On Watching “Wages of Fear” with my 11-Year-Old Daughter

by Debra Morris

ScreenHunter_434 Dec. 02 09.55The 1953 French thriller Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, would seem an odd pick for Family Movie Night. But there we sat, side-by-side one Saturday night, to watch a movie I had bought based on the cover photograph and some vague sense of its cinematic status, its reputation as the kind of bold art film that “stays news.” This is the story: after an oil well located in a South American country catches fire, its American owners hire four European men, all down on their luck and effectively stranded in the country, to drive two trucks over mountainous dirt roads, carrying the nitroglycerine needed to explode and thereby cap the well. The first hour, roughly, was high on dialogue and character exposition, exploring the desperation that might lead these men to undertake a suicidal mission, and it was brilliant and gripping to the adults on the couch but our daughter was ready to renounce the film and the evening's experiment: “When is something going to happen?”

The film brought Clouzot international fame. Even sixty years later, in 2010, Empire magazine ranked it #9 among the “100 Best Films of World Cinema.” And it is a masterwork of suspense, one all the more painful for there being hardly any glimmer of redemption throughout the film: at times it is just very difficult to believe that any of the four men will survive. The film refuses, even during that psychological first hour, to show us the hero among them. If it did, this might explain the film's suspense—explain, that is, our willingness to enter into the manifest dangers on the screen, so that we felt and believed them more fully than if we were certain no one would survive. A hero could transform suspense into a more tolerable, if still fraught, anticipation.

But then, so could a literal he-man. Tim Applegate, comparing Wages of Fear to William Friedkin's 1977 remake The Sorcerer,[1] offers this explanation for the earlier film's special effect: “Proving that all the money in the world cannot replace solid filmmaking, Clouzot shot the mission through the mountains in long, straightforward takes, and half the fun is in knowing that the stunts we are seeing are real.” There's something to this, maybe, in terms of an appreciation for genuine film craft, but Applegate misses a key point. Any stunt, after all, is real: it's a real stunt, no less impressive for being that. Neither would Applegate's theory explain the effect for my 11-year-old daughter, or anyone whose viewing experience has been shaped almost entirely by CGI, for whom even a picture from 1977, not to mention 1953, must seem impossibly, well, real—not enhanced, not staged. My guess is that Wages of Fear worked on my daughter for the same reason it worked on me: the movie is suspenseful because it isn't manipulative. A timeless archetype isn't needed to generate empathy for the men, and the immediacy of a shot can enhance suspense but it can't generate it: only hopelessness can do that.

The film contains moments of sheer horror as well, as when one of the trucks must plow through a deep pool of oil, in the process crushing the legs of the man trying to clear the pool of debris. The injury isn't graphic—it would be impossible, in this black and white film, to distinguish blood from the thick ooze of oil—but I wonder if any contemporary image can rival that of Jo's ruined legs, though obviously still attached, floating broken to the surface. The scene haunted my daughter for months. And she's seen far grislier things, I know, in pretty much any episode of Bones. I wonder if the moment isn't all the more horrifying because some part of us realizes that Mario, the driver, never even asked—or he asked and answered, just as we did—the question whether it was necessary to run over his friend in order to clear the pool. We are not soothed if we remember that Jo had, in fact, admonished him, “Whatever you do, don't stop!”

Is Wages of Fear, then, a particularly bitter critique of French existentialism, as Budd Wilkins has suggested?[2] Sartre famously insisted that only actions, rather than even our noblest ideals or ambitions, are the sum of us. But wouldn't this make all our actions equal, so that the point of doing is, merely, never to stop? Do our actions add up to anything more than that? Or is subtraction the key here, our very own “vacant lot,” as Mario describes what lay beyond the Parisian street and fence that Jo, delirious with pain, recalls from childhood. Wilkins is persuasive:

Already talk of boundaries and the beyond takes on loaded metaphorical weight. Rather than derive existential wisdom from actions that add up to something rational, Jo receives his terrible insight through subtraction, the elimination of everything that made him the man he once was. At the end, hallucinating outright, Jo sees his home again, the endless street, the fence, and the beyond. “There's nothing!” he calls out as he dies, a singular refutation of one of humanity's most abiding desires: that something of us survives this mortal coil.

And the ending—the movie's, and not only Jo's—is desperate and cruel. Only one of the four men reaches the oil well with the deadly cargo, to collect the sizeable payout. But on his return, while scaling the last mountainous pass before reaching home, the man becomes giddy, unaccountably reckless. He drives the truck off the cliff. The last image is of his bloody face, eyes open, dead to the blare of the truck's horn—the sound by which friends awaiting his triumphant return know, rather, that all is lost. It's worth saying, since so many movies deny this particular fact, that nothing redeems this scene. Nothing in the movie, nothing within ourselves.

My daughter's response was pure and direct, her tears unrestrained: is this why? Yet the tears didn't seem sorrowful—an intuition of tragedy—so much as angry, or perhaps desperate. Not yet able to interpret the movie, to understand what had happened, thus unable as well to countenance the “why” of it, the only thing left to do was reject it: “That,” she cried, “is the worst movie I've ever seen!” But I wonder: were her tears, in fact, a way of tolerating fear? She was saying, quite literally, that she had seen the worst—and yet she remained there on the couch, with her father and me, and for that moment at least she was fully alive to the possibility that nothing survives us. I want to believe that the tears sprang from humility, from an encounter with that possibility. Perhaps they weren't angry, or even sorrowful, tears at all, a refusal of the “nothing” at the movie's core (and even, more distressingly, our own).

For isn't this how an adult, as opposed to a child, might respond—by refusing nothingness, especially when that refusal looks most like its opposite, an understanding so complete, so articulate, that it cancels out any terror that nothingness may hold for us? Wilkins' interpretation of the movie almost makes too much sense. At an intellectual level, it undoubtedly enriches our experience of the film, as film criticism should. But there would have been no substitute for actually seeing the film. And I'll venture something more speculative, because I think this point about seeing a film is crucial, though not for the reasons one might expect from all the current lament about the changes in movie-going, the decline of theaters as privileged locales for movie-viewing, the increasingly private and passive consumption of film, and so on. The more speculative argument begins like this: every viewing of a film takes place in a context, and that context introduces certain idiosyncratic variables into one's reception of it. Try watching a child watch Wages of Fear and it will be rather difficult to enjoy the film, not to mention—and this is the really interesting possibility—to understand it. Being at a loss for words could just be the key to discovering the film's real, and lasting, value. Being at a loss for words, I was given a rare opportunity as her mother, an opportunity to be the mother she needed instead of the mother I had long fantasized becoming.

Adam Phillips, the child therapist and essayist, has something to say about this particular fantasy, about our relentless struggle to cushion the shocks of childhood—of any kind of helplessness, really—through redemptive narratives of various kinds. There was, of course, the impulse to provide my daughter a quick lesson in the “tragic,” a foothold of understanding that might lessen the despair of the film's brutal final images—images of hopelessness and so, therefore, images of helplessness. But I would have said both too little, and too much: too little, had I failed to acknowledge the men's ruthless self-seeking, a desire that sprang from their desperate circumstances; too much, had I implied that there were any other kind of circumstances—equal, say, or fair, or uncorrupted—from which that unquenchable desire could spring. There are two ways to respond to our “original human helplessness,” in Phillips' view, and both are solutions to it, in the sense of generating moralities that we frequently live and die by. The “good” solution views helplessness as the indispensable “precondition for satisfaction,” as what we must experience if we are to become self-seeking, available for self-making. “In the bad one, the experience of satisfaction is replaced by the experience of feeling protected…; it is as though someone has said, ‘I need a drink,' and another person has replied, ‘It's not a drink that you really need; you need your thirst to be made safe'.…”[3]

I could have talked—tried to quell my daughter's fear, her loathing of everything that seemed not only unsatisfying but deeply wrong about the film, to make her feelings safe. Had she been older, more sophisticated, we might have distracted ourselves with a discussion of the title—did she understand what “wages of fear” meant?—or in lamenting the sad fact that, even sixty years later, huge faceless corporations are still capable of exacting them. The film's implicit critique of the oil company resulted in several scenes being cut from the original American release. That critique is no less compelling today, surely, but dwelling on it would have diminished the restored version even more tragically than those actual cuts: as with other ways adults have of seeing through situations, of rushing irresistibly to judgment, criticism would have made the movie safe for my child. Positing good guys and bad guys, though movie gold, may be a poor way to talk to children.

But shouldn't this surprise? Don't children need a happy ending—need to hear that for every scoundrel there is a hero, and for every risk a safe haven? Aren't we accustomed to thinking that children's fairy tales are exactly where we should find unimpeachably good people, and bad apples (so much so that we demand this fairy-tale logic in movies intended for grown-ups)? In the face of what our children cannot understand or cannot accept—generally the very things we cannot countenance, if we are honest—we assure them that everything will turn out all right in the end. Or at least it will make sense. Understanding, then, and the slow accretion of self around whatever a person comes to believe, is a powerfully redemptive process, and so it makes a good story for children. But it also undoes them as children. Speaking again of the solution to helplessness promised in certain kinds of religious belief, Phillips suggests that “[i]t is, one might say, the difference between those who can bear being children and those who can't. Believing in religion is like believing that adulthood is the solution to childhood.”[4]

How painful to contemplate, that the solution to something is to undo it—and so I try not to, try not to fantasize that my daughter's childhood (the existential condition, not the contingent risks she, and all of us, face) can be made “safe.” I can't assume that she will be a better, or happier, person for that night. Or that I became a better mother because of it. All I can do is recall what actually happened, and count it good: Not knowing what to say to her, how to explain the movie, but in a way grateful for the tears. Grateful that there are still things, experiences, which awaken rather than benumb her. Grateful that I saw the movie for the first time while in our home, on our couch, at her side. Grateful that the movie existed, that she and we existed, that both of us were caught unaware and without a script, so that what mattered during that moment was the contact. Today, I can't help but worry that she has already become so knowing that she will disavow the experience, that she is no longer alive to it. But there is time, yet, and she may remember it one day—recover the sense of an endless street, and a fence marking off an unknowable beyond—remember with compassion what it means not to know, not to expect; will value anything that, in surprising and perhaps discomfiting us, lets us be and invites us to live.

An invitation to live, though, does not promise anything more. It certainly doesn't promise safety; it may not even inspire much hope. It isn't redemptive like that. But if we accept the invitation, we affirm what is offered, all that is offered, and so we can't help but enlarge ourselves. Could this also provide a clue to the movie's end, the man's strangely ecstatic behavior just as he is crossing into safety? Perhaps it wasn't at all the self-nullifying refusal it seemed—not the carelessness borne of contempt for oneself, of thinking oneself not good enough to seize life's obvious reward, but seizing it so fervently that one forgets oneself and one's safety. That's an uncomfortable thought, not only for my young daughter but also for her mother. There is no “lesson” here. One cannot plan for and manage life's ecstasies, one simply finds them, and then sometimes loses them, loses all.

This is, I think, what makes a movie memorable, what keeps it good. Seeing it etches a permanent doubt into one's heart—or maybe, more optimistically, a permanent question—while the mediocre ones merely quiet us for a time, overawing us with spectacle or teaching the same trite lessons. I know that I was tempted to quiet my daughter's tears as well as my own unease by talking, instead, about how sometimes life is tragic, and that bad things happen to people who generally deserve better. I am thankful I didn't. Perhaps this is even wisdom, if I can sustain it, if I can recognize in future moments that, the fewer of those moments I make “teachable,” the better for my child.

Isn't this an awful lot for a movie to do for us? However distressing the events of Wages of Fear—however disturbing a story for my child—isn't the experience it allowed us redemption enough? And it came unbidden; we had only to be there, and to watch.

[1] Review appeared in the online edition of The Film Journal at http://www.thefilmjournal.com/issue10/sorcerer.html.

[2] Find Budd Wilkins's December 6, 2011 Slant review at http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-wages-of-fear-5951.

[3] Adam Phillips, “Negative Capabilities II: The Helpless,” in On Balance, p. 143, my emph.

[4] Phillips, p. 143.