Somehow, a film that ought to be impenetrable manages to be compelling.
|Silent scream in A Page of Madness.|
Both silent films and foreign films sometimes require a bit of decoding. A Page of Madness requires even more codebreaking than most. It’s got just about everything possible working against a viewer’s understanding. For starters, it’s missing about a third of its footage. After its release in 1926, the film went missing, and was believed lost for good in the 1950 Shimogamo studio fire that destroyed all of its films. Director Teinosuke Kinugasa stumbled on a print hiding in his own storehouse in 1971. He re-released it in 1973, but not before cutting it for reasons no one seems to be quite sure of. Some have suggested that he cut out narrative sequences in order to make the film even more avant-garde by 1970s standards.
And then there’s the fact that the film has no intertitles. We’re left on our own to figure out what’s going on in silent conversations. The lack of titles, though, isn’t part of some artistic experiment. Their absence is a relic of history. In Japan, silent film screenings were accompanied by benshi—live narrators who explained the film to the audience in a theatrical style. The lack of a benshi makes us have to solve some of the plot elements that may have been crystal clear to the original viewers. It’s rather like watching a talking film with the sound turned down (as far as deciphering the plot, I mean—the film has a strikingly gorgeous musical soundtrack).
But here’s the thing: A Page of Madness is so visually stunning, and so simultaneously beautiful and disturbing, that you’ll want to solve its mysteries. Even if you don’t understand every moment of it, you’ll likely keep watching.
The opening moments of the film are a cacophony of sound and moving image fragments that feel disturbing, even if we’re not yet sure how they fit together: a drum, a screaming baby, a torn photograph, a car arriving in a downpour. We see a beautiful dancer in an elaborate headpiece dancing on a stylized stage. As the camera backs away from her, suddenly we are seeing her through bars, like those of a prison. When the scene cuts to a girl in a ragged dress, dancing frenziedly in her cell as if compelled by an unseen force, it becomes clear that she is an asylum inmate, and the beautiful woman we first saw is her delusion.
|Some patients are as catatonic as others are frenetic.|
Though you might be fuzzy on the details (or they might come to mean something to you that is different from the interpretation of others), a plot ultimately emerges. An old man works as a janitor at the asylum, and his wife is a patient there. When one day their daughter arrives to inform her mother of her engagement, the family’s story begins to piece together in the form of flashbacks. The janitor attempts to free his wife from the asylum, but she seems unwilling to go—perhaps she knows it is where she belongs, although there are signs that she may be afraid of her husband, who may well be going mad himself.
A Page of Madness is often compared to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but that’s a naive comparison, I think, and mostly borne out of the fact that it’s a horror film set in an asylum. Unlike many films with scary asylums, though, it’s not the asylum itself that’s scary (though the angles and shadows certainly make it seem foreboding). There are no depraved orderlies or torturous punishments. And while there are terrifying scenes of the patients leering and pawing at the dancer, and later rioting, they’re not the most frightening aspect of the film. The true horror comes from the madness itself. It’s what’s inside the patient’s own heads, from current delusions to flashbacks of horrific life events. And what makes this film unusual is that we see these horrible things from the patient’s point of view. Just as we saw the dancer’s delusion in the opening sequence, we sometimes see people in the asylum as the janitor’s wife sees them, with their eyes swollen and their heads misshapen.
There are elements of the film that I never divined. What is the significance of the torn photograph? Did the janitor’s wife drown a baby, or is she clutching at a baby that she found drowned? Did the janitor abuse his wife? These are things I might never know, or I may change my mind in subsequent viewings (and this is a film I will see again). And then there are images that I know will never leave me: the rioting inmates calming down when they put on their eerie Noh masks and sit in silence, for one. The wife’s horrifying, though silent, scream.
The music, added by Kinugasa for the ‘70s re-release is notably unsettling. At times, though it is obviously played on Japanese instruments, it resembles shrieks of fright or pain. At other times, it is repetitive and percussive, reminiscent of the mechanical sounds so favored by David Lynch. Its dissonance mimics the disconnect between the asylum patients and the real world.
|Just when you thought the film couldn't be any more disturbing, the masks arrive.|
A Page of Madness might be difficult for some, if not just because of its obfuscation, then for its disturbing images of mental illness. I think there’s no denying that it’s a masterpiece of film making, and not merely by silent film standards. In fact, you may be startled by how modern it actually looks.
You can watch the film free at OpenCulture.com. I highly recommend watching the incredible opening sequence. You’ll know right away if it’s for you.
This post is part two of my 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event, which kicked off with Wolf Blood, the earliest existing werewolf film. Subscribe to Film Dirt or like on Facebook to see all 31 silent horror reviews as they appear.