Death and the Maidens


Whatever else it may be—a cold-sweat nightmare of male sexual anxiety, a mocking explication of Eros and Thanatos, the best-disguised psychotronic splatter flick in recent memory—Takashi Miike’s Audition is first and foremost a lethally poised Venus flytrap of a movie. (If you wish to preserve the purity of the trauma, read no further.) Audition opens as a placid, mournful romantic drama. Rivulets of dread seep in on cue, and the film seems to be heading for a boo-gotcha Grand Guignol pileup. But it doesn’t merely morph; after simmering for an eternity, it derails, with spectacular, psychotic force, bulldozing its way toward an almost unwatchable theater of cruelty.

The movie opens with the mild sad-sack protagonist, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), at his wife’s deathbed. A natural-born button pusher, Miike crosscuts between her flat-lining cardiogram and their young son walking along a hospital corridor with an armful of get-well gifts. Aoyama’s grief thus established, the film leaps forward seven years. His teenage boy is now urging the fortysomething widower to remarry, and the lonely movie executive, egged on by a leering colleague, decides to stage an audition. No contest, it turns out. In her application essay, willowy Asami (Eihi Shiina) recounts a hip injury that sidelined her ballet career: “It was like accepting death.” Instantly aroused, Aoyama believes he has found a kindred spirit.

Head bowed, attired in all white all the time, Asami so completely embodies Aoyama’s wish list (“beautiful, classy, obedient”) that it’s no surprise when this vestal virgin proves to be something of an iron maiden. Audition‘s cattle call summarizes the imbalance of power between the sexes, which the film proceeds to redress by concocting the ultimate castrating avenger. But a straightforward feminist reading is too literal minded. Miike goes out of his way to paint Aoyama as clueless yet sympathetic, and complicates the pathology by suggesting that his tormentor is, at least in part, a figment of his own imagination.

The phantasmagoric gore stems from a combustible compound of desire, paranoia, and guilt (Aoyama’s sense of betrayal toward his late wife, his nagging remorse over the matchmaking charade). Miike’s brazenly deceitful narrative doesn’t pull the rug out so much as spring one trapdoor after another, each one leading to a progressively more sulfurous circle of hell. The tricks are impressively layered: hallucinations within hallucinations, mutually nullifying twists, scenes replayed with altered lines, chunks of dialogue reprised verbatim in different contexts. The last creates an eerie ventriloquist effect and points up what Asami, brandishing acupuncture needles and cooing sweet nothings about nerve centers, tells Aoyama: “Words create lies. Pain can be trusted.” Singularly untrustworthy, the grisly climactic spree contains the most appallingly memorable image of the year (piano wire is involved). The final half-hour of emphatically corporeal horror is all the more unsettling for its queasy open-endedness—its lysergic inability to distinguish between reality and moribund fantasy. The effect is of a zero-gravity torture chamber, with no exit in sight.

Billed as an adaptation of the 1947 novel by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, The Blank Wall, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s microcalibrated, immaculately photographed The Deep End owes more to the movie Holding’s book originally inspired: Max Ophüls’s masterful The Reckless Moment, which stars Joan Bennett as a fiercely protective matriarch who disposes of the dead body of her teen daughter’s older lover and fends off dashing blackmailer James Mason. The Deep End teases out the latent queerness of Ophüls’s classic women’s picture by reimagining the daughter as a gay son. The setting has shifted from a SoCal beachfront town to pristine Lake Tahoe; Tilda Swinton plays the SUV-driving soccer mom.

McGehee and Siegel’s only other feature, Suture, was an ingenious Lacanian neo-noir; here the tinkering with genre custom is rather more discreet. Broadly speaking, their film adds rich oedipal undercurrents and muffles the class conflict that, in The Reckless Moment, infused the tender relationship between supermom and lowlife with ironic tension. (The blackmailer’s reversal was never too convincing, and here the scene of E.R.‘s Goran Visnjic looking at Swinton’s family photos doesn’t help.) Bennett’s brusque, semibutch turn is impossible to top, but Swinton provides her own brand of incandescence, doubling as the film’s aching heart and its center of gravity.

Click here to read Travis Crawford’s profile of director Takashi Miike.