Saturday, November 21, 2009

CASSANDRA'S DREAM (2007, Woody Allen)

It never occurred to me how hard it is to write a blog. Actually it did and I avoided starting one a long time. It’s not so much the effort of writing (I type endlessly on message boards, emails and blogposts, posts of great length, greater length cumulatively than the cumulative word count already catalogued herein). It’s just that when one is given the choice to create discussion, one does not always know what to write about. I have always been very repressed about writing about myself and am incapable of being directly self-revelatory about my life, my family and my friends. So it was a nice idea to write about films where I could sublimate my identity and my ideas behind the aesthetic and political values of a film or any other work of art. Then there is the question of writing intelligently and sensibly about cinema which is very, very difficult (and hence why the world needs good film critics). In short, it’s taken me time to update this blog since my last post. It wasn’t a question of time needed to write, or a case of writer’s block or confusion about what topic to deal with next. Just a lack of cultivation in regularly writing about films in the last few weeks.

Anyway, the film for discussion is Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream which is one of his best films and among the most misunderstood. When this film came out two years ago it received bad reviews of shocking vitriol. The general idea was that this film was an attempt to return to the style and tone of Match Point – English setting, class conflict, murder, meditations on morality. Film reviewers who see many, many films on a daily and weekly basis may have some excuses for this simplistic reduction of this film (which is actually quite different from Match Point) but is there any reason to say, as one critic does, that, “we have Cassandra's Dream, a movie that returns to the essence of Match Point like a dog to its vomit.” Those that displayed greater sanity, even the good critics, underrated the film. As such, this is a minority opinion(shared however by Richard Brody of the New Yorker, who I usually disagree with).

Cassandra’s Dream begins with the purchase of a boat. The boat is purchased by two brothers Terry(Colin Farrell) and Ian(Ewan McGregor). The Blaine Brothers (as Terry ironically dubs the duo later on in the film) christened the boat after a dog that won Terry a bet in the races. The name of the dog and the boat and the film is the same. The allusion to Greek myth however escapes the two brothers. Terry absurdly calls it "a lucky name."

The two of them as framed in the marina gate are trapped. They want to buy the boat because it is a good boat available at a reasonable price and they have fond memories of sailing this boat as a children in a boat with their Uncle Howard(Tom Wilkinson). But they don't have the money yet. However Terry reveals unexpected earnings from a recent betting spree at the dog races. The first act of the film is driven by Terry's brief spurt of gambling success. He wins at dog races, he wins 30, 000 pounds at a poker game. His luck allows Ian money to take his girlfriends to fancy dates. Luck as a concept and idée fixe is central to Match Point but Cassandra's Dream actually starts when the lucky spurt ends and the characters are socially cornered and trapped as a result.

Another idea introduced is the curious enigmatic role of Angela (Hayley Atwell). Ian borrows cars from his brother's garage(which apparently caters to rich motor enthusiasts) and seduces his girlfriends by giving them rides in exotic vehicles. Ian Blaine is the more ambitious and practical of the two brothers. He is intelligent, practical and smart. Terry drinks, takes pills and gambles. He's also very charming and likable. Ewan MacGregor's performance is excellent in part because he's able to portray Ian's charm at once as something real and effective and at another layer, a performance. Ian is charming and likable because he has to succeed in his investments and property deals. To seduce his girlfriends, who are usually working class, and the present one is in fact a waitress at his father's restaurant. He has to be charming to show that he is at once refined and accessible. So Ian's charm is at once functional and real. Catering to the demands of his audience and his needs.

This changes when he meets Angela on his latest romantic date.

She is an actress who moves in more refined circles. The circles that Ian believes he deserves. She's also very beautiful and the two of them "make a wonderful couple"(as one of Angela's friends observes). At the same time, she's also as ambitious as Ian, eager for success and exposure. Ian's obsession for Angela isn't the source of tension in the film but it is part of the texture of the film. In Woody Allen's films, characters are at once types, or symbolic representations and at the same time three dimensional believable characters. So Angela is both a "muse" who inspires Ian to drive further and faster up the ladder and a character who is trying to survive in the society she lives in. The final line of dialogue in this film where she and Terry's girlfriend Kate(a pre-Happy Go Lucky blonde Sally Hawkins) are out shopping and she encourages her to buy a white dress noting, "I wore something similar when Ian first saw me" rings with a strong force especially in relation to the brutal denouement with which Allen intercuts the scene with. In Woody Allen's film, the attraction at first sight is the beginning of the tragedy for the two brothers. This romance of course doesn't relate at all to the plot which begins only a quarter of the way into the film. The first act is devoted to showing the world of the Blaine Brothers.

Of the British films that Woody Allen has made, this one is the only one not to feature American actors. Some of the cast have acted as Americans in Hollywood movies of course and America (more precisely, California, Woody Allen's bête noir from Annie Hall) is a key offscreen presence. But the total immersion into London is less touristy than Match Point. The first act shows with great detail and use of colour (the star DP on this Woody Allen film is Vilmos Zsigmond) the milieu in which the Blaines live with their father(John Benfield) and mother (Clare Higgins). The father's business is a restaurant at which Ian works. The restaurant is struggling and his mother wastes little time in berating her husband about the fact that much of the money that pays the bills comes from her brother Howard who is a successful plastic surgeon who has recently opened a clinic in China.

At the heart of the film is two tense dining scenes. The first is the second scene of the film. The subjects of conversation has to do with the boat they have purchased, Ian's lack of value of money, why they even need a boat and of course Uncle Howard whose sister says, "Thank the Lord the man is a Prince." Allen is careful to frame this conversation by showing the lunch that they are eating in the frame.

The conversation about who puts money for the family and who in fact makes the food they are in the act of eating possible, and the conflict that results out of this imbalance in the family structure between parent and actual provider is stunningly evoked in this scene, the actors are totally connected to the roles, Zsigmond's use of colours is brilliant and the dialogue is sharp and precise. The film shows a family that is dysfunctional, the parents depend on their children and the children are dissatisfied by the options available to them from helping their parents. The mother gushes at how her brother Howard has never forgotten her despite his success and she talks about the unbreakable family bonds. For the brothers and for Allen, the Family is a trap, a prison ready to swallow up whole the children of the next generation for the survival of the previous. Yet the problem does not lie with their parents who are at least honest and understanding for their dilemma. The real monster is benevolence. Who they owe their money to, the man whose generosity they depend on. Howard's benevolence drives a wedge between husband and wife and divides sons from their father.

This is apparent in the second dining scene where Uncle Howard enters the screen. He takes them to Claridge's(an expensive restaurant) for his sister's birthday. Where the early dinner was open and frank about the family's resentment and grudges, this one is repressed and formal. The father is sardonic and checked in and Howard's princely demeanour dominates the space.

The conversation is also topical. China, where Howard has opened a clinic in, is a booming centre and "they are much more capitalistic than we are". The two brothers are quite and hopeful in their behaviour. They want something from Howard and wait for their cue. Howard then decides to have a talk with them alone.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors there was a striking moment of expressionism when Martin Landau's character has a symbolic exchange with the rabbi he is treating regarding the fact that he is considering killing his mistress. The scene where Uncle Howard shows his true colours is a similar moment, except it's taking place in a real place and is meant to be a real encounter. Yet there's nothing naturalistic about this moment. It's in fact completely theatrical in design. When Howard takes them to a dark leafy patch between trees and says, "I think you'll agree that family loyalty cuts both ways." If Hayley Atwell seems to be both muse and aspiring actress/socialite, Howard is Mephistophilian in design.

As played by Wilkinson, Howard is like Ian, a charming man who is likable and generous on the outside. He defines himself by apperances (like Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors). Even after Martin Burns(Philip Davis) falls out with him, he admits to keeping in touch with him socially("even if we both know what the score is"). When he asks for his favour of killing off one of his associates, he speaks hesitantly, reluctantly building slowly in intensity until he lashes out with surprising brutality(just as rain showers drapes their huddle beneath the trees) describing the compromises he has made for success and the fact that the Blaines need him for the success of their careers. He presents himself as a desperate man, full of fear of getting caught yet he knows that he has power over his nephews and exercises it with little hesitation and remorse. Scott Foundas in his perceptive(if dismissive) review of this film noted that the exact details of Howard's transgressions which causes his fallout with Martin Burns is unmentioned, noting that it posits Howard's wealth and success and position as being enough of an explanation. Yet it is only by Howard making this Faustian dilemma that Cassandra's Dream becomes one of Woody Allen's moral parables.

In the Greek tragedies, the conflict takes place in royal families and their conflicts become tragedies on a grand scale and style. There the motivating forces are the Gods, the glory of military service and the fate of the country. In Cassandra's Dream, it's money and all the rest are justifications. Ian says that he and Terry are no different from people who serve in military conflict, "If we were soldiers, we'd have to kill total strangers every day, all to profit politicians who are up to here in corruption!" Motivation becomes self-justification despite the truth of the proclamations. Ian has no problem with it, Howard is indifferent to it. The only person who has a problem is Terry whose drinking and pill taking seems not to drown his anxiety and moral qualms but amplify it. The irony intensifies when it turns out that the dim loser Terry is the one that comes up with the foolproof manner in which a murder can be committed without any trace of a crime scene. The idea is good enough to inspire actual murderers provided they are good at woodwork.

Colin Farrell's performance as Terry is one of the best efforts in all of Woody Allen's films which is saying a great deal. The abject degradation of Terry in the final act is striking because of how the character seems to want to control himself and the very attempt to control himself makes him unhinged. At the same time, Ian is finally on the verge of complete success. Angela commits herself to him, her parents like him and he has enough to buy his own posh car without having to rely on his garage. The only thing left to hold him back is his bond with Terry, who he loves and who can compromise him the most. One scene at a racetrack, after Terry has lost his job at the garage shows the divide between brothers in a way that's never been seen in movies.

Terry confesses his personal issues coping with stress and even his contemplation of suicide which Ian tries to defuse by trivializing it. Terry confesses to him because he has no one else to turn to, Ian handles him delicately out of love and self-interest, one inseperable from the other. It's a mutually suffocating and self-destructive relationship and the main reason is because they love each other in a world and society that is hostile to that kind of consideration. That makes them tragic in a way that the characters of Crimes and Misdemeanors or Match Point are not, in a way that no other character in Woody Allen's films are.

A great and beautiful moment in this film is the one single tender moment shared between the Blaine parents who otherwise are at each other's throats throughout the film. This moment takes place right before the pair murder Martin Burns, the hit ordered by their uncle.

"I dreamed about the boys last night," says the Father.

"Again?" she replies.

"When they were young," he finishes.

The cut after this medium shot to a two-shot of the brothers in the car is especially powerful.

It's a moment of deep sadness.


  1. That's a great post and a fantastic analysis of the film, which I really need to revisit someday. As big of a Woody fan as I am, I was definitely underwhelmed by this one. I considered it an improvement over Match Point in some ways — certainly it's the only Woody film in which the anguishes of class are felt so acutely — but at the same time thought Woody had returned one time too many to the same well, the guilty feelings of murder. I'll have to rewatch it, though, since I suspect there's much more to it than that.

  2. Good post, Arti, and welcome as one of the very few defenders of what is, I agree, an undeservedly maligned picture. How was it received outside Britain? Over here, the reviews were positively homicidal, and while I'm aware of the basic reason for that (both McGregor and Farrell really miss their accents quite badly), it seems so petty. I guess that in a tightly-knit cabal like film critics, you get a kind of blood-lust going.

    The two things I particularly like about the film: the editing, which is much tighter than anything in Woody's work for years, and which adds a lot to the sense of rising tension as the murder plot emerges (I think some of the editing in late-period Woody - let's say, CELEBRITY or HOLLYWOOD ENDING - has been shockingly lazy, as if he just can't be bothered with it any more); and the sense of London. He missed London as a place embarrassingly badly in both MATCH POINT (otherwise not a bad picture, I thought) and SCOOP (less good, to put it politely), but he's spot on here. The feeling of a city run almost entirely on greed and financial aspiration, and the contrast between the brothers' home life and what their uncle can offer them is clear in every frame. CASSANDRA'S DREAM is a film with a terrific atmosphere.

    Nice one, Arti, for putting in a good word for this picture.

  3. The usual cliche about Woody Allen is that his films are dialogue driven and not "visual" enough but in this film, everything is expressed filmically. The editing is indeed fantastic. With Match Point he was obviously going for a tourist vision of London since the Rhys-Meyers character is only interested in surfaces(like he doesn't read Crime and Punishment and instead reads Critical notes on the book) so you have scenes showing cliche upper-class country houses and high-culture arenas like Tate Modern and so on.

    With Cassandra's Dream it's about characters who spend their lives in that neighbourhood(which might make the accents a real issue for a Londoner) so it's a different feel of London, the only tourist bit is the trip to Brighton. Glad that you like it too.