Converting a reading of Oscar Wilde’s banned play into a film, Al Pacino’s Salomé might share the credit, but brings his passion for the theatre vividly to the screen.
De Profundis by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Remember there was a time before Jessica Chastain was famous? Sometime before her career-crowning run in 2011 that saw her garner awards for her performances in Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and pull up a chair on the Hollywood A-list. Well, Al Pacino’s Salomé takes us back to that darker time. 2006, to be precise. When Jessica Chastain was just out of Juilliard and when Estelle Parsons was putting on a performance of Oscar Wilde’s play at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles. It was somewhat controversial – not only for its high ticket prices and Pacino’s singular performance, but also as a reading of the play. Not quite a production, but not an actors’ circle, script in hand either. And it’s during its two-week run that Pacino decides to cast the play into a film, shooting in a soundstage during the day before performing in the evening. And in case that wasn’t enough, a documentary to boot – in order to fully explore the play’s tenacious hold over the great Hollywood actor.
Oscar Wilde’s Salome was one of his earlier plays, written in French and before the comedic masterpieces that would make him a household name – a dark, earnest one-act tragedy recounting the biblical snippet of the death of John the Baptist, christened here under his Hebrew prophet name Jokanaan. The play is centred around Salomé’s Dance Of The Seven Veils, a sensuous frenzy she exchanges against Herod’s solemn oath that she can have whatsoever her heart desires, be it up to the half of his kingdom. Escaping the Tetrarch’s birthday banquet and her step-father’s salacious eye, Salome (Jessica Chastain) comes up to the terrace, where she becomes entranced by Jokanaan (Kevin Anderson), with his pale skin and red lips. But when he scorns her for the sake of his godly passion, Salomé will not allow her desire to kiss his lips to go unfulfilled. Goaded by her mother Herodias (Roxanne Hart), she demands Jokanaan’s head. Childishly, seductively and angrily. Until the Tetrarch (Al Pacino) agrees.
Salomé has been something of a pet project for veteran actor Al Pacino ever since he first saw Steven Berkoff’s slow-motion production. He first performed the role of Herod in 1992, and found in it a kindred spirit, a voice that spoke to him, a spark. Which, like all good Method actors, he’s been keen to chase well beyond the footnote. And while his filmed version of Salomé relies heavily on Estelle Parson’s play, that production was developed in conjunction with Pacino in a kind of devil’s pact whereby Pacino gets the film, and Parsons the play. Yet despite some natty travelling shots and some illuminating close-ups, the dark theatrical backdrops and the production’s genesis as a reading bestow on Salomé some rather flat feet – somewhere between a filmed play and Lars von Trier’s Dogville. And yet, the performances are captivating, as Pacino strives to capture the characters’ souls on 35mm, be it in a petulant tantrum or a frenzied dance. Chastain would have been, a revelation – somewhere between an innocent nubile, a seductive temptress and a hellfire-breathing demoness.
Despite the casting of a well-beyond-the-age-of-majority Chastain, Salomé’s girlishness is integral to Pacino’s Salomé – just one of the forbidden objects of sexual desire that foreground Wilde’s play. Not only is his look incestuous, it also verges on paedophilic, repeatedly reprimanded by his helpless wife Herodias for looking at her. For just as the Syrian soldier is warned again and again not to look at her, and Salomé is told by the guards not to look at Jokanaan, the gaze of pleasure, epitomised by Salomé’s erotic dance, is dangerous, illicit, criminal. It’s a conceit that should find its full meaning in cinema, through the eye of the camera – like the scopophilic keyhole-watching of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but is satisfied with just a kaleidoscope of staged gazes. No more than the play.
Despite its heavy metaphors and heady descriptions, Wilde’s Salomé is still a fascinating piece – the playwright distributing his psyche amongst all his characters – salaciously watching those bright young things while keeping his passion for the holy imprisoned underground. It’s an endless hall of mirrors, in which he is simultaneously the Syrian Guard watching chastely and unrequitedly from afar; and he’s Salomé – not so much the dancing girl but the wretched youth exploring her sexuality, the primeval and violent passion killing what she can’t possess. And in a strange kind of prophesy, he’s also the Tetrarch – a lecherous and besotted A-lister who stakes everything on a foolish oath to his wanton idol. But what Pacino wants to add to this maelstrom of desire with his Salomé, besides a cast of brilliant performances, remains a mystery. But which, in his companion-piece documentary Wilde Salomé slowly unveils itself.
Salomé is released as part of a special double feature on 21st September 2014 in the UK