“Nightmare Alley”: like a disastrous dream

Despite their bright lights and garish colors, the fairgrounds have a gloomy side. In fact, there is often a card printer there to predict when death will strike. Many literary and cinematographic works bear witness to this frightening dimension, of which Nightmare Alley, a classic from the noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Already adapted in 1947, the work returns to haunt the big screen in a gloriously sinister film by Guillermo del Toro.

Published in 1946, the novel recounts the rise, the success, then the fall of a crook, from his beginnings in a second-rate traveling carnival to his shenanigans in the splendor of the big city. His name is Stan (Bradley Cooper) and he will cross paths with three women: Zeena (Toni Collette), a false medium who will teach him with her spouse the basics of the profession of “mentalist”, Molly (Rooney Mara), a young colleague fairground that he will lead in the rest of his adventures, and Lilith (Cate Blanchett), a brilliant psychologist with whom he will partner in order to rip off a reclusive millionaire.

the Nightmare Alley (Nightmare alley) by del Toro respects the absolute cynicism of the original plot (see the first and last shots to be convinced) and, with a few significant details, its main developments. One of the most fundamental, and successful, changes is in the character of Lilith, who is no longer motivated by hints of a rich marriage, but by something much more visceral and much more current within her reach.

The filmmaker also never tries to cover up Lilith’s sneaky nature. “You’re rotten, and so am I.,” Stan whispers to her with satisfied confidence. She doesn’t contradict him, but a glint in her eyes suggests amusement rather than acquiescence. As interpreted, remarkably, by Cooper and Blanchett, these two seem to have ice running through their veins.

On the subject of the protagonist’s self-assurance, which borders on arrogance, it is his Achilles heel. Blinded by his conviction to be the one who, in life as on the stage, pulls the strings, Stan runs to his doom.

However, he receives warnings at every turn, first from Zeena, whose Tarot deck predicts him a dire fate, then from Molly, whom disenchantment makes even more lucid, and finally from Lilith, who strikes him with a voice velvet: “You’re not fooling anyone, Stan. “

No one except himself. Here again, the filmmaker and his co-screenwriter Kim Morgan are not trying to leave any ambiguity as to what awaits Stan. As soon as he sets out on this sordid and dangerous path, this nightmare alley against which the three women, like pythias, have warned him, his fate is sealed.

Dance of Death

Four years after winning the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director for The Shape of Water (The shape of water), Guillermodel Toro offers here one of his most completed works, one of his most concerted. To the dismal desolation of the funfair in the first part, he opposes a luxuriant urban opulence in the second.

From the photography direction of loyal collaborator Dan Laustsen to the costumes of Luis Sequeira and the fabulously evocative art direction of Tamara Deverell (Lilith’s consulting room, to the woodwork with Rorschach-style motifs: a marvel), all departments are ‘prove to be in perfect harmony with the vision of del Toro, known for the manic precision of his drawings and plans.

Once again, we find the fetish palette of the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and of The devil’s backbone, who likes to bathe the action in shades of turquoise and ocher, with occasional intrusions of carmine, the color of life, the color of death. Interesting symbolic touch: in Nightmare Alley, once Stan settles in Buffalo, Molly’s tailor, Lilith’s lipstick and, yes, blood will now be the only traces of red in the image.

Bewitched by Stan’s deceitful charm as much as by that of Lilith, we follow the evolution of the dance of death until the first, inevitably, loses his footing. Rarely has an announced downfall been staged with so much panache.

Nightmare Alley

★★★★ 1/2

Film noir by Guillermo del Toro. With Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman, Willem Dafoe. United States – Canada – Mexico, 2021, 150 minutes. Indoors.

Watch video


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *