It’s a Murder of Crows, or, Corvid Reading

Agnes Ravatn, The Bird Tribunal (Fugletribunalet, 2013, translated by Rosie Hedger, 2016)

RavatnIt’s a little unfair, but this kind of (usually) female gothic is haunted – Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca springs to mind, as does (to a lesser extent) Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, as well as Hitchcock’s Rebecca and The Birds. Oh, and Bluebeard.

This wasn’t the first book I’d bought in a real shop since the lockdown, but it was my first expotition out of the postcodes and a visit to the Oxford Street Bookshop. It leapt out at me from the crime and thriller section, and it was only after I left the shop that it was a Book at Bedtime serial, which I’d only caught sections of. And for some reason had thought of Frankenstein.

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Monstrous Progeny

Mary Shelley, mucked about with adapted by Nick Dear, Frankenstein (Directed by Danny Boyle, National Theatre Live via YouTube)

Years ago, there was a series of documentaries on the gothic horror novel presented by Christopher Frayling – Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Each of these narratives have passed into public consciousness, far beyond those who have read them – often via plays – and, with the arguable exception of the last, in forms that corrupt the author’s original structure. Despite at least two great franchises – from Universal in the 1930s and from Hammer in the 1950s – Frankenstein adaptations are travesties of Mary Shelley’s vision.

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The Talented Herr Georg

Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018)

The estrangement is strong in this one. In Paris, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is persuaded to deliver two letters to a writer, Franz Weidel, but finds that the latter has died, by suicide. Narrowly escaping the police, Georg tries to smuggle his friend, Heinz, to Marseille, but the latter dies en route and Franz narrowly escapes the police. Georg has to break the news of Heinz’s death to his family and of Franz’s death to the Mexican consul – but he is mistaken for Franz, who has a visa that will allow him to escape the Nazi occupiers who will soon be cleansing Marseille… Continue reading →

The Incel’s MacGuffin

The Farmer’s Wife (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928)

Over the years I bought various Alfred Hitchcock boxsets and this one brings together most of his surviving silent films. I’ve caught Number Seventeen, The Manxman and The Ring on the big screen, and enjoyed, but I’ve been slow in catching up with the rest.

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Des Chats comme Félix

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet (Royal Academy of Arts, 30 June—29 September 2019)

I had a grumpy wander around the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern, but it wasn’t doing much for me, or the crowd were getting in the way. Bonnard was part of a group of French artists, Les Nabis or The Prophets, who had mostly been to the Académie Julian in the late 1880s, and who were fans of Paul Cézanne and Paul Gaugin. Other members included Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Édouard Vuillard.

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Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.