Modernism in Sunset Boulevard (1950)

          Sunset Boulevard (1950), directed by Billy Wilder, depicts a struggling middle-aged screenwriter, Joe Gillis (William Holden) and a forgotten silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) who have become disillusioned with Hollywood. His lack of success and need to pay off debt leads him to accept a job from Swanson’s character, which ironically makes him more miserable. Told from Gillis’s perspective, the film employs several modernist themes and techniques such as the parody, disillusionment, and the gothic sensibility to accentuate subjectivity and to communicate a sense of malaise.

The voice over / flashback technique is a staple of film noir, however, Sunset Boulevard employs it as a parody. In modernist works, the parody is often used as a means to break from tradition and it pokes fun of the previously established forms, especially if the form is in the work itself. In this case, Sunset Boulevard does contain a flashback, but it is from a dead person’s perspective. By presenting the audience with something physically impossible, i.e., a dead person speaking, a humorous comment on the technique itself is made. Moreover, as Telotte notes, Sunset Boulevard’s voice over / flashback provided by the dead protagonist, gives the film a “more cynical twist, hinting at a danger in the film industry’s own mediated discourse” and suggests how subjective “truth” really is (181). In other words, the comment also extends to the film industry as a whole.

In addition to the parody, the modernist theme of disillusionment is present in Sunset Boulevard. Throughout the narrative, Joe Gillis is presented as a cynical and disillusioned character, who is extremely aware of Hollywood’s flaws. Gillis’s character then comes in contact with Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), an idealistic young woman whose main aspiration is becoming a writer. This character creates a nice juxtaposition with the protagonist and emphasizes his cynical and disenchanted personality. Betty, as the newcomer, has this naïve sensibility to her, whereas Joe, the “experienced” one is aware of Hollywood’s bleak reality. It seems as if Betty and Joe represent illusion and disillusionment respectively, however, by the end of the film it is clear whose worldview prevails.

Finally, just like in Modern literature, Sunset Boulevard evokes gothic elements to add a new dimension to the film and to reveal the characters’ inner states. Gothic motifs are present throughout the narrative, especially in the mise-en-scène, which take the noir even further. There is something sinister about Swanson’s character and her enclosed environment. Everything from the grotesque and decadent interiors to the fact that Joe Gillis is almost like a “prisoner in a castle” alludes to many familiar gothic tales. Wolfrey in Ocasional Deconstructions observes that, “Desmond’s mansion is both gothic and uncanny, visually and atmospherically […] the house is unhomely to the extent that it is already as only ever the remains of the house” (45). By taking that into consideration, one cannot overlook how much Norma Desmond is mirrored in her surroundings. This leads to the realization that her acting career is much like the house itself: forgotten.

Overall, Sunset Boulevard is a significant work in the film noir canon that uses modernist themes and devices to take the genre to new dimensions. In this particular film, the voice over / flashback is not only used to accentuate subjectivity, but it is also used to poke fun at itself and to satirize Hollywood. Furthermore, placing the theme of disillusionment in the center of the narrative emphasizes a sense of malaise and exposes the industry’s pitfalls. The inclusion of gothic elements takes the film to an even darker realm and gives way to a richer and more complex interpretation.

References

Telotte, J P. Voices in the Dark: The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir. Urbana, Univ. of Illinois Press, 1989, p. 181.

Wolfreys, Julian. Occasional Deconstructions. Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004, p. 45.

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