BluRay/DVD Reviews

UNDER THE VOLCANO

By • Oct 23rd, 2007 •

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Albert Finney stars as Geoffrey Firmin, a British consul living in Mexico in 1938. The movie opens on the Day of the Dead with our well-groomed protagonist making his way through the colorful, candle-lit graves. Children and families lie at his feet as he slowly stumbles across the yard. We soon see past his clean tuxedo and dark sunglasses and into his unstable condition, his constant drunken state of life.

We learn of his recent retirement from a government position, and the absence of his wife, Yvonne, who left him one year earlier. Her return is where the movie really begins. Played by the powerfully beautiful Jacqueline Bisset, her devotion and love for Geoffrey is clear from the moment she hears the ravings of his drunken stupor from outside a bar.

Throughout the rest of the film we watch as Geoffrey and Yvonne attempt to accept each other back into their lives, a situation that steadily becomes more desperate and tragic until the film climaxes in a twisted conclusion.

Rarely have my emotions been so cleverly played with as they were by this narrative. I felt desperate compassion for Geoffrey, even as his drunkenness intensified and mutated through several degrading stages, all carefully differentiated by Finney. I felt admiration for Yvonne, even as her sexual history with Geoffrey’s brother, Hugh (played by Anthony Andrews) was revealed. As all three of them were reunited I was provided with a hope that this family could pull themselves together. That hope persisted even as Geoffrey’s behavior became increasingly painful to watch. I was, however, able accept his behavior because Yvonne accepted it. She had no faith in Geoffrey’s ability to overcome his sickness, and yet she decided to be with him. She showered him, put his socks on, stood by her alcoholic husband on the street, and followed him when he ran off. Her devotion never ceased, even though he was unable to move on from their difficult past.

This movie was a strange escape for me in many ways. I’ve grown so accustomed to movies manipulating me with special effects that I believe it had begun to numb my film-watching experience. This film, however, was able to wrench emotional transitions from me without distracting tricks. Stunningly filmed by Gabriel Figueroa (1907-97, who studied his craft under CITIZEN KANE’s Gregg Toland), I was captivated from the beginning to the shocking ending. Although I didn’t think the resolution was entirely believable, I greatly appreciated its shock value. The film demands admiration, and I would encourage any of my fellow film devotees who’ve missed it to catch up with this absorbing DVD release.

Further strengthening the experience were the supplements compiled by Criterion. In a 2007 interview, a still-really-beautiful Bisset recounts how Huston challenged her on her first-hand knowledge of alcoholics. Huston believed casting was the key thing, and that a number of choices is inappropriate (though in his interview, on a separate audio track, he says his first choice was Richard Burton). Bisset’s memory was that women were becoming unpleasantly tough in the ’80s – Joan Collins in dynasty being the archetype for the decade. She played a softer, ephemeral woman, who wanted love, and whose career was going nowhere. At one point she asked Huston for a close-up, and he replied, “You want to direct the film, too?”
There was no close-up.

It’s an articulate interview, on all the shadings of this particular filmmaking process.

The audio interview with Huston (1906-87) was conducted at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival by Michael Ciment (who gave us a good book on Kubrick). Huston calls his acting sub-career, which started in 1963 for Otto Preminger in THE CARDINAL, “…an antic…a caper…” He acknowledges that UNDER THE VOLCANO was the most difficult adaptation of a novel he’d made to date. He didn’t feel it was a great book – the author often hiding behind the onslaught of detail – some of which wasn’t pertinent. Lowry’s dialogue was pared down in the screenplay so that it wasn’t a literary picture, a book on film. I enjoyed the insights an obviously physically impaired Huston tossed out at his interviewer, and occasionally wanted to go back and hear them again, but the nature of the audio file didn’t allow that.

At one point Ciment points out that VOLCANO and another fest film, Wim Wenders’ PARIS, TEXAS, both dealt with memory without resorting to a flashback. At another point, when the interviewer mentions that Day of the Dead festivities are a cliché in film, Huston challenges him to provide another example. When he can’t, Huston fires back, “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” But good-naturedly. A wonderful interview.

And then there’s Gary Conklin’s 1984 making-of doc, NOTES FROM UNDER THE VOLCANO. The gray-white bearded, 77-year-old Huston dominates a merry cast of doc personalities including Finney and Bisset, and a not-at-all-amusing Gabriel Figuero, who of course shot LOS OLVIDADOS for Bunuel, but also, twenty years earlier, for Huston, in Mexico, in B&W, NIGHT OF THE IGUANA. What a great, contrasting double-bill that would make. Or maybe the double bill should be this and Terry Gilliam’s FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Too much of a good thing…?

Conklin was equally lucky having been able to film the filming of the third act, which used real prostitutes, as well as Emilio Fernandez (Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH), footage of steadicam (panaglide) operator Randy Nolen at work, and Finney, lying in the artificial rain, conjuring different takes on his final line, “What a dingy way to die…”

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