Daily Archives: June 4, 2018

The Periwig-Maker (1999)

*. This isn’t quite what I was expecting. I didn’t know much about The Periwig-Maker going in, though it won scads of awards. I thought it might be a morbid little film along the lines of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” Instead it’s adapted by the brother and sister team of Steffen and Annettte Schäffler from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, with overtones of Death in Venice.
*. The nod to Mann’s novella introduces a creepy note to a story that’s ghoulish enough as it is. The business of the Periwig-maker digging up the little girl’s corpse to cut her hair is bad enough, but when he sits up in bed wearing her flaming locks he might be the tarted up Aschenbach, grotesque in his dandy haircut and rouge.
*. Is the little girl the wigmaker’s Tadzio? I don’t think so, as there’s no hint of the erotic, even the morbidly erotic, here. I don’t think the wigmaker is sexually attracted to the little girl. He just seems to have a fetish for hair. Which is even creepier. Note that when he first sees her crying over her mother’s death he immediately thinks of her hair, reaching out to touch a wig in his shop. He doesn’t show any empathy.

*. Given how painstaking a process this kind of stop-motion animation is, you have to pay attention to every detail, however large or small. Among the large details I would rank the exaggerated shape of the wigmaker’s head, which tapers to a dagger-like pointed chin. His eyes are also grotesquely enlarged, and seem to protrude through a series of vertical parentheses, climaxing in eyebrows that suggest a permanent sense of surprise. You expect such a weirdo to sound like Vincent Price, not Kenneth Branagh.
*. What do such distortions mean? The eyes make him out to be a voyeur but vulnerable, looking out his windows at the plague world that he sees as such a threat. The pointy chin is sinister and though not strong, dangerous. Compare the size of the little girl’s button eyes, so like the doll she’s identified with.
*. Among the little things worth noticing are the reveal of the rain in the shadows running down the windows, and its mirroring in the melted candle. This is a world dissolving before our eyes. Or watch the shadow play of the little girl’s dead body being dropped into the wigmaker’s lap. Windows are a major motif throughout the film, and what’s interesting here is how we see through them both ways. We look out and the world looks in.
*. It’s the weirdness of The Periwig-Maker that stays with me. The subtext. I mentioned how Branagh’s narration doesn’t really fit the strange wigmaker, and when you watch the movie several times you start to wonder if it’s even meant to. Nothing in the narration really has to do with any of the action in the film at all. What the wigmaker is thinking has to be guessed at, interpreted through his gestures and expressions. What we suspect is something very strange. Perhaps something noble, or depraved. We can’t be sure.

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