Thursday, April 2, 2009

Review of Lilith

If you’re interested in seeing a lot of impressive performances by young actors all in one place, give “Lilith” (1964) a try. It’s the earliest film I’ve seen for both Peter Fonda (who plays a sensitive nerd!) and Gene Hackman (as a chauvinist hick) and the second earliest for leads Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg, who both put in superior performances to their respective breakthroughs (“Splendor in the Grass” (1961) and “Breathless” (1959)). It also has some choice minor roles for Kim Hunter (“The Seventh Victim” (1943), “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951)) and Jessica Walters.

[Image: (left to right) Jean Seberg, Warren Beatty and Peter Fonda.]

Most of the cast wasn’t actually famous yet. Far from an ensemble film, “Lilith” is more a character piece with a superb supporting cast. Beatty stars as Vincent Bruce, a shy and semi-aimless ex-army man who decides to intern as an occupational therapist for an expensive local asylum (for reasons that don’t become clear until near the end of the film). His sensitive and non-judgmental attitude make him an effective and popular staff member, but trouble starts when he falls in love with Lilith, a beautiful and beguiling schizophrenia patient.

If you’ve seen other regular-guy/psychotic-girl romances like “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), “Possessed” (1947), “Betty Blue” (1986), “Fatal Attraction” (1987), or “Mad Love” (1995), you know this type of relationship never works out. Actually, you probably didn’t need to see those films to come to that conclusion. The compelling differences here are that Lilith isn’t quite a villainess and Vincent rarely even tries to draw her towards sanity. He’s too busy getting sucked into her world, and it’s tough to blame him. She exudes a mysterious, mystical and erotic glow; a confidence in her personal reality with its own private language (literally) and, as the head psychiatrist puts it, it’s sense of rapture. The sane people never stand a chance.

Director Robert Rossen and his cinematographer Eugene Schufftan (who’d done special effects for “Metropolis” (1927) and won an Oscar on Rossen’s previous film, “The Hustler” (1961)) do an excellent job creating an atmospheric backdrop for the tragic romance. They’re clearly intent (and successful) on giving the sensational B-movie premise an artful treatment. There is an appreciated absence of canted camera angles and shots of people gazing into broken mirrors.

[Image: Framing with froth.]

Poplar Lodge, the asylum for members of wealthy families, is something of a paradise where Vincent thinks to find contentment, peace and purpose for the first time in his life. He spends his time talking amiably with the patients, playing games, walking through the beautiful grounds and supervising picnics. Little time is spent on the less dignified and more stressful side of the business, like practicing safety procedures, restraining patients, defusing arguments, cleaning up messes, dealing with setbacks, etc., although they are alluded to early on.

[Images: Many of the evocative, somewhat foreboding tone shots simply frame Beatty as a dark figure amidst the verdant scenery.]

The staff at Poplar Lodge is relatively hands-off and they show a respect and refusal to condescend that’s ahead of its time (and demonstrative of the filmmaker’s maturity as well). In fact, Rossen and his characters often sympathize and even openly admire their wards. Dr. Lavrier, the head of the institute, notes that many of his patients are geniuses, poets and artists in their own right, but unable to cope with an acute awareness not possessed by “sane” men and women. He describes them as persons who have “…seen too much with too fine an instrument.” Much of Rossen’s film is really about the seduction of such madness, with Lilith’s sexuality only an outward facet of its temptation.

The name “Lilith,” depending on your mythology variant, was either a demon seductress, the sin-spawning first wife of the Biblical Adam or a primal creature born directly from the Earth. All those connotations are relevant here. Lilith, in the film, is particularly associated with nature, especially water and light. She enjoys holding her prism collection up to the sunlight, for instance, and stares at the sparkles in water. When she bends down to kiss her reflection, the ripples distort the image and she muses that “my kisses kill her.”

[Image: A reverie on the power of love to destroy. One could see “Lilith” as a rare film in which love is too powerful a force, such that it leads only to madness and destruction.]

Despite Lilith’s undeniable appeal, Vincent has more than enough warnings to keep his distance. If medical ethics weren’t enough, he actually witnesses her toying with a fellow patient (Peter Fonda), almost killing him over his amorous affections. One of the most disturbing scenes has Lilith compulsively seducing a little boy while Vincent stares on. Her affinity for childlike logic only makes it more uncomfortable.

We hardly the need the film’s bizarrely ominous imagery, including nature slides of a schizophrenic spider’s deranged web and a jousting tournament where lancing rings becomes an aggressive sexual metaphor. But apparently, it’s not enough to scare off Vincent and, personally, I go nuts for that type of thing.

[Images: One of these spiders was schizophrenic. Can you guess which one?]

Shortly after their relationship is consummated, Vincent discovers (presumably because Lilith wants him to discover) that she indulges in other affairs, including ones with women (which was probably still rather scandalous in 1964). When Vincent catches her in the act, her cocksure response is priceless: “If you should discover your god loved others as much as he loves you, would you hate him for it?”

Jean Seberg can pucker her lips and sneer with almost the same facial tic, and endows her character with an integrity that maintains a nebulous state between femme fatale and vulnerable patient. Beatty is equally up to the acting challenge, giving a performance that owes a great deal to Dean and The Method. His long pauses before answering questions, lack of eye contact and his tendency to hold his hands near his mouth, amongst other habits, create a finely-detailed performance. I mentioned how much I liked the supporting cast as well, which is largely due to director Rossen and novel author J. R. Salamanca sticking to a simple rule: develop every character you introduce or cut them from the story.

[Image: Jessica Walters plays Laura, Vincent’s ex-girlfriend who entered into an unhappy marriage after Vincent was drafted. She gets one of the film’s best lines: “Vincent, now you remember when I said I’d never really let you make love with me until I was married? Well now I’m married.” I was kind of disturbed by how attractive she was in 1964, given that I mostly know her as the uber-WASP matriarch from “Arrested Development.” I thought it was fitting to get a screenshot of her with drink in hand.]
[Image: Lucille Bluth of Arrested Development.]
Rossen’s staging really helps delve into the character relationships, aided immensely by the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. There is a preponderance of over-the-shoulder shots, not just for conversations, but often just to show the way characters watch each other. It creates an atmosphere where it feels as though everyone is watching everyone else, a mood befitting a place populated by psychiatrists and paranoids.

Rossen uses wide gulfs in his deep staging to emphasize the gulfs between characters, especially Vincent and Lilith’s two brands of self-imposed alienation. But the over-the-shoulder shots and the fact that both planes are in sharp focus, ensures that the characters are still united in the frame; unable to avoid their connections. It’s as though the camera were joining the screenplay in mocking clinical distance.




[Images: Four pairs of over-the-shoulder shots across rather extreme distances.]

As Vincent and Lilith’s draw closer together throughout the film, Rossen shoots them in tighter framings. Even the edits appear to flow together in long, lingering cross-fades. The compositions parallel not only the Vincent’s increasing emotional bondage to his patient, but his psychological one as well. It provides a visual metaphor for his slide inextricably deeper into Lilith’s dangerous mental frontier. It’s left ambiguous whether he will ever escape.

[Image: The symbolism here probably doesn’t need explaining.]

“Lilith” (1964) definitely fits a profile I find amongst several of my favorite films. It’s a deep focus, black-and-white picture (from a time when those were out of fashion) filled with mystery and insanity. It’s such a solid drama likely to find few detractors, but it’s the hint of primal forces outside the realm of straight drama that really draws me in. The description matches some of my other favorites like “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959) and “The Innocents” (1961).

Walrus Rating: 9.0

8 comments:

Mad Dog said...

I find myself in a bit of a pickle when watching movies dealing with the mental health field. I'm always on guard to see if the movie screws up in regards to the reality of mental illness/psychology/therapy. This is mostly why I despise Hitchcock's Spellbound. Not only is it using really outdated ideas about psychopathology, but the fact that the patient and therapist could fall so easily into a romance and no one would care... It's like the ultimate breach of ethics and whenever the two main characters in that would cavort around like lovers I could only roll my eyes.

So I'm not sure how I feel about a movie that glamorizes a very serious psychological affliction. Schizophrenics aren't "lucky" or "gifted" for having their disorder, it often leads to a lot of pain and ostracizing. Could Lilith do it in a way that I might not have a problem with? Yeah, okay. But it sort of puts it one-down already in my book.

It looks really pretty, though. It must've been a great transfer. Good cinematography like you said, too!

And while this may be a superior performance from Jean Seberg, she gets an 80,000 point penalty for not having a pixie haircut.

Walrus said...

I actually like Spellbound, even though at one time I really hated out-of-date pop-Freudian movies. Now I've come to savor them as a distinctive brand of kitsch, like with movies about communist spies or atomic monsters. But I understand that it doesn't work for everyone on every subject. I can't see past the dated POVs of cowboy-and-Indian westerns or older battle-of-the-sexes comedies.

It can be especially hard since you are in the same field so to speak. But if I had to boo every time they cast Ryan Phillipe or Keanu as a programmer (right...) or when robot AIs make human inferences, I'd be limiting myself quite a bit. Not that I wouldn't be within my rights.

Still, for a movie that arguably glamorizes mental illnesses, Lilith is better than just retro amusement. For my money, the themes were a lot more compelling than if it had gone with a really paternal boy-helps-girl-overcome-childhood trauma-and-is-miraculously-cured-over-night romance. Somehow, it seems more mature and sophisticated when it all ends badly for everyone.

Walrus said...

Mad Dog,

You know what list you should do? Best and worst of mental illness films. I'm not sure which would be more fun!

Elisa Ann said...

I watched the film last night. I am a huge fan of this type of film, the era, the ideas. Every character in this film was fascinating...all except one. Beatty. His acting was washed over in heavy handed brooding. The boy started out clean cut and slacks increasingly until he had trouble keeping his body in alignment with furniture. I about lost my patience with his inability to sit on sofa's and chairs. Dean and Brando did it better. I realize that this is method acting and it was popular then, but this minimalist acting gets tiresome. I would have also liked to have seen more staff dynamics, they all seemed more detached than the patients.

No mention of the mother-lilith connection. Lookalikes to be sure.

Wonderful review.....I really enjoyed the points brought up. I will watch it again to see what I missed.

Walrus said...

I bought Warren Beatty in this film, but I do actually find him a pretty overrated actor. I've always assumed he was popular primarily for his looks, but few of my female friends seem to think that very plausible. Maybe we're too far removed from the era.

As for The Method, I'm glad we live in a time where we need not pay it the exalted reverence it once demanded. I know exactly how you feel with losing patience, especially with the young male stars. I can think of plenty of fine examples of method acting, but many of my favorite directors have little use for the somewhat self-involved psychological performances that became almost standard practice for oscar-hunting celebrities.

Anyway, glad you brought up the mother-lilith thing, enjoyed the film and liked the review!

Ida Tarbel said...

I watched parts of the film over and over looking for meaning in its ponderousness. Spooling back to the beginning, I watch a scene with Bruce and his grandmother. I notice the staircase in the old woman's house is the exact same one used at the asylum to mount the stairs to Lilith's room. I suspect the same set was used for both, indicating a duality about Vincent's mental life and that of Lilith. Its not something you'd notice easily if you weren't going through it a second or third time. Later I saw the picture of Vincent's mother next to Lilith's after Lilith's crash. How did it get there? Also, when Vincent looks into Lilith's padded room after she's cracked, it now occurs to me that one of the nearly still pictures must have been Vincent's mother, not a slightly different look at Lilith as I had first thought. One of the comments criticized Seberg's long hair. It had to be long for those two rubber room hairdos -Vincent's Mom and Lilith- to match up nearly perfectly. Vincent tried to get foregiveness from Lilith for turning the wooden box over to lilith's 'brother' Peter Fonda resulting in Fonda's suicide, after Fonda has just poured out his heart to Vincent his belief that Lilith is beginning to fall in love with him. I don't recall a scene with Lilith asking Vince to return the hand carved box to Fonda. But here's Vincent begging Lilith for forgiveness, when she's clearly the wrong one to forgive him. Instead she turns on him, warming up to the idea of Vincent 'killing' her brother. The next thing you know Vincent has learned his conversation has led to a major setback for Lilith. His knowledge that HE is now the one needing help ends the film. I'll tell you, the movie is smudgey. You have to parse through its leaves repeatedly to see what was concealed beneath.

dollflower9 said...

I found this film amazing, I saw it for the first time the other day and can not seem to comprehennd the ending. Perhaps I just felt that he truely wanted to own her, insanity and all yet due to his blindness towards her extreme fragility underneath the protective shield She haunts me but confuses me too. I would appreciate if you could explain the ending to me because for some reason it struck me that he did kill her for the fact that he could not have her, because really he seemed so detached and had horribly misused her. It was a very lovely and beautiful movie because she was entrancing. I now want to find the book.

FilmWalrus said...

dollflower9, glad you enjoyed the film! Lilith seems to still haunt people every time they discover it. Unfortunately, it has been 7 years since I watched it and I'd need to see it again to remind me how it ends!