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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest by Celestino Deleyto

One from the Heart

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Gore Verbinski, 2006)

By Celestino Deleyto


Long after Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has numbed the spectators’ senses with an endless series of (at least for this spectator) pointless quests, chases, islands, ships, and characters who change from one ship to another and from one dangerous company to another, Elizabeth Swann  (Keira Knightley) jolts us out of our contented daze by passionately kissing Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). After several hours (counting the first film) of eternal love for her fiancé Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), I must confess I was not prepared for this. There had previously been some verbal sparring between her and Jack, complete with a measure of sexual innuendo, and Jack had shown a vague romantic interest in her, in spite of Depp’s sexless, camp construction of the character, but I did not feel I was being asked to pay much attention. It had been as if the child-pirate was slowly and tentatively discovering desire in the middle of a story in which desire, along with most other emotions, was no more than a cog in the narrative structure supporting the film’s most important attraction: the theme-park ride. Like the spectator, Elizabethhad been less than impressed with Jack’s stirrings, although now we discover in retrospect that she had at least noticed. Now, seemingly out of the blue, she accosts him and, for several shocking seconds, presses him against the nearest mast in a tight clinch to his noticeable but not unpleasant surprise, while Will looks dejectedly on from a lifeboat. Then, with the captain’s defences down, she handcuffs him to the mast as she separates her mouth from his while making up a lame apology. After all, her sudden outburst of passion had been nothing but a trick to save herself and the others from the sea monster by sacrificing the hero.


Since I assume most spectators are more interested in the fate of Captain Sparrow than in the rather colourless love affair between Elizabeth and Will, it is this second realisation – that she has betrayed our hero – rather than the first one – that she had betrayed her lover – that comes as more of a shock. In a narrative which is not very concerned with morality or scruples and which runs away from depth of feeling with much greater enthusiasm than from the various villains that pursue the heroes, it is not inconsistent that the virtuous heroine turns out to be a bit of a monster. Yet what interest me most are the reasons why we are made to reconceptualise Elizabethas a monster. Is it because we have glimpsed the shadow of infidelity, because she had shown herself capable of desiring somebody else? (Will’s expression suggests that he would have been totally helpless had this been the case). Or is it because she uses her sexuality to destroy our favourite hero, in the best tradition of the femme fatale? Does she act out of love, or out of selfishness, is she pure evil or just misguided? Since her little deception is necessary for the narrative’s dénouement, it may be argued, as it has been argued countless times before, that in an action-packed movie such as this one, it is wrong to look for character motivation or, even less, ideological interpretations. Just enjoy the ride. That’s what you came to the cinema for in the first place. But why do the filmmakers choose, in order to reach the climax and the ending they desire, to turn the clichéd heroine into a clichéd monster in the last minute, without the slightest hesitation?


  Disney films of the nineteen nineties had achieved, not the least because of their makers’ obsession with political correctness, a measure of psychological and sexual sophistication in their representation of gender identity and affective relationships which had made them all the greater. Then along came CGI and all of a sudden we were asked to suspend our demands for the films to reflect some of the complexities of contemporary intimate culture for the sake of technical wonders. It seemed that, unlike traditional animation, the new technique necessitated for the toys, monsters, robots, cars and the like to be turned into sexual Neanderthals: infantile but strong, heroic males, and infantile but coy, submissive females. The same children and adults who had previously accepted and seemingly enjoyed Disney’s relatively complex explorations of sexuality and identity now welcomed with open arms the offensive simplicity and reactionary nature of the new sexual scenarios. Something similar seems to be at work in Dead Man’s Chest: since character consistency is not the name of the game in the franchise, the filmmakers feel free to move from one traditional template to another without any motivation: from virtuous, loving, passionate heroine to dangerous, deceitful, dishonest tramp. But it is only the female protagonist that is subjected to this sudden change and the change itself suggests that, for all the progress that our culture has apparently made in terms of gender relationships and sexual identities, the only two alternatives that the spectator can understand (and enjoy) today as far as the construction of female characters is concerned are still the same ones as always: the virgin and the whore. Even Keira Knightley, who had proved her ability as a performer to play a relevant contemporary female character in last year’s Pride and Prejudice, seems to understand that all that is required of her in this one is the briefest series of tics and mannerisms to convey traditional femininity.


As if to confirm the role reserved for Elizabethin Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Sparrow is finally abandoned on the ship, ready to confront his fate in the shape of the Kraken, the terrible sea-monster which, as a continuation of Elizabeth’s snare, now threatens to engulf him in a feast of CGI suction. The film, like so much technology nowadays, proves once again that we live in an age of endless wonders, but a glimpse at its heart (after all, a heart is the main object of its narrative quest) reveals a most dispiriting truth: that in terms of gender relationships, the monstrous-feminine is still running strong in our culture.

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