Cassandra's Dream, by Celestino Deleyto


Being Framed

Cassandra’s Dream (Woody Allen, 2007)

Celestino Deleyto


One of Woody Allen’s favourite pastimes in his recent films has been to endlessly quote and occasionally parody his own earlier films. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) was a crucial presence in Match Point (2005) both in narrative and thematic terms, and is still very much in the background of his latest movie, as are Crime and Punishment, An American Tragedy and the latter’s Hollywood version, A Place in the Sun (1951), as if Allen still had not been able to get the moral issues articulated in the earlier film out of his system. More specifically, while Crimes offered two parallel stories, one about a crime and another about a misdemeanour, maybe in order to underline the drastic difference between sexual indiscretion and murder, or maybe in order to suggest that there is not such a drastic difference after all, Cassandra’s Dream combines the two in a single story and illustrates how easy it is to move from a misdemeanour to a crime once morality has been abandoned and ambition has taken over. However, it is not the reference to Crimes and Misdemeanors that I am primarily interested in here, but to an earlier film, Hannah and her Sisters (1986). In this case, the reference is not so much thematic as visual, specifically a framing device, in a film which is very much about people being framed by a ruthless society but, mostly, by their own limitless ambition and proneness to corruption.


    One of the most celebrated sequences in Hannah is the meal that the three sisters of the title have together at a restaurant. Their conversation is filmed in a series of shots taken by a camera that circles around the characters and manages to focus simultaneously on what is being said, the reactions of the other characters to what is being said, and what is left unsaid. By the end of the sequence, the spectator has had privileged access to the hidden secrets, anxieties, fears and contradictions of the sisters without much having actually been said by any of them. In the middle of Cassandra’s Dream a similar circular tracking shot brings about a revelation about the moral nature of the three characters involved which comes as a shock not so much for the spectator, who may have already guessed, as for the two protagonists, brothers Ian and Terry Blaine (Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell) (incidentally, the name of the wrongly accused protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy, 1972, was Richard Ian Blaney). The brothers’ wealthy uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) has just returned to London in the nick of time, to save Terry from his gambling debts and to help Ian buy his way into the hotel business in California he so much craves. Howard has been the boys’ hero, as well as his sister’s, for a long time, and his kindness and generosity now initially confirms his status as a very special person. But, as the spectator had no doubt already guessed, it turns out that his present wealth is based on a string of obscure financial dealings that now threaten to come to the surface and ruin him in the shape of a former accountant who has now decided to reveal his ex-employer’s corrupt ways. In exchange for financial security, and in the name of the family, Howard asks his two nephews to murder his accountant while the latter is in London.

        The conversation has been taking place in a park and, as it starts to rain, the three characters take shelter under a tree. At this point, while Howard explains the situation and asks his ‘favour’, the camera starts to circle around the tree, apparently searching for an opening in the branches to gain unmediated access to the characters. The moment it finds a way in coincides with the realisation by the not-too-bright brothers of what their uncle is actually asking of them. The immediate cut to alternating shots of the three characters as the truth dawns on the protagonists makes the previous shot more unobtrusive than in the case of Hannah and her Sisters but equally effective. On the one hand, the tree branches, which impede our access to the characters’ faces, suggest Howard’s criminal hypocrisy, the brilliant exterior which hides the corrupt nature that is now being finally revealed, and, on the other, they anticipate the lengths the two brothers are ready to go to, particularly Ian, in order to fulfil their capitalistic ambitions. Cassandra’s Dream, the boat that they had bought at the beginning of the story, represented their dream of escape, a life free of decisions to be made and their consequences, but, as the film develops, it proves to be nothing but a childhood fantasy, one that bitterly contrasts with an adult life consisting in frustrations, obsessions, inadequacies and untrammelled ambition. Up to this point Ian had been portrayed sympathetically as a relatively honest man, who, for example, confesses to his father that he has taken the money out of their restaurant’s safe for ‘a good cause’ – to help Terry meet one of his debts. But soon his hope of breaking loose from his father and start his own business, his girlfriend’s barely disguised professional ambition and Terry’s gambling ‘problem’ are revealed as both unimportant and the seed of their readiness to kill someone in order to achieve their purposes. The formal device of the tracking shot marks the turning point of a film which suggests that human beings are extremely adept at hiding our true natures from ourselves but, in Allen’s essentially moral universe, the truth will always come out, and when it does it will force us to make a decision that will inevitably change our lives. That’s the stuff of Greek tragedy. 




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