By Dávid Szőke.
Eerily beautiful in recapturing the early Gothic film.”
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Bon-Bon” (1832) is a grotesque retelling of man’s futile endeavor to tempt immortality by making a Faustian contract with the devil. Set in a French wine cellar, the original story pulls the reader into a philosophical exchange between the philosopher, a metaphysician and described cynically by the narrator as “a man of genius,” and the Devil, the Lord of the Transcendence, about the human condition and concerns about surviving death. The undeniable charm of Poe’s narrative lies in his capability to infuse horror with satire and issues of moral philosophy with wit. The profanity of earthly solipsistic Dionysiac pleasure is contrasted with the calm Apollonian reason, and the story is never short of making fun of the classic Greek and Latin authors, Plato, Aristophanes, Catullus, Hippocrates, Quintilian, and Epicurus, whose souls the Devil claims to have eaten. Referring to his culinary choices, the Devil makes infinitely delightful and at the same time bizarre remarks like “I found that Horace tasted very much like Aristotle ; —you know I am fond of variety.” As a typical Poe, “Bon-Bon” proves that its author knew that real terror is encapsulated in the human soul, where joy, bereavement, and our worry about our own mortality are emmeshed.
Soul of a Man is by far the only adaptation of Poe’s story, which is truly worthy of the author’s spirit. Co-written and directed by actors Landon Liboiron and Bill Skarsgard in their directorial debut, and starring Stellan and Gustaf Skarsgard, the film pitch-perfectly, just with some minor changes, puts the conversation between its two characters on the screen. Approaching Poe as very European in spirit with some dark satirical edge that the creators identify as comparable with the Scandinavian humor, Liboiron and Bill Skarsgard strike a delicious balance between the comic and the horrific.
In its visual narrative, the film owes as much to T.S. Coburn’s illustration to the 1902 publication of Poe’s story as to the Gothic films of the early cinema, most notably to Friedrich Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922). This impact can be felt in the claustrophobic spatial and temporal closedness, the emotionally unsettling, nightmarish imagery, the extensive use of darkness and light. The issues of moral blindness and vision as the ultimate rejection or attendance of human consciousness to the intense feelings of suffering and cruelty, is represented here in a visually challenging way. Wearing black spectacles, the Devil, a creature with apparent eye defects, makes a sour comment upon being lectured by the philosopher about the transcendental nature of the soul: “Questions of blind men of asking what is light.” This metaphysical vision in Poe’s story takes its form in the figure of the black cat, the metaphor of fate and omen. Following a lengthy monologue about moral vision, contemplating about the philosopher’s pet cat lying in the corner of the cellar, the Devil takes off his glasses, saying: “Deep down, Bon-Bon, there’s the horrible truth that there’s nothing to be seen at all!” Until now, the filmic narrative followed closely the plotline of the original story. Unlike in Poe, whose Lord has a “dead level of flesh” under his spectacles, the film’s horrifying moment comes when the philosopher looks into the Devil’s green eyes. At this sublime moment, a thunderbolt, then a descending darkness interrupts the scene, then the screen is dimly illuminated by the flame of the match lit by the philosopher. Being the backbone of the film, this visual playfulness manifests itself as a homage Skarsgard and Liboiron pay to the filmic tradition of the Gothic genre.
The tragic and the comic moments of the film lie in the points the Devil is making about the finitude of the soul and the philosopher’s moral failure to attend to it. Repulsed by the man’s drunken stupor, the Devil turns down the bargain for the philosopher’s soul and disappears in the thin air as Bon-Bon, in a last desperate attempt, jumps at him, only to collapse on the ground. This final scene is where the two forms, the comic and the tragic, blend, whereby both Poe’s story and the film show incredible capacity of revealing us what deeply and truly lies beyond the surface of our human existence. Man’s hopeless cry for reaching immortality is flawlessly teased in the film’s closing sequence by William Matthew Golden’s gospel song “Where the soul never dies,” performed by Pokey LaFarge, where the themes of grief, love, and spiritual regeneration are all revealed to be false concepts, upon which we hang our delusion of surviving death.
Renowned for their courage to unapologetically show us the extremities of the human persona, with all its creepy, tender, merciless and endearingly funny potentials, one cannot wonder that Poe’s story was picked up and molded to perfection by the three members of the Skarsgard family. Watching their chameleon-like transformations in their movies, I am constantly reminded of what the British theatre director Dr Jonathan Miller said about Laurence Olivier in the 1969 Dick Cavett show, whom he regarded as the perfect example of the actor, who finds great joy in disguising and using himself to express the parts he plays. As a first-time director, Bill Skarsgard proves his mastery in visually expressing the inner conflicts and the shadows of human consciousness with his use of special effects, camera angles, and lighting techniques. Being mostly associated with Lars von Trier and Hans Petter Moland, Stellan Skarsgard has engaged the imagination of movie-goers with his inevitable skills to inspire both chills and laughter at what is otherwise considered ugly and detestable. Here, he portrays the truth-seeking, yet self-righteous ego with well-established professionalism. However, from their interplay, it is definitely Gustaf Skarsgard, who steals the show with the more eye-catching performance. Known for his larger audience as Floki from the Vikings-series, this Swedish actor brought a great variety of troubled-youth roles in The Invisible (2002) and the Oscar-nominated Evil (2003), only to bring mental and physical transformation to the utmost level in movies like Kon-Tiki (2012), a historical feature about a 1947 ship expedition, or Us (2013), an intensely passionate and heart-wrenching drama about narcissistic romantic relationships. What qualifies him to be one of the most instinctive actors of his generation is his way of mapping out the innermost lives of his characters in all their mental and physical nuances with unflinching humility. In Soul of a Man, one should look at him sticking out his tongue at the edge of his mouth, his figure drifting through the camera as he walks, or his hands growing longer than ever while he repudiates Bon-Bon’s requests, and one will appreciate his craft of finding delight in exposing the absurd nature of the role. Stellan and Gustaf Skarsgard might have starkly different approaches to building up characters and situations, yet their chemistry shines all the way through.
On the whole, Soul of a Man is a wonderfully cheeky film, eerily beautiful in recapturing the early Gothic film. In a captivating evocation of Poe’s spirit, it breathes life into the complex moral philosophical issues in the original text, making them fresh, attainable, and vibrant with youthful vigor.
Dávid Szőke holds a PhD from the University in Szeged in Hungary. He is currently researching counter narratives to antigypsyism in literature and culture at the Heidelberg University, Germany.