Sunday, January 07, 2007

Casino Royale II: Special Face Cards

I love it when rhetorical devices sneak into big-budget Hollywood films. We've all seen in-depth analysis of art films and classic literature, so we're not surprised to hear about coded complexities of space and gender and difference in Madame Bovary, or whatever (insert literary tropes and important modernist novel as necessary). But we rarely expect to find such coded themes and subtle structural devices in Hollywood blockbusters, so a lot of people stop searching.

But there are a few reasons for us to keep looking. First, Hollywood is smarter than we give it credit for. When you start paying attention to directors' names, you realize that sometimes the people making popcorn flicks (i.e. Hellboy, Blade) are the same people making the psychological mind-benders (Cronos, Pan's Labyrinth). Second, when we manage to find the rhetorical devices in our favorite B-movies, it makes the movies that much more enjoyable. A lot of the pleasure we take in repeated movie-watching is due to expectation and recognition, and the more we have to connect, recognize, look for, and think about, the more it makes sense to keep watching the films and making the connections. Third, finding the smart subtexts in badass films makes us feel smarter, and it vindicates our watching cheesy cinema, even if we're in graduate programs that expect us to spend all our time watching political documentaries and Mulholland Dr.

The new Bond film, Casino Royale, is a sick movie, no doubt, but there's something more there than free-running and hot dialogue (She: "I don't think I'm cruel enough for that." Bond: "Maybe you're just out of practice.") If you try to connect coincidences, you start discovering the subliminal construction of the film, the way it links its characters and its plot to its premise and structure. I'll give you an example, and I'll mention a few other places where you could look for a deeper coded meaning in this film.


I started figuring this out when I noticed that there were two guys with eye-problems. For the first half of the film, Bond is dealing with Le Chiffre, a slick card-counting gambler who always wears black. He happens to have a glandular problem with his left eye, so it's bleached white, and (get this shit) it cries blood. Later: Bond and Vesper are tailed by a man with an eye-patch, whose name (according to my research) is Gettler. This has actually generated some confusion... a lot of people get these two villains mixed up, assuming Le Chiffre didn't die, but rather returned as Gettler to reclaim the money.

But the oracular issues aren't just part of a random preoccupation Ian Fleming had when he wrote this novel. In a deck of playing cards, there are two Jacks whose faces are in full profile, so you can only see one eye. There two characters represent the two one-eyed jacks in a deck of cards. I'd even go so far as to conjecture that Le Chiffre represents the Jack of Hearts, because of his association with blood. That would leave Gettler as the Jack of Spades.

This could have been a coincidence. It's an unlikely one, but it could have been a random stylistic decision that I'm reading too deeply. But if I can trace it even further, and it turns out to be even more elaborate, it becomes more likely that it's an ingtentional embedded semiotic code (as per classic paranoid schizophrenic logic). So as soon as I recognized the presence of the one-eyed jacks, I started watching for one more special face card that's present in playing card decks: the Suicide King.

And there, before my eyes, Vesper Lynd, Bond's true love (the hearts theme) locks herself into a sinking elevator chamber (the suicide theme) while wearing a red dress (just in case it wasn't clear enough). Don't let the gender inversion fool you... the coding is clear. The three most common special face cards appear in Casino Royale, clear as day, thus informing a semiotic understanding of the characters. There's never any attention drawn to it, but when you start to look, it's almost unmistakable. And if we can find this theme, embedded so cleverly in the design of the narrative, who knows what else we could find?

I'll give some more ideas for future analysis. If anybody has theories, let me know; I might follow up on some of these myself, if I get a bunch of extra free time.

  1. What cards might other characters represent? Is Bond an ace and/or a Joker? Is M one of the queens? Are there any other parallels, clearly evidenced, that I'm overlooking?
  2. What's the role of luck and/or the bluff in Bond's political actions? If certain characters resemble certain cards, is it possible (or rewarding) to see this whole movie as a macrocosmic poker game?
  3. This is based on Flemming's first Bond novel... do the relationships with Vesper and Solange establish the dynamic that informs the rest of Bond's doomed loves? Is the rest of his life dictated by the relationship, established in this book, between love, betrayal, and abandonment?
  4. When did Vesper decide to betray Bond? This isn't so much a thematic interest as something that just wasn't clear to me - was she always an agent of Mr. White, helping influence the poker game and playing both sides? Or was she truly devoted to the treasury until Le Chiffre's tortue scene, when she made the deal with Mr. White in order to same Bond?
  5. As a sub-question to the above: What were the implications of Vesper's betrayal? Did she betray Bond, or did she save him, and how can both be true at the same time? Is there evidence of a fatal love triangle between Vesper, Bond, and the political institutions that they serve?
This has been a long and enjoyable entry to write... as I reflect further on Casino Royale, I find I like it more and more... it was surprisingly well-endowed with complexities and ambiguities, and like any really good movie, it rewards further analysis and examination. Art meets action, my friends - it's the future of a franchise and the future of a medium.


Anonymous said...

I cant really go into the other characters and their card representations (although I agree about M (is that her name? Judy Dench's character? Bondies are going to kill my ignorance...) possibly being the other King, but I can talk on the gender inversion.

I would more call it a "sex" inversion considering the mores used in most bond films. Women have a specific use in this oh so mysogynistic series. Women are ambiguous as to whose side they are on, but are usually subjugated by Bond both sexually and mentally. They can be fiesty, but remain Bond's playthings.

Not so with Vesper and M. M is Bond's boss. Yes, he broke into her place, but later you find out it was because she let him. She is not his plaything, and she wields power over him. At times it may seem Vesper is Bond's plaything, completely subjugated herself to her man and master, but it was all a ruse, and she was playing Bond the whole time. That surely is not how Bond girls are supposed to act. It is, however, how Bond men act.

So in a sense, it makes more sense to cast those two characters as Kings than it does Queens. Maybe that unfortunate woman, also in a red dress, at the beginning of the movie makes a better queen.


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