Friday, April 28, 2006

What Lies Beneath

This post is part of today's Michelle Pfeiffer blog-a-thon.

Recently, Peyton Reed's The Break-Up was sent back for re-shoots after a "disastrous" test screening. The particular disaster that warranted the fix-mission was an almost unanimous agreement in the audience that Jennifer Aniston, the actress, didn't deserve to suffer such an unhappy ending.

This borderline mass psychosis, with the fate of a fictional character distressing an audience due to their investment in the personal life of the performer playing the role, is, essentially, the very reason we have movie-stars, and, from the other side, why many movie-stars even set out to be movie-stars in the first place.

Spielberg has a reputation, for some reason, of wanting to avoid movie-stars in key roles, to encourage audience sympathies at an "everyman" level. I often hear this, read this online, but as far as I can see, it isn't true. Not only does he have a raft of star vehicles in his ouevre - Robin Williams is Peter Pan, Tom Cruise will save the world - the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan tell a different story. Anybody you recognise is going to survive the beach landing, the non-faces are grist for the splatter-shock mill. It reminds me of nothing so much as the expendable security staff in Star Trek, beamed down week after week to be wiped out while the key cast remain.

Though the efficacy of the ploy might be limited if the film travels, a director can make good use of a star's public persona in their film, either riding on it in a straightforward fashion, or subverting it. Sometimes, when the star's persona is vague enough, but also strong enough, the effect can be particularly persuasive, even insidious.

As an example, let's think about Michelle Pfeiffer in Robert Zemeckis' What Lies Beneath. Spoilers will be essential, I'm afraid.

What Lies Beneath is consistently compared to Hitchcock, and with good reason. A broad comparison stands as both are in the suspense genre, but several technical considerations match perfectly too. The cutting and the compositions often owe a debt to Hitch's innovations, though Zemeckis certainly has ideas of his own. Most striking is the transparent floor device, in which the camera can pass down below the floorboards then look up through them as though they were invisible. This is a more high-tech version of a trick Hitch used in The Lodger, and, as well as working wonderfully in the flow, plays as an homage.

One of the strongest connections to Hitchcock, however, is political. This is where Ms. Pfeiffer becomes so relevant.

What does a film like What Lies Beneath mean? To most people it was dismissed as candy floss, or perhaps champagne bubbles, but no film ever escapes meaning and this is one that presents a rather strong viewpoint. For the plotting to work and for audiences to buy into the set-up of the first three quarters of the story, they have to accept a few standard set-ups, even cliches.

There are two married couples at the heart of the film, one played by Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, genuine movie-stars, likable and widely beloved. James Remar and Miranda Otto play the second couple, character actors that were not at the peak of their recognisability when the film was made and released. The plot would have us believe that all is not well in the Remar/Otto relationship, that she is being abused, perhaps, or is in danger. At no point in the establishing events of the first two acts is there any indication that the Ford/Pfeiffer marriage is where the mistreatment, dishonesty and brutal violence lies.

Eventually, the revelations start coming, and the audience learn that Pfeiffer's character is in danger from Ford's, and that she may even have been supressing or ignoring indicators this was the case. Our investment in her safety comes not only from the work done in structuring, pacing and staging the film, but also from a basic human sympathy to the character and this is stoked and nurtured through the casting of Michelle Pfeiffer in the role.

Just like those test audience members cared enough about Jennifer Aniston to hate seeing her even pretend to undergo domestic stress and strain, it is easy for viewers to make assumptions about how Pfeiffer's character will be treated, and should be treated. As a result, the audience can supress and ignore "clues", just like the character does. This keeps the late surprises relatively safe and also fosters involvement in our protagonist's life.

So what assumptions do we make when we see Michelle Pfeiffer is married to Harrison Ford? That they are happy together, certainly, perhaps even taking our assumptions to the bedroom. That they are accessible, and relatable, too. Even that he may step in and save her, late in the day, in a typically rugged way.

Of course, none of this true. Pfeiffer remains relatable, but Ford does not, and every other assumption is shattered. Importantly, though, Pfeiffer remains relatable.

A quick digression into a "fantasy" scene - "fantasy" in the sense that it is designed to evoke fantasies in the audience, as well as depending on a supernatural logic in the movie's universe to make totally sense, when all is said and done - suddenly allows us a sexually bold Pfeiffer, turned about face from her role throughout most of the film. Again, Pfeiffer's public persona is being traded on, her movie-star-ness, relatably but high register of sexual attraction with the audience all being tangled, remixed and straightened out again.

Ultimately, the film is only implicitly political, but the points are strong. The film reminds us that trouble might be at home, not next door, and that we ignore it at our peril; and is critical of judging ones neighbours with prejudice. Hitchcock made emotionally direct - and I would say subversive - films like this all of the time, and while many of his emulators never managed to earn it, What Lies Beneath honestly deserves the comparison.

Hollywood's reputed obsession with youth will most likely colour the roles Ms. Pfeiffer is offered from here on out, if it hasn't started to already, but if she is lucky, her own particular expression and image will prove key to plenty more films, just the way it helped set the perfedt tone in What Lies Beneath.



one of the most interesting things I'm seeing pop up in this blog-a-thon is a new look at What Lies Beneath. I think it's seriously undervalued and was done a huge disservice at the time of its release with that awful marketing campaign (certainly among the worst ever)

it can be silly and ludicrous but it really does work and its Pfeiffer who insures that.

IFEUNA said...

"WHAT LIES BENEATH" IS ABSOLUTELY A GOTHIC ROMANCE, facinating and full of suspence: it's surely a new-hitchcockian experience that BOB ZEMECKIS tried to represent with gloomy atmosphere,and on a ray of self-consciusness. the main charactere is CLAIRE SPENCER(an amazing michelle pfeiffer) .the entire plot is built around her nevrotic and anxious behaviour, her nightmares at a first glance are wituhoth rational meaning but at the end will help to resolve an incredible mistery abouth NORMAN SPENCER,CLAIRE'S husband (HARRISON FORD) .the film is a very fascinating movie, a modern transposition of a novel that seems to remember medievals dreams or nightamares, medieval colurs and atmosphere. the location i't so claustrophobic too! what about actors? abosolutely divine MICHELLE PFEIIFER, in obscurity and not too muchexpressive HARRISON FORD