When the Queen met James Bond during the Olympics, it was broadcast live as a real world event. This suggests that the British believe that either Bond is real or that the Queen is imaginary.
The new Bond blockbuster Skyfall, is an extraordinary entry in the Bond canon, and in the portrayal of misogyny. Skyfall has been criticised for not being more up-to-date in its portrayal of women and also praised for being more respectful of women. As usual popular film critics potter about on the fringes of populist tropes, more voyeurs than anything else.
It seems to me that the misogyny in Skyfall is irrefutable. Perhaps the question is not whether or not the Bond films are sexist, but what kind of sexism are we looking at?
Slavoj Žižek, paraphrasing Lacan, points out somewhere that the solitary laconic male action heroes of cinema are always those whose solitude is predicated on the ability to remain unencumbered by women. We might think of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones, John McClane, and James Bond. This is not, Žižek suggests, because these heroes are so self-contained that they don’t need relationships with women, but rather because they already have a relationship with a woman – their mother, from whom they cannot free themselves. In other words, they are in essence mummy’s boys, fused with an imago that they cannot escape from but also cannot recover.
For the action men like Bond there has never been any intervention of the paternal in infant life. The ‘paternal’ isn’t a father-person, it’s a symbolic function – any desire beyond the baby that the mother has that doesn’t include the baby. To get around this, the child tries to incarnate whatever it is it thinks the mother desires – the good child, the bad child, whatever. The paternal function says, ‘You can’t do that dude. You and Mum can’t desire each other forever and forever.’ But misogyny is a failed paternal function, whereas desire is always forever.
As Lacan pointed out, there are a number of problems with this incestuous dynamic. First, it results in a continual male pursuit of an idealised woman (and a discarding or punishing of the woman when she fails to meet those ideals, or to think of him as perfect). Second, there can be a falling into psychosis when the gap into which the paternal is located is revealed.
Why the fuck are we talking about infant mental health, psychosis and misogyny? Because this is the terrain of Skyfall.
It’s also the terrain of romance, of sexuality, and of patriarchal demands on women and children. Misogyny is constructed in many ways, and while it has tentacles in all kind of weird places, it is a stamp on the identity of masculinity and femininity. We fall in love with characteristics, not people. Welcome to contemporary misogyny: the impossible and violent idealisation of women, and the borderline and psychotic identities of men.
The women of Daniel Craig’s three Bond films are divided into two categories – those he sleeps with and those he doesn’t. Those he sleeps with die, sadistically. Vesper Lynd graphically drowns. Solange Dimitrios is tortured and then murdered. Strawberry Fields tortured, murdered and her body covered in oil. And, in the most disturbing scene from Skyfall, the former sex slave Severine is beaten, tied up and then casually shot by the Bond villain while Bond drinks scotch.
In Skyfall, it is implied that Bond may have slept with Eve Moneypenny, the hapless MI6 agent who accidentally shoots Bond and is ridiculed by him for both her shooting and her driving abilities. But I think it’s clear that Bond doesn’t sleep with her, for the simple reason that she is still alive at the end of the film.
The racism in Bond’s misogyny isn’t hard to find either. Severine – Chinese, chain-smoking, alluring, dragon-lady; Moneypenny – sexy but thick Black woman, suitable only for secretarial work; nameless Indian woman – servile and compliant, a woman Bond doesn’t even look at post-coitus.
Of course the most significant woman in the Bond films is M, the head of MI6, played by Judy Dench. The initial ‘M’, one imagines, could well stand for ‘mother’, and in Skyfall M’s fusion with Bond is striking. M is not M without her Bond, and Bond is lost and unanchored without M.
Before I go further with this, prior to Skyfall, I had positioned the two previous Craig-Bond films as extended advertisements, featuring blatant and repeated product placement. A quarter of the cash for the $200 million budget for Quantum of Solace was met through product placement – Ford, Heineken Pilsener, Smirnoff, Virgin Atlantic, Sony, Coke and so on. But Skyfall takes product placement to a whole new level.
The product most heavily promoted in Skyfall is Britain. It’s like the royal family got together with Saatchi and Saatchi and New Labour to write a Bond script. It’s a Churchillian Britain, not a Blair-ite or Cameron-ian Britain. It is also a Royal Britain. As if reminding us of Bond’s meeting with the Queen at the Olympics, Bond wears royal-blue tracksuits with the royal coat-of-arms badged prominently in silver, while rehabilitating himself at MI6. James Bond, Licensed to Kill. By Appointment.
So what we can expect from the quasi-Lacanian Bond is the pursuit and punishing of women, and periodic psychotic episodes. Actually, the psychotic breakdown doesn’t take place, not until Skyfall. Instead we get what Lacan called the ‘sinthome’ – the symptom that prevents the final psychosis. It is the massive act of ruthless logic that keeps the subject together. Just as the other James (Joyce) prevented his psychotic breakdown by hiding inside the armour of his literary name (and perhaps handing on the psychological violence of his interior state to his children), so Bond has become ‘Bond – James Bond’, outsourcing his interior violence onto others. Like Joyce, he has become the symptom of his madness.
The plot of Skyfall is uncanny in speaking to its own dynamics. I’d be fairly sure that Sam Mendes and Barbara Broccoli didn’t come up with a detailed storyboard that centred around the Name of the Father or a Žižekian commmentary on Lacan. But in trying to make Bond speak beyond his own image of the sexually magnetic, suave, hi-tech, self-contained superspy, they have unwittingly revealed something (something which has also been immensely profitable for them).
It’s Dark Knight territory – an attempt to give the comic book hero credible backstory. It doesn’t work for Batman, because there is never going to be a billionaire philanthropist who disguises himself as giant bat, wears superhero body-armour and chases mutated super-villains. It works for Bond because there are actually plenty of narcissistic murdering misogynist psychopaths around who think they are saving the western world from evil.
Anyway, here’s a mandatory Spoiler Alert. I’m going to tell you most everything that happens in Skyfall. So, if you want to see it, maybe go make a cup of tea and come back when the review is finished.
Bond is a burned-out case, getting old, drinking too much. Chasing a MacGuffin-stealing baddie (Ola Rapace, last seen killing himself in the Swedish TV cop show Wallander), Bond is accidentally shot by the hapless Moneypenny (Naomie Harris – can’t shoot, can’t drive) and believed to be dead.
Bond of course survives, and realising what has happened – that M would rather see him dead than see a mission fail – disappears and hangs out in India playing dangerous drinking games and seducing unnamed Indian women. In a bar watching CNN, he learns that M’s HQ has been blown up.
Back in London, someone is out to get M and probably kill her, after a long process of public humiliation. Bond has to re-submit to his secret agent tests to get his job back (lots of push-ups, shooting, and a psych evaluation that confines itself to word-association). M herself is also under threat professionally. MI6, she is told, is considered an organisation past its use-by-date in this era of democratic transparency (seriously). Of course M knows that ‘out in the shadows’ lurk many enemies of the democratic project who hate our freedoms.
One of the pivotal images in the film is of a China bulldog, pugnaciously Churchillian in expression and wearing a Union Jack, that lives on M’s desk. When M’s offices are obliterated, the bulldog amazingly survives and accompanies M into MI6’s new headquarters in a wartime bunker once used by Churchill.
Dragged before some kind of parliamentary select committee fronted by a government minister, M quotes the end of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses in reponse to the grilling she receives. It is her equivalent of Churchill’s ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech. It’s an extraordinary moment, pitching Britain’s security services as Churchill’s heirs, as reincarnations of the Few – yeoman protectors of the innocent public, and poetry the expression of their courage and resolution. The carping pollies ridicule her ideas, of course. Then the terrorists walk in and shoot everyone.
The Bond villain is revealed to be Raoul Silva, slaveringly played by Javier Bardem. Believe it or not, Silva is a white-haired whiz computer hacker. Whatever happens to Julian Assange now, he has been inscribed forever in popular culture as a creepy sexualised Bond villain.
Silva is also a former MI6 agent and previously M’s favourite before she abandoned him and replaced him with Bond. In other words, Silva is Bond’s older brother or forgotten twin, as devoted to mother M as Bond is. Silva addresses Bond as ‘James’, unusual for Bond villains. When Silva asks Bond if he has any hobbies, Bond answers sardonically, ‘Resurrection’. It’s the first appearance of the religious in Skyfall and a harbinger of things to come.
It is Silva who directly names M as the symbolic mother of himself and Bond. Silva might be nuts but he at least knows a traumatic mental illness when he has one. Bond allows himself to be captured by Silva, who points out to Bond that M lied to him when Bond was deemed to have passed MI6’s secret agent tests. ‘She wouldn’t lie to me,’ says Bond earnestly. But she did, says Silva: ‘Mommy was very bad.’
Later in the film, when Silva has allowed himself to be captured by Bond and taken to MI6 HQ, Silva confronts M with her ruthless betrayal of him years earlier, which left him with a partly disintegrated jaw. Removing what appear to be dentures, Silva hisses ‘Mother’ at M, but the word is almost inaudible and incoherent.
Pursued by Silva, Bond and M head to Scotland to take refuge in the Bond ancestral manor, Skyfall, situated in the bleak Scottish highlands and constructed of slate and lichen. They get there in Bond’s original Aston Martin, the one Connery used with the ejector seat and the machine-guns in the bumper bar. This is significant, as Bond has never been more Bond than when he is in a car full of gadgets, and the Aston Martin is more Bond than Bond himself. ‘Where are we going?’ asks M. ‘Back in time,’ replies Bond. And in fact the landscape around the Skyfall manor looks otherworldly, as if Bond and M have passed into another dimension. It also means that if Skyfall is trying to claim that Craig’s Bond is Connery’s Bond, well then Craig’s Bond is about eighty years old.
So we have returned to the site of the original trauma, the bleak site where Bond’s parents are buried lying beneath suitably spartan and spooky-looking headstones. Skyfall is of course the place where the sky fell for young James and launched the orphan on his career of murder and misogyny. ‘Orphans,’ says M sinisterly at one point, ‘make the best recruits.’
Skyfall is the paternal imago, so we know that weird shit is now about to happen. Given that the film situates word-association at a key point, and the only word that Bond refuses to associate to is ‘Skyfall’, it’s worth speculating on its associations. The first one that comes to mind is ‘sky-father’: father as God, as omnipotent, unreachable being, the archetype of the myth of misogyny.
Skyfall is dank, abandoned and mouldering and has, apparently, been sold. Still resident, however, is the crusty old paternal gamekeeper Kincade (Albert Finney), who ceremonially presents Bond with his father’s still-functioning hunting rifle.
With these reminders of the paternal (following Lacan again) we could at last expect a psychotic episode from Bond – a non-Bond moment – and that’s what we get. Bond now has his Mother (M) and his Father (‘Skyfall’) in one place, so shit is going to go down, and it is going to be spectacularly weird shit that hasn’t gone down before.
Kincade gives M a tour of Skyfall and shows her a priest-hole that leads out onto the moor, surfacing near the Bond family chapel. I guess this means that the Bonds were Catholics. ‘When James’ parents died,’ says Kincade solemnly, ‘he hid in here for two days. When he came out, he was no longer a boy.’ And while one might conclude that when Bond emerged from the priest-hole he was ‘a man’, one might also conclude that if he was no longer a boy, perhaps he was instead a girl. Either way, it is the Bond experience of a religious epiphany.
So now we have the religious again making its appearance, revealing Bond’s crushing of his vulnerable nature which he views as feminine, as all misogynists do. Then Silva arrives in a heavily armed chopper with twenty ninja commando thugs.
Like some malevolent monster house of horror, Skyfall is booby trapped with nail bombs and so on by Bond and co, who, with the aid of the house and the Aston Martin, proceed to shred the invading ninjas. Dad has become resurrected – resurrection being Bond’s hobby – and Bond pere is vengeful and cruel and unpredictable, as only the misogynist can be. In the course of the battle, M is wounded and she and Kincade escape via the priest-hole, the secret traumatic heart of Skyfall.
After grenading the house and machine-gunning it from end to end, Silva has his chopper shoot up Bond’s Aston Martin, which explodes. Cue Bond’s final meltdown.
The gutting of the Aston Martin is the destruction of the Bond image, of the official story, of the false self that Bond has carried round all these years. Bond goes nuts. He ties a couple of sticks of dynamite to some gas bottles, mutters, ‘I always hated this place anyway’, and dives down the priest-hole, presumably his first return since the death of his parents. The cylinders explode throwing flaming debris at the chopper – which spectacularly nosedives into Skyfall.
Emerging from the priest-hole, born of the Father as it were, Bond heads out to the chapel, dispatching the two remaining ninjas on the way, but is beaten to it by Silva. Silva sees M’s wounds and clasps her to him, crying, calling her ‘mother’ and attempts to get her to shoot them both with the one bullet. Before he can do this he suddenly straightens up with a large hunting knife planted in his back, courtesy of Bond. Bond cradles the dying M. The white-bearded Kincade stands with bowed head, like Joseph of Arimethea at Golgotha, and we are treated to a long shot, all chiaroscuro, of a Pieta. This time it’s the grieving child holding the dead mother. It looks like a scene by Géricault, and it is freaky and weird, and psychotically hallucinatory.
Returning to Britain, Bond fronts for work, refreshed, and dedicated to a new M, Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). ‘M’ is now shorn of its emotional context. It is just an initial now, the initial of a paternal figure. Bond has returned to the paternal, a ruthless, pared down, cold-blooded paternal. Bond is robotic once more. This time, he is not the Bond who kills as part of a lifestyle of glamour. Now he knows exactly what he is doing. And he has M’s china bulldog in his pocket.