Opera Meets Film: The Fascinating & Enigmatic Appearance of ‘Dido’s Lament’ in Shinoda’s Masterpiece ‘Pale Flower’By David Salazar
“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Masahiro Shinoda’s “Pale Flower.”
Shinoda’s “Pale Flower” is as ambiguous a film as its title might suggest. The audience is made to follow Muraki, a Yakuza hitman who has just been released from jail, his nihilistic outlook mirrored by the meandering nature of the narrative. He shifts around gambling, developing a relationship with the equally ambiguous Saeko, and then eventually commits another crime.
Throughout, the film’s music, as scored by the famed Toru Takemitsu, bounces around providing ambiance, but rarely ever truly allowing us to immerse ourselves in the emotions and feelings of its central characters. Together with Shinoda, the aim is to constantly hide us from their true natures, keeping us invested in the potential promise of discovering deeper truths and secrets about these enigmatic characters.
And then we get the slightest of hints at the climax of the film when Muraki heads over to commit a murder of a crime boss that is starting to take over some of his boss’ turf. Saeko joins him on the adventure.
As Muraki ascends the stairs we start to hear the music of Dido’s iconic lament from Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” the “Remember Me” particularly prevalent in the sequence.
All diegetic sound is excised and Shinoda uses two filmmaking techniques to add a sense of pathos in the sequence. First off, everything is done in slow motion, taking us out of the grittier reality he has constructed throughout the film (while this is heavily stylized, there is a restraint in this film that we don’t see in “Assassination” of the same year; that film features freeze frames and other unique visual traits of the Japanese New Wave that are kept under locks in “Pale Flower”). Suddenly, the audience is wrapped up in every moment leading up to the murder, the music’s presence making it all the more pointed.
Then there’s the constant intercutting between Saeko and Muraki, the two looking toward each other, but also to camera. It instantly creates the most intense connection between the two in the entire film. Suddenly, we sense that it’s this unspoken dialogue between the two, not the murder, that is the most crucial element of this scene.
So what to make of the music and Shinoda’s emphasis on “Remember me?” It remains as ambiguous as the film itself. On one hand, one might be quick to immediately draw attention to the emphasis on the Saeko-Muraki connection; Muraki is going to jail and as we will learn later, Saeko is going to be murdered. Is the music speaking that unspoken conversation between these two? Is each character’s glance an expression of the music’s “Remember Me?”
Moreover, is “Dido’s Lament” an expression of the two never being able to be together? As noted, we never know the depth of their feelings for one another; this moment is as deep as it goes with the ending adding to that feeling. We never learn of Saeko’s identity, but she has money to spare to gamble as she wishes; in an earlier scene, she is also seen at a luxury hotel potentially meeting a suitor. There is a suggestion that she comes from wealth and is someone of great importance; perhaps even on the level of a Dido. Meanwhile, Muraki fits the Aeneas description. Like the hero, he has a prescribed mission ordained by his “Gods” and no one or nothing will stop him completing the deed, even at the cost of his own freedom and humanity. In this context, that Lament might only amplify the mythic nature of this film noir and how its characters fit those legendary archetypes.
Still, this operatic reference and the “Remember Me” could be seen in a different philosophical light. Muraki opens the film noting the senseless nature of the world around him. He doesn’t understand humanity or its purpose. He never has a defined purpose throughout the film and when the opportunity for the murder arises, HE is the one who volunteers. He later tells Saeko that murder is even better than any addictive drug. So when we see the “Lament” play over a slow-motion murder committed by him, one might infer that the “Lament” is being twisted, as is nearly everything in most Shinoda films. He’s literally asking to be remembered for his crimes as remembering them and the person behind them gives the actions meaning. Murder gives him purpose in life.
And guess what? This is, by far, the most visceral and powerful scene in an otherwise cool and collected, but fascinating film. In some ways, this is the moment where Muraki is fully revealed to the audience and when all is said and done, we do remember those delicate, tender (?) glances with Saeko prior to butchering a man in slow motion. Mission accomplished?
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