Nightmare Alley Guillermo del Toro (2021; USA) Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchette; Toni Collette; William Dafoe
viewed Tyneside Cinema 1st Feb 2022; ticket £10.75
Bring on the clowns
rococo – an exceptionally ornamental and theatrical style of architecture and decoration, combining asymmetry, scrolling curves, gilding, sculpted moulding and trompe d’oeil frescos. (Wikipedia)
Del Toro’s movie is pure filmic rococo, the abandonment of content to the visual allure of hyper ornamentation in which form replaces meaning. From Gresham’s novel of the same name, del Toro has fashioned a scenario that is slow dull plodding, in which the sets replace action and the cardboard cut-out one dimensional performances replace characterisation.
‘Nightmare Alley’ makes me think that David Lynch has a lot to answer for in relation to the type of scripting and the style of dialogue adopted by del Toro – there is in fact a David Lynch ‘moment’ or ‘homage’ (perhaps), in the scenario, when Stanton comes upon a little white ‘rabbit’ sitting inexplicably still and alone in the middle of a hotel corridor. Del Toro seems to rival Lynch, in writing for his actors the sort of lines, which they are instructed (in parentheses) to deliver (with deliberation), as if they had some sort of cosmic resonance if not actual meaning: “Who are you?” These sort of lines come 6 a penny in del Toro’s movie as he tries to inject something akin to significance into the emptiness of the proceedings.
Like a comatose body ‘Nightmare Alley’ is pumped full of fairground hype and psycho-babble to give it semblance of life. The fairground sets and attractions, and the later New York interiors raise a flicker of interest before fading out as the flaccid play out of the action overtakes the film. The action can only be described as enabling clunky pre-empted outcomes. The mechanics of the script work inexorably towards the laboured moral message of the end sequence, in which Stanton Carlisle, now a helpless wino ends up employed as the ‘the fairground geek’, completing his circuitous journey from A to B and back again.
As a Mentalist Stanton’s recourse to a sort of robust stand-by cod psychology, employed on the hoof works Ok – “It’s always the father…”. But when the same hack clichés are transferred to the part of Cate Blanchette’s shrink, Lilith (sic) the vacuous longeur of the therapeutic interaction works only to prolong the duration of the film (which is well overlong) with endless proto Lynchian observational babble – “You hesitated when I asked you why you never drink.” The problem is that the characters have no depth they are simply used by del Toro for their value in driving of the mechanics of the script. As pawns Stanton and Lilith’s underlying psychological drives, motivational attributions are uninteresting except as a pretext for their being in the same room together as prelude to the next sequence.
If there is one terrifying thing in ‘Nightmare Alley’ it is Cate Blanchette’s lipstick. It’s slapped on like a clown’s and is reminiscent of the clown character’s lips in Victor Hugo’s ‘L’Homme qui Rit’. In the Hugo novel his clown hero’s cheeks have been savagely slit open to increase the width of his mouth. This mutilation both heightens his clown persona and and simultaneously makes him an object of horror. Cait’s application of the red stick has a similar effect: with those lips dominating her presence she almost becomes a clown but at the same time her lips also transmit a warning of danger. Overall ‘Nightmare Alley’ might have been better produced as a quasi-clown film rather than a dull drama. Had this been the case the kiss between Stanton and Lilith could have been handled with due cinematic aplomb rather than as an anti-climax. To kiss Cate’s lips has to be a particular type of decision on the part of Stanton; the decision to be a warrior or a clown, to go down onto those red red lips guarding her mouth, with attitude. To take and conquer (or their illusions) or to ‘clown’ it, meaning perhaps the sort of playfulness that ends up with you being in the shit (which is the Clown’s natural home). Likewise Lilith has to have an attitude.
And of course with all that red gunk on the line we want to see the aftermath of their mouth business. Instead predictably del Toro steers the middle course to nowhere. The kiss is shot to vacuous affect, the kiss is a nothing, a pressing together from which the two parties extricate themselves, and which is simply a moment before inevitably moving on to the next scene.
‘Nightmare Alley’ looks like a typical failure of directorial nerve. Instead of making the original novel a starting point for his own ideas, del Toro has opted to take the safe course of a literal adaptation. He has decided to invest his production money in the sets and come up with a script and scenario that are no more than a fileted version of the plot. The film ends up looking like it is: a failure of vision.