“Bond, James Bond” is one of the most ubiquitous names in modern western culture – a name that has become synonymous with a particular brand of lightweight sensuality. The last fifty years have seen the release of over twenty James Bond movies, and even those who have never seen one know exactly what they are all like. The British gentleman spy’s perennial attempts to save the world from some mad scheme or other are tacitly accepted as a thin justification – a license, if you will – for adventures redolent with sex and violence, those two most reliable of box office draws, typically delivered with superficial variation under a veneer of droll quips, exotic locales, and (swiftly outdated) gadgets. While undeniably shallow, the formula has proved enduring, though I would wager the average viewer cannot recall more than a few particulars about any of the films.
Given the open arms with which the franchise has been accepted as a harmless staple of popular culture, a serious critique of James Bond is doomed to seem silly at best and puritanical at worst. Even so, allow me to voice a little ambivalence. In Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation, Roger Scruton distinguishes pornography from erotic art thus:Serious erotic art, which moves by suggestion, and by the interposition of thought between audience and object, is hostile to surrogates. It is concerned to excite an imaginative involvement in a genuinely erotic predicament, but not to present fantasy objects for sexual gratification. The response to erotic art is an imaginative identification with the sexual activity of another. Hence although, in a sense, it involves the invocation of fantasy, the fantasy is controlled by the artistic medium and made continuous with, and an example of, genuine sexual feeling.
For Scruton, the distinction between erotic art and pornography is staked in the presence, or absence, of “interpersonal intentionality.” Genuinely erotic desire is other-directed, pursuing a paradoxical union with the perspective of a person who is radically different from oneself. When it strays from this end, failing to dignify the personhood of the other, becoming self-gratifying fantasy, eroticism is rightly described as perverse.
Though every Bond film includes a(t least one) heroine for the hero to bed, very few Bond films could reasonably be described as love stories, for they rarely evince more than a token interest in the interiority, the personhood, of the characters who populate them. Put another way, the people in Bond films almost never feel like real people, and this suggests a strain of something inhuman (or at least materialist) in the very fabric of the franchise. The violent and sexual spectacle that Bond films characteristically indulge in tends to reduce humans to bodies, or at least to identify humans principally with their bodies. As a general rule, Bond films paper over this vacancy (emotional, moral, or spiritual) with a wink. James Bond kills scores of indistinguishable villains and sleeps with scores of similarly indistinguishable women, but this is all make-believe, and can be accepted and enjoyed as such. Yet one wonders if implicit acknowledgement of the films’ fantastical nature is truly better; it may, in fact, be worse. To refer again to Scruton:The genuinely erotic work is one which invites the reader to re-create in imagination the first-person point of view of someone party to an erotic encounter. The pornographic work retains as a rule the third-person perspective of the voyeuristic observer.
Scruton’s observations are couched in the medium of literature and cannot be precisely applied to film, which is characteristically (even necessarily) less concerned with a character’s internal perspective. I am not making any claim so audacious and sweeping as, “James Bond movies are no better than pornography.” Nevertheless, no one ever emotionally identifies with James Bond or any of his bedmates. The result is that one is removed to the outside perspective of a voyeur, not privy to the inner lives of those he is watching. Lust dehumanizes both subject and object, reducing persons to recipients or purveyors of sensual pleasure, and because they emphasize the bodily nature of human beings while correspondingly deemphasizing their moral or spiritual nature, James Bond films often resemble pornography more nearly than erotic art even though they contain no overt nudity and never explicitly depict sexual acts.
These, at least, are the general observations that must preface my take on 2006’s Casino Royale, the rare James Bond movie that takes seriously what others wink at. It sacrifices few of the thrills that characterize the franchise – even if considered simply as an action movie, it would still be a remarkable effort – but understands and commits to one crucial fact: Any James Bond film that attempts an authentic moral interrogation of its hero must inevitably become a tragedy.
Casino Royale’s cross-examination of its hero’s emotional callousness returns to the distinctions discussed above. For someone in James Bond’s line of work, of course it is “considerably” easier to view the world through materialist eyes, to see human beings as merely bodies in motion, but this understanding necessarily entails reduction and loss. Accordingly, Casino Royale is the story of how James Bond loses his soul. More precisely, it is the story of how James Bond chooses not to have a soul because having one hurts too much.
This is all staked in the destructive disuniting of sex and intimacy, the unexamined lynchpin of the entire Bond series. James Bond can have sex with any woman he meets, but he cannot trust any of them. He can unite with them bodily, but must always remain isolated from them emotionally. In a very real sense, he cannot love any of them. Casino Royale is constructed around this perversity and the anxiety that accompanies it.
In Casino Royale, Bond, who must always withhold his true self from women, falls in love with a woman who withholds her true self from him. He gives himself to Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), to be possessed by her, but fails to possess her in return. Bond and Vesper’s love is frustrated, denied its proper end; they are physically united, but cannot overcome their spiritual separateness. What makes Casino Royale erotic art, rather than pornography, is its attention to Bond’s emotional interiority; what makes it great erotic art is Bond’s preoccupation with (and anguished inability to grasp) Vesper’s emotional interiority. It is a real love story, and a tragic one – nearly a Hitchcock-level treatise on the sad fate of eros in the modern world, where all relationships are haunted by the absence of a stable framework in which trust might flourish. To refer again to Scruton’s distinction, Casino Royale is by no means concerned with evoking a fantastic gratification; instead, it is a persuasive depiction of a genuine erotic dilemma.
Intimacy is vulnerability; the one who desires another is necessarily compromised by that desire. Much of the film takes place in a casino, and the prominence of gambling and gaming expands on the theme. Poker – like espionage, and like adultery – hinges on concealing one’s true self from others in order to win. Vesper, who has no tell, is cheating on Bond the whole time, in multiple senses of the word.
Moreover, lust implies exposure – a shameful unveiling of what should be hidden, dangerous to both the looker and the looked-upon. The scene in which a woman emerges from the water in a bathing suit is a James Bond staple, dating all the way back to 1962’s Dr. No. Casino Royale returns to this familiar scenario early. When Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) looks at the woman with lust, his eyes start to bleed. Le Chiffre does not believe in God, and he waves away his sin with a material explanation: a deformation of the tear ducts, “Nothing sinister.” (Le Chiffre’s bleeding eyes also twitch, a tell that seems to give him away to Bond at the poker table, but Bond is himself blinded by love for Vesper, who betrays him for a one-eyed man.)
When Bond seduces the wife of a man he is trailing, the information she gives him leads him to “Body Worlds,” an anatomically themed museum exhibit where the human body is displayed in various states of carnal nakedness. Clothes are stripped away to reveal skin, skin is stripped away to reveal muscles, and muscles are ripped away to reveal skeletons. To further drive the point home, when Bond returns, the woman is dead because she slept with him. In other words, she is mere body, sans spirit. Thus begins the film’s association of sex with death. One hardly needs crack open a volume of Freud to understand why the film’s climactic torture scene, in which Bond is threatened with genital mutilation, is so terrifying, but the horror is not merely or simply sexual in nature.
“If you do not yield soon enough,” Le Chiffre tells Bond, “There will be little left to identify you as a man.” The torture hinges on the fact that Bond’s identity is bound up in his embodiment as a sexual being, but sexual horror is a doorway to deeper horror, for sex uniquely reminds us that we are bodies, which will inevitably die. “You’ve taken good care of your body. Such a waste,” taunts Le Chiffre. If man is body, life is waste; that much is mathematically certain. Per Scruton, the sensation of obscenity is derived from this abysmal knowledge, for obscenity “divorce[s] the sexual act from its interpersonal intentionality… In the experience of the obscene the person is, as it were, eclipsed by his body… I no longer find the person whose embodiment enticed me: only the body which, in its frightful dissolution, its character as melting flesh, fascinates and also repels me.”
When Casino Royale returns, in its coda, to the image of the woman emerging from the water, it is no longer titillating, only sorrowful and empty. Bond is carrying Vesper out of the water; more precisely, he is carrying her body out of the water, because she has drowned. When he performs CPR on her unresponsive corpse, it is a sad parody of a lover’s embrace. The death of Vesper’s body corresponds to a deeper bereavement, for Bond has just discovered her infidelity. (Paul tells us that he who joins to a harlot is one body with her; it is no accident that Vesper wears a scarlet dress when her infidelity is revealed.) In one sense, the real Vesper is now absent; in another sense, she was absent all along. Bond’s physical union with Vesper is sundered and revealed to be a sham that never truly resulted in spiritual union – and insofar as Bond united his soul to Vesper’s, it is gone along with hers. Given the opportunity to confront his grief, Bond refuses. Instead, he chooses to repudiate his love for her: “Why should I need more time? The job is done and the bitch is dead.”
None of this is to imply that Casino Royale is straightforwardly didactic; it is a great and challenging film precisely because it is both convincingly tragic and genuinely exciting, torn between critique and celebration. It captures the deepest heartbreak and then smoothes it over with a catchphrase and a theme song. By the film’s end, James Bond is only a shell of his former self, but it is precisely this shell that moviegoers know and love – if “love” is not too strong a word.