Violence has always shocked film goers and also given them a frisson of enjoyment. Films like the early gangster films or even the reissue of Rambo out this year might not offer as much in story line as they do in guts and gore. But its seldom that such films are self conscious about what they are doing or portray the attractions that viewing and performing violent acts has for human beings- it is seldom as I say but there is one vast exception to that rule. Bonnie and Clyde, the film made about two young Americans who collected around themselves a gang and proceeded to rob and murder their way through the Southern United States in the early thirties, is a film which is all about the attractions of violence for the human psyche- its all about that nebulous quality of human beings- thrill seeking.
Bonnie and Clyde is profoundly influenced by the French New Wave- offered to both Truffaut and Goddard to direct- its a film which seeks the same kind of reality that their films embodied. The first scenes are a masterful portrayel of the early begginings of attraction- when every gesture from drinking a coke to handling a gun become metaphors for sex. But in this film we are immediatly presented with the idea that arousal is related- that sexual and amour propre are linked phenomena. We see this in the first scenes- the lovers Bonnie and Clyde are united by the fact that he performs a robbery that she encouraged him to perform, they share a secret that he has a gun, they share a crime and then she seeks to share with him her physical passion.
Clyde though offers her a different kind of bargain- he is impotent. But as a replacement for sexual fulfillment, something he dismissively tells her she could have with any stud around, she can attain fame, she can filfull her amour propre, she can matter and be remembered by staying with him, by becoming immortalised through being part of a criminal gang. Soon afterwards we learn that Bonnie has managed to avoid the life of a normal southern girl, she turned down marriage, she preferred to work in a cafe aimlessly and to participate (one assumes) in aimless affairs. Bonnie in that sense lives in a waiting room, waiting for something to happen, to give her life meaning.
Throughout the film, this search for meaning is what is happening. The crimes speed up the life that Bonnie and Clyde until that point have been living- they are almost incidental to the excitement that they provoke in the actors and in us the audience. Dashing round the countryside, we can see how excited the two criminals are by their own narrow escapes and their escapades. There is a kind of cheek in it for them as well. They come undone by humiliating a man of power- the sherrif and taking the mickey out of him but letting him go.
The other members of the gang- serve as either foils to the two main characters or alternatives to them. Clyde's sister in law is just want Bonnie wants to avoid becoming- a woman who is married and who disdains excitement. Clyde's brother is a lesser version of Clyde himself. Their other companion is a cipher- who reflects back the rest of the gang's lives- easily led and mentally subnormal, he gives us the sense of Bonnie's sexual magnetism, of Clyde's charisma, he is Clyde's sister in law's confessor. In some ways he functions as a priest of this motley congregation- inactive and enduring through the mayhem they create.
The focus of this film though is right on the protagonists- we are meant to feel their joy, their sense of liberation and exultation. Like Jules et Jim we get all the vivacity of youth, like in A Bout de Souffle we get the cool of a criminal modelling himself directly upon the movies. What animates the union of these two moods is the protagonists' desire to matter- to have a meaning, to have a freedom but also a name in the future. In many senses this is a profoundly existentialist film, its about the need deeply built within the modern psyche for our lives to mean something more than they do.
Bonnie senses that she might spend the rest of her life in West Texas, growing old and fat and bringing up children who do the same. Clyde wants to replace his impotence to create with his own creation- Bonnie and her fame. In the end of course they acquire meaning and Clyde sexual potency when Bonnie writes a poem about the two of them. Its not the violence as much, as the meaning that the violence imbues them with- the fact that they are the focus which excites them: and the climax of the film which allows Clyde his own sexual climax is not an orgy of bloodletting but the transfixion of their lives in the medium of poetry. Like Homeric heroes they are remembered in verse, which is what they seek.
The film is built upon the foundations of a double crescendo- for Bonnie and Clyde the crescendo is finally reaching sexual intercourse with each other- but the direction deliberately veils that from us. Rather for us the crescendo is the violent conclusion, as they are shot to pieces by the police. What is so interesting about this last violent moment is that it shows us how the myth has taken over their lives and destroyed their lives- the police shoot them because they think they are so vicious that they can't give a warning to them that they are coming, but more than that even the violent shooting is styalised. Bonnie's body ballerinas through the shooting, Clyde's is in slowmotion cartwheeling as the bullets hit. This is killing not merely as the destruction of life but as spectacle- they die as they lived in a massive spectacle.
What this leaves us with is an essential problem at the heart of this idea of a search for meaning- if I want my life to mean something to others and if that is my aim then in the end I am letting others tell me what is important about my life. Meaning is something that we the audience infer from the film, it isn't something that characters can create. Our lives' meaning for others isn't something we create its something that others create. In the end, Bonnie and Clyde become a memory and there are hints in the film, particularly in a touching scene with Bonnie's family when they realise and she realises that she can never really communicate again with those that she loves, that what happens to these two is that they become icons, transfixed like flies in a museum showcase onto a wall where we will give them meaning.
The film has been criticised often enough for seeming to encourage violence- I don't think that's right. This is a film that wrestles with why people might commit violence- it wrestles with questions of how we give our lives meaning- and it comes out with some very interesting and puzzling answers. With answers about the links between excitement, existential angst, sexuality and violence, with answers about the way that giving our lives meaning means losing control of them, means ballerining our way into destruction. This film is an examination of the lives of two characters, how they became criminals and how they destroyed each other in a quest for meaning within their lives.