"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser


By Ken Atchity

Whether it’s betrayal for ambition, power, love, sex, and money, or even envy, story patterns spun from this violent myth hover over the history of the cinema as they do over the history of humanity. Dancing among themes of trust and treachery, deception, desertion, and disloyalty, some of the most dramatic villains are its greatest betrayers—from Brutus and Iago, to Benedict Arnold and Aaron Burr.

In the betrayal story a close bond is established between the subject and the one who betrays him, the bond must be jostled by some irresistible motivating emotional force that becomes the betrayer’s obsession; the obsession leads to the betrayal, which threatens to destroy--and often does destroy--the subject. Finally the betrayer is either punished for his perfidy or not. The betrayal myth shapes such diverse films as:

Samson and Delilah (1949): Personal strength is stolen by deceitful love, and a nation is jeopardized;
Phaedra (1962), where misplaced lust, instilled by the gods, explodes a marriage and a family;
Body Heat (1981), where weakness is the entry point for duplicity and betrayal;
Betrayal (1983), where love and betrayal deconstructed, are revealed as inevitably interlocking reverberations;
Fatal Attraction (1987), where a moment of weakness unravels a lifetime of happiness;
Brave Heart (1995), where Robert the Bruce, motivated by political ambition, betrays Mel Gibson’s William Wallace twice;
Othello (1995, 2001), where the force of Desdemona’s alleged betrayal is the mirror reflection of Iago’s betraying envy.
The Ice Storm (1997), where betrayal springs like evil flowers from the soil of suburban ennui.
The Passion of the Christ (2004), where the poster boy of betrayers wreaks vengeance on himself.

One hero’s passion is another’s betrayal. For bringing fire to mankind out of sympathy for our plight, Prometheus is chained to a rock for all eternity. Antigone must choose between betraying King Creon or betraying her dead hero brother. Betrayal stories focus on the thread that binds the individual and “the other,” generally illustrating the moral that unrestrained self-interest is always in danger of unraveling the social fiber. “Othello was not jealous,” Alexander Pushkin pointed out. “He was trustful.”

In one of my all-time favorite betrayal stories, All about Eve (1950), Bette Davis plays the actress that Anne Baxter’s Eve betrays by working her ambitious way into every corner of her life--until Margo realizes that Eve has set the stage for taking over her career. The comely ingénue is the pivotal character of the story--villain as protagonist. When Eve is called to task by Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), she’s devastated to realize that, unwittingly, she’s made a pact with a devil even more sinister than she is—because, unlike her, he has no ambition except to serve up gossip. The movie ends with a dramatic reminder that the cycle of “betrayal for ambition” is never-ending, and that people of power should never trust new friends. Eve’s Promethean rock is having to live not only with herself seen clearly in DeWitt’s journalistic lens but also with undergrad Phoebe, the “next Eve.”

The mythic theme “love betrayed by lust” traces back at least as far as Homer’s Iliad—in stark contrast with The Odyssey, where Penelope’s refusal to betray her absent husband leads to a violently happy ending. Adrian Lyne reprises his fascination with the repercussions of fatal attractions in Unfaithful (2002)--based on Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidele (1969). Here the betrayal is flipped to the distaff side. Happily married Susan (Diane Lane) is struck by Eros’ thunderbolt borne on the winds of chance. In a scene that sizzles almost as successfully as the seduction scenes, husband Richard Gere takes retribution on the irresistible Frenchman (Olivier Martinez). Drawn on the intimate canvas of domesticity, the film literally brings home the deadly consequences of betrayal.

One of myth’s characteristics is that it can move audiences just as powerfully when portrayed on the widest as well as on the smallest story screens. Whether contracting or expanding, the violent myth of betrayal can instill equal awe. But when working on the wider canvas, if the emotional catalyst that leads to the betrayal isn’t dramatized effectively the failure of the mythic retelling is all the more painfully obvious. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy utterly falters in making us understand how the launch of a thousand ships could be caused by the insipid dalliance of Orlando Bloom’s Paris and Diane Kruger’s Helen. When you don’t bring to life the emotion at the core of a myth, all the visual magnificence and tiling in the world still leaves the audience feeling hollow.

A wide spectrum of 2004 films focused on betrayal story patterns. Mike Nichols’ Closer (from Patrick Marber’s play) is an interesting contrast with the 2005 Woody Allen Match Point’s coldly amusing cynicism. Where Allen’s film suggests that betrayers can get away with murder in our amoral times of relative values, Nichols’ victims and perpetrators sleepwalk their way through a muddle of despair and inevitable ennui. The moral of this disturbing tale seems to be that passion, even love, are best avoided altogether.

Much more joyful, though much more violent (oddly enough), are Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 & 2--where +betrayal is yoked to the exhilarating high energies of rampant revenge--and Yimou Zhang’s House of the Flying Daggers, where the same symbiosis between love and violence and betrayal play across the big screen with infinitely greater complexity but much less emotional impact. Both films are choreographed admonitions of one thing we never cease learning about betrayal: It unleashes the all-consuming power of the heart.

First published in Produced By, the official magazine of the Producers Guild of America

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