Brian De Palma’s European Nightmare


(versão em português aqui)

Last week when I wrote about Ferrara’s The Projectionist, a friend point out on social media that Domino, Brian De Palma’s last movie was released in New York on the main character’s rent a theater screen scheme discussed in the movie. That drove home for me how much of a marginal film figure Brian De Palma current is. He hasn’t made a film with Hollywood money since Mission to Mars near two decades ago (that movie imagines its futuristic mission as set in the year 2020 and in a typical self-referential beat Domino opening is set the day after it). De Palma famously crashed badly with Orson Welles in the set of Get to Know Your Rabbit, but Welles has always been an useful reference point for his work and his late career exile in Europe has a very Wellesian feel none more than Domino.

By all accounts a production nightmare, Domino is less a full movie than the assembled dream of one. There’s rumors of a much longer cut, there’s also rumors of current cut been what was possible salvage of an impossible shoot. By Brian De Palma’s own account during the 100 shooting schedule he stayed two thirds of the time in hotel rooms waiting for money to arrive. The film release got postponed for a year before producers could pay everyone involved. For a while it seemed like Domino might just get shelved.

It was also the first film Brian De Palma did after Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s 2015 documentary De Palma which less celebates him as much as close down his career. A movie that received far more fanfare in media than any of his late work and that seemed active hostile towards his 21st century oeuvre (his previous Passion get dispatched in under 2 minutes), An act of necrology. Some follow suit, a particularly vile review on Indiewire asked De Palma to retire.

So what is the available Domino like? A movie about the European union as a police state where reality is mediated by images of terror and the need for the state to provide containment. And as such a vision it carries more power than its DTV thriller origins can quite sustain. That helps explain as much as the production troubles why the narrative is off-balance even by De Palma standards. The routine genre pleasures blow up way out of proportion by filmmaker’s set-pieces and the larger design.

Much like Passion, there’s a major late Fritz Lang vibe for the film’s pleasures without even approach late Lang quality. Also much like Black Dahlia, the chopped to pieces narrative means the film is based on an emotional arc of obsession on the lead character’s part that remains written but never felt. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (more than ever a poor man’s Viggo Mortensen) gets asked to play one of those emotional stunted leads De Palma loves so much – never an easy task as they also are very passive for guys that are supposed to guide the audience through a thriller – but he comes off as a blank often and one suspects major parts of what is supposed to sustain his performance was either never shot or in the cutting room floor.

The writing is DTV junk in a way nothing De Palma ever worked before. The last major action set piece hangs on a piece of coincidence that seem lazy even by his “I don’t care about narrative” standards (it is possible inelegant solution to never shoot scenes one should be fair). There’s a lot of characterization short hand and all the major twists are very telegraphed. De Palma’s stripped down very transparent images (it is all very late master’s work) just makes it more clear. Every new revelation about Carice van Hauten character is obvious from her first shot and she works very hard to give a center to a film that gives her so little to work with.

The editing is uncertain particular in the midsection. But the main problem seems to be production more than editing. De Palma has been very open about how troubling and cheap the shooting was and one might risk projecting into what we have, but a lot of it is very visible on the screen. On the basis of what we have, I assume it is more likely that it is the available version of what was shoot than the result of 150-minute movie becoming an 89 minute one. At a certain point, there’s a very good scene with Van Hauten visiting her comatose lover and bumping into his wife, that’s a character note that feels very out of pace into a rushed producer cut.

The third act in particular feels like a good chunk of whatever was planned for the Spanish part of the shoot never happened with a final scene that plays like an improvised soundstage wrap-up. The abruptness feels like DePalma, but it also rings hollow. While the first two acts work as a two-tier chase – Danish cops chasing CIA assset chasing Isis terrorist – but after we hit Spain, Eriq Ebouney (who gives the film best performance, the conviction on his face suggesting his own thing while everyone else is a puppet for De Palma’s schemes) disappears from most of it. There’s many large emotional holes that DePalma is working hard to cover not always with success and I’m not talking here about narrative. De Palma’s films often makes little logic sense, but they’ve always made an operatic emotional one and on those terms Domino is a mixed bag.

There’s a thrilling quality about watching De Palma negotiate the very low budget. Like late Welles it is a blast to see the magician exiled and operating with no means and still finding ways to arrive at new images (and make no mistake much of Domino feels refreshing new). There is a great terrorist attack midway through that staged as a You Tube video with production values to match, that is better than anything on the last Mission Impossible. That the attack happens at a film festival red carpet is both a self reference to Femme Fatale and an acid commentary about those events divorce from the world around it.  All three main set pieces remind me that De Palma is one of the few American true masters left. At same time the film DTV cheapness is very noticeable. Production design is non-existent, every set personality free, the bullfight terrorist attack happens in an under populated stadium, the great cinematographer José Luis Alcalaine works hard to give the world a texture it might otherwise lack. Like much of European Welles, Domino is exciting art povera, the lack of resources are glaring in a conventional sense but also open avenues of meaning and feeling. A masterclass of making much out of nothing. Just witness the long close-up whose lens movement not only enforces the scene dramatic point, but exposes the entire investigative logic of the film images and the mix between cinema and policing it is based on.

Whenever Domino centers around the production and watching of images it is great De Palma. Chunks of it are just people watching video on computers, cell phones and on very rare occasions television (De Palma’s hasn’t lost his gift for Godardian annotations). Ebouney watching Guy Pearce’s CIA agent interrogating his son while clearly staging a show for his prisoner/new asset is as exciting as the major terrorist attacks (both of which are imagined as large pieces of media intervention, terrorism in a De Palma film is filmmaking even while cinema only exist here as raw materials for terrorism). Domino often doubles on itself a document about the production of images of power and horror and as a document on its own struggles at arriving at the same.

Is there another 79-year-old artist so excited to think about the new economy of images? Character’s notice the filmmaking merits of terrorists’ drone work. It is like Redacted You Tube videos have been even more expanded in the decade after. There aren’t many movies as attuned to how that new economy of images affect daily activities and how it mediates the transformation of life into product. As often in De Palma’s movies there´s something sinister and perverse about the production of images, the world just finds new horrible ways to arrive at them.

De Palma’s panopticon lingers. Capital and survillaince are inseparable. There’s a lot of observations about freedom of movement in contemporary Europe and how that plays against the sense of a large vigilance project. If Passion took place in an abstract late capitalist corporate hellhole, Domino wants to exist as part of an European union that made a deal with the devil. Government and terrorism as business partners to justify an imprisonment complex. Visual media serving the role of mediator for it. The visual traces it left behind the only commentary left. All the characters react to it with stupor, a new reality taken for granted. Policing is impossible without video, but so is terrorism.  There’s no destruction if we can’t see it. A bitter victory of the symbolic in both spheres.

Pearce is having a lot of slimy fun in what might be described in De Palmian terms as the Gregg Henry part. There’s a large perversity in how this is a movie about an Isis guy (whose individual scenes are imagined as big a cliche as images of islamic terror gets) going through Europe producing terror events, while De Palma still stages all of Pearce scenes like he is the big Mabusian villain. His exit line “We are Americans, we read your mails” remains hanging over the final scene, half DTV absurdity, half serious, the same way the movie itself has that De Palmian angry grin. One never can know for sure if it is a serious investigation on police and image-making or an excuse for having fun with it. Knowing our master of ceremonies, it is probably both. That’s part of the reason even by this date, he still has as many hardcore fans as people ready to write him off as a past his prime huckster. If one wants to there’s a lot to see in those images, if you refuse, they are empty often cruel razzle dazzle. Asking if it works, misses the point. It hangs there, sustained like Coster-Waldau in the big Vertigo-inspired opener horrifying, callow, thrilling.

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