I wasn’t expecting to watch either Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos (1962) last night. Almost randomly, I selected each just seconds before watching them from my Netflix instant watch list, where both had been sitting for perhaps a year or possibly more. Each made a surprisingly provocative complement to the other on my random double feature bill.
First the obvious differences: MCML is a war movie, in color, with a 100% male cast, based on memoirs (by Laurens van der Post) of a prisoner of war in Indonesia during the Second World War. Most of the action takes place in broad, bright tropical daylight. Le Doulos, of course, is classic French noir, based on a crime novel by Pierre Lesou, shot mostly at night (or day-for-night) in Paris in deep, rich shades of black, gray and white. Though focusing on male relationships, the film has two memorable female roles.
Setting those differences aside, the films share the central themes of male friendship/love, trust, loyalty and betrayal. Each skirts the border between crime and justice, asking what exactly these things are in this godless world with these crazy, sensitive, imperfect humans roaming free (or semi-free) on it. After watching both last night, I felt immediately that Le Doulos is the stronger film all around. It’s stunningly photographed, powerfully acted, and taut as a tight wire. Yet I was more haunted in the aftermath by the other.
MCML is hampered somewhat by being in both English and Japanese, and in very difficult to follow English at that when spoken by Japanese actors who seem to have been learning the language line by line from a dialect coach on the set. While David Bowie’s performance has been justly heralded by critics since the film’s release, few seem to have anything good to say about Ryuichi Sakamoto’s. In fact, Sakamoto (a Japanese rock star who also wrote the film’s haunting score) has the more difficult part, not only for being half in a language he’s clearly not comfortable in. His character, Capt. Yonoi, is an aloof and insecure young aristocrat, steeped in bushido culture, in charge of an international PoW camp and the working class soldiers, like Sgt. Hara (Takeshi Kitano) who run it. Unlike Bowie’s Maj. Celliers, who is frank and confident and close to transparent in his emotions (oddly enough for a Bowie character), Yonoi is repressed, conflicted and often inscrutable. It becomes clear, nevertheless, that one of Yonoi’s “secrets” is his erotic attraction to Celliers. Sakamoto’s appearance (is that eye-liner and blush he’s wearing?) is even more androgynous than Bowie’s. His Yonoi is as close to female as a male can get and still be male.
While this may sound, to the uninitiated, like a potentially campy comedy (and maybe it could be one someday), MCML plays more like a lit cannon rolling down a hill. You know it’s going to go off, but you don’t know how or where. The tension begins in the first scene, when an agitated Hara summons Mr. Lawrence (superbly played by Tom Conti), a Japanese-speaking British officer who has tried to broach the humanity of his captors and explain them to his less than open-minded fellow prisoners, to witness the punishment of a Korean staff member found buggering a Dutch POW. An uncomprehending Lawrence tries to calm Hara down and receives several blows from Hara’s switch for his interference. Here is the POW experience in a nutshell: men caught and held, entirely at the mercy of captors who will punish them by any means at all merely for their difference from them. Justice in these conditions is a matter of the personal whim of the person with the guns (and swords). This unpredictability keeps the viewer off-balance and is the engine driving the film’s occasionally unbearable suspense. Amazing, considering that the film’s plot, such as it is, progresses randomly, more like life or a dream, really, than a story–lots of stops and starts, interrupted actions, bursts of emotion and violence and startling images, followed by periods of waiting for the next strange turn. It may be this dangerous dreamlike quality that keeps it lingering in the mind afterward.
Le Doulos, on the other hand, is a very tightly run ship. Best not to say too much about the plot at all. It should be savored afresh at least on first viewing. Like most Melville films, the action is also sudden, startling and violent, following long sections of quotidien living and highly documentary sequences featuring professional criminals artfully going about their work. I was gripped from the very first image of a man in a trench coat and pork-pie hat walking in an underpass of some kind to the closeup of a loose fedora on the floor of a suburban Paris home. After I ecstatically applauded it in my mind and had given the film five stars at MUBI, I immediately started to wonder if it might be more gimmick, more of a roller coaster ride, than a serious film, which is usually what you can rely on Melville for. Well, no matter. Le Doulos is a very satisfying roller coaster ride indeed.