PRINT February 1991


Stephen Frears

Stephen Frears, creator of a handful of small, snarling, memorable films that bridge cinema vérité, political satire, and social criticism (The Hit, 1984, My Beautiful Laundrette, 1985, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, 1987, Prick Up Your Ears, 1987), is evidently a man of common sense, aware of his talents, but also of his limitations. During the ’60s he was part of the English school of “free cinema” in a country that was sliding toward economic collapse and the crisis of traditional forms of political representation. Recently, he has been catapulted into the heart of Hollywood thanks to the widespread success of his noir-tinted stories, set in the half-caste, multilingual, hyperethnic, ominously postcolonial London that was a major disaster scene of the Thatcher whirlwind.

At the center of Frears’ “English” works, described with both documentary-film-like care and reckless, extremely modern narrative awareness, lie the banal events of the lives of the new British proletariat. This is the 1980s proletariat that, removed from the old reassuring Marxist categories, can be described as anything but industrial: it appears, instead, as the unpredictable, volatile, politically unportrayable sum of the social, ethnic, and religious subgroups historically described as “minorities.” It is not necessarily a world of underdogs, of misfits, of the dispossessed, of people waiting for employment/integration/recognition. The extraordinary historical and political novelty of the social group for which Frears has become the intelligent biographer is that, instead of lending itself to convenient representations that play off obsolete dualities—citizen/immigrant, integration/exclusion, equality/diversity—it imposes a logical reversal, an inversion of the terms of discourse. As told by Frears (with the help of screenplays by the Anglo-Pakistani Hanif Kureishi, “an Englishman born and bred, almost,”1 the immigrant, the misfit, the Other are neither the citizens of tomorrow nor the symptoms of a hypothetical counterculture. As Kureishi has wittily and lucidly written, in a multiethnic society like England, the immigrant is the new everyman/woman. He or she is the living proof of that displacement and of that state of nonbelonging that seem to be the most important phenomena of our times. And, in fact, the clever interpretive acrobatics of Frears’ early style consists of a narrative reversal pure and simple: to describe from within the worn-out England of the Thatcherite disaster, it was necessary to assume the point of view of this underworld through an act of denunciation or of satire, accompanied by a poisonous, subversive ability to use oneself as the first target of a pitiless, unbiased disclosure of collective misery.

Pursuing his career, Frears began work on an ill-conceived project, an American film version of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous liaisons, 1782), an Enlightenment masterpiece readapted for the screen by Christopher Hampton. Here, the director attempted to adapt Laclos’ insuperable manual of the science of domination to the smaller scale that was familiar to him and in keeping with his way of thinking. And so the chilly theater of the French author, regulated by that single grandiose passion, the will to power, abstract, indifferent to its objects, cynical, totally unsentimental, and certainly free of second thoughts of an ethical or affective order, is replaced by a milieu mode up of repentances and punishments, attempts at redemption and sentimental breaks. It is as if the director, treating Laclos’ characters with the same sensibility ant ideological attitude he had exhibited in his films about the ghettos of London, overlooked the fact that, even if the incubation chamber that hatched Les Liaisons dangereuses also brought forth the French Revolution, there is no compatibility between the London Fields of this end of the millennium and prerevolutionary France. For the characters in Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1989), iniquity cannot be turned into a work of art. In their universe, there is no place for heroism and grandiosity, for an idea of the individual that alludes to the concept of liberty and not of transgression, of life and not of survival, of invention and not of reaction.

In this sense, Freers’ second “American” work, The Grifters (1990), taken from the homonymous novel written by Jim Thompson in 1963, is not only an excellent film but also a sign of the directorial common sense spoken of above. Whatever the geographical locale, whatever the epoch, whatever level being navigated, the grifter, by definition, is a loser, someone who has made a life and a profession out of getting by and moving about on the fringes. And so the director has returned to more congenial terrain. We are in Los Angeles, but the-time could be today, or the 1960s, or even—why not?—the 1930s: the social climate suggests the Great Depression, which might explain and justify the characters’ desperation, but at the same time the styles of the clothing and automobiles are empty and negligible signs. In a scenario that is neutral and, with post-Modern intelligence, rendered absolutely unrecognizable from a historical viewpoint, three anonymous yet personal micro-stories unfold that seem to be the fragmented elements of a single story, perhaps of a single character. It is significant that Lily Dillon (Anjelica Huston, the mother), Roy Dillon (John Cusack, the son), and Myra Langtry (Annette Bening, the son’s lover) come on the scene at the same time. The first frame of the film is, programmatically, an assemblage. With metonymic virtuosity, on a screen split into three, the bleached hair and fierce visage of Lily appear alongside the spoiled baby face of Roy and the impudent body of Myra. From here on, in increasingly noir tones, the puzzle constructed by Frears is worked out with inexorable logic.

Thompson’s novel, playing on the physical resemblance between Lily and Myra and on the age of the characters (the mother is only 14 years older than the son and the same age as his lover), lays the foundations for a disturbing but in some way obvious Oedipal triangle. Frears instead opts for a more complex and clearly more perverse geometry. The physical resemblance is not between the two women, but between mother and son, who is a softened and feminized version of her. And the psychological resemblance is the trait that all three have in common: with an identical choice of illegality (but, bear in mind, a professional choice like any other, one that pays well but the fruits of which note seems able to enjoy), they have exploited and sacrificed only part of themselves, so that none of them is complete and self-sufficient. Not the same parts, though. Lily is hard as steel and lives in her body as if it were merely the elegant container for a trigger-sharp brain. In contrast, Myra has made her body the practical place of the transactions that need or calculation suggests to her. Roy, a cloning of both women, prudently oscillates between the two extremes, coldly plotting a low-risk criminality, and using his natural soft seductiveness to lure potential marks. The narrative development is inevitable: coming together (by chance or business the characters converge on Los Angeles, that city where one can pretend to be what one is not), the three engage in a suffocating territorial bottle. Roy seems to be the stake being played. Lily and Myra contend for him while Roy decides that he finally wants to get in touch with himself, outside a relationship with a domineering female figure. Through a successive and spectacular series of incidents, which brings to mind the film noir of Hollywood’s golden years (in the course of the film, it is Frears himself who suggests that we keep in mind Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, 1938), the movie rushes irresistibly toward a macabre and cynical happy ending that is in a class by itself.

To throw off her boss, who has set killers on her trail, Lily must disappear. But in order to do so she needs money and a new identity. And these will be provided by Roy and Myra, her two alter egos, who are guff of not having understood that the true power of a grifter lies in defense and not in attack, in compliance and not in the offensive. While Lily, specialized in staying afloat at all costs, knows that, in the long run, only silence and passivity pay off; it’s enough never to make the first move and to know how to cash in. This is how, in an act of hyperbolic but uncalculated cannibalism, Lily manages to save her life twice, killing first Myra and then Roy, and taking possession of what best signifies them and what snits her best: the lover’s name end belongings (her dress and car), the son’s money. It is a double annexation that involves bloodshed but no exercise of power. Lily, as tenacious and attached to life as a cockroach, is involuntarily transformed into a death machine, yet without being at war. Hers is a classic struggle of resistance that, not foreseeing enemies, produces neither winners nor losers but only survivors. In fact, everything happens by chance, without strategy, in a chain of slips or missed actions that color the otherwise monstrous gestures of violence with naturalness as well as banality. The last frame of the film is ambiguous yet clear: leaving behind two corpses that resemble cast-off clothes, Lily gets into Myra’s car, starts it up, puts it in gear, and drives off. It’s not sure that she will get far, but for the moment she has escaped. Her triumph is modest and perhaps short-lived. But we know that in times of misery, even victory is miserable. In Frears’ small infernos, the moment of survival coincides, paradoxically perhaps, with a moment of power.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.


1. Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia, New York: Viking Press, 1990, p. 1.