Thursday, April 10, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: A Dream of Passion (1978)
Director: Jules Dassin
Starring: Melina Mercouri, Ellen Burstyn
A Dream of Passion is a difficult film. I can’t say that I “like” it, exactly, insofar as like denotes enjoyment, but I can definitely say that I have rarely had so visceral a reaction to a film, and that few films have stayed with me in quite the same way that this one has. This is a movie that gets beneath your skin and echoes through your psyche, it's images replaying in your head long after you've seen them. It is about an actress (Melina Mercouri) starring in a production of Medea, and it is about how Medea - the story and the character - has been reinterpreted in the centuries since Euripides wrote it, and how the myth has pervaded and informed our own culture.
Mercouri plays Maya, a famous Greek actress who has spent so much time abroad that she feels like a foreigner in her own country. Like Medea, she is treated as an outsider by the community, but this fact alone isn’t enough to help her connect with the character. Her director, frustrated by her inability to relate to the character, arranges for her to meet Brenda Collins (Ellen Burstyn), an American serving time in a Greek prison for killing her children after her husband leaves her for another woman. Maya visits Brenda but connection doesn’t come easily as they are separated by both the physical barriers of walls and particians, as well as the psychological barriers which Maya erects to keep herself from identifying with Brenda. There is a scene early in the film when Maya goes to the Collins house in an attempt to get a sense of things. She insists that she’s ready to put herself in Brenda’s place, but jumps back when the blinds are opened and she’s faced with the chalk outlines of the children’s bodies still etched on the floor. She doesn’t want to understand this, and this is what keeps her from being able to properly play Medea.
Slowly, as the film progresses, Maya and Brenda begin to merge in Maya’s mind. She imagines the night that Brenda killed her children, putting herself in Brenda’s place – but not fully. She images herself as Brenda when Brenda describes chasing one of her sons through the house and dragging him into the bathroom, but she never puts herself in Brenda’s place during the actual act of murder. She digs deeper into Brenda’s fragile psyche and then turns to her own. She has a long monologue during a party where she lays bare her soul, effectively clearing away everything which has been obstructing her ability to connect with her character. But now her director has another complaint: he’s afraid of the way that she’s playing Medea. She’s too calm, too composed. Through her understated performance we're made to understand one of the film's primary concerns: the impossibility of engaging a work of art without bringing your own baggage - emotional, political, psychological, etc. - to your reading of it.
In a modern context, a woman who murders her children to punish her husband must be insane. Dassin demonstrates this by increasing Brenda’s instability as she describes murdering her children and then sitting down at the kitchen table to eat cake. No sane woman could do this, and therefore an actress playing a character capable of this should be wild, frothing at the mouth on stage, her break from reality so obvious that we don’t have to fear it because we know that she isn’t rational, we know that we can explain her actions away and contain her through her own insanity. But Medea cannot be played that way because that’s not the way she was written. Medea is a character who is terrifying because she is so very sane. She’s cool and calculating and aware of what she is doing and why. Her husband, for whom she sacrificed everything, has left her and banished her from their home. She has nowhere to go and no other way to revenge herself than by killing their children, the sons who were meant to carry on his name. This worked in antiquity because the ancient Greeks were less, shall we say, sentimental about their children. Children weren’t people to be loved unconditionally (we are, after all, talking about a culture that sanctioned the exposure of babies at birth if they were sickly or if the household could not support them); they were a form of their father’s property. That is the context in which Medea kills them, that is the context in which her husband understands the loss, that is the context with which we cannot relate. When Maya plays Medea as someone quietly rational, it scares us. We want her to be insane, we want to be able to lock her up and throw away the key, because we don’t want to believe that anyone could be capable of her actions. We want her to be like Brenda, someone to whom we can’t relate.
The film's other main concern is the place of women in society. In a world where women are defined by their relationships with men, who marry them and make them "wives" and have children with them to make them "mothers," then what are we to make of women like Medea and Brenda and Maya (who, years ago, left her husband and had an abortion - one of the ways in which she is likened to Medea), who reject these societally prescribed roles which are seen as essential for the maintenance of society? These are women who don't easily fit, who can't quite be properly defined by the cultural language. The film itself never really comes to a solid conclusion in this respect - Maya is triumphant, but Brenda is still crazy and the two perhaps cancel each other out - but the questions it raises are intriguing, as is the way that it explores the subject.
Mercouri and Burstyn give tour de force performances and the direction by Dassin is measured and well-paced. He doesn't rush the story in order to get to the "big scene" - there is no such thing here. In the hands of a less capable director, everything would have led up to and down from Brenda's description of her crime. Instead we have here a series of scenes, each unfolding slowly, each revealing another layer, another undercurrent of the story, each folding us deeper and deeper into the psyches of these characters in this emotionally and psychologically intense film.