THE TERENCE DAVIES TRILOGY B
Great Britain (94 mi) 1983 d: Terence Davies
People either love what I do or they absolutely detest it. One woman said of the Trilogy ‘I loathe every frame of it.’ One critic said ‘These films make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis.’ …other people come up to me and say ‘I’ve seen my life on screen.’
Having seen the man speak in person at the premiere screening in Chicago for The Deep Blue Sea (2012), Terence Davies is impressive in every respect, passionate and extremely personal, revealing a sharp wit with healthy doses of acid humor, polite, well-schooled and continuously thoughtful, taking his time carefully choosing his words, where every uttered word feels as if it’s been reflected upon at great length. The overriding impression that comes across in person is his blunt honesty, where he doesn’t refrain from speaking his mind, where there’s an unadulterated force behind his raspy voice, often quoting from Shakespeare or other poets to emphasize particular points, which are perfectly superimposed into his own thoughts and reflections. He speaks with compassion about others, especially his beloved mother, and freely admits in his relationship with the church that it’s easier for him to remain celibate these days, like a high priest, something he mentioned several times. Upon reflection, however, this may as well be the theme of this early film, having condemned the Catholic Church for their dangerously hypocritical stand on gay issues, professing their love for anyone that’s gay so long as they don’t act upon their sexual inclinations, as all homosexual acts are considered a sin. While the Davies of today is comfortable speaking openly about gay issues, this wasn’t the case in his youth, where he had to remain closeted and extremely repressed, where he was taught all his sexual yearnings would send him straight to Hell, instilling a fear of God into his understanding of himself, literally hating himself as only Catholics can do, feeling he deserved punishment for his misplaced sexual feelings. Living a life of torment is the subject of this film, where three short films are integrated into a whole, from childhood, middle age, to imagining his own death, a painful and brutally honest account of his own life.
Born in Liverpool right at the end of World War II, the youngest of 10 children in a working class family, he was a painfully shy and studious child that was raised Catholic by a deeply religious mother and an alcoholic and abusive father. After working as an office clerk for about ten years, he entered the Coventry School of Drama at age 26, where by 30, with the financial help of the BFI Production Board, he wrote the script and directed a 43-minute short film CHILDREN (1976). Afterwards, he attended the National Film School where the 30-minute MADONNA AND CHILD (1980) was his graduation film. Three years later, again with the help of the BFI, he completed the 23-minute short DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION (1983). These three films, all with the same Robert Tucker protagonist (played by Phillip Mawdsley, Terry O’Sullivan and Wilfrid Brambell), comprise THE TERENCE DAVIES TRILOGY (1984), a feature-length film that won the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the 1984 Locarno International Film Festival. Shot on 16 mm in Black and White by William Diver and blown up to 35 mm, these films have a rougher edge and lack the sophisticated lyricism of his later masterworks Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992). All reflect a unique style of near documentary “memory realism,” where the story is not advanced by dialogue, but through flashbacks intruding upon thoughts and reflections. Loosely connected vignettes are interrupted by memories or fantasy, where the dramatic power is often obtained by the juxtaposition of one stark reality with another equally powerful image, where the contrast can be shattering. Davies also intercuts music or songs, which add their own sense of nostalgia and emotional realism, where they become time capsules of a specific era. Thematically, the films examine sexual and emotional repression, Catholic guilt, a lifetime of instilled fear, death and the associative grief, and the accumulated effect of disillusionment with the Catholic Church, leading to a lifelong sense of outrage and indignation, yet all somehow buried and kept locked in the closet.
Driven by the church to fear his homosexual inclinations, he attends a strict all-boys Catholic school where he is regularly bullied and beaten by older boys, called “a fruit” by his classmates, only to then be bullied again by the teachers who demand strict adherence to discipline. The emotionally severe demeanor of the nuns is equally forbidding, always shot in dark shadows where we never see their faces, only an admonishing tone of disapproval in their voices, all driving this poor kid into a world of complete isolation. At home he has to listen to his father’s brutal attacks on his mother, seen burying his head in his pillow, actually wishing his father were dead. When his father unexpectedly dies a short time later, he is profoundly conflicted, afraid of his own thoughts, as if he was somehow to blame in the eyes of God, sending him into a rush of uncontrollable despair. Later seen in middle age, he has the look of defeat painted on his face, seen crying in the opening sequence of MADONNA, where gone is that childlike naiveté. Robert literally takes the Ferry Cross the Mersey (with no accompanying song by Gerry and the Pacemakers) to get to and from work each day, where this section concerns itself with being a dutiful son, still living at home with his mother, while secretly attempting to address his own sexual needs, heard by his mother creeping out the door at night as he makes the midnight rounds of gay clubs and public lavatories, where a wordless pick-up in a public urinal is the closest he can come to companionship. In one of the most scathing scenes of the film, a mix of the sacred and the profane, the camera pans the inside of an empty church while Robert’s voice can be heard pleading with a tattoo artist for sexual services, where it’s hard to tell if this is really happening or if it’s all playing out just in his imagination. We see more cuts to various S&M gay sex acts while he sits bored at his desk at work, or even sitting with his mother sipping tea. At church, when he goes to confession, he reports every manner of banal infraction, remaining silent on his real sins. It is this second section that delves most deeply into the film’s overall themes, where the anguishing guilt associated with homosexual fantasies leaves him even further isolated and repressed, trapped in an all encompassing depression, where he has a nightmare of his own death, seeing himself laid out in a coffin receiving a priest’s eulogy, awakening with a bloodcurdling scream of fear. Davies uses the image of Robert on a boat crossing the River Mersey as one in an infinite line of dead souls that Charon ferries into the mythical underworld.
The final sequence opens in the most extraordinary fashion, showing the kind of poetic imagination we associate with this director, where we hear the comforting sounds of Doris Day while Robert attends his mother’s funeral, It All Depends On You - Doris Day [The Terence Davies Trilogy] YouTube (2:04), which end up being reflections of Robert as an old man who is a stroke victim now lying near death in a hospital bed. This chilling lead-up to his own death recalls Dreyer’s VAMPYR (1931) when the ghost-like protagonist sees himself lying in a coffin as it’s driven to the cemetery where he cognizantly witnesses his own funeral. As in the previous segment, these nightmarish dreams of death intrude into his waking state as well, where his sad and dreary existence seems like he’s stuck in a hellish purgatory forever paying penitence for his sins. As the hospital nurses all but ignore their patients, calling them honey or other terms of affection, while never for a moment sitting down and actually taking the time to talk to them, so all they have left is to look back upon their lives and become lost in a flood of their own memories, shown in an impressionistic stream of flashback vignettes. As the nurses decorate a Christmas tree Robert recalls being an angel with a halo, dressed in white with angel’s wings for a child nativity play. As he remembers fearing the harsh rigidity of the nuns in Catholic school as a boy, he is once more surrounded by nuns caring for him in the final stages of his life, still wracked with guilt over his unmentionable sexual thoughts, haunted by his fractured relationship with the church as his thoughts often turn to God. Davies refuses to spare the audience any comfort when it comes to death, as he literally rubs our noses in it, showing himself breathing heavily in a death rattle, wheezing and gasping for breath, haunting sounds and images that when combined couldn’t be more chilling, as the reality of the inevitable seizes the viewer with a gripping intensity. Davies narrates his final thoughts to rarely depicted images, where death never felt so frighteningly unappealing, exclaiming “When the light goes out, God dies,” seen as the night nurse makes her midnight rounds in the dark with a flashlight, stopping and sitting with him until the screen turns to white.