19 April 2005 | barnabyrudge
An absurd film from a "Theatre-Of-The-Absurd" play.
The Theatre-Of-The-Absurd was a style of experimental play-scripting that was practised in the '50s and '60s by playwrights like Samuel Beckett, Arthur Adamov, Jean Genet and Eugene Ionesco. When first devised, the Theatre-Of-The-Absurd movement was rather unpopular because audiences were left bewildered by the intentionally illogical and plot less story lines. A particular rule of absurdist plays is that they have no dramatic conflict, instead dealing with logically impossible situations and having the characters speak about irrational things as if they are perfectly rational. Also, the main character in an absurdist play is usually significantly out of key with everyone and everything around him. Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" is one of the most famous of all the absurd plays. This film version is set in urban America and is a deliberately subversive, surreal experience with strong comic performances. It is not, however, as multi-layered as the original play (which was set in France and had strong political and historical connotations about the Nazi occupation). This presentation of Rhinoceros is mainly a story about conformity and, in particular, those rare few who refuse to conform.
Depressed, bored accountant Stanley (Gene Wilder) spends his week-days crunching numbers and his weekends drinking himself into a haze. His friend John (Zero Mostel) disapproves, but still meets Stanley every Sunday lunchtime to talk to him about the error of his ways. One particular Sunday, their lunch is interrupted when a stampeding rhinoceros charges down the street outside the restaurant. Soon, more and more rhinoceroses are sighted in town and Stanley gradually begins to realise that the entire population is turning into these huge pachyderms. More alarming still is that everyone that Stanley counts on to "remain" human seems to be switching to rhinoceros form too - his work colleagues (Joe Silver, Robert Weil, Percy Rodriguez), his dream girl Daisy (Karen Black), and even his best friend John. Stanley is determined not to conform, but as the human numbers dwindle and the rhinoceros population soars, will he be able to resist?
One of the main problems with this film version of Rhinoceros is that it doesn't use the possibilities of film to "open-up" the constraints of its stage-bound play origins. For instance, during the scene where Mostel's character transforms into a rhinoceros, Wilder keeps commenting on the bump appearing on his forehead and the greyness of his skin, but there's no bump or greyness visible. Here was an opportunity to use the visual advantages that film has over the theatre stage, but it remains an unused opportunity. In fact, at all points the film refuses to become cinematic and constantly has a feel of "filmed theatre" about it. However, in other ways Rhinoceros is quite well done and credit needs to be given where it is due (Maltin rated this film BOMB, which shows how wide of the mark Maltin is prone to be). Wilder and Mostel interact brilliantly, relishing the play's enigmatic and often self-contradictory dialogue. Mostel's transformation sequence - done without make-up or visual effects, as noted earlier - is almost compensated by the sheer outrageous energy that Mostel invests in it. And, by removing the historical and political subtext of the original play, I think they've actually made it more timeless by focusing more on the themes of conformity (after all, don't we all relate to how it feels to spend our lives conforming, losing more and more of the animal-like freedom that was a characteristic of primitive man?) Transforming into a rhinoceros could be viewed as a metaphor for any type of conformity - doing drugs because all your peers do them; being promiscuous because it's the norm; voting for a particular political party because everyone else on your street is in favour of that party; etc.
Not a complete success, then, but definitely a worthwhile and thought-provoking piece of cinema.