Friday, 7 January 2011

THE SEARCHERS (Lars von Trier, 2009)

[This review is a near word-for word rewrite of Gavin Smith's review of Gus van Sant's Psycho in the February 1999 edition of Sight & Sound, with all references to those films replaced by ones to John Ford's (or Lars von Trier's) The Searchers. A cover of a piece about a cover of a film.]

Lars Von Trier's remake of John Ford's canonical 1956 film The Searchers - in which Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in the original, Vincent Cassel here) pursues kidnapped-by-the-Comanche niece Debbie (Natalie Wood then, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey now)- isn't the self-defeating, perverse exercise it might seem at first glance. It's more a work of 'metacinematic' research. By remaking The Searchers, the film-makers have managed to replay formally notions of transgression and difference that manifested themselves in Ford's original as themes and subtexts. So Von Trier's The Searchers is both more and less than a remake. More in the sense that it literalises the notion of remaking by copying or transcribing Ford's 1956 film, less in that it denies the standard remake strategy which demands that the remake transcend its origins by revision (Cape Fear, Scarface, True Grit).

On the contrary, Von Trier's The Searchers, with its ritualistic attention to detail, could be described as a re-enactment or, as he has suggested, as the equivalent of a cover version of a classic song. But critically, given that contemporary cinema has been permeated by the strategies and tactics of the original film, von Trier can neither reproduce the effect Ford's film had on its contemporary audience - its impact - nor escape the burden of its place in film history. If a theme of Ford's The Searchers is the terrible power of the past and how it blights the present, then it is doubly so for von Trier- indeed this becomes the new film's organising principle. The weight of the past on the present and the loss of autonomy afflicting Ethan Edwards becoming Von Trier's point of departure for this radical project.

Director and cinematographer (Chris Doyle of Chungking Express fame) have imposed on themselves a set of extremely tight expressive constraints to minimise deviation from the original movie. Their film uses the same score, is more or less the same running time and, most crucially, employs the same screenplay. If anything, von Trier's strategy is subtractive rather than additive. Although several anachronisms are wilfully permitted to survive, Frank S. Nugent's original script has been subtly abridged and pared so that, despite several enigmatically superfluous added lines, there is even less dialogue here than in the already sparse original.

On the other hand, given that the original derived much of its power from exuberant and colourful landscapes, von Trier's film employs a no-frills black-and-white shooting style and therefore has a completely different effect. And although many scenes are reproduced exactly, this is by no means a shot-for-shot remake. Many shots only approximate those in the original, and in general the pacing seems faster - dialogue is more clipped, shot duration more varied. In many instances, though, there are significant embellishments: Ethan's arrival scene (the opening sequence), is now a full minute longer and although many shots are identical, it includes a number of new images (a close-up of Martha's dilating pupil as she sees her brother-in-law and former lover; a blurred Martha's-eye-view of Ethan entering the house; a fleeting, enigmatic image of billowing storm clouds). Von Trier and Doyle's shots, even those reproduced exactly from the original, seem comparatively casual and indefinite, lacking the vibrancy, deliberation and measurement of Ford's. And the two films have completely different senses of space, particularly interior space. It is in such distinct yet unquantifiable differences that von Trier's inquiry or research finds its form. The same is true of the film's determinedly muted, enervated tone and air of inconsequentiality.

von Trier's The Searchers is fundamentally an investigation of the expressive and thematic possibilities of nuance. Given the same script and more or less the same visual architecture, casting and direction of actors become key. Sure enough, von Trier gets considerable mileage from the redeployment and reassignment of character values, enough to achieve a small but significant shift of meaning. Rather than using the modern equivalents, he selects actors who largely counter or contradict the original cast's qualities and associations. An example: the substitution of Gael Garcia Bernal for Jeffrey Hunter as part-Cherokee Martin Pawley, Bernal's boyish cheek making Pawley seem less naively earnest, and although he always seems foolishly brave rather than tough, one suspects he might match up physically rather better to Cassel than Hunter did to Wayne.

Vincent Cassel's non-American status is a matter of record (lending all manner of ironies to his character's discussions of the Texas Rangers, the South, and America), and he emphatically does not project the same blunt power that John Wayne brought to the role of Ethan Edwards; how could he? His Ethan lacks Wayne's weary (but buried) guilt, his own melancholy apparently due to a seemingly mounting sense of entrapment by his mission. Where Wayne's Ethan maintained a careful distance from Pawley, treating him with bullying machismo, Cassel's sadism is slyer and somehow more sexually complex.

However low-yield the shift in meaning von Trier accomplishes proves to be, it's enough to justify the experiment: same film, different meaning. Where Ford's search is conclusively resolved, at a price, von Trier's is ongoing, chasing its tail, losing its tracks in the sand. Which is a far more honest, if depressing, forecast.

The Searchers Directed by Lars von Trier Produced by Meta Louise Foldager Written by Frank S. Nugent Starring Vincent Cassel, Gael Garcia Bernal, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård IFC Films 119 mins Release date UK/US: Nov 2009 Tagline:'The Search Will Never End'

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