Dummies Will Call The Deep End Hitchcockian
It won't take long for dummies to call The Deep End Hitchcockian. It presses the audience's moral reflex buttons and is photographed ostentatiously enough for suckers to feel it's profound. But a bit of thinking uncovers its gimmickry.
As vacantly stylish as Body Heat?a movie no one talks about anymore?The Deep End is also a contemporary attempt at sensationalizing film noir. Directing team Scott McGehee and David Siegel aren't interested in ringing film buff memories (in fact their source, Max Ophuls' 1949 The Reckless Moment, is nowhere mentioned in the film's presskit). They're more committed to pulling a p.c. switcheroo. McGehee and Siegel extend the original film's feminist argument (The Reckless Moment, like Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman and Caught, has become a key text of postmodern film scholarship) into an ambivalent plea for homophilia. Margaret Hall (played by Tilda Swinton) confronts the older male "friend" of her teenage son Beau, a protective act that leads to Margaret discovering and hiding a dead man's body, then dealing with blackmailers to prevent her son from being charged with murder. Ophuls concentrated on the social and emotional webs that entrap women?a critique of middle-class repression?but McGehee and Siegel have changed the plot (from a dallying daughter to a dallying son) in order to show the commonality of the sexual constraint felt by women and gay men. Instead of the mother acting out of primal parental instinct, she now expresses the empathy of the oppressed. So what if it's too obvious, the filmmakers brazen; it's trendy.
McGehee and Siegel prefer contrived acting and super-stylized presentation?including the annoying use of dissociated sound (or is it just badly post-dubbed foley work?). This is meant to alienate conventional, sentimental responses and cue viewers to the film's blatant signifying. Beneath McGehee and Siegel's thin surface (as shimmery slick as the story's Lake Tahoe setting), you can practically see the ideological mechanics: meddling parent seeks control of children's lives. Lone woman carries the household burdens while her husband is away in the military preserving the patriarchy. The underworld of gay subculture threatens family stability. Mother and son shyly commiserate about each one's desperate search for affection. It's all calculated?certainly without Hitchcock's emotional intensity and not remotely as effective as Ophuls' rich social vision. What we have here is a deluxe Sundance movie, meaning that it hews to middlebrow ideas of nifty filmmaking (every confrontation scene is interrupted by a delaying shock cut) and proper political attitudes. But other than suggesting that parent-child fealty can be unshakable, the filmmakers' smartass premise is unsound.
Trying to score points with a slick, gayish thriller, McGehee and Siegel jumble erotic provocation and sexual advocacy. Tilda Swinton and Jonathan Tucker as Beau share pale skin and hollow cheeks?both sensitive victims, emotionally stifled yet drawn to dangerous, illicit interactions. Margaret's involvement with the blackmailer Alek (Goran Visnjic, an immigrant wearing flashy jewelry and a dice tattoo on his neck) adds to the story's strange, sinister sexual suspicion without deepening the characters' emotional connections. It almost becomes an academic demonstration of a transgressive thesis, though it never firmly suggests what it is about the family institution that needs to be violated. Merely suggesting the need for subversion isn't sufficient, especially since this particular family is ghoulishly lifeless.
Swinton, the sterling art-movie figurehead, is always fine-drawn and spectacular, but she hardly suggests motherly warmth (although she was Earth Mother extraordinaire in Tim Roth's The War Zone). She gives art filmmakers like her mentor Derek Jarman exactly what they need: a striking, translucent figure who can shift antinomies?being iconographic one minute and elocutionary (or at least British and rhetorical) the next. Swinton moved convincingly through the gender cavalcade of Sally Potter's Orlando, but her finest screen moments have been as the tragic bride buffeted by a tempest in Jarman's The Last of England (she was a Blakean vision, a friend said) and as the empathetic robot in Peter Wollen's Friendship's Death, where she approximated Deborah Kerr's plangent gentility. McGehee and Siegel don't tap her best qualities; for the first time Swinton, the great artist's model, is opaque, not expressive. (She's as bland as Tucker, the wan teenager who doesn't exactly fit the older man's address as "lover," "precious," "beauty," "tiger.") Swinton's capable, but she's badly directed. When Margaret looks at Beau after learning his sexuality, her face is colorless?not nuanced, complicated, dismayed or shocked. In fact, there's no readable emotion. Like the film itself, this soccer mom is freakishly cool.
Despite The Deep End's arrogant knowingness about how women and gay men struggle in society, Margaret's expression at that crucial moment is distancing. She reflects the filmmakers, who are so presumptuous about their clever thesis that they make a ruinous miscalculation when intending to heighten Margaret's predicament. Alek blackmails her by threatening to circulate a videotape of Beau getting porked. (This, too, is a deliberate semiotic transgression?a reverse of the Freudian Primal Scene.) But it moves everything in the movie to a different, troubling plateau of psychological and emotional impropriety.
Forcing Margaret to watch sodomy makes me wonder: Why do "enlightened" filmmakers still play the game of making gayness seem heinous? The Deep End confuses a radical agenda with commercial luridness. It's not so intelligent as the Dirk Bogarde film Victim, which excoriated gay blackmail back in 1961. McGehee and Siegel have opportunistically latched onto a Hollywood classic without thinking through their transformation. They bowdlerize everything that made Ophuls' The Reckless Moment wonderful and advanced. Now recognized as a superior film noir melodrama, The Reckless Moment was made by an artist who knew that by exploring women's emotions he could provide moral insight into society. Perhaps Margaret's tears seem hollow at the climax because these filmmakers don't know how to show emotion. (More work went into shooting a reflection in a water drop from a leaky faucet than in making the family crisis felt.)
A moment of genius occurred in the Ophuls film when the mother Lucia (Joan Bennett) was joined in the clandestine effort to save her family by their black maid. As early as 1949, this display of sisterhood crossed racial and class lines. Knowingly named Sybil, the maid (played by Frances Williams) bore witness to the covert workings of American domestic life. That alone was a cultural breakthrough. It presented white and black women's unacknowledged capacities for passion, crime, deception, ingenuity, defense. Transferring that insight today to the fashionable ploy of a mother knowing and keeping her gay son's secret may seem hip, but is fatuous; it deprives what at first was a prescient American story of any convincing social truth. Apparently Sundance middlebrows need the false incentives of suspense and transgression to justify their concentration on the political mysteries of gender. Ophuls transcended that narrow focus by also scrutinizing class and race secrets. The Reckless Moment offered a post-WWII view of the tensions beneath American prosperity. The mother's relationship with her blackmailer (Donnelly, a seedy immigrant played by James Mason) communicated a distinct malaise in the troubled suburban setting. Modernism was coming home to roost. It contrasted the U.S.'s pretense of stability with the rest of the world's moral exhaustion. That's how Ophuls' "woman's picture" incidentally became a film noir. Bennett and Mason?two dark-haired, dark-eyed malcontents?flirted unconsciously, taking on Oedipal overtones. When he admired her rare tenacity, she responded, "Everybody has a mother like me"?an assertion of principle and strength that the women's movement 20 years later barely admitted. Seeing Lucia place her fur coat on her daughter's shoulder?suggesting the middle-class' mantle and animal protection?makes The Reckless Moment seem a modern, timeless story.
Giving the new gay generation a glib view of itself?but in the disenfranchised social position formerly held by blacks?is specious. Alek and his associates are, after all, socially privileged white men?another paradox McGehee and Siegel haven't thought out. There's additional gay subtext in Margaret's father-in-law (Peter Donat) puttering around the house, suspiciously denying his grandson's memory of his own male friend ("You and a tall guy who took us flying") that furthers the film's p.c. agenda. When Alek fights his criminal boss Nagle, Margaret views the treacherous combat?a beast-with-two-backs murder?as if in flagrante delicto. Gayness in The Deep End is, decidedly, an appalling spectacle. But there's more propagandizing here than drama. Alek's character is barely defined (Visnjic seems a darkly dull performer). The scenes where Margaret comes face to face with him, their lips almost kissing, makes empathetic sexual politics almost ludicrous. Alek's whispered last words "I think I'm not..." could be his too-late discovery of his own bisexuality.
Those final scenes carry other meanings, too. Swinton's weirdly detached but insistent presence is often framed so that she commands that semiotician privilege, The Gaze. She's the witness to the homosexual secret spectacle. Crying over Alek's expiring body, she emblematizes her legendary relation to Derek Jarman. That's an understandable tribute. But the damnedest question remains: How dare anyone think they could tell this story better than Ophuls already has?
Thomas Bezucha's Big Eden has a surfeit of the emotionalism The Deep End lacks. So overly sentimental it might as well be set in Sundance, it's a bizarre, multiculti sudser in which a gay man (Arye Gross) returns to his Montana hometown to care for his ailing grandfather and discovers an unbelievably tolerant all-American community. If you've been waiting for a film that combines Soho with Mayberry, this is for you. While shivering at McGehee and Siegel's frigid contrivance, I fancied going to an editing room and splicing together scenes of Bezucha's warm homespun multiculturalism and McGehee and Siegel's chilly postmodernism. Maybe it'd produce some steam. That's one way to solve the apparent gay indie film crisis.
The Reckless Moment closes the American Museum of the Moving Image's "Hollywood on the Home Front" series Sept. 9.
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