The incomparable Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) shared a birthday with Jesus and was played by John Hurt in 1975’s The Naked Civil Servant, adapted from Crisp’s memoir of the same name.
The Queen of interwar Old Compton Street, he starred with Helen Mirren, among others, on the London stage before moving to the United States where his dinner parties became legendary. He played Queen Elizabeth I opposite Tilda Swinton in 1992’s Orlando and appeared as a party guest in a scene of the same year’s Philadelphia.
Imperiously disparaging about everything from AIDS (”a fad”) to Princess Diana (”vulgar”), he wrote a classic series of film reviews for Christopher Street magazine, some of which are reprinted here at Outrate. For more information, please visit the Quentin Crisp website, or purchase the anthology of Quentin Crisp film reviews, “How To Go To The Movies”, here.
United Kingdom, 1983
Director: Tony Scott
Stars: Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, Susan Sarandon
Available on DVD - order here
Fifty years ago, if you had told any girl - any nice girl - that she looked sexy, she would have slapped your face. Life was pleasant then. There was a lot of flirtation and very little fornication or, if your interests lay elsewhere, there were a great many mysterious threats and very little murder. People lived largely in the mind and always seemed to have some adventure to which they could look forward.
Now all that has changed. Nay, everything has been reversed.
In the 1980s, fulfillment precedes desire. This nasty state of affairs is reflected in many of our contemporary movies or, possibly, it is caused by them.
Just such a film is The Hunger; it should have been called The Glut. It drips with blood and oozes sex.
I myself belong to Vampires Anonymous and I can assure you that a vampire’s life is not easy. After a while, you need a fix every few hours. It is a little like being a diabetic but much more like being a drug addict; you can expect no sympathy from anybody - especially not from the police. On the credit side of this lifestyle is the fact that you become very rich. In this film, Miss Deneuve lives in a town house big enough to justify the installation of an elevator and all the rooms are decorated in muted but perfect taste, with priceless works of art dotted about them.
Presumably even fifty cents put into the capable hands of Mr. E.P. Hutton in the time of the Pharaohs would yield a considerable yearly income by 1983. Apparently, you also become strong. When Mr. Bowie grows too old to walk or even crawl, his hostess is able with no obvious effort to carry him to the attic and place him in his coffin beside a few of his precursors. She looks like a tired housekeeper taking an extra blanket to one of the guest rooms. The disadvantages of vampirehood are that, while remaining prey to hideous appetites, you cease to feel any emotion and are incapable, except when slitting somebody’s throat, of making any swift movement. Miss Deneuve drifts about the house like an underwater swimmer. indeed, The Hunger is like a vehicle for an unhealthy Esther Williams, photographed not in her habitual bright blue swimming pool but in a badly kept canal.
The plot of The Hunger, if such there be, concerns a rich woman who spends her life giving strangely lethargic music lessons or bickering wanly with Mr. Bowie as though they were two touring actors filling in a Sunday afternoon in a provincial town. In flagrant defiance of the Trade Descriptions Act, she offers her victims everlasting life. They learn later that they have only been given three or four hundred years, at the end of which niggardly span they start to age at the rate of several years a day. When we first meet Mr. Bowie, this process of disintegration has already begun.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Miss Sarandon is having a jolly time watching a small monkey turning into a skeleton. She is working on a cure for premature senility. Mr. Bowie hears of her research and pays a visit to the hospital where she is employed. here, we encounter the film’s only glimpse of reality. He sits all day in the waiting room growing older by the minute. No one comes to his aid. In the very next sequence, we are right back in our world of fantasy. Miss Sarandon calls on him without mentioning money. A likely story! She meets Miss Deneuve and they become lovers. how much time passes, it would be hard to guess, but one fine day there is an earthquake. The house rocks, the coffins in the attic burst open, and the living dead arise from their crumbling inertia to revenge themselves upon their hostess, who then also lapses into instant decay.
Why? How? What does it all mean?
I have demanded an explanation for these events from several people, including the kind gentleman who procured complimentary tickets for your editor and me at the 8th Street Playhouse (where incidentally the patrons are treated as though they were royalty). So far, no satisfactory exegesis has been forthcoming. In fairness to the film I ought perhaps to admit that I am by nature feebleminded and that toward the end of the picture, Mr. Steele’s attention was diverted from the screen by an unusual incident that occurred in the auditorium. A gentleman who had arrived conspicuously late and seated himself near to us left surreptitiously earlier, taking Mr. Steele’s briefcase with him. Your dauntless editor pursued the thief out of the theater into the lobby, and up the stairs to the gent’s. There, the culprit vanished, but the case was found on the floor of a locked cubicle. That you are at this moment reading your current issue of Christopher Street is due to a miracle. Nothing was stolen. Needless to say, the management was abjectly apologetic and called the police immediately. They arrived but arrested nobody.
Somewhat shaken by the film we had just witnessed and the disaster we had so narrowly escaped, Mr. Steel and I went to a charming cafe nearby to steady our nerves. There, he was kissed over by a delightful lady who knows more about the future than most people remember about the past. She was in a state of high excitement. She had just received from a customer, to whom sh had promised a free glimpse of things to come, a check for a sum of money that would have ransomed a king. I menti0ned these events in order to make a comparison. Life is under no obligation to obey the laws of probability, but the movies are another matter.
However fantastic the premise upon which a movie is based, nothing excuses illogicality. A good picture is a series of gloriously foregone conclusions - a moral crossword puzzle. A scenarist has only two weapons with which to conquer his public .These are suspense and surprise. A truly great screenwriter uses both. He warns his audience of impending danger, but when disaster strikes, he makes it worse than anyone could have foreseen, though no more than his villains deserve. This will one day be known as the Hitchcock principle. I cannot say that The Hunger obeys this precept.
This, however, does not mean that the movie is not worth seeing. The photography tricks - the aging processes - are a wonder to behold. The photography is excellent throughout, but its very consistency tend to make its subject matter like the Sahara desert - impressive but boring.
The two leading ladies quite rightly do not act. They present their glorious bodies to the cameras, drift about the screen like sleepwalkers, and glow. They are incandescent with moral decay. The acting is done by the music student of Mr. Bowie. The former brings to the bizarre story its few moments of innocent common sense. It is through her alone that we receive any idea of a bunch of weirdos living in secret isolation in the midst of the normal world. Mr. Bowie’s performance is even more remarkable. While seeming to doze in a hypnotic trance, he manages to make us aware that beneath his mask, he is sick, terrified, and consumed by an irreversible anguish. I confess that I was amazed by the high standard of his acting. I had thought of him as a pop star - a profession nothing can justify except the wages.
Finally, for outshining any other asset this film may have, is the charisma of its star. She is a very cool, up-market vampire, scorning to sleep in her coffin or wear joke-shop teeth. When I last saw her in Mr. Polanski’s Repulsion, she was a pretty French girl. Now, she is a sophisticated, superbly elegant American woman. The one thing that I would not wish on my worst enemy is eternal life, but if anything could compensate anyone for having this appalling burden laid upon him, it would be the delight of being bitten by Miss Deneuve.