Tuesday, December 2, 2014

ELECTRA (1962)

You could make a movie about a young actress learning tough lessons about men, and maybe acting on them in tragic fashion, as she matures from playing Electra to playing Clytemnestra. That's the path Irene Papas traveled in her films for director Michael Cacoyannis. In Electra she's the title character, the daddy's-girl daughter out for revenge on her mom Clytemnestra for the murder of her dad Agamemnon. Fifteen years later, Papas would be Clytemnestra mourning Agamemnon's sacrifice of her eldest daughter in Iphigenia. In Electra Clytemnestra (Aleka Katselli) tries to remind her angry, bloodthirsty daughter of that history, and of Agamemnon's insulting return to Argos with the Trojan princess Cassandra as his concubine, but Electra's having none of it. You were a bitch before all that, she says in effect, and the film has primed us to agree with her. Katselli's Clytemnestra is arrogant and imperious, and Electra seems to hate her guts, or at least distrust her, even before the queen has her lover Aegisthus murder the newly-returned king. We see the young Electra brush the queen's arm off her shoulder when Clytemnestra makes a show of the family greeting the husband she has already condemned. Time doesn't soften Electra's attitude, which is no surprise considering how mom has married her off to some poor (but respectful) farmer and exiled her to the sticks, where she makes something of a show of her impoverishment, going barefoot while the women of the chorus -- this adaptation is faithful to the form of Greek tragedy -- wear shoes. Reunited with her long-lost brother Orestes (Giannis Fertis), she pleads for revenge. Luring Clytemnestra to her village with a tall tale about a baby, she hopes to claim her share of revenge. But no matter what temperature you serve revenge at, it turns to ashes in the mouth when your victim is blood kin.

Does Electra explain Frank Miller? The comic-book auteur took the name for his most famous creation at Marvel Comics, the antiheroine driven by her father's murder to become a ninja assassin, while the ancient Greek setting anticipates Miller's turn to antiquity in 300. And Cacoyannis's film is in black and white, just like Sin City! One can go too far with such speculation, easily, but it just goes to show how the Greek archetypes endure. But if we think we understand the "Electra complex" and thus Electra's place in Greek culture, Cacoyannis surprises us with a sudden emotional reversal that should remind us how alien Ancient Greece is to us, how difficult it is to encompass with our modern categories or sensibilities.

The movie audience, presumably, is rooting all the way for Electra and Orestes to get their revenge. They presumably cheer when Orestes kills Aegisthus, though Cacoyannis, respecting tragic convention, keeps the fight offstage. Presumably we anticipate Clytemnestra getting what's coming to her. That, too, happens offscreen, represented for us by the chorus writhing and screaming in a frantic montage. The evil queen is dead, but now everyone's miserable. Dead, Clytemnestra is now just plain Mom again, and her own kids killed her. Now our sibling heroes are objects of horror, each wandering off into his or her private wasteland, Orestes to be tormented by furies, Electra presumably bound for oblivion. No matter what justification or provocation they had, they crossed a taboo line and know it. If this were a purely modern tragedy the kids might still mourn the mother they knew before she went evil, but before long they'd settle down and take their rightful places in power in Argos. In their own time, the enormity of their deed is not so easily shrugged off, and if we don't get that, that may be part of Cacoyannis's point in making his film.

Visually, Electra makes Cacoyannis look like the missing link between Sergei Eisenstein and Sergio Leone. The early scenes of Clytemnestra in near close-up watching Agamemnon's procession in the distance should remind film buffs of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, while his dramatic use of close-ups throughout, especially in this film's rocky settings, look forward to Leone's spaghetti westerns. Filming in black and white makes Electra look more modernist, or at least more stylized than the later, arguably superior Iphigenia. Both films (and to a lesser extent Cacoyannis's English-language Trojan Women) succeed in confronting us with a Greece we can understand yet can't identify with in any easily complacent way. They are powerful correctives to the cartoon version of Greece presented in so many Italian peplum pictures or American fantasy films, just because Cacoyannis's Greeks don't behave like our contemporaries and aren't so easily assimilated in our consciousness or dismissed from our memory.

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