Tsai Ming-Liang's first feature in five years is a mysterious and alienating series of tableaus about the fragility of flesh and the smallness of humanity.
Spending almost two hours with the relentlessly drunk character is not a pleasant thing at all, and it is also not easy to watch the man who chooses to abandon himself to his own hell. He is almost near at the bottom. All he can do is moving further to the final destination he has been reaching for. He still has some fancy about getting out of his torment, but it only reminds him that he has already crossed the line. He screams out of frustration near the end of the movie, "It's not possible -- not in this world!"
John Huston's "Under the Volcano"(1984) poignantly looks at one of the bleakest states of mind. This is a sad portrayal of a man struggling with his addiction and the agonizing contradiction resulting from it. As one character in the movie says, no one can live without love, but he cannot accept it even if he has desperately yearned for.
The movie is mainly about one unfortunate day of the former British consul Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) who has been stuck in Cuernavaca, Mexico. According to him, he resigned his post for himself, but that may be not true considering his present state. He is a drunkard going through the final stages of alcoholism where the drinking is necessary for getting "sober." He says he can deal with his addiction ("Surely you appreciate the fine balance I must strike between, uh, the shake of too little and, uh, the abyss of too much"), but his abstinence is just the brief moment of looking at his glass. His body soon craves for alcohol, he frantically searches for the bottle, and, after satisfying the need, he passes out.
The year is 1938, and the movie starts with the evening of November the 1st, the eve of the Day of the Dead in Mexico. We see the town people mourning for the dead, the wreaths, the skull ornaments, and the consul staggering around them. Drunk as usual, he goes to the bar adjacent a shabby cinema to meet his friend Dr. Vigil (Ignacio López Tarso) for another drink. He drinks more at the Red Cross ball, where he bursts out in a drunken tirade in front of people after encountering the fascistic influence creeping into Mexico from Europe. He is taken to a town church by Dr. Vigil later, and he prays for what he acutely needs: the return of his beloved and divorced wife.
In the next morning, his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) really comes back to him. He looks at her on the doorstep of the bar where he is just starting another day of bottles. He cannot believe this "miracle," let alone his unreliable eyes. He neglects the sight of her and keeps on his rambling. And then he looks back at her again. It cannot be, he seems to think, and he goes back to his soliloquy. But still she is there right behind him. "Is it really you?" he asks.
After that, we see how the consul, Yvonne, and the consul's half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) spend the rest of the day together. The consul manages to be relatively better for the time being with the help from Yvonne and Hugh. They go to the festival together in the afternoon and then travel around the area by bus. Yvonne wants a new beginning with her ex-husband and the hope begins to look like something tangible to them. However, it seems to be too late for the consul and the fateful night for all of them is approaching with the darkening sky.
"Under the Volcano" is not a hopeful story. Neither is Malcolm Lowry's novel of the same name the movie is based on. As a lifelong alcoholic, Lowry spent his hellish days in Mexico around the 1930s and his experience during that period became the basis for his only major work. He eventually went to the north with his second wife (like the characters in his book hope), and he resided for several years in Canada where he finished the harrowing masterpiece that his whole tragic life had been burned for.
Because of its complex structure and its "stream of alcoholic consciousness" style, Lowry's novel was deemed unadaptable by many after its publication (Luis Bunuel once tried it but gave it up soon). Rather than trying to make a faithful adaptation, Huston and the screenplay writer Guy Gallo selected the materials presentable on the screen and did the best with them as far as they could. After all, Lowry's book is essentially the story of a drunkard at the core, and Huston and Gallo did not miss that point in their reconstruction of the source material.
Huston prudently avoided those dizzy camera tricks usually expected from the dramas about alcoholism. Instead, he emphasized on the lucid, natural physical presentation of the rural Mexican town where the characters are surrounded by its beautiful scenery - including the houses, the bars, the streets, the square, and the looming presence of an active volcano Popocatepetl, the main recurring symbol of the unrest before the World War II in the novel.
The cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who worked with Buñuel in several movies including "The Exterminating Angel," provides the contrasting atmospheres for this world. When the sun goes down, the bright but washed-out feeling of the day scenes is gone, and we are in the dim world where ugly things happen in the lights and shadows. For the night scene at the Farolito bar, Huston added more authenticity by casting real prostitutes because "no decent lady can play a prostitute as well as a real one."
The rest of the job mostly depends on Albert Finney, and the state of alcoholic mind is masterfully conveyed by his Oscar-nominated performance. Playing an alcoholic character is a tricky path with the danger of overacting, but Finney never loses his control even at the slightest moment. With his restrained, carefully-modulated performance, he gets everything so right about a drunken man -- the speech pattern, the facial expressions, the befuddled gaze, and the awkward body coordination -- that you can instantly sense his character's damaged side even when he wears those big sunglasses.
While we know little about the consul's background or what has driven him to his suicidal alcoholism except some implications(the novel gives more detailed information), Finney reveals to us a human being who tries hard but fails to express his thoughts and feelings in the incorrigible condition. He is probably an intelligent man with some sense of humor, but, like any other alcoholic, he is not easy to get along with. He perceives the impending war through an occasionally keen view, but his muddled speech criticizing the negligence of it results only in his embarrassment at the party. He may be wise enough to advise his brother not to involve with the matter of the locals when they come across an incident on the roadside, but he finds himself entangled with it later. He cannot help himself. His mood swings up to the hopeful prospect and then, accelerated by alcohol, it rapidly flows down into the spiteful despair.
Although their roles are seemingly thankless, Jaqueline Bisset and Anthony Andrews are no less crucial than Finney in providing the human dimensions to the story. It seems that Hugh and Yvonne had an affair with each other in the past and that complicates the relationship between them and the consul, but they sincerely care about the consul. They try to stay with him like good hospice workers even after being hurt and rejected by him in the painful scene where he lashes them with his bitterness toward them. Although it is not explained well in the movie, there is more than love in their persistence. Perhaps, like us, they see a man struggling inside his mind from the consul and think that he still needs them even if he disregards them.
While watching the movie, it is hard not to think about John Huston. Like Lowry, He was a notorious drinker, and the consul is not so far from the notable characters in his movies, which are also not so different from Huston himself. Driven by their impulses and obsessions, many of his characters go through the destructive path that ultimately results in the bitter ending, and that was exampled best in his masterpiece "The Treasure of Sierra Madre". In case of "Under the Volcano", the situation is a little different; the plight is almost over for the consul from the beginning and the death, which literally represented by the Day of the Dead, is waiting for him.
The same can be said of Huston around the time he set out to make this movie. He knew his time was short due to his ailing health. He even wrote a letter for Jack Clayton, who had worked with him before, just in case of his possible death during the production. However, Huston reconsidered his thought and decided not to send the letter in the end. He eventually completed the movie, and then went on making another two movies before his death in 1987.
In the essay accompanied with the wonderful Criterion DVD released in 2007, the critic Christian Viviani suggests that the movie was the exorcism for Huston. I agree to that. As widely known, Huston was not a nice guy, and he had damaged many relationships with drinking and gambling and other things he did as if he had been entitled to do. After surviving more than 40 years of his adventure in the movie business, he might have been afraid of leaving the bad memories of himself to the people he cared. He might have seen his fears in the doomed story of the hero who hurts his people and hurls himself into the miserable solitary among strangers.
Nevertheless, he tackled to the challenge with the unflinching observation on his subject, and his exorcism was as successful as Bergman's "Cries and Whispers." His last two movies are also associated with the death in one way or another, but they are more like the liberation compared to the darkness of "Under the Volcano." Furthermore, he helped and got closer to his children while making his last movies with them. The memorable main title sequence with the dancing skeletons in "Under the Volcano" was shot by his son Danny Huston, a successful Hollywood supporting actor at present. In "Prizzi's Honor," a delightfully cynical gangster black comedy, he gave his daughter Anjelica Huston the breakthrough role in her career and she won an Oscar for her performance. And he had his other son Tony Huston adapt James Joyce's short story for his moving swan song, "The Dead." Like the consul, but in a far more positive way, Huston moved on with the remaining strength and concluded his illustrious career with three wonderful movies.
As a harrowing drama about alcoholism, "Under the Volcano" deserves to be remembered with other more well-known alcoholic dramas like "The Lost Weekend" and "Leaving Las Vegas." I have come across several reviewers who do not particularly like it while admiring it because of its sheer bleakness. As a matter of fact, the movie might be bleaker than "Leaving Las Vegas" for the consul ultimately despairs of being incapable of love and even rejects the solace he could have gotten. But he carries on with all his heart - and his bottles. Through him, the movie somehow touchingly reminds us that every drunk tries to struggle with oneself in one's chemical brain cloud no matter how futile it is. They let down not only others but themselves when they fail.
Footnote: I must mention Alex North (1910-1991), for I came to know this movie through his work. As a legendary Hollywood film composer, he made a striking debut with his groundbreaking jazzy score for "A Streetcar Named Desire"(1951) and got the first Oscar nominations with "Death of a Salesman" (1951). With his sparse but functional score for "Under the Volcano," he scored his last and 15th unsuccessful nomination(he is still the biggest loser among the Hollywood composers). In the end, North got a Life achievement award from the Academy in 1986 for his contributions and he was the first film composer to receive the award.
In his acceptance speech, as the composer who had followed his heart in selecting his projects, he urged filmmakers "to convey and encourage hope, humor, compassion, adventure, and love, as opposed to despair, synthetic theatrics, and blatant bloody violence. And sex, sex, sex, by all means... indeed, but with a bit of mystery, a touch of charm and elegance, and lots of imagination." Amidst those cynically soulless commercial products, there are still talented people who follow his words.
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