August 5, 2014

Queer Review: The Trial (1962)

The Trial
Director: Orson Welles
Writer: Pierre Cholot and Orson Welles. Based on the novel The Trial by Franz Kafka.
Cast: Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Elsa Martinelli, Suzanne Flon, Madeleine Robinson, Romy Schneider, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Max Haufler

A surreal tale about a man accused of an unknown crime, The Trial represents the best kind of cinematic absurdity to be directed by Orson Welles.

Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) awakens one morning to find his apartment being searched by police officers, who demand that he bribe him to make his life easier. He is told that he is under arrest but not that the crime he is being charged for. Not knowing what to do, Josef seeks the advice of L'avocat (Orson Welles) but finds his council less than useful. As he goes about trying to clear his name, the surreal experiences he undergo increase in their bizarreness. L'avocat all but tries to seduce him and after Joseph files a complaint about the police officers, he walks into a room to find them about to be whipped. As his ordeal becomes increasingly absurd, Josef becomes desperate enough to seek the advice of the painter of the courtroom judges. But for all his efforts to avoid it, Joseph K. is drawn inevitably to his ultimate fate.

The Queering
While I was working towards obtaining a criminology degree from Wilkes University (which I am still working on), I participated in an internship which involved observing court cases. Many of the people who found themselves in court, of course were poor and lacking in eduction. In most cases, it was obvious to me, that many individuals, victim and accused alike, must have found the entire experience with it's multiple hearings, appeals and counter-appeals, and adherence to technical overwhelming. In any case, I can imagine that there are many people out there who would identify quite strongly with the experiences of Joseph K.

The casting of Anthony Perkins in the role of Joseph K. was a deliberate push by Welles to add a queer subtext to the film. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Trial:
Perkins was one of those actors everyone thought was gay. He kept his sexuality private, and used his nervous style of speech and movement to suggest inner disconnects. From an article by Edward Guthmann in the San Francisco Chronicle, I learn that Welles confided to his friend Henry Jaglom that he knew Perkins was a homosexual, "and used that quality in Perkins to suggest another texture in Josef K, a fear of exposure."

There are other ways that The Trial suggests that Josef is not entirely straight, although these primarily boil down to him being seduced by a series of woman and having Josef fail to return any kind of affection back to them. A late scene has him being chased down a long corridor by a gaggle of female teenagers. However, a more interesting subtext emerges though, when L'avocate comments that being accused makes men more attractive, right before requesting that one of Josef K.s' fellow accused kiss his ring.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of surrealist motion pictures, but for me The Trial works. There is a bit of writing advice that goes that it is important for characters to want something, even if it is simply a glass of water. The problem I find with surrealist films (or absurdist narratives in general) is that such stories tend to forget this advice and present characters who lack the most rudimentary of motivation. Josef K. at least, clearly wants something, to prove his innocence. It is just unfortunate that he is forced to do so under the most absurd of circumstances. It helps in no small measure, that Orson Welles with his astounding visual storytelling abilities is at the helm. Visually, this is almost as impressive an achievement as Citizen Kane. Welles was clearly willing to push the envelope as far as he can with each picture he made (and retained control over) and this is evident in every shot of The Trial.

Would be worth being tried in the most Kafkaesque of trials in order to see.

The Rating
3 stars out of 4.


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