I have seen a lot of films that could be describe as brutal, whether it be the commentary on fascist oppression through sexual violence in Passolini's Salo, or the biting commentary on middle American economic entrapment through the humping of trash, in Harmony Korine's eponymous Trash Humpers. Yet, never would I have imagined that one of my most viscerally challenging and jarringly brutal cinematic experiences would ever come in the way of a film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. However, I can say with high degrees of certainty that Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf? is by far one of the most challenging, troubling and unsettling works of fiction ever realized. That, of course, is not to say that I did not absolutely enjoy the film, but going into it somewhat blindly, I was not prepared for it to be so dark and liable to erupt in its own heated passion at a moments notice. Indeed I had come to understand that the film was a classic, what I had not come to learn prior to viewing was just how much of an indictment it was to a certain class of American's in Sixties America, both young and old alike. As the movie unfolded in front of me I had to do a bit of research to see why it was striking me in such a way, only to discover that it was directed by none other than Mike Nichol's whose well-regarded The Graduate is one of my favorite films, and knowing that I began drawing some through lines between moments within that work, as well as this one, not to mention other films by Nichols, his adaptation of Catch-22 coming to mind specifically. What is perhaps the most amazing element of this film though is that it was critically, and to a degree, culturally well-received. Usually movies with such an unsettling aesthetic fall the way of the films mentioned earlier, in that they end up only being appreciated by a handful of the artistically inclined or those in favor of politically and socially engaged counter-cinema. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? manages not only to exist as both of these things, but also proves to be a brilliantly acted, perfectly shot and might well break into discussions of the greatest film adaptations to date. Despite clearly being a product of 1966, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is, undoubtedly, one of the most prolific pieces of cinema in the American consciousness.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? centers on the life inside a small New England college, particularly focusing on the relationship between aged history professor George (Richard Burton) and his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), who just happens to be the daughter of the college's president. To describe the relationship between George and Martha as tense would be a decided understatement, particularly considering that both not only leap at one another's throats at the slightest hint of verbal dismissiveness, but once they have engaged in an argument stop at nothing to defile their individual self-respect. Despite clearly being aware of their tense relationship, Martha, nonetheless, invites one of the new biology professors Nick (George Segal) and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) over for a nightcap at their house. Upon arriving to the house Nick and Honey immediately discover the old couple in a heated argument, wherein they attempt to extract themselves, only to be coyly welcomed by George and Martha, who begin shoveling booze down the couples throat. George and Martha in their particularly vindictive natures begin pulling and prodding at the couple using them as veritable chess pieces in their larger argument, one that appears to stem from a unseen son, who viewers, as well as Honey and Nick are led to believe exists somewhere in the world. Furthermore, the young couple represent to George and Martha extensions of their own unsuccessful lives, Nick being the up-and-coming young professor whose desire to do well by his name will invariably lead to his being stuck in a dead end position at a college that refuses to value his presence. To Martha, Honey represents her own latching to the idea of a career that is not her own, which takes on an added layer of frustration when she cannot fulfill a maternal desire to bare a child. Thing throughout the late hours of the night always threaten to breach into violence, particularly when George and Nick begin to text one another's masculinity, yet after the group takes an unnecessary trip to a roadside bar things blow out of proportion, when upon their drunken return home, Martha and Nick attempt to engage in intercourse, only to have Nick fail due to his drunkenness. This leads George into a level of fury that drives him to call to attention not only all of Nick's failures and his terrible future prospects, but the illusions that Martha has been living as well, all swirling back together regarding a traumatic story which George had shared earlier in the film.
While many a possibilities could emerge from critically reading a work like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, it is worth seriously considering what makes it such a visceral and challenging movie going experience by breaking down exactly what choices Nichols makes as a director that allow for his film to be successful. Considering that I am looking at it filmically, the dialogue, while a key factor in the nature of this film, is to be credited to the play's author Edward Albee, therefore, it will receive less acknowledgement. Instead, one must begin by noting the way Nichol's situates the film in a seeming melodramatic setting, with an opening shot of a couple walking home while the idyllic swell of violins plays in the background. Hearing and seeing this would lead one to assume that they are in for a romance of sorts, with its fair share of tragic moments, instead, one could argue you receive the exact opposite in the film, wherein the possibility, let alone plausibility, of a romantic bond between Martha and George is not posited until the absolute last shot of the film. Another layer of the visceral nature of the film comes in the decided use of evasive close-ups and extreme angles, paired with intense lighting to make the characters seem far less ethereal and grand than they would in a more traditional melodrama. Indeed, even the choice of black and white cinematography allows for icons like Burton and Taylor to become grotesque and void of any endearing or likable qualities. Yet, what seems to be the most telling sign for the alienating qualities of this film come in its seemingly detached sense of time and space. While Albee's play is set entirely within the confines of a house, Nichol's moves the action outside of the house and even into another building entirely, yet all of this seems to take place within a single moment, never really moving into the daybreak that is always threatening to end the maniacal performance put on by Martha and George. It is as though they are navigating a feverish nightmare on par with Eraserhead, yet the hope to wake up seems far worse than the disconcerting reality. Indeed, it is not until the inexplicable emergence of the sun in the closing moments of the film that any respite is afforded, but viewers feel, as the narrative clearly suggests, this is far from an end to the couple's larger angst and suffering.
Key Scene: Umbrellas and guns.
As it stands there is not bluray for this film, I would suggest patiently holding out until this is not the case. It is certainly worth seeing in the highest quality possible.