Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dominus In Absentia

Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz, 1959)

Gore Vidal's adaptation of Tennessee William's one act play is a powerful investigation of memory, trauma and, of all things, lack, the power of an absence. The only son of southern grand-dame Violet Venable, the ghost of Sebastian Venable haunts nearly every moment of this movie.

I don't mean "haunt" in the paranormal sense. There are no deep shadows, eerie apparitions or other tropes of horror films. Rather, it is the obsessive memory of Sebastian that confronts us at every turn. Sebastian is never seen, not completely. At the end of the film, at best, we get his white silk suited silhouette, but never his face, never his undeniable presence.

And there are some impressive actors present. Katherine Hepburn delivers a portrait of a grieving mother with overtones of crippling loss, incest and a meandering poetry that both fascinates and deeply disturbs. Elizabeth Taylor plays the confused and persecuted Cathrine Holly with understatement in most scenes, which makes her near-psychotic breaks all the more compelling. Keeping a firm anchor in this sea of (let's be honest, rather misogynistic) female insanity, is Montogmery Clift as Dr. Cukrowicz, with a calm and analytical performance. His character is a surgeon, but his role is more sedative - like the one he administers to Catherine before the penultimate scene.

With such a pantheon of actors all bringing their A-game to Williams's dense play, it is no surprise that the focus is mostly upon words. Evocative metaphors abound in sprawling monologues, images some times half-glimpsed, some times brightly conjured, that dance about the real problem: the deceased Sebastian.

It is his absence that is the true motor of the plot, of Catherine's supposed insanity and Mrs. Venable's real psychosis. His name appears everywhere, and his description varies from character to character as the movie slowly builds the complex portrait of a son, a poet, a philosopher and a manipulative gigolo. This ever-present absence is also felt in the few artful touches of the director: the occasional skewed frame, the swelling music, the over-the-top garden at the Venable estate. When Sebastian's figure finally makes an appearance, we only see him from behind, through the haze of superimposition - through Catherine's drug-induced and traumatic memory recall.

Sebastian's ghost brings ambiguity and polycentricity to this otherwise realistic and straightforward work. He is many things, but nothing. The idea of him raises more questions than answers. This is the greatest strength of the film: fearless ambiguity and terrifying ambivalence. Ultimately, the movie breaks down the artificial barriers between reality and memory and reveals the detritus left behind in the act.

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