Weekly Scene: Skyfall

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It’s been a while, but we are back and coming on strong with the best, well, come on scene I’ve seen in recent years.

The movie is Skyfall, the James Bond series’ 23rd outing, and actor Daniel Craig’s third appearance as the iconic secret agent. Perhaps the most critically-acclaimed Bond film of all time, Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes, is a gorgeous, psychologically-rich portrait of 007 in flux, an action-adventure drama with real heft.

It was appropriately nominated for five Oscars—though many, including myself, would argue that Best Picture and best supporting actor/actress should have added to the tally—and won two: best original song for Adele’s glorious “Skyfall” and, in my favorite moment of the 2013 ceremony, a very rare tie with Zero Dark Thirty (itself robbed in several critical categories) for best sound editing.

Skyfall is notable in many ways, but I appreciate it most for its evocation of vulnerability. Like Casino Royale before it, the film dares to injure and hurt Bond—his body, his integrity, his mind—and the people who surround him, friend or foe. There are certain expectations of a Bond film, and Skyfall meets them admirably; but it also skews serious, heightening the emotional stakes and making the violence perpetrated uncomfortable and frightening. This complication of familiar tropes perhaps applies best to Skyfall‘s world-weary villain, the curious Silva.  

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At the outset of the film, Bond, shot by an enemy, falls off a tall bridge. He is presumed dead, but we find him recovering on an island, having chosen to retire rather than continue on being a spy. When he hears that M16 has been blown up in an act of terrorism, he returns to London where M (Judi Dench, doing absolutely spectacular work) puts him through the ringer, testing his physical and psychological aptitude. She passes him despite subpar results and evidence of trauma, and eventually, after a journey to Shanghai and the casinos of Macau, Bond discovers that the ring leader of the terrorist organization is a man named Silva (the always superb Javier Bardem). Silva captures Bond and…that’s all you really need to know for the scene I’ve chosen. 

Watch, enjoy, and revel in Silva’s sensual yearnings.

First, let’s just recognize the filmmaking prowess on display in this scene, and the rest of the movie. The wonderful cinematographer Roger Deakins shot Skyfall with a rich palette and typically wonderful use of lighting (and darkness for that matter, see: the fight scene shot entirely in silhouette in front of a massive LED screen). The editing is similarly superb, spare and deliberate, heightening tension and anticipation in this erotically-tinged exchange. The long shot of Silva walking toward Bond, telling an increasingly horrific story, is simply wonderful, filled with an eery emptiness taken up by Bardem’s performance.

And what a towering performance it is. Though this scene goes through its fair share of plot mechanics—a little of Silva’s backstory, explained further in great moments later in the film, and in particular his mistrust of M16—we are left largely with Bardem’s magnetism. His manner is slightly affected, with a touch of flamboyance, and his intensity is marked by a cool hauteur. But he is clearly a far cry from his sociopathic, Oscar-winning murderer in No Country for Old Men; Silva carries a great deal of feelings about his circumstance, namely anger and frustration in ever-increasing degrees. But he is also, it seems, a lover, certainly of men and possibly of women, whose desires are perhaps rarely met.

That leads us to the obvious appeal of this scene, and the less obvious importance of ambiguous sensuality in the context of a Bond film.

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For the first time ever, Bond meets a villain who is explicitly attracted to him. Their exchange, as Silva lightly and somewhat threateningly caresses Bond’s neck and chest, has an undeniable erotic charge. And Bond’s sly “What makes you think this is my first time?”—accompanied by a wink of a smile—should get your blood boiling. For a moment, it seems, Silva’s does. There is a hint of melancholic longing accompanying his furtive assessment of Bond’s physical assets. Soon he regains his composure and dominance, though, breaking the tension but only after exposing one piece of his intricate puzzle.

Whether or not Silva’s come on is a tactic to throw Bond off his game, and whether or not Bond really has experienced this sort of homoerotic tension before, the introduction of male-male sexuality in this genre, and especially this series, is thrilling. The Bond films are, in their most severely reductive form, a heterosexual buffet of action and sex, with an asexual villain and hyper-sexualized “Bond girl,” respectively. Sure, Skyfall has a couple of said Bond girls, and Silva’s sexuality is never explored further. But when our first introduction to a villainous terrorist mastermind ends in a man-on-man leg caress, you know this isn’t your typical Bond film.

There is a long and ugly history of villainizing homosexuals in film (Cruising anyone?), but in those instances the character is typically evil or angry or frustrated because of that sexuality. Their depth ends with who they like to sleep with and, in most cases, audiences would have agreed (at the time) that the homosexual deserves to lose or die or fall at the hands of a heterosexual hero. Skyfall does not occupy the same cinematic territory; Silva’s sexuality is but a small increment of his characterization, and has absolutely nothing to do with his plan to destroy Bond and M. Rather, it is, in many ways, a narratively unnecessary provocation, a means to a wonderfully tense exchange that serves to add a different level of sexualization to the otherwise heterosexist Bond franchise.

I personally think that it is a delightful development, and an indication that mainstream cinema can handle same-sex desire with nuance and sensitivity to character. The mere suggestion that Bond may have given into such attractions before, and that Silva matches Bond’s level of outward confidence (and surpasses his competence) by flirting with him, adds an unexpected fire to their face-off. It also forces the audience to reassess their James Bond schema in a new and powerful way; just one of the many moments in the fabulously atypical Skyfall to do so.

What do you think of Skyfall and Silva’s expression of desire? Let me know in the comments below!

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One thought on “Weekly Scene: Skyfall

  1. Pingback: Fresh-Squeezed Industry: Telluride, Venice Screen Early Oscar Frontrunners, New 007 Theme Song Announced, Sequels Galore | I Wish I Knew How To Quit Film

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