If there is no flesh and no evil, I can’t see how there can be a motor for the fiction.
– André Téchiné, “The Temptation of Evil” (1988)
Guilt is essential to cinema, just as is the deceit which forges its form.
– Edward Colless, “Vengeance” in The Error of My Ways (1995)
The tiny commitment of my look, shift of eyes from there to here, is enough to evoke the freedom by which, within which, Sin is done. It engages me in a rehearsal of what once was possible, reminds me that even today some things begin despite the common pretence that they do not. And, gazing upon what has been outcast, what is not sound – unsweet, unstrong – I Sin with it.
– William D. Routt, “Creature” in Stuffing: Film: Genre (1987)
Edward Colless’ 21 minute 16mm film Wet Madeline presents itself as being “after” Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, “The Fall of The House of Usher”. The word is eloquent: not only does after indicate an extremely free adaptation/rewriting of the terms of the original, it also conjures a weave of many works and writings in the historical interim that have transformed, adapted, answered each other.
So, in-between Poe and Colless there is – I would speculate – Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’Immortelle (1963) which is itself after Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), plus Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1948), Roger Corman’s 1960 film of the same Poe story, and Maurice Blanchot’s 1955 book The Space of Literature, particularly its central essay, “Orpheus’ Gaze”.
The point of such an intertextual exercise is not to simply spot the references but to grasp that, in a film as abstract as this, everything comes (hopefully) charged with a kind of indexical force, a resonance, a reverberation down the line of a certain tradition: the eyes and their gazes, the sonorous voices, the languid bodies, the heavy furniture, the play of lights, darkness and silences.
I bring to my experience of the film a slightly different, though overlapping, historical weave. Cryptic and dank, it made me think of the career of the French director André Téchiné: Rendez-vous (1985), The Scene of the Crime (1987), The Innocents (1988) – all titles that Colless himself could well use with the same, dark irony. Téchiné’s trajectory evokes a set of references and readings, a particular kind of sensibility, that I suspect is quite close to Colless’ own.
As a critic on Cahiers du cinéma in the 1960s, Téchiné participated in the eulogising of F.W. Murnau, Carl Dreyer, Fritz Lang’s American films, and most particularly Jacques Tourneur (Night of the Demon , I Walked with a Zombie ). In the ‘70s, his early features (such as Barocco  and The Brontë Sisters ) led the movement out of the distanced deconstructions of the immediately preceding period and into renewed fiction: a moody abstraction of patterns from (predominantly) 19th century literature made entirely strange, and with a positively creepy attention to the materiality of bodies, voices, spaces.
As Téchiné’s subsequent work delved more explicitly into motifs of the fantastique (such as the mysterious ghost in Rendez-vous), his Weltanschauung – honed by his collaborations with a longer-serving Cahiers critic and later screenwriter-director, Pascal Bonitzer – became more stringently perverse and fatalistic, passing through a darkly narcissistic, homoerotic energy. (Bonitzer once suggested that “tortured, tormented narcissism” has the capacity to be, on occasion, “absolutely magnificent”). Téchiné positively defiles the demeanour of France’s greatest and most beautiful stars when he casts and directs them: the aforementioned ghost in Rendez-vous rapes Juliette Binoche and then spits in her face; Jean-Claude Brialy is made a spectacle of ageing dissipation in The Innocents; Sandrine Bonnaire has her hair shorn off in the course of her underworld descent in the same film.
In a spirited polemic titled “The Temptation of Evil” (an interview in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 403, January 1988), Téchiné declared himself the mortal enemy of Wim Wenders’ vision in Wings of Desire (1987), and on the side of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s in Teorema (1968): like Bertolt Brecht, he begins from “the question of evil, and that it never stops – beginning from this elementary, primordial anguish, from the fact of a sick world, one can pose questions in the form of fictions”. To the ambiguous and destructive angel/demon figure beloved of Téchiné and Pasolini (or indeed Jane Campion in Sweetie ) – the figure who “violates each person’s solitude” – one can counterpose Wenders’ angels as figures in a “idealist and sentimental theorem”, a “profession of faith”, the painting of a world emptied of hate and evil, filled with peace.
Téchiné does not conjure evil, ultimately, as an ahistoric Satanic or metaphysical principle; rather, he utilises it as a malignant, corrosive principle of doubt – a strategic and realistic subversion of all idealism.
In a discussion of Paul Schrader’s Patty Hearst (1988), I posited an opposition between Romanticism – that “profession of faith” in the power of love, art, communication – and Nihilism, which opposes it with entropy, alienation, atomisation. Colless’ film, read through the Téchiné weave, sketches another kind of anti-Romanticism, one that insists on perversity as the organising principle of all relations. This is something we now recognise in Poe, as in Lang and Tourneur, since it has been writ large by modern filmmakers including Joseph Losey, R.W. Fassbinder, Paul Morrissey, David Lynch and James Toback: desire’s destiny is to “never go straight, one way” (as is said in Morrissey’s Beethoven’s Nephew ) but always deviously, through a detour, a third party (in Wet Madeline there’s a fourth party!).
Thus the fondness in these filmmakers for the Eternal Triangle – the “fundamentally vulgar figure”, as Andrzej Żuławski’s ambitious horror film Possession (1981) so well describes and shows it – and for all the lines and complications it sets up. One can well guess how Téchiné would remake Wings of Desire “after” Wenders: first, a gay tension between the two male angels; then, once one has turned human and romanced a woman, a complicated, dangerous, mimetic (in the Girardian sense) game of the angel fighting his ex-best friend for her …
In cinema history so inflected, certain artists and films suddenly move into the foreground, displacing those humanist deities like John Ford or Jean Renoir (and even with the latter, there’s a nagging doubt: look at his The Diary of a Chambermaid ). So here comes Welles, whose every film plays out a parable of mediated, perverse desire: The Lady From Shanghai, Mr Arkadin (1955), The Immortal Story (1968). Or Tourneur’s magnificent Cat People (1942), a film whose dark moral lesson is clearly – despite the pat, ideological denunciations that are still, today, sometimes made of it – that sentimental or Platonic lovers refuse to countenance the murderousness, lust, envy and jealousy that speaks in their every gaze. Or Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), in which desire forever slips unfulfilled down a chain where a man loves a woman who loves a man who only loves himself.
In the superb 1990 essay “Vengeance” (reprinted in his book The Error of My Ways), Colless conjures art and art criticism as activities full of guilt, lust, revenge and deceit. Cursed like cat people, and likewise impure: it’s intriguing that Tourneur, Téchiné and Colless all evoke, in their various ways, the desirability of inventing a species of “demonic hybrid creature”: works that are a “ravenous hybrid” of artistic and critical impulses (Colless), or lovers that are neither wholly human nor wholly animal (Tourneur), or films that are under the spell of “a permanent effect of short-circuit” or “zapping” (Téchiné).
For Colless as for Téchiné, this effect of disquiet, of eternal slippage and indecidability, is not the result of a superficially eclectic collage but, on the contrary, the hollowing-out or destabilising of an ostensibly perfect form from within. The stronger a film, suggests Téchiné, the more it is closed in on itself; yet, within this closed form, there must be a radical transformation of the given elements, incessant circulation. And what turns the “motor of the fiction” are those anti-idealist torments par excellence: flesh, evil, sin …
Wet Madeline is a film in which – almost classically, these days – “the story is over at the moment the fiction commences” (Téchiné). Damned in an eternal present to reminisce, two men and a woman (played by Guy Dow-Santer, Karl Ashton and Jane Burton) drink, lounge uneasily and, as they accuse each other, narrate the traces of their tangled, perverse relations. Colless has composed a tremendous verbal text to carry the film, giving rise to a strong temptation to simply quote it extensively in order to explain everything. “The short squirt of your cowardice, that’s all you had for her”; “He can’t touch me without going through her”; “He spends money he doesn’t have – that’s a sure sign there’s another woman”; “We’re in the sludge under the engine. The payload’s somewhere else. It’s sure as hell not here with us” – these are just a few of memorable lines.
Yet the more obviously cinematic elements are no less controlled: the minute folds of clothes, the heavy sounds of figures easing in and out of chairs, the carefully timed performances of small-scale spectacles like a woman lying and breathing, or a man fixatedly watching.
It’s not easy, and probably not important, to know what’s really going on. What matters more is that the film intimates a certain logic of perverse desire – a logic that stays permanently unsettled around the ambiguously placed and staged shots of wet Madeline (Claudia Aurora) herself: naked, frozen, but still breathing in some abject tank or vault inspired by the details of Poe’s story. As Bonitzer has written (Cahiers du cinéma, no. 382, April 1986) in relation to Cat People (comparing it to Schrader’s “impersonal, vulgar” 1982 remake), all that a fiction requires is a “crucial secret, which contains all the ambiguities and the things that cannot be spoken aloud” to generate a “strong intersubjectivity” – a tense and logical intrigue of moves, counter-moves, loves, hates, fanciful revenge schemes between shadowy, iconic characters.
There’s something conservative or simply adolescent – even a little puritanical – in all this ambivalent longing/hatred for the flesh, suspicion of women, narcissistic torment, and tortured evacuation of Truth. (The same can be said of David Lynch’s entire œuvre.) Colless – as one knows well from his writing – is very content to exaggerate such complaints, with a devilish smile. The value of Wet Madeline lies not in its provocation toward political critique, but its vivid reworking of a perverse tradition that is still disquieting, no matter how above-ground or camp it gets in the culture at large: a serious, corrosive perversity after Poe, after Welles, after Hitchcock, after Tourneur. And now, after Colless.
© Adrian Martin October 1990