Song of Songs
2005Director: Josh Appignanesi
Cast: Natalie Press, Joel Chalfen, Félicité Du Jeu
eligion, like sex, is a powerful cinematic weapon. Having duly preoccupied decades of talented filmmakers, the sacred has still retained its deeply rooted ability to shock, provoke and disturb, often at the same time. Unlike sex, the commanding screen power of religion to both threaten and subvert undoubtedly stems from the exception of the physical from the spiritual—sex will either turn you on or turn you off. Religion, on the other hand, could make you cry. Filmmakers have approached this from various angles, often embodying their own relationship to the subject. In the devotional overtures of Dreyer, Kurosawa, and Bergman, religion subsists but in the cerebral, intimate convictions of their characters—never denounced, rarely questioned, occasionally confronted. At the opposite wing of the filmic spectrum, faith serves as a social determinant, a political incentive, a humanist lacuna; much can be said of the risqué intentions of Scorsese’s lewd sexualisation of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ or Carlos Carrera’s direct demonization of the Mexican clerical system in The Crime Of Father Amaro.
It would perhaps be appropriate to place Song of Songs in the latter category. Set in the orthodox Jewish community of Hendon in London, an incestuous relationship between a sister and brother—her a devoutly religious Jew, him estranged from his own faith and the rest of his fogyish family—is employed as a tool to simply shock rather than provoke actual thought. That much of their relationship plays itself out only a room away from their dying mother is just one of many paradoxes at work in this film.
British newcomer Josh Appignanesi was clearly schooled with the very finest in low-budget filmmaking, his magna-cum-laude in shaky-to-make-it-dramatic camera techniques on appreciative display in all but two scenes. In the words of Appignanesi himself, “There are thousands of ways of shooting a low budget film.” Indeed. Yet this isn’t your average self-schooled-filmmaker-by-the-numbers. His penchant for claustrophobic close-ups, eerie musical accompaniment, and muted camerawork is, luckily, more Cries and Whispers than Identity. In other words, it works.
The film’s cryptic title pointedly references religious fanaticism (it is a collection of songs attributed to Solomon expressing his most intimate relationship with God), thus implying that there’s more than just friendly filmmaking turning the wheel here. The delicate sense of menacing ambiguity that Appignanesi spins is well-crafted, and the acting is superb. But Appignanesi has given us a metaphorical monolith, whose shadow blocks out any rays of psychological nuance and insight. The little light he sheds into his characters’ minds (a single flashback reveals images of an idyllic childhood) isn’t quite the fateful psychoanalysis we’re hoping to encounter.
Despite building the attraction on the strength of oppressive belief, there isn’t much actual religion here. Appignanesi himself isn’t religious, so the overt use of orthodox sermons makes for a hermetic reality that subsumes the movie’s milieu. What you see on screen is often hard to believe—not because it may not be happening, but because it’s impervious to the point that you feel as if you’re watching a manipulative puppet show rather than a juncture in the fragmented lives of two fetishistically sexualized individuals.
The male machismo/female submission themes recall Isabelle Huppert and Benoît Magimel’s sex games in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, and—dare I say—the scrappy wanderings of Steven Shainberg’s more buoyant (yet whimsical) Secretary. But where Haneke managed to locate the sexual relationship within a larger frame of reference, Appignanesi consumes our appetite for involvement by narrowing our frame of inspection. More than just troubled individuals in a risqué environment, Appignanesi layers taboo upon taboo, without any discernible interest in determining their origins. He also eschews the issue of forbidden sexual desire, shrugging it off as a sinuous power game, strife between self-repression and affected dominance.
Both Natalie Press (from Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love) and especially Joel Chalfen are positively beguiling as siblings Ruth and David, yet they can’t do much beyond playing two impenetrable individuals. Appignanesi prefers broad strokes to insight, leaving the central siblings hazily tinted; their hang-ups, subsequently, don’t always compute. For Elisabeth and Paul, the deviant siblings of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, the game was altogether more vicious. Never quite morphing into sexual contact, it was a spectral adventure of innuendos, longing, and repressed desire that spoke more about emotional ardour and mental inquietude than Song of Songs could ever hope to say about Ruth and David’s relationship.
It is all too easy to classify this film’s ambitions as an indictment of sexual repression and self-denial. Despite the wavering shock tactics, Song of Songs is solid filmmaking, and Appignanesi shows some serious strength of vision. Its brave camera angles, claustrophobic background music, and haunting performances can easily captivate, but in my case at least, this was soon precluded by an unsatisfying aftertaste.