Motifs in Cinema: The Dichotomy Between Fantasy And Reality

“Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across several film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilized by different artists.”
Andrew has a knack for providing us with great motifs to explore for this series, but for the second year running, nothing piqued my interest as much as the dichotomy between fantasy and reality. At the risk of coming off as incredibly conceited, let me quote myself from last year’s article to illustrate why I remain so interested in this topic: “Fantasy, in the strictest sense of the word, is inseparable from the cinema. What are fictional films if not the fantasy of those who imagine them, write them and act them? What is fantasy if not the imaginary world we immerse ourselves in for a few hours in the dark?”

All cinema can essentially be boiled down to that word: fantasy. It’s all unreal and imagined. Take a film like Argo, for example, that tells the true story of a landmark political event, and yet, remains so infused with the glorification of the proceedings that it becomes difficult to suspend disbelief when the Iranian forces are chasing the airplane on the airport tarmac. On the other end of the spectrum is Holy Motors, so unhinged from reality that all presumptions about the real world are destabilized and fantasy becomes the default mode of thought. Monsieur Oscar permanently lives in purgatory between fantasy and an alternate reality.

Fantasy found an unexpected but quite fruitful sub-genre this year in films that use the imagination of a central character under emotional strain to explore the darker depths of his psyche. Chief among them was Berberian Sound Studio, in which Toby Jones’s Gilderoy gradually descended further and further into the world of the film he was helping produce and eventually lost all manners of sense and grasp on reality. The audience, too, teeters on the brink of complete immersion and goes insane along with Jones’s sound editor. Like Peter Strickland, Ang Lee also keeps the audience in the dark regarding the authenticity of his lead character’s experiences in Life of Pi. We embark on the boat with Pi, weather the storms, endure the carnivorous presence of Richard Parker and land on a magical island inhabited by meerkats. Though we all have our different opinions on the religious and philosophical ideology of Pi, the film itself never really gives away whether the whole experience was genuine or only a spiritual metaphor. Unlike the former two films, Bahman Ghobadi’s Rhino Season implies the boundaries between reality and fantasy by working them into the narrative (characters recounting dreams) or introducing magical realism (the sequence featuring the titular Rhinos). We aren’t entrapped in Sahel’s world, but like Pi and Gilderoy, he is also a victim of intense mental pressure and he’s using his imagination to cope.

There was another festival hit that introduced elements of magical realism by connecting its lead character to animals like Rhino Season. In Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Hushpuppy’s childlike imagination becomes our point of view, so seamlessly that her encounter with the Aurochs, clearly a product of her heightened view of the world, appears entirely convincing. Beasts employs magical realism in many forms, but keeps the environment of the film so low-key and authentic that as spectators, we are quite literally put inside Hushpuppy’s head space. It’s her perspective through which we see The Bathtub so experiences that in all likelihood never happened, like the brothel on the water, come across as factual.

Other films also used young protagonists to catalyze the fantastical elements of their story, though they allowed the audience to stay on the outside looking in. Seth MacFarlane’s Ted uses a young boy’s wish as a platform to launch the narrative. Although the concept of a talking teddy bear escapes the boy’s fantasy and becomes a worldwide phenomenon, the mere fact that the starting point for such an outlandish comedy hook is a child’s imagining ground the narrative and allows us to accept its plausibility as fact. Then there’s Pixar’s Brave, where Queen Elinor’s transformation to a bear is handled deftly through the device of Merida’s childlike curiosity. The film revolves around her assertive personality but her youthful spirit, her innocent steps as she follows the will-o-the-wisps and her adolescent rage toward her mother all feel incredibly natural because, paradoxically, the magical elements ground her personality. She sees herself larger than life, but she’s divested of her power against magic. Her mother’s transformation forces her to retreat and learn to adapt and also transcend the circumstances of the real world.

Female characters led two other exploration of fantasy in films directed by one woman. In Take This Waltz, Margot copes with an intense sense of ennui but her once stimulating, dynamic affair with an attractive neighbor only descends to the same mundane lows of her married life. Though fantasy isn’t an overarching theme, Sarah Polley ends the film on an ambiguous note that leaves the audience wondering what state the perennially daydreaming Margot is living in. Is she only happy in an environment fabricated in her mind, where she can swing to the tune of ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ all day long, or is the reality of her life that depressing? And if the life of a Toronto housewife appears an unlikely source for fantasy, a documentary about Polley’s own family history should surely be impossible to look at from an imagined perspective, but in Stories We Tell, Polley expertly creates an environment in which the narrative twists and turns and the reality changes repeatedly until truth is eventually revealed. Though every family member believes their own version of the events to be correct, the elusive truth proves them all wrong. Their stories become threads that lead to reality, but are, in and of themselves, nothing more than a story.

Such a definition of fantasy might be extended to include any illusion of reality, and in fact, my favorite film of the year stretches the boundaries even further, for in Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, scarcely anything is unreal, but the film’s aura of enchantment is strong enough to immerse the spectator in a dreamlike state. Whether Rui Pocas’s hypnotizing camera is swirling us around a revolving restaurant where flickering lights in the background lull the audience through a tale about gambling addiction, or if his nostalgic 16mm lensing is teaching us love through a steamy affair in colonial Africa, Tabu maintains a magical quality that distances the audience from Aurora’s world. Ironically, Tabu’s mise-en-scene is extremely adamant on emphasizing elements of brutal reality – think of an alligator as a metaphor for attachment to a locale – but it is conceived with a touch so delicate that the audience second guesses the authenticity of Aurora’s story. Snap, and you’re out of that world and thrust into a reality where love can’t be found beneath such hopelessly harsh facades. But that’s the power of cinematic fantasy. You can’t snap and leave Tabu when the curtains close. It lives with you forever.



  1. It's interesting to see which films you and Tim both used in discussing reality and fantasy but I'm ever more intrigued by some surprising choices from you – specifically “Take This Waltz”. Good on you mentioning that which makes me reconsider the film. That ambiguous ending has been nagging me for months and your point makes me ponder so much on Margot's state-of-mind. She does admit she hates the in-between which makes the possibility of her projecting fantasies to cope a ready option.

  2. I also love the inclusion of both Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell here – you could have written this entire piece solely on those two films…Also very happy to see Rhino Season included – one of my very favourite films of last year.

  3. i REALLY didn't care for Take This Waltz, but I forgot there were indeed some fantasy elements to it, which you explained nicely. I love Beasts and glad it received a mention here too. and i SO need to see Holy Motors!

  4. Fascinating angle on Take This Waltz (Stories We Tell remains elusive), and one that surely makes sense with the heated summer feeling of the whole thing – is it all just a fever dream?

    And love forever for Tabu, which just feels so magical with the lush cinematography and the exquisite use of sound that thinking of it as a reality is somehow bizarre to me.

  5. I feel so out of the loop with Stories We Tell and Tabu. I hope I get the chance to see those soon.

    Great piece here. A lot of interesting thoughts, particularly on Take This Waltz. That's a really fantastic reading of the closing scene and makes me want to re-watch and re-evaluate.

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