**½/**** Image C+ Audio A Extras A
starring Gabriel Byrne, Patricia Arquette, Jonathan Pryce, Nia Long
screenplay by Tom Lazarus and Rick Ramage
directed by Rupert Wainwright
by Walter Chaw 1999 was an interesting year. The end of any millennium is accompanied by some kind of fin de siècle madness and the most recent one, in the United States anyway, was indicated by fears that the Y2K bug would launch our nuclear arsenal, cause airplanes to fall out of the sky, and end life as we knew it. It caused our movies to deal with technological folly (The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, The Iron Giant, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ, Bicentennial Man), shifting identities (Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, The Sixth Sense, The Virgin Suicides, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Memento, Being John Malkovich), and general apocalyptic mood (Magnolia, The Ninth Gate, Arlington Road). Looking back, everything we needed to know about the coming conflagration was here in these few years leading up to 9/11. Amid so many fine genre choices (Stir of Echoes, Audition, The Limey, and so on), consider Rupert Wainwright's handsome Catholic muddle Stigmata, a hyper-extended music video that makes no sense whatsoever but still works because of Patricia Arquette's ineffable grace and Gabriel Byrne's unflappable cool. In its own way, the film is prescient, seeing that its bleach-bypassed, Fincherian ethos would take over as visual shorthand for the coming apocalypse. Expulsion from Eden is this final surrender to digital wonderlands: we lost most of our colour palette along with our innocence.
The '90s were a big decade for Arquette. She was extraordinary by turns in The Indian Runner, True Romance, Ed Wood, Lost Highway, and Bringing Out the Dead (also 1999). It's worth it to wonder whether she would've been a bigger star if she weren't so natural a presence. You can quibble with her delivery, but she has a warmth that's irrepressible. (Think a more damaged Audrey Hepburn.) The Nineties meanwhile found the equally likable Byrne in Dead Man, Miller's Crossing, The Usual Suspects, The End of Violence, and the unofficial The Conversation sequel Enemy of the State, and here in 1999 he pulled the neat trick of playing both priest in Stigmata and Satan in End of Days. Arquette is Frankie, hairdresser by day, club girl by night. In one of the film's highlights, she asks a suspicious nurse why she would kill herself when she's so happy with who she is. I like Frankie a lot. She's sexually aggressive, has a good relationship with her mother, and earns enough money doing what she's doing to afford a giant apartment in the middle of the big city. Alas, when her mother sends her the rosary of a dead priest, said priest possesses Frankie, forces her to speak and write in Aramaic (actually paleo-Hebrew, because Wainwright thought it "looks a bit more interesting"), and gains the attention of fallen Father Kiernan (Byrne). Frankie, a proud, avowed atheist, is dismayed to suddenly be stricken with the titular stigmata; when hunky Father Kiernan sits in her chair, she can't seem to resist hitting on him. Again, I like Frankie a lot.
Stigmata's MacGuffin is that the dead priest is trying to communicate a lost gospel of Christ through Frankie. This raises a lot of questions that don't have any good answers. My main one is why the Church tries so hard to exorcise her. My other big one is why the dead priest is torturing Frankie. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that Wainwright is a gifted visual stylist who outdoes himself in a bathtub sequence in which Frankie, seen from the side, is reflected against the underside of the water; pan up, until we see her face melded with her doppelgänger's. Erotic and surreal in equal measure, the film at its best understands there's a certain perverse arousal possible in images of the familiar set against images of the grotesque. There's another moment where, inexplicably, Frankie is carving cuneiform into the hood of a derelict car in a blind alley with a broken bottle; another still where she stands in cruciform in the middle of a rattling subway car, getting flayed by an invisible whip. There's no narrative sense to any of it. One thing happens and then another thing happens. But the cumulative effect is that this warm thing is placed in the middle of what are essentially art installations describing taboo scenarios. Stigmata is at least part of the point and allure of Nicolas Refn's The Neon Demon. There's a scene where Frankie sees a woman through a window across a busy street. The woman is in blue, holding a baby swaddled in bright red. She catches Frankie's eye, extends her arms, and drops the infant into the street. Frankie pounds on the glass in horror. Narratively, again, it doesn't connect to anything else. The impact of it, though, of seeing this exceptionally sympathetic figure express empathy and alarm--all shot and lit just so--is indelible.
Stigmata is a collection of moments that speak to the rapture of religion. Not Catholicism, but the cult of personality and perhaps the cult of film as well. It's a voyeur's shrine--the pictures we keep of beautiful people and profound images that don't tie into any throughline save for some feeling of engagement with the universe of the self. It's an impossible movie to defend, yet a nightclub sequence where Frankie and her friend Donna (a tremendous Nia Long), who's doing her best not to be a bitch about Frankie's obvious behavioural changes, has the ring of heightened authenticity. (It bears mentioning that the picture boasts one of the best soundtracks from a decade known for them, featuring a score by Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan.) Stigmata is a beautiful disaster: deeply felt and faux-profound at once and, like all great Theater of the Absurd, able to highlight the extra-textual consequence of that tension. It's a film of its time, more explicable as a marker of a digital moment and part of a contemporary sociological conversation; it works best freed from the responsibility to make literal sense. Stigmata is about Patricia Arquette and Gabriel Byrne in a profane art exhibition: beautiful, charismatic people beset upon by the world, and tortured by our gaze. There's religion in that.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Stigmata makes its way to Blu-ray courtesy Scream Factory in a 2.39:1, 1080p transfer that appears, unfortunately, to be sourced from the same master as MGM's 2000 DVD release. Aside from the obvious resolution bump it does exhibit slightly less-blunted contrasts, though there is constant clipping in the highlights (and Wainwright loves his highlights), and the combination of print debris and a schmear of DVNR--which, curiously, doesn't seem to have helped all that much--have the movie looking even older than it is. While skin tones are bizarrely unnatural, I can't tell if that's the fault of the video or the cinematography, which mixes warm and cool colour schemes that eventually merge into an icy blue palette when Frankie and Kiernan meet. The odd splash of emerald green or blood red really pops in this edition, but, yeah, Stigmata could've and should've looked a lot better than this. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track fares comparatively well, delivering a lively, thumping soundstage when the setting is somewhere bustling like a nightclub or a subway car. The Chumbawumba song "Mary Mary" has never sounded this good--neither has water dripping in the rear channels. There's a lot of water dripping in the rear channels. The disc opens with a forced trailer for Shout! Factory's streaming platform, leading into an animated menu that spoils part of the bathtub sequence and blares the abovementioned dance anthem.
The disc is packed with extras, starting with a recycled audio commentary from Wainwright that shows little self-awareness albeit a laudable level of self-deprecation. Every botched effect is called out by the director: "Look, back it up, look there, you can see the blood tube sticking out there. Terrible." He reveals that the reflection effect in the bathtub was a lucky accident, and laments that puritanical preview audiences didn't like that Frankie was engaged in a one-night stand rather than fucking her boyfriend (Patrick Muldoon, whose role was whittled down to almost nothing). He talks about having to add dialogue and shorten the sex scene but promises it's in the special features. (It is.) It's a fun track. In impressive detail, he explains how bleach bypassing works and proves himself a strong technician; the best parts of the film were largely accidental, evidently, while the worst parts--Wainwright's desire to be smart about large issues--were on purpose. The "Deleted Scenes" (13 mins., SD) include a lovely alternate ending in which Father Kiernan embraces a dying Frankie in a graveyard. It's part Jean Rollin, part Calvin Klein. In addition, find a Vertigo alternate opening where we see how the dead priest killed himself. It doesn't make sense that he would do that, but it's handsomely shot. Similarly of note is the scene where Frankie says she's pregnant, explaining an otherwise inexplicable line in the emergency room that made the final cut, and a demonically (?) animated barbershop. Oh, there's that sex scene, too. It should satisfy the prurient.
"Divine Rites" (25 mins., SD) is a featurette from 1999 that slickly compiles predictable soundbites from Wainwright, Byrne, Arquette, and others over a soft Björk soundtrack. It also offers background ("Since the 13th century...") taken from the History Channel doc likewise on board the disc and eventually segues into the filmmakers discussing the picture's visual philosophy. DP Jeffrey Kimball jumps in to point out how the whites glow and the blacks crush. Indeed they do. Wainwright touches on his background in music videos--enter Billy Corgan, talking in a Billy Corgan way about his art. He's thisclose to referring to the movie as a work of Modernism--and, you know, like Corgan does, he kind of nails it, although one is loathe to admit it. It's a good piece. "Incredible But True" (44 mins., SD) is that History Channel special about stigmata, which acts just like a "Behind the Music" devoted to that crazy religious wounding. It's equally informative and cheesy, a good example of what the channel used to do before the likes of "Swamp People" and "Pawn Stars" became its bread and butter. Natalie Imbruglia's "Identify" video, a handy reminder of both Imbruglia and why you need a reminder of Imbruglia, plus a HiDef trailer for Stigmata round out the presentation.