Senjô no merî Kurisumasu
UK / Japan, 1983
Review by Victoria Large
Posted on 13 January 2009
Source 35mm print
“Madness! Madness!” That word, repeated, is the final one spoken in David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it also seems an apt descriptor for much of what takes place in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, a very different film about British soldiers in a Japanese P.O.W. camp during Word War II. Mr. Lawrence is a film about the kind of madness that makes men do unspeakable things, and about mad compassion and mad courage too. But mostly, it’s about love. We see love expressed through acts of kindness and self-sacrifice, and love repressed until it’s twisted into acts of ugliness and brutality. A difficult film to watch or to forget, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has the power to get under your skin.
The prison camp setting, where enemies become daily companions, is well suited to Oshima’s multilayered cultural critique—both Eastern and Western assumptions about masculinity and valor are deconstructed through interlocking stories of captors and captives. At the heart of the story is Tom Conti as the eponymous Mr. Lawrence, a compassionate British officer who acts as a translator at the camp. Conti brings a great warmth and humanity to his character; he’s engaging and often a dearly needed comfort. (Late in the film, when even Lawrence suffers an uncharacteristic, violent breakdown, the effect is harrowing.) Lawrence forges a kind of bond with Takeshi Kitano’s vivid Sergeant Hara; a man who prides himself on being an honorable Japanese solider but nevertheless takes time to discuss the nature of honor with Lawrence. Theirs is a strange relationship that strikes unlikely notes of humor and hope.
Lawrence and Hara’s relationship finds a kind of twisted mirror in the interactions of camp leader Captain Yonoi and a dynamic British prisoner named Jack Celliers. Celliers, played with rebel verve by David Bowie, becomes Yonoi’s obsession, and the taboo attraction leads Yonoi to vacillate between favoring Celliers and punishing him. (Oshima did well to cast the otherworldly Bowie as the object of Yonoi’s fascination: Yonoi asks Celliers if he’s an evil spirit; and when Celliers says that he is you could half-believe him. Plus, as The Village Voice’s Aaron Hillis recently put it, “Who else could eat a flower as a forceful act of P.O.W. defiance?”)
In one of the film’s cruelest ironies, Yonoi commits his most inhumane acts in an effort to dispel that which makes him most human for us—his infatuation with Celliers and the mercy that he occasionally shows him. (The parallel story of a homoerotic tryst between a prisoner and a guard, ending in a horrific execution scene, offers a cultural context for Yonoi’s violent suppression of his own desires.) That Yonoi, played by Japanese musician Ryuichi Sakamoto (who also contributes a truly memorable score), is ultimately hard to get a handle on – even his feelings for Celliers remain largely submerged and vaguely fetishistic – contributes to Mr. Lawrence’s most nightmarish qualities. But if we have trouble understanding Yonoi, it may be because he’s so terrified of understanding himself.
The film has its quirks. There’s a long, lush flashback sequence that tells the tale of how Celliers once betrayed his younger brother, though truthfully, Celliers doesn’t need much in the way of exposition to be compelling, and the idea that he carries such outsized guilt for a youthful sin is somewhat jarring. (The flashback sequence is also made somewhat surreal by the sight of a thirtysomething Bowie and a cherubic preteen actor sporting matching school uniforms.) But even the odd wrinkles seem to contribute to the haunting quality of the piece. Perhaps it goes back to madness. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence has its mad and confounding moments, but that feels like a reflection of its subject matter. It’s a harsh but rewarding picture—one that shows how human connections complicate the sharply defined divisions of war, and a kiss can be an action as incendiary as any shot fired.