13 August 2009

The Decade List: Mary (2005)

Mary - dir. Abel Ferrara

[Edited from an earlier post]

I've often joked that Abel Ferrara, like Sam Fuller before him, isn't so much "an American filmmaker" as he is the French's idea of "an American filmmaker." He's pulpy and seedy, particularly when addressing issues of philosophy, spirituality and religion. It's recently dawned on me that more than just that, he's the French's idea of an American Ingmar Bergman. As peculiar as that seems, Ferrara's torrid relationship with Christianity appears to have eluded my thoughts until he tackled the issue head-on in Mary. In Mary, Ferrara places Forest Whitaker in the Harvey Keitel role, a total cod whose bad behavior karmicly releases the ultimate test of faith as he's haunted by the performance of Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche) as Mary Magdalene in yet another Jesus flick. Now, Ted Younger (Whitaker) is no stranger to Jesus and faith; he hosts a popular television program examining the origins of the Christian messiah. However, when his job becomes more important than his relationship with his pregnant wife (Heather Graham) and suspicion is raised about his extramarital affair with actress Gretchen (Marion Cotillard), he seeks understanding from the elusive Marie in his path of redemption.

Like most of Ferrara's work, Mary is deeply flawed. It's a filthy orgy of controversial ideas, none of which come to a simultaneous climax, or even a coherent one. In researching other people's thoughts of Mary, I discovered that the film's crossover appeal (as in an appeal to anyone outside of Ferrara's small fanbase) is pretty much null, almost entirely attributed to the film's shaky stance on faith in chaos. However, to the Ferrara admirer, Mary works beautifully into his oeuvre, a fascinating mess of frustration and admiration.

Where Ferrara succeeds in Mary is in his character placement. Marie, played phenomenally by Binoche, is undoubtedly the most captivating figure in the film and most of her fascination comes from the realization that Ferrara doesn't understand her at all. After taking on the role of Mary Magdalene, Marie spirals into a moral and spirital abyss, unable to shake her own performance, which (according to Whitaker) is shattering. Part of the blame can be placed upon the film's writer/director/star Matthew Modine, a deplorable megalomaniac whose delusions run much deeper than simply casting himself as Jesus. According to Cotillard, it's Modine's self-importance and incompetence as a director which keeps Binoche from leaving Jerusalem. Binoche's personal crisis shrouds the entire film without becoming its central focus. Outside of Lili Taylor's Kathleen in The Addiction (and Drea DeMatteo's nameless character in 'R Xmas, which I hadn't seen at the time), she's the only Ferrara woman I can think of that doesn't fit into his dual idea of women, the simple Madonna/whore complex seen in its fullest between Béatrice Dalle and Claudia Schiffer in The Blackout. It's perhaps in Binoche's obsession with Mary Magdalene, a whore according to certain gospels, Jesus' number one disciple according to others, that her Marie breaks the mold of a typical Ferrara woman in becoming something entirely separate, something he clearly doesn't "get." In keeping Marie in the background while still placing her as the driving force of Mary, Ferrara turns her into a haunting figure as enigmatic and impenetrable as the mysteries of Jesus himself.

There's a chilling relevance to Binoche's Marie, escalated by the death of Heath Ledger, which happened around the time I first saw Mary. As far as most reports go, his death may have been caused by the inability to shake his last role, that of the Joker in Batman. To those unfamiliar with the method of acting, both Marie's conversion and Ledger's death haunt to the bone, a possession of which those outside of the field could never fully grasp. I understand it even less than Ferrara seems to, and it's in this ignorance, or more specificially the impossibility of empathy, that Binoche's performance, reminiscent of Liv Ullmann's Elisabet in Persona, becomes so breathtaking... and scary. There comes a point where Whitaker's tribulations reek of familiarity in the context of Ferrara, but it's Binoche's looming presence that holds the film to where it needs to be. Like Ullmann's disastrous effect on Bibi Andersson, Binoche drives Mary into its frenzy.

With: Forest Whitaker, Matthew Modine, Juliette Binoche, Heather Graham, Marion Cotillard, Stefania Rocca, Marco Leonardi, Luca Lionello, Mario Opinato, Elio Germano, Emanuela Iovannitti
Screenplay: Abel Ferrara, Mario Isabella, Simone Lageoles, Scott Pardo
Cinematography: Stefano Falivene
Music: Francis Kuipers
Country of Origin: Italy/France/USA
US Distributor: N/A

Premiere: 6 September 2005 (Venice Film Festival)

Awards: Grand Special Jury Prize (Venice Film Festival)

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