Thursday, 27 January 2011

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs

Twilight of the Ice Nymphs is another of director Guy Maddin’s delirium dreams, a fevered piece of personal myth-making which has no place for the dull reproductions of realism. Maddin’s cinematic reference points tend to hearken back to the silent era and the films of the 30s which followed on from it. It was a period in which Hollywood and other national cinema cultures created extravagant, self-contained fantasies which showed no interest in directly reflecting the reality of the world beyond the soundstage doors. In films such as Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, The Saddest Music in the World and My Winnipeg, Maddin creates his own pastiche of the visual surfaces of silent cinema. Black and white cinematography, with the occasional blush of washed-out tinting; fogged lenses cast a hazy halo around the edges of the frame; Montage and superimposition of images, which combine to heightened expressionistic effect; exaggerated performance styles and camera placements and angles which emphasize their broad gestures; and intertitles carrying exclamatory dialogue and emphatic interjected comments.

Reflective moments in a purple haze
Having said all of that, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs displays none of the above. Like its predecessor, and Maddin’s prior collaboration with regular screenwriting partner Gorge Toles, Careful, it is bathed in vivid, hyperreal colours, rich combinations far gone along the spectral path from their simple primary origins. Everything here is rich and artificial, and accompanied by the ceaseless chatter of the arch and theatrical dialogue. Maddin’s primary filmic influence, as he mentions in the commentary, is Josef von Sternberg, in particular his extraordinary historical fantasia The Scarlett Empress. There is also the feel of a dubbed middle-European film from a slightly later era (the mid 50s through to the early 70s), maybe from somewhere like Czechoslovakia or Austria. The dialogue was all post-synched. Indeed, in the case of Ross McMillan, who plays the protagonist, Matthew, this post-recording was parcelled out to another actor entirely (Peter Glahn), which Ross was none too happy about. The post-recording results in a disjuncture between word and gesture, a distancing effect which further enhances the sense of unreality, of a world set apart. It’s an effect which Maddin presumably deliberately sought to create, as it is certainly in perfect conjunction with the mood of the film. The accents are also wildly and emphatically disparate. Maddin refers to a ‘choir of accents’, and points to the example of The Scarlett Empress, a film whose voices of the Russian heartland range from unadulterated New Jersey to Marlene’s travel-inflected German. He points out that his cast have their origins all over the map. Ross McMillan comes from Edinburgh (granted, we don’t actually hear his voice, but nevertheless…); Shelley Duvall is from Texas; Frank Gorshin from Pittsburgh; Pascale Bussieres is French Canadian; RH Thomas Lithuanian; and Alice Krige has perfect received stage English, although she was born in South Africa. They are all encouraged to play up their idiomatic idiosyncracies. Shelley Duvall drops her g’s, enunciating her final n’s in words such as huntin’ and farmin’; Gorshin growls and barks out steel town vowels; Bussieres and Krige use their accents to accentuate the fey, unworldly glamour of their characters; And Thomson declaims imperiously in clipped, Teutonic tones, every inch the cruel von Sternberg dominant male in his black, quasi-military outfit.

Pierre Louys - lost in fin-de-siecle dreams
The primary influences on Twilight of the Ice Nymphs are literary and artistic rather than cinematic, however. Maddin talks about how he was immersed in the literature of the Decadants at the time, and in particular the fin de siecle writing of Pierre Louys. Louys was a good friend of Claude Debussy, who composed two pieces at the turn of the century around his work. The first was the Trois Chansons de Bilitis in 1899, three songs for soprano with piano accompaniment, taken from Louys’ poetry. The Chansons de Bilitis were Louys’ sensual reveries of Sapphic love set in an idealised, sun-drenched ancient Greece which was more a reflection of contemporary fantasies of sexual liberty than a depiction based in any real historical location or custom. A classical dream of the French fin de siecle mind. Debussy returned to the collection for Les Chansons de Bilitis in 1901 (known separately as Six Epigraphs Antiques), providing musical interludes to 12 spoken passages. These are gorgeous pastoral pieces, scored for two flutes, two harps and a celeste; an ensemble purpose built for hazy reveries. In the recording which I have, Louys’ verses are read in an understated murmur by Delphine Seyrig, the French actress who was one of the anonymous figures placed artistically in the frame for L’Anee Derniere a Marienbad, the object of Antoine Doinel’s youthful adoration in Truffaut’s Baisers Volees, and the decadant aristocratic vampire in Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness. She’s an absolutely ideal narrator for the piece, and her voice casts a mesmeric spell even if you don’t understand a word of French (which might even prove an advantage). The narcotised and drowsy atmosphere of Louys’ verse suffuses the world of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. This world is also given an almost constant underscoring by composer John McCulloch, which is very much in the style of Debussy (La Mer in particular), and of the lush moods of the late romantics.

Moreau interiors
Maddin also mentions a pilgrimage which he made to the Musee Gustav Moreau in Paris shortly before shooting began. The lighting and colour of the film betray the influence of Moreau’s palette, what the director calls his ‘jewelled tones’, as well as of his fantastic subject matter, rendered in shimmering and radiant visionary form. The preternatural clarity of the colour-drenched skies also bring to mind the magic hour landscapes of Maxfield Parrish, or the blurred horizons of Turner’s sunsets blossoming over reflective water. Knut Hamson’s Pan is cited as a further literary influence, particularly in the context of the dream hunting sequences, and the rather obvious phallic play with cocked rifles. The casual removal of a lobster from the tidal bed in which Matthew lies with Alice Krige’s wood nymph prompts Maddin to claims that he emulated Gerard de Nerval’s proto-surrealist and immaculately camp gesture of taking his pet crustacean for a walk on a blue silk lead, although he only exercised it around the set, rather than through the Palais Royal gardens in Paris. The deliberately artificial interiors and tastes favoured by Des Esseintes, the solitary protagonist of JK Huysmans’ A Rebours, are also mentioned as being germaine to the world of the ice nymphs.

Solti's cluttered lair
That world is the island of Mandragora, to which Matthew is returning after years spent in prison for an unspecified crime. He has a passionate shipboard encounter with a beguiling woman who appears as the embodiment of his romantic ideals, and whom he feels assured he is fated to meet again. Arriving on the island, he goes to visit his sister Amelia (played by Shelley Duvall), who owns an ostrich farm. Her assistant, Cain, is a voluble and rough-mannered farmhand who fears that Matthew’s return will endanger the tacit agreement he has made with Amelia which will see him inherit the farm. Frank Gorshin gives a performance of wild-haired eccentricity which recalls his manic cartoon capering as The Riddler in the 60s TV Batman. Matthew encounters the mysterious forest nymph Zephyr (played by Alice Krige) who leads him, possibly in his dreams, to her sea cave bedroom, where they make love as the tide rises suggestively around them. All the island’s activities are overseen by the arrogantly aloof, wooden-legged Dr Solti from his gothic mansion, which is cluttered with occult paraphernalia and equipment part scientific, part thaumaturgical. His companion is Juliana, the woman who had so bewitched Matthew aboard the ship during his ocean voyage back home. Solti is the magus of this island. He masterminds the ‘god-game’ of the story, to use the term included by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, manipulating the other characters with a cruel and disdainfully indifferent intelligence. Clute quotes R.Rawden Wilson (author of the formidable sounding ‘In Parmenides’ Shadow: Explorations in Play, Game and Narrative Theory’), who writes ‘in a godgame, one character (or several) is made a victim by another character, superior in knowledge and power. Caught in a cunningly constructed web of appearances, the victim, who finds the illusion to be impenetrable, is observed and his behaviour is judged’. It’s a narrative form which has existed at least since the tales of classical mythology, and pretty much sums up the plot structure of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

Tidal bed
The cast is fascinating and deliberately disparate in appearance and acting style. The mixture of accents has already been noted. Alice Krige plays one of her distracted, lamia-like characters, a supernatural femme fatale whose haunted features are both enticing and subtly disconcerting. She looks (as much through acting as appearance) as if she is halfway between worlds, and liable to drag unwary souls with her across the threshold. She has become the actress of choice when it comes to portraying the uncanny , both for arthouse directors such as the Brothers Quay (in Institute Benjamenta) and for more mainstream supernatural fare such as Ghost Story back in the 80s, and the more recent, game-based Silent Hill. Pascale Bussieres as Juliana seems to have been transplanted from an Italian film from the 60s or 70s. She has the look of Monica Vitti in an Antonioni film (or, indeed, in Modesty Blaise), of Marisa Mell in Danger: Diabolik, or even, from a later date, Ornella Muti in Flash Gordon (which is possibly more in keeping with Maddin’s oeuvre). Shelley Duvall reprises the gawky innocence of her Olive Oyl from Robert Altman’s Popeye, although Maddin and George Toles also mention her performance in 3 Women, one of Altman’s ‘dream’ films from the 70s. This is evident in the bright and brittle flow of her chatter, which acts as a shield against the casual cruelties of the world (and its inhabitants), allowing her to harbour her own comforting illusions. Her steep descent into mental dissolution also echoes that of the outwardly dominant (and domineering) character of Millie who she plays in Altman’s film.

Taking tea with ostriches
The tone of the performances, and of the film in general, wavers wildly between sincere and intense romanticism and wickedly cruel camp mockery. This is exemplified in the scene towards the end in which Matthew offers up his dead dog to the parting Juliana. The pathos and emotion of the scene is utterly undermined by the deliberately comical flopping of the mutt’s patently unreal head, which is combined with a whine which sounds more like a weary ‘let’s get this over with’ sigh. Maddin and Toles both chuckle heartily at this moment, so it’s bathetic laughs are clearly intentional. The decorous nature of Amelia’s ostrich herd, each of which has a ribbon neatly bowed around its neck, and the ridiculous fussiness of her picnic outfit also make it clear that writer and director are having a great deal of fun. This balancing of heightened romanticism and mocking absurdity, the sudden shift from the sublime to the ridiculous (and the blending of both in some scenes) is difficult to successfully achieve, and the uncertainty of tone might put many viewers off. At the same time, it would be a shame if the film were seen merely as something at which to snigger and sneer and view with a wholly ironised sensibility. I certainly wouldn’t be writing about it with such enthusiasm if I felt that to be the case.

Mandragora, the land of the ice nymphs, is in fact another name for the mandrake root which emphasises what were once considered to be its magical properties. The mandrake was perceived to be the form of a nascent human figure (due to the bifurcation of its roots into what looked like limbs) and it was said to scream as it was pulled out of the earth. A tiny, mewling mandrake makes an appearance in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. These miniscule root homunculi were said to have been seeded beneath the gallows by the last involuntary ejaculation of the hanged man. Dr Solti claims that Juliana was the offspring of his collected sample of such effluvium inseminated by a notorious local whore. It’s a calculated and outrageous play in his manipulative game, its veracity highly doubtful. The mandragora was said to help greatly in increasing fertility, and also to possess powerful narcotic properties, promoting a deep, waking sleep. It’s certainly an appropriate name for the world of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

Edible titles
The fervid mood of this world is immediately set by the opening titles, which are spelled out against a magenta subsoil in what looks like an artful assemblage of fig roll biscuits. The whole backdrop looks fit to scoff down, in fact, although a sugar rush, e-number mania and nausea would swiftly ensue. The cameras slowly panning descent through this colour saturated substrata, as well as the subsequent plunge from a star speckled sky through layers of air and earth, suggests that Mandragora may be a subterranean world (as Maddin and Toles imply in the commentary), a jewelled Pellucidar or long-subsided Atlantis. Toles had originally set the story against a Nordic background, more in keeping with the setting of Knut Hamson’s Pan from which it took its initial impetus. The self-contained world of the imagination which he eventually created is more in keeping with the decadent sources which he and Maddin cite, however. These writers prized the extravagantly artificial over the directly representative.

Vermillion cliffs
Mandragora is nothing if not artificial. It’s a beautiful stage-set world which, in the tradition of A Company of Wolves and Kwaidan, revels in its artifice. The colours of this world are all vivid purples, lime greens, turquoise blues and buttercup yellows. A lemon drop sun hangs on the horizon between sea and sky, and the cliffs are the deepest vermillion (presumably eroded by wind and water, carried along shore by tidal drift, and deposited to form vermillion sands). The endless midsummer haze is filled with a soft, downy snow of feathered seeds, a sun sparkled drift of dust motes (‘as if Liberace were shedding dandruff’ as Maddin amusingly observes), and the occasional angled hatching of warm shafts of rain. The sense of a drowsy midsummer of suspended time, in which life is like a waking dream, draws comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s summer films. In Summer Interlude, Summer With Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night and Wild Strawberries, the briefness of the northern season of warmth and light makes it all the more precious. At the end of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the characters remaining on the island do indeed find themselves huddling in an ice-bound cavern, huddled against the long, dark winter. There are obvious parallels with A Midsummer Night’s Dream too, with its meeting of the everyday and the supernatural, and its more benevolent games and deceptions, couplings and lessons taught and learnt.

Obeisance before the goddess
Given the general trajectory of most decadent literature, it’s no surprise that the fate of the characters in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (and indeed in most of Maddin’s films) tends inexorably towards disaster, delirium and death. At the beginning of the film, we learn that Dr Solti has unearthed and re-erected a statue of Venus, which become the tutelary spirit of the island, standing sentinel at its borders. It seems to magically radiate the infectious forces of love and desire, and both Dr Solti and Zephyr make obeisance before it. The intensified romantic yearnings which she embodies and which fill the summer air as thickly as the drifting seed lead to complex and highly charged entanglements, cross currents of feelings which soon devolve into their dark forms of jealousy and hatred. The evolution of need into detestation is illustrated by the magically animated skulls of the twins now stored in Dr Solti’s morbid collection of curios. These inseparable companions had grown to despise each other in life, but couldn’t bring themselves to part from one another. Finally, one drove a spike through the other’s cranium. The power of their hatred has persisted beyond the grave, however, and if their skulls (one with spike still protruding) are placed facing one another, they will slowly rotate to avoid even this cold and bony intimacy. Grand passions create the conditions for tragedy when thwarted or manipulated. It was always going to end in tears – a petty Gotterdamerung: Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.

Twilight falls

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