is here. I need you to focus for me.” But Baby Doll cannot focus. She is near catatonic with shock, guilt, rage. She shakes as a dresser starts fussing around her adding something to her costume.

Blue walks into the dressing room for his final talk to the girls. Even the stooges, the ones who go with him everywhere, are dressed in shining jackets. What’s the occasion? Is the High Roller really so important to them all? If so, why? Because he’s the bringer of death?

“Girls?” says Blue. “Can you just gather around for a second? I want to say a few words. I try to give you all a good life. I try. I do. And all I ask for in return is just respect. Honesty. A give and take relationship.” He takes his jacket off as if avoiding getting it messed up. “But it’s come to my attention, it’s come to our attention, that a few bad eggs led by one little egg in particular have spit in the face of that generosity and are plotting against me. Me. Your father. Your lover. Your employer…” 

He puts his hand under CJ’s jacket and, from his belt, takes a handgun that he then brandishes in the air as he talks.

“Plotting to take from me my most precious possessions. Your very selves.”

Madame Gorski, her eyes already filled with tears, knowing what might be about to happen, touches his face trying to ameliorate him. “What are you doing? You’ve got the information. You’ve won. This little fantasy of freedom is all they have.”

Blue hits her in the face with the gun. She goes down. 

His brute physical force and anger cannot be negotiated with. 

He isn’t so stupid as to fall for such transparent psychological tricks. 

He knows that he has been disrespected by the girls. Now Madame Gorski has lost sight of her place in their relationship, to the extent that there is one. 

“No. No. No. No one’s buying that, honey. No one’s buying that Vera.”

She stands up and confronts him. “There is nothing you can do to me that you have not already done.”

He grabs her by the face and holds her like she is a doll, up close, with rage. “Now you listen to me, you old whore. It’s too late to play the good guy. Far too late. You’re suddenly not aware of what it is we do here?”

“I teach them,” says Gorski, her voice breaking, “to survive you.” 

He holds the gun to her throat. Blondie screams, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say anything. I’m sorry.”

Amber weeps, not believing that it was Blondie who gave them away. 

Blondie continues through her tears, “He said everything would be okay.”

Madame Gorski suddenly knows exactly what Blue intends and says, “This is a mistake, please don’t do this.”

“That’s right,” says Blue, walking away from Gorski, “Our dear Blondie came to us desperately trying to help her sisters off this most dangerous path. At first, we didn’t even believe her. But after hearing who was involved, it started to make sense.”

He turns around the dual faced blackboard behind Amber, sees the list of crossed-off items. Map. Fire. Knife. Pointing at ‘Knife’ he says, “Looks like that chicken was counted a little before it hatched. Ain’t that right, Amber.”

He walks close to Amber. “You have anything to say? Anything?”

“Blue,” she says, “We didn’t… We were still…”

“You know what, sweetheart? It’s okay. It’s okay.” He walks around behind her, lifts his gun and points it at the back of her head and, without the slightest emotion, fires the gun.

The girls scream. 

Madame Gorski sinks to her knees, unable to believe what she has just seen. She should know, but this is like a mother seeing her daughters executed for nothing. 

Blondie shrieks. 

“Okay, calm down,” says Blue walking now behind Blondie. “This will all be over soon and we can get back to business as usual. Blondie, I want to thank you for everything you’ve done.” 

“I’m so sorry,” she cries, torn apart by her unintentional complicity in this. 

“The thing is,” says Blue looking up, “We hate snitches so…” 

He shoots her. She goes down. He shoots her again when she is on the ground. 

A photograph falls from a dressing room mirror. 

Gorski’s sobs become worse. She has now seen two of her surrogate daughters killed. And her complicity in it is like a dagger in her heart.

Blue hands the gun off to one of his goons saying “Here, I hate guns. I hope everyone’s learned a valuable lesson here. Especially you, Madame Gorski.” He tells CJ to get her out of there. But there is a sense that neither Madame Gorski nor anyone else will be able to go back to normal now. “Let’s get these bodies out of here please. And the rest of you, you’ve got a show to do. So go on. Go get em, girls. Make it count.” 

As the last of them leave, Blue loosens his tie and goes to stand beside the weeping Baby Doll. He looks at her with something almost like normal emotion and says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about all that money you’re going to make me. I’ve been thinking a lot about the High Roller and his hands all over you. I’ve been thinking about all those people out there just watching you and lusting after you.” He faces her so that she is close to him. His voice almost cracks. “and you’d think that would give me pleasure. I mean, I’m in the business of pleasure. But you know what it makes me feel like? I’m going to be honest with you it makes me feel like I’m this little boy sitting in the corner of the sandbox while everybody gets to play with my toys but me. So, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take my toys and I’m going to go home.”

Losing control of himself, he throws Baby Doll violently against the make-up table. One of the bulbs smashes. We see the stolen knife, somehow, fixed to the underside of the table. Even while Rocket was dying, Baby Doll still must have stolen the knife. As he starts to assault her, Baby Doll slaps Blue violently across the face. 

“Oh good,” he yells. “That’s it.” He’s happy to have provoked her passion. She slaps him again. “Is that it? That’s my little bitch.”

He slams her back down on the make up table about to rape her. 

Her fingertips feel beneath it the table for the knife, almost touching it, her fingers splaying, fighting for the sharp edge as the weight of his body is upon her. 

He throws her against the mirror smashing the glass. She softens. She doesn’t fight him any more. This makes him frustrated. He wants her to fight him. 

“Come on. Come on. Did you lost your fight?”

She shakes her head and says, “No.” Looks him in the eyes and almost smiles again. “I just found it.”

The knife comes down with incredible force digging right to the hilt into his shoulder. He collapses to the ground as she pulls it out of him. He is on his knees in front of her. His head leaning forward in pain. She takes the key around his neck, shakes her head, looking down into his eyes, she says, “You’ll never have me.” He looks up at her as if begging. “Ever,” she says and pushes him to the ground with her foot as the key comes loose in her hand. 

She uses it first to unlock the cleaning closet where Sweet Pea has been locked away. 

She hands Sweet Pea the map, the lighter and the key.  “We have to go Sweet Pea, come on.”

Over the sink, Baby Doll stuffs an oily rag into a bottle of Paradise Rum (probably filled with Paraffin from the closet). Baby Doll throws the Molotov cocktail into the closet lined and padded like a cell in an asylum. It immediately lights up and the whole room goes up in a whoosh of flames.

Using the map they find their way down the corridors. 

CJ sees the fire burning and hits the fire alarm. The doors automatically open and Sweet Pea and Baby Doll crawl past the guard, down some stairs and into the world outside. 

But the world outside is the world of men; the world of mobsters. This is after all a place for guns and gambling and prostitution. They won’t be able to just walk past them. 

“This can’t be,” says Sweet Pea. “We did everything right.”

Baby Doll remembers what the Wise Man had told her at the temple. “A map, fire, a knife, a key and one thing more. One thing more. It’s me. Oh, it’s me. Of course, it’s me. It’s the only way this ever could have ended.” She tells Sweet Pea to go home to her family and tell them what Rocket said. “Go out and live a normal life! Love! Be free! You have to live for all of us now. You’re the strongest. You’re the only one of us that ever had a chance out there. You going home and living. That’s how we win… Now listen. I’m going to walk out there and when they come after me, you go, okay?”

Sweet Pea says, “There’s got to be another way.”

“No,” says Baby Doll. “This is right. This was never my story. It’s yours. Now don’t screw it up, okay? You stay off the roads and you find a bus station. You’re going to be fine.”

Leaving Sweet Pea to scurry away, Baby Doll walks right out in front of the brothel as if she’s about to perform another dance but instead she walks up to the gathering of hoods. One of them says, “Where are you going, sweetheart?”

Seeing that Sweet Pea has made her way through the gates that lead to the mansion, she gives this hood an almighty kick to the nuts and then closes her eyes waiting for the inevitable punch in the face that blacks out the screen. 

Sweet Pea walks through a field of straw, there is a house on the hill and a bright golden sun gleaming on the horizon. A clothes line stretches out against that horizon with clothes and sheets waving in the light evening breeze. Sweet Pea liberates a white cotton dress.

The High Roller

Baby Doll wakes up on a comfortable looking bed with a black eye. No swelling, just an elegant little brown bruise. She’s still in movie-land. 

“There you are,” says the High Roller. He is sitting in a chair in the bedroom wearing a smoking jacket with the two women we saw with him in the club. In another reality, they are the two nurses that assisted in the lobotomy operation. 

“I don’t know how to put this delicately so I will spare you the insult of being vague that you and I are supposed to screw. I hope you’ll forgive my language but I think you’ll find that it is in keeping with the spirit of the arrangement. Now I have absolutely no intention of simply taking you. In fact, I can think of nothing more offensive. You see, I am what you might call a man who has everything. And yet, I lack the one thing that money can’t buy.”

“Love?” offers Baby Doll with surprising calm. 

“Close. Truth is more accurate. I seek a true moment; a moment of truth in this world of lies. It just so happens,” he says, getting up from his chair and walking towards her, “that moment; that fragile, delicate thing like a glass egg or a sand-castle, that moment can only be given by a non-faker. A non-actor. That’s you.” 

The two women help the High Roller out of his jacket and Baby Doll, hunched up on the bed, seemingly quite attracted to this man, despite everything, says, “I don’t understand.”

“Well, I have spent a small fortune getting you in this room; this golden cage.” He sits on the bed in front of her rolling up his cuffs. “You’re supposed to give yourself to me. It’s completely physical. I might have your body but the real you; that intangible, indefinable spark that is you… Well, that you I will never know and yet that is precisely what I want.”

She pulls closer to him and says, “I’m sorry. You seem really nice. You want me to lie to you?”

“No, I don’t. All I require from you is a sliver of a moment. To have you not by force but simply as a man and a woman. To see in your eyes that simple truth that you give yourself to me freely. Not because you have to but because you want to. Now, of course, you’re such a gem that I will give as well. I’m willing to give you freedom. Pure and total freedom. Freedom from the drudgery of everyday life. Freedom as an abstract ideal. Freedom from pain. Freedom from responsibility. Freedom from guilt, from regret. Freedom from sadness. Freedom from loss. The freedom to be happy.”

Throughout this transparent seduction, she starts to sigh and undress him. She starts giving herself to him. The words have the effect they are supposed to have. They kiss and she lies back willing him to make love with her. 

“Don’t close your eyes,” he says. “I need you to look at me. The freedom to love.”

He goes to kiss her again… 

The hammer hits the orbitoclast… We are back in the reality of the surgical theatre. The lobotomy is carried out. The lobotomy, the living death, freedom. The mind destroyed equalling the freedom to not be any more. To exist no more. 

Sex can bring that moment of oblivion, a small death, a pleasant dress rehearsal, perhaps, for the real thing. But the orbitoclast, here, is the ultimate sexual experience. Once that frontal lobe has been penetrated, the resultant damage to the tissue of the brain might leave one in a state of oblivion that will never end. 

The High Roller is the brain surgeon and Death. Or, at least, death of a kind. 

Baby Doll came into existence for us on a stage and the setting was the death of her mother. Her concern, other than that for herself, was for her sister. A sister who, because she lacked the requisite firearms training, she killed. 

But Baby Doll is… Well… Not real. She’s a doll. And she ends up like a doll, robbed of any possible human complications. That’s the life of a baby and the life of a doll. It is no accident that Emily Browning, who doesn’t look doll-ish in her other roles, does so here. Her features and her very blonde hair adding to the impression of her as a toy. Despite her agency in the brothel reality and her starring role in the action sequences, in this reality, the first and last illusion we have, she is the doll that her name implies. 

She ends up sitting in a chair with a benign stare, happy and bringing the world nothing but happiness. 

Of course, Blue falls in love with the doll. The doll he cannot know. He falls in love with the doll because he can only see women as projections of his desires. He is able to control and manipulate women but he cannot see anything but what one might see in a plastic imitation. He falls in love with a child’s toy. He falls in love, not with a real woman but with the simulation of a woman. 

In the other reality, that asylum reality, Madame Gorski is a psychologist who uses theatre and psychoanalysis to get to the trauma of her patients. And it is Sweet Pea who is the star of this show. A show in which all the men under sixty are abusive in some way. 

The thing about ambiguous stories is that we can keep on finding meaning beneath the meaning. On the surface, this could be a feminist piece attacking the objectification of women by men. At a deeper level, it is about how women, having had one traumatic experience, might wrongly perceive all men as abusers. And there is a question mark over whether any actual abuse has taken place. 

This isn’t to say that that is the true or intended meaning of the film (in interviews, it seems that Zack Snyder intends us to see Baby Doll as the central character and Sweet Pea, perhaps, as an imaginary projection). When a storyline is ambiguous, we can see whatever most closely reflects our experience of the world. 

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy 

– Dorothy Parker or Tom Waits or some graffiti genius

During the lobotomy, we see a gun firing, a bulb smashing, gas leaking from a radiator, the dead sister, blood on fingertips. A small shriek. 

The High Roller, now a brain surgeon, removes the orbitoclast with a look of shock and surprise. He places the instrument in a tray of water and the spirals of dark blood merge into the liquid. 

He looks around and says, “Did you see the way she looked at me? Just in that last moment. It was like…”

The nurses unbuckle her from the operating chair. They still have the same glamour make up they were wearing in the previous scene as his two ladyfriends. Reality hasn’t changed so much. The lighting is different. This is a different layer of reality. But it isn’t the real reality. 

Dr Gorski walks into the room and asks him if it is done. 

“Dr Gorski,” he says. “What do you know about this one? There was something very peculiar.”

“Yes,” says Dr Gorski. “Her mother’s death plunged her in a deep depression and then, in a fit, she accidentally killed her sister. Poor child. It’s a shame I couldn’t do more for her but I wasn’t given much time, you see.”

“Yes, but you recommended the procedure.”

“Oh, I’m afraid not. I will admit she has been quite a handful. In just one week here, she stabbed an orderly, started a fire and helped another patient to escape. But I don’t agree with this solution, Doctor.”

Mystified, the High Roller/Surgeon says, “But why would you sign for a procedure you don’t agree with?” 

He shows her the consent form and, putting on her glasses, she looks at it and she cannot quite believe to see that it does look like her signature. Who could have done this?

“That is your signature, is it not? I’ve been doing this for quite some time doctor and to be honest with you, I’ve wondered myself whether or not it is right and I have seen some tortured souls in here, believe me.”

Dr Gorski breathes deeply as the shock of exactly what has happened establishes itself. She has been unwittingly part of something criminal and against everything she believes. 

“But this one, something in her eyes. I’ve never seen anyone that, the way she looked at me. It’s like she wanted me to do it. I hope it helps her.”

Two orderlies walk her out of the room. She is walked past the Orderly/Mayor now a lighter. 

She is walked past the kitchen. We see Cook feel where one of his knives is missing from his belt. 

She is walked past the burnt-out closet. 

All the things that happened in the brothel reality have also happened here. All these realities are interconnected. 

The guards walk her to meet Blue. He is no longer the dashing psychopathic pimp, but his shoulder has the wound that she left him with. He is stooping a little. He looks ill. 

“Hi,” he says. “You remember me.”

One of the guards says he has a bad feeling about this and doesn’t think this is the way they should be running the place. 

“We don’t run this place,” says Blue. “I run it.”

Blue orders them to put her in a chair in a room. The others complain that they don’t want to hurt these girls any more. Why the change of heart? 

Blue, despairing, says, “Guys. Don’t do this to me now, please. I need her in that chair. Put her in the goddam chair!” These men are weak. They do what he says and leave the two of them together. They leave Blue with the girl who stabbed him. 

He looks at her, but we don’t. As at the beginning of the film, we can only see the back of her head. Stooping down he says, “What? What is it, you’re not here? You’re not here any more? You’re in Paradise?”

He gets down on his knees so he can look directly into her eyes. “No no no no no. You’re still here. You’re here with me. In all this shit. And you don’t go away unless I say so.”

He kisses her and it’s like kissing a doll. Kissing someone who isn’t home. 

Tears cover his face. He’s crying. He loves her. He wants her. But she’s not there any more. She never was. 

“That’s not right. That’s not right.” He grabs her by the throat as if trying to throttle life into her. “Come back.”

He kisses her again but there is still nobody inside her. “NO NO. I said you don’t go.” He starts to strangle her again and says, “You come back to me.” But she was never with him. Only in another reality did they even come close. If the whole brothel sequence was a dream, how does he even know her? That world must have been real. A kind of group hallucination or a switch of realities that everyone can remember. 

The door bursts open and police burst into the room with Dr Gorski. “Stop right there!” 

Blue screams as the two policemen pull him off Baby Doll. One says, “What in God’s name have you boys been doing up here?”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” says Blue. “Look at her. She’s gone. Look at her face. She’s not here. What do you think I want to do? I take care of these girls. I look out for them.” He looks to Gorski thinking that they are in that other reality. “These are my girls. Tell them.”

Gorski looks shaken and tells the cops, “Get him out of here.” 

“It’s not me you want,” yells Blue. “It’s her stepfather. I’ll tell you everything. I’ll tell you about the money.” His voice echoes down the corridors and Dr Gorski turns to look at Baby Doll. 

The policeman walks into the room and points a torch at Baby Doll. 

“Are you all right Miss? Miss?”

We follow the beam of his torch and see, for the first time since the operation, Baby Doll’s face. She looks up as if having a religious epiphany. As if she is seeing the face of God. She has no scar from her lobotomy. No scar. No swelling. No black eye. Nothing. Her face is clear and pure. It is the same expression one sees on the paintings and statues of saints and angels. 

And then, as if to show that the lobotomy might not have taken everything from her. Her eyes with their huge false eyelashes close. Her cheeks are rouged. Her skin glowing. 

The camera pans away from her and around the room. Autumn leaves are falling within the room. We see suitcases and a sink. Then, on the wall, we see a sign: ‘Ladies’. And Sweet Pea, in the dress she stole from a washing line, walking out to a bus station. A queue of people stand waiting to get on the bus. The sky golden behind a church. 

She sees a police car and two state troopers getting out who could cause her significant trouble, with her being an escaped mental patient. 

Over this sequence, beginning with that final shot of Baby Doll we hear a voice-over, the same voiceover from the beginning of the movie. Only now the voice is familiar to us. It is that of Sweet Pea herself. The voice at the beginning of the movie was Sweet Pea’s and so is this voice close to the end. 

“And finally, this question: The mystery of whose story it will be. Of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance? Who drives us mad, lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it that does all these things?”

We see the bus from Sweet Pea’s point of view and hear a car door slam. She stands looking serious and concerned but showing no fear and joins the bus queue. The boy in front of her looks familiar. He turns around and glances at her and we realise that he is the same boy that she saw in the trenches during World War One reality. He recognises her but says nothing. He just gets on the bus. 

“Excuse me Miss?” says a voice from behind her. 

She turns around and sees the two state troopers. 

One of them says, “Miss, can we have a word?”

Before she has a chance to respond, a familiar voice butts in, “Is there a problem gentlemen?” 

The State Trooper continues, “This actually doesn’t concern you, Sir. I have several questions for the young lady.”

But we see the driver of the bus and it is the Wise Man from all their missions. “Well can you make it snappy? I need to stay on schedule.”

“We understand,” says the Second State Trooper. 

“Do you?” says the Wise Man. “That young woman’s been on the bus since Hartford. I don’t see what she could possibly know about anything happening around here. I just let her off to use the rest-room. Mine’s not working. Oh. And one more thing. She’s been a joy the entire journey.”

The Troopers take off and Sweet Pea gets on the bus. “I don’t have a ticket.”

“I know,” says the Wise Man, “It’s okay. Go find a seat in the back. Try and get some sleep. We got a long way to go.”

She walks towards the back of the bus and we see the bus heading off into a beautiful golden sunset passing a sign that says “Paradise Diners” and a scarecrow. 

Her voice-over continues, “Who honours those we love with the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us and, at the same time, sings that we’ll never die? Who teaches us what’s real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we’ll die to defend? Who chains us and who holds the key that will set us free? It’s you. You have all the weapons you need. Now fight!”

Conclusion

On starting this post, I had no intention of going into such detail, looking at every scene and quoting so much of the dialogue. Sucker Punch has a tone of voice that is very different to my own. The voice-over with its underlining of what we should think was not, apparently, a choice the director was entirely happy with and the film as a whole that exists on blu-ray, despite being longer than the theatrical cut, may not be the cut the director favours. As a viewer, however, it is not my business to assume or guess at what the director intended. All we have is the film that we have. 

What is interesting to me about Sucker Punch is what it says about how we perceive reality. That the film occurs on several layers of reality, layers that intersect with one another constantly, makes the film worth watching many times and the way we see it each time will probably differ slightly from every other time. There are many films at work here. Every scene owes something to the scenes that preceded it and also to those which follow it. Which events that took place in the mythical worlds of demons, zombies, orcs, dragons and robots had a solid effect on the world of the brothel and which scenes that took place in the brothel had a solid effect on the world of the asylum? Can some characters perceive every layer of reality they appear in (such as Blue and Rocket who refer back quite specifically to events that they might not have experienced in this world in this way)? Is Blue responsible for the existence of the brothel reality being that this reality so nicely suits his self-image? Is Baby Doll a construct of Sweet Pea’s psyche? Is Sweet Pea a construct of Baby Doll’s psyche? Has the Wise Man carried over into the asylum reality from the mythic worlds or are the mythic worlds a backwards projection of this kind Bus Driver that Sweet Pea will meet? 

We could make definitive claims to answer every one of these questions, but what would be the worth of that? 

In looking deeply at this film in a way that would not have been possible before the advent of blu-rays, am I seeing a film that was intended? 

Am I seeing a film that is anything like the film that people would have seen at the cinema? 

And I have had the luxury, and it is a luxury, of being able to look at every word of dialogue and every scene and I’ve still probably missed 99% of what is there. 

Film intersects with reality. It intersects with my life. It gives me sensations that I would not encounter in my waking life and introduces me to people I would never meet. Sometimes those people feel half constructed and absent. Some of those cinematic characters have depth and structure. Some do not. But, and this is what makes film so effective, even when characters are underwritten or written in a manner that seems unreal, the actors are always real. I am still watching real people in a real world, even if the world is a dream within a dream within a dream. And those actors and characters become part of my waking world. They live inside me, archetypes and symbols that extend beyond what the actual character might be and possibly beyond what the filmmakers intended.

The mind experiences different levels of reality constantly. The way I see the world is informed by what happens to me but also by what I eat, drink and feel. In my life, I have witnessed a series of moral panics where entertainment was blamed for changing perceptions of reality in a negative way. I’ve yet to see the reverse. I’ve yet to see the media descend upon a film or work of art suggesting that it has improved people’s perceptions of reality and heightened their essential decency, raised their potential, given them confidence where that confidence was lacking and relieved tensions that could have driven them half insane.

If I watch a Fellini film or a Tarkovsky film I might, for a long time after the credits have rolled, look at the world I encounter through the prism of those works. But where is my real persona. Or, perhaps I should say, where is the constant character beneath the persona. 

The accusations against Sucker Punch include the idea that the women who we see are not sufficiently layered. In terms of how much time they have to develop as unique and complex characters in the brothel reality, that would be fair criticism. But the very fact that they aren’t given so much time to develop on screen allows us to imprint our own feelings upon them. That might not happen on a single viewing, but having watched the film two or three times for the purpose of writing this, I have come to feel very familiar with each character. They now look about as developed as any character could be because I have seen the world through their eyes and seen the way they respond to things which in my waking reality, are not possible.

And we are always watching them through that arch. A proscenium arch or the world of the screen. That artificiality allows us to know that whatever we think we are seeing contans another reality. I might have an idea about Baby Doll or Blue or Gorski or Sweet Pea but what do I know of the actors behind those personae?

What we are watching, the play and the play within a play, might be a kind of group therapy. A working through of a psychosis that has gripped the world. On the level of the asylum, the women are pathetic creatures. On the level of the brothel, they have some agency but only because of Baby Doll inspiring them. On the other world levels, the women all have agency, but they lack compassion. They can kill a baby dragon because that’s the rule, that’s the order. Sacrificing the fire within them because that’s what’s necessary to remain a slave. If, however, we see all those levels as equally real and the five women as aspects perhaps of one woman, the superego of Sweet Pea, the entire piece becomes a stunning piece of psychological complexity. Put all those aspects together, see Baby Doll and Blue and the Wise Man and Madame Gorski as aspects of one human being who could be male or female or both. 

Okay, I have no idea what the intentions were behind the film, but then that’s the difference between art and commercial entertainment. If everyone in the auditorium feels the same way and sees the same story as they watch a film, that’s entertainment (and there’s nowt wrong with that), but it’s when the possibilities within the film are more nuanced, not so easily defined, when everyone in the theatre sees a different work, that’s art. Sucker Punch allows one to change one’s feelings by the minute. In that sense, it feels complex and uncertain; complex and uncertain like life itself.

That Sweet Pea’s escape happens on the brothel level of reality, it could be seen that her escape and her very existence is a projection of Baby Doll in her post lobotomy state. The fact her bus passes the Paradise Diner hinting as much. But then we see Baby Doll’s opening act in a theatre and Sweet Pea playing Baby Doll in a theatre and that implies that Baby Doll might simply be a projection of Sweet Pea’s need for courage to get away.

Can we perceive the world and art according to choice? Can the world appear as we would have the world appear? Can we choose which reality we belong to? It seems a stupid thing to say when we see the hardship and poverty endured by those who have absolutely no choice in the matter. But that kind of dismal reality is reflected in the worlds of the asylum and the brothel. Neither of these worlds is the world as we would wish it to be. But maybe, even trapped in the worst conditions, we can escape into other worlds, no less real to us, than the physical reality we have to endure. And maybe, just maybe, if we can envision that much, we might have the power to make it through that reality.

Sucker Punch is a piece of theatre that feels exactly like a show created by those who want to find a better way of perceiving themselves. Through dream and through myth. Working past the hindrances and humiliations. The story of Baby Doll, victimised from the outset by fate and evil forces, can become through dance, through art, through imagination, a heroine who brings hope to those who have no hope left.

You have all the weapons you need. 

So fight. 

Credits:

The first credit would be to anyone who has read through this absurdly long post. I realise it is way too long as something to read from a screen.

Other than that, I’d like to thank the makers of this film who somehow managed to get an experimental work of art made by a major Hollywood studio. Amazing.

It would not have been possible to look at this film in such detail without the blu-ray imported from the Netherlands and just below is the Amazon link to it. I don’t know why but, at the moment, the extended cut is not available as a UK release. All screen shots here are taken/stolen from that release. If anyone of the copyright holders ever wants me to take them down, I would do so in a trice.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B008YCZAVA/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_asin_title_o03_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Sir James Bond at Casino Royale

The art of not writing stories

I’ve got to be honest. I must come clean. it’s not a crime. But…

I’m not a big fan of stories. 

I know. It’s sacrilege. It’s crazy. Everyone likes stories, right? Everyone wants to know the who and the why and the what happened next and the happily ever after.

I could rephrase it another way; a more palatable way. But it remains the case that, after fifty odd years of watching, reading and even writing I just don’t care about stories. I much prefer a meandering piece of directionless prose (and meandering directionless films) to a perfectly organised story that begins as stories are supposed to begin and ends as stories are supposed to end. Such pieces fill my heart with joy while endings carry within them the inevitability of disappointment. The looming final page or final scene is like a policeman sealing the scene off with tape. This story is over, done, leave it, go away, nothing more to see here. Go on, clear off! Get out of the cinema! Take the book back to the library! Turn the radio off! You’ve had your ending. That’s your lot… Are you still here? What do you want, a sequel? Go on… Sling your hook. Buzz off. Take a hike. Etc.

Endings seem so uncivilized.

The joy of a great book or film is that they don’t end. You can dip into them at your leisure. You don’t want to take them back to the library because you read the final page. You want to own the book so you can read chapter three again. And then chapter two. The order doesn’t matter.

And just as the joy of a book, for me, isn’t in being told a story, the joy of a film, for me, is in moments, meetings, scenes, set-pieces, funny dialogue, the sublime. It’s always disappointing to see that a character has become little more than a chess piece whose destiny has been organised by the player/writer to move the film towards its inevitable conclusion.

‘The enemy has penetrated our most secret inner circles’

Ian Fleming was the consummate novelist. Nobody could really accuse him of not writing stories. He knew how to immediately engage the reader throwing them into the middle of the action: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” The opening chapter of Casino Royale starts halfway through the narrative with James Bond facing his adversary Le Chiffre across the gambling table. This, his first novel, can be read virtually in one sitting. Bond doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable or smart character. He doesn’t yet know which way is up and can be fooled by the split loyalties of a woman he thinks he can trust with his life. Over the relatively brief length of the novel, however, we walk in Bond’s shoes for a while. We see the world from inside his head and when we put the book down, we may feel closer to him.

It was once said of Ian Fleming that he did not know how to write a boring sentence. This is why he is always worth reading. This is why his travel book Thrilling Cities is just as exciting as any of his fiction. He just writes of the world, intoxicated with the flavours of life. While reading Fleming, you are breathing the same air, smelling the same smells, tasting the food, feeling the pain and the pleasure. But, while Fleming always made sure that he had villains who would be taken care of by the end of each book (I hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone), James Bond never changes. Bond is, in that sense, the ultimate picaresque character, a roguish sensualist who gets by through ingenuity in the heat of the moment. It is hard to read Ian Fleming without feeling immediately in the heart of life. 

It might be a mistake to reference Fleming’s book and character when talking about the 1967 film, Casino Royale because although part of the film is based upon events in Fleming’s book, they don’t happen to James Bond. Stylistically the film deviates in every imaginable way from the character created on the page. And yet… There is, in Casino Royale something of a flavour of the world, a sensuality of a different type.

Everything Or Nothing

When EON Productions, the company started by Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, developed their successful series of films based on the James Bond books, Casino Royale was the one book they couldn’t get the rights to. Those rights belonged already to someone else. Harry Saltzman had acquired everything else but Casino Royale, which had already been adapted for television (with the British James Bond being an American called Jimmy Bond) and by the time EON started their roster of films, it belonged to the producer and agent Charles K. Feldman (one of Cubby Broccoli’s closest friends).

In addition to setting Bond across that table from Le Chiffre, the book Casino Royale also establishes his cynicism after an unfortunate encounter with the book’s heroine, Vesper Lynd, and an even more unfortunate encounter with a carpet beater. The film series, lacking the rights to this novel, however, started with Bond as a well-established agent in an adaptation of the sixth Bond novel, Dr No. This film not only introduced the world to the working-class-and-hiding-it-well performance of Sean Connery moving like a panther across the frame but also to Ursula Andress emerging from the sea like Venus on a Half Shell with a white bikini and dagger. The film was an instant hit.

Dr No had exoticism and colour of the West Indies setting in a plot whose violence was gripping enough for the most jaded viewers. For British audiences in 1962, that colour must have felt like the final nail in the coffin of the austerity of the post-war years. Rationing had only ended in 1954, a year after Casino Royale had first appeared in bookshops. Holidays to the West Indies or anywhere with beaches and a bit of sun would have been an impossibility for the average denizen of these rainy isles. Seeing the azure sky gleaming over aquamarine seas, the island life pulsing with a calypso beat, sophisticated gambling clubs, beautiful women with treacherous natures and Sean Connery’s permanent-looking tan (impressive for someone coming from Edinburgh), must have been intoxicating. Within a few years, the Bond films along with The Beatles and a number of other pop culture marvels would make Britain seem colourful for a little while, but at the beginning, it seemed almost impossible that Dr No was a film that came from here. Britain wasn’t supposed to be colorful or sexy or exciting so it was odd to think of James Bond being a fundamentally British character.

All the EON Bond films had plots. But the plot barely ever mattered. Nobody ever came out of a James Bond film saying what a great story it had. The key to Bond was in the intensity and exoticism of its moments. A ruthless seduction here and there. A man killed in a cold-blooded way. A stunt that risked life and limb for some poor chap. And then there were the cars which growled along winding roads with hairpin turns on mountainside roads taken way too fast. Life, for James Bond seemed like life would be for us all if only we lived it perfectly and with absolute courage and confidence. That he occasionally got hit or tortured or that so many of his girlfriends got killed was neither here nor there. Bond was living the life.

This was the key to EON’s success in the 60s. Moments that you wanted to see again and again. Moments that sold a movie and moments that you came back to see again just because you enjoyed living them so much. Once a story is done, if the story is all that there is, you have no need to go back to that book or that film. James Bond films were the kind of films that got seen over and over. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with telling great stories. That they’re still being shown today and selling blu-rays 50 years letter is testament to this.

What’s New

But Charles K. Feldman couldn’t just replicate what EON were doing. The story of how the movie came to the screen is extremely well chronicled in Michael Richardson’s The Making of Casino Royale and I won’t go over the ground covered in that book (although I might resort to the odd reference here and there). Suffice to say that the difficulty of having such a hot property lay in just how hot a property it was and what was and was not possible to do. Money was spent with what might seem a kind of reckless abandon. Indecision hovering over what the film was intended to be causing even more money to be spent. Treatment followed treatment. Screenplay followed screenplay. There’s almost a decade between the first treatment and the final version of the film arriving on the screen (just a a couple of months ahead of the fifth EON film You Only Live Twice). Feldman decided, in the end, to make his Bond film a kind of anti-Bond Bond film. Producer, Harry Saltzman had also produced an anti-Bond film in the adaptation of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File. But where the Harry Palmer films were anti-Bond by eschewing the fast cars, glamorous locations and high life of Fleming’s hero, Feldman’s film would be a James Bond film based on the first James Bond book and it would be a big lavish film in every way except, maybe, having James Bond in it.  

Feldman had been one of the biggest talent agents in the world; a beloved figure in the industry who could get hold of just about any of the world’s biggest stars at a moment’s notice. By the mid-sixties he was flying high as a producer due to the massive successes of the 1965 film What’s New Pussycat? Starring Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen. This was a comedy about a man who had so many girlfriends that, however much he might try, he just couldn’t remain faithful to one woman (shades of Bond already). The story of that film begins absurdly enough, escalating from semi-sophisticated farce into a riotous romp with a lot of bed-hopping and ending with its characters chasing around France in go-karts. Sellers’ role in the film was as a psychiatrist who has to listen to the confessions of O’Toole suffering from the fact that women seem to find him handsome when the light hits him in a certain way. Sellers’ psychiatrist had the opposite problem being completely in love with a woman (not his wife) who had no interest in him at all. The rising levels of insanity to the point of absurdity in Pussycat would be mirrored in Casino Royale. Feldman saw Sellers as someone who would make a great anti-Bond. Sellers had other ideas. The confusion of the first and second and third and fourth drafts led Feldman to decide, at some point, that the best way to make Casino Royale a success would be by making it a film of many parts with many stories. He was going to sew all the pieces together somehow. There were other films which had been made with a group of directors coming together on the same project (especially in Europe with films like RoGoPaG and The Oldest Profession)… What could possibly go wrong? He had different directors working on different scenes with different actors at the same time. He had half the cast playing versions of James Bond and maybe, just maybe, he lost control of the film a little bit. Maybe it wasn’t what it was initially intended to be. But the result, critically derided at the time, is not only a watchable movie. It’s one of the most glorious and dreamlike experiences in cinematic history.

For many people, not just critics but also hardcore Bond fans who expect their Bond to be a plausibly tough hero, Feldman’s film is an aberration. And it is the pinnacle of cinematic excess. Intended as a comedy, only some of the comic scenes are funny, but it’s so beautiful. An almost textbook example of why sometimes it’s good not to have the faintest idea what’s going on. Directed by John Huston, Val Guest, Ken Hughes, Joe McGrath, Robert Parrish and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all, Casino Royale is often spoken of as one of those bloated studio films that lost millions and opened the way for the wonderful downbeat and realistic films of the 70s. In fact, Casino Royale was a huge box office hit that did a lot to revive the fortunes of Columbia studios. Critically lambasted as a misfire and an over-indulgence, was one of the biggest hits of its time and remains the 19th most successful of the 26 James Bond films having made more money, when adjusted for inflation than Dr No, Never Say Never Again, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, The Man with the Golden Gun or Licence to Kill. It is almost certainly the most financially successful surrealist movie ever made. 

‘These are my credentials’

The pre-credits sequence of the film is already odd. Taken from quite a late point in the film with Peter Sellers’ character Evelyn Tremble already standing in for Bond. The camera pans across the exterior of a pissoir. There is a chalk-like graffiti image of a naked woman with torpedo breasts pointing at “Les Beatles”. The Bowler hatted face of Mathis (played by the comic Scottish actor Duncan Macrae) bobs sideways from behind the worn iron and he says, “Bond?”. Peter Sellers sharing the pissoir and looking insouciant in his crisp grey suit and black tie says, “Yes?”

“I’m Lieutenant Mathis of the Special Police,” says Mathis walking around the central pillar. 

Behind Sellers is a poster advertising “Le Monde Sans Soleil”, a Jacques Cousteau film which won the Oscar for best documentary in 1964. There is also a poster for the Perrier based soft drink, Pschit, the name of which (intended as onomatopoeia for the sound made by the opening of the bottle) used to make me laugh hysterically when I was a child. On the outside of the pissoir, more graffiti, including the classic “Kilroy woz ere”.

“These are my credentials,” Says Mathis showing something hidden by the outer wall of the pissoir. 

Sellers looks down in the direction of Mathis’s crotch giving the impression of a cottage pick up and says, “They appear to be in order.”

“Come with me!” Says Mathis. 

And then with a blast of horns Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass plays Burt Bacharach’s theme. According to Richardson’s book, it probably wasn’t really the Tijuana Brass but, whoever it was, the sound is sublime in its joyfulness.

Sellers’ character shall not return for another 40 minutes or so. That he is heralded in the opening titles as the star of the film we don’t see a lot of him. There are many reasons for this, some of it can be laid at the feet of the well-publicised difficulty of Sellers who may have inflated the budget of the film by almost 10% by phoning in sick and taking days off here and there. But much of the episodic flavour was due to Feldman’s choices. This is a film whose tone shifts every few minutes creating the impression of watched dozens of films instead of just one.

Richard Williams’ animated titles give us a much more accurate sense of the patchwork film that follows. Williams was one of the giants of animation at the time. He had produced the animation for the beginning of What’s New Pussycat and he would go on to work on the titles for Return of the Pink Panther and the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler. Here, however, the look is reminiscent of the kind of animation which would soon be seen in the film Yellow Submarine. Each illuminated capital letter decorated with baroque golden figures with large breasts and guns and arrows and wings. There is even an early spoiler in having Woody Allen’s giant W decorated with sinister faces. There is something wonderful in the number of films made in the 60s that had animated titles. Before the film starts we are already enjoying it. And Bacharach’s jaunty comic opening theme played by Alpert sets the film up for the tone of all that follows. It could be said that Bacharach’s score gives the film greater continuity than the script.

‘Vocationally devoted, sublimely disinterested’

After the titles, there is another thrilling piece of music which combines the underscore of threat with the lightness of Bacharach’s tone. M and the heads of the various secret services from around the world are shown in sleek black chauffeur driven cars arriving in a sheep-filled field. The light gleaming as John Le Mesurier waits for them. The vista is spectacular and the actors have that touch of Hollywood royalty. John Huston, director of much of this opening sequence of the film, plays M (although the role was initially offered to Robert Morley) and William Holden as a CIA executive and Charles Boyer representing Le Duexieme Bureau. They join together in a single vehicle and drive through the lions of Longleat to get to the mansion belonging to Sir James Bond. M talks of how a good spy is a pure spy, the man they are going to see plays Debussy every day until it is too dark to read the music. “He stands on his head a lot and eats royal jelly. Lets his intestines down and washes them by hand, something he learned in his sojourn in Tibet.” This is a man who is closer, in many respects, to Derek Flint (played as a master of esoteric self control by James Coburn in the films Our Man Flint and In Like Flint)

Sir James Bond, dressed in an olive smoking jacket with a silk turban, does his exercises while his ancient retainer walks by with a rattling tray. The four heads of the secret service point out the threat that the world is now facing but Bond, again like Flint, wants no more to do with espionage. He has turned his back on the vulgarity of the modern world having no interest in erotic liaisons or the gadgets which now characterise the game. He has particular contempt for the sexual indulgence of the man who has taken his name. The real Bond loves his life and has been training a rose with exquisitely black petals in his garden. As he shows the joined chiefs this rose, he has undergone a costume change, now wearing a cream suit with cravat and trilby. Boyer reveals that the reason he has set aside the world of espionage is due to the love of his life, Mata Hari for whose James himself was responsible. After playing Debussy, now dressed in a black velvet frock coat Bond declines even a personal request from Her Majesty the Queen. So, on M’s signal, Bond’s mansion is destroyed. The comfortable life that Bond has made for himself must be destroyed if Bond is going to be lured back into service. 

Sir James Bond, as played by Niven, is a man of high culture. He doesn’t just offer his guests tea. He offers them tea in golden cups even while he knows full well he is going to turn them away. But they can use no other means to persuade him than to destroy the world he has made for himself. It is not clear whether they intend to fool him into thinking that this destruction is the work of Smersh or if they feel that destroying his mansion is enough. It is also not clear that M is killed in the blast even though the next section of the story assumes that he has been. The disappearance of a character with the claim that he has been killed in a bomb attack when we have seen him survive the same bomb attack is typical of the cryptic nature of Casino Royale. This kind of thing will happen throughout the film.

Without any linking sequence, other than Dr Noah (voiced by Man-in-Black Valentine Dyall in his sonorous tones) telling us that Bond is back with his morals, his vows and his celibate image. An image that must be destroyed for reasons that are not altogether clear. Bond is under observation by spies, most of whom seem to be very beautiful women. Wherever he goes there will be someone communicating his progress and direction into a radio transmitter. Under such observation Bond drives his green Bentley, the very same make and model that Bond is said to have driven in the first books, through an idyllic village beside a lake and then to a castle where men in red hair, red beards and bagpipes guard all. This is Scotland… Actually, it’s Ireland but Ireland is standing in for Scotland.

Lady Fiona McTarry (who is in reality a Smersh spy called Agent Mimi played by Deborah Kerr) is mourning her husband’s death. Agent Mimi has been picked to impersonate Lady Fiona for no other reason than that she has the best Scottish accent. And during this sequence Scottish-isms abound. So much so that you may find yourself fancying a tappit-hen of usquebaugh. 

When Bond presents the fake Lady Fiona with M’s red wig he is uncertain whether it should be regarded as an anatomical feature or an article of apparel. Lady Fiona replies that it can only be regarded as a “hairloom”. There’s nothing like a pun. A struggling goat, tied to a stick and being carried by some young women passes by the doorway. Lady Fiona tells Bond that when a McTarry dies a black he-goat must be taken alive off Ben Tarry by six barefoot virgins. Then Lady Fiona must slaughter it herself. The daughters, of whom there are many, must wrest the stomach out and stuff it with entrails. The resulting feast must be taken with whisky that adds fire to the blood for dancing. Bond takes all this at face value. After all, the vision of this castle with its red and blonde-haired virgin daughters of M has a nice folk horror feel to it. That Bond trying to maintain his sexual purity while beautiful young girls flirt with him from half-open doorways while others take his trousers off causing him some indelicate moments foreshadows Edward Woodward desperate to maintain his own purity in The Wicker Man before being part of a wicker man. It’s a significant contrast to the sequence where George Lazenby, as Bond, immediately blows his cover by seducing all the young girls in a specialist clinic that he can in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The contrast with that later Bond film is made all the more acute when the girl that Bond finds himself being bathed by is Angela Scoular, who would later play one of the main girls seduced by Lazenby.

Bond maintains his purity despite all the obvious temptation. The entire castle is decorated with erotic art of one kind or another. Deborah Kerr, the grieving widow, breaks character in an effort to seduce Bond who seemed to be having a very comfortable time sitting in bed with a nightshirt. Having failed to tempt him, Smersh opts for the second best thing, to kill him. This is prefigured by the idea of dishonouring Bond in the book of From Russia With Love. It’s not enough just to kill an agent. He must be made to seem an absolute cad as well.

The scenes of Niven’s Bond (Niven being in his late-fifties at the time of filming) avoiding the various attempts at seduction may not be laugh out loud funny but it’s an interesting reversal of the Bond character. It’s maintained to an extent but when, after a couple of attempted assassinations, Bond returns to M’s office in London (tasked with taking over from M) he immediately launches into a clinch with the woman he believes to be Miss Moneypenny but who is actually Moneypenny’s daughter. Barbara Bouchet, the actress who would become one of the key faces of the Italian Gialli as the 70s progressed, plays Moneypenny as a wide-eyed fun-loving character who isn’t just relegated to a few flirtatious exchanges with Bond as Lois Maxwell’s character had been in the EON films. She gets to play a role in the action of the film. At this stage, however, she is busy changing the union jack flags on a map of the world to black pins. Derek Nimmo’s Hadley informs Bond that the agents have either disappeared or been killed. One has been ‘burnt in a blazing bordello’, another ‘garotted in a geisha house’. Worst of all, his namesake, the Bond of the ‘other’ movies, has had to be taken off the board as he is now doing television. One of the main reasons for this high body count is that Smersh has been using mainly female agents who the mostly male agents of MI5 have proved particularly susceptible to. The answer to this is to start using more female agents and male agents trained to resist them (while themselves being irresistible to women).

Moneypenny Is tasked with the testing of candidates for the kind of man all women want as all the other wantable agents of MI5 have disappeared. Cue Moneypenny in a transparent lilac nightdress kissing a line-up of male candidates to see which one sets her senses tingling. It’s a wonderful game to her and yet she is never portrayed in a negative light for enjoying this task. In it’s own unique way Casino Royale is very positive in the way it depicts the women in central roles. Not that it makes a point of this. It’s just keying into the emerging spirit of the time. The one candidate who makes the world tingle and the lighting scheme to turn scarlet for Moneypenny is Terence Cooper, whose character is named, rather unimaginatively, Cooper. Cooper was an actor who had been on contract with Feldman to play the role of Bond when there was still a chance that Casino Royale might have been a straight James Bond film. He’s solid enough but isn’t really given enough screen time for us to see if he would have been a good choice. It is to Cooper that Sir James Bond reveals that from now on, all agents will be known by the name of James Bond. 

“Won’t that be rather confusing, Sir?” 

“Exactly. The enemy won’t know which way to turn.”

And neither will the audience. And maybe this was the point. Casino Royale is all about confusion. The production was confusing. Multiple directors shooting multiple scenes in multiple styles. Few of the crew were allowed to see a version of the screenplay in its entirety. The problem being that Feldman admitted that he often lost track of what scenes were supposed to go where. It is from this point in the film that these different storylines emerge and splinter off. After a short encounter with some girls and Daliah Lavi who looks like she is going to become a major character in the film and then doesn’t, Coop’s Bond disappears from the film for a while. The effect of this on some viewers, myself included, simply makes the world and the plot of Casino Royale feel richly populated with incident. The fact that around this time, in a small cutaway scene, we are also introduced to James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy Bond (played by Woody Allen who wrote most of his own dialogue), as he cunningly escapes from a central American firing squad only to find himself, almost immediately, in front of another firing squad. Woody Allen is billed as one of the major stars of the film and, at this point, was emerging as one of the most famous comics in the world, but like Cooper, he then disappears from the film for a good hour or so.

The Look of Love

The next sequence introduces Ursula Andress as Vesper Lynd in an office with reel to reel computers and operatives looking very industrious as she wanders among them. She is dressed, in a quite astounding jewelled pink outfit with an ostrich feathered turban as she rules over her multi-million dollar business. In the novel Vesper Lynd was a woman used by Smersh. Here she is nobody’s fool but a businesswoman who buys Nelson’s column for her personal collection of objet d’art. She is only persuaded by the loveable Sir James to undertake a mission for MI5 after he promises to help with her $5 million in tax arrears. As if having Bond preferring Lapsang Souchong to Martini’s weren’t enough, now he’s working in cahoots with Inland Revenue. 

The camera always loves Andress. She has an indefinable glamour about her. Her almond eyes always catching a glint of light, always looking like she’s about to smile or laugh but never quite doing it. Some of her appeal here has to be laid at the lighting. Cinematographer Jack Hildyard is one of those sure hands who knew how to exploit an actor’s looks by perfectly highlighting them, but Andress, even without this help, knew how to illuminate the screen. As the first woman to have their career given a stratospheric boost by being a ‘Bond girl’ she is a natural here. Few can forget her in Dr No stepping out of the sea in a white bikini to collect rare and valuable shells on Crab Key Island pulling a knife on Bond as he sings to her; which he really has coming. Having played the ageless Ayesha (She who must be obeyed) in Hammer’s 1965 adaptation of Rider Haggard’s She and in that same year appearing in Feldman’s own What’s New Pussycat as “a personal friend of James Bond” she will forever be linked to that period of European glamour that had that little touch of sophistication no matter what she was playing. She had been dubbed in many of her other films (including Dr No) to cover her Swiss accent but in Casino Royale she gets to deliver her own lines and the effect is notable. Sir James using the aforementioned IR blackmail enlists her help to seduce Evelyn Tremble, the writer of a book on how to win at Baccarat, into becoming another James Bond and playing to win against Smersh operative Le Chiffre at Casino Royale. 

The scenes that follow introduce Peter Sellers, the famously difficult star of the movie who had been paid a million dollars for his role, as Tremble. We see him playing the fruit machines in a small gambling club in a dinner jacket and bow tie. Only his glasses set him apart from being a Bond-like figure. Andress approaches him, her dress and diamond earrings sparkling under the lights, her white-gloved fingers caressing the ball tip of the arm on one of the other fruit machines close to him. Quite close to him she says, “Mr Evelyn Tremble?”

Sellers turns and faces her, their faces are inches apart. Softly he says, “Yes, that’s right.” This is not the Sellers of Clousseau or Strangelove. Suave and understanded he is alive in this place and this part.

Lynd tells us that she has studied his book very closely, at night, in her bed. The words trip from her lips, her tongue tripping and caressing each syllable. She would like him to explain some of the passes in his book on baccarat but she doesn’t have it with her. They would have to study it together. It is in her bed. As she says this she pulls the arm of the fruit machine and, as they look in each other’s eyes as if in the middle of some unstoppable intimacy, we hear the tinkling of coins like a climax between them. She doesn’t gather her winnings, she has money enough. She simply walks away and tells him she’ll send her car for him. Sellers’ eyes follow her as if he cannot believe his luck.  

The scene might be easy to overlook lasting just a few seconds but it’s a minor masterpiece of eroticism. A few lightly spoken words, just spoken more closely and intimately than they would ever be in reality. The moment is perfect. It’s a dream of what could never happen. Of course, being that this is a spy thriller, it isn’t all that it seems.

The following scene has Lynd disposing of the body of one of her previous victims. In an earlier version of the film, this had been Agent 006 and it would have shown that while working for Bond and MI5 in recruiting Tremble, Lynd was already an independent agent working just as much for the enemy. Tremble appears on the intercom and she tells him to wait a minute, pressing a button that ejects the body from her room into her deep freeze. She will have it emptied the following morning.

As Tremble enters, she welcomes him into her opulent apartment. Dusty Springfield’s sweet voice sings “The Look of Love” as the camera views the couple in slow motion through a fish tank, multicoloured fish swimming between us and the stars moving languidly as if they too were underwater. The long white feathers on Lynd’s sleeves flow upwards in the air like the fins of an angelfish as she beckons Tremble to follow her more closely. He stares at the fish as if trying to slow his desire.

The camera pans around the artworks of the room eventually resting on the recently acquired statue of Lord Nelson through her window. Lynd signals to Sellers with a silk handkerchief from a sunken lounge. Even though his character has just been introduced, it is hard not to feel for Sellers in the domain of this temptress who we have just seen disposing of the body of another agent. This is, after all, Peter Sellers and even if this Peter Sellers is playing it straight and has acquired a veneer of self-confidence and sophistication, it is still Peter Sellers. We don’t want to see him eaten for breakfast by piranhas but she is in complete control of him. She tells him, quoting Nelson, that England expects every man to do his duty and his duty is to be with her right now. Tremble is never really a particularly interesting character. In this seduction scene, he looks like a man trying to pretend that he does this kind of thing all the time whereas this is a one-off. The thing is that, while we might complain that Sellers isn’t too interesting unless he is playing a funny or interesting character but his being so out of his depth that he could never really keep up with it is the point of these scenes.

Sellers had lost a great deal of weight to play the role of Bond. After a while, however, he decided that he would not be comfortable playing James Bond per se and might be better suited to the part of a man forced to impersonate Bond. Sellers is one of the greatest actors who ever lived, although at this point in his life and career he was not the most professional. As a chameleon who could become almost anyone by getting under their skin, he was almost insanely gifted. He could find the funny in anything (and there are countless out-takes of him being unable to complete scenes because he found them too funny and collapsed into giggles) and there is some wit in his portrayal of Tremble. It’s just several layers too deep at times. It is tempting to see the role of Tremble as one quite close to Sellers in reality but despite speaking more in Sellers’ natural voice he is just as much an impersonation as Clousseau, Fred Kite or Dr Strangelove. The discomfort that emerges in some of these scenes with Andress and those later on in the film with Jacqueline Bisset emerges from the very fact that Tremble is a gambling nerd who is trying to convincingly play the kind of man who can take these kinds of amorous encounters in his stride.

As Tremble joins Lynd, the sunken lounge sinks even further into a basement area. The image fades into Lynd in a pink chiffon nightgown twirling and jumping up and down in slow motion as pink feathers float through the air. This is intercut with Tremble in striped underwear doing awkward-looking press-ups in a kind of parody of the sex that has already taken place. She invites him to try on several different costumes, something that will help her see what kind of man he is. She’s already had her way with him and made him putty in her hands. Now she will see how he looks in the characters of Toulouse Lautrec, Napoleon and Hitler. Having seen him in these different facets convinces her that he is the man who can beat Le Chiffre… Although, given what we know about her, she probably doesn’t want him to beat Le Chiffre… Or Maybe she does. The true intentions of Lynd will always remain a mystery to us.

There follows a scene with Q which is only a little broader in its comedy than similar scenes in the EON films. Q, here, is played by Geoffrey Bayldon, best known to people of my generation for playing Catweazle (a medieval wizard who found himself escaping from persecutors into the 1970s). The sequence has a karate expert accidentally knocking himself out when saluting an officer and a man with an exploding bowler hat who, when his hat explodes, hears birds sing. In the background, while Q is briefing Tremble about a video watch, a man is being brutally interrogated up by two officers using a baton. At the tea break, they all take tea together because it doesn’t matter what side of the beating you are on when it’s time for tea. In Britain, tea breaks are sacred; something often complained about by American directors working with British crews.

The film then takes a break from Tremble and Lynd to enter another storyline. Sir James Bond decides that someone really reliable is needed to infiltrate an organisation training female spies (used by Smersh) so he takes off into the deepest jungles of Borneo or Thailand to re-establish contact with his daughter, Mata Bond (the love child of himself and Mata Hari) who, for reasons that remain a little vague, he hasn’t seen since she was a baby. She will be vital in infiltrating a spy school in Berlin.

We are then treated to a musical number in what looks like a mock Buddhist temple complete with temple dancers. The scene feels transported from an MGM musical with bold colours and the screen filled with dancing.

Huge bronze doors open onto other huge bronze doors and then other huge bronze doors with a huge bronze guard. A giant Buddha sits against a glowing red wall at the end of a vast ornate hall with a reflective floor. Sir James sits, white-suited and resplendent on a golden stool and watches as a huge production number unfolds in front of him. Temple dancers in matching Thai-style golden costumes emerge as Bacharach’s sumptuous music seduces the audience. Vast sheets of silk float into the air, held at each corner by the dancers, as confetti fills the air. The dancers disappear behind the sheet of silk leaving one solitary figure silhouetted against the Buddha, a gold head-dress shaped like flames on her head. She moves, jingling, toward the camera and we catch sight of her face. Mata Bond, as played by Joanna Pettet, golden blonde, demure spinning around and joined by the other dancers. The heart breaking key changes in Bacharach’s music combined with the colour and dancing is a striking way of introducing a character in a spy film.

All Bond films have an element of tableaux about them. You aren’t so much watching a movie as watching a circus with stunts and set-pieces, familiar moments, beautiful women, handsome men, stunning locations etc.. Casino Royale, abandoning even the normal semblance of adherence to structure, dials its set pieces to a different level. It’s odd, also, to keep talking about sets and costumes but this is a film where Julie Harris and Anna Duse, who designed the costumes, often take centre stage.  Michael Stringer’s production design is also one of the film’s biggest bonuses. While this is one of the most extravagantly costly films in the history of cinema, it looks the part. While there is some location work, so much of the film was shot on standing sets and every one of them is impressive in different ways. the temple sets feel very old Hollywood.

After the fantasy dance sequence, Mata Bond gets to meet her dad and her dialogue is down-to-earth giving the film its major of-the-time feel youthful angle. As the Celestial Virgin of the Sacred Altar, she gets to tell her more obsequious underlings to “hop it” before offering Bond a cup of tea made from poppy seeds. “Two cups of this and you’re stoned out of your mind.” That her accent shifts between finishing school perfection and London (but not cockney) colloquialisms gives the film that unmistakeable sense of Carnaby Street Swinging London. Pettet, like many of the other actresses in the film, owns her scenes. She is never playing second fiddle or arm candy. She breathes an optimistic air.

The Berlin sequence, which she is like a spin-off movie within the movie, is the one that is most uniquely surprising to find in the middle of a James Bond film. Even more unique and surprising than the musical production number preceding it. 

When she asks Derek Nimmo’s Hadley how she is going to get to Berlin he stops a taxi driven by Bernard Cribbins (who’d only just been one of the leads in another spy spoof, Carry On Spying). When asked to take her to Berlin he simply asks, “East or West?” as if there could be no other possible problem. In two shakes of a lambs tail, the taxi pulls up in a Berlin full of sin and music and laughter. Naturally the wall is to one side, a massive studio set used for mere moments of screen time. West of the wall we can see Der Blauer Angel and numerous other striptease bars and brasseries. There is the constant sound of laughter. Women dance on tables. Prostitutes line the streets being chatted up by GIs. At the end of the street, ahead of us, is the allied checkpoint. A red jeep drives through the checkpoint and emerges into a red world. The buildings are red, the street lights are red, only a couple of guards in green prevent the whole thing looking like an optical effect. Nobody is out on the street on the red side. The West may be full of decadence and frivolity and exploitation but the East is austere and miserable. That’s about as far as the film comes to a political statement. It sees both sides of the ideology as equally corrupt but nobody is trying to get over the Berlin Wall in that direction.

Mata’s taxi fare from London to Berlin is “Four hundred and eighty-two pounds, Fifteen and Ninepence” £482 15s and 9d (ah… How I miss old money). She tells him she can’t pay him right now as she doesn’t have any change. We will discover, later on, that this cabby is no ordinary cabby. He is Carleton Towers of the FO. Lucky thing that this is just a cover. Few cabbies would take someone skipping out on such a massive fare with such a half hearted complaint.

Mata, in a headscarf and trenchcoat, slips on a pair of sunglasses, eyeing a couple of prostitutes in a half interested manner before taking a step into the school for spies.

One inside we are in a vastly different kind of set. The door is at a peculiar angle to the floor. Paintbrush marks drag along the wall. A sinister accordion tune plays as we see the twisted horror film interior of the school. All blacks and whites and greys with similarly monochrome paintings on the walls. The angles intersect each other in an impossible geometry for a building. The windows lean one way. The staircase leans another. The paintings are not set in rectangular frames but trapezoids. The set is straight from the kind of expressionist world of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The pink of Mata’s headscarf makes her stand out like a creature from another world. We see her framed through the bars of the balustrade investigating the paintings: A two necked woman, a man with a gas mask for a face, a man with a suit whose beard and glasses are read items stuck on to the canvas. 

Opening another door, she is confronted with a painting of her mother, Mata Hari, in a revealing pink outfit fringed with gold with a gold headdress. The room is completely black other than the small spotlight picking out the portrait. Mata seems hypnotised by the picture and following the eye line of Hari’s vision sees Frau Hoffner (played by Anna Quayle) and Polo (played by Ronnie Corbett) picked out from their black background in blue and red lights. “Who are you? What do you want?” barks Hoffner in a piercing accent. The background lightens as Mata tells them that she is the daughter of Mata Hari and that she is there to enrol as a student. The blue-tinted Hoffner is suddenly thrown into an extreme close-up with Polo tiny in the background as her eyes widen and she calls Mata a “liar” dragging the word out deliciously. To prove that she is not a liar Mata removes her trench-coat and scarf to show herself looking exactly as Mata Hari does in her portrait. Polo starts whimpering and laughing in a manner more creepy than funny “My little Mata Hari… I told you she’d come back.”

“Silence!” says Hoffner “Or I will switch you off.”

Polo is only alive due to being attached to a stuttering battery. 

Hoffner caresses a scar on her face and says, “you’re even more fascinating than your mother.”

They give her a tour of the house as they are passed by numerous girls with identically styled black hair and identical black skin-tight uniforms (like the female spies of Dr Crow in Carry On Spying). 

“The Mara Hari School of Dancing is the only international school of espionage in the world. There is no political prejudice here. We train Russian spies for America und American spies for Russia. Some of the greatest spies in the world have graduated from this institution. Von Grudendorf, Malenvosky.”

Polo adds, “Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi.”

She shows Mata the decoding and cypher class. The door opens and the room is entirely red with identically styled blonde-haired spies in red, waving semaphore bats, typing, talking on the telephone, crossing and uncrossing their legs in fast motion. 

The light spills out illuminating Mata, Polo and Hoffner in red as if they had strayed into a Dario Argento film. 

Polo takes her aside and says, “We are even training animals as espionage agents. At this moment, we have in the Kremlin a Russian speaking parrot in constant radio communication with the pentagon.”

After some trouble on the uneven stairway due to a battery that needs recharging, Polo shows Mata to her room, a baroque looking bedroom, which has a four-poster patchwork bed as its centrepiece. Murky pictures from World War One on the walls, candelabras draped with cobwebs. Mata picks up a sky-blue feather boa and walks coquettishly towards Polo whose weakness for her she senses. She asks him about the conference that Hoffner has headed off to.

His face half-buried in the feathers, Polo tells her that a representative of Le Chiffre is coming. 

“Who is Le Chiffre?” asks Mata. 

“Nobody knows,” replies Polo. “Not even Le Chiffre knows.”

“What’s the conference about then?”

“Le Chiffre is trying to raise money by selling his unique art collection.” 

Here we get a little backstory that ties into Fleming’s book. Le Chiffre is a compulsive gambler who has been using organisation funds for his gambling. If he doesn’t pay off his debts, he will be liquidated. 

Once alone, Mata wipes the cobwebs from her hands and throws the tissue she has used down the toilet in the en-suite bathroom. Pulling the chain causes the wall to spin around thrusting and she finds herself in another monochromatic Caligari corridor which leads to the auction room where Vladek Sheybal, of just about every spy film ever made in the UK, plays the auctioneer selling compromising photographs of generals from various countries caught with their pants down and bras over their heads. It’s quite pleasant to see that in the brothels, Americans and Russians have nothing dividing them. Maybe the worst that Le Chiffre would actually have done is to embarrass all heads of government equally.

The German sequence is a masterpiece of design with Anna Quayle and Ronnie Corbett playing their eccentric characters to the max. Directed by Ken Hughes, the world created is somewhere between the gothic fun of Charles Addams and the German Expressionists such as Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang and Murnau. The quick fire comic dialogue is beautifully judged. This is really about the modern Mata in conflict with the image of her mother in that strange cobwebbed and dusty world of the past. Mata Bond is often dwarfed by these huge and beautiful sets but her mockery of everything she sees establishes her as belonging to a better world. The optimism and freshness of the 1960s seem to thrive in Pettet who can play the seductress when she needs to but would sooner fight off her enemies with a fire extinguisher. Nevertheless, there are moments of strange nightmarish distortion. The tipping of the sets to one side or the other making the characters struggle to stand up. This sequence in the film seems a stroll through the subconscious; symbols and myths from an earlier age like the image of Mata Hari play more of a role here than do the symbols of Ian Fleming’s decidedly post-war hero.

As Feldman only owned the rights to Casino Royale, he couldn’t use SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge, and Extortion) even though that had played such a major role in the EON series. Instead, he returns Smersh to the centre of his story but this Smersh has little in common with the one referenced by Fleming. Smersh in Fleming is the real life Soviet anti-spy network with Le Chiffre as a fundraiser keeping brothels all over Europe. The script of Casino Royale plays with the cold war as a dream demon lurking in the background but Le Chiffre isn’t a part of it (that he’s working for an organisation that will render all men under a certain height and all women beautiful doesn’t make much sense given that Orson Welles, who plays Le Chiffre was not a small man). The idea of various generals arriving at an auction in West Germany to bid on candid snaps of the embarrassing peccadilloes of their superiors rather than doing the business that generals are supposed to be occupied with maintains the idea that East or West, all are equally self-serving and corrupt.

Miss Goodthighs

Meanwhile in another part of the movie, Bond, sorry, Evelyn Tremble playing the part of Bond enters France, knocks out a passport official, meets Mathis and goes through a carwash where women dressed in black PVC drape themselves for no discernible reason across his car. Back in his hotel, Tremble is greeted by a young Jacqueline Bisset dressed in nothing but a rainbow striped shirt and holding a bottle of champagne.

“I’m Miss Goodthighs,” she says.

He needs her to hold out the bottle of Champagne and put his glasses on to be able to shoot the cork out from the bottle.

“The management of the Hotel Tropicale present their compliments. I hope you will enjoy your stay with us.” She pours him a glass of champagne and places the bottle next to the open suitcase with a hundred thousand pounds inside before lying on the bed in front of him and talks flatteringly about his sexy trousers. As the two embrace, in that manner of instant gratification that is a hallmark of Bond films, she drops a fizzing pill into his champagne (which is next to a book called “How to Speak Japanese”, a reference to EON’s upcoming You Only Live Twice perhaps). Bond/Tremble drops another pill, the antidote, into the glass. All will be well. But it is not all well. He goes to the bathroom telling Goodthighs that if he is not back in five minutes she should start without him. As soon as he closes the door we hear a great thud of him hitting the floor.

After a short journey into Tremble’s psyche in which we see playing cards flying through the air and him playing Vesper Lynd’s corseted body like a piano, we see him waking up with Lynd there. As she pushes him into the shower, he asks what happened to Miss Goodthighs.

“Don’t worry,” says Lynd, “I took care of her.”

And we know that he should be worried.

‘Look me in the eyes’

Orson Welles had a face that somehow held all the wisdom and the intelligence of the world. His ability to tell a story by putting exactly the right cadence in the right place, dropping the right names at the right times and carrying behind each tale he told, such easy laughter made him one of the greatest raconteurs to have graced a chat show or documentary. It also made him a fascinating actor to watch and listen to. His size rooted in his appetite for fine living did nothing to diminish his attractiveness on screen and as soon as he appears on screen as Le Chiffre, his presence dominates his scenes. It’s hardly surprising that Peter Sellers, a great admirer of Welles, was concerned about appearing in scenes together with him. Imagined slights and anxieties plagued Sellers at the best of times. There are shots with both Welles and Sellers together but the majority of their dialogue was shot separately giving the conversation between before the card game them a slightly unreal flavour. 

Welles’ introduction involves him bewitching not just the audience at home but the audience at the Casino. He levitates a woman. Flanked by his beautiful operatives he enjoys playing the conjurer. When Tremble arrives, Le Chiffre continues this act, and the resulting exchanges between the two characters and the two actors feel like two giant egos playing their particular games of one-upmanship. 

Before their meeting at the Casino, Tremble is taken to a room where the game can be observed by the owners of the Casino. Lynd, affronted at the idea of Le Chiffre cheating suddenly seems very eager to see Tremble win. With enthusiasm in her voice, she says, “You win and Le Chiffre will almost certainly be killed by his organisation.”

Tremble responds, “But he’d try and avoid that wouldn’t he?”

“If you win, yes.”

“How?”

“By trying to kill you.”

“As in dead?”

“Yes,” says Lynd. “But don’t worry about that now. Let’s go down there and you play the game of your life.”

“Yes.” Says Tremble filled with anxiety. “I better had. There may not be too much more of it left.”

“Vesper,” he starts nervously. 

“Don’t worry,” she says, with a consoling soft confidence in her voice. “I’ll take care of you.” And when she says this, it is hard not to recall that those are the words she chose to refer to getting rid of Miss Goodthighs.

Sellers shows the fear and conflicted nature of Tremble. This is a character who is not particularly well drawn. We don’t have any story about his past other than that he wrote a book about winning at baccarat. That Sellers makes us feel what he feels in this and later scenes is testament to his abilities. His trust in Vesper is based on nothing more than her beauty and the time they have spent together. We know that Vesper is not to be trusted and yet how can he resist her. He allows himself to be encouraged by her.  

When Tremble arrives at the baccarat table he murmurs the name “Bond, James Bond,” and has to repeat it to be heard. The exchanges between Bond and Le Chiffre occasionally seem awkward and unreal but when the card game begins and Tremble is coming up to the killing hand, the tension, for all the shenanigans that have led up to this moment, is palpable. Each glance, each subtle gesture, each concealment of emotion rises to a crescendo. This is what Casino Royale does so well. However weak the overall pacing of the story might be, in the traditional sense, individual scenes such as this one sparkle.

Torture of the Mind

A few minutes later, the film drifts back into the world of dream when, after Lynd is kidnapped (as in the book and the later film), Tremble suddenly dressed as a racing driver, gets into a lotus and drives after her. 

Cut to him as a prisoner of Le Chiffre in an ornate and strangely leafy cell while being overseen by Le Chiffre in a control room filled with monitors and electronic equipment of one kind or another. This sequence, being made in 1967, was never going to be as explicit about testicular trauma as Fleming’s book or Martin Campbell’s later film but it does have Tremble sitting in a hollow seated chair with a carpet beater visible just behind him as a reference to the book that a good proportion of the audience have probably read. Le Chiffre remarks, with an agreeable chuckle, “don’t worry about that chair with the hole in the middle. It’s merely waiting to be reupholstered. My methods are much more subtle. They have to be.” (because of the censors perhaps). 

“What are you going to do?”

“Physically, I’m not going to do anything.”

“Oh. You’re going to nothing me to death.”

“Torture of the mind. The most exquisite torture is all in the mind.”

Le Chiffre throws a switch and suddenly the film shifts gear once more. Using the psychedelic visuals popular at the time, the sequence, as directed by Joe McGrath takes Tremble and us into a different world. Quick flashing multicoloured images of Sellers, his face divided and kaleidoscopic, negative and multiplied, superimposed over itself as the repeated sounds of a question a snatch of laughter and a disturbing unidentifiable sound fill the soundtrack. Looking back to the torture sequence of The Ipcress File and forward to the many mind manipulations of The Prisoner it may not be clear what Le Chiffre has done to achieve these effects but it’s hard not to see it as the result of some kind of psychotropic compound that he was drugged with. Something that made him see himself as a racing driver perhaps. We have dizzying sequences of Tremble’s brain divided into sections occupied by laughing images of Le Chiffre. Flashing images. Sellers’s face in sections imposed upon a scene of beautiful women in bikinis becoming soulless dolls. It feels like a huge budgeted version of a Peter Tscherkassky short. 

Then another button is pressed and we hear the sound of Highland Pipers on the soundtrack. Tremble tries to shut the sound out but he is now dressed in the regalia of a highlander. He looks through the bars of his cell to see nothing but mist. Then the mist clears enough for us to see a highland pipe regiment marching through. From his cell, he sees another version of himself among the pipers yelling for help (although we cannot hear anything above the sound of the pipers so we simply see the animated words “help” appearing on the screen as he screams). No longer the man in the cell but out there among the pipers. He meets Peter O’Toole for a fourth-wall-breaking in-joke and then the pipers start to beat him with drumsticks. Vesper Lynd appears among the pipers as if she has been able to infiltrate the dream and ruthlessly shoots all the pipers with her bagpipe machine gun. 

“Mr Tremble,” Lynd shouts across the mists. “Never trust a rich spy!” And then, she shoots him, the star of the film, dead.

The fact that the star of the film ends up being killed by the one person he trusts the most and is then gone from the film has always struck me as a memorable and unusual moment. The kind of moment that seems most common in those films destined to be demolished by the critics who just don’t get the way films leave lasting impressions. That this scene would have played differently if Sellers had finished filming all his scenes before leaving the film, doesn’t mean much to the viewer. Sellers has won the game. As in the book, his winning of the game compels his enemy to try, by whatever means possible to get his money back, but unlike the book, this Bond, or Bond impersonator, is killed by Lynd.

Le Chiffre is then killed because he has failed to get the money back. The way he is killed fits the nightmarish quality of the sequence. A man on his monitor breaks through the monitor to shoot him like a strange 60s antecedent of Sadako. 

Anyway, the film suggests, never mind all that. Another director is going to come along and end the film on a lighter note… Kind of. 

‘What is it, a film?’ ‘Must be a commercial.’

Back in a blue-skied London with horse guards and green parks and Bacharach’s jauntiest notes, Bond’s green Bentley drives up Whitehall and into Downing Street, where Bond is due to drop in for tea with the PM. Mata is with him, now sporting a Mary Quant style dress and short hair. There is a sense of a lot of time having passed since we last saw the two of them. This is another episode in their lives. Le Chiffre out of the picture, Bond sends his daughter off to watch the changing of the guard refusing to take her in to see the Prime Minister even though she so longs to meet him because he turns her on. This would be Harold Wilson; the man with the mac and pipe. Harold Wilson turns her on.

We then see her being watched by the same red-haired and red-bearded men who were at the McTarry Castle in the first section of the film. One in a workman’s hut phones another on a crane and as she is taking pictures like a tourist one of the horse-guards breaks rank and gallops towards her, picking her up and taking her down the mall through Admiralty Arch and into a UFO that has landed in Trafalgar Square where Nelson’s column used to be before Vesper Lynd bought it for her personal collection. A passer-by witnessing Mata’s kidnapping suggests that it must be for a commercial. They probably think the same about the gigantic Thunderbirds type object that after taking off from Trafalgar Square flies across the Thames. 

Moneypenny is watching the object flying across the sky as Bond marches into his office and tells her that Mata’s been kidnapped. Deborah Kerr makes another appearance as a nun collecting for needy girls and leaves Bond with the information that his daughter is being taken to Casino Royale.

Back to Casino Royale

After a quick word with the PM to let him know what’s what, Bond and Moneypenny arrive at the casino. He’s elegantly kitted out in an evening coat and cravat while she is wearing a sparkling lilac dress so flimsy that it looks like someone one might sleep in. Taking in the room Bond tells her that the place looks like a “Smersh convention”. Sinister looking men watch them and step up as if about to manhandle them before one of the staff approaches them and informs them that they are expected in Le directeur’s office. As soon as they set foot in the office they are set upon by the usual red-bearded Scots guards. One presses a tiger’s eye and the room starts to descend like Lynd’s sunken lounge. There’s a bit of argy-bargy but Bond and Moneypenny end up being marched through a Ken Adam-esque shiny corridor. They escape their captors through the cunning plan of tripping them up and running for it. Alarms go off as Bond and Moneypenny run run through one beautifully creative set after another. Swirling spiral floors, corridors with alternating colour schemes, a green room that looks like a massive fingerprint and then variations on the theme of a human eye.

Bond is greeted during this by Valentine Dyall’s voice again. Dr Noah, behind an eye-like window, watches the two. “A historic day in our saga. The day Smersh finally eliminated the original James Bond. His world will soon follow.” After a mishap with one of the many stunt doubles, Sir James gets hold of a machine gun, shoots the window and the truth behind the lie remains. Like the Wizard of Oz, Dr Noah is just an impressive smokescreen behind which a less impressive reality lies. Dr Noah, Smersh and the whole operation is the brainchild of none other than Sir James Bond’s nephew, Jimmy.

The whole story has been one of a son-like figure being so intimidated by his uncle, a perfect figure, that he needs to rise up, destroy him and take over the world. Here, taking over the world seems almost secondary to taking care of Uncle James. Jimmy cannot even speak in Sir James’s presence and is reduced to miming his threats. He will release a bacillus, germ warfare, that will make all women beautiful and destroy all men over four foot six. 

“All this trouble just to make up for your sexual inferiority,” says Sir James.

‘I’m beginning to think you’re a trifle neurotic’

After Bond and Moneypenny are marched away by the usual machine gun toting fashion models, we see Jimmy dealing with his greatest prize and obvious downfall, Israeli actress Daliah Lavi who he has tied, naked to what looks uncomfortably like a dentist’s chair. Lavi was in the earlier scene with Cooper but we haven’t seen her since. She asks him why she is there.

Jimmy replies, “Because of all Uncle James’s 007s, you are the most beautiful and the most desirable.”

“Do you treat all the girls you desire this way?” she asks.

“Yes. Oh yes. I undress them and tie them up. I learned that in the boy scouts. “

After a few minutes of insanity where Jimmy tries to show how he is better than his uncle at bronco riding and piano playing, and failing miserably, Lavi says, “You’re crazy. You’re absolutely crazy.”

“They called Einstein crazy,” says Jimmy.

“That’s not true. Nobody ever called Einstein crazy.”

“Well… They would have if he carried on like this.”

In order to show her how superior he is, not only to Sir James but also to Einstein, he shows her a capsule that if swallowed, erupts four hundred times before finally going off turning the person who has taken it into a walking atom bomb.

Seeing an opportunity, she pretends to suddenly be in love with him. He immediately releases her telling her that they will rule together and run amok. If she’s too tired they’ll walk amok.

Having been released, Noah shows Lavi his plans to replace all the world leaders with doubles so he can put his plan into action. She somewhat foolishly tricks him into taking his own pill thus, putting into effect, one of the strangest endings for any film ever made.

‘Have a real bomb of an evening’

It might be worth noting that, prior to this scene Bond, Moneypenny, Mata and Cooper had just been tinkering with a device filled with highly explosive vaporised Lysurgic acid. They use this device to blow the door of the area, strangely lined with cushions, where Jimmy had been holding them. I mention this because it might offer an alternative reading of the film’s ending. Maybe everything that happens after that point is a mass acid trip hallucinatory dream. That might make more sense than anything that we see. Dave Prowse, as the Frankenstein Monster, indicates the way they could get back into the casino. Guards are running manically around (which, to be fair, is what happened in the last scenes of every other James Bond film from Dr No onwards).

Cooper asks Sir James what the strategy is.

“Get out of the bloody place before it blows up.”

He’s about to call for back up when Vesper stops him pointing a gun at his heart claiming that she isn’t doing this for money but for love. We don’t find out who she loves because, before we have time to process anything, American aid arrives in the form of cowboys riding into the casino on horseback.

From this point, the film becomes a complete free for all fight with myriad incarnations of James Bond fighting myriad agents of Smersh in a world filled with bubbles, laughing gas and guest stars ranging from Jean-Paul Belmondo to George Raft. The Casino Royale turns from an elegant gambling club into a major slapstick set-piece. William Holden comes back to help with the fighting. There’s a chimpanzee in a tuxedo with a red wig. There are a group of gold-painted naked women. Belmondo says “merde” a lot showing that it hurts almost as much to punch someone as it does to get punched before Jackie Chan made this one of his trademarks. Native Americans skydive into the casino all painted with 007 insignia but they find it impossible to resist a bit of disco dancing. The keystone cops get involved. Sea lions get involved. George Raft accidentally shoots himself with a gun that fires backwards. And, Woody Allen walks around hiccoughing animated clouds counting down before he gets to one and the entire casino blows up.

Everybody dies. 

In most Bond films, there is a scene in which the enemy base is set to self destruction but Bond and the girl and some of the good guys will escape. Here, everyone is blown to smithereens only to end up playing their harps in heaven.

Nobody gets out of there alive. Nobody at all… Unless they are all just lying on the ground stricken into imagining this absurdity due to all that lysurgic acid. 

And yet, the feeling at the end, isn’t frustrating. After all, even if they do all end up dead, what a great time they all had getting here.

Conclusion

According to Michael Richardson’s book, Charles K. Feldman’s initial cut of the film had been around 3 hours long. He was forced to cut it back to 131 minutes by Columbia and while it is altogether possible that the film might have made more sense in the longer 3-hour version, it is unlikely that it would have pleased the critics any better or pleased the public any less.

Casino Royale was a huge success. The critics didn’t like it much but if I’ve learned anything in my 58 years on this planet, film critics really don’t have a clue about large scale movies. I have read so many times that this film was a huge box office failure that until looking at the facts for this blog, I believed it myself. Casino Royale is a confusing film to watch for anyone who expects their films to behave in a neat and orderly way. It was almost as confusing and disastrous for the people involved in it. The major stars involved in the film avoided the premiere. But, precisely because it doesn’t make neat and orderly sense, it is a film which is never boring and which people can enjoy however they want to.

Casino Royale is a work of surprising beauty. Colours swirl. Sets amaze the eye. There are scenes that are exciting and funny and sexy. The whole film is suffused with a feeling of freedom and innovation. Even where the jokes fall flat (and they often do) I laugh and feel happy simply because the whole thing is so good natured.

Niven looks like a man from the (mythical) time where men wore a white cravat for breakfast and drank tea from golden tea sets. There is more tea drunk in Casino Royale than Martini. Fleming would have hated this, feeling as he did that tea was responsible for the downfall of the British Empire but this is not a film extolling the virtues of empire but the virtues of beauty, fun and elegance. 

Is it picaresque? No… Not really. It could be seen as such but I don’t want to stretch the meaning. Mata Bond, smoking what is probably hashish in her temple sojourn while playing the role of celestial virgin, could be a picaresque character. It would have been nice to see more of her.

Vesper, too, could be seen as a picaresque character. A financial wizard having played both sides for her own gain. Her telling Tremble that she’ll take care of him showing her absolute disregard for anyone but herself… But who is it that she loves?

In the end, I suppose, how much one loves or is bothered by Casino Royale might depend on how seriously one sees the world. if one likes those stories with clear beginnings, middles and ends. There’s no right or wrong way. But for me, a couple of hours of colourful joy with a soundtrack by Burt Bacharach. Splendidly constructed sequences that rarely last more than a few minutes. The characters that I love in this film go on forever. They have little in common with characters created by Ian Fleming. What interests me, however, is how close in tone the film You Only Live Twice feels to Casino Royale. Maybe it’s the whole mid-sixties thing of not taking any of this stuff too seriously. After all, that was the Bond film with Ninjas abseiling into a volcano to stop a spaceship from eating more spaceships.

As for Charles K. Feldman, the man who was really behind all of this, he didn’t live to make another film. His health declined over the next year, perhaps impacted by the stresses of this production. He died of Pancreatic cancer in May 1968. It is a shame his final legacy couldn’t have been better received by the in-crowd and critics but… I think of this:

What’s New Pussycat and Casino Royale are two of the most joy-filled films ever made. They’re the kind of films that many associated with them feel the need to dismiss. And maybe if I was taking myself seriously as an actor or writer etc. I would feel the same. But how many lives have been cheered up by seeing them playing on TV late at night. When I think of Casino Royale, in particular, I feel happy. Looking at that last scene, before the world blows up, on a colourful set surrounded by bubbles, the extras laughing and, in that moment, the world seems to be full of laughter and happiness. And even if that bomb that Woody Allen has so foolishly swallowed is about to go off then, in this moment, how great it is to have been alive.

Credits

As usual, all images belong to the copyright holders of the film.

I deeply recommend Michael Richardson’s book The Making of Casino Royale whether you like the film or not. It’s available here The Making of Casino Royale (1967): Amazon.co.uk: Richardson, Michael: Books

And the information about the box office placement of Casino Royale among the other James Bond films comes from here:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbean/2020/04/18/all-26-james-bond-films-ranked-at-the-box-office/

The Philosopher in the Café

Anna Karina and Brice Parain in Jean Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie

The early films of Jean Luc Godard exist, for me, in their own world. They evoke a time outside of time. That world is linked, in my mind if nowhere else, with the repertory cinema where I saw them. Some repertory cinemas, great ones like The Scala, played horror films, exploitation films and the murkier end of international cinema. The Everyman, where I first saw Jean Luc Godard’s films, was different. It had that lived in well used feeling that public libraries used to have. With the constant smell of freshly brewing coffee and homemade cakes, people would talk about the films during the breaks between. Nobody cheered or laughed unless the films were supposed to be funny. During the movies, the audiences at The Everyman sat in silence as if they were in a church, which, in a way, they were.  

The Everyman was a special place; a famous place. One of the oldest cinemas in London, it gets a mention in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, which I saw for the first time there. And you could sense the duffle-coated would-be directors flocking there to see the finest that world cinema could offer. Taking it all in as if every film were a lesson. The screen was smallish. The seats, like those of most rep houses at the time, squeaked when you moved, so you didn’t move. Almost nobody moved. Watching films and drinking coffee could be done without too much shifting. It felt like you belonged to the same world as the people who had created the films on that screen. Hell, I know I did. The tickets were cheap too. You could watch a Pasolini triple bill for about the same price as a pint. The prints they were able to get hold of might not have looked as pristine as the blu rays we now take for granted and they didn’t have the funds to source the very best prints as the NFT might have done. But those scratches on the screen and the bumps on the soundtrack added to the atmosphere like the crackles on vinyl. Of course, all of this is empty nostalgia but, for me, the films felt more alive then than when I watch them in perfect quality on my TV or computer today. Or, maybe it was just because I was young and encountering them for the first time.

The Everyman was especially suited to the films of the nouvelle vague (the French New Wave).  Cinema made by cinephiles for cinephiles. The directors and writers had emerged from the world of film criticism writing for the famous Cahiers du Cinéma. They made films happen by sheer force of will. They lived and breathed Celluloid. It flowed through their blood. They wrote about auteurs and idolised Hitchcock and Welles (not to mention Samuel Fuller and Edgar G. Ulmer) while making films that reinvented cinematic style. Godard, more than most, felt like the brain behind the movement. His first film, À Bout de Souffle (Breathless) had reinvented cinematography and editing. And he was one of those few directors who was instantly recognisable. He had tight tense looking hair that got wilder as the sixties went on. With his high forehead and glasses, smoking and drinking coffee, making casual comments that seemed effortlessly profound, he was every inch the auteur. Even more so than Truffaut. An intellectual in every sense he got carried away, in the late 60s with the spirit of the times and his work became more overtly political and much less engaging. Having said that, Godard, at his worst, was still more interesting than most. Even in his Maoist agitprop mood, there is always something playful about him, his sense of humour always comes through. But way before travelling down that particular road, he tore up the rules of what cinema could be and wrote a bunch of new ones that are still being used today. 

I am almost loathe to talk about Godard because so much has been written about him over the years. A few months ago, Sight and Sound brought out an edition dedicated solely to Godard, reprinting reviews and interviews from the past 60 years, Histoires du Cineaste. I wondered, as I read, if there was anything to be said that hadn’t been said already. But then, that’s almost a ridiculous question. In common with more fringe film-makers like Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, every time you go back and watch a Godard movie you think you know you find you are watching a different movie. They seem to move to accommodate the time in you life you see them.

The first half dozen films he made are not too challenging. They did well and made money. Blessed with the crisp elegance of Raoul Coutard’s photography, they look effortlessly cool. The ones set in Paris and shot in black and white, especially so. And it really helps with that look that everyone is smoking. Not to advocate the habit, but smoking looks great in Godard’s films. Cigarettes as necessary extensions of the hands that hold them. Tendrils of smoke curling elegantly through each scene and dissipating like souls becoming part of the ether. Each pause in dialogue punctuated by one more inhalation. In early Godard, everyone looks cool. And that’s perhaps why, in their day, they weren’t just loved by the cinephiles but by young people who sought out that world and wanted to feel a part of it.

Godard worked with many of the key French actors of the 1960s, including Belmondo (whose career was kickstarted by À Bout de Souffle), Eddie Constantine, Jean Pierre Léaud. But there’s only one actor linked forever with Godard. Anna Karina, born in Denmark, was his muse in those early films and became the focal point in film after film. She also became his wife.

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, ‘The Oval Portrait’, the narrator talks of being disturbed by a picture finding in it, “an absolute life-likeness of expresion, which at first startling, finally confounded, subdued and appalled me.” When reading an account of how the portrait was made he sees why. With each brush stroke, the artist steals the soul from his living model and imparts it into the canvas. In the end, when the portrait is finished, the artist cries in a loud voice, “This is indeed Life itself!” Only when he turns and sees his beloved does he see that she is dead and he has killed her by stealing every part of her for his art.

Godard quotes from the story towards the end of Vivre Sa Vie. Karina, in character as Nana, is listening to the man she has fallen in love with reading the story (translated into French by Baudelaire). On hearing him read the story she feels that she can love this man. The voice is not that of the young actor playing the young man but is the voice of Godard himself. Life and art closely somehow mingled together. The disturbing aspect of this is that it implies Godard could allow Karina to pass into her image on film, ceasing to exist in the real world. But this kind of thing is typical of the kind of games he loves to play with his audiences. Teasing reality in a work of fiction. Karina is not Nana. But there are times when her performances in her films with Godard seem to be so much of her that it is hard to know where one stops and the other begins. This might be typical of a lot of actors in their work. We don’t go to see a film in which a film star becomes invisible. We go to see a film in which we see our favourite film star. Karina in this sense, is the movie star who lifts so many of Godard’s early films into the realm of the mainstream hit.

Vivre Sa Vie follows many of the beats of a typical exploitation movie. Nana, a woman who first leaves her husband and child, wants to be an actress. Something is agitating her soul. As the story progresses, it takes on the form of a morality tale. She is slowly but inevitably punished for the choices she made at the beginning of the film. She falls and falls until, after a moment of hope, she is finally destroyed. We could ask questions of the plot. Why does she leave her husband and child? What is it about her that feels so constricted that she must be free? And what the hell does that mean anyway. We can enjoy glimpsing into her sordid life and, at the same time, judge her questionable decisions and lack of direction just as we might in any of the fallen woman genre. The audience can have their cake and eat it. Nana can never really be free because she has no money and no means of keeping what she earns. In the end, whatever freedom she had is obliterated. She becomes a commodity to be bought and sold against her will. 

But Vivre Sa Vie never feels like an exploitation movie. Godard might admire the B movies of Monogram but he doesn’t make movies that way. Nana isn’t just a victim of external forces. She has some agency. She chooses the life she lives knowing she has alternatives. At the beginning of the film, she calls her husband terrible when he is just sad. She only thinks about what her decision means to her and not what it means to him or her son. She is a selfish character, telling him what she needs and what she wants. It is only as an after-thought that she asks if their son is eating well. She has exchanged the traditional role of a wife and mother for another kind of life. And she never expresses any regret about it. She has no moral attachment to family. When she sees the pictures of her son, she seems uninterested. “He looks more like you than like me,” she says to the father as if that fact removes her from any parental duty.

After this she wanders through life little more than the sum of her dreams and appetites. She wants to be an actress so the life she actually lives doesn’t matter as much as that one she is aiming for. Working in a record shop, when asked for a particular record by a customer, she saunters as if she has absolutely no engagement with her job. There is plenty of time. The customer can wait. Maybe, she even feels the customer is enjoying her insouciant stride. She looks for a record he has asked for with no more urgency than someone taking a saunter in the park on a sunny day. Later, when the same customer leaves some records he has been looking at in a haphazard pile, she does not look at them and replace them in order. She simply straightens them and shoves them back in as if it couldn’t possibly matter which way the records face. A co-worker reads aloud from a book and, though Nana is listening, the camera drifts away to look through the window at the people passing by. We drift away from her job because, to her, the job is dull. She wants something else. It is her life to live. She wants to live it.  She wants to be out there, a part of the world.

Later, after being unable to pay her rent and made homeless, she tries to steal some money that a customer has dropped. Demoralised while sitting in a police station, she knows she has reached a nadir and that it no longer matters what she does to make some money. So when a stranger propositions her taking her for a prostitute, she goes along with him. She has nothing to lose. She goes along with the exchange looking disinterested in what happens to her body until he attempts to kiss her on the lips. Only there does she resist. But money is money. Soon enough she has a pimp and is sleeping with a whole series of men. They are all different but she treats them all the same. She doesn’t care about them. They are interchangeable. The small abuses and degradation, she will take in her stride. Meaningless encounters in an unremarkable room. 

Escape is a pipe dream

Her friend, Yvette, complains about their lot. External factors have led her to this. She is a victim. And, unlike Nana, it does seem that Yvette has had a difficult time. Nana showing some self-awareness if lacking sympathy for her friend, says: 

“I think we’re always responsible for our actions. We’re free. I raise my hand. I’m responsible. I turn my head to the right – I’m responsible. I’m unhappy – I’m responsible. I smoke a cigarette – I’m responsible. I shut my eyes – I’m responsible. I forget that I’m responsible, but I am. After all, everything is beautiful. You only have to take an interest in things, see their beauty. It’s true. After all, things are just what they are. A face is a face. Plates are plates. Men are men and life… is life.” 

Godard and Coutard capture a Paris that is never idealised but remains constantly poetic. There are driving shots of the streets. Women stand waiting, bored. In dialogue scenes the camera watches people viewed from their backs, their faces obscured or hidden. Sometimes Anna Karina’s face fills the screen for minutes. Sometimes, in a scene with two people, both will walk out of shot leaving us with the sight of just a wardrobe or a sink while the conversation continues. In the scenes dealing with the act of prostitution, we see shoulders, backs, soap on a table, windows looking on to the pavement, and hands grasping for money in loose pockets. Nana smokes while men embrace her. In moments we see her blank reaction to being fucked but we don’t see anything of the act itself. She is far away. Dreaming of that lie about making a film with Eddie Constantine.

When Nana has made money, she makes a show of it. She buys wine and then leaves it after a single sip to show that she can afford it. The film, at such times, treats her coldly. Her beauty makes her more expensive but she has no other value. And, cinema criticising itself perhaps, being beautiful and expensive, in the end makes her more of a thing. An object of other people’s commerce rather than her own enterprise. But because Karina brings her soul to the piece, we can’t judge Nana. She isn’t a thing. She’s unique and filled with the fire of life. When the music plays, she dances. She dances to flirt but she dances because the music fills her body with joy. In one of Godard’s many spontaneous seeming dance scenes she playfully distracts her intended conquest from his snooker game by becoming a musical star as Karina was in Godard’s earlier Une Femme et Une Femme. This man with clean features and blond hair is the same man who will be seen reading ‘The Oval Portrait’ with Godard’s voice. He is the kind of man she has been looking for but by then it is already too late. She can find happiness only in moments.

Near the end of the film, she has the encounter that elevates this film, for me, to being the Godard film I have returned to most frequently. It’s the scene that made me think about this film on and off ever since I first saw it. Sometimes I forget that it is a film about prostitution at all. It’s a film about a young woman who meets a philosopher in a café. Brice Parain was quite well-known in France. There’s a video of him on youtube discussing Pascal with a priest. He has a face that shows all of his 60 years. Smoking and reading, drinking coffee, he feels like a stand-in for Godard himself. 

The scene begins with Nana, wearing a coat with a white fur collar and cuffs, sitting down, opening her purse and taking out a packet of cigarettes. She looks briefly across to where Parain is sitting before fumbling in the same purse for a disposable lighter. Her make up is immaculately applied as if she has just left a salon. Her lips are perfectly painted, looking deep grey, in the black and white world. Her eyelashes, thick and black, helped by thick eyeliner. Her Louise Brooks fringe framing her, she takes a mouthful of smoke and looks back again at Parain, this time holding her gaze on him a little bit longer. We hear the natural sounds of the cafe around her; clattering plates, distant conversations, footsteps. She leans on the divide. Her eyelids flutter, lips suggesting a smile. Her glance is almost predatory. She takes him in the way a prostitute might take in a world of men who can be seduced or drained of every penny they have. She has become used to owning her environment. 

“Do you mind me looking?” she asks as if she means it. 

“No,” he says, off-screen. 

“You look bored.”

“Not at all.”

She looks down for a moment as the smoke curls around her face. “What are you doing?” she tries again.

“Reading.”

She stops leaning on the divide, looks away and takes another lungful from her cigarette. She is the one who looks bored. She looks around the café once more and then leans once again on the divide between their booths. “Will you buy me a drink?”

“If you like.”

She smiles broadly, beautifully, naturally and then gets up from where she was sitting.

The shot cuts. We see Parain looking down. His face is unique. Lined, beaten perhaps by scarring of one kind or another. His eyes are heavily lidded. His forehead curving lines echoing the shape of his brow. He looks up at her.

“Do you come here often?” she asks as if not able to think of anything else to say.

“Occasionally,” he says, his face kind and open to her. “Today I just happened by.”

“Why are you reading?”

Parain shows no change of expression. With a small shrug says, “It’s my job.” Never breaking away from looking at her, he takes a drag on his cigarette, almost burned out now. Then, he looks down and takes a sip of coffee. A philosopher, in a Parisian cafe, smoking and drinking coffee.

“It’s funny,” says Nana leaning into the back of her hand that holds a cigarette. “Suddenly I don’t know what to say. It happens to me a lot. I don’t know what to say. I think first about whether they’re the right words. But when the moment comes to speak, I can’t say it.” She smiles, laughing at herself.

“Yes of course,” says Parain but we only watch Nana smiling as if relieved she has been able to be so open and honest about herself. “Have you ever read ‘The Three Musketeers’?”

“No. But I saw the movie. Why?”

Parain leans forward a little, becoming engaged in telling the story. “Because in it, Porthos – Actually this is from ‘Twenty Years Later’. Porthos is tall, strong and a little dense. He’s never had a thought in his life. He has to place a bomb in a cellar to blow it up. He does it. He places the bomb, lights the fuse and starts to run away. But just then he begins to think. About what? How it’s possible to put one foot in front of the other. I’m sure that’s happened to you. So he stops running. He can’t move forward. The bomb explodes and the cellar caves in around him. He holds it up with his strong shoulders. But, after a day or two, he’s crushed to death. So the first time he thought, it killed him.”

Nana looks at Parain, taking in all he has said but troubled. “Why do you tell me things like that?”

“No reason. Just to talk.”

“Why must one always talk? I think one should often just keep quiet, live in silence. The more one talks, the less the words mean.”

“Perhaps,” says Parain, off-screen again. “But can one do that?”

Nana leans her head on the wall looking sad, defeated. “I don’t know.”

Parain is now leaning on his hand as if unconsciously mirroring her stance. “It’s always struck me, the fact that we cannot live without speaking.” His head juts forward lightly.

“But it would be nice.”

“Yes, it would be nice wouldn’t it?” He sits up straight again and gestures with his hands, “Sort of like we loved each other more. But it’s impossible. No one’s been able to.”

“But why? Words should express just what one wants to say. Do they betray us?”

“Yes,” nods Parain, “but we betray them too. One should be able to express oneself. We manage to write things quite well. It’s extraordinary that someone like Plato can still be understood. People really do understand him. Yet he wrote in Greek 2,500 years ago. No-one really knows the language, not exactly. Yet something seems to get through, so we should be able to express ourselves. And we have to.”

“Why do we have to? To understand each other?”

“We must think and for thought we need words. There’s no other way to think. To communicate, one must speak. That’s our life.”

“Yes. But at the same time, it’s very hard.” Her cigarette is now nearing its end. She looks down. Then looking up as if seizing an idea in the sky she says, “Whereas I think life should be easy.” She looks down again with a half-smile. “Your tale about the musketeers may be a very nice story, but it’s terrible.”

“Yes. It’s terrible but it’s an indication. I believe…” Now he is looking up for words. “one learns to speak well only when one has renounced life for a while. That’s the price.”

“So to speak is fatal?”

“Speaking is almost a resurrection in relation to life. Speaking is a different life from when one does not speak. So to live speaking, one must pass through the death of life not speaking. I don’t know if I’m being clear… but there’s a kind of ascetic rule which stops one from speaking well until one sees life with detachment.”

“But one can’t live everyday life with… I don’t know -”

“Detachment?” Parain smiles. “We go back and forth. That’s why we pass from silence to words. We swing between the two because that’s the movement of life. From everyday life one rises to a life – Let’s call it superior – Why not? It’s the thinking life. But the thinking life presupposes that one has killed off a life that’s too mundane, too rudimentary.”

“Then speaking and thinking are the same thing?”

“I believe so. It’s in Plato, you know. It’s an old idea. I don’t think one can distinguish a thought from the words that express it. A moment of thought can only be grasped through words.”

“So to speak is to risk lying.”

“Lies too are part of our quest. There’s little difference between an error and a lie.” Nana tries to say something but Parain wants to finish his point. “I don’t mean ordinary lies, like promising, ‘I’ll be here tomorrow at 5:00’ and then not turning up. Those are just ploys. But a subtle lie often differs little from an error. One’s searching for something and can’t find the right word. That’s why you didn’t know what to say before. I think you were afraid of not finding the right word.”

Nana almost frowns and says, “How can one be sure of having found the right word?”

“One must work at it. It only comes with effort.”

We cut between two expressions on Nana’s face. She’s looking away from Parain, and then, suddenly, surprisingly, she looks directly at the camera. She looks at us.

Parain continues as Nana keeps looking our way. “To say what must be said in the appropriate way, that is, that doesn’t hurt…”

She looks down and then looks back up at us as if we are part of this conversation now. We are involved in it. We are engaged.

“…that says what must be said, does what must be done without hurting or wounding anyone. We must try to act in good faith.”

Back on Nana, she takes on a more determined expression, “Someone once told me, ‘There’s truth in everything. Even in error.’”

Parain exhales a cloud of smoke and says, “It’s true. That’s what France didn’t see in the 17th Century. They thought one could avoid errors and lies, that one could live directly in the truth. I don’t think it’s possible. Hence Kant, Hegel, German philosophy to bring us back to life and make us see that we must pass through error to arrive at truth.”

Nana smiles. She is now enjoying herself. She is in a better world discussing philosophy and she likes it. “What do you think about love?”

Legrand’s theme starts to play on the soundtrack, the first non-diegetic sound in the scene. The word love has inspired the emotional core of Nana.

“The body had to come into it, and indeed, Leibniz introduced the contingent. Contingent truths and necessary truths make up life. German philosophy showed us that in life, one thinks with the constraints and errors of life. One must manage with that. It’s true.”

“Shouldn’t love be the only truth?”

“But for that, love would always have to be true. Do you know anyone who knows, right off, what he loves? No. When you’re 20 you don’t know. All you know are bits and pieces. You grasp at experience. At that age, ‘I love’ is a mixture of many things. To be completely at one with what you love takes maturity. That means searching. That’s the truth of life.” He nods. “That’s why love is a solution, but on the condition that it be true.”

The scene fades to black, this chapter is done.

The sequence has always been one I remembered. Not for anything that was said, in particular, but for the tone of the scene. Two worlds meeting. Nana’s fate in the film is determined. She cannot escape it because she has set something in motion that has no happy ending for her. In this sequence, however, she is alive in the world of the mind. The thoughtless vanities that set her off on a collision with self-destruction have decided it for her but in this scene her vanity ebbs and she becomes herself. She may have been intending something more banal in starting the conversation with Parain but by the end, she has gained something. It might not save her but it liberates her. She cannot return to being a whore. She has found that part of herself that she couldn’t find as a mother or a wannabe movie star. Her life is her own. Before this scene, one could imagine her meeting her own death with the same indifference with which she meets each new client. After this scene, she is actually capable of loving someone other than herself and for that reason, perhaps, she screams and cries for life itself.

Credits

As always, the images belong to the original copyright holders and the version of the film discussed is the BFI edition. Below is the interview with Brice Parain on Pascal available, for now, on Youtube.

Stay Strong! Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you!

The following contains many detailed descriptions of scenes from Tag. If spoilers bother you, watch the movie before reading.

Who thinks pillow fights make a good school trip?

Leaves flutter briefly through blackness. Daylight gradually emerges. Floating across an evergreen forest on a wintry day, we soar far above everything, like a spirit, like a god. The wind is beneath us. We are being carried by it over a deep green landscape. The music of freedom surrounds us but it is underscored with something ominous, thrilling and exciting. Something else is here; Something in the wind. 

Two coaches turn the corner looking far below us. They are so distant and small they could almost be toys in a miniature world.

Our view changes to a lower level. Most of the trees beside the road have lost their leaves. Only the conifers survive. We are in the middle of a sunny winter’s day.

Inside the second of the two coaches, a group of schoolgirls, all dressed in their neatly pressed identical uniforms, are laughing and chatting as if they were in the middle of summer. Sunlight dappling through the trees illuminates their faces in flashes as the coach moves deeper and deeper into the forest.

One girl is not chatting; she is sitting, half smiling with a gentleness in her expression reminiscent of da Vinci’s ‘Virgin on the Rocks’. She is writing thoughtfully in her notebook as sunlight caresses her face. This girl is Mitsuko and she is at the centre of this world. 

The other girls are talking about gelato and movie stars. They are not lost in their own thoughts and reflections as Mitsuko is. They seem more real, less pure. On seeing some boys walking on the side of the road, one girl leans out the open window with a big smile and calls to them flirtatiously. “Hi guys, we’ll be at the hotel by the lake.” She is joking and sits back down in her seat laughing wildly. We don’t see any reaction from the boys. We don’t see any boys for at least another hour. Everything is light and easy. This is the time of their lives.

The same girl who yelled out the window stands up and, barely able to contain her excitement at the idea, yells to the whole bus, “Who thinks pillow fights make a good school trip?” Everyone cheers and waves. That same girl produces a pillow, seemingly from nowhere and, within moments, pillows are flying across the bus bursting with feathers that fill the air with a downy beauty. 

Mitsuko continues to write. A gentle smile crosses her face. This is a world she feels she belongs to even though she isn’t like the other girls. A single feather lands in her hand. She examines it for a moment, never losing that sweet smile, writing as if this is another subject for her words. 

The teacher at the front of the bus shouts at the girls yells at the girls to put the pillows away. But her eyes are bright and she doesn’t seem to mean it. She lacks authority because she loves seeing the girls having so much fun. The driver, with a broad smile on her face, mentions what a lovely day it is. The teacher agrees. It is lovely weather. It’s a lovely day.

From the driver’s point of view, we see the bus in front of this one. The girls on that bus are sitting in the back window waving happily back. They are also smiling and laughing. The teacher waves back at them. They are having fun too. Everyone is having fun. 

The girl who started the pillow fight, with a pretty girlish grin, teases Mitsuko. Is she writing poems again?

“Can I see?” asks another girl not waiting for an answer and just grabbing the notebook. In the momentary playful scuffle, the pen falls to the floor. She looks down to where it has fallen as girls at the back of the bus are still grabbing feathers from the air and laughing. 

Mitsuko bends down and picks up the pen lying amidst the remaining feathers on the ground. One of the feathers has attached itself to her pen. She which is now attached to one of the feathers. She examines it closely and curiously. Everything she does seeming just a little slow.

We see the teacher watching the bus in front. Her eyes perfectly placid. There is nothing unusual in her expression.

Suddenly, we the top of the bus in front ripped away. Shattered glass and body parts come flying towards us as the bus ahead is sliced completely in two.

The eyes of the pillow-fight girl widen as she looks ahead in terror. “What’s that?”

The roof of the bus is torn away. All the girls who were laughing and playing seconds earlier are cut in two. Blood fountains from the parts of their bodies still sitting. Mitsoku, for a second or two, remains unaware of the gore around her, picking up her pen. She looks up dreamily still not registering what has happened. Her face now framed against the blue of the sky.

The roof of the bus crashes into the road behind her. Mitsuko slowly stands up on the deck of the roofless bus. Blood from the sitting halves of bodies splatters her face. At first she looks drugged, uncomprehending. There is no precedent for this. It is impossible. Terrible.

The bus slows and then stops in the road. Mitsuko is standing in the middle of the bus. She is the only one standing. The unbelievable terror of what has happened registers on her face, She looks up and around her, snapped out of her previous life of writing poems. Her uniform is now drenched in the blood of her schoolfriends. Her mind is working now. Awake to this horror. What could have caused this carnage?

Throughout this sequence the music has been complementing the action. A sweet child-like melody playing right up until the bus was disaster whereupon the melody turns to violins shrieking in the upper register, as in Psycho. Flutes wade in wildly trilling before a drum rolls us into the disaster theme. This theme recurs again and again throughout the movie highlight dramatic impossibility. But it’s a beautiful theme. A churning underscore under a plaintiff minor key sigh played with a full orchestra.

The underscore switches key as the view switches to the Evil Dead inspired high speed tracking shot with leaves blowing across the forest floor. Then the orchestral sound is joined by a choir a adding a surreal majesty to what might, in another film, have settled for sound effect or synthesiser induced discomfort. The disaster theme rises beautifully as the point of view changes back to that of the spirit floating over the tips of the trees.

Above the world, the horror of what has happened on the road seems far away. Nature is vast and beautiful. It is strange to have wandered, even momentarily, from the point of view of Mitsuko. But here we are, flying. Leaves scattering in the sky ahead of us.

We speed back toward Mitsuko, now complicit in the force that is terrorising her. She ducks to avoid being sliced in two by whatever it is that we, the audience, have become. 

She looks into the trees and with parts of the forest shifting focus there is a sound like a heartbeat. The sounds of crows and the squeals of something else can be heard in those trees. The trees, the forest, the wind, the air, the entire world around Mitsuko is alive. Nature itself is playing with her. The wind swoops towards her Once more. She crouches down as a wisp of her hair is severed and floats away.

Telegraph poles are cut down evenly and precisely as she watches them. She becomes aware of how the razor wind seems to work. She runs to the door and gets out of the bus, running for her life on the road. Her thin legs pounding against the tarmac as she strains to breathe. She runs past the severed bodies of her friends as leaves brought by the wind rise around her. 

We rise again through the air. Now the world is white. Treetops are dusted with snow. The wind that killed everyone continues pursuing her as she encounters some hikers.

“Look out!” she shouts. “Get down!”

All four turn around, not having seen anything unusual, not understanding what this girl running chaotically toward them is saying. Unable to convince them that something impossible is happening, she grabs one of the hikers and throws her to the ground. The other three are cut in two by the wind like her friends on the bus, the remaining lower halves of their bodies standing stupidly as arcs of blood hurtle into the air.

“What’s happening?” The remaining hiker is instantly alert to the horror of her friends’ sudden death. 

“It’s after us.”

Seeing some cyclists approaching, singing as they go, the remaining hiker runs towards them, yelling at them to stop. Each cyclist is cut in two. So is the hiker, leaving Mitsuko alone once more. Why is she still alive? 

The camera pulls further and further away from Mitsuko as she runs off from the road and into the forest. She becomes smaller and smaller to our eyes raised so high.

She runs through the forest through the same kind of trees that were one of the hallmarks to the opening sequence in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The sound also captures the sound of the trunks as we move past them recapturing, once more, those elements from Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. We rise up into the air above the trees once more.

The music stops. The silence, as we float through the air, feels like the end.

We see a shot of the aftermath of the bus attack. The partial bodies sprawled bloodily over the chrome.

Then another aftermath. Another place. Bodies strewn about a forest like the aftermath of a plane crash.

Mitsuko arrives in another place, a flowing river strewn with yet more bodies torn in half, parts of bloodied school uniforms hanging from the trees like laundry day in hell. She walks through the waist-deep water, finds one of the uniforms hanging from the branches and because it has less blood on it than hers, changes. She washes away the bloodstains and the memory of the last few minutes which have changed her life. And, something strange happens, wearing the new uniform, she has become another Mitsuko. A Mitsuko with different friends in a different school living a different life. 

Sion Sono’s Chasing World

Tag is one of five films made by the director, Sion Sono, in 2015. This would not be so surprising if they were small scale films or films utilising the same elements but it is quite a feat for any director to make so many films that are so diverse. The other films are The Virgin PsychicsThe Whispering Star (the making of which is also the topic of the documentary film The Sion Sono directed by Arata Oshima), Love and Peace and Shinjuku Swan. The Virgin Psychics was a feature-length adaptation of Sono’s TV series from a couple of years earlier. A science fiction sex comedy, The Virgin Psychics (Minna! ESPer Dayo!) has some exceptionally broad sexual humour. It makes the later Carry On films look restrained and subtle. But the production values were pretty high. Love and Peace is a child-friendly film about the love of a pet turtle for his master (the pet turtle ends up becoming as large as Godzilla), The Whispering Star is a low key science-fiction film shot around Fukushima, a region still suffering from the nuclear disaster of 2011. Shinjuku Swan is a yakuza movie set in the famous district of Tokyo. Tag, for Sono, was just one of these films.

Tag is, at least nominally, an adaptation of the 2004 self-published bestseller Real Oni Gokko (which translates, somewhat awkwardly to Real Demon Pretend) by Yusuke Yamada. The story of the book is about a game in which everyone with the surname of Sato is hunted by a million demons. In the first film adaptation of the novel, known in English as The Chasing World, Tsubasa Sato finds himself transported to an alternate world where this game of Demon Tag is well known to the entire population. All people named Sato are marked for death, including him. If they survive that week they can ask the emperor of that world for anything. The killers are criminals, liberated from prison to do the job. They wear masks that make them look as though they are perennially grinning and use, among other things, razor wire weapons that can cut their victims in two. In its way, or its genre, it is not that strange a story. It is seen as a kind of Battle Royale type piece (although, for me, Battle Royale is much more straightforward). 

Sono claims not to have read the book before starting his film using just the title and the basic idea of his characters having to run from something trying to kill them. It is hard to see much in common between The Chasing World and Tag so it seems entirely likely that Sono was more interested in the concept of being chased and killed as part of a game and had no interest in the plot.

Sion Sono is a director who came to prominence, both in Japan and in the West, with his film Suicide Club and its infamous opening scene of a chain of girls happily jumping to their bloody death in the path of a train. While controversial, this is probably his biggest box office hit in Japan. The horror film Exte: Hair Extensions and Strange Circus were also given DVD releases outside of Japan. The first film to establish a cult around the director was Love Exposure, a four-hour epic that was one of the most talked-about films of the late 2000s. In the documentary The Sion Sono, Sono discusses his paintings with the film-maker:

Sion Sono: Is this good?

“Life isn’t about good or bad. Paint, express and live! That’s good.”

He seems unconcerned about how his films are perceived in his native Japan. He knows he will always find himself at odds with conservative critics. It is as an international director that he can have the greatest impact.

Having made far more of an impact than the more stately tasteful films of many of his contemporary Japanese directors he might quote Picasso, who once said, “the chief enemy of creativity is good taste.” Sono’s films drenched with blood, sex and otherwise transgressive elements. It is surprising when he makes a restrained film. The protagonist of Love Exposure becomes the world champion at taking up-skirt photos so he can have sins to confess to his Roman Catholic Priest father. He then dresses as the female character Scorpion, (played in the 1970s by Meiko Kaji in a series of women-in-prison films) to win the heart of a young woman who believes she could never love a man. 

As for his influences; Rainer Werner’s Fassbinder’s prolificacy has been influential on his belief that making more films is better than making fewer. Kinji Fukusaku’s kinetic camerawork can be seen influencing so many of Sono’s films. Nobuhiko Obayashi, best known outside Japan for directing the musical fairy tale horror, House has also been cited by the director as one of the people who made him want to get into the business. Speculating, and taking some cues from his references in a making-of documentary for Love Exposure, Dario Argento also seems to be a significant influence. The opening sequence of Tag is in many ways reminiscent of the opening of Suspiria, an unseen force that seems carried with the wind, chasing young girls through the forest. Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films also seem to have been an influence on some of the visuals where the camera is racing through the forest towards a victim. 

Second Life

Staggering past a rusted car, Mitsuko arrives in another world. In this new world, the short skirts of schoolgirls are even shorter. Not that this is a concern for her after the devastation she has been through. She stomps, her legs barely sustaining her, through a group of those schoolgirls who are gaily chatting away as if they could not be less aware of the devastation that has been taking place less than a mile from where they are walking. They seem to be ignoring the newcomer in their midst. Then three laughing girls turn to face her. 

“Good morning, Mitsuko.”

More turn to face her and wave looking so happy to see her. Are these her friends? One girl suddenly stops by her with particular interest and notices that her hair is wet. Why is her hair wet? Why is she acting weird? 

None of these girls looks school age. Most are in their early twenties. This is part of that venerable international tradition of casting 25-year-olds as teenagers with 35-year-olds as their parents. 

This girl, Aki, is deeply concerned about Mitsuko and, after a few seconds, Mitsuko recognises her friend. Maybe this is her reality. This is her world. All that business with the killer wind was some hallucination of an imaginary world. That world is gone now. Now she is in this world with her friend.

Aki: Let’s get to school. 

Mitsuko: Do we go to the same school? Am I crazy?

Aki: You’re shaking. What’s wrong?

Mitsuko seems almost more alarmed at this situation in which her sanity is in doubt than she was by the horrors of a few minutes earlier. 

Some other students run up beside the two. Aki tells that Mitsuko has amnesia. They laugh at this. Does that mean she’ll fail the test that’s coming? Who will Aki copy from?

Suddenly a gust of wind comes along and blows every skirt up to reveal their underwear. 

Why? 

Suddenly the wind is less of a killer wind than a slightly perverted wind, exposing schoolgirls in their underwear. The girls fight to retain their dignity holding their skirts down. Mitsuko dives down to avoid the killer wind. She is afraid that, once more, her friends will be bisected. But this is a different world now. A different game. “This wind’s weird. It peeked at my panties.”

Not that Mitsuko realises that the rules have changed. Hunched on the ground in a state of panic while her friends are laughing at the vulgarity of the wind, she is far from okay. They can jabber about their status as virgins or sluts (because there is nothing in between in this world) because they are normal schoolgirls. They don’t know what she knows.

As they regain their composure and continue the walk to school, one of the girls asks if Mitsuko has a boyfriend.

Aki: No way. She has me.

The wind rises again having another peek at underwear. Mitsuko freaks out and races for the school pursued by Aki. The two stop just inside the glass doors. Aki embraces her saying that everything is okay. Everything will be okay.

Reflected in the windows we see the trees moving gently with the wind. We hear the wind rustling gently through the leaves. The wind is always there. Mitsuko looks up at the trees even while in Aki’s arms. She knows she will never be safe.

Two teachers blandly discussing their teaching hours that day walk into Mitsuko and Aki. The teachers don’t look much older than the students, their faces appear kind and pretty.

One asks what is the matter with Mitsuko today.

Aki: She’s just having a bad day. (although the phrase used in Japanese is more like a very strange day)

The teachers then talk to each other.

Teacher 1: A bad day. That’s weird.

Teacher 2: Don’t you remember when you were at school. You often had bad days?

Teacher 1: Did I have bad days? I guess all teenage girls do.

Teacher 2: They all have bad days.

The teachers then walk past them, laughing about those strange bad days that all teenage girls have. Mitsuko looks unconvince by this new reality.

Aki walks her into an empty classroom leading her by the hand.

Mitsuko: Aki. Have I always been at this school. I had a very strange dream today. This morning, I had a dream that a whole lot of girls got killed. It was the wind. The wind killed everyone on the bus. The wind was so powerful that it sliced everyone in half. I washed off the blood in the river and got this uniform off one of the dead girls. All the girls around me were, one after another, cut in half and died.

She walks to the window, crying, having expressed everything

Mitsuko: Look. It’s the wind.

But the wind gently blowing the two conifers outside doesn’t look threatening. This isn’t even the perverted wind blowing short skirts up. This is just the lightest and gentlest of breezes. As if to show Mitsuko that the wind is nothing to be afraid of, Aki opens the window. The sun falls on her face and she feels the light breeze.

Aki: It feels nice. (Kimochi ii)

The breeze feels nice. The wind is pleasurable, like the sun. This is a sensual world for Aki. She is here with Mitsuko who seems so frail and fragile that she needs someone strong to take care of her. Someone like her. 

Aki forces Mitsuko to put her hand out of the window to feel the warm breeze.

Aki: Feel it.

We become the wind again and swoop gently towards the two of them standing in the window. This wind may be vulgar, but it is harmless.

This scene has echoes of another scene in Argento’s Suspiria. In Argento’s film, whatever is outside the window is far from harmless. And, as here, the second women, who may be more than just a friend, cannot see any threat in the world. The camera swooping closer to Mitsuko looks very similar to Argento’s swooping closer to Pat Hingle.

Aki: Let’s skip class!

Leaving the class, they go and recruit two friends from another class, Taeko and Sur (so named because she believes life is surreal). Aki behaves strangely when she meets Taeko, staring at and caressing her face.

Taeko: You two look like you are in love.

Aki: Because we are. Right Mitsuko?

Taeko: Mitsuko smiled. You are in love. I knew something was going on. What’s wrong? Mitsuko is acting strange.

Aki: Mitsuko has been reborn.

Taeko: Mitsuko was reborn so you forgot your classmate.

Aki: Every girl is reborn and gets to live twice.

Taeko: It’s a bit deep for me but I’d like to be reborn.

This exchange carries a lot more weight later in the film. This is a world where being reborn is not uncommon. Living again, changing identities and the reliability of what appears to be real and what is not are ideas woven into Tag.

The four girls start off in the direction of the exit they run into the second teacher who asks them what they are doing. They all say nothing. The teacher fixes her eye on Mitsuko; the good girl. She can’t trust the others to give her an honest answer but Mitsuko wouldn’t lie.

Teacher 2: Mitsuko. What are you girls plotting?

Aki: We were discussing today’s nice breeze, right.

Mitsuko nods unconvincingly. The teacher playfully asks if this is so. Aki grabs hold of Mitsuko’s hand again and, seizing the moment starts to run past the teacher who, without too much commitment, tries to stop them.

And they run. Running through the hallways of the school, laughing, crazy with the joy of disobedience. They run out of the school. From a high point of view we see them running away from the school building as our vantage point draws further and further back making the space around them seem vast. The dimension of freedom immense. They are free because they have done something spontaneous. They run through the streets and into the woods. Their laughter as they run granting them true power. It does not matter that their legs are carrying them away wildly. They can’t fall because that forward momentum is so strong. They run for the sheer joy of it. Their arms are flailing around. They mention ditching the teacher but the teacher is nowhere behind them.They are running through the woods, the leaves being kicked up not by the wind but by their footfalls. Sunlight shimmering upon them through the trees. Their laughter is uncontrollable; pure joy. No longer the objects of gaze (although, technically, they are) but beyond caring about what anyone in the world could ever think about them; living fully in this moment. 

This new world is one of freedom and abandon. The figures of the girls blurring through each shot, laughing, moving from the restrictions and regulations of school into nature. This is the kind of moment which might have inspired Mitsuko to write as she was sitting on the bus flecked by bright sunlight. Being out here with friends and fully alive in the illicit escape. These three friends shall be her friends forever because of this one moment.

Music and Actors

The sensation of freedom in this scene is palpable. It might not be so were it not for the music of Mono. The guitars rise as the girls run. The music pounds a life-affirming rhythm and tempo as we see the girls chasing each other into the forest. Life has a soundtrack. Here that soundtrack has a propulsive joy. Later in the film, the tracks ‘Pure as Snow’ and ‘The Land Between Tides and Glory’ are used to deepen the emotional power of scenes in a manner that is hard to forget. Sono commonly uses found music in his films. His use of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and Mahler’s Fifth echoing other western films that used the same. Using Mono for Tag lends the film a different flavour to his other work. Tag has a unique soundscape, whether it is the music written for the film by Susumi Akizuki and Hiroaki Kanai, the music of Mono, or the overall sound design.

Reina Triendl’s performance carries the emotional core of the film. Her slim frame seems almost impossibly vulnerable and her sensitivity is always close to the surface. For her character, the film is a rollercoaster ride from one extreme to the other and back again. There is, however, a strength within her frail-seeming form, which emerges as the film comes close to its conclusion which is able to be quite surprising. She has a touch of a young Jenny Agutter which probably owes something to being half Austrian. Her child-like qualities and the innocence of her smile are almost tangible. Her natural vulnerability making what is happening to her seem more sadistic and terrible.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the early stages of this film, and moments throughout the film is Yuki Sakurai as the maternal Aki. Although the relationship hinted at is a sexual one, it feels far more protective than sexual. Mitsuko seems like a child while Aki mother. Ami Tomite plays the small but pivotal role of Sur whose character we shall look at in a moment. Tomite, a former member of the massive singing ensemble AKB48, went on to work with Sono in the emotionally gruelling Antiporno

Life is Surreal 

By the lake, the girls sit on fallen logs in a beach of fallen leaves. Aki tells Taeko and Sur about Mitsuko’s ‘dream’. Wind slicing through buses, her wading through the bloody bodies, her uniform being one from a dead girl. 

Looking up into the sky Sur says, “It’s possible.” She runs up to a piece of land, thick with roots from trees, overhanging the lakeside and stands like an actress on a stage. 

Sur: It comes down to probability. She was in another universe. The number of alternative realities is infinite. There’s an infinite number of us in multiple universes. Let me show you what I mean.

Sur runs down to the lakeside, picks up a large rock and throws it in the lake. 

Sur: I threw a rock. It disturbs the surface. But another me in another universe didn’t throw a rock.

Taeko: So you threw a rock in one universe and you didn’t in another. What does it matter?

Sur (brimming with excitement): Even a ripple can expand and affect our lives. Watch the ripple.

At the point where the rock splashed into the lake, a ripple expands further and seems to bubble. A film of mist appearing on the surface. Sur beckons the others over and they look at the point where the rock disappeared. Suddenly a crocodile appears and bloodily attacks Taeko. Fountains of blood spurt into the air as the jaws of the beast clamp down on her again and again. Taeko screams as the monster bloodily devours her. Mitsuko and Aki are splattered with blood. Death metal roars on the soundtrack combining with the sound of buzz saw-like chomping. 

Suddenly we are back in the peaceful, crocodile free universe we were in a few moments ago. Sur has a big smile on her face.

Sur: That could happen.

Taeko (laughing): Why me?

And then something almost as bizarre happens. Where there was nothing but leaves before, there is now a futon with two virgin-white pillows. Sur strides up to it but Taeko runs ahead of her picking up a pillow and throwing it at her. A pillow fight ensues in slow motion. The world becomes even more idyllic as the four girls have a pillow fight. Feathers erupt from the pillows filling the air, with that same downy snow that recurs throughout the film. 

During the pillow fight, Mitsuko pricks her finger on one of the feathers. She looks down at the tiny drop of blood on her finger. When she looks up, she sees two figures from another world, another dimension, one in a bridal dress and the other in a school uniform, they smile at her. They know something about her and what is happening. When she looks a second time, the two have disappeared like phantoms, like an accidental shift from another time and another place. The cut to the finger is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty cutting her finger on a spindle or the scene (referencing Dario Argento again) where Sarah (played by Eleonora Giorgi) pricks her finger on a nail sticking out from the door of her taxi. In both those films, the pricking of the finger presages death reminding us of Macbeth.

By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes.

Time slowed down, each of the girls look directly into the camera. It is an idyllic moment. There eyes seem filled with love.Who are they seeing? Are we seeing them from Mitsuko’s point of view or are we seeing them from our own? They have become an idealised version of adolescence. The dream vision of teenage boys. This is a world without bad skin or awkwardness. In this sequence, they have become the embodiment of youth perfected. But it only works because none of these actresses is the age they are playing. 

Sur: If you really want to change your reality, do something strange and unexpected like me.

To show what she means, Sur shows the other girls her underwear. Most of the time, in this film, the sight of underwear is the result of the perverted wind or the ridiculously short skirts revealing something as they run up or down stairs. Sur is showing that it is possible for young women to take control. They can have sexual agency. They can be playful. They can be silly without becoming a passive thing. 

Sur: Maybe our destiny is decided. Maybe we’re trapped in it.

Sur picks one of the feathers from the ground and drops it.

Sur: The time required for this to reach the ground and where it falls is decided.

Mitsuko (showing a dawning awareness): And you can’t change it?

Sur: Exactly.

Mitsuko: Nothing I will do will change it.

Sur: But you can trick fate. Do something spontaneously that you would never do.

Mitsuko: That changes fate?

Sur: Sure.

Mitsuko: Spontaneously?

Sur: Do something unexpected without awareness. For example, suddenly knock down the desk in your room. Scream your head off during a class, ‘Fuuuuuck’ or…

Sur runs to the edge of the lake as if she is about to dive in and then just stops at the edge, wavering a little as she holds back the force she has built up in running.

Sur: If I jumped in it would have changed something.

The other girls realise that they will be late for their second class if they do not run back now and they start running again, full of the same youthful excitement with which they came to this place. Sur, suddenly outside the film, watches them.

Sur: Stay strong! Life is surreal. Don’t let it consume you!

Sion Sono and Spontaneity 

This entire sequence starting from the girls escaping the school to their return to the school is about ten minutes long. It is the one sequence of the film in which the characters are happy and unthreatened (unless you count the imaginary crocodile). It is the sequence that voices the philosophy of the film. Sion Sono’s attitude to the art of painting is that it can only be spontaneous. In a sequence from the documentary The Sion Sono, Sono illustrates by taking an expensive canvas and randomly marking it with paint (equating the blank canvas to the life of a woman who is at first virginal). As an artist, he thinks little about what he does because the more one thinks about a thing, the further it gets from anything original. Maybe it becomes predigested. 

Watching movies that are beautifully made but have no real surprises and nothing unseen in a million other movies can be a tiresome thing. Critics tend to hold movies as worthy or worthless according to whether they meet a specific set of criteria. Does this film have a message? Does it have the beats of good drama? Do the characters speak in a way that moves the plot forward? It often feels that the only purpose of movies is to satisfy criteria that we must see met time after time. It is not the purpose of a film to do anything new or spontaneous (unless within the same framework employed by a million other movies). The punk sensibility that exists within Sono’s work might not always produce the best movies. There is a lot to be said for some of those formal rules. But do we watch movies or encounter any kind of art to simply see the same ideas that we already hold regurgitated in front of us? If a film is about the Holocaust or slavery we shall expect to walk away from that film aware that these things were terrible. But then did we go into the cinema thinking they were great? Watching a thriller we shall expect every scene to move us closer to the resolution. A romantic comedy will always follow the same route (disguised in different ways). All of these movies may be well made and beautifully acted and have the best intentions behind them. But they maintain a very firm divide between what is on that screen and what might exist within our lives. Few directors who want to keep working can break those rules. The critics who judge according to set criteria will hang those directors out to dry (unless they have already been established as great artists, in which case they might look at the film differently). Audiences will fail to show up because they always want more of the same.

Sono, however, approaches film in much the same way he approaches that blank canvas and making the first mark almost randomly. Some of his films are more formal than others, but even amid the more commercial films, like Suicide Club or Exte, he has always made films that carry that sense of experimentalism from his early work. 

Tag, by appearing to be an adaptation of a popular science fiction novel, looks like a mainstream film. That it is anything but a mainstream film probably played a role in its negative reception from many quarters within Japan. The Chasing World, to which many believed this would be yet another sequel, had a parallel world but the audience was not going to be challenged or left confused by its plot. Sono always challenges his audience. In addition to shots that break the fourth wall and a plot that seems more picaresque than linear, Tag has a character who is mouthing the same punk aesthetic as Sono himself. 

Education First

Back at school, as her class is about to begin, Mitsuko sees a pillow on the floor, bends over to pick it up and throws it to Aki as the teacher watches. Everyone in the class, except Mitsuko is cut-down in a hail of bullets. For some reason, the bullets avoid her entirely. She cannot be damaged, just traumatised. 

The music from the opening sequence returns. After our time away, we are back in the land of the extreme horror film. The teachers are trying to kill the students. There is no time to think about why this is happening. The key thing is simply to escape again, not, this time, from the benign lessons, but from the wrath of teachers whose entire role is the sustaining of order. School might ostensibly be about educating and preparing children for the world, but on a deeper level, it’s about making sure that the young start on a course of compliance to the way things are and the way they should be. 

Taeko and Sur rescue Mitsuko and drag her traumatised soul through the corridors towards some escape. The first teacher, now armed with a shotgun and machine gun, one in each hand, kills both of them. As a flower of blood appears on Sur’s chest, the soundtrack borrows a bar from Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack to Psycho. Falling strings accompany Sur’s fall to the ground. Sur reiterates to Mitsuko as she is dying, with a smile on her face, her life has been surreal. Life is surreal. She has to beat it and not be consumed by it. 

There follows much running and screaming, bazookas and bombs. Schoolgirls fall dead or blow up. Running from the school, one yells, “Mitsuko, you have to do something. Think about why this is happening.”

The girls who leave the school with Mitsuko are immediately cut in two by the razor wind, their arms flailing in the air. 

Leaves blow. The unseen force cuts telegraph lines. 

We are flying once more. 

The sound of the wind is tangible, like fingernails down a blackboard. 

She finds herself in a town. People ignore her as she runs past them. She goes into a police station, crying, in a panic. The policewoman is surprised that she is in such a state. The streets seem normal enough. But even while people are walking through the town as though it is a normal Saturday afternoon, the sounds of people screaming and dying are on the soundtrack. 

Suddenly the policewoman recognises Mitsuko as Keiko. It’s Keiko. The sounds of the screams cease. The policewoman sits Mitsuko/Keiko down. 

“What’s with that school uniform?”

Laughing, she shows Mitsuko a mirror. She is not Mitsuko any more. She has another face.

Blood Wedding

Shifting identities, the shifting of one face to another, is reminiscent of Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. In this film, Bunuel avoids anyone mentioning that the female lead is played, in alternate scenes by different actresses. Tag, however, is not a film marketed as a surrealist movie. The reason here is vaguer. The poster shows the three actresses playing the same character with three different names but one continuity. Each of the other actresses only has a few minutes of screen time before reverting to Reina Triendl. There is a clue to the thought process behind this when, at a later point in the film, we see the three actresses face’s in the lower left-hand corner of the screen just as the three playable characters in the game Grand Theft Auto Five appear. 

The section involving Keiko seems so tonally divorced from the first half of the movie that it could almost be looked at as a short movie in its own right were it not for the resurrection of the character of Aki. 

It’s Keiko’s wedding day. She is surrounded by friends telling her how handsome her husband is and how lucky she is to be the first one among them to marry. But Keiko is there, blowdrying her hair and, for a moment, she has a vision of herself as Mitsuko on the torn in half bus surrounded by blood. Leaves blowing in the wind. 

When she comes to, Aki clears the room and tells her that she is both Mitsuko and Keiko. This is a wedding ceremony. She tells her just to do what she says. 

Aki kills all the friends helping to dress her for the ceremony, cracking necks and hurling them across the room. When they are all dead, Aki gives her a broken green bottle. 

Then Keiko/Mitsuko goes alone into the chapel. At first, the whole wedding seems joyful with well-wishers and everyone throwing confetti. As she gets halfway up the aisle, something goes wrong. The guests start taunting her and taking their clothes off, clawing at her. The organist reveals the groom to be in a coffin. When the coffin door opens a grotesque human/pig hybrid is there as the groom, saliva viscously slipping from its hideous tongue. Wheeling in a gigantic wedding cake, the guests all chant, “Kiss him. Kiss Him.” Some of them tear at her wedding dress as if preparing her for the consummation of the wedding vow. In a moment of screaming, trembling horror, Keiko/Mitsuko drives the jagged edge of the bottle into the throat of the pig. The jugular opens and sprays the guests with jets of wine-red gore. The wet sound effects heighten the sheer repulsive horror of the moment. Guests who had been chanting are now screaming. The guests scream in terror as Keiko/Mitsuko fights anyone in her way, gouging at their stomachs and necks with the bottle. Most are too horrified by what has happened to go anywhere near her. 

Aki arrives and has to stop Keiko/Mitsuko from repeatedly stabbing one of the guests. It is hard to believe the other Mitsuko could have done this. She tells her that they have to go, but then the teachers arrive, dressed in black leather. Another fight with kicking, punching and gouging takes place accompanied by 70s style kung-fu kicking sound effects. Keiko/Mitsuko brutally stabs one of the teachers and finishes her off with a roundhouse kick. They escape into the street. Aki lures the people following her another way. 

Running, another runner with a number on her shirt greets Keiko/Mitsuko thinking she is a fellow runner called Izumi. Seeing her face in the mirror, Keiko/Mitsuko sees that her appearance has changed once more. She is Izumi and she looks like she’s running a marathon. Izumi has separate childhood memories. Her fellow runners remind her of how they always ran together as children. She then remembers running with them as an older child in their high-school uniforms.

Soon, Aki, Sur and Taeko are running beside Izumi. The pig from the wedding and the teachers are chasing them. The teachers casually kick at and knock out other runners who get in their way. The three friends distract the teachers leaving Izumi to run alone, to escape this world. Encouraged by the cheering crowds, she keeps running until she reaches a cave. Once inside the cave, she meets a girl who beckons her inside. 

Deep Inside 

It’s not easy to define Tag. It’s not a horror film despite having many horror film elements that might put off anyone who can’t watch scary stuff. It’s not a science fiction film despite having elements of mind-altering social satire and casual references to cloning and the psychological manipulation of human beings. It’s certainly not a schoolgirl drama despite the moments which are. As with so many of Sono’s films, Tag defies genre. 

On Japanese websites where people comment on the film, fans of the novel felt cheated by the film not adapting the novel in any way, shape or form. Fans of extreme horror love the first ten minutes (which might remind them of the joyful excesses of Tokyo Gore Police and the films that followed in its wake) but then feel let down when the film morphs into a a surrealist feminist drama.

Despite being one of many films he made in 2015, Tag feels too big a film to be an exercise in surrealist punk spontaneity. It never settles down long enough to be overly reflective. Mitsuko never really knows what is going on. Is she responsible for what is going on around her? Does she even have enough agency to change her fate (as suggested by Sur)? She seems to spend a lot of time being told what to do by the people around her and blindly following them. When Aki asks Mitsuko as Keiko to follow her lead, she joins in and becomes a killer. She can kill the guests at the wedding simply because the script has changed. Would she have done this as Mitsuko in school if Aki had asked her? 

In the third part of the film we get some partial answers. Viewers who saw the final episode of The Prisoner in 1968 jammed the ITV switchboard with complaints. So many people had been following the drama expecting a a neat resolution with clear explanations. What they got left them more confused than anything else in the series.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Prisoner was a 1967-8 TV series starring Patrick McGoohan as a man who may or may not be a spy, kidnapped and taken to a beatific little village. Here, he is subjected to various attempts to break his spirits and make him accept the village and its rules as well as revealing whatever secrets he may or may not have known. I won’t talk about the series here but there are definite similarities to Tag. Mitsuko doesn’t know where she is or why what is happening is happening. Unlike the character played by McGoohan, she doesn’t have a strong idea about resisting what is happening to her but her position, like that of No.6 is an exalted one. She might feel she is about to be killed but she is simply too important to meet the fate met by her friends.

The other actresses playing Mitsuko’s alter-egos, Keiko and Izumi, couldn’t be more different to the original character played by Reina Triendl. They don’t have the same innocent appearance. Mariko Shinoda as Keiko is completely convincing in the scenes where she launches into full fight mode. She doesn’t get much screen time moving from perplexed victim to crazed killer in ten minutes. Erino Mano as Izumi has a bit more screen time but spend so much of it running that we never get a sense of her. That both of these characters are Mitsuko is an interesting twist to what is already a very twisty yarn. What is the nature of identity. They feel they are Mitsuko and yet they seem much equipped to live in their worlds. Can they look back upon their time in that other body the way that we look back on our time as children? And are any of them responsible for what happens in their stories?

Can You Die Please?

The girl in the cave shows Izumi to a large group of girls. These girls with their heads hanging down, hair covering their faces like Japanese ghosts, look like they might have wandered in from a zombie film. But they are wearing the school uniforms of the numerous girls killed earlier in the film. They have no life in them.

The girl plays with a butterfly knife and goes to attack Izumi who is struck dumb by yet another horrific situation.

Shin de

Girl in Cave: Can you die, please? Die bitch. Say something in your own words for once! Do you know what kind of world this is? Everybody dies because of you. Can’t you remember? You coward. Try to remember. We die because of you.

Aki appears and kills the girl with a crunching twist of her neck. She takes Izumi by the hand and runs with her through the dead girls. Once in a deeper part of the cave, she asks her to repeat “I’m Mitsuko” to reclaim her true identity. As she does this the third or fourth time she is suddenly transformed back into her original incarnation of Mitsuko. Aki then asks Mitsuko to look at her arms. From her wrists emerge one red wire and one blue wire. She tells Mitsuko to pull these wires and destroy her. When Mitsuko says that she can’t, Aki slaps her savagely across the face. 

Aki: Say it again… ‘I am Mitsuko. Watashi wa Mitsuko da.

Mitsuko: Watashi wa Mitsuko da!

Aki: Again.

Mitsuko: Watashi wa Mitsuko da!

I AM MITSUKO

She repeats it and repeats it. As if gaining strength from confirming her identity over and over. 

Aki: Now listen to me. The world we’re in is fictional. Someone dragged us all into this world. Only you can stop them in this world. You are the main character. It’s the only way to escape. They’ll keep chasing you and killing you forever. Only you can get us out.

Mitsuko stares at Aki, tears on her face, traumatised beyond belief. 

Aki shakes her again.

Aki: You’ll have to destroy me to make the exit. Rip the cables out so you can go through. Do it! Do it! Do it!

Tentatively, Mitsuko takes the wires sticking from Aki’s wrist. 

Aki: Do it!

Mitsuko pulls the wires and, slowly, painfully, as if giving birth, Aki splits apart, the wires from her arms connecting through her feet to wires in the ground. As the wires grow taut, a white doorway appears between the two halves of what was once Aki. 

Aki, using the wires as a guide walks towards the white light; towards the world of men. 

Men’s World

For the first hour of Tag, there are no men. Not unless we count the pig that Keiko was due to marry. It’s been a world of women written by a male director. While we have never seen a man in that opening hour, we have felt the presence of one. The women we have seen are very much women from various male points of view. The innocent and pure Mitsuko constantly being taunted and tortured by the world around her. The sapphic and quasi maternal relationship between Aki and Mitsuko having the sweetness of a classic male fantasy of women together. The pillow fights between schoolgirls whose skirts are just a little too short so that every time a woman runs or does anything physical, her underwear is on show. Only when we get into the cave does the girl, who intends Mitsuko to die, tell her to say something in her own words for once. 

Whose words has she been using up until then? 

But, and this is an important aspect of cinema that is misunderstood by those who love cinema the most, the director cannot control the direction of the film. While it is undoubtedly true that cinema is a director’s medium rather than a writer’s medium it can never be completely so. When we read a book, we are reading the words of a writer and completing that vision in our minds using our imagination and our experiences. With a film, it is tempting to believe that the director has an even greater control. It is certainly true that the editing process can lead us very closely after the event. But, when we watch a film, unless that film is an animation of some sort, we are not watching the director’s hands guiding events like a puppeteer. We are watching the actors. The actors might be mouthing words written in a screenplay but the characters they bring to the screen are ultimately what makes the difference between a film we want to see and one that we do not. But what if a director tried to have as much control over every movement and every facial expression that an actor made? Would that actor rebel or follow?

There are numerous ways to interpret a film whose rules and storyline have an element of dream reality. There is always something a little reductive about someone saying, “this part here is a clear allegory for X”. If an allegory is clear then it might as well not be an allegory, especially if the film-makers are working in a free country. It is up to the viewer to read a film in their own way. It could be said, for example, that Aki’s being torn in half for Mitsoku to be able to enter another world, is an allegory of childbirth. But it could also be an allegory for adolescent awareness on the death of a parental figure or, it could be that Aki is an agent of the power that has its own reason to get Mitsuko, the original Mitsuko, to enter the real world. Aki seems the maternal, girlish lover. Aki, the saviour who helps Mitsuko to fight painful illusions. Aki, the mother. Aki, who is autumn. Mitsuko, the shining child. But maybe there is another way of looking at this scene. What we have had up until this point is a man looking at women. In the wedding scene, we were plunged for a few moments into a nightmare scene that could have come from Fellini’s City of Women. Women tearing off their clothes and becoming vulgar haranguing mocking creatures, not the sweetly mischievous schoolgirls who slip away from the first lesson to spend an hour or so by the lake having pillow fights and speculating over reality. But in stepping away from diverse male fantasies or nightmares about women, what happens when we find ourselves in the world of men?

Mitsoku now knows she needs to speak for herself and leave this fictional world. She is responsible. She has to find the spontaneity that Sur was referring to. She has to live. She is the main character. The kind of story this is can be her responsibility. 

But, given that she only knows these fictions of herself, how can she find her true self?

I never thought you’d come this far

Mitsuko steps into a kitchen. Men are frying meat and flames are leaping from pans. She looks dazed but not entirely surprised to be in a world where there are men. Men have been referred to earlier in the film but never seen. Now, in this hot and busy kitchen, there is nothing but men. 

Leaving the kitchen, she steps out into an alley, where men stand as if waiting for something. The three closest to us are shirtless imbeciles sniggering in anticipation of some perverted joy to come. One of them is wearing a disco ball on a gold chain around his neck. These are strange men. There is a “Manly Shop” and a “Masculine Shop” as if in this world of men only there could be anything else. You can almost smell the testosterone. 

Mitsuko stares at them, her pupils dilated, for the first time in extreme close up. 

She turns and sees two men, one in leopard skin briefs squeezing his muscular buttocks and a leather waistcoat, the other wearing leopard skin shorts and nothing else, his hair coming to a point like a character in a manga or an anime series. These two men are staring at a poster on the wall. 

Another man, wearing a pendant around his neck, breathes smoke out into the air, bicycles stacked vertically behind him. He looks like a cool guy who could have slipped through from a gang film.

But now, Mitsuko is less interested in the men than in the poster on the wall. It is a poster of her flanked by Keiko and Izumi.

The classic 20th Century Game, now available in 3D – Real Oni Gokko!

This poster is the first thing to shock Mitsuko. She realises that Aki was telling the truth. The world she was in was fictional. She was the main character. But it was a game. Just a game. And men were lining up to play this same game; using her, abusing her and all those other girls. As the star of the game, she is guilty. She is responsible. 

A handsome young man steps out of the line and talks to her. The other men seem unable to see her as if they are already playing their own virtual game oblivious to their surroundings.

Young Man: Are you okay?

She stares at him in shock.

Young Man: I’m glad you remember me. But not my name. I guess not. I never thought you’d come this far.

He takes her by the hand, much as Aki had, and she stumbles after him, as she did with Aki. 

Mitsuko: It’s you.

Young Man: Mitsuko. You’re actually in the future.

On hearing this, she immediately passes out. 

A feather falls

Mitsuko emerges from the darkness with her eyes closed. 

You died a long time ago

When we watch a film, any film, we have a choice. We can become the passive recipients of easy entertainment that leaves us with something like the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries. There is nothing wrong with this at all. Sometimes, after a hard day or a hard week, that’s what we need. It’s nice to be able to kick back and enjoy that all the work has been done for us by a team of master craftsmen. There is nothing here to think about. I have loved this form of entertainment since being a small child. 

But it’s not the only way to enjoy a film. Sometimes the film-maker might deliberately allow us to veer off the path and see things for ourselves with our own eyes. I doubt that many seeing Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958 felt they were watching a queasily necrophilic film about control, but some might have and this at-the-time poorly performing and critically undervalued film now tops the Sight and Sound critic’s list as the number one film of all time. Perceptions are not just affected by fashion. They also depend on what the viewer sees. 

There is more than an element of necrophilia in the last section of Tag. A man in love with a woman who might be long dead; a genetic reconstruction whose real self might not be as interesting to men as the fiction she has become. 

Mitsuko walks through the cave and finds herself the only living creature amid walls and walls of lifelike dolls, eyes open but in every other sense lifeless. Among these dolls are the two women that Mitsuko saw watching the pillow fight by the lake. As she passes them, they now have the glazed appearance of the embalmed. 

Amid the dolls, she sees a bed, like the bed that appeared by the lake. And beside the bed is a glass case with more figures that, at this point, she cannot identify. A man sits by an old CRT TV, his wizened Davros-like hands hitting a control panel as he switches characters in the game Mitsuko has been the star of. He switches between her escaping from the teachers, Keiko fighting the teachers at the wedding ceremony and Izumi running. When he becomes aware of Mitsuko he turns off the television. The picture disappears in a white dot (one for the oldies). 

Wearing a red velvet jacket over a smart suit with long white hair reaching his elbows, he looks about two hundred years old. “Good morning,” he says to Mitsuko and we realise that this is the same handsome young man she met in the men’s world only minutes earlier. He stumbles towards her using a cane to keep his balance. 

She is transfixed by his appearance.

Old Man: You see. You died a long time ago. It was the Spring of 2034. I got hold of a sample of your DNA. And your friends’ too. There, look at that.

He points to the case of his ‘stars’. 

In the case, we see his favourites: Mitsuko, Keiko, Izuma, Taeko, Sur and the two teachers. All stand there as lifelessly as the dolls lining the cave. Mitsuko stares at herself, trapped with a single lightly smiling expression behind the condensation of the glass cage. She seems particularly distressed to see Aki’s mannequin there no longer torn in half but looking like she was never alive.

Old Man: I bet you could have never guessed that your DNA would be used for our entertainment.

He laughs a twistedly juvenile decayed laugh. Her life is just sport to him. Entertainment. A wonderful playful dream. She has been through so many scenarios like those we have witnessed before. But now, she has somehow emerged beyond the world of the game to this world full of old-men and living death. 

The young man appears. He is an avatar of the older man; his younger self.

Young Man: The game’s character is here. Amazing.

He walks with a spring in his step, already shirtless as if anticipating something more. He takes off his trousers to show he is wearing tidy white briefs just like the schoolgirls running through the corridors. His body is slim and tanned. He jumps on the bed and pats the empty patch beside him; “Here”. 

Old Man (almost drooling at the prospect of what will happen next) My last wish will come true now. An unrealised dream of 150 years ago. Go ahead. Surrender to your destiny!

She goes to the bed and lies down next to the young man, the avatar of the old man. 

While lying there, she suddenly gets a vision of Sur by the lake as they had been when she had almost jumped into the water but stopped herself. Only now, Sur is soaking wet and is in the lake. 

Sur (shouting): Only something unexpected will change your destiny.

Sur throws herself back into the water with a splash. A different destiny. A different fate.