Monday, May 26, 2008

A Dangerous Beauty

I saw Ang Lee's The Ice Storm when it first came out in 1997, and even though I didn't grasp everything it had to say, the film stayed with me for a long time. There were images and feelings that I remember so strongly, that never went away even after I had forgotten the details of the story.

When I revisited the film on Criterion's excellent edition, it actually overwhelmed me the second time around. Based on Rick Moody's novel, from a sensitively observant script by James Schamus, The Ice Storm is a portrait of upper-middle/upper class families in the 70s, and a study of the relationships and unseen bonds between children and their parents. These are individuals caught, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the Negative Zone, a place described by the narrator while drawing subtextual comparisons between superhero family the Fantastic Four and real life.

Part of the wonder of this film is seeing the then-young cast comprising Tobey McGuire, Elijah Wood , Katie Holmes and Christina Ricci deliver such powerfully nuanced performances before they grew up and became big stars. What struck me too, was how Ang Lee managed to elicit
a low-key but strong performance from Sigourney Weaver who did a lot of the acting just with her eyes and very few words.

But the thing that stayed with me the most were the striking images of a frozen landscape during and after an ice storm. It's a beautiful wonderland of tinkling icicles and shimmering surfaces, but there is a palpable darkness to all of it, underlining the dangerous beauty of life in the film - it's nice to behold, but if you choose to participate, then anything can happen. There are many metaphorical moments that are not merely functional but also lends a feeling of desolate iciness about the lives of its characters. The film begins and ends with the scene of an electric train stalled by the ice storm, like the people and lives in the film that are temporarily halted, then begin again after a painful, even forced re-examination.

Do children really take after their parents; are we really inherently similar to our parents? The film seems to suggest so, but more pronounced is its examination of what happens when we grow up. The story takes place at the time of the so-called sexual revolution of the 70s, but weren't the yuppies of the time subconsciously lowering their status and unconsciously doing damaging things to themselves in order to lend some relevance to their clean but listless lives? The children and their parents do the same things, but with different motivations and perceptions; the kids do it with a mixture of fear and curiosity, while the adults have guilt and shame. But the one constant is the confusion that goes with it all. Inevitably, because of this, hypocrisy follows. When father having a tryst with his neighbour at her house finds his daughter and his lover's son experimenting in the basement, he blows up at them, not realising he has his own explaining to do as to why he is in the house too.

But it's not all dark and depressing; there are moments of humour, mostly satirical. The families even live in houses with huge glass panes, literally living in glass houses.

Personally, I think The Ice Storm is Ang Lee's best film. Every part of the film lends to, and enhances, another, and nothing is wasted. It is probably the most visually stunning of his films. There is a powerful sense of the melancholy, and while the sadness doesn't really peak towards the end with one tragic scene, it is perhaps a symptom of its characters' confusion about what they're feeling.

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