Stoker & The Best OfferAugust 31, 2013
There was a moment in the 1980s when Australian directors such as Bruce Beresford, Peter Weir and Gillian Armstrong heard the siren call of Hollywood and went to make films in the United States. It seems this alluring melody is now drifting towards South Korea, with directors such as Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Bong Joon-ho (The Host), and Kim Jee-won (A Tale of Two Sisters) producing their first American movies.
I haven’t seen enough of Kim’s work to make a call, but Park and Bong are exceptionally talented filmmakers who shame those mediocrities Hollywood currently likes to entrust with multi-million dollar budgets. To give a few outstanding examples: Ruben Fleischer blew US$60 million on Gangster Squad, while M. Night Shyamalan got through US$130 million on After Earth. Len Wiseman’s utterly unnecessary remake of Total Recall clocked in at US$125 million.
At a time when Spike Lee has just spent US$30 million making an American version of Park’s best-known film, Oldboy, the budget for the Korean director’s debut American feature, Stoker, was a mere US$12 million.
It’s a taut, dark, disturbing story, shot with the most consummate artistry. Park frames his scenes with such skill it tends to distract from the plot, as we are constantly spotting a symbol, or admiring his painterly knack for composition.
Like Francois Truffaut or Jim Jarmusch, Park was an avid cinephile before he began to make his own movies. Yet the danger with such obsessive students of cinema is that every film tends to be packed with references to the work of earlier directors. Self-consciousness overshadows any sense of spontaneity, dramatic flair or instinct. Dialogue becomes less important, and often takes an unnatural turn.
Park says he was attracted to Wentworth Miller’s screenplay because of its emphasis on the visual aspects of the story rather than dialogue. It is also a relentless homage to Alfred Hitchcock, one of Park’s favourite directors. This was so obvious in the original script that Park admits to toning down some of the Hitchcock allusions. Nevertheless it doesn’t require an encyclopaedic knowledge of film for a shower scene to remind us of Psycho (1960). Many viewers will also recognise the character of Uncle Charlie as an echo of the role played by Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
Park describes the film as a “Gothic fairy tale” set in a small Tennessee town, mostly in the mansion owned by the Stoker family. The story begins with the funeral of Richard Stoker, husband to the beautiful, superficial Ellen (Nicole Kidman); and father to the strange, introverted 18-year-old India (Mia Wasikowska).
While the daughter takes the loss hard, her mother seems eager to get on with life. It’s obvious the Stoker marriage was not a happy one, while the personality clash between Ellen and India is merely the continuation of a longstanding antipathy. The game-changer is the arrival of Richard’s brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), who says he has been living abroad and never previously had the opportunity to pay a visit.
Charlie settles in for long stay, and a peculiar triangle develops. Ellen makes no secret of her attraction, and Charlie seems to reciprocate, yet it is India who has his full attention. There is a dark secret in Charlie’s past, hinted at by an elderly housekeeper, and by the visiting Aunt Gwendolyn (Jacki Weaver). If that secret is kept, it is because people close to Charlie have a habit of disappearing.
Charlie recognises that India has the same dark matter in her DNA, the same taste for blood. Unlike her father, who channelled India’s violent urges into a love of hunting, Charlie wants to help his niece discover her true nature. The story becomes a twisted ‘coming-of-age’ tale, as progressively more is revealed about India and her would-be mentor.
If one can stop being transfixed by Park’s artistry – with blood spattered on blades of grass, shoes arranged in ritualistic circles, and an extraordinary scene in which India and Charlie play a Philip Glass sonata for four hands – the film belongs to Mia Wasikowska. While Nicole Kidman is back in mannequin mode after an unusually lively performance in The Paperboy; and Matthew Goode wears the fixed smile of a psychotic, Wasikowska plays a character that keeps evolving.
India’s problem is that her growing self-awareness reveals thoughts and feelings which have no place in this world. She is simultaneously horrified and stimulated by the personality bubbling to the surface.
Viewers who are not acquainted with Park’s taste for poeticised bloodshed may share those feelings. There may be movies with more gore and a higher body count, but few of them evoke such a sense of psychological unease. For all its cold, fetishistic beauty, Stoker is a film that leaves a queasy aftertaste.
Australian directors may be less prominent in Hollywood nowadays, but Australian actors have never been more conspicuous. Aside from the three shielas in Stoker, we have Cate Blanchett in the new Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine; Naomi Watts playing the lead role in Diana, and Geoffrey Rush taking centre stage in Guiseppe Tornatore’s The Best Offer, set in a city that may or may not be Rome.
To say Rush’s performance as art connoisseur, Virgil Oldman, is a dominant one, is a superfluous statement. Rush is almost never off-screen – being imperious, clinical, charming, rude, anxious, obsessed, desperate, devastated, and various combinations of the above. Yes, it’s another big slice of prosciutto from an actor who never leaves us in any doubt about the feelings he wishes to convey.
It’s an approach that meshes well with Tornatore’s own taste for the grand style. He won an Academy Award for Cinema Paradiso in 1988, and has since made a succession of slick, compulsively watchable films, which track back over territory explored by Italian arthouse directors such as Fellini, Bertolucci, and the Tavianis. The difference is that Tornatore is more concerned with a strong narrative than cinematic innovation. This movie even has a score by Ennio Morricone, a composer who has become a classic in his own right.
Tornatore’s populism is both a virtue and a vice. His films allow actors ample scope to show what they can do, but the plots chug along like well-oiled machines, with dialogue that strains after profundity but tends to spell out the obvious. The Best Offer is a perfect example of this tendency. It holds one’s attention throughout, and is particularly fascinating for its caricatural view of the high-end art market. On the negative side, the ‘mystery’ is all too predictable in its unravelling.
In place of genuine suspense we are invited to savour the gradual disintegration of Virgil Oldman’s personality. He begins as the all-powerful art expert who always wears gloves for “hygienic” reasons, and ends as a lovesick fool in thrall to a much younger woman. Oldman is an extreme case because he has spent his entire life in close communion with great works of art. He has a secret collection of masterpieces on the theme of feminine beauty, but no experience of the real thing.
This changes when he is asked to undertake a valuation in a rundown villa, owned by a twenty-something heiress named Claire (Sylvia Hoeks), who hides behind a wall, avoiding all human contact. Little by little the arrogant, testy connoisseur becomes fascinated by his new client. He tries to cure her agoraphobia, and finds himself falling in love. His guide and mentor in this pursuit is a young engineer, named Robert, who runs a repair shop.
Robert draws on his extensive experience of women to dispense advice while slowly piecing together an 18th century mechanical figure that Virgil picks up in stages in the basement of Claire’s house. The construction of the automaton takes on a symbolic role in the story, keeping pace with Virgil’s personal transformation as he begins to display suspiciously human tendencies.
One of the reiterated themes of this movie is that anything may be faked, be it a painting or a person. Virgil is a faker himself, giving false attributions to masterworks so that his accomplice, Billy (Donald Sutherland), can pick them up at auction for a fraction of their real value. We hear these portentous warnings about fakery so many times that we grow naturally suspicious of everyone and everything, while watching Virgil abandon the perspicacity with which he has made his reputation.
His reaction seems almost understandable when we finally catch a glimpse of the glamorous Sylvia Hoeks in the role of Claire. The painted ladies of the Renaissance who adorn Virgil’s secret gallery suddenly become objects of merely professional interest. We’ve seen this before, with Dirk Bogarde losing his cool over a beautiful boy in Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Even though the title of that film (and Thomas Mann’s novel) clearly telegraphed the undoing of the protagonist, there was never such a sense of inevitability as one finds in The Best Offer.
I found myself comparing Virgil to Don Pasquale in Donzetti’s opera of the same name, recently staged in Sydney. The moral of the story is that an old man makes a himself ridiculous when he hooks up with a younger woman. The difference is that Don Pasquale is a comedy where all is forgiven, but Tornatore’s film leads its aging protagonist down a more tortuous garden path. By the end of the film the insuperable dilemma about what is true and what is false, has been replaced by a nagging question about what is plausible.
Stoker, UK/USA, rated MA 15+, 99 mins
The Best Offer, Italy, rated M, 131 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 31, 2013