A few years ago I took a Film Studies course at university. One of the classes dealt with cinephilia – the love of film. At the beginning of the session, the lecturer asked an interesting question that caught me off guard. Rightly assuming that we all had some form of deeper appreciation for film, she asked what the films were that made us realise we loved the medium. She then took the time to listen to everybody’s thoughts on the subject.
The answers were diverse, and the films many students spoke of were not their favourite films, often not even films they particularly liked. But there was something about it that resonated and made them realise that they had a particular relationship to film.
After a few moments of consideration I thought of a moment at the end of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Former silent film diva Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) goes mad, right in front of our eyes. She slowly descends into insanity, her delusion at its peak. Looking directly into the camera, she explains: “This is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.” She moves closer and closer towards the camera, her face and dramatic hand gestures giving way to a blur. The End.
There are few moments like this in film history when a filmmaker succeeds so spectacularly at breaking the fourth wall, completely immersing the audience in the story unfolding before their eyes while simultaneously throwing them out of their illusion and making them aware of their own position as a viewer.
It is probably one of the bleakest films about film ever made, but it’s this darkness that makes it so extraordinary. After a screening of Sunset Boulevard, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio boss Louis B. Mayer – then one of the most influential people in the film industry – is said to have scolded director Billy Wilder with the words, “You bastard. You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you!” This strong and emotional reaction must have been a huge compliment for the émigré screenwriter-turned-director Wilder, as Mayer’s outburst only proves that he was on to something with his noir satire. Rather than as a dream factory, Wilder presents Hollywood as a cage the inhabitants of Sunset Boulevard have locked themselves in, unable to escape.
The film centres on forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond. She lives in a decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard in L.A., in isolation with her butler Max (played by the legendary silent film director Erich von Stroheim). When not attending to her whims, Max helps feed her ego by writing fan mail to her. Like much of Sunset Boulevard’s dialogue, Desmond’s rants about the inferior material the film industry has produced since the transition to sound are infinitely quotable: “We didn’t need dialogue! We had faces”; ”I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” With the help of the young opportunistic screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) the diva seeks to revive her career and bring true art back to the big screen. Interestingly, she never seems that concerned about art, but about not being seen. Like every other aspect of her life, her view of the cinema is subject to her seemingly endless narcissism (see for example Joe’s comment on the weekly movie nights in her house: “They were always her pictures. That’s all she wanted to see”).
Deeply detached from the project, Gillis does not believe the screenplay will ever see the light of day, but quickly grows accustomed to the comfortable – if eccentric – lifestyle in Norma’s gothic mansion, which offers him refuge from the debt collectors who are waiting for him in the outside world. Norma begins to see Joe not only as her ghost-writer but as her lover. She increases his financial dependence on her. When he finally tries to escape her tight grip he confronts her with the lie her life has become. Norma can’t accept this truth and shoots him in the back in a state of frenzy.
Sunset Boulevard’s look at the consequences of Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound film is echoed in Donen and Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952). But despite the similar subject matter the two classics are fundamentally different in tone. While Singin’ in the Rain features charming musical numbers with mildly satirical undertones, Wilder’s gloomy tale paints a much darker and substantially less forgiving picture of Hollywood and its inhabitants.
From the outset we have little hope for the characters we encounter, which is largely due to a skilful reversal of linear storytelling. The film begins where the story ends – with Joe Gillis’ death. One of the film’s first shots shows his dead body from below, swimming in Norma Desmond’s pool. What’s more, Gillis is the film’s narrator, telling the audience his story from the grave. Everything the audience subsequently sees is accompanied by the bitter aftertaste of seeing the young writer’s lifeless body swimming in Norma’s pool. Gillis is the first to point out the biting irony of this outcome: “The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool. Only the price turned out to be a little high.” The symbol of success and luxury has become the symbol of both Joe’s and Norma’s broken dreams.
Their relationship is geared towards death from the outset. The only reason he is let into her gothic mansion comes through being mistaken as the undertaker for her dead chimpanzee. Surrounded by images of her younger self, Norma sucks the life out of her young lover. Her rejuvenation comes at a high cost. Significantly, it is a writer who dies. It was writers (of words) who had destroyed Norma’s silent film career. Wilder effectively kills off the force that represents the future of film, leaving little hope for the medium. Despite being released in 1950, the central theme of Sunset Boulevard – fame and its price – resonates today more than ever.