Judge Roy Hrab once tried to live under a volcano, but he couldn't find reasonably priced home insurance.
"Hell's my preference. I choose Hell. Hell is my natural habitat."
When the main character of a story makes a statement like the one above, you know that good things cannot be on the horizon. This holds frighteningly true in Under The Volcano, John Huston's (The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre) adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's novel. What is the best description of this film? Bleak, hopeless, depressing, nihilistic? Most definitely. What one can also say is that Albert Finney (Miller's Crossing) delivers a gut-wrenching and devastating portrait of an alcoholic and that Criterion has issued a first-class treatment of the film, loading this two-disc release with extras.
Facts of the Case
The place: Cuernavaca, Mexico.
The year: 1938.
The day: November 1st (The Day of the Dead).
The man: Geoffrey Firmin (Finney), a former British diplomat who spends his current days in constant state of inebriation.
The event: The next twenty-four hours will be the last of Firmin's life. He is about to embark on a final journey of self-destruction with half-brother, Hugh (Anthony Andrews, Brideshead Revisited), and estranged wife, Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset, Bullitt), in tow. The action plays out under the passive gaze of an active volcano, Popocatepetl.
"No se puede vivir sin amar." Translation: One cannot live without love. So says Geoffrey Firmin. Unfortunately, he is incapable of love. Therefore, he is doomed. In a nutshell, Under The Volcano chronicles the inevitable destructive of Geoffrey. There is little else that happens. This is not a particularly pleasant viewing experience and watching Under The Volcano for the first time left me with mixed feelings. Is it simply an unpleasant movie about an unpleasant person who meets an unpleasant end? Or is it something else?
Geoffrey drinks and drinks and drinks. If he stops drinking, even temporarily, he ceases to function: his withdrawal symptoms are too severe. Having no desire to quit, he must continue to drink in order to make it through the day. This is not to say that he operates at a high level. Firmin is a man so steeped in drink that he is not capable of putting on his own socks. Further, he is so far gone that when Yvonne, who had divorced him and left Mexico, appears before him, it takes him multiple looks to believe that she is really there. He thinks she is a hallucination.
Geoffrey is not the only character having trouble with reality. Yvonne returns to reconcile with Geoffrey. Why? Does she still love him? Does she want to save him? She doesn't seem to know, but she is convinced that can they can leave Mexico for a farm, perhaps move to Canada. This is pure fantasy.
On the other hand, Hugh, Geoffrey's half-brother, thinks he is living the life of an idealist, having just returned from the Spanish Civil War for reasons not entirely clear. Was he injured? Or did he simply cut and run when the going got tough? The latter seems the most probable outcome.
The trio of lost souls set out to take in Day of the Dead festivities and possibly a stroll up Popocatepetl. People dressed in devil and reaper costumes abound, foreshadowing the grim conclusion of the movie. The reason for this turn of events is Geoffrey's final decision to reject love and humanity. His actions annihilate the fantasies of all the characters. There will be no forgiveness. There will be no reconciliation. The decision leads Firmin to his own personal hell, dragging Yvonne and Hugh with him.
However, it is possible to hang on film on such action, involving the rejection of love and the shattering of romantic illusions? The film is a series of increasingly dismal events. Who wants to watch nearly two hours of a man who is drinking himself into oblivion? There is no redemption, only tragedy and loss. It is a wholly unpleasant story that few will be able to relate. There is no counterpoint to the nihilistic lifestyle and choices of Geoffrey. There is no functional loving relationship in the film. It's not even clear whether Yvonne loves Geoffrey, or is just having rescue fantasies. The lesson that "One cannot live without love" is an important one, but surely how "One can live with love," or some other positive message, is worthy of being presented.
Technically, the film is sound. The video transfer is pretty clean with few blemishes, although at times the picture lacks sharpness. The audio is clear.
Criterion has piled on the extras. The first disc carries the theatrical trailer and three separate commentary tracks. The main commentary track, covering the entire film, features executive producer Michael Fitzgerald (The Pledge), and producers Wieland Schulz-Keil (The Cat's Meow) and Moritz Borman (World Trade Center). The trio provides comprehensive information on the film, including securing the rights to the novel, financing, Huston's relationship with the actors, other attempts to bring novel to the screen, and critical reception. The commentary is remarkably honest about the film. It's not the typical love-in that many commentaries turn into. This is not to say they slag the film (far from it), but they recognize that there are flaws. The second commentary track features screenwriter Guy Gallo on selected scenes. Gallo covers the creation of the screenplay. Of interest is the working relationship Gallo had with Huston. Also of note for budding screenwriters out there is that Gallo states that screenwriting is editing more than writing. Similar to the previous commentary, this is a fairly even-handed assessment of the film. The last commentary track is by John Huston's son Danny (The Proposition) on the film's title sequence of papier-mache skeletons. Danny directed the sequence.
The second disc provides even more, featuring a 2007 video interview with Bisset, a 1984 audio interview with Huston, and two documentaries. Bisset discusses the role of Yvonne and the challenges of working with macho director Huston. The audio interview with Huston centers on adapting books to film generally as well as the unique challenges of adapting Under The Volcano. The making-of documentary "Notes from Under the Volcano" captures the filming of various scenes and interactions between Huston and his cast and crews. The second documentary is the 1976 film Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry. The documentary examines the life of the author of the source novel, featuring readings of Lowry's work by Richard Burton and interviews with Lowry's family, friends, and others. It paints a fascinating portrait of a very disturbed person.
Last, there is a booklet featuring essay by film critic Christian Viviani that discusses Under The Volcano and its place within Huston's body of work.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The saving grace of Under The Volcano is Finney's performance. The film is propelled by Geoffrey's internal struggle with guilt, sobriety, jealousness, and a desire to reunite with Yvonne, the whole film rests on Finney's shoulders. Indeed, without this compelling performance the film would be unwatchable. Finney's slurred words, staggered walk, and expressive face are remarkable. His delivery in the "I choose Hell" scene is as intense and chilling as anything you'll ever see in film. Further, there's something about his performance that makes you sympathize with Firmin and hope he can save himself. It's an extremely textured and markedly non-melodramatic piece of acting. The rest of the cast is does their job adequately, but all the heavy lifting is left to Finney.
On a different note, fans of Malcolm Lowry's novel will be disappointed with this adaptation. The narrative structure has been changed from novel's fractured narrative, involving multiple flashbacks, to an exclusively linear format. The character of M. Laurelle is excised from the film entirely. Yvonne and Hugh are regulated to the periphery. Instead, the film focuses on the alcoholism and fall of Firmin almost exclusively. Personally, I do not object to these changes because I am no fan of the book. I found much of it tedious and rambling when I read it a few years ago.
Under The Volcano is a flawed film salvaged by Albert Finney. The film is unrelentingly dark and depressing in tone. It drives home the message that "One cannot live without love," but to what purpose?
Finally, once again, Criterion delivers in the extras department. This release contains a huge quantity of high quality extras that provide excellent information about not only the film, but also about filmmaking in general.
John Huston is guilty of a poor choice of source material, but his sentence is reduced because of the riveting performance he draws from Albert Finney.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentaries: Executive Producer Michael Fitzgerald and Producers Wieland Schulz-Keil and Moritz Borman on the film; Screenwriter Guy Gallo on selected scenes; and Danny Huston on the opening sequence
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