mardi 24 décembre 2013

Old souls in a new life: Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

The French version of this article is available here.

"I'm too old for this shit."
This famous line (uttered by Danny Glover's character in Lethal weapon and its sequels) could be made his by the James Bond pictured here (and for the third time) by Daniel Craig. But it could just as well belong to M (Judi Dench).
Both are being harshly criticized after a hitman stole a list of MI6 agents working undercover in terrorist organizations. A list which should never have existed, let alone have been stored in a computer (imagine yourself keeping a file entitled "password"...) and which theft through an elaborate hacking has only highlighted how obsolete and out of touch with reality British Intelligence Services are.

This first, very public crisis is mirrored by a second, private one. While Bond was trying to stop the thief from escaping, M had to make a decision that could have resulted in Bond being killed. Bond, although substantially diminished, not only survived the incident but eventually learned about M's choice. As much as the seasoned professional in him understands the rationale behind it, his relationship with his supervisor has evolved over time and is now more similar to that of a rebellious child with his stern foster mother - which leaves him both infuriated and deeply wounded by what he sees as a betrayal.

M's abilities being questioned in high places, both her reputation and her position are at stake when she is targeted by a terrorist attack so vicious that the involvement of someone close to her, either in the present or from her past, makes no doubt. Even though Bond has been deemed unfit for service, she has no other option than to call him back to find who is after her...

The release of this Bond film, coinciding with the 50th birthday of the most durable franchise in movie history, had been expected to be magnificent and memorable. When I learned that Sam Mendes had been selected to be the director, I was slightly concerned. While Mendes is without question a clever director with a strong sense of style (American beauty and Revolutionary Road provide sufficient evidence of this), I was unsure he would come through at the helm of an action movie. I'm happy to eat humble pie now since I think that with Skyfall he's done better than merely rising to the challenge.

Indeed, far from trying to hide the deliciously old-fashioned and almost standardized aspects of the James Bond franchise (temptresses, gadgets, plots reeking of Cold War-era spy novels with a waft of plaster, vodka-martini cocktails shaken not stirred, Aston Martin, and above all fighting for the greatness of England without losing one's temper), Mendes grab them vigorously by the neck and put them at the heart of the story. Bond is in pain inside and out, defeated in advance and sent to gather dust on some museum's shelf by the combination of better physical condition and technological skills of his opponents. Affected by the evidence of his own dilapidation, he gets to face his limitations as we all have to at some point in our lives, and envisions what will remain after him. These questions are on M's mind too and are made all the more pregnant by her age, her more exposed position... as well as the fact that her own past shortcomings have generated the enemy who is threatening her today.

The whole movie revolves around images of failure, ruin and decay and makes an extensive use of fall from grace vs. redemption and extinction vs. regeneration metaphors, while brilliantly exploiting settings made of shimmering surfaces and saltpeter-covered underground tunnels. The editing, smooth and ample, allows the viewer to read the action and feel the mood of each scene and character (looking at you, Quantum of solace). Landscapes are given enough space to stretch in, gazes enough time to float through, leaving the eerie impression that everything is vacant and out of sync. Bond appears to be wandering in limbos like a lost soul, from a ghost island to the mists of Scotland, Daniel Craig's mineral, crumbling features reflecting a state that cannot be called "life" anymore - but which is not yet death. Unable to give up without negating everything he has been and fought for, Bond is compelled to get back to his roots in order to return, although at great cost for him.

What about the enemy? It is said that a James Bond movie is only as successful as his villain. Javier Bardem is known as an actor who can play anything - if he ever were up to play Lady Gaga (for instance), I have no doubt he would be absolutely amazing - and his ability for portraying larger-than-life psychos has been made obvious since his performance in No country for old men. Needless to say, I was drooling when I heard he had been cast as Bond's Nemesis in Skyfall and now that I've watched the film I must bow to his talent. As Riva, the unlikely and bleached offspring of Silence of the lambs' Jame Gumb (with whom he shares a poisonous affectation) and the semi-human creature of Alien: Resurrection (for the, shall we say, peculiar mother-son relationship), he is terrifying. As simple as that. He is both Bond's evil twin, since each of them could have played the part of the other, had the circumstances been slightly different, and M's monster child, who spreads destruction for the thrill of it. In his ultimate face-off with Bond, Riva's dark figure delineated against a flaming background conjures up the kind of primal fear that grips one's heart upon facing a beast on the prowl.

At the end of the day, Skyfall is a James Bond movie which does not look the part and it might be just as well. What I mean is this: it's an excellent movie in its own rights, with or without the "Bondian" frills. In tune with its own subject, it also reminds us that, blunt and rusty as they may look, old weapons can still reach their target.  

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