Thursday, May 3, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.1: Ridley Scott's The Duellists

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott.

In the words of A.V. Club writer Keith Phipps, “Has any other great director seemed as content to make merely good movies as Ridley Scott?” Over the course of a thirty-five year career, Scott has established a reputation as a master technician with a meticulous, painterly style. But Scott has seemingly put his name on an equal number of duds, mediocrities, and just kind-of, sort-of good movies while making only a few bona-fide classics. His reputation as a great filmmaker is largely based off of a few titles (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise). But Scott has nonetheless engendered a great amount of respect in the film community, and his 20th feature, Prometheus (to be released June 8th), looks to be his most promising in ages. With that in mind, it’s time to revisit the mercurial master’s filmography and see whether or not there are a few other gems spread throughout his work.

Grade: 88 (A-)

Ridley Scott might have had his critical and commercial breakthrough with 1979’s Alien, but his debut, 1977’s The Duellists, is more than just a curio. Based on the short story of the same name by Joseph Conrad, the film won the Camera d’Or (Best First Film Award) at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a striking debut from a great filmmaker in the making, one that exhibits Scott’s extraordinary talent even as his filmmaking career was just beginning.

1800: When French Lieutenant Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) nearly kills the nephew of the city’s mayor in a fencing duel, Lieutenant Armand d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) is sent to put him under house arrest as punishment. d’Hubert only wants to do his duty, but Feraud takes it as an insult to his honor and challenges d’Hubert to a duel. d’Hubert defeats Feraud, but he refuses to kill him. Rather than satiating Feraud’s anger, it provokes him to follow and duel d’Hubert over the course of nearly fifteen years as their rivalry comes to define them.

Already, Scott’s signature style is evident. He films Europe with a painter’s eye for detail, capturing the period richness in all of its glory. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s underrated masterpiece Barry Lyndon, Scott makes every image look like its own naturalistic portrait. Men and women in period d├ęcor flit around the archaic surroundings. Scott’s command of atmospheric lighting informs the mood of each scene: candlelight brings a dark romance to the love scenes. Natural light in darkened rooms brings a mood of melancholy. A hazy scene in a bath, complete with steam rising towards the light, brings a wounded quality to the proceedings. A scene in the blinding, bright whiteness of snowy Russia gives off a feeling of remoteness and hopelessness. Duels in dungeons, with dust rising in the air towards shafts of light, gives an intangible tactile quality to the film.

Carradine and Keitel duel several times in the movie, but to Scott’s credit, each duel has its own particular rhythms and distinct look. An early duel between Keitel and a minor character is framed with a gorgeous wide shot that highlights Keitel’s mastery of the sword. Later duels with Carradine grow more ominous as Scott fills the screen with more portentous smoke, fog, and haze, bringing an increasing sense of impending doom to each duel. Scott’s mastery of pacing is best highlighted by the contrast between the duels and the rest of the film. The Duellists is deliberately paced, but when the duels come, the staccato moments of violence come lightning quick. In a sense, Scott’s style mirrors not only his love of art, but his love of classical music (Howard Blake’s sumptuous, melancholy score recalls the best of the classical masters). Everything builds very slowly, only to come to exciting climaxes, and then slowly fade away again. It’s a style that would inform his twin masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner in the ensuing years.

Scott takes much of his mastery of deliberate pace, visual storytelling, and vivid, exquisitely detailed, painterly style from Stanley Kubrick- he has admitted Barry Lyndon was an influence on this film, while other Kubrick films (2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus) have had clear influence on his other works. But Scott has other noteworthy influences as well. His penchant for long, complicated takes recalls Orson Welles (Citizen Kane is one of his three favorite films). His love of atmospheric lighting recalls both Welles and the German Expressionist movement. Scott’s love of epic sweep and and vast plains, meanwhile, recalls two of his other favorite filmmakers: David Lean and Akira Kurosawa (Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai are his other two favorite films). What’s striking is that Scott could exhibit all of these disparate influences and still create a highly original, idiosyncratic work of art the first time out, and one with great thematic richness to boot.

The Duellists is a tale of obsession vs. mortality. Keitel’s Feraud has an old-fashioned view of honor and dignity when it comes to his masculinity. He feels a need to prove himself at all costs and the slightest provocations. It doesn’t matter that no one really knows what the duels are all about and why his obsession runs so deep. What matters is his sense of honor above all else. As described by Carradine’s d’Hubert, honor is “indescribable and unchallengeable”, but that’s most evident with FeraudHe is a military man with a great sense of loyalty to Napoleon, and Napoleon’s loss of power doesn’t change his loyalty to him (Scott’s own father was a military man, something he incorporates to many of his films). He has principles that are unchallengable. He has a strong mastery of dueling and a very particular sense of how to duel. When he faces near certain death in Russia and is forced to work with d’Hubert, he still does not drop his grudge. It becomes a tale of obsession for obsession’s sake, which feels appropriate for the obsessive Scott.

d’Hubert’s honor, meanwhile, is secondary to his fear for his own mortality, a theme that’s evident in many of Scott’s films. There is real weight to the first several near-death situations for d’Hubert, Feraud, and other minor characters, but d’Hubert is most easily shaken by it. One notable duel shows his life flashing before his eyes in brisk staccato intercuts- this man’s fear is real. He becomes fatalistic as he realizes Feraud will not give up his pursuit- he realizes the absurdity of his situation, of life, and of the reality of how brutal and ugly death is. As the men are faced with their mortality in Russia (freezing temperatures, Cossacks), d’Hubert is clearly more bothered by it. Where Feraud is a strict Bonapartist, d'Hubert is more willing to go with political changes- he describes himself late in the movie not as a royalist, but as a "realist". It is not mere cowardice that powers d’Hubert, but a reasonableness, value for life, and real struggle with mortality. When Feraud ends up on a list of Bonapartists to be executed at the guillotine, d’Hubert meets with Albert Finney’s Fouche, minister of the police, to get his name off the list. Fouche has a rich man’s contempt for the poor (Finney is excellent in his only scene), but d’Hubert’s sense of honor extends to his compassion.

Carradine and Keitel are both effective as the complicated protagonist and antagonist, but they’re not perfect fits. They’re both terrific actors, but they’re very American actors, and they’re both a bit off in a very European setting and cast. It’s exactly what John Huston avoided when he chose to cast Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King rather than Paul Newman and Robert Redford- this type of casting would work in the age of Old Hollywood, but it stretches the line of credibility here. They’re not the film’s only flaw- Stacy Keach’s infrequent, omniscient narration is mostly unnecessary (though hardly the all-encompassing drawback in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner), and d’Hubert’s love stories don’t entirely work. They’re handsomely photographed, but they lack depth. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon managed to make the love stories in Barry Lyndon all-encompassing and gorgeous while doling out very little dialogue, but Scott has a bit of trouble in a subplot that should have either been longer (the film is only 100 minutes) or cut altogether. Then again, the relationships don’t define d’Hubert so much as they provide brief respite from his fear of death and the obsessions of his rival.

SPOILERS: It all culminates in a magnificently staged final duel, this time with pistols rather than sabers. Scott brings a foggy air of dread and doom that would help define his best films. The mortality of the central characters is more real and pronounced as ever, and in a deliberately paced final hunt full of suspense and danger, he stages a brilliant final coup. d’Hubert finally has the chance to kill Feraud, but his value of life is too great. He has already saved this man once, and he spares him again. “Conduct yourself as a dead man. I have submitted to your notions of honor long enough. You will now submit to mine.” And as d’Hubert returns to the happiness of his family, Feraud is forced to wander the woods alone, contemplating this obsession that has gripped him for over a decade and the meaning of d’Hubert’s mercy. In a final pair of shots so gorgeous they could be painted as masterpieces, he overlooks the sea as the sun sets (complete with a beautiful lens flare). A final, beguiling close-up of his face brings everything to a close.

The Duellists, unfortunately, was a disappointment at the box office. Scott’s next dream project, an adaptation of the 12th century romantic tragedy Tristan and Isolde, was put on the backburner, never to be made. But in the same year, another movie, Star Wars, brought Scott new inspiration for a big-budget science-fiction film that would still satisfy him as an artist. The result, one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made, was Alien.

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