Tag Archives: Gothic literature

Ken Russell’s Female Fugue

The Lair of the White Worm
The Lair of the White Worm

Although most critics perceive Ken Russell’s career as having declined irretrievably by the 1980s, the latter half of the decade saw him produce three extraordinary films. All three works are inspired by 19th-century authors, and marry their taste for the ornate and Gothic with Russell’s bathetic, sometimes anachronistic touches of broad humour. The films are linked thematically too, by the trinity of woman protagonists that they present. I call this trilogy the female fugue; It’s a fugue in the musical as well as psychological sense, intertwining variations on the theme of female subjectivity seen from a man’s point of view, and an amnesiac discarding of Russell’s Romantic conception of the male anti-hero so prevalent in his 1970s work, now replaced by an errant voyage through three new female identities.

While Gothic (1986) deals with Mary Shelley and the laudanum-drenched night in 1816 when she conceived the idea for her novel Frankenstein, Salome’s Last Dance (1988) is an inventive re-working of Wilde’s controversial play about the biblical seductress, staged as a private performance for Wilde himself by the denizens of a brothel. Finally, The Lair of the White Worm (1988) takes the figure of the femme fatale to inhumanly new heights in a joint celebration of Donald McGill sauciness and Hammer Horror stately-home stodge.

Watch the trailer for Gothic:

The browbeating morality of the Hollywood production code demanded a monster far more terrifying to Russell than any animated cadaver; a simpering Mary Shelley who reprimands her hero Baron Frankenstein for daring ‘to play God’. In Gothic Russell attempts an escape from the moralistic cul-de-sac created by films like Bride of Frankenstein, instead focusing on the raw creativity and the carnal debauchery of the Romantic poets. Byron, Shelley and Polidori are raving, drooling scenery-chewing fanatics, and inarticulate for all their verbosity, and Mary’s step-sister Claire seems content merely to be Byron’s plaything.

While Byron postures, proud of his Promethean literary creations, and Shelley celebrates the elemental power of lightning with a naked rooftop ritual, Mary is quietly preoccupied with a genesis of her own. She wants to escape her situation; to flee the drug-addled squalor but also to avoid the domestic drudgery of motherhood. This is also the wish of her creation, Frankenstein, who wants to transcend mortality but recoils in existential terror at the fact that he has created and is responsible for another life.

Salome is, like Mary Shelley, a female in an unwelcoming man’s world. Although she’s the subject of only a handful of verses in the Bible, religious and secular figures alike have zoomed in on the dance of the seven veils, and turned the young princess into an archetype of dangerous female sexuality, who uses her allure to ensure the death of the chaste and principled John the Baptist. Despite Russell’s use of buxom page three girls as Roman concubines, Salome herself is a far less conventional object of male lust. The actress Imogen Millais-Scott was half-blind and recovering from a rare illness, giving Salome the consumptive air of a tragic 19th-century heroine. Her velvet-voiced declamation of Wilde’s sublime lines is undeniably beguiling, certainly irresistible to Stratford Johns’s chubby, ineffectual Herod.

Watch the trailer for Salome’s Last Dance:

Just as Gothic has a modern-day epilogue, so the framing device of the play’s staging allows Russell to develop his theme. Arrested by the police as the play ends, Wilde laments that he should have played John the Baptist himself. However, Russell adds a further touch that blurs the lines as to who the victim is here. We find out that the fate of the chambermaid playing Salome mirrors that of her character; she was killed for real by the brothel owners to create a realistic climax to their performance.

Russell seems horrified by the exploitative callousness of Victorian society, but at the same time he retreats from this theme, making the death seem even more callous because it appears to be tacked on as an afterthought by Russell. ‘Maidservants in Victorian London were two a penny; she’d never be missed,’ is Russell’s only statement about the matter. As Wilde is hauled away by the police for sexual indecency, we are left with the feeling that little has changed since Roman times.

The Lair of the White Worm takes up the themes of gender and class conflict found in the first two films but treats them less seriously. It also makes a link between the savagery of Rome and the 19th-century literary tradition, beginning with archaeologist Angus Flint uncovering a Roman-era temple in the Peak District.

Rugged Angus and Hugh Grant’s lord of the manor are the typical male heroes who have to protect two local girls, with the virginal names Eve and Mary, from the torments inflicted by Lady Sylvia Marsh, the monstrous, vampiric snake-worshipping villain, and clearly Russell’s choice for the real hero of the piece. The heroes are good-natured but unmistakably the sort of naive dullards that populated the quota quickies of Russell’s childhood. The male-dominated Victorian patriarchy threatens her exuberant sexuality (although the film is ostensibly set contemporaneously, it’s a curious time-warp hybrid of past and present that bears little resemblance to 1980s Britain) much like Salome’s, but she is also the closest female character to Russell’s own persona.

Watch the trailer for The Lair of the White Worm:

The film has a tense, coiled atmosphere, in which Russell imbues almost everything with eerie foreboding or sexual potential; a game of snakes and ladders hosepipe becomes both phallic and serpentine, the mouth of a cave becomes vaginal. Lady Marsh has a venomous bite that turns her victims into her slaves, and even momentarily touching the venom has hallucinogenic effects. Although four people come into contact with the stuff, only the Trent girls are given visions; psychotropic and campy visions of Roman soldiers attacking a convent of nuns while a massive rubber snake coils around a crucifix. In an eerie foreshadowing of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, released three years later, Eve is revealed through one of these visions to be the reincarnation of one of these early Christians, adding a further layer of counterpoint to this fugue of interlocking female identities.

It’s an original rendering of an old stereotype; the women then have emotive, empathic powers (here taken to the extreme) while the men, although divided by class, have the common-sense practicality needed to outwit the enemy and restore order. The moralistic formula of Hammer-style horror dictates that good must finally triumph over evil, which it does – but only temporarily. Russell permits Lady Sylvia a last mocking laugh, and one that suggests our dashing male heroes are more than just friends.

Priapic, prurient and politically incorrect, Russell’s female fugue is as ambitious as it is irreverent. In each film Russell presents an increasingly complex portrayal of female subjectivities in a patriarchal environment. But changing critical fashions and truncated budgets ensured that the passionate cult followings these films developed would never be matched by critical attention. They stand as Russell’s last burst of frantic, thematically coherent creativity before the wilderness years of the 1990s, a decade Russell later claimed to barely even remember.

John A. Riley

The Monk: Interview with Dominik Moll

The Monk

Format: Cinema

Release date: 27 April 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Metrodome

Director:Dominik Moll

Writers: Dominik Moll, Anne-Louise Trividic

Based on the novel by: Matthew Lewis

Original title: Le moine

Cast: Vincent Cassel, Déborah François, Joséphine Japy

Spain/France 2011

101 mins

Best known for the wickedly brilliant Harry, He’s Here to Help (2000), French director Dominik Moll returns with an adaptation of Matthew Lewis’s sulphurous Gothic novel, starring Vincent Cassel in the role of conflicted monk Ambrosio. Abandoned as a child on the doorstep of a monastery, Ambrosio is brought up as a Capuchin, and becomes an inspiring preacher admired by all for his moral intransigence and incorruptible virtue. But the Devil soon throws temptation in his path, and he has to battle increasingly more sinful urges.

Virginie Sélavy talked to Dominik Moll at the London Film Festival in October 2011 about the nature of evil, the Catholic Church and the meaning of ‘Gothic’.

Virginie Sélavy: The Monk is your first period film. Was it something you’d always wanted to try?

Dominik Moll: I wasn’t interested in period films, I felt there were too many constraints in terms of costumes and sets, and that you had to spend too much energy solving those problems. At the same time, I’d been thinking about adapting a novel by Wilkie Collins, so I’d been tinkering with the idea for a while. What I liked about the prospect of adapting The Monk was that even though it’s a period film, everything is imaginary and imagined, and that gives you a lot of freedom and space. You’re not limited by the need to represent historical facts or characters accurately, and you can invent everything.

The novel is narratively complex, with many twists and turns. It must have been difficult to adapt.

It’s true, the novel is very long and dense, but at the same time there are two parallel stories, which are connected at the end but are fairly separate, even geographically. There’s the story of Ambrosio in Spain, and that of Agnes and her lover, which takes place mostly in Germany, and which didn’t interest me as much. Once I’d decided I wanted to concentrate on Ambrosio, there were further alterations to make. At times, the novel is very repetitive. Matthew Lewis wrote it very quickly when he was 19, so the structure is not always rigorous.

In the novel, Ambrosio is used by Lewis to settle scores with the Catholic Church. From the start he’s a hypocritical, vile, cowardly character, so it’s difficult to relate to him, and you’re kept at an ironic distance. I wanted the audience to be able to like him. For me, it was important that he should be a character who, in the beginning, believes in what he says and does, so that his trajectory is that of a man convinced of his mission who, little by little, is going to lose his points of reference. But the novel is so rich that you could make 10 different adaptations from it. I don’t think there’s one unique, valid adaptation – every director brings their own sensibility and approach to it.

The character of Ambrosio is also about the nature of evil: does he behave as he does because he was abandoned as a child and because his desires have been repressed by the Church? Or is it that man’s desires, if they’re not limited by social and religious rules, will lead to evil? The question is central to the book, was it as important for you?

Yes, it’s an inexhaustible question, and the film does indeed ask to what extent we are responsible for our own actions. As Ambrosio says at the beginning, ‘people only have the power that we give to them’. It’s also about how much we are conditioned by our childhood and our past. Of course, we are responsible for our acts, but at the same time you can’t ignore the fact that Ambrosio was abandoned as an infant and has been brought up in this religious community, so things can be a little more complicated for some people.

In that respect, I thought there was a continuity between The Monk and your previous films: you’re always interested in the dark side of human nature.

Yes, that’s true. I think that we all have impulses that we can’t always admit to. The question is how we deal with them, to what extent we indulge in them and to what extent we have to control them, and if we control them, whether that might not make them more likely to explode later.

The book blames the Catholic Church for that. Of course, nowadays the Church doesn’t play such an important role in people’s lives, and in the film you don’t insist as much on its responsibility. Did you feel that aspect of the book was dated?

Yes. When Lewis wrote the book at the end of the 18th century, it was probably necessary to criticise the Catholic Church and to denounce its hypocrisies. But even if in some parts of the world it still has a lot of influence, and there is much to say about the dangers of religion when it is pushed to excess and fanaticism, it seemed less important or interesting to me to lash out at the Catholic Church. I was more interested in the human tragedy of this man – and you can replace religion by other things, for instance political ideology – who tries to construct his identity in relation to a discourse, a theory, and who cannot live in real life. Last night I watched Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. It was interesting to think of those radical terrorists who adopt this revolutionary discourse that makes them feel alive, but which is actually fed by fairly vile things, and the ideas in The Monk can be transposed to this sort of thing too.

Vincent Cassel gives an unexpected performance in the role of Ambrosio. Was he your first choice for the character?

It was the producer’s idea. It seemed intriguing and interesting to me, especially because the characters that Vincent played until then were extroverts. I knew I wanted him to play the role with a lot more restraint, so I was interested in leading him towards that and containing all his energy.

How did you approach the film visually? What sort of world did you want to create?

The idea was to create something that wouldn’t be realistic or naturalistic at all, but dreamlike. It makes sense that the surrealists liked the novel, it is so full of dreams and nightmares, even the story itself is like a dream. Visually, we wanted to emphasise that aspect, using things like filters, iris in/out, monochromatic images in blue or red (as in the inquisition trial), and playing with contrasts between very luminous sunny exteriors and dense interiors, also to symbolise good and evil. We were not afraid of artificiality. And just like in the novel, we used images of Spain that may seem stereotypical, but fit with the story. There is a very visual side to the novel, and you feel that Lewis was attracted to Spanish Catholicism because it’s very visual and very sensual too: there is a physical relation to religion, with the icons, the processions and the statues of the Virgin and the bloodied Christ.

There is a great recurring dream sequence in the film in which Ambrosio, standing on the roof of the monastery, sees a young woman in a red cape praying down below in the sun. I couldn’t remember if it was in the book.

No, it’s not in the book. In the novel, Antonia is just another sexual prey for Ambrosio. I felt it was important to give her a special status through this premonitory dream, so that when he later sees her he feels there is more to it than just sexual desire. In the book, the key relationship is the one between Ambrosio and Rosario (Valerio in the film), whereas for me it is the one between Ambrosio and Antonia, because it goes beyond sexual attraction, but he can’t understand why.

You also added the mask that Valerio wears, which is a great idea. It’s very much in the spirit of the novel but adds something visual.

In the novel, the character is hidden under his hood, but in the film it didn’t seem believable. I liked the idea of the mask, of saying that he was disfigured. There is always something frightening about masks, especially if you know that the person behind it is damaged. We spent a lot of time looking for the right mask, we wanted it to be realistic but not overly so. The idea was to have a wax mask that would have a carnal aspect, but also a completely frozen expression.

You also make ample use of Gothic imagery: statues, gargoyles, the cemetery, ghosts, etc. Does it make sense to you to describe the film as ‘Gothic’?

Yes, it does make sense, but at the same time, the term ‘Gothic’ has been so overused that you have to be careful. If you say ‘Gothic film’ to teenagers they might imagine something very different from someone who has studied English literature. For me, it is Gothic in the sense of a type of literature that brings dreams and the supernatural into fiction, but not in the sense of an overload of gore, monsters and creatures.

Interview by Virginie Sélavy