One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The Story of Adèle H
“My object,” Thackeray said of Vanity Fair, “is to indicate, in cheerful terms, that we are for the most part an abominably foolish and selfish people…all eager after vanities. Everybody is you see in that book….” Everybody is in The Luck of Barry Lyndon too, the novel Thackeray had published three years earlier. Although eager may be too strong a word. Barry Lyndon is anemic picaresque, something like a novel by Smollett without Smollett’s rage and energy, a languid, rambling narrative redeemed only by the grace of Thackeray’s writing and the poise of his throwaway comments (“He was an admirable soldier, dissolute, and a drunkard.” “He was quite in the wrong…. But, like a gentleman, he scorned to apologize”). There is a very funny scene in which Barry, not the brightest of fellows, tussles verbally with Dr. Johnson—“he was accompanied by a Mr. Buswell of Scotland, and I was presented to the club by a Mr. Goldsmith, a countryman of my own”—and there is one extraordinary sequence in which Thackeray outdoes even Stendhal on the disasters of war:
I hate bragging, but I cannot help saying that I made a very close acquaintance with the colonel of the Cravates, for I drove my bayonet into his body, and finished off a poor little ensign, so young, slender, and small, that a blow from my pigtail would have despatched him, I think, in place of the butt of my musket, with which I clubbed him down. I killed, besides, four more officers and men, and in the poor ensign’s pocket found a purse of fourteen louis-d’or, and a silver box of sugar-plums, of which the former present was very agreeable to me. If people would tell their stories of battles in this simple way, I think the cause of truth would not suffer by it.
But for the rest, the novel is a portrait of an Irish rascal who is just not lively enough to be appealing, or even unappealing. The eighteenth century is seen through weary nineteenth-century eyes. “You needn’t read Barry Lyndon,” Thackeray told his daughter. “You won’t like it.”
Kubrick, obviously drawn to Thackeray’s bleak views and pallid characters, has made a film which is in one sense a perfect version of the novel: austere, stately, beautiful, faintly inhuman. But it lacks the wit and occasional indignation which are the only reasons for reading the book, and so it just hangs there on the screen for three hours, a monument to Kubrick’s patience and pedantry and rather laborious good taste, but signifying very little else.
Thackeray delivered large, sad truths in cheerful terms, as he said. Kubrick’s method is to say the same things in the manner of a professional mourner, and so Thackeray’s counterpoint becomes Kubrick’s tautology: gloom on gloom, solemnity everywhere. Everything in the movie conspires to create this effect: shots consistently set up to look like eighteenth-century paintings; clothes that are not costumes but, as Time says, “authentic antiques”; pavanes and allemandes by Bach and Handel plonked into the soundtrack at all the predictable moments; the easy but slightly over-ripe voice of Michael Hordern as the narrator; a repeated movement of the camera back and away from a tight close-up to reveal, gradually, a perfectly balanced landscape, its convenient mountain or stately home absolutely in the center of the frame; performances by Ryan O’Neal and Marisa Berenson, as Barry and Countess Lyndon, which are so wooden that their hairdos keep stealing the show from their faces. The actors can’t be faulted here, they are obviously doing what Kubrick wants. But what does he want? Why is he making this film? Where have all the human beings gone?
There are some good scenes. A card room is lit with such a soft, curious glow that a cluster of people out of Gainsborough almost seems to have been painted by Georges de la Tour. There is a battle where the sheer beauty of the colors—the red and white of the uniforms on the broad green of the countryside—generates a real irony, a sense of the utter, smiling heartlessness of war. But mainly the movie itself is heartless. I think Kubrick is trying to be honest; trying to avoid snickering and cuteness at all costs. He wants above all not to be Tony Richardson, not to make a rollicking Tom Jones. But there’s the rub. These are negative virtues if they’re virtues at all. The cost of such purity is simply too high.
The structure of the movie is sound enough, firmer than the novel’s. Barry is first seen as a fairly engaging young fellow. Then he marries and treats his wife like a doormat (we are told this by the narrator, but shown it only rather decorously: Barry blows smoke into his wife’s face, poses for Kubrick’s camera with a couple of half-naked girls, and is caught kissing the maid), and we conclude that Barry is rather nastier than the next man, only to discover that the next man, in the person of Barry’s stepson, is rather nastier than Barry, since he cripples Barry in a duel even after Barry has generously fired into the ground.
It’s an elegant design, but it doesn’t help, because the film’s beauty has become boring long before the design has become visible. Barry’s progress through the Seven Years War, around the card tables of Europe, into a rich marriage and down into drink and disgrace moves with a smooth, metronomic flow which is no doubt Kubrick’s notion of the right style for the eighteenth century, a cinematic parallel to a formal, measured dance. But there are turns and change of step in a dance. In Barry Lyndon, there is only the slow parade of flawless pictures, and the dance winds down to a death march, sumptuous last honors for what used to be the movies.
Kubrick is attracted by apparent impossibilities. Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon are all, in their different ways, highly literary texts, works that seem to defy translation into film. (“How did they ever make a film of Lolita?” the advertising asked when the movie was first released—although the question was not prompted by the texture of Nabokov’s prose. One critic tartly replied, “They didn’t.”) Ken Kesey is neither Nabokov nor Burgess nor Thackeray, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seems to invite translation into film as much as the other books defy it. And yet Milo Forman, oddly enough, runs into much the same problems as Kubrick, although with different results.
Kesey’s novel is narrated by Chief Broom Bromden, an inmate in a mental hospital who pretends to be deaf and dumb. The Chief sees metaphors. When men are described as rabbits, the rabbits hop before his eyes. When the head nurse on his ward gets angry, the Chief watches the transformation:
So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load….
The Chief knows what he knows:
Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It’s for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse’s heart; something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land with a welded grin….
Of course the Chief’s paranoia may be truer than our supposed sanity, and that is precisely his argument: “It’s the truth,” he says of his story, “even if it didn’t happen.” The game being played here, our implication in the Chief’s vision and our resistance to it, our attempts to see it as just crazy or just literary, even our desire to believe in it, is a special, bookish form of hide-and-seek, which requires text and readers, can’t be played with images on a screen and an audience in a cinema.
Kubrick replaces that sort of irony—Thackeray’s inviting his readers to an understanding of Barry which is not Barry’s own—with poker-faced art. Forman replaces it with a gentle, underplayed realism, something which is the opposite of Kesey’s hyperbole. The monstrous Big Nurse of the novel is not a monster in the movie, but simply a handsome, hard-faced, flat-voiced, infinitely patient and sensible woman. Louise Fletcher’s performance in this role is quite extraordinary. She is the nurse/teacher/social worker from countless soap operas tilted toward nightmare by the sheer relentlessness of her professional behavior. She has disappeared into the deceiving manners of her job, and Fletcher, under Forman’s direction, catches perfectly the horrible inhumanity of kindly, comprehending phrases offered without either kindness or comprehension, indeed systematically used to keep people under control.
It is as if the metallic politeness of a telephone operator, those courteous words rattled out in that synthetic voice, were used on us daily to keep us in our place. And as if we actually needed to hear that voice, since real madness, for Kesey and Forman, is submission, acceptance of the tyranny of the so-called sane. The ward of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, many of whose inhabitants are voluntary patients, becomes a fierce figure for the consent of the governed. We consent not only to be governed, we consent to be oppressed. We ask to be oppressed. Kesey would say no doubt that all government is oppression, but Forman’s view seems milder (or is it just the Seventies nudging down the Sixties—Kesey’s novel was published in 1962): governments oppress us because they have the power to do so, and because we allow them to.
Forman’s restraint then gets a lot of the effects of Kesey’s exaggerations. Or rather, Forman persuades his actors to get these effects for him (Kubrick can’t, or won’t, get anything from his actors, because he is too busy using them as coathangers and moveable foregrounds for his insistent backgrounds). There is not only Fletcher, there is also Jack Nicholson, as a roughneck who undertakes the liberation of the ward, only to end up lobotomized and then killed in kindness by the Chief.
The tone of the whole film is really set by Nicholson’s early interview with the hospital doctor, which is such a sly, amiable, whispered, chatty, smiling affair that it seems crazier than any more flamboyant madness could possibly be, and throughout the movie Nicholson looks sensible, bewildered, wily, and zany by turns, and in ways that test the idea of sanity not logically but visually. What does it mean to look sane? We know what it means to look crazy, since the film first shows us the inmates of the ward as a caricatured bunch of freaks. But then one of Forman’s achievements is to make us feel so easy with these men that we simply stop thinking of them as crazy and see them as the victims of the Nurse and the system and their own fears.
A single, brilliant moment in the movie pulls all this beautifully together. Nicholson is leading the men from the ward on a deep-sea fishing expedition. As they board the boat, a man from the marina asks them what they think they are doing. Nicholson hesitates, then says, “We’re from the State mental institution.” There is a pause, during which we wait for whatever remark can possibly follow this. Then Nicholson continues, introducing each of the men in turn, “This is Dr. Harding. This is Dr. Cheswick. Dr. Bibbitt. Dr. Scanlon….” As the camera reaches each face, the men straighten up, put on serious expressions, nod like celebrities being presented on television, and actually look like doctors. A moment ago they were lunatics in scruffy sweaters, and now they are doctors on their day off, wearing their old clothes. The joke here is not simply the old gag about doctors in mental hospitals being indistinguishable from their patients, it is also a suggestion of genuine liberty. We look like whatever we choose to call ourselves, and the camera proves it. If we call ourselves crazy.or allow ourselves to be called crazy, we shall look crazy.
Of course, real madness disappears in such perspectives. And while the cheerful, libertarian politics of the film are appealing, the literalism of Forman’s rendering of the ward—tiled floors, starched uniforms, clanging cage-like doors and the rest—makes one wonder about actual mental hospitals in the world outside the movie. About the hospital in Oregon where the movie was shot, for example. Can it be true that the insane are merely scared, that it’s all the Nurse’s fault, and that a good fuck would cure many a pathology? Isn’t there something unfeeling about such optimism? Kesey’s novel doesn’t prompt such questions, because it is safe inside the Chief’s narration (“It’s the truth even if it didn’t happen”), but Forman’s movie does, and thus reminds us how simplified it is, both psychologically and politically. I believe political repression is bad under any circumstances, and I don’t doubt that many mental hospitals come all too close to Kesey’s and Forman’s descriptions. But the movie still evades madness itself, as it evades all serious political issues, because it just sorts out the good guys from the bad guys, the victims from the nurses.
The shallowness of this very attractive film probably comes from Forman’s unwillingness to tolerate (and inability to dismiss) the ugly assumptions that lurk at all the edges of the story: women are all either nurses or whores; blacks (in the guise of ward attendants) are the world’s sadists and creeps; the only hope of innocence is for scared white males led by an amiable jailbird. The presence of an Indian in the novel and the movie is a sentimental gesture, camouflage for the prejudices at work elsewhere. As I say, I think Forman is too generous to let all this out of the bag, but he hasn’t fully succeeded in imposing on it his own amiable brand of anarchism, and the result is a movie with its foundations missing.
Both Barry Lyndon and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are movies drawn from books, and so is Truffaut’s The Story of Adèle H. It is based on the diary of Adèle Hugo, the second daughter of Victor Hugo, who ran away from her father’s home in exile in Guernsey in order to follow the man she loved, an English lieutenant in the hussars, who had been transferred to Halifax, Nova Scotia. But Truffaut is not making a film of the book, he is conflating pieces of the book with what every French schoolchild knows about Hugo. Hugo’s older daughter, Leopoldine, was drowned with her husband when she was nineteen, and Hugo made a great display of his grief in a famous poem called “A Villequier.” Truffaut’s film picks up a phrase from Adèle’s journal and places it by the side of the poem and its occasion, and the movie grows out of this conjunction. “This incredible thing,” Adèle says, “that a girl should walk on the water, should cross from the old world to the new, to rejoin her lover, this incredible thing is what I will do.”
A daughter drowns, another walks the sea. Truffaut belabors this point a bit by having Adèle twice dream of Leopoldine drowning, and by showing her twice standing by an ocean, speaking of “cette chose incroyable,” as if she were literally about to step off on to the waves. But the point is interesting, a double image of calamity and miracle, since although Adèle crosses the sea to join her lover, she drowns on dry land when she gets there, because he brutally refuses to play the smallest part in her fantasies. She follows him to Barbados, and finally succumbs to insulating madness. Adèle went to Canada in 1863, was brought back from Barbados in 1872, and was kept in a maison de santé near Paris until her death in 1915. She outlived her overwhelming father by thirty years.
She became Leopoldine, in her way, a vivid (but no doubt unrecognized) reproof to her father for preferring the dead to the living child. What is striking is that Truffaut should make no use of Hugo’s famed egotism, but actually show him, in the letters he writes to Adèle (in the movie—in life he apparently delegated the letter-writing to his son), as fairly sympathetic. Clearly Truffaut is interested not only in Adèle’s feelings about Leopoldine but in the difficulties of being Hugo’s daughter, whatever happened to her sister, and however her father behaves.
Hence, I think, the initial in the title of the movie. It is not simply a matter of suspense—the plot doesn’t tell us that Adèle is Hugo’s daughter until we are well into the film, but anyone who reads the credits will have seen her full name and a mention of her journal—but a reflection of Adèle’s own uneasiness about the name she bears. “Je suis née de père inconnu,” she mutters to herself, “born of an unknown father,” as if saying so could make it so, as if she could thus convert Hugo both into someone unknown and into someone she doesn’t know. Explaining who she is at another point, she writes Hugo’s name in the dust on a mirror, pausing almost coquettishly after the VICTOR, to see if the other person will guess the rest. This is all the more moving because she is trying to marry her lieutenant and become Mrs. Pinson throughout the movie, is using an assumed name, and is furious when a bookseller lets on that he knows who she is by giving her a copy of Les Misérables, recently published (1862).
Even Pinson, arrogant and selfish as he is, is not really the cause of what happens to Adèle. There is a marvelous close-up of his thin, boyish, overpretty face which simply stares at us, and says, Would you be mad enough to fall seriously in love with someone like me? What Adèle needs is not Pinson himself but the agitation he has come to represent in her life, the rebellion against her father, the imitation of her sister; and that agitation in turn is a defense against her knowledge that her role as a free, loving, wandering woman who walks on the water can be sustained only by an insane act of the will. She doesn’t ask Pinson to love her, only that she be allowed to love him. She offers him complete sexual freedom after marriage, if he will agree to marry her. She gives him money, she pays for a prostitute and sends her to him. And in one perfect, haunting shot, her face half in darkness, one black glittering eye intent on what is in front of her, a small, strange smile beginning on her face, she spies on Pinson as he tumbles another woman on to a bed.
The Story of Adèle H is a film of faces: of Adèle’s face mainly (or rather the face of Isabelle Adjani, who plays the role with intelligent, frightened intensity): a businesslike and composed face as she tells lie after lie in her pursuit of Pinson when she first arrives in Halifax; a weeping face when Pinson doesn’t answer a letter; a brilliant, insane face, her long hair hanging down, as she tries to talk to Leopoldine by means of a table tournante; an abstracted, impassive face as she strides the streets of Bridgetown, her tattered red dress brushing the sandy ground. It is also a film of narrow spaces: stairwells, poky parlors and shops, tiny streets, difference of level within a single room. All of which suggests not so much a romantic love driven to insanity by rejection as an all-enclosing obsession which clings insanely to an unrequited love.
It is a romantic movie, nevertheless. It begins with a discreet allusion to the opening of Casablanca, as the voice of a narrator says, “Nous sommes en 1863,” and we see a map of the world, and on it Canada. We cut to a boat landing, and a port in wartime. There are questions about papers, suggestions of intrigue. Adèle slips through the barrier. When letters are read in the movie, we hear the voice of their author, in old Hollywood style. Isabelle Adjani, who is twenty, looks twenty, while Adèle Hugo, in 1863, was thirty-three, and no doubt not half as pretty. But I don’t think there is anything missing from the film, as there is from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Its softness, its lyrical rendering of a life that can’t have been lyrical at all in reality, muffles the cry which is its theme, but it doesn’t silence it. The poignancy of the movie is a little facile, but it’s a real poignancy. To ask for something tougher from Truffaut would be to ask for another director.