At first, this film might appear to be simply a light comedy about con artists, but I believe it to be about much more than that: it is a film about illumination, about a man who is a fallen angel, who is to be rescued back into the pleroma (as I just saw, mentioned in the New Testament 17 times) – not necessarily literally, in the gnostic sense, the idea is what's important. Now, I know that some of the analyses I make are somewhat stretched, and some ideas will be more pertinent than others, but such is life.
A quick synopsis, courtesy of IMDb:
Brothers - older Stephen and three years junior Bloom - have been con artists since they were kids. Stephen is the mastermind, for who the intricacy of the story used in the con is as important as the positive outcome of the swindle. Bloom is the main character of Stephen's stories, the character he considers the anti-hero. As adults, they travel the world and never enlist the same people twice in their cons, except for their consistent sidekick, the mysterious and primarily silent Bang Bang, a Japanese woman who just appeared in their lives one day and who has a penchant for blowing things up. As Bloom hits his mid-thirties, he wants to quit the business as he is losing his own identity to that of the characters he portrays; he doesn't know anymore what is real and what is make-believe. Stephen talks him into one last con, the mark to be the eccentric, lonely but beautiful New Jersey heiress, Penelope Stamp. Penelope's primary past-time in life is to, as she calls it, "borrow hobbies": when she sees something she likes, she learns how to do it solely through reading books. As the brothers go through their final con on Penelope, three main problems may occur to thwart the plan. First, the brothers' former mentor and now arch enemy, Diamond Dog, may exact his long awaited revenge on the brothers. Second, Penelope may end up being more unpredictable than all their former marks. And third, Bloom, who has let love slip by in his life, may fall for Penelope. But through the process, no one ever really knows who is conning who.
The very logos of the production companies send us in the direction of illumination:
The movie barely begins and we already have a sun shining. The logo for SuMMit Entertainment appears. Not only does the idea of summit imply climbing to new heights, but the logo itself resembles an 'M' (M = 13th letter of the alphabet), which, coupled with the company's name, gives us three 'M's. The double 'M' could also be rotated to give us 33.
Once again, we have the sun shining (in addition to a man going north, or upwards, towards the sun) and 33 (EndgamE). I should have known this film was promising from the beginning.
Finally, the film itself begins. What's the first thing we see? Obviously, the sun rising.
We are then introduced to the eponymous characters. We have Stephen and Bloom. According to the director, Rian Johnson, the characters were based on James Joyce's Ulysses, itself based on the Odyssey. I believe there's more to it than that, however. Stephen means 'crown', which I find noteworthy, given that Stephen represents, in part, that which shackles Bloom to this reality. The meaning of his name will also be important in relation to Penelope. Curiously, the younger brother is referred to by their last name, and we never find out his first name. This is part of the reason that leads me to believe that Stephen is some sort of simulacrum of Bloom, a reflection of an aspect of his. In fact, I believe that Stephen and Bloom are two manifestations of the same being, with Stephen representing at once that which binds Bloom and that which saves him.
I don't think I need to go on about the meaning of their last name, do I?
We first see them at the ages of 10 and 13 (naturally, as I check IMDb for some info, it tells me the movie is up 13% in popularity).
The narrator explains how the boys went through several foster families, always causing mischief. Here we see Stephen's double role: on the one hand, he always protects Bloom (punching the foster father who hit Bloom), but on the other, he's the one who scripts Bloom's life.
Here we see one of their files. Interesting to note is the I56. I56 is, of course, 9-11 (I = 9th letter; 5 + 6 = 11), a highly resonant number. We also have another file: 77, Newton St. (as the story goes, Newton came upon knowledge, or understanding of reality, after the apple fell on his head, that is, after he was hurt). In these first few minutes of the film, we see two references to broken or maimed cats (the molested cat above, and the one-legged cat later on). Wiki tells us: “Several ancient religions believed that cats are exalted souls, companions or guides for humans, that they are all-knowing but are mute so they cannot influence decisions made by humans.”). Hmm, someone who knows all, but is broken.
Stephen, staring at the kids playing the park, says: “Playground bourgeoisies.” Rather advanced vocabulary for someone his age, no? In this scene, Bloom sees a girls whom he fancies, and here we will see their first con. The first thing that happens, however, is that Stephen pushes Bloom into the open, telling him to talk to the girl. This is the first moment where we see Stephen scripting Bloom's life, a moment which also shows us Bloom is lost on his own.
Their first con will then take place. It will have 15 steps. From this moment on, Bloom begins to live the life that is not his. Already in his first con, Bloom is disappointed. While he at first believed in the story his brother had made up, the sight of Stephen carrying the lamp saddens him as it reminds him that this just isn't real. Interesting that this moment happens as Stephen takes the lantern (light) deeper into the cave (labyrinth). Oddly enough, the very next scene after the title is a burning library, which ties into the Newton meme in the movie, as we will see in a second.
After successfully pulling this con, Bloom calls Stephen a genius, to which Stephen replies: “No, we're a genius!” He could very well have said “we're geniuses,” could he not?
In the following scene of a party thrown for the brothers, we are formally introduced to Bang Bang. I haven't been able to read her character too well. Curious that he refers to her as “our fifth Beatle” (Yoko Ono, of course, was also Asian, and, I suspect, a Lady in Black – I will delve into the Lennon/Ono story at some point). At this same party we hear the first reference to the Diamond Dog, who supposedly taught the brothers the art of the con in St. Petersburg. Diamond, of course, was the name of Newton's dog, who infamously set fire to Newton's manuscripts by upsetting a candle (remember the burning library scene and Newton St.). The affair in Russia ended badly, however, with Stephen poking out Diamond Dog's eye...Another interesting point in this scene is that Stephen injects “thematic arcs and embedded symbolism” into his cons. This whole movie is, really, a con.
Bloom is evidently unhappy, so much that he rejects the advances of a good-looking lady. In fact, he appears in two consecutive moments with a “gun” to his head.
In the scene to the right, the graffiti head is actually a door, which Stephen opens, producing a bang. Bloom finally dies in order to be reborn (note the light above Bloom's head in the first picture). It is after this moment that he decides he wants out, and actually abandons his brother before being reeled back in for a final con, which will provide his salvation, and cut his umbilical cord at last. Bloom even says he hates Stephen, and recognises he himself is “useless, crippled.” He seems to finally realise that he's “only ever lived life though these roles that aren't me.” He wants a “real thing,” something that has eluded him so much that he cannot even put it into words.
Bloom then retires to Montenegro (black mountain?), and three months later Stephen catches up to him. He convinces Bloom to embark on a new con in New Jersey.
|The plane is, naturally, headed towards the sun.|
Penelope finally appears, after Stephen tells Bloom the basic story behind their last mark. Penelope is Ulysses' wife in the Odyssey, and she waits for him for 20 years after he leaves for the Trojan War. A woman who waits for her king for 20 years...notice that this would make her 13 in the movie's timeline. Penelope is actually a lady in black, a woman who dresses in black, but who actually comes to save men from darkness. In this case, she is here to save Bloom from the shackles of that reality which is not his, and to bring him back to her, really. Her associations to enlightenment couldn't be clearer, and we see this from her very first appearance, when she is coming back home driving, of course, a yellow Lamborghini Diablo. The devil being Lucifer, the light-bringer.
She promptly crashes the car, showing her disdain for material things.
I found her outfit particularly noteworthy:
She is wearing an orange dress with a sun, but covered by a black poncho. In my opinion, this represents who she really is: an enlightened being, disguised as ignorant. The black poncho (dress, cloak) confirms her as a lady in black, who represents at once salvation from darkness and death (the two, of course, can be one and the same). Oh, and did I mention Penelope is 33 years old?
The whole lady in black idea is going to get its own post(s), naturally. The more I look into this, the more I find, and it doesn't make much sense not to explore it in further detail. One interesting fact is that there is a NASCAR track which is called “The lady in black” in Darlington, South Carolina (just like Charleston), but this is probably just an actual coincidence.
When Stephen explains the con to Bloom, he starts off by saying they are supposed to be brothers, antiquities dealers who are travelling the world, and the scene promptly cuts to the next, with Stephen saying “Bang” (another gunshot) and explains how it ends: “burst of violence, and a moment of truth on the beach.” Yet again, death and illumination. The con is supposed to end in Mexico, which is traditionally associated to beaches and, therefore, the sun.
Bloom quickly deduces that “this is about me, right.” Yes, Bloom, it has always been. This is during a moment in which Stephen kills a fly, which symbolically represents death as well. Curiously, Stephen then tells Bloom that “I've never been able to give you what you really wanted.”
And then Stephen shows Bloom the Ace of Spades. This is funny because I saw something recently which explains how aces became 'aces high', that is, higher than the king, during the French Revolution, representing the rise of the plebs (Bloom) over the royalty (Stephen).
Cloudy skies...is Bloom ready to take flight?
Bloom rides his bike downhill and crashes into Penelope's Diablo, and she crashes the car herself (downhill again), which allows them to finally meet at the hospital. The difference being that she had a seizure upon seeing Bloom. Stephen explains why this is great: “Dostoevsky was epileptic. His seizures were preceded by an enlightened euphoria, a sort of opening of his spiritual eye. I think the fact that she saw your face the instant before her seizure's a pretty god-damn good foot to start things off on.” Well, of course: Penelope has just found her king again.
We hear Penelope speak for the first time. Interesting angle of the sun, no? Bloom then takes Penelope home and gets invited in, and he tells his fake tale. Supposedly, the brothers' father had an antique shop in Charleston, which is nicknamed “The Holy City.” So they come from the holy city. Also, according to Wikipedia: “Charleston annually hosts Spoleto Festival USA, a 17-day art festival featuring over 100 performances by individual artists in a variety of disciplines. The Spoleto Festival is internationally recognized as America's premier performing arts festival.” So not only does this festival last 17 days, but it's also a performing arts festival. Penelope doesn't seem very interested, and we actually hear a little snoring sound. She knows what's up, and doesn't care much for this fake story Bloom tells her.
Penelope is very awkward socially, and doesn't seem to know how to have a normal conversation. What she does know, however...
Penelope explains that she “collects hobbies,” among them: playing the piano, the accordion, the violin, the guitar and the banjo, karate, skateboarding, break dancing, ping pong, juggling (including chainsaws), DJing, building miniature boats, unicycling while juggling chainsaws, and origami. A wide variety of skills from all over the world.
When asked by Bloom “how do you plan to use all these skills,” Penelope says “I dunno, I'm not a planner.” Here we have an interesting contrast between Penelope and Stephen: the former plans nothing and the latter plans all. She explains further, discussing a pinhole camera made out of a watermelon, and shows Bloom how everyday small things can be beautiful, saying in the end: “it's not gonna be reproduction, it's storytelling.” This ties into one of my major ideas: how everything is about storytelling, and this is how we see the world and live in it. I will expand on this point further in some other occasion. “It's a lie that tells the truth,” says Bloom. Couldn't have said it better myself. In fact, this sentence sums up what the whole movie is about. Material reality is a lie which hints at the truth. Penelope concludes, discussing photographs: “It's a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.”
It is also worthwhile to note that Stephen, Bloom and Penelope form a holy trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (the latter being associated to the feminine). Remember the Holy City? This is an interesting parallel to The Matrix, where there are also a Holy Trinity and a Holy City, of course.
The story moves on and we find the characters on a boat called the SS Fidele. This is a reference to Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. I did find very interesting Melville's worldview, supposedly reflected in the book: “It is—or seems to be—a wise sort of thing, to realise that all that happens to a man in this life is only by way of joke, especially his misfortunes, if he have them. And it is also worth bearing in mind, that the joke is passed round pretty liberally and impartially, so that not very many are entitled to fancy that they in particular are getting the worst of it.” This whole set-up ties us back to themes of storytelling discussed earlier. What is a joke if not a story? Note, of course, the irony of the ship's name.
Penelope then tells Bloom her life story. She was lonely and miserable until one day she decided to take charge of her life, and to decide what her life was. Another indication of mastery. She says: “This was a story [wink, wink] about a girl who could find infinite beauty in anything.” I particularly like the use of the word 'infinite' there. Here we have a person who not only has taken charge of her life, but who appreciates life for its “infinite” beauty. She “told [herself] this story until it became true.” Her life story is about the opposite of Bloom's. Rather than being told how to live, she lived her own life, told her own story. This is what she has set out to do: to teach Bloom how to tell his own story.
In this scene, Bloom asks Penelope to dance. His face suddenly becomes illuminated as he does so. I believe the idea of 'dancing' here should be taken more metaphorically. Bloom then leaves to ask the band to play a bolero so that he may 'dance' with Penelope, and the Belgian (Maximilian Melville, not so subtle) appears for the first time. Later on, he claims to be a curator. He has one of my favourite lines: “Well, if that is that, then that, indeed, is that...if you say so.” IF you say so.
We then come to an interesting point where Penelope points out that the Belgian's name is Melville and that the boat is the SS Fidele, straight out of The Confidence-Man. Here Penelope seems to be discussing the movie itself, much like I am doing here, which is not only breaking the fourth wall to a certain point, but it also shows the extent of her knowledge goes beyond the reality they are in.
Following that scene, Bloom describes a fictitious event where Stephen almost got himself killed, and which supposedly prompted Bloom to suggest they stop smuggling antiques. He says that “it's his dream, to tell a story so well it fulfils itself.” This ties us further into the current of storytelling behind the movie. I believe this a little projection on Bloom's part: “it'll finally make it real for him.” Penelope adds: “That's kind of the thing we all want.” Yes, yes it is.
There is an interesting parallel here. Bloom, thanks to his life's experience, believes that stories aren't real, whereas Penelope does. The difference being that Bloom had his story told to him and Penelope told her own story. This is, I believe, part of the message. Our lives are a story, but it's a story we should tell ourselves, and make unfold ourselves. It is never our story, our life, if someone determines it to us. Bloom even realises that Penelope “knows everything,” but he hasn't quite got her message yet.
Then, we have a very revealing line. Stephen tells Bloom “the day I con you is the day I die.” That quote is significant near the end of the movie. A bit of foreshadowing.
“This isn't an adventure story.” “It totally is!”
Bloom is inclined to protect Penelope, without realising that she's actually the one looking out for him. This irritates her a bit, and she describes him as having a “constipated soul.” His soul is clogged, stultified. Penelope is mad because Bloom still doesn't get it. It is irrelevant whether she is a smuggler or not. But being one is a story she “tells like she owns it.” Which she does, really. The whole point is that life is just a series of stories we tell ourselves. We just need to enjoy the ride.
Following this exchange is a moment when Penelope seems to enjoy the ride quite literally: she has an orgasm from the rhythm of the train and the thunderstorm outside. Yet again, she lets the story envelop her. What she appears to be telling Bloom is that even if the story is false, the orgasm is real.
“Your smile is the sun, my chère. And fallen men, we need the sun.”
|Is Bloom a fallen angel?|
This moment reminds me of the movie The Nines, which I saw again recently. **SPOILERS** In this movie, Ryan Reynolds is a multi-dimensional being (a nine, as opposed to humans, who are sevens – remember 77, Newton St.?) who creates our universe and then gets caught up 'playing' in it, only to be rescued by other nines. Here, we have a fallen spirit (or what have you) who must be rescued by Penelope and Stephen in order to return to his previous, illuminated state. The more I think about these films, the more I believe they are actually telling pretty much the same story.
Finally, the Diamond Dog appears, and he comes to dispense yet more wisdom on Bloom: “You know, folks like us, we can always blink and realise that it's a fiction, but […] if you look down in doubt, you will fall.” He supposedly has come to warn Bloom, after accusing him of being cowardly. All these satellite characters seem to want the same thing for Bloom, but by different means. The Dog intimidates. It doesn't seem very effective.
Stephen appears shortly thereafter, and proceeds to break a bottle of wine and slash the Dog's hand with the broken glass. I don't know if there's symbolism in that particular act, but once again the placement of the light above a character's head seems significant. Stephen apologises for not being there to protect Bloom, but the latter was already gripping a pencil and thinking of attacking the Dog himself. It seems he is finally learning to fend for himself. Stephen and Bloom are becoming one.
|Nice umbrella, Penelope.|
In the following scene, Bang Bang is blowing up dolls as practice for the “distraction” they'll need. Penelope mentions she'd like to know more about Bang Bang. So would I. Bang Bang's tattoo is noteworthy: according to Bloom, it means “after you're done with something, blow it up” (this is actually what Penelope does later on – could it be that Bang Bang and Penelope are one, just as Stephen and Bloom are one?). It seems she appeared out of the blue, and the brothers believe she'll disappear out of the blue as well.
After the bomb snafu, everybody's happy. Penelope had previously mentioned how she was scared because it was all becoming too real, and now Bloom is happy exactly because it was real, and “freaky scary.” For once, his con has led to genuine emotion and excitement. Change is in the air.
Bloom proceeds to steal an apple. It's a red apple among many green apples, which makes it stand out. It is not like other apples. Indeed, we have a double reference here. Not only is this apple symbolic of the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, it also brings us back to Newton and his discovery. And Bloom does this all by himself. The song playing over this scene is quite revealing as well – Miles from Nowhere, by Cat Stevens. My favourite part:
“Lord, my body
Has been a good friend
But I won't need it
When I reach the end”
Bloom manages to get arrested for stealing the apple, which he describes as an “epiphany.” Once again, the tide has turned for Bloom. He is finally on his way to happiness/knowledge. Now he has the courage to do things on his own (although his first two free actions involve stealing).
Penelope once again with orange-under-black.
They arrive in Mexico, and on the way Stephen had explained the hand-off would occur near a hotel called Tampico. The only reference I could find of interest was an old 1944 movie with the following plot:
“Oil-tanker Captain Manson rescues Kathie Hall after her ship is sunk by a U-boat. He marries her. When his ship is sunk, she is suspected because she has no identification. Manson tries to clear her of the charge and discovers that his first mate, Adamson, is a German agent.”
This might be a bit of a stretch, but it does involve a bit of deception. In this scene where Stephen explains the plot, we have another revealing use of light and shadow:
When he sees Penelope prancing around the beach, Bloom becomes nervous, and remembers the moment in his childhood when he saw the girl being led into the cave by Stephen. But now something's different. If there was any doubt in my mind that light plays a very important role in this film, this scene erases it. While contemplating the last part of the con, he walks out of the bungalow in thought, pauses, and for no apparent reason, the lights on the path turn on. This is the turning point for Bloom.
Another moment which shows, as I see it, the use of lights: Bloom decides to reveal the plot to Penelope.
Bloom tells Penelope everything about the con. Naturally, this is all quite on purpose. What's interesting is that there is a very light play on the ideas of layers of reality, à la Inception.
Bloom and Penelope make their way back to the cabin to take the money from Stephen. However, Stephen is already waiting for them (sitting on a throne-like chair, aptly), and this is a key moment. He confronts Bloom, accusing him of being a coward, of “not being ready.” It is essential for Bloom to free himself from Stephen, but that's not going to happen by asking nicely. They fight, and Stephen ends up getting accidentally shot.
Or so they would have us believe. Penelope sees right through it all. She knows that Bloom is still at the mercy of the plot, and leaves in disappointment. It is interesting that even the symbolism of the movie is there to trick us.
The film resumes three months later, with Bloom back in Montenegro and Penelope blowing up her house in New Jersey.
Penelope finds Bloom, thanks to Bang Bang, and tells him she wants to start things over. Bloom grudgingly accepts, but only because he wants to be separated from her for good. According to him, because he loves her. He reunites with his brother, and they devise another con, which takes them to St. Petersburg, and the Diamond Dog. Stephen is referred to as “the grand architect” by the Dog, which I thought was a nice touch.
The Diamond Dog says: “and our hero must face the minotaur before he escapes the maze.” It's also noteworthy that they are in a bar called Labyrinth. The maze, of course, is the reality in which Bloom finds himself trapped. Remember the cave in the beginning?
There are more shenanigans along the way, and for this whole final action sequence there are double-crossings galore. It turns out, though, that it wasn't all the con Stephen said it was. His mission is complete, so he is left to die, which Bloom doesn't notice until it's too late. That's how it was all meant to be, however:
I think that frame speaks for itself. He reveals his true intent: he tells Bloom “you're the only audience I ever needed.”
Stephen dies, then, that is, Stephen and Bloom are one again. He is ready to return to the pleroma, to his mother goddess, to the light. The ending of the movie is pretty straightforward:
Bloom has finally got what he was after:
Now, this might all be a little confusing, so to wrap things up, this is what I essentially believe the story to be: Bloom and Penelope are a couple in the pleroma (remember I use this term very liberally). Bloom somehow falls down to Earth, and is stuck, and Penelope must rescue him. In order for this to happen, both are divided into two: Penelope and Bang Bang, Stephen and Bloom. Stephen represents at once what ties Bloom to this realm and what can free him. Penelope then arrives as a lady in black, to save Bloom from the darkness.
Well, something like this anyway.