Thursday 21 September 2017

We Don't Go Back #65: The Reflecting Skin (1990)

What is it about the USA that inspires filmmakers who aren't native to the States to make dramas that aren't just set there, but about the place?

Lars von Trier likes doing this sort of thing, and he's the most obvious example, but he's only one of many. I always feel there's sort of an arrogance to it, a sense that the filmmaker thinks they can tell the Americans about themselves. I mean, it's not that these films are even necessarily wrong, but it's never really what you say, it's how you say it, and who's saying it.

For example, Philip Ridley. In the space of 20 years, British artist, playwright and novelist Ridley made only three films. Of the three, only the most recent, 2010's Heartless (an incoherent mess of a film that I'll be writing about some time soon) wasn't set in rural America. I've written about 1995's The Passion of Darkly Noon before, and I took note of how foreign it feels, how it presents the lonely wood as a sort of fairytale realm.

Its 1990 predecessor, The Reflecting Skin, (made in Canada with British money) is if anything at all even more detached. Like Ridley's other films, performance and dialogue is theatrical, a bit operatic. No room for subtlety here: we're in a realm where allegory rules.

There's no soft focus in The Reflecting Skin. Everything is gold and blue. We're in an age where American movies are colour graded to that gold/blue contrast as a matter of course, and the crystalline quality of the Blu Ray (get the Blu Ray. It's beautifully restored) means that The Reflecting Skin looks like it could have been made last year. In a weird way, it looks like it wants to look like a movie (rather than just looking like a movie, if that makes sense). It has the same sort of Douglas Sirk thing going on that David Lynch tapped with Blue Velvet (which is, let's face it, a much better film). It's not going for naturalism. 

It's some time between 1945 and 1950. A kid called Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) lives with his abusive, frayed mother (Sheila Moore) and his traumatised, damaged father (Duncan Fraser). They run a gas station. He's the sort of kid who engages in cruelty for fun; in the first scene, he and his friends inflate a bullfrog and then make it explode with a catapult stone in the face of the widow who lives across the wheatfield.

The widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), grieves for a lost husband, a suicide. Seth, thanks to his dad's pulps, gets it into his head that Dolphin is a vampire. She looks like the vampire on the cover of the pulp magazine, and tells the boy that she's two hundred years old.

Seth begins to wage a sort of war on the woman, and it consumes him, even while his young friends die one by one.

Seth's father is blamed for the first death, and it comes out that a long time ago he was charged with sodomy. He crumbles almost immediately, kills himself by immolating himself, taking the petrol station with him. Seth only watches, fascinated by the movement of the ashes in the air.

And that's pretty much how he behaves throughout the film. He watches things die and people die, he keeps his own counsel, even when he could stop it all. Seth is the only one who really knows about the beautiful black Cadillac driven by the smiling young man (Jason Wolfe), how whoever takes a ride in it dies. He never says.

When his brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) comes home from his tour of duty in the Pacific, he immediately falls for the widow. Cam is the only person for whose welfare Seth seems to care. The only other thing that Seth sees worth treasuring is the mummified corpse of a baby, which he finds with one of his friends, and which he believes in an angel.

The unfolding of this is heavily allegorical. The Stars and Stripes keeps getting shown to us. It's over the mantel next to a picture of Cam in Uniform. Seth runs through wheatfields wrapped in it. Seth's friend's body is carried from the barn wrapped in the flag.

Cam shows him a picture of a hibakusha child, whose burns (from one of the atomic bombs, although it is never directly referenced) have made the child's skin, he says, so shiny "you can see your face in it." But he can't tell Seth the child's name, or who the person holding him is, and becomes frustrated at his inability to answer. Cameron is losing his hair. Seth thinks it's the vampire, making him old prematurely; but given what he's seen and where he's been stationed, I think there's only one answer why this is.

Dolphin Blue: Poor Seth, it's all so horrible. The nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse.
Seth is not a good kid. He is still innocent, but he won't be for long. He is more likely perhaps to become the driver of the car than the square-jawed veteran (who isn't really significantly more moral than Seth). The mother of one of his dead friends seizes him and forces him to yell that he's full of sin. But he's not. He's cruel in a different way. Carelessly, accidentally.

Seth represents America. Of course he does. His unthinking cruelty, his fascination with violence and death, his blindness to the real causes of things in favour of weird scapegoats is, the film seems to be saying, the cruelty of America. Blind to the threat it poses itself, it resorts to absurd beliefs, and acts on those. It looks up to its armed forces, but will harm them without a pause. These are all things that people who aren't American think about America. But of course it's not as simple as that, and the simplicity of the allegory itself reveals this film as the work of an outsider.

So I didn't like The Reflecting Skin much. It looks beautiful. Every shot is perfectly composed. But it's somehow too distant, too abstracted. everything is too much a storybook America, and while it makes for a beautiful looking film, there's something about it that doesn't sit right with me. I think that beautifully detached fairytale visuals are great, and operatic performances and very direct on the nose dialogue can be excellent when used right, and I'm always up for allegory, but the allegory is driving the film, rather than extending naturally from it, so much so that it's hard to get much out of the film without some idea that this is heavily allegorical.

As a a folk horror narrative, it's essential in all sorts of ways and I think you should see it, and it's certainly political, but I'm not really sure whether it has the right to say what it's trying to say.