Friday, 22 October 2010

Malpertuis (1971)

A Belgian film

Malpertuis is very much a Belgian film. It was made by a Belgian director, Harry Kumel; it was based on a book published in 1943 by Belgian writer Jean Ray; it was partly filmed on the harboursides and in the streets of Bruges and Ghent; and it displays the visual influence of Belgian surrealists Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux. Jean Ray was the nom de plume (one of many) of Raymundus Joannes de Kremer. He had been a prolific writer of popular fiction in the first half of the century, taking the pre-existing detective character Harry Dickson, a thinly disguised version of Sherlock Holmes, and making him his own, introducing elements of the fantastic and macabre. He adopted the Ray alias in the 40s to write a series of stories in the mode known by the French as the fantastique. It seems a rather a nebulous term, and attempts to define it, such as those by academic Tzvetan Todorov, tend towards a literary snobbishness which excludes much which would immediately cause such critical constructs to tumble. It can be said, however, to have had its antecedents in the Decadent movement of the 19th century, with writers such as Theophile Gautier, Prosper Merimee, JK Huysmans, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Octave Mirbeau (what wonderful names) and, indeed, Oscar Wilde, who themselves drew on the baleful influence of Edgar Allan Poe. Both decadence and the wider stream of the fantastique which both continues and contains it can be seen re-emerging in the modern literature which has come to be known as the ‘new weird’, which is embodied in the work of writers such as Jeff Vandermeer, Jeffrey Ford, China Mieville, Tim Powers and M.John Harrison. Decadent literature tended to favour artificial worlds and experiences over the real, as demonstrated by the tastes of des Esseintes, the protagonist of JK Huysmans’ A Rebours. This is a novel which is effectively a DIY handbook of decadence aesthetics. For an excellent and highly readable (and at times very funny) guide to the literature, Brian Stableford’s lengthy introduction to the Dedalus Book of Decadence is recommended. Malpertuis, with its titular house and its surrounds comprising a self-contained universe unto itself, certainly fits in with his definition of the form. It has a highly stylised feel, both visually and in terms of its performances. A fevered dream of the world.

Attending the master - Orson Welles as Cassavius
I feel sure that I came across the film on TV many years ago. I certainly remember Orson Welles in an old house. It may just be recollected fragments of a dream – it’s that sort of film. I may have been confusing it with Welles’ own film The Immortal Story (1968) based on one of Isaak Dinesen’s short stories of the fantastic. Orson Welles does lie, in an almost literal sense, at the centre of Malpertuis. It’s one of many roles which he undertook at this time, either as an actor or narrator, and with greater or lesser enthusiasm. For this one, he didn’t even have to get out of bed. Here he plays Cassavius, an ageing old salt who has run aground in his ramshackle old mansion, the Malpertuis of the title. Beached in the capacious vessel of his bed, he roars out commands which echo down stairwells and through hallways, asserting his patriarchal authority from his recumbent throne. Malpertuis itself is like an organism, a living, breathing thing. It is filled with the sibilant hissing of gas lamps, the creaking of floors and doors, the whistling of the wind up in the attic, and the echo of approaching or receding footsteps. A house of many mansions, its corridors are lined with rows and rows of closed doors, which conceal mysteries untold. Dormant memories, discarded notions or forgotten dreams perhaps. As Cassavius approaches death (or as death approaches him) the lights in the passageway beyond the red-curtained womb of his bedroom begin to flicker out, as if the house really is an extension of his living being.

Surrealist shopping
Most of the film takes place within the self-contained world of the house. But it opens in the harbours and streets of Ghent and Bruges. We follow Jan, a sailor, as he returns to visit his home town whilst his ship is in port. He in turn is spied upon by two men, one in bohemian peaked cap, one in a bureaucratic bowler. The latter is clearly in charge, and identifies Jan as their target, whom they follow in the sinister and furtive manner of those plotting evil deeds. The city is a strange and foreboding place. Jan asks for directions to Beacon Quay, where he was born in, but is met with confusion. When he does find it, his old house seems to have disappeared, replaced by a shop draped with fishing nets and weights, a deep sea diving suit standing outside. Perhaps this is a nod to Dali, who wore this cumbersome apparel for one of his attention seeking publicity stunts when he turned up for the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936. Jan is given short shrift by the surly shopkeeper, with his wooden shoes against which he loudly taps his tarry pipe.

The eye of Eisengott
He thinks he spots his sister Nancy, her purposefully striding figure painting an electric flash of blue velvet dress against the drab monotone backdrop of this down at heel part of the city. He runs through a bewildering maze of narrow, cobbled streets. They are grey, dark and rank with a miasma of age and decay. A small, emaciated boy dressed in rags, hobbling out of an alleyway on his wooden crutches, may be the spectral spirit of this place. He echoes Jan’s earlier query as to the whereabouts of Beacon Quay, but with an air of desperation which suggests that he may have been wandering this maze for a very long time. The bowler-hatted man, following on in this chain of pursuit, kicks away his crutches with reflexive malice, leaving him in a pitiful heap on the cobbles. The boy is the only human presence (if he is indeed human) which Jan encounters. He passes a watchmakers shop whose grubby, timeworn clockface sign looks like it has never made any pretence at telling the time. It’s similar to the timeless clock which appears in Isak Borg’s haunted dream at the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Inside, a sombrely dressed man with the bearded gravitas of an old testament prophet watches him pass through age-begrimed windows. The streets are empty and echoing. They seem to be a stage on which some impending drama is waiting to be played out. There is an atmosphere of anticipatory, foreboding stillness which is reminiscent of the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico.

Sylvie Vartan
Jan’s pursuit of the phantom of his sister leads him to an alleyway which seems to be contained within a covered building. It’s a red-lit street of sin, strikingly reminiscent of the one into which Franz Biberkopf stumbles in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. Indeed, the atmosphere of this opening section has much in common with his final film, the similarly dreamlike adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. Having run through empty streets, Jan is suddenly surrounded by a noisy, milling crowd, which includes a good number of his fellow sailors. When he finally reaches the woman in blue whom he has been pursuing she turns out not to be Nancy after all, but a chanteuse floozy named Bets. She is played by French pop singer Sylvie Vartan (who was actually born in Bulgaria), who gets to sing a cabaret song with many a nod and wink, Marlene-style. With a touch of knowing self-reflexivity, the bowler-hatted man gives his critical appraisal, commenting that ‘that little songstress isn’t bad’. The rumbustious club in which she performs, with its red walls and gaudy brothel stage props, is like a Pierre et Gilles photograph come to life (indeed, the duo did produce several portrait of Vartan in later years). At the end of her song, she accepts a kiss from one of the sailors into whose waiting arms she has fallen. He happens to be her then husband Johnny Hallyday, in an uncredited blink and you miss it cameo. Vartan dances with Jan, an unwitting siren seducing him into a trap engineered by the bowler-hatted stalker, who manufactures a melee during which he knocks him senseless with practiced efficiency and malicious glee. Jan falls into a blood red haze of unconsciousness and wakes up in Malpertuis, where his sister, in her blue dress, waits by his side.

Surreal juxtapositions - a boat beached in an abbey
In addition to being influenced by Decadent literary tradition, the film is also suffused with the spirit of surrealism. Dali and De Chirico have already been mentioned, but Belgian surrealists Rene Magritte and Paul Delvaux also make their presence felt in this Belgian film. It shares the aura of still, twilit mystery found in some of their paintings, along with their juxtaposition of the ordinary and the fantastic; or the relocation of the ordinary into a context which makes it seem extraordinary. There’s also something of the bizarre adjustments to the familiar material made in Max Ernst’s collage novels of the early 30s, La Femme 100 Tetes, Reve D’Une Petite Fille Qui Voulut Entrer au Carmel and Une Semaine de Bonte. The Decadent poet Comte de Lautreamont was taken up by the surrealists in the 20s as a kind of patron saint of their movement. They were particularly influenced by his lengthy narrative poem Les Chants de Maldoror, whose violent and vividly evoked world of the uncensored imagination demonstrated the affinity between the decadents and the surrealists. The much quoted lines from the poem, which Man Ray used as the context for his wrapped ‘sculpture’ L’enigme d’Isidore Ducasse, and which act as a manifesto of surrealist intent, refer to something being as ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissection table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’. This collision of disparate objects is evident throughout Malpertuis, and is embedded in the very nature of its plot (the secret of which I’ll reveal later – I’ll give fair warning).

Attic menagerie
The mad taxidermist Philaris’ attic, filled with the mouldering products of his life’s obsession, could be an installation, the motionless menagerie of monkeys and bats, owls, armadillos and rats being a select choice of the strange creatures which the surrealists favoured. Another attic contains Cassavius’ lab, in which specimen jars of varied sizes contain diverse grotesqueries worthy of a cabinet of curiosities. These include creatures spliced from the arms and heads of blank-faced dolls – the kind of models which surrealist animators Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay might bring to life. There is also a strange shop on the ground floor, in which a wall of wooden drawers of the kind found in old apothecaries stretch up to the ceiling, each filled with a different colour in powdered form. The house also conforms to a dislocated spatial geometry which can be found in the jump-cuts of dreams or in the supra-logical juxtapositions of surrealism. The interior of the house is a multi-faceted labyrinth, with many moods and atmospheres. When he goes exploring, large iron ring of keys rattling in his hand, he discovers whole hidden wings opening up beneath attic spaces. He spirals in a giddy dance down a vertiginous spiral staircase of stone which looks like it belongs in a medieval castle and ends up in a windowless vault which feels like it is deep underground. One door opens onto a world of antiquarian ruin, affording a glimpse of the disembodied foot of a classical statue and the stumps of Doric columns. Some of the house’s porthole windows look out on to the rooftops and backstreets of the city. When Jan attempts to find it again near the end of the film, he discovers the faded storefront of the colour shop, through which he regains entrance. But the house also abuts the jagged Romantic ruins of an extensive abbey, at one end of which Cassavius’ old boat is incongruously beached. A night-time procession carrying Cassavius’ coffin outside to its resting place descends by torchlight down a grand cascade of stone steps, down which the fumbled casket clatters until it disappears into an obscurity which suggests great distances and hilly elevations. There is also a wood surrounding the house, underneath which there is one last subterraenean corridor, which provides a seemingly pre-prepared means of escape from Malpertuis’ dangerously heady enchantments.

Surrealist rooms
The mood of the film is autumnal. The trees in the woods are wound in rags of mist and the leaves have turned colour. Some of the corridors in the house have drifts of dead leaves, as if the house too has its seasons. As Cassavius lies dying in his bed, the other inhabitants of the house wearily go through their empty routines, motivated by nothing other than routine itself, its purpose long since forgotten. The death of the tyrannical master of the house fails to bring the hoped for release. His will binds them to the house, if they wish to see any of its benefits (as they surely do), Malpertuis becoming the boundary of their world, and their tomb. Jan, his nephew is his intended successor, the bed awaiting his occupancy. It’s a fate with which he has been forcibly confronted at the blunt end of a cosh. Subtler enticements or invitations were evidently considered likely to have been met with rejection. The household of Malpertuis is stratified into its own layers of social order. At the bottom is Lampernist, the pitiful wretch who cowers in his small cave beneath the stairs, nurturing the flame which he keeps permanently burning in a rocky nook. Then there are the toilers, who tend to congregate in the kitchen below, the one place which doesn’t seem to be affected by the lassitude which infects the rest of the house. Elodin, the faithful old housemaid and cook who Jan remembers from childhood, is still there. There are the Kriekepoots, the ancient couple who scrub, polish and clean and generally try to hold back the accelerating progress of entropic decay within the house. Also to be found in the kitchen are the priest, who helps himself to whatever food is going; and the twitching, giggling taxidermist Philaris, a demented Max Wall character who resembles the newly stuffed rat he is proudly contemplating when we first encounter him. Charles Janssens’ performance in this role is the most pronounced of a generally exaggerated set of characterisations. Most of the inhabitants of the house have the air of actors playing out their parts, roles in which they are trapped and which have become hatefully overfamiliar to them. On some subconscious level they still yearn to burst free from these limited personae, and the strain shows in a constant undercurrent of suppressed hysteria and madness which threatens to erupt at any moment. As we shall see, there is more than an element of truth behind this appearance of role-playing. It’s therefore appropriate for the actors playing them to perform in a self-conscious and stylised manner. Janssens plays Philaris at the same comically bug-eyed pitch of Roland Topor’s Renfield in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. He has a similar nervous laugh, and has to resort to stuffing his filthy handkerchief in his mouth from time to time to stop himself from howling uncontrollably, and perhaps never stopping. Like Renfield, he is a henchman gone to seed in the absence of his master, veering off on his own wayward course and losing himself in the full flourishing of his obsessions.

The Furies
Upstairs and intent on keeping more respectable company are Dideloo, the bowler-hatted stalker who had brought Jan back home with the help of his trusty cosh, handily stashed beneath his titfer. There’s his wife, Sylvia, a woman with lips permanently pursed who finds something to disapprove of in everyone she meets. We have already gathered from the polite enquiry after her health from the madam at the club and brothel that she had once been a performer there. Mathias Crook, with his long hair, peaked cap and short jacket, is the bohemian in this society, happy to accompany Dideloo on his trip into the underworld. He also the proprietor of the colour shop, an establishment with no customers, in which nothing is ever sold. Slightly above them are the three black clad ladies who keep their own close company. We get to know the younger one, Alice, who breaks away from the other two for a short time. They are first seen in the Catholic church, giggling at the pious disapproval of the housekeeper Elodia at their presence and making eyes at the altar boy. Above them is the woman whose arrival is anticipated with a mixture of excitement and dread, the aloof aristocrat amongst their company, who never directly meets the gaze of anyone – Euryale.

Classical scholars in the audience may at this point divine what the secret of Malpertuis is (and stop reading NOW if you want to keep it a secret until you’ve watched the film). On his voyages to the Greek islands, Cassavius had captured the ghosts of the old gods, who had faded as belief in them had dwindled. He returned to his house and had his faithful servant Philaris indulge his passion and sew them into the skins of ordinary men and women. Thus they are condemned to live out their eternal existences in much diminished form, wearily repeating the routines of domestic drudgery and bourgeois propriety until they have all but forgotten who they once were. The lyre of Apollo and Orpheus has devolved to a scratchy victrola record of a lifeless waltz, making its pitiful attempt at gaiety in the stultifying atmosphere of an airless parlour. No-one even notices when it gets stuck. The whole scenario could be seen as an elaborate metaphor for the way in which we can become disconnected from the full potential richness of our imaginative lives. Cassavius seems to mocking the old gods by making them dance to his own tune. He becomes the bullying monotheistic deity of his own circumscribed world, a Gnostic demi-god revelling in his controlling power. By binding them to the house through his will, which promises an inheritance of vast wealth to the last to outlive the others, he further diminishes them by sowing the seeds of greed, envy and suspicion. The executor of the will is Eisengott (the eyes of God?), the same man with the look of an old testament prophet who had observed Jan passing by from the murky interior of his watchmaker’s shop.

Spinning the jaundiced web of fate
The cast of gods is unveiled along with the secret at the end of the film, the masks of skin ripped aside to reveal the features of marble statuary beneath. Lampernist is Prometheus, guarding the flickering remnant of fire which he stole from the gods. The senescent Kriekepoots are Venus and Vulcan, who struggle to recall their former passion for one another as they scour the corridors on hands and knees with bucket and soapy cloth. Dideloo, whom Cassavius had sent off into the fleshpots and crime dens of the city to do his dirty work for him, and who writhed so obsequiously in his presence, is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. His wife, Sylvia, who’d worked in those self-same places before turning into a joylessly calculating and covetous harridan, is Hecate, the goddess of dark places. Mathias, the bohemian hoarder of colours and lover of Nancy, is Apollo, the sun god. The three ladies in black, with their connected strands of yarn looped around their steadily ravelling knitting needles, are the Furies, awaiting to hound any who transgress against the gods. There are also unseen but much feared creatures who giggle in high pitched helium voices, one of whom leaves a bloodied doll’s arm in a mouse trap which Jan sets out in the attic. What are these creatures who inspire such horror. Has Cassavius also brought back the remains of the Titans, whom he and Philaris have managed to shrink into the even smaller forms of a child’s dolls. Or are these the reduced concentrates of nymphs and satyrs, the echoes of capricious spirits still delighting in incubating chaos and terror.

Gorgon hairstyle
Finally, there is Euryale, the only one amongst them who has retained her true name. Jean Ray had previously used the name for one of Harry Dickson’s foes, Euryale Ellis. She is one of the three gorgons. She is immortal and unchanging because she was never forgotten. She is Love and Death, both of which are radiate from her gaze.
Euryale is played by Susan Hampshire, who also plays Nancy and the younger of the Furies, Alecto (or Alice). These three characters are explicitly linked in two sequences in which they are shown in rapidly intercut succession. They can be seen partly to embody three aspects of Jan’s desire, the force which keeps him from leaving Malpertuis. Fair haired Nancy in her blue dress represents a ‘pure’ sisterly love, the companionship which he has enjoyed since childhood. Dark haired Alice, the renegade Fury dressed in black, offers the dark side of this love, a purely carnal relationship through which she also hopes to become fully human. They make love in a room to which only she has the key (it’s not on Jan’s big iron keyring) and which is decorated in a rich, engulfing blue. It is the blue of Nancy’s dress, and hints at an incestuous desire also suggested by the identical dress worn by Sylvie Vartan’s good time girl whom Jan had pursued to the club in which she worked. The symbolic and transgressive idea of incest, of the divided self re-united, is employed in much decadent and surrealist literature and film. It’s a unifying theme in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, more manifestly so in Vitezslav Nezval’s 1935 novel than in Jaromil Jires film adaptation of it. It is also a central element in Jean Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles and Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1950 film adaptation, in which characters once more retreat into a large house which becomes their self-enclosed world. Red-haired Euryale represents an idealised love which verges on worship. It is the love of the medieval troubador, with his ideal of courtly love, a devotion to a noble lady who might scarcely acknowledge their existence in return. Jan’s divided desires are held up for mockery by another trio of women. He encounters three prostitutes in the city’s night of masked revelries who beckon to him and offer enticements from the shadows, promising to reveal all. The first takes off her death’s skull mask to reveal a young woman beneath; The second removes the mask of a crone to reveal a middle aged woman; The third removes a mask of baby-faced adolescence to reveal the face of a cackling old woman, whose heavily shadowed eyes and blackened lips anticipate the inevitable progress of all towards the skull which the first woman had removed. Youth contains the shadow of mortality, and age the shadow of youth.

Bringing colour to Romantic ruins
Jan’s desire leads to him becoming incorporated into the household order of Malpertuis. After his night in the blue room, he exchanges his sailor’s uniform for a bright, blousy orange shirt. It marks a domestication, a decision not to go on any further voyages. His transition to such bright tones, which match the orange of Alice’s bodice, previously hidden beneath her dutiful black, suggest that he has been blessed by Apollo in his Mathias guise after a visit to his colour shop. The adoption of colour comes with an acceptance into their number, the company of the gods. Elodia, the housemaid, claims that she no longer knows him when she sees him thus attired, and takes her leave soon after. He has made his choice and crossed over. Such gaudy splendour is singularly denied to Lampernist/Prometheus, who complains that he is not allowed colour from the shop, and must remain wretched in his washed out grey rags. It is the price for defying the gods.

Ghoul gods
Alice/Alecto’s attempts to discover her humanity (also indicated by an unveiling of colour) and to act according to her individual will causes a crisis amongst the Furies. They exist to carry out their terrible duty, and her wavering from this unified purpose deals them a shock which creates cracks in their assumed personae. Their mythological core is reawakened, and this rediscovery of their essential selves spreads to the others who are gathered in the parlour with them. It’s like an idea which becomes viral and instantly infectious once it has been expressed. From this point onwards, the film takes a strange turn towards generic horror. As a group anamnesis (a recovery of recollection or a forgetting to forget) takes hold, the gods arise and gather themselves into a shuffling zombie pack. Euryale remains unaffected, because she never did forget. Her nature never changed. She kisses Jan, and there is a brief moment of frozen time (an attenuated fraction of the gorgon’s full petrifying power) before he finds himself magically transported to the dark night-time woods outside. This is one of several moments of simple camera trickery scattered throughout the film which are essentially little different, an improved level of technical accomplishment aside, from the prestidigitations of early cinema fantasists such as Georges Melies. They create a sense of a temporary suspension of the otherwise stringently applied laws of the universe. A gap opened for a subatomic instant in the interstices of reality.

Jan flees through the night with the priest, who shows him the tunnel beneath the wood through which he blindly races to escape the vengeance of the gods of Malpertuis. The priest remains, and in a moment which could almost be a parody of Hammer gothic, holds his crucifix up (and it’s a nice big wooden one) to ward off the relentless, groaning approach of the god ghouls, only for it to be engulfed in the flames belched out by Vulcan. The old magic is still there. Jan wakes up in Sylvie Vartan’s (or Bets’, if we can remind ourselves that she is playing a character rather than herself) changing room, his vivid experiences having apparently been nothing but a fevered dream stirred up by the blow to his head. But it is a dream which he refuses to relinquish. It is more vivid than life and has excavated buried depths of desire and longing. He goes off in search of Malpertuis, with Vartan accompanying him in blue velvet. They eventually discover the faded frontage of the colour shop, opposite the clock sign of the watchmaker’s shop which marks this timeless quarter. It looks like it has been long abandoned, but it affords him re-entry into the house. Inside he comes across Lampernist/Prometheus chained to a slab. Jan clumsily puts his hand in Lampernist’s extruded liver, which an eagle swoops down the stairwell to take a peck at. We are still firmly in horror film territory here, with a red dash of classical gore from mythology (respectable horror, then).

Return to Malpertuis - finding the colour shop
The house now seems to be empty, a haunted mansion waiting for its ghosts to move in. The conventions of the genre are respected but in inverted form, as it is Jan who becomes the imperilled blond, still dazed from his head wound and overwhelmed by the manic energy of Philaris, who leaps out from the shadows of his attic. He is manacled to the taxidermist’s blood-stained dissection table, and told that he will be made immortal. Philaris sharpens his rusty scalpel and giggles gleefully as he contemplates where to make the first cut to start on his latest masterpiece. Fortunately for Jan, Euryale is on hand to save him once more, reducing the poor taxidermist to shattered rubble. She tells him of the true nature of the house’s inhabitants, the gods who have lived within their hides, flayed and sewn with real skill and love. She has acted as their judge, putting a halt to their terrible resurgence, which has seen Prometheus once more consigned to his punishment of eternally recurring torment. She has frozen them in a petrified last supper line-up, an artfully arranged stone tableau. She offers him the bitter fruit of knowledge which, as in the garden of Eden, is the knowledge both of love and death. They reach out to each other as if to take up the positions for the start of a danse macabre. They embrace and Jan looks into Euryale’s face as she looks up, raises her eyes and opens them wide.

The burning gaze of the gorgon
There follows a strange and rather unsatisfying coda, in which we find Jan in the present day. We know it’s the present day, 1971 style, because there is a sudden cut from the gorgon’s gaze to a shot of Concorde’s sharp-beaked profile cutting across the sky. Jan is being discharged from a mental hospital, where he is congratulated by the doctor (who is Eisengott) for having written such a vividly imagined therapeutic diary. Now dressed in a grey suit, he walks out through the white, clinical corridors of the hospital, which seem as labyrinthine as those of Malpertuis. He is accompanied by his wife, Catherine, who is Susan Hampshire in red-haired gorgon guise (but without the snake-stranded coiffure). As with Dorothy’s awakening from her colourful dream in The Wizard Of Oz, the characters who have peopled the story are seen here as their real selves; Doctors, nurses (three of them in a conspiratorial huddle, and Sylvie Vartan, smiling to see him recovered), visitors (including a nun – the housekeeper) and patients. It is another kind of hierarchical order within an encosed world – that of the institution. Jan’s wife leads him to the exit doors, but stays on the inside as they close behind him. He turns to find himself in the corridors of Malpertuis once more, the doors fading to brick walls. His sailor self appears at the opposite end and walks briskly towards the grey suited Jan with the confident air of one who feels at home here. Is this his more authentic self? Is Malpertuis the mansion of his mind? Who is the dreamer and who the dreamed? Or is this in fact simply a thoughtlessly appended double-shock ending of the kind which would become tiresomely familiar in horror films post-Carrie? The closing quote from Lewis Carroll, bracketing the opening credits Tenniel illustration of the Jabberwocky, doesn’t really help much in answering these questions, with its gnomic question as statement ‘life, what is it but a dream?’ It’s an inconclusive shrug with which to finish an otherwise remarkable film. I prefer to shift the end back a minute or so to the willingly fatal embrace of human and immortal, the unshuttered gaze of the gorgon capturing the audience in a final mesmeric freeze frame.

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