Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Lamentations of the Women

My first thought when I started thinking about The Trojan Women (1971, directed by Mihalis Kakogiannis) was that I would use the line "Euripides? I rippa dose" as a title. All hail Chico Marx and all, but it doesn't really fit, especially considering how utterly bleak both the play and this movie version actually are. The Greeks could ladle on the misery. I thought about writing about this as a variant of film noir--certainly many of the characters are engaged in film noir's sexual obsessions and downward spiral--but I think that more properly applies to Electra, which Kakogiannis filmed ten years prior to this film. THIS film, on the other hand, has interesting circumstances.

It was made in the late sixties/early seventies, when national cinemas of all kinds were in a state of upheaval. Nationalities were in a state of upheaval, as well, and the strong anti-war theme of The Trojan Women is very much of its time. In its formal qualities, it is the product of a decade of New Waves. The jump-cut is one of its most effective cinematic tools. It's also the work of an exile. Kakogiannis made the film in Spain; his native Greece was under an authoritarian thumb at the time. The international nature of the production gives Kakogiannis a once in a lifetime cast. All of this seeps into the warp and weave of the film.

The story is bleak, and it's the story that echoes down the millennia. Everything else is set dressing. In the aftermath of the fall of Troy, the women of Troy wait in the ruins to see how the victorious Greeks will dispose of them. It focuses on four women, mainly: Hecuba, the queen of the city state; Andromache, the widow of Hector, the great Trojan hero; Cassandra, the mad prophetess who has been raped by the Greek hero Ajax; and Helen, the woman whose face allegedly launched a thousand ships. Each gets their turn to wail their lamentations to the desolate hills around the smoking wreck of their city.

Hecuba is played by Katharine Hepburn. This was a golden period for Hepburn and this role is a plum. Her harsh, bitter voice is matched with cause for bitterness. Hecuba has seen her sons killed, her husband killed, and her city destroyed. Worse, she has been claimed as spoils by Odysseus, the architect of the city's fall. She is also invested with all of the remaining authority of the Trojan state, so it is to her that the Greek herald, Talthybius, comes with word of the women's fate. It is she who is to mediate their capitulation.

Cassandra is played by Genvieve Bujold, and it is through her that the filmmakers unhitch their camera and spin into wild stylistics. Defiled, the movie finds her in the cave temple of Hymen, the god of marriage, where she dances like a dervish, torch in hand, setting light to the world. She's still beset by visions, though they now seem unreliable. She mistakes a Greek soldier backlit by the sun for Apollo, the giver of her second sight. As she is hauled away, she sees her own death in the future. The film focuses on Bujold's face in this scene, moving in and out with a series of jump cuts. It's a haunting sequence.

Andromache is played by Vanessa Redgrave, whose miseries rival Hecuba's. During the course of the film, she has one more heaped upon her as her young son, Astyanyx, is taken from her by Talthybius on the order of the Greek kings and thrown from the walls of Troy, lest he grow to manhood and take revenge upon the Greeks. Hector, it seems, haunts their nightmares even after his death. Andromache tries to defend her son, but Talthybius tells her that if she resists, she will not be allowed to bury him. It's a bitter, doom. Redgrave invests her performance with the weight of the world.

Finally, there's Helen, played by Irene Papas. Papas plays her as a classic femme fatale, who wraps men around her finger. Classically beautiful--she's the only lead in the film who actually IS Greek--Papas invests Helen with a surprising ferocity. She's a force of nature, defiant in defeat, and Menelaus, her wronged husband, is completely cowed by her. Hecuba demands her life for her crimes against Troy and against Greece, but Menelaus relents.

The filmmakers have greatly streamlined the play for the cinema. The Chorus is mostly eliminated, except for a few striking instances when the nameless women of Troy who wander the background hills gather together. In the film's best sequence, they recount the fall of Troy in a series of haunted close-ups, assembled--again--with a series of jump cuts. The fates of the women of Troy are universally awful, and the whole enterprise stands as a wailing indictment of the brutality of war. Some things never change. The danger in presenting this in a film is that it occasionally becomes a head-cutting duel between the characters. The scenes between Hecuba and Andromache, for instance, become an exercise in "my misery is worse than yours." And that's a serious flaw, make no mistake. It also becomes strident in its themes; it uses them as bludgeons. I was talking about this with a friend of mine after I watched it and he noted that The Trojan Women might be the greatest piece of anti-war literature ever written. I don't know that I agree, because, as harrowing as the experience of watching it is--and as riveting as the performances in this particular movie are--it's hard to endure. But then, that's the nature of anti-war literature. Sometimes you need to be brutal about it.

For the record, I probably like Lysistrata better as an anti-war screed, but that's mainly because I have a dirty mind.

1 comment:

Keifer said...

I just watched this film for the 3rd time and I have to say it really improves with repeated viewings. Once one realizes the wailing and lamentations by the 4 actresses will actually BE the film, rather than a part of it, one can readily relax and enjoy each of the 4 characters' stories. It's Hepburn's last great screen role. Never again did she attempt such tragedienne proportions cinematically, choosing instead to sign on to some pretty paltry sentimental fare (Rooster Cogburn, On Golden Pond, and on television Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry). I think it was her last great performance; knowing that, I enjoyed the film even more, and especially the worn, craggy face she let show the world. Redgrave and Bujold are her equal, albeit in smaller roles. Surprisingly for me, the least effective was Irene Papas. Coming on the heels of Redgrave's unforgettable performance, the appearance of Papas as Helen of Troy is somewhat of a letdown. It might have been useful cinematically to use her first in the film to lay the foundation for why the war was fought in the first place. It would have given Redgrave's character more power. Just my opinion. Having watched it 3 times, I would say that "The Trojan Women" may get a 4th rewatch from me in the future. It's one of those films that is not easy to watch, but one feels rewarded for having the patience to sit through so much misery.