Directed by Andrea Lioy

Starring Jonathan Bowden, Kate Willow, Nicola Henry, Michael Woodbridge and Lucy Zara

 

TWO and a half years in the making, Jonathan Bowden’s second foray into the world of cinematic production is now finally available. I had previously reviewed and enjoyed Bowden’s film debut, Venus Flytrap (2005), so was therefore very eager to see this latest offering. The real Grand Guignol was a Parisian theatre specialising in dramatic presentations of various horror stories, among them Un Crime dans une Maison de Fous, Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations and L’Horrible Passion. These gruesome tales of primeval revulsion, brutal murder and raving insanity were first introduced to French audiences by Oscar Metenier in 1897, with the theatre finally closing its doors no less than sixty-five years later in 1962. Bowden’s unusual film has been carved from the same demonic substance and the theatre’s macabre tradition lives on in this more contemporary tale. The beginning of the film is shot in black and white and in the opening scene we see a woman (Penthouse model, Lucy Zara) glancing warily from side to side, the sound of her stiletto heels colliding with the floor is fused with the tortured growls and loud chimes of the soundtrack. There is a sense of fear and trepidation. The camera pans away from her face and we notice for the first time that she is completely naked. The music adopts a more exotic tone and we see that her surroundings, a room with a tall stairway occupying the centre, is full of clutter. Assorted bicycle parts, boxes, bags and various other rubbish conveys the impression that the woman finds herself in a basement storeroom of some kind. She makes her way past wooden doorframes and ‘no smoking’ signs until the camera settles upon a ball of glowing light. She is then shown kicking a pot full of money across the floor, which may indicate that whilst she is naked and vulnerable she cannot be bought like a cheap whore. The real reason, of course, given the subject matter, is that she represents what is commonly known as ‘the Bottler’, the person responsible for collecting the earnings of the Punch & Judy man. Various other camera angles are brought into play and we see more rubbish strewn throughout the large room, with two rows of white columns adding to the Eastern mysticism being conjured up by the music. Her initial fear turns into joyful abandonment, as she struts boldly across the room with her long blonde hair, white skin and generous breasts united in a perfect flow of carefree motion. She then enters another section of the building and we see large glass windows and various liquid containers and paint pots arranged across row upon row of shelving. The music stops, the scene changes and everything is plunged into colour. Pretty Polly (Kate Willow) is heard complaining about being in pain and then Bowden appears dressed in everyday apparel, an unsympathetic grimace spread across his features. He refers to her as a ‘wooden puppet’ and her masochistic response – made significantly more obvious by the use of the term ‘master’ – is tinged with a slightly unrepentant insolence, which is both seductive and innocent at the same time. The pair are situated behind a concrete pillar, which adds to the mystery. It is clear that Pretty Polly has recently been created and one wonders whether Bowden – whose character at this time is still not entirely clear – has created a lover for himself in the same way that Doctor Frankenstein created one for his monster. Pretty Polly emerges from the rubbish, clothed in a white blouse. A light comes on and Bowden is shown cringing in the cold, a sudden reversal from his earlier role as the dominant master. Now he, too, it seems, is just a wooden figurine glad to be free of ‘the puppet’s graveyard’ from which they have each recently withdrawn themselves. Death into life. Formlessness into being. Bowden – as Punch – embarks upon a delightful monologue which details his past association with fairs and sideshows, at which he spent his time ‘beating, and being beaten’. The words and sentences, often dismantled and reassembled across different scenes in quick-fire succession by the director, revel in the character’s love of the primeval and Punch’s cold heart shivers with the loneliness and desolation suffered back in the wilderness of the graveyard. This may well be a metaphor for the womb and conjures up poetic images of Yeats’ ‘rough beast, its hour come round at last’ as it ‘slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’. Pretty Polly, meanwhile, still coming to terms with being able to walk, stumbles erratically across the room like a newborn antelope. With a little coaxing, however, Punch invites her to recite ‘the ventriloquist’s mantra’ and using a selection of props – fire extinguisher, child’s hoop, hard hat, bicycle, mask and stick – goes on to describe his own role in the marvellously brutal drama that is the Punch & Judy show itself. But beyond his ‘multiplicity of selves’ and all ‘the administered beatings’, Punch is alone. Or is he? Cue a 70s disco beat and the appearance of a sultry brunette in various photo-shoot guises. It’s Judy (Nicola Henry), of course, and she is portrayed here as a jet-setting celebrity who is eventually interviewed by a star-struck Michael Woodbridge. Judy relates how she first came across Punch at a theatre in Guildford, before Bowden – hidden behind the figure of Pretty Polly – suggests that her fascinating with him was sheer ‘adoration’. Woodbridge infers that she was obviously in love, but Judy is unable to explain how she felt and the viewer is left wondering whether Punch himself managed to bring her under his spell. It then becomes clear that Pretty Polly is Punch’s latest object of desire, just like in the real Punch & Judy story, and Punch tells her that ever since the beginning of civilisation love has gone on to lose its authenticity and that both he and Judy now find themselves ‘estranged’. The dialogue will strike a chord with anyone who has found themselves in a broken relationship of this kind and Punch speaks of ‘distance’, ‘a forgetting’ and an ‘absence of love’. Judy is shown immersed in her own vanity and Pretty Polly asks Punch whether, despite everything, he can still love her. This is followed by the words ‘Who are you, master?’ and the scene changes and Woodbridge returns to interview both Punch and Judy together. This appeals to Punch’s inherent narcissism, but Judy seems disinterested in his show of arrogance and conceit. Pretty Polly, on the other hand, is apparently impressed with his know-it-all attitude. Punch launches into a sneering tirade about the primordial instincts of the puppet world, something which finds itself mirrored in the world of human affairs: ‘Don’t talk to me about sentimentality, or about pity, but only about desire and fury which goes on forever until the curtain comes down’. Beat or be beaten. Kill or be killed. Victory or defeat. Love and hate. All are valid, all have their place in the general scheme of things. The couple are then shown standing, about to kiss, but Punch can’t resist the urge to canter off on another outburst and a cultured reference slips off the tongue as easy as a torso off Beachy Head and Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s 1967 opera, ‘Punch and Judy’, receives a mention. This is the style adopted in many of Bowden’s surreal novels, in which his characters tend to plunge into a series of literary and philosophical comments in the most unlikely circumstances. Rather than accept a kiss from his wife, the proudly contemptuous Mr. Punch obviously considers it beneath him to concern himself with such matters. Pretty Polly is shown falling to the floor and Punch and Judy appear at the windows of a garden shed, perfect for a makeshift booth, at which they bicker over marital infidelities and throw insults at one another. At one point Judy even calls her spouse a ‘BBC newsreader’, but surely even the obnoxious Punch doesn’t deserve that?! The latter responds with terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘dishwasher’, whacking Judy a few times in the process, but she eventually kicks him in the balls and walks away. This act sends Punch into a raging fury and he brings his stick down on the back of her head and she plunges to the ground. She retaliates, but Punch is too strong for her and so throws his jacket over her head to disorientate her and proceeds to kick her mercilessly. The joys of domestic bliss. He finally stops and seems taken aback when Judy is lying prostate on the floor: ‘Come on girl, it’s just a bit of old slap.’ And then we’re back in the studio again, where Judy explains how she took her revenge by smashing up Punch’s personal belongings. This ‘prospect of resolution’, as she describes it, seems to relate to the tit-for-tat nature of their fragile relationship. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Surely Punch, after all, would appreciate that nothing is entirely sacred in the great and often turbulent game of life? He calls it ‘the cannibalism of desire’. Pretty Polly, on the other hand, climbs up from the floor and feels herself changing from wood into flesh and now resolves to find him. And then we find ourselves outside for the first time, Punch and Judy are heard talking – although their lips do not move – about the inevitability of conflict. They climb a metal stairway and Judy tries to seduce Punch in the doorway of a tenement, but he resists and sends her away. This is followed by an optical exchange between Judy and Pretty Polly, and then a scene on the steps in which Punch and Pretty Polly exchange bizarre references about Greek literature, anti-Semitism and procuring a blue rope from Jewsons with which to string up the audience. Punch then appears before a plain backdrop and tells a mother-in-law joke that goes unappreciated. His guffaws fade away and both he and Pretty Polly are back on the steps. She explains that her identity is only secured by her love for Punch and that love itself ‘foreshortens those days of turmoil prior to death’. Substance applied to meaninglessness. Existentialism with a romantic ending, perhaps, although that was something Sartre and de Beauvoir – a Punch and Judy of a different kind – never experienced! Pretty Polly continues to wax lyrical about the innumerable pleasures of love, but Punch seems determined to engage in further conflict with Judy and reappears at the studio where Woodbridge, the interviewer, tells him to sort out the matter for himself before wheeling away on a child’s scooter. Pretty Polly, disturbed by Punch’s disappearance, begins to search for him, knowing that her lover has a dark side and that ‘evil is a stray latitude given to boredom’. Is Punch bored of their safe compatibility? Does he find it impossible to live without the violence and aggression of his relationship with Judy? A brief spat between the couple causes Judy to think seriously about the deeper meaning behind their tempestuous relationship. She still loves him and can even tolerate the brutality, but decides that ‘confrontation is not the way’. However, it soon transpires that Judy harbours aggressive tendencies of her own, comparing herself to a female spider that devours the male with a single ‘crunch’. But it’s little more than a feminist fantasy. Then Pretty Polly appears in their dressing room and Punch laments the modern portrayal of their dying art – ‘they say that it’s too violent for children, what tosh that is, and they say that it’s politically-incorrect, nonsense, blather and nonsense’ – and begins to stress the difference between his ‘immemorial’ role as Punch and the comparatively more ordinary existence of the common wife-beater: ‘I release the primal urges. when I say throw the baby out of the booth, every father in sight smiles inside his own heart’. This, of course, is the darker – and necessary – side of human nature that the liberal establishment wants hidden, simply because it doesn’t accord with their blinkered, utopian humanism. And this is the penultimate scene in the film. Bowden’s acting is superb here, because essentially he’s being himself: ‘My life is the audience, they’re the other side of me, they’re the other character. When I’m beating you I’m beating them. The world needs Punch. The world needs a man who represents cardinal force and glory…’ Punch falls to the floor in total exhaustion, as Judy and Pretty Polly look on. In the final scene, Punch emerges from beside a green curtain and introduces himself, speaking for the first time in that unmistakably shrill voice and proceeding to act out the entire performance single-handedly. Leaping from side to side like a demented lunatic, actions and voices combine in a macabre display of tradition, sarcasm, wickedness and cruelty. Punch is doing what he does best and, after an exhilarating twenty minutes, takes his bow. The finale is a brief discourse about the nature of evil, something which has occupied the minds of thinkers and philosophers for centuries. Bowden’s view, on the other hand, is that demonic energy should be ‘beaten out’ and that these primal forces can become a moral good. And lest you disagree with this analysis, even the sensuous dancer at the end is there to evoke man’s deepest desires and only a eunuch would fail to be moved. To conclude, then, this is a fabulous film and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It has a strong cast, a good director and, ultimately, a very powerful message.

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