Euchrid the Mute and Irony
A film of Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel
Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Review by Josh Armstrong

Some people can’t stand the screaming blankness of a blue, cloudless sky; others, especially writers, can’t stand hearing people talk about “irony.” C. R., a close friend of mine, author of The Cats and Dogs That Kill You, and I were drinking a saké with one of his students after the show. That is, we had just watched The Lamentations of Euchrid the Mute (Canal Plus) and were now in Chinatown for a night cap; his student had tagged along. Having just applied burgundy lipstick, she dabbed her lips on a napkin and said, “Isn’t it ironic that the author of Le Voyeur ended up directing The Lamentations of Euchrid the Mute, which is, itself, such a voyeuristic film?!”
C.R., a Robert Smith look-alike, said nothing. I did not look over at his face. Why would I want to see the embarrassing grimace? He has since stopped dating the student (but has not stopped talking about her.)
I rephrased her statement in my mind: “How fitting that Alain Robbe-Grillet should direct the screen adaptation of Nick Cave’s highly voyeuristic novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel.”
That “ironic” and “fitting” do not mean the same thing is something we can all agree on. So, when we come close to calling something “ironic,” we should stop, breath, analyze, and, only then, proceed.
Alain Robbe-Grillet is the literary innovator who spearheaded the nouveau roman movement in the ‘60s and, around the same time, directed his début film, L’année dernière à Marienbad, a dark and monolithically emotionless film whose setting becomes a labyrinth.
In rendering Cave’s novel filmic, Robbe-Grillet faced several challenges. Serving as a veritable “life-and-times” account of a mute southern pariah born of a “consanguineous union,” the novel creates a strong sense of place. The small town in which it takes place was founded by religious zealots, and the powerful core of the town is still of that fold. Euchrid the mute (played by Leo DiCaprio in the film), is not. The progeny of incestuous, debauched, and impoverished hill-folk, Euchrid reaps no love from his parents, finds no acceptance from the town. Thick swamps constitute his “sanctum,” a place from which he ventures impetuously to spy on the people in town.
In his novel, Cave establishes a sense of place by keeping events within a limited circle: a valley with a village in it, fields of sugar cane on the outside of town, and hills and swamp beyond that. You are at all times aware of every aspect of this setting, as though these were the familiar fauna and flora of grandma’s home where you stayed in summer. Robbe-Grillet succeeds in adapting this ominous and essential place by his technique of giving us snapshots – or updates – on all parts of the setting. While following Euchrid through the tall and waving sugar cane, the camera is likely to wander off, away from the filth-ridden protagonist’s form, to show us the stony town square, where the statue of an angel affords Robbe-Grillet’s camera an opportunity for his shadow-play, which has only gotten more sophisticated since L’année dernière. Later, when Euchrid is spying on a prostitute, the camera repeatedly cuts back to his father’s maimed animal pit, where wild boars grapple with equally wild dogs, all injured by Euchrid’s father’s (William H. Macey’s) traps. Is it ironic that the film gives us a feel of being in one place by never staying in one place for long? Probably.
Most formidable, however, of the challenges latent in this adaptation is what to do with a protagonist who never talks The answer, as Robbe-Grillet saw it, is certainly more “ironic” than “fitting.”
Make him talk incessantly throughout the film.
Yes, C.R., author of One Life Is More Than Enough for Me, Thanks, that is ironic. If Euchrid is in the shot, he is talking, babbling, whispering, his mouth flying, and here we have to give credit to DiCaprio, whose performance is breathtaking. You can almost smell the dirt and swamp on his grimy, white skin; you can hear the twangs of incest and disconsolate desperation in his breaking voice. DiCaprio, in this film, reminds us of his talent, as it was so manifest in his performance as Arnie in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. A talent rarely since evoked, especially not in the stock character part he played in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.
Euchrid the Mute talks and no one hears him. His words fly. Often the words run verbatim from the novel; other times it may be DiCaprio just improvising, trying to keep his words coming. The longest uninterrupted scene involving Euchrid lasts 12 minutes and 26 seconds and the mute talks breathlessly throughout it. Only time will prove to what extent Robbe-Grillet’s script makes references to literature; I picked up on a couple instances in which Alfred Jarry was quoted, and, at one point, Euchrid calls a religious zealot an “avaricious sea anemone,” which is something made up by Kobo Abé in The Woman in the Dunes – something, moreover, that could certainly not have ever been invented individually by two different artists.
The strains of saxophone and reverb of guitars on morphine of Angelo Badalamenti’s score constitute the musical fabric of the film; the music serves as a powerful counterpart to the verbal fabric – with its southern twang – supplied by Euchrid. The visual thread is choppy and elastic, flexible and dynamic, and altogether Robbe-Grillet, who has used irony to an astonishing cinematic effect in this film, which, according to his own reluctant admission, may very well be his last. It would not be ironic that his last film should be his best. For this tireless lifer of innovation, it would be fitting.
That night, after a couple ruminative sakés, I parted company with C.R. and his student. I took a cab back home and looked forward to bed, having already decided to go see The Lamentations of Euchrid the Mute again the next day.

(Entry by Josh Armstrong)