Dir Nicolas Roeg
Written by Dan Weldon, based on a book by Fay Weldon
Starring Kelly Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Donald Sutherland
|Believe it or not, this is the best poster I could find for this one.|
My continuing series on the post-1970’s career of experimental auteur Nicolas Roeg (WALKABOUT, DON’T LOOK NOW) has proved one of my least popular efforts, right up there with vampire films from the 70’s. Posts tagged with “Nicholas Roeg” do approximately 45% worse than the average post on the website, my blogger stats suggest. It almost seems like for some reason you readers aren’t interested in 30-years-later retroactive reviews of movies which weren’t even liked or popular at the time, and have only gotten more dated and obscure since then. But fortunately I’m not the type to take a hint, so good news, there are still four more of his post-70’s films that I haven’t reviewed yet, and that’s not even counting this one!
PUFFBALL is definitely an odd man out, even in the checkered career of the sometimes-celebrated, sometimes-vilified, mostly ignored auteur. For one thing, it’s his only theatrical film of the new millennium, ending his 17-year hiatus from directing which followed 1995’s TWO DEATHS.* And, as of this writing, it remains his last film to date (he’s 88 now, but said as recently as 2013 that he wasn’t done with directing yet, so don’t give up hope that I might be able to squeeze out at least one more post about the guy). It’s also his first return to the horror genre since his 1973 slow-motion cult classic DON’T LOOK NOW, and as if that weren’t exciting enough, it re-teams him with that film’s star, Donald “Don’t Look Now” Sutherland. Also, and there’s no getting around this fact, it seems to be titled “PUFFBALL.” Not too many movies called PUFFBALL, and that might be for a good reason. To be fair, it’s also sometimes been called PUFFBALL: THE DEVIL’S EYEBALL, or simply THE DEVIL’S EYEBALL. Which, uh oh. Multiple alternate names. Never a good sign. That usually denotes a film which so catastrophically underperformed that some distributor decided to give it a postmortem rebranding in the dim hopes that they might fool some new suckers into taking a look.
|Ah! Now this looks generic and low-rent enough to finally draw a crowd!|
Indeed, PUFFBALL did not fare well with the public, a particular slight given that it could have been billed as a return to form by a man that The Guardian called, as recently as 2008, “arguably the greatest British film director,” with no other qualifications of any kind. Of course, in that same article, the writer goes on to be arguably a little more negative: “It appears that Roeg has been tutored at the Francis Ford Coppola school for semi-retired film directors, in which students are taught how to provoke general indifference and quiet disappointment. If so, he has done his alma mater proud.” Ouch.
Of course, you and I know that the “Francis Ford Coppola school for semi-retired film directors” actually has quite a proud tradition of turning out fascinating, frustrating and surprisingly little gems like TWIXT, so the haters can go fuck themselves. But I do see their point; PUFFBALL is definitely in the same school as some of Coppola’s later work, in that it seems absolutely hellbent on avoiding anything crowdpleasing, and much more focused on cultivating an arty, inexplicable vibe, peppered with enigmatic symbols and startling narrative choices. Which is a roundabout way of saying, “you probably won’t like it very much.” I mean, I’m about as big a fan of Roeg as they come, and I’m not sure I really liked it. It’s certainly not his strongest film as a director, even in the context of his spottier modern period. But if it’s frustrating, it’s frustrating thoroughly on its own terms -- while his decade-long exile didn’t sharpen Roeg’s talents, it doesn’t seem to have diminished his ambition. The result is a film with some crippling problems, but also a defiant uniqueness.
Like many of Roeg’s films (DON’T LOOK NOW, BAD TIMING, EUREKA, TRACK 29, INSIGNIFICANCE, TWO DEATHS), PUFFBALL finds its narrative center in its characters’ destructive obsession. But if the general examination of obsession is well-trod ground for him, the specifics of that obsession are strikingly different: PUFFBALL is a film singularly focused on femininity and motherhood, and almost exclusively focused on women and their unique experience of the world. It concerns a young lady named Liffey (Kelly Reilly, L'Auberge espagnole [The Spanish Apartment], EDEN LAKE, CALVARY), who moves from her cosmopolitan London home to the Irish countryside with her husband Richard (Oscar Pearce, RESIDENT EVIL). Here she encounters her neighbors, the elderly Molly (Rita Tushingham, A TASTE OF HONEY, DR. ZHIVAGO), her adult daughter Mabs (Miranda Richardson, THE CRYING GAME) and Mabs’ husband Tucker (William Houston, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2009). For reasons I confess I do not fully understand, which seem neither entirely hostile nor entirely benign, Mabs uses her folksy witchcraft to dose Liffey with an aphrodisiac, and then sends Tucker over to sleep with her. Whatever she was hoping to accomplish, however, something seems to go wrong when Liffey becomes pregnant with a baby Mabs believes might be Tucker’s. Mabs becomes increasingly jealous, especially when she finds that she is unable to conceive herself, and begins to use witchcraft to threaten Liffey and her unborn child.
There are a couple male names in that plot description, but don’t be fooled: they’re marginalized to impressive degree for a plot which in some ways hinges on paternity. New York Times critic Mary Cantwell, in reviewing the 1980 novel by Fay Weldon which is adapted here with what at least superficially appears to be a rather fastidious faithfulness, wrote “Fay Weldon is also a very clever writer about women. ...she speaks for the female experience without becoming doctrinaire and without the dogged humorlessness that has characterized so much feminist writing. That she can find her female characters funny is not to say that she doesn't take them seriously. ...the men in her novels are, for the most part, dolts…” PUFFBALL the movie goes perhaps even further than making the men dolts, treating them as walking plot points for the women to briefly make use of,*** little better than dogs (in fact, I think there’s some suggestion that Tucker --never given a first name-- actually is a dog occasionally transformed into a human on the rare occasion that Mabs would like a man around). This is very definitively the women’s show, which makes it a strange project for male Roeg and screenwriter Don Weldon (adapting the novel by his mother in his only feature screenplay). Roeg has never exactly had a blind spot for women, creating dense, interesting female roles in several of his movies, but he never struck me as a director with a particularly keen perception of the fairer sex, either.
One might think that would pose a problem in adapting material with such a distinctly female point of view, but silly me, of course it’s a Nicolas Roeg movie, so it hardly matters. I was so busy wondering if Roeg would be able to handle a female perspective that I forgot that he has only a mild and passing interest in human perspective generally. He tends to work best with eccentric, opaquely alien characters (THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, TRACK 29) or larger-than-life archetypes (EUREKA, INSIGNIFICANCE). PUFFBALL dabbles in both, with Miranda Richardson predictably carrying the thing as the fiery, wounded Mabs, a typically Roegian character of pure Id but hazy motivation. Her smoldering low-key intensity --which very occasionally flowers into Roeg’s signature impressionistic cinematic feakouts-- anchors the whole film and give it focus.
Which is good, because it needs all the help it can get in that department. Poor Kelly Reilly, as the uncomprehending victim, doesn’t get to do a lot to do except look concerned and confused, which doesn’t exactly equate to riveting cinema. I imagine Weldon was interested in exploring her feelings regarding motherhood, her isolation, her fraught relationship with the other women -- but Roeg really isn’t. The thematic symbolism is there --including, yes, the puffball mushroom, a symbol of fertility from whence the novel and film derive their silly name-- but the sense of real human psychology is, to put it mildly, not at the forefront. Most of Liffey’s conflict is internal, but the film isn’t all that inclined or apt to probe her internal world (except physically -- more on that later). And she’s the main character, so that’s a pretty noticeable weakness. It leaves a lot of the film feeling a little rudderless, dispassionately coasting through some very small-scale drama which doesn’t come across strongly enough in the performances to quite overcome Roeg’s slow pace and cold framings.
It is a horror movie on some level, and Roeg aptly deploys some slow-burn dread through his quiet pace and disquieting imagery, but there’s no denying it -- the movie is slow and uneventful, and it’s not cinematically strong enough to make up for it. Cinematographer Nigel Willoughby (THE MAGDALENE SISTERS, Downton Abby) shoots in a muddy, muted world of murky green-grays, and editor Tony Palmer (uncredited editor on THE KEEP) doesn’t help matters with his languid pacing and tendency to fade out when a simple cut would probably work better. Worst still is the music, clearly concocted by three different composers who were not working together. It’s mostly ambient keyboards and tinkling piano, and it sounds pretty chintzy. Even the sound mix is murky and muddled, making the dialogue sound like it was mumbled from a long way off. In some way, this is just proof that Roeg is still up to his usual tricks; patient pace, dreamlike editing and odd musical choices are not at all unusual in his filmography. But in this case he’s not working with a team strong enough to pull it off. It’s recognizably a Roeg film, but without some absolutely on-point filmmaking, it’s a little anemic. Even when old reliable Donald Sutherland shows up for a few scenes, he just prattles on about some vague mystical mumbo jumbo, which is possibly thematically important but an undeniable slog to watch.
Fortunately it’s not a total loss. There’s not enough of Roeg’s crazy hallucinatory superpower in here, but even a little bit adds quite a bit of spice. Particularly notable is the brazen decision to shoot several sex scenes from a cervix’s point of view, complete with (what I assume is) a latex models of a penis ejaculating. It’s so out there that it seems to have turned a lot of viewers off (I’m sure those folks would have otherwise loved the movie, haha), and I have to admit it’s audacious enough that it’s hard not to chuckle a little. But even if the film’s themes are as muddy as the photography, its essential fixation on motherhood as a semi-mystical fount of life makes this startlingly clinical depiction of sex as a biological act exceedingly appropriate. If it doesn’t quite “work,” at least it shows that Roeg is still willing to take some outrageous risks. And that’s an honorable goal, too. We have lots of movies that work. We don’t have nearly enough that would put a camera inside a big rubber vagina. More of that next time, please.
* He did two made-for-cable movies in 1995 and 1996, but let’s not talk about that.***
** OK, actually we should talk about it. One is a re-telling of SAMSON AND DELILAH featuring Eric Thal, Elizabeth Hurley, Dennis Hopper, Diana Rigg, Michael Gambon and the voice of Max Von Sydow, known collectively as “the five most Jewish actors on Earth”. But the other one is called FULL MASSAGE. It’s about… well, here’s how wikipedia describes it: “Full Body Massage (1995) is an erotic made-for-cable movie directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Mimi Rogers getting a nude full body massage while talking about relationships and philosophy with her masseur (Bryan Brown).” Sounds, um. Like I’ll have to review that at some point.
*** Not that I’m complaining. Gentlemen, welcome to 90% of female roles.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2016 CHECKLIST!
Good Kill Hunting
None, actually. You know your movie is in trouble when the studio won’t even spring for a tagline-writer.
Yes, both faithful to the original novel and an appropriate symbol.
Yes, of Fay Weldon’s novel of the same name
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
Donald Sutherland was in THE HUNGER GAMES, Miranda Richardson was in THE CRYING GAME. Not exactly Brad Pitt, but I think they count.
BELOVED HORROR ICON?
Ehh, everyone here has dabbled in horror from time to time, but I don’t think anyone quite made a career out of it.
A surprisingly small amount, considering how much of the movie is about pregnancy. But some.
No, although ungentlemanly use of aphrodisiac.
WHEN ANIMALS ATTACK!
GHOST/ ZOMBIE / HAUNTED BUILDING?
Nah, there’s some witchy tomfoolery, but it doesn’t seem that organized
None explicit, though I still wonder about that dog
Yes, several witches watch people bang
MORAL OF THE STORY
Rural Irish witches really need something better to do with their time.