UK / Canada , 2005
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 28 November 2005
Source Capri Films 35mm print
I’ll state it as bluntly as possible. Terry Gilliam’s Tideland is the most mesmerizing film ever created on the drab prairies of Saskatchewan. It is also the only film at the TIFF that made me debate whether or not I should shove a sharp writing tool deep into my brain while I was watching it.
To Gilliam’s credit, he seems to realize that his latest effort isn’t exactly a delight to sit through. During his introduction at a festival screening, after telling his audience that he hoped that they would enjoy his film, he apparently qualified his aspirations by saying that perhaps “enjoy” was not the correct term to use in relation to his film. As humorous as the comment is, it serves as a fair warning of a film that quickly turns stale.
Gilliam’s latest grim little fairytale centers upon Jeliza-Rose, an impish young girl who tends to her heroine-addicted parents, dotingly preparing needles and dutifully tightening straps. Her father, Noah, has the excuse of being a burnt-out rock guitarist, but her manic mother has little justification for being intermittently inebriated and horrifically hysteric other than possibly being the demonic spawn of a Twisted Tilly Sister. Noah handles Jeliza-Rose’s potential despondency with promises of journeys to fantastical Nordic fjords. Unfortunately, within minutes of situating ourselves within this nuclear-fallout family a drug-induced delusion results in a regrettable death, forcing Noah and Jeliza-Rose to pack up their lives amidst paranoia and hurry off towards Noah’s childhood home on the Prairies.
Once they arrive at a dilapidated farmhouse, long since abandoned by whatever family Noah once had, Jeliza-Rose quickly finds she must fend for herself since her father soon turns catatonic. Free to rumble around the endless golden fields, Jeliza-Rose soon escapes into her own fantasy world of rabbit-holes and underwater adventures, accompanied by her four dolls — correction — the mangled heads of her four dolls that she has fashioned into finger-puppets. While roaming around the desolate prairies, Jeliza-Rose finally runs into a wicked witch cloaked in black, which turns out to be morbid woman named Dell who covers her face to protect herself from the bees that mangled her eye, which only adds to her sinister appearance. Dell has an abnormal fascination with taxidermy and takes care of her mentally-challenged younger brother Dickens, who appears to have been injured during an accident involving a bus. Much to the chagrin of Dell, Jeliza-Rose quickly befriends Dickens and the couple spends most of their time exploring the vast grasslands that surround them, searching for a monstrous shark that supposedly materializes on the railroad tracks adjacent to their homes.
The style Gilliam applies in his films is sometimes disparaged for being indulgent, and many claim it diverts attention away from the substance of his material. It’s a criticism I usually fiercely disagree with, since Gilliam’s giddy visual flare is so attuned to the material he selects. Alas, Tideland makes me appreciate why so many people find Gilliam’s technique to be excruciating to experience. Gilliam enthusiastically plunges into his adaptation of Mitch Cullen’s story, but in this instance there is a deficiency in the material chosen for Gilliam’s intense inclinations.
Tideland finds Gilliam yet again using his customary dynamic visual style typified by his constant fluid motion and skewed compositions. His camera peers at terrifying fortresses, leers in every crevice, peeks into every corner, and constantly seeks to explore the surroundings. The zealous visuals make stylistic sense given that Gilliam’s story revolves around the antics of a small child and his images obviously imitate a child’s wondrous gaze of discovery, where the smallest detail is novel and can render a fantastical vision, brimming with silly imagination. However, what should be appropriate in theory soon becomes arduous to witness.
Gilliam’s perilous efforts are backed by the performances of his cast, where every actor appears to be uniformly dedicated to Gilliam’s vision. Their level of commitment is impressive considering his two most famous actors depart almost immediately, but an allegiance to a director’s vision does not always translate into a particularly interesting film. Gilliam’s best support is supplied by a nearly unrecognizable Janet McTeer, who easily projects the demented disposition of Dell, but also suggests a compassionate nature that is basically misapplied upon those she cares for. McTeer’s Dell is the single compelling character amidst this bedlam, since we understand her disturbing habits and menacing personality are results of a disappointing personal history. Meanwhile the rest of the cast is remarkable if only because they adhere to the doctrine that their performances should be as colorful as possible. Sadly their fervor mostly results in repulsive presentations and repellent characters. Even the central performance of Jodelle Ferland, as Jeliza-Rose, is notable only when confined to the condition that she is a child-actress. Ferland has undeniable talent for her age, but it’s an aptitude that’s remarkable for a brief instant as her ceaseless exaggerations and sensational expressions promptly grow tiresome and irritating.
The persistence of Ferland’s annoyingly artificial antics is certainly not entirely her own fault, as with any precocious young actress her results are intricately tied to the vision of her supervising director. This might be the most concerning aspect of Gilliam’s cinematic hallucination, since he so desperately pleads for his audience to assume the subjective perspective of young girl, but then he isn’t willing to sketch her as anything more than a callow cartoon. It’s apparent that Gilliam desires an incredibly stylized performance from Ferland that matches his own rigorous requirements and depicts a child forever engaged in performance within her imaginary world, but it’s an attitude that quickly becomes ridiculously reductive in its portrayal of both women and children. Thus, Jeliza-Rose never breaks from her theatrical temperament, remaining eternally animated, over-dramatic, and flamboyant; as if she was Margo Channing’s deliriously devoted protégé following a yellow-brick road and descending down the rabbit-hole. Gilliam obviously wants his audience to be conscious of Ferland’s perpetual performance, but it functions more as a contrived echo of a youngster pretending to pretend rather than a valid depiction of childhood fantasy. Considering there is hardly a normal moment within the narrative, Tideland would probably benefit from a few brief moments of tranquility within Gilliam’s dizzying dream, pausing to allow Ferland to hit an occasional natural note along the way. Gilliam isn’t incorrect that little girls enjoy make-believe, but part of the difficulty may be due to the film’s frenzied illustrations being a manifestation of Gilliam’s fantasy rather than a true expression of Jeliza-Roses’ imagination. Sometimes Ferland simply appears unable to envision exactly what Gilliam’s cinematic eye naturally perceives, and it doesn’t appear as though Gilliam has properly guided her through his Wonderland.
In situating his film primarily within the stark Prairies and the whimsical world that Jeliza-Rose retreads into so eagerly, Gilliam not only bounces Tideland between reality and fantasy, but also between enchanting imagination and peculiar horror. These various shifts in tone are inherent to assuming a child’s perspective of the world and all are realized adequately, though the contrast between delight and terror is far more alluring than the disparity between sober standpoints and surreal perspectives. Gilliam’s vision and conception of his outdoor world is frequently glorious to behold and for a director so familiar with dark, industrial, oppressive, claustrophobic interiors, he is surprisingly effective in filming Tideland’s bright exteriors and infinite landscapes.
These stark, but exquisite, exteriors should serve as appropriate foil to his chaotic chimera, but there is a significant incongruence that becomes apparent while Gilliam vigorously leaps between his settings. While concocting his strange mixture, Gilliam’s reality constantly draws attention to itself and thereby oppresses Jeliza-Rose’s imaginary realm. Gilliam style in such films as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys, or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas requires the removal of actual reality and a construction of an alternate reality, whereby Gilliam persistently manipulates the viewer’s perception of events until we question whether each image is authentic or hallucination. The debate over the legitimacy of the image that Gilliam requests his viewers struggle with is best applied when his characters have no control over the matter, allowing the viewer and characters to be subjected to the illusions simultaneously. In this instance, Gilliam’s problem might be that he does not blur the lines between reality and imagination enough, since we are always conscious of Jeliza-Rose’s mind at play and her deliberate decision to pretend. Since these visions are a coping mechanism, they remain an option where the real world constantly intrudes. More concerning may be that Gilliam appears to be hesitant to unleash his entire visual arsenal when assembling his fanciful fairy-tale world, which leaves his fantasy to be lacking in some unexplainable manner. Thus, it feels as if the material within Tideland is too mundane for Gilliam’s style, and perhaps not fantastical enough. Since the situation of the film is glaringly set within a reality we can easily identify, the material quickly exposes Gilliam’s weaknesses in handling the ordinary.
This is not to say that Tideland is devoid of any interesting ideas for the viewer to contemplate, though the film may fail to hold the fleeting fascination it creates. Most noticeable is the fact that Gilliam is attempting to adopt a female view of the world, which is noteworthy for having his central female maintain her independence, though not particularly equitable considering the severe destruction that our protagonist fails to perceive. More intriguing is Gilliam’s depiction of childhood carnal curiosity and sexual discovery, which veers between interest and fear, though many might find it dreadful to witness. Through the interactions between Jeliza-Rose and Dickens, specifically the sexual nature of their relationship, which probably wanders into some grotesquely uncomfortable areas for some, Gilliam certainly asks the viewer to deliberate the line between innocence and ignorance. Just the character of Dickens alone blurs the boundaries between idiocy and insanity, though this query could certainly be considered for a number of other characters within the film. Gilliam also touches upon the role of religion in parenting, even if the applied religious model appears unorthodox. He goes on to explore what exactly constitutes the idea of family, often allowing Jeliza-Rose to fabricate the adult supervision she requires to survive. Unfortunately, instead of deftly balancing on the borders of these concepts and teasing out absorbing ideas, Gilliam is tripping through their wires and delivering a film that rambles on until it simply becomes fatigued.
All of this brings us back to the notion of enjoyment that Gilliam initially addressed. It’s generally assumed that you have to enjoy watching a film in order to perceive that it has value. I’m not always sure this is the case for film enthusiasts. Personally, the experience of watching a film doesn’t necessarily have to be enjoyable in order for me to consider the film to be worthy of merit, though it certainly helps. Occasionally, a film provides an excruciating viewing experience but also demonstrates great filmmaking skill, offers a novel viewpoint, or stimulates a provocative train of thought. Thus, enjoyment is not necessarily a requirement to making a quality film. However, as a personal requirement, a film that doesn’t supply a pleasurable experience should at least be engaging on some level and absorb the viewer’s attention. Tideland doesn’t fail because it is unpleasant at times, but it does disappoint by not sustaining the viewer’s interest. Gilliam isn’t required to deliver a work that rivets and enthralls us throughout, but other than captivating us with trivial dreams sporadically bursting with visual flash, Tideland borders on tedium.
Terry Gilliam’s unique filmmaking style is often a risky proposition to apply, and its success tends to rely heavily upon the material Gilliam chooses to adapt. Gilliam’s idiosyncratic vision, uncompromising style, and boundless ambition appear to be his greatest strengths, but when misapplied these same traits turn into an Achilles’ heel. In Tideland, Gilliam appears to have selected material that is deficient in some manner, since it’s is far too mature to serve as a children’s fairy-tale, but it’s also monotonous for adults to be subjected to such a lengthy expression of a child’s perspective, considering it’s a lesson we’ve already learned. I can only assume then that Tideland’s target audience is comprised of those who never want to grow up. Oddly, Gilliam throws a wrench into this notion with the film’s conclusion; an act of senseless devastation that exhibits just how destructive delusional thinking can be when it goes unnoticed. In these final moments, it’s almost as if Gilliam is criticizing his own juvenile preoccupation with fantasy, though a shield of innocence is still maintained. Sadly, I’m certain some will feel the concluding event is an apt metaphor for Gilliam’s film.
As a Gilliam fan, the most frustrating aspect of Tideland is that Gilliam’s creative choices seem reasonable and certainly would appear correct on paper beforehand. In fact, his decisions regarding the design of his film should work in theory, but in practice the film simply feels rancid. In the end Tideland is a rare exasperating experience from Gilliam where I would probably have agreed with every single creative decision that he had planned in advance, but I simply cannot be captivated by anything in Gilliam’s final product, even though I can glimpse him feverishly attempting to enchant his audience.