One note about judging Bond movies, and movies in general, is that it’s important to judge two different things: the movie itself (acknowledging that it is an artifact of its culture) and the culture that has produced it. I often find that people claim to be criticizing a specific movie, when they are in fact criticizing the movie’s cultural context*. For example, Casion Royale fails the Bechdel Test. However, that’s hardly a criticism of the movie itself--Bond is the only real character (everyone else is basically a foil) and so no one talks about anything but him, regardless of their gender. If the movie were about a heroic female spy, she would be the focus of central focus instead.
It is of course vital to wonder why this all-important central character is a man, and to question how frequently woman are given this central a role—but these are (valid) questions about the culture surrounding the movie, and I feel that it’s important to recognize that this is different level of criticism. I find myself frequently saying, “for a Bond movie”, or “by Hollywood standards”. This is not to suggest that the Bond franchise or mainstream Hollywood don’t deserve examination, merely that they aren’t the focus of this particular ‘blog entry. This ‘blog entry is about a movie that exists within our culture of mainstream sexism and, by comparison to movies with the same cultural foundation, does a pretty good job of handling itself.
I mention this because I really am quite impressed by Casino Royale. For one thing, I hadn’t really realized that a) almost all of the last ten or twenty Bond movies were ridiculous self-parody, or that b) I don’t actually like that very much. Casino Royale opens with the standard Bond teaser, a little five-minute-long movie before the title sequence. There are no explosions. Then there is the title sequence—there are no silhouettes of naked women. It’s as if the writer was taking the movie! As another example, a quarter of the way through Bond tricks a terrorist bomber by attaching the bomb to the guy’s belt loop. The terrorist give a smug look, hits his “remote detonation” button, and then stares in confusion as he realizes that he’s about to blow himself up. The old Bond’s response would invariably have been some variation on, “He really had a blast, didn’t he?” or some other grating pun*. This Bond just gives a slow, feral smile.
So the movie takes itself seriously. That’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s still a celebration of violence, but by Bond standards it takes that seriously as well. The fight sequences are not at all stylish, and they really look like they hurt. Bond gets the crap beaten out of him, and keeps the cuts and bruises for the reminder of the movie. I’m a bit ambivalent about this, but I’m inclined to think that a movie depicting violence should make it brutal instead of fun.
Bond is still very macho, but he’s also a bit self-effacing. So that’s nice.
Which brings us to the cartoon sex and misogyny, where this movie really differs from the previous ones. First the bad news—the first woman Bond seduces is later found dead on the beach, having been tortured. The second woman has a scene in which she tries to run away from a snarling black man while in heels. There’s also a super-regrettable scene in which this same black guy is threatening a blonde bombshell in a revealing dress—people really shouldn’t write scenes like that. And, finally, Bond’s torture scene at the end is augmented by the knowledge that the Bond Girl is being tortured in the next room.
So that’s all rather a shame, but unless I missed something (and I may well have—the best part about privilege is that you don’t even know when it’s blinding you) that’s the worst of it. For a Bond movie--and for mainstream Hollywood in general--that’s a very small list of flaws. Now for the good news, the things I liked about the sex and gender:
Well, for starters there’s the first seduction scene—it’s pretty damn sexy, I thought, even though the woman doesn’t remove a single article of clothing, and Bond only opens his shirt. There’s also pretty close parity between the two—Bond certainly initiates the evening and she pretends to demure, but for the most part they seem to be equal actors.
Then there is Vesper Lynd, the Bond Girl of this movie. Go watch the first four and a half minutes of this scene (sorry about the terrible quality).
Admittedly, that about as good as it gets, but it’s pretty awesome. A long way from Pussy Galore for sure, let alone Christmas Jones. Halfway through the movie she helps (a bit) Bond kill two thugs, and there is a beautiful scene of her in the shower. It was very clearly the point in the movie at which I would expect to see some variation on “the violent encounter has transmuted her earlier animosity towards him into lust”, and I was already cringing.
Instead of that, though, there was a beautiful scene in which Bond discovers her, curled up on the floor of the shower still in her evening clothes. He takes off his tuxedo jacket and joins her under the water, where he does his best to comfort her*. There’s even a quick follow-up scene the next morning which makes it quite clear that they did not have sex, that they held each other for a while under the shower and then went to slept in their separate rooms. Good for them.
Finally, the most surprising moment in any Bond movie ever—at the very end, after they become lovers (as, sadly, every male and female protagonist must do by the end of every film) and are sitting together on the beach. Bond tells her that he loves her*, and decides to quite MI6 and spends his time traveling the world with her.
And then the movie ends. Oh, I suppose there were another twenty minutes or so left to go, but I am not going to watch them—as far as I’m concerned the movie ends here. Not to get all Roger Eberty but I think I made the right decision. I’ve never read the end of the first “Series of Unfortunate Events” book, and I don’t regret it. I did read the end of “Wild Sheep Chase” and “His Dark Materials”, and bitterly regretted both. Maybe Quantum of Solace will be a serious investigation into whatever horrific negation takes place in the last twenty minutes of Casino Royale but, if not, I’ll never know.
*It’s tempting to say that Art must explicitly address the problems of its own culture in order to even deserve to be viewed o its own terms, but I think this view runs into problems. A Bond movie that was unobjectionable from a feminist standpoint might still fall to pieces when seen through an environmental lens. And so on.
*Errol Flynn was so smooth and sexy that he could eat a haunch of meat barehanded and make it look suave (in The Adventures of Robin Hood). Sean Connery was so smooth and sexy that he made irritating puns bearable. I’m not sure which is more impressive, but I know which I prefer.
*By pretending to lick off the imaginary blood on her hands, which was a bit odd, true. My favorite bit in the scene, though, is that when she says she’s cold and he just reaches up and adjusts the hot water, and then goes back to holding her—both of them fully dressed in evening clothes under the shower. It was sweet and also charming.
*Yes, using those words—It wasn't as exciting as hearing the President-elect say the words "our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters", but it was about as unprecedented.