One of the highlights of the Quad’s current Al Pacino retrospective is the March 28 screening of two films directed by and starring Pacino himself: Wilde Salomé (2011) and Salomé (2014). Neither film has previously had a theatrical berth in the US, and this is a rare occasion to see Pacino introduce them.
Salomé is Pacino’s film based on Oscar Wilde‘s play, which wasn’t publicly performed in England until 1931—37 years after it was first published in English. Wilde Salomé documents Pacino’s fraught simultaneous direction of the play as a stage reading at Brentwood’s Wadsworth Theater in 2006 and the movie, which he shot in less than a week.
The documentary incorporates Pacino’s roving investigation into Wilde’s career and tragic fall, as well as scenes from an incomplete Salomé film he shot in the Mohave Desert, and a scene depicting Wilde (played by Pacino in a wig) just before his arrest. The doc is also a showcase for Pacino’s charismatic (and self-dramatizing) public persona: he is shown signing autographs and feigning gangster gunfire with teenagers at an art gallery.
The play rehearsals are involving, especially when Pacino gets rattled or is bossy, but his search for Wilde appears rushed. Guest contributors Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner, Gore Vidal, and Merlin Holland (Wilde’s grandson) offer useful insights into Wilde and especially Lord Alfred Douglas’s betrayal of him. But was it really essential for Bono to be invited to opine on his fellow Irishman? Morrissey, after all, is rock music’s expert on Wilde.
In contrast to the doc, Pacino’s Salomé is a complicated gem. Handsomely photographed by Benoît Delhomme with the actors wearing modern evening dress and performing on a glowingly lit stage, the film is frightening in its implications about the destructive power of desire.
Lust impels both the title character (dazzlingly portrayed by Jessica Chastain) and Herod Antipas (Pacino). Salomé turns into a bloodthirsty monster when John the Baptist (Kevin Anderson)—”Jokanaan” in Hebrew—rebuffs her advances. Herod, the Tetrarch of Judea, entreats Salomé, his stepdaughter by his wife Herodias (Roxanne Hart), to dance for him, for whatever price she asks.
Salomé dances tantalizingly—Chastain pulled out the stops here, outdoing such past Salomes as Nazimova and Rita Hayworth. The humiliated Herodias sneers at her ogling husband, but then rejoices when Salomé refuses all the jewels in Herod’s possession, choosing instead as her reward Jokanaan’s head. Herodias is delighted at the prospect of the beheading because the holy man has been loudly denouncing her sinful marriage to Herod, who is her first husband’s brother.
Salomé throws up two mysteries: one concerning the strangeness of Pacino’s diction; the other concerning his direction of Wilde’s play as an unquestioned misogynistic text.
It’s hard to tell what impulse or Method madness prompted Pacino to give Herod a wheedling, childlike voice that slips between the coy and the ironic. Pacino himself may not know. It’s weird and off-putting, but it works.
What’s clearer is that Herod and Salomé are driven insane by their lust, Herod temporarily. After Salomé performs the dance of the seven veils for Herod and he is forced to deliver her Jokanaan’s head on a charger, that symbolic emasculation of all men negates his desire for her.
“Kill that woman!” Herod bellows at the end. He has reacquired his power without giving away half his kingdom to Salomé, though, like Jokanaan, he has heard the beating wings of the Angel of Death. Pacino is at his best playing Herod as one of the eternally damned.
As beautifully made as it is, the film joins the trove of artworks and films of Salomé that vilify the teenage Judean princess as a voracious virgin. Fresh from kissing the mouth of Jokanaan’s severed head, Chastain’s pale Salomé sits up with blood running from her lips onto her chin and tastes her top lip—she is a vampire incarnate.
Salomé was written in 1891, the same year Wilde, who was married with two sons, began his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (who was responsible for the inaccurate translation of the play from French into English).
Numerous Victorian paintings depicting Salomé as a virago and fiction by Gustave Flaubert, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Jules LaForgue influenced the play, “which,” Bram Dijkstra notes in Idols of Perversity, “did more than any other single image or piece of writing to make the headhuntress’ name a household word for pernicious sexual perversity… In Wilde’s symbolic drama a wholesale image of woman as aggressor serves as a cleansing ritual of passage designed to expose her mindless perfidy and insatiable physical need.”
Yet the play was personal, too. Embracing homosexuality definitively in 1891, Wilde was “cleansing himself” of women, specifically his beautiful wife Constance. Neil McKenna wrote in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, the playwright’s “repugnance for female bodies first manifested itself when Constance was pregnant with Cyril” [their first son, born in 1885]. He spoke to [Irish writer and publisher] Frank Harris of her “loathsomeness,” and how after forcing himself to kiss her he would “wash my mouth and open the window to cleanse my lips in the pure air.”
Seen in this light, it’s evident that Salomé’s bloody mouth in Pacino’s film is emblematic of the “mouth” that menstruates, as well as vagina dentata—a maw of death for a male aesthete. (By the same token, Salomé’s “amorousness” for Jokanaan’s body translates to Wilde’s love of men he could not legally touch.) “Kill the woman”—Herod’s cry of sex hate—is Wilde’s fastidious misogynistic proclamation against all women.
Is Pacino’s film oblivious to all this? While Salomé’s mother Herodotas is unequivocally a nasty piece of work, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for her daughter. Tainted by Herod’s incestuous love for her, she is damaged goods, a wanton who anticipates the murderous Carmen Sternwood in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1938). Salomé’s psychosis is the active equivalent of Ophelia’s passive madness in Hamlet.
Both wild child and narcissist, Salomé becomes a slave to looking and being looked at. The film is a crosshatch of ruinous gazes: the looks Salomé casts at Jokaanan and the looks directed at her by Herod and Narraboth (Joe Roseto), the young Syrian captain of Herod’s guard, are masochistically self-lacerating.
“Wilde brings to an obsessive extreme the Decadent eroticization of visual experience,” Camille Paglia wrote in Sexual Personae. In cinema, “visual experience” extends, of course, to viewers who find themselves implicated in the erotic gazing.
Hearing Salomé vocalize her need for Jokaanan as her eyes feast on him proves too much for Narraboth; he stabs himself to death, but Pacino keeps him alert so it seems he is suffering sexual jealousy posthumously. Unable to take his eyes off Salomé, Herod makes the Faustian pact with her that results in him ordering Jokaanan’s execution; his old man’s craving for the girl sets him on the road to perdition.
Her impending death at the end of the film amounts to revenge for all symbolically emasculated heterosexual males. Wilde may have been a subversive visionary, but Salomé, for all its verbal beauty, was a vile anti-feminist dreadnought. Pacino’s film exposes its decadence.
Al Pacino will appear in person at the Quad on Wednesday, March 28 to present Salomé and Wilde Salomé in a sneak-preview premiere. The film opens for a week-long run on March 30. Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, New York, NY 10011. Tel: (212) 255–2243.
On Sunday, March 25, Pacino will participate in a Q&A moderated by Stephen Fry after the Los Angeles premiere of both films at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211. Tel: (310) 478-3836. It opens March 30 at the Monica Film Center, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, CA 90401, Tel: (310) 394-9744.