Bond Ambivalence

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Daniel Craig is a fiercely compelling James Bond, with blue eyes so cold they scorch, but my heart sank a bit when, during a sad moment in Quantum of Solace, he drank himself into a stupor and professed neither to know nor care what he was drinking. Sean Connery’s 007 was every bit as masculine-hard but could still tell you on which side of the vineyard the grapes had been grown; he was an irreducible mixture of brutality, irony, and elegance. That said, Connery’s Bond was an unusually bogus construct, meant to demonstrate the enduring potency of the old-boy English upper class; it was a fine irony that the producers needed a roguish Scotsman to put the whopper over. Craig embodies the new, anti-elitist Bond, the unstable toughie in a world of ever-shifting alliances—a world of neither queens nor supervillains. He looks splendid in a tux, but he’s not at home in it; he’s more in his element when shirtless, his chest and arms so engorged he can barely sit up straight. It’s the body of a brooding obsessive—humorless, forsaken, shaken and not stirred. I miss the erudite, bon vivant Bond, but Craig is a 007 for an earthier, edgier age.

Quantum of Solace is the most cynical of the 007 films, stopping well short of The Dark Knight (the champion popcorn-movie downer) but acidic enough to ask: How can even the most resolute spy make a dent in our despair? Our next president will, with luck, instill in us the audacity of hope—and, not incidentally, bring back the age of optimistic superheroes. For now, we cling to the hope of audacity.

Damaged goods after the romantic tragedy of Casino Royale, Bond here is undermined by his own government and the CIA, both of which agree to look the other way while a multi-tentacled outfit (part SMERSH, part Halliburton) installs a murderous general in Bolivia in return for rights to the country’s natural resources. That the slippery baddie, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric), works under the guise of an environmentalist is the ultimate insult: The plunderers have appropriated the vocabulary of saviors. Against this, Bond is icily single-minded. Damn protocol, damn alliances, damn M (Judi Dench), he will chop away at this edifice of evil.

The story line is fast and deliriously convoluted, one scene hurtling improbably (but ingeniously) into the next, Bond’s impulsiveness and calculation working thrillingly in tandem. If the staging were as witty as the plotting, Quantum of Solace might have been a corker like Casino Royale. But when the action starts, art-house-refugee director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball) mashes together close-ups in the manner of The Dark Knight, and every big set piece is borderline incoherent. On the neat side of that border is a battle in which Bond and his foe seesaw up and down on pulleys to reach a gun—a war between gravity and force that might have been conceived by a tipsy physicist. On the other side is a boat chase so bewildering you only know it’s over when something finally blows up. The movie opens with a car chase that’s also a hash, but nowhere near as ghastly as the theme song that follows, an anti-fusion of Jack White’s caterwauls and Alicia Keys’s breathy soul stylings called “Another Way to Die.” Worst Bond theme ever? Let’s just say Madonna is now off the hook for “Die Another Day.”

The screenwriters, Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade, take their cues from two of the best (if not the two best) Bonds, From Russia With Love and Goldfinger—but the differences are telling. Angry and guilt-ridden after his catastrophic Casino Royale love affair, 007 does not put the moves on the distractingly luscious (if tightly wound) Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko, a forbearance which left at least one male viewer in need of a cold-shower equivalent. (Seth Rogen naked on a nearby screen?) The other, related difference is the absence of catharsis. Robert Shaw’s blond assassin and Harold Sakata’s Oddjob had classic comeuppances, whereas the Quantum villains meet their fates offscreen. Granted that modern action filmmakers are over-promiscuous when it comes to avenging “Die, you sucker!” climactic skewerings. But don’t we deserve some release?

Central to the new Bond’s ambivalent universe is the role of M, a scolding mother who dispatches agents to waylay her prodigal son and is quietly (so quietly) pleased when he eludes them. What a mixed message! And what a surrender. As much as I love Dench’s exquisite deadpan—that scowl contains multitudes—it’s a pity M has become another in a line of movie and TV authority figures who tacitly say, “Do what you feel is right. but I won’t back you up. I’ll vilify you to my superiors. I’ll put obstacles in your path. If you succeed, I won’t even give you a hug.” The message is that it’s impossible to do good if you work within the system—the antithesis of the phony old Bond adventures, but possibly in its glib pessimism even more pernicious. Craig’s Bond needs to learn to savor an aged Bordeaux and navigate the tony clubs, if only to infiltrate the ruling class and beat it at its own rigged game. He’s James Bond, for Pete’s sake. Who wants him to be a common malcontent?

A retrospective of Arnaud Desplechin’s films at the IFC, pegged to the release of A Christmas Tale, is called “Every Minute Four Ideas,” which deftly evokes the 48-year-old writer-director’s taste for abrupt shifts in tone and style, ceaseless psychological circumlocutions, and onscreen invocations of drama, myth, and philosophy. It all sounds very intimidating. What the title doesn’t conjure up is how engaging Desplechin’s films are on the level of, well, bourgeois narrative—how tender, funny, cruel, and upending. We French-art-movie mavens are accustomed to grappling with intellectual jigsaw puzzles. Desplechin offers emotional ones. The rub is that their edges are illusory. Each character has his own way of framing experience—his private myth. The pieces don’t fit, but playing with them opens your mind.

Is A Christmas Tale a masterpiece? Maybe. I have to play with it longer. It’s certainly Desplechin’s most accessible film, in part because its dysfunctional-family-holiday-reunion genre is so comfy and its palette so warm. Familiar, too, is the parent-with-cancer device. The ill matriarch is played by Catherine Deneuve, well preserved but anxiously so. She is Junon, a narcissistic iceberg who hesitates over a bone-marrow transplant because of a potential side effect—essentially being burned alive from the inside. That ivory skin is too precious. The son with compatible marrow is the obnoxious drunk Henri (Desplechin regular—and alter-ego?—Mathieu Amalric in his second juicy performance of the week), the one she frankly loves least and who frankly doesn’t love her back. Their frank admissions of non-love are flabbergasting.

Five years earlier, Henri was banished from the family by his melancholy playwright sister (Anne Consigny) after she paid back money he extorted. They loathe each other. She regards him as a threat to her stability. He sees her as a succubus. They’re both unfair, but it’s fair to say they make each other crazy. We recognize the story’s mythical underpinnings: the long-ago death of the 7-year-old firstborn, and the parents’ inhuman refusal to mourn; the sacramental transplant that threatens to transform its new host into something monstrous—a chimera. The characters mull these symbols over. Henri writes to his sister, “We’re in the midst of a myth and I don’t know what that myth is.” In Desplechin’s My Sex Life, characters fixed on Kierkegaard and noncommittal antihero Peer Gynt. Here they turn to Nietzsche and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The citations are the opposite of pretentious. The characters are groping for higher wisdom. But self-knowledge is terminally elusive.

Desplechin might be the most earnest ironist alive. Amalric is an antic sprite whose eyes are wired open in anguish. His girlfriend is the strange, gorgeous Emmanuelle Devos, who follows this family with a gaze half-aghast, half-enchanted. A Christmas Tale is a bad dream with just enough distance to give us a midwinter’s night’s laugh.

BACKSTORY
Arnaud Desplechin is a director known for scavenging for artistic inspiration in his personal life. Last year’s L ’Aimee, his documentary about selling the family’s longtime home in Roubaix, France, was a nonfiction example of this tendency. Desplechin’s blurring of art and life got him in trouble when his ex-girlfriend accused him of ripping off her private life in the 2004 screenplay for Kings and Queen. In 2005, she retaliated by publishing Evil Genius (Mauvais Genie), a roman-à-clef with a sleazy director named “Arnold Duplancher.”

Quantum of Solace
Directed by Marc Forster.
Sony. PG-13.

A Christmas Tale
Directed by Arnaud Desplechin.
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Bond Ambivalence