Two films I caught recently in a fit of end-of-term madness (when I ought to have been grading) were both adapted from novels. As I’m thinking of adapting a couple of my things into scripts, I’ve been musing on the technique involved.
Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is a twisty-turny tale that from the start tells you that things are not what they seem. Sook-Hee, daughter of a family of thieves has been hired by a con man masquerading as ‘Count Fujiwara’ to work for Lady Hideko, the heir of huge fortune, kept more or less prisoner by her uncle, the creepy Kouzuki. The plan is for Sook-Hee to use her intimate position to sway the twitchy lady to romance with the fake count, but to her surprise, Sook-Hee begins to feel first protective of her lady and then unexpectedly to feel something much stronger.
I thought I’d had a plot twist spoiled for me but there was so much more going on that I was captivated the whole way by the layers exposed. Yes, Park’s male gaze leers at the lesbian sex a little too obviously, but Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee are so magnificent and joyful that they are magnetic. It made me want to go read Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith which ought to be the point. And to see the film again. Gorgeous. Dark.
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been repeatedly called noir, so let me tell you: it’s not noir though it traffics in some of its trappings. It shocks at the start with indelible images that offer a great litmus test: I’ve heard people call them disgusting. I thought they were mesmerising and beautiful. However, since the movie begins by telling us how jaded Susan (Amy Adams) is about crap art, I guess we’re supposed to hate it. The ‘art is horrible’ subtext is completely undone by Ford making everything look beautiful and sad. I actually found a new appreciation for works like Koons’ balloon dog (was that the one recently broken?) which suddenly looked like a fragile attempt to hold onto a childhood happiness, or Hirst’s Saint Sebastian which, relegated to a stairwell in the tony gallery, gave me a sudden stab of sadness for its hidden pain.
I’m not going to be able to write about this without SPOILERS, so don’t look if you’re planning to see it. Sad Susan is sad; smarmy Armie Hammer is clearly so over her from the first moment he appears and is completely uninterested in her distress that you wonder why it takes her so long to catch on to his affair. There’s distracting stunt casting of Michael Sheen as half of the Holt power couple, with Andrea Riseborough as the other half, perpetuating the myth that women aren’t really interested in sex (just the women who are willing to marry wealthy gay men, Mr Ford) because they’re BEST FRIENDS! ‘You never really had that,’ Alessia tells poor Susan.
Then she gets her ex’s galley of his novel that he’s finally finished after twenty years (wow) and she begins reading it and is totally captivated, flashing back of course to why she left him and her mother Laura Linney predicting it. Maybe the best thing in the film, Laura Linney with gigantic Texas hair (as Angela says, the higher the hair, the closer to god): it made me immediately wish that 1) she had more to do in this film and 2) that there could be a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Linney and Adams because it would be magnificent.
Because of course the ex, Jake Gyllenhaal, is a weak man. And like all weak men in recent years, he dreams of being an uncaring raping, murdering psychopath because that’s strong, I guess. The novel within the movie that Susan is riveted to and disturbed by is really the kind of ‘literary crime novel’ Guy in Your MFA would write. Gyllenhaal’s character says something to the effect of ‘all writers write themselves’ at which I nearly shouted at the screen, ‘But the good ones disguise that rather well.’ His novelist doesn’t. The novel-within-the-film has him play the role of the protagonist as well. He has a wife and daughter who are only there to be killed and raped to provide him with a crisis and pretty, well placed corpses on a photo op ready sofa.
Because that’s what violent mad killers do. Town & country horror films have made much of the wild locals going after city folk at least since Texas Chainsaw Massacre or maybe Spider Baby or before. I think what has made people overlook the clichéd form of the tale is Michael Shannon, giving incredible life to the clichéd cop-with-nothing-to-lose and Aaron Taylor-Johnson channeling Tom Hardy into the clichéd amoral killer. Both work hard to bring some freshness to tired tropes.
But tired they are. Some belated attempt to make this a crisis of faith with the sudden importance of clutched crosses at the end, the ‘horror’ of the break-up having something to do with the abortion Susan had at some point with smarmy Armie and her emerging from the hospital at the exact moment when Gyllenhaal appears horrified (apparently there’s only one place to get the procedure in the whole metropolitan area. I was confused because after reading of the mother and daughter’s demise in the novel, Susan calls her daughter to make sure she’s alright. She is of course filmed sensuously naked in the same pose as the daughter in the novel. And never mentioned again.
So Susan robbed him of a child is supposed to be the thing for which he needs REVENGE (which of course I hear in K-K-K-Ken’s voice), but she had a child? Was it with smarmy Armie? Is that why he kills her in the novel too? Perhaps. I like the REVENGE painting, explained by stunt-cast Jenna Malone as something Susan bought months ago.
I do like the punch in the gut ending. Several people around me vocally did not. But it totally fits the childishness of the character who would write this novel. So, yeah, not interested in reading the source novel. But I didn’t hate the film: it was rather interesting but not in the ways I suspect it was meant to be.