Thursday, December 25, 2008

Review of Footprints on the Moon

[Image: Scene from a giallo!?]

When I first learned that there was a sci-fi giallo with Klaus Kinski called “Footprints on the Moon” (1975) I thought to myself, “Surely I must be dreaming!” This thought continued to occur to me as I attempted to interpret the oneiric assortment of ambiguous visions liberally sampled from Freudian psychology, Cold War conspiracies and the usual giallo imbalances. While reflecting on the film afterwards it continued to feel as though I was recalling a dream, complete with the frustration of logical inconsistencies, the incompleteness of waking just before the resolution and the nagging suspicion of deeper meanings that probably don’t exist. It took a second viewing before I felt I understood it all.

The film stars Florinda Bolkan (staple of “Investigation of a Woman above Suspicion,” “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” and “Don’t Torture a Duckling.”) in a particularly high strung performance as Alice. She loses her job as a translator when her boss informs her that she walked out of a conference and was out of contact for three days. Shocked, Alice realizes that she has no memory of the lost time and must use a few odd clues (a torn postcard, a missing earring and a bloodstained yellow dress) to reconstruct what happened.

[Image: (Top) Florinda Bolkan in “Footprints on the Moon” with uncharacteristically short hair. (Bottom) An alternative photo presented purely as a point of comparison. :)]

The hunt leads her to the seaside tourist trap of Garma, where she meets Harry, a handsome stranger, and Paula, an odd child. Several people mistake her for a woman named Nicole.

Most gialli are inherently confusing, a byproduct of the contrived, byzantine screenplays tangled with suspects, ruses and interlocking schemes. “Footprints on the Moon” struck me as particularly disorienting, despite having only a small number of characters, almost no crimes and scant intrigue. The reason is that we know very little about the lead character and her perspective, through which we experience the film, is untrustworthy. Given the especially high level of difficultly I had following the plot, I’m going to present a detailed plot summary at the end of this review for anyone searching the internet for a concrete explanation. It’s something I should consider doing more often.

For those wishing to remain spoiler free, let me just say that Alice is haunted by visions of a lunar landing conducted by a ludicrously evil Klaus Kinski. Her trip to Garma is really a journey of self-discovery in which she has the opportunity to come to terms with her past. The structure of a character investigating herself provides a curious change-up from the usual murder mystery format. There’s very little sex or violence to distract the viewer, but there still manages to be a wealth of red herrings, blind alleys and misleading implications to keep us on our toes.

Directors Mario Fanelli and Luigi Bazzoni (who will inevitably be referred to as the Mario and Luigi from here on out) have a different set of priority than most giallo directors. That’s certainly there artistic license, but they struggle at times with a rudderless plot that remains excessively coy. They’re highly skillful at creating an uneasy ambiguity and paranoia about what is going on. However, the lack of action, minimal plot progress and the difficultly in discerning the direction the film makes the middle section a chore. The weirdness and the visuals do most of the work drawing in the viewer.

The cinematography is provided by Vittorio Storaro whose work speaks for itself: “The Conformist” (one of the best looking films of all time), “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor” and “Dick Tracy” amongst others. Even compensating for the second-rate taped-from-TV transfer that I watched, this one is not his best work, but its far better than one could hope to expect from a relatively unknown Italian thriller.

Particularly distracting was the extreme use of vivid blue day-for-night scenes, though I half-suspect that these are intentionally dramatic and otherworldly to match with the eerie blue moon sequences. In contrast to the blues and pale tones are occasional yellow and orange highlights. Interestingly, red, the Italian horror color par excellence, is almost entirely absent.

[Image: Alice’s yellow dress standing out in an otherwise dingy apartment. Other yellow/orange examples include Alice’s bright yellow paperback (of the type that give “giallo” the name), her gaudy amber pin, quite a bit of orange-red hair and several sepia-toned “happy” flashbacks.]

Storaro is the savior of the film, often painting over the flaws in Mario and Luigi’s screenplay and Florinda Bolkan’s performance. He brings out the best in architecture, often focusing our attention onto buildings while the human figure is reduced to incidental detail. Reminiscent of “The Conformist,” Stararo makes poweful use of background texture and scale to create compositional beauty tempered by an inhuman, forbidding quality.

[Images: Characters are always on the move in Mario and Luigi’s film, with Alice clopping across flat, telephoto surfaces or funneling towards a vanishing point in wide-angle shots. Not only does this help us pick out the characters in Stararo’s distant images, but it imbues Alice’s investigation with a sense of momentum it doesn’t really have.]

With “Footprints on the Moon” Stararo makes particularly widespread use of silhouettes; allowing us to see Alice’s position and gestures, but shifting our focus from her expressions to the backdrop.

Exterior setting often displaces our interior (psychological) access, meaning that the audience must share Alice’s distressing fear that she doesn’t know what’s in her own mind. This is a technique that appears rather often in gialli, but this film has a remarkable variety of examples, from modern skyscrapers to ornate hotel; from expansive mosques to overgrown ruins. Though it isn’t always clear that these locations have precise meanings that give insight into Alice, but the ending scene certainly does. I won’t spoil too much, but it involves the horrifying transformation of a simple beach into a lunar landscape.

Even without understanding “Footprints on the Moon,” I found myself really enjoying it. Discovering, on second viewing, that it really made decent sense was like an added bonus. Ultimately, I think I appreciate Mario and Luigi’s character study approach. Having since seen their other giallo, “The Fifth Cord,” I can confirm that they are fond of casually tossing aside important details and indulging confusing misdirection. Still, with Stararo’s visual acumen and the oddly experimental tone, “Footprints on the Moon” casts a mighty enticing spell.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Detailed Plot Summary (warning: spoilers):

Two or three days before the film begins Alice is translating at an international astronomy conference. One topic, about mankind’s ability to survive in harsh conditions, recalls a science fiction movie named “Footprints on the Moon” that made a profound impression on Alice. In the film, a scientist named Blackman (Klaus Kinski) is conducting an experiment where they abandon astronauts on the moon and watch them react to the desolation and gradual asphyxiation. Alice saw the movie when she was young and never saw how it finished, but the sense of abandonment, loneliness and death on the moon becomes her ultimate fear.

The film becomes the fixation of her first (that we know of) paranoid schizophrenic episode accompanied by the onset of a dissociative identity disorder. This is fueled by the last line that she remembers of the film, in which Blackman sends out his agents to find a new guinea pig. Alice, believing that Blackman is pursuing her for the same fate as the astronaut, undergoes a mental breakdown in her translation booth. She retreats into a second personality, Nicole, and flees to a half-forgotten place from her childhood where she was safe and happy. The Nicole personality is a combination of disguise (hence the name change, new clothes and wig) and regression (hence the loss of memory, the reverting to how she looked when younger and the return to a childhood refuge).

Nicole/Alice heads to Garma where she experienced her first love with a young boy named Harry while on vacation as a girl. (Throughout the film she claims she’s never heard of Garma, which is true, since she stayed in a different village and Harry took her sailing to his manor near the city.) How Nicole retraced her way to Garma is unclear, but after arriving she buys a yellow dress (she remembers that Harry liked yellow), new shoes and hats and a wig. She also buys a pair of scissors as self-defense. She finds the beach near where Harry would dock his boat and makes a fire in some old village ruins. There she burns her old clothes and the remaining documents from the astronomy conference (she was still carrying them presumably), thus obliterating all remaining links to her past.

Nicole eventually does find Harry and he’s happy to see her again and soon realizes he is still in love. Yet he also notices Nicole/Alice’s erratic, paranoid behavior (not to mention her change of name) and is worried for her sanity after she tells him that she is being persecuted by Blackman and his space agents. While trying to dispel her delusions or trying to get her professional help, she comes to think he is an agent and fights with him. She stabs his hand with her scissors and loses an earring in the struggle. Nicole flees back to her apartment and wakes up as Alice.

We are now finally caught up to where the movie begins. Alice soon finds out that she has “lost” several days. She discovers a torn postcard of the Garma hotel at her house (with the text “Garma” pointing her in the right direction) as well as a single earring and a yellow dress (bloodstained from after stabbing Harry) that she doesn’t recognize, but which fits her. She begins having nightmares about the moon movie every night, and begins taking sleeping pills to overcome the dreams.

Retracing her steps to Garma once again, she quickly encounters Harry, but doesn’t recognize him. He is startled by this new turn of events, but plays along and makes sure to bump into her often and make himself available to help her. He tries to jog her memory by pointing out his stab wound and repeatedly asking whether she has been to Garma before.

Alice also meets Paula, a young girl who thinks Alice is a woman named Nicole. Alice initially dismisses this after learning from a local that Paula has an active imagination and a former imaginary friend. Paula also lies that her name is Mary (so Alice, Harry and Paula all adopt other identities at some point, forming something of an identity duality theme) and recants her belief that Alice is Nicole after being questioned roughly. I attribute Paula’s timidity and odd behavior to various clues that her father or brother abuses her.

Paula’s dog, while digging up bones from the village ruins, also picks up a scrap of paper from when Nicole was shredding her astronomy documents and burning her clothes. A bit far-fetched, but whatever.

Alice slowly pieces together that she is Nicole, after finding the dressmaker, the wigmaker and others who claim to have met her recently. She also discovers the shop where she bought the postcard. This shop, she learns, is also the source of a package that has been alluded to by others. She asks for another of the same, and discovers that her purchase was a pair of scissors. Alice puts the new one in her handbag.

An old lady notes that Alice must have been to the island as a child since her pendant, custom made with “ALICE” written on it, is local workmanship by a silversmith now long dead. The pendant was presumably given to her by Harry when they were young lovers. Memories of her childhood began to trickle back in as she goes searching in the woods for Harry’s house. She passes out in exhaustion and frustration.

When she wakes up, she’s inside Harry’s house near a stain glass image of a peacock, which has frequently figured in Alice’s clouded memory. Harry helps her recall their childhood time together. He explains that his own reluctance to come right out and tell her about their past was due to his embarrassment that she had forgotten him. They have sex.

That night, Alice wakes up and finds Harry is not in bed with her. She goes to the bathroom and find her missing earring, causing her to realize that she must have been here as Nicole (something which Harry hadn’t mentioned). She becomes scared and begins slipping into another schizophrenic episode. She once again dons the wig.

Alice creeps downstairs and overhears Harry on the phone with a doctor/psychiatrist. He must have talked to the doctor previously, when tending to his stab wound and searching for Alice/Nicole earlier that week, but he assures the doctor she is now better (no longer calling herself Nicole or raving about Blackman) and in his care again. He finishes by saying that she “can’t get away this time.” This is one of Blackman’s lines in the moon movie and it fully triggers her second schizophrenic episode.

Harry tries to explain to her about the phone call, now being totally honest about their last encounter, her paranoia and previous attack. Alice begins to doubt her sanity, but the paranoia is taking over and her suspicion of Harry grows (and let’s be honest, he is kind of creepy). After hesitating on the verge of accepting his offer for care and love, she stabs him with the scissors and kills him. She flees from the manor as her hallucinations take over.

We “see” Blackman discover her Nicole identity and zoom in on her with his space station viewscreen. Agents beam down onto the beach and chase Alice as she re-enacts her greatest fear: being imprisoned on the moon. The final shot echoes the astronauts collapse as he dies on the moon, complete with slow-motion that evokes low gravity.

I initially toyed with the idea that Blackman might the psychiatrist that Harry calls on the phone and that she is actually being captured and straightjacketed at the end by real people taking her into professional care, but I don’t think this is actually the case. Blackman exists only as a character in a movie that she projects into her reality. The ending chase is all inside Alice’s head. Harry appears to be a legitimate friend, genuinely in love with her and trying to help. The rarity of conspiracy thrillers where the protagonist really is unwarrantedly paranoid made me overly skeptical the first time through.

8 comments:

Mad Dog said...

Wow, that cinematography is pretty damn good. I found myself accidentally skipping past paragraphs just to look at more screenshots. But man... Dick Tracy? \:[

Walrus said...

I actually think upon Dick Tracy fondly, but even acknowledging that its not a great movie, the cinematography is wonderful. Stararo and the art director managed to design the film so that it only uses the same seven colors of the original comic strip, giving it a strange saturated look with little gradation.

Walrus said...

Sadly, the colors and contrast on my copy of Footprints are really off, so the screenshots don't really capture the full glory. The compositions are really good though. You might also notice the burned-in Danish subtitles, since this was apparently recorded off of scandanavian TV. It might be a loooong time before this gets a restored US release.

exactly why said...

I have always been quite fond of Dick Tracy myself.

But more importantly -

Thank you for the plot summary. It all makes sense intellectually now that you've explained it to me, but I think I'd have to watch it again to be really satisfied. I might also get to enjoy that lovely cinematography a little bit more when my brain isn't collapsing in on itself trying to make sense of the plot.

Anonymous said...

Shameless are about to release this title in the UK.

Anonymous said...

wow, thank you for your analysis! I viewed the Shameless DVD yesterday. Wonderful movie to be watched over and over.

Myst said...

Dear Mr. Walrus. Thanks for your detailed critical analysis - it's great that someone went to the trouble of explaining this one! I have to say - what a fantastic film - I had the pleasure of watching it over the Christmas holidays and it's one that really stays with you long after the film's over (hence me searching for and reading this wonderful review!). Excellent work! Well done. Many thanks!

helpmeceee said...

I wish this was more recent, I doubt you'll ever see this.. but I WAS looking all over for an explanation.. Only because the review that I read that enticed me to see it touted it as "the only giallo that made me cry" .. ugh so I kept waiting, but alas, I didn't get the urge to cry.. and I get the sniffles from commercials! Anyway thank you for explaining what otherwise would have felt like a huge waste of time!!! Also... huge question... why in the hell does the writing across the screen at the end say that she's been hospitalized since 1971?? The movie came out in 1975. Does that mean that all of the events are imagined, like she imagines finding her old lover, talking to the kid, having a steady job, ect ect ....