Saturday, June 19, 2010

Maléfique: Four Characters In Search of a Narrative

In any movie or TV show, a well-done narrative hums along like music. Its character may be familiar, eerie, dissonant, triumphant, staccato, or meditative, but regardless, there needs to be a rhythm and a logic to it. It doesn't need to be the rhythm or logic of everyday life, but it needs to be consistent with itself to have the required impact.

failure is that it feels less like a composition than the beginning of a decent tune followed by a lot of noodling.

It's a movie about four prisoners in a pretty medieval-looking French prison. Marcus is big, burly, and mid-transition between male and female. The specifics of his crime aren't known, but he's just sold out a bunch of people to leverage his own safety. Paquerette is a hebephrenic cannibal who will eat anything put in front of him (including, apparently, his little sister), Lassalle is a former man of letters who strangled his wife in a brief fit of insanity, and Carrère is the odd man out, a CEO who was caught embezzling from his own company.  They share meager space - two sets of bunkbeds, a sink, and a table for eating meals. Almost civilized. Days are spent passing the time, nights are spend in sleep and furtive bouts of sodomy. The sense of claustrophobia and stasis is palpable. Walk slow, because you're going nowhere fast.

Marcus wants to escape and take Paquerette (with whom he has a protective relationship) with him. He plans to make a run for it and scale the wall. Carrère is confident that he'll be out soon, once his bail is paid. Lassalle doesn't seem to care much one way or another. You could do a lot just with these four characters in the tiny space of their cell, and that's before introducing the pivotal element - a journal belonging to a former occupant of the cell, found behind a loose stone. The journal is very, very old, and is filled with diagrams, instructions, formulas, bizarre illustrations. It's a book of black magic.

As premises go, there's some promise here - you have four very different people kept essentially trapped together in a closed space with an otherwise innocuous object (a book) capable of very bad, dangerous things that violate the laws of nature. It's bad enough when you find yourself having to run from evil - what happens when there is nowhere to run? When you're locked in the room with the thing you're trying to escape? The book is basically a combined time bomb and chemistry experiment - the prisoners' desire to escape leads them to try and use the book to escape, but they have no idea what they're doing with it. All kinds of horrible shit could happen, and to some extent does.

There's this potential for great tension between the rigid, regimented environment of a prison and the possibility of a book of black magic - something that can break not just the rules of the prison, but the rules of reality itself. We don't really know what happened to the last owner, if he escaped or not, what form that escape took, or what it cost him. And since the prisoners don't know what they're doing (hell, only two of them are really literate), there should be a tremendous sense of fear and tension surrounding the book. The book should be when the song changes key and starts building to a crescendo, in other words.

Once the book comes into play, though, the film's narrative coherence starts to fall apart. Things happen, the book does one thing, then another, characters talk about the importance of choice even when no real choice is possible, the book gets thrown away for no reason (and reappears for even less reason), a character is introduced for one purpose and then disappears again, people who refused to read the book read it and use it, and then decide not to use it until they decide to use it again, and in the end the book leads some of them someplace, but not the place they thought, but not a place we could reasonably expect them go either, given what's happened already. In the end, these four prisoners and this very mysterious, very powerful book add up to a series of small anticlimaxes and a twist conclusion that is only a twist if you don't pay attention to a piece of dialogue that telegraphs it minutes before it actually happens.

Even if you have a device (like a book of black magic) that is meant to disrupt our expectations, that disruption still needs to make sense within the narrative. Reverse an assumption, show us how the character's expectations were wrong, show us how those expectations were right, but at a much larger cost - any of these would have worked. Instead, what we get here is a resolution that essentially communicates that none of what happened in the film up to this point was necessary, because none of it ended up having much relevance to the way things concluded. Our four prisoners end up lost, much as we would expect them to, but we are lost as well because we have no idea how we ended up where we did in the story. What starts off as a spooky little melody ends up in a jumble of disconnected notes.

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