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Death and a dancer

by
26 September 2014

by Stephen Brown

Seeing with Salomé: Jessica Chastain in Al Pacino's film Salomé  

Seeing with Salomé: Jessica Chastain in Al Pacino's film Salomé  

BEHEADINGS are not a thing of the past. Al Pacino's film Salomé (Cert. 15) is released at a time when audiences may feel that the grim denouement of Oscar Wilde's play, on which it is based, calls to mind an all too gruesome current reality.

It also draws on Isaiah, Joel, the Song of Songs, and Revelation, and inverts the Gospel narrative. Matthew 14.1-12 mentions an unnamed daughter, under mother's instructions, demanding John the Baptist's head.

Wilde's 1891 drama, drawing on post-biblical sources, names her Salomé, stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. No pawn of her mother Herodias in this scenario, Salomé uses sexual attraction to meet the incarcerated prophet. When he repels the princess, she charms Herod into offering her anything she asks before, not after, dancing. Wilde's final twist is here as it is in Richard Strauss's opera and many other portrayals of Salomé.

The film originated in a theatre production with Pacino as Herod. While minimalist sets reflect the stage version, costumes (if not language) are decidedly modern. The main change comes, however, in the unique look that cinema can convey. Laura Mulvey, an influential film theorist, famously claimed that Hollywood movies overwhelmingly place audiences in the position of masculine spectators who control women by turning them into objects to be looked at.

Pacino, via his cinematographer, Benoit Delhomme, seeks to break with this. The male gaze of palace guards and, supremely, Herod is seen through Salomé's eyes. Film's unique artistic tools assist the process. The close-up allows us to see the anguish on the Syrian Captain of the Guard's face as he stares at her. Others, acting like a Greek chorus, implore him not to look. "Something terrible might happen." It does.

The zoom and/or tracking shot draws attention to a Herod troubled by Salomé's demands. At her much-heralded entrance, slow-motion footage inevitably gives audiences time to assess what all the fuss is about. More importantly, though, the reduced projection speed allows a straight-to-camera female gaze to supersede ours.

Jessica Chastain in the title role leaves no doubt whose will is going to prevail. Well, we already know the story . . . or do we? Pacino links the narrative to the lunar cycle. First, it is pale, reflecting the cool force with which Salomé uses her virginity as a weapon. It fails to annihilate John's equally powerful purity. When the moon turns blood-red, Herod, compromised by his oath, reluctantly sanctions a gory execution. Finally, the dark side of the moon presages the tetrarch's fear of John's prediction that an even mightier one is to come.

The film's weakness, despite bravura performances, lies in Salomé's unexplained insistence on the Baptist's fate. Nor does the wheedling, bribing, bellowing king ever ask why a beheading is her chosen reward for dancing. Instead, we have a film where desires are to be punished, but little is told as to why.

Fortunately, also released simultaneously, we have Wilde Salomé (Cert.15), an intriguing documentary in which the likes of Tom Stoppard, Gore Vidal, et al., throw light on the subject. U2's Bono opines that Wilde thought he could write away the power of sexuality, but failed in the play, and failed in his life. Pacino, whose research involves visits to Dublin and London, sees the work as autobiographical. It's Wilde awakening, through the way he characterises Salomé, to his own sexuality and spirituality.

Herod, nominally Jewish himself, permits his lust for a stepdaughter to take precedence over his utter fascination with the quality of the Baptist's faith. In effecting John's decapitation, the princess spiritually destroys both the king and herself. If pushed to choose the feature film or the multi-stranded documentary, I would go for the latter's thoughtful rendition.

Even so, of the many Salomé films, none I have seen, including this one, is as explosive as Carlos Saura's 2002 flamenco ballet. More gets explained through dance alone than in Pacino's overwrought interpretation of Wilde's words. 

In selected cinemas, and due to be released on DVD on 10 November.

 

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