The Fantasist

thefantasist1Director Robin Hardy will forever be associated with just one film, the 1973 thriller The Wicker Man – a film which wears on its sleeve a distrust of Christianity and a gleeful indulgence in sexual liberations and freedoms. In the thirty-five years that have passed Hardy has spent much of that time in the shadow of The Wicker Man, spending six years attempting to get the film a distribution deal in the US, and many more working on a sequel to the project in various guises. At the time of writing, Hardy has published a novel Cowboys for Christ (Luath Press, 2006) which serves as the basis for the screenplay for his re-imagining of The Wicker Man, now due to go into production with Christopher Lee in the lead sometime in 2008. Again, paganism and Christianity are brought face to face in a story which seizes upon the contradictions and cracks in both.

Between The Wicker Man-based projects, Hardy completed one other feature film, the intriguing sex-thriller The Fantasist, a film which was derided by the Irish press at the time of production and release in 1986, and which The Wicker Man fans simply mourn as being inferior. To appreciate The Fantasist, one has to look back to The Wicker Man, and to the politics in Irish cinema present in the 1980s – only then can this curio of modern Irish cinema really blossom.

Robin Hardy originally purchased the rights to Patrick McGinley’s novel Goosefoot in 1983 along with Andy Summers (the guitarist in The Police), with a view to Summers starring. After a year of development, Summers parted from the project causing delays to the production until producer Mark Forstater came on board, attracting American and Irish finance for the project [1]. The film was due to go before the cameras in May 1985 with Bob Geldof contracted to star [2]. However, stripped of any pop-star associations (bar a cameo from British pop group Level 42), cameras finally started rolling for six weeks on 4th November, 1985. Production wrapped in April 1986, with the budget coming in at £1.5 million and it was released onto the European circuit in 1987.

The much-missed Film West hailed The Fantasist in their Irish Trash Classics series as ‘definitely, definitely, definitely… the worst feature to ooze onto celluloid in the country EVER…’ [3] Emphatic words of condemnation indeed, but typical of the film’s accepted reputation.

Hardy himself believes that the Irish critics are largely responsible for the poor reception given to the film on its initial release. Despite assurances from producer Mark Forstater that the thriller would be ‘Hitchcockian and in no way political’ [4] the film may have been caught up in a war played out on the front lines of national identity. According to Hardy: ‘It was highly political… The whole Cusack thing was a sort of storm that only journalists can manage to get going. And I suppose the fact that I was obviously English only made it worse…’ [5]

Cyril Cusack was one of Ireland’s leading actors, much respected in his native country, and his inclusion in the cast of The Fantasist can only have opened doors for Hardy and his crew in Ireland. Shooting on location in Dublin and Wicklow began 4th November, 1985 for a planned six weeks. Two weeks into the process and Screen International still cites Cyril Cusack as part of the cast alongside Christopher Cazenove, Timothy Bottoms, Moira Harris, Bairbre Ni Chaoimh, John Kavanagh and James Bartley [6]. However, by the second half of the month, Cusack’s name had vanished from publicised cast lists. It seems that very early on in the rehearsal period director and star clashed. Hardy explained the situation to me in June 2006:

‘He just thought I’d been terribly arrogant. And I thought Cusack was being terribly arrogant. He wouldn’t rehearse. He wandered around with a bottle of whiskey wherever he went, and I thought, “This is going to be a disaster. I can’t live with this.” One of the producers almost wept when I told him I was firing Cusack. But what it meant was the Irish journalists went to Cannes and badmouthed it all over the place, so the Brit journalists thought, “If they’re saying how terrible it is, it must be terrible!”’ [7]

He elaborated in his written introduction to the film when it was screened as part of the Fantastic Films Weekend in Bradford: ‘As an Englishman, director or not, mine was considered an offence against Irish honour. Today I think a more self-confident Ireland would have taken that in their stride.’ [8]

Undoubtedly, considering the film was completely produced through Irish money, the political ramifications of the dismissal of the leading Irish performer by an English director cannot be understated [9]. It is also possible that the existing reputation of the film has been blindly accepted throughout the years by audiences without examining the text for themselves. Certainly there are problems with the film – some of the performances are a little eccentric (but then this is a film dealing with odd people and tastes anyway). The script is at times ill-conceived, and it is clear that Hardy lacks the flair with dialogue that The Wicker Man co-scribe Anthony Shaffer possessed. Also, direction-wise the pacing and flow of certain sequences is misjudged.

Others have critiqued the presentation of the Irish themselves in the film. The almost Quiet Man-esque scenery and inhabitants of the countryside – not quite bog-swilling as some would have it but certainly sheltered, and prejudiced, and partial to alcohol – are juxtaposed with the hustle and bustle of Dublin city. Some of the worst perversions presented in the film appear to be indulged in by upstanding members of the community – schoolteachers and policemen amongst them – is this perhaps further fuel to the anti-Fantasist fire in Ireland?

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the film is not fundamentally flawed. Standing alongside The Wicker Man, the closer one looks the more the unrealised potential becomes evident [10]. And yet I would argue that there is something curiously inviting about The Fantasist.

It seems safe to say that there has not been a film like it before or since in the annals of Irish cinema. Sex has never been a subject which sits easy with Irish cinema, the deep Catholic vein running through the country and its moral guardians (the Irish Film Censors) no doubt having a significant role to play (best explored by others). For a film produced in a country so anxious about promoting sex outside of a heterosexual marriage that until 1993 condoms were highly restricted, Hardy’s Fantasist (and this is ‘Robin Hardy’s The Fantasist’ according to the title captions, as opposed to anyone else’s) approaches the subject head-on and with little restraint. From the opening frames the film walks a winding path through fantasy, perversion, delinquency, infidelity, fetish, come-ons, chat-ups and assault.

It is with this knowledge in place that one comes to The Fantasist…..

Before the film is through, Hardy will have challenged Ireland’s sexual mores and the image of a pure upstanding Irish citizen. Promoting the film in 1986, Hardy commented, ‘My problem… was to keep the thriller aspects of the story without losing the portrait of contemporary Ireland. The Irish can be a bit overburdened with soul-searching, but as a foreigner I felt that I could see the story objectively…’ [11] It could be argued that the Irish did not feel comfortable with Hardy’s objective view of the nation’s sexuality – a sexuality depicted in conflict with the strict Catholic attitude which governed it.

Hardy’s film shows Irish teachers as perverted fetishists (with bad-breath, kinky hang-ups about balloons, mothers and rubbing stomachs as a prelude to being masturbated); the church is desecrated and denounced when Danny marches out of his wife’s funeral service shouting ‘Lies! Lies! Lies!’; marriage is a breeding ground for perversion as demonstrated by Danny’s dirty phone calls to his wife and her need for more of the same; the Irish home is corrupted through Patricia’s cousin’s drunken attempts to come-on to her; Ireland’s capitol is denounced as a ‘cess-pit’ (and seems to fit the bill as centre of the sexual deviances depicted in the film); the women on the receiving end of the phone calls are seen to be complicit and engage with the fantasising caller who will ultimately destroy them; and perhaps most challenging, the upholders of Irish law and order, the Irish police force, produce the worst perpetrator of them all in the Inspector – a sexual deviant and killer. Every aspect of Irish life is attacked and undermined.

This is a film which plays with all kinds of sexuality and sexual expression. Essays could be composed examining the various undercurrents at length, but we’ll restrict ourselves here to a few more detailed observations.

The limited critical response and commentary on the film suggests that Patricia (Moira Harris) is a sexual innocent, or even repressed, and suggests that it is this innocence which makes her a willing participant and magnet for the sexual attention of other men. But this is a fundamental misreading of the film – Patricia, in deference to Catholic Ireland, by her own admission is already sexually awakened. During an unusually intimate conversation with new flatmate Monica (from Ballyshannon), she admits to having ‘given away’ her virginity to a man at college, and subsequently choosing to remain celibate until she meets the right man. From her behaviour with Danny from the flat downstairs and later on with the Inspector it is evident that Patricia is more than capable and sexually alert, and savvy enough to know her own mind and decline the advances of her work colleagues.

Avoiding her lecherous colleagues she finds a shared flat in a Dublin suburb with the naïve and inquisitive Monica. The introductory sequence is a fine example of shoe-horned dialogue, and sits uneasily with this viewer. Monica makes much of the grand lit – a huge four poster bed which dominates the bedroom. In this most unlikely sequence we learn that Patricia must share this most personal of spaces with her new flat mate. Whilst older viewers might be made to think of a feminised version of Morecambe and Wise (‘What do you think of the show so far…’), the proximity of the two women in their undergarments in this unusual bed-sharing arrangement is also implicitly suggestive of a lesbian undercurrent. This is underscored with the awkward conversation following the revelation of the sleeping arrangements, in which Monica quizzes Patricia at length on the loss of her virginity and what she looks for in a man.

Deserving of careful study is the climactic sequence at Goosefoot’s home. Believing the perpetrator of the deviant phone-calls has entered her flat, Patricia climbs out the window, across the roof and down to the ground from where she runs across Dublin arriving outside the home of the police inspector. He welcomes her in, and after discovering his copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and learning he lives alone, Patricia becomes jumpy until invited to examine a particular hobby of his.

The white-walled room is covered in various black and white photographs of Patricia, taken at various locations over a period of some weeks (maybe even months). As the Inspector locks the door we see a couch along the length of one wall, and above it the striking colour image of a painting (Francois Boucher’s portrait of Louise O’Murphy, child-courtesan of Louis XV). The Inspector tells Patricia (and the film’s audience) that he had previously thought of this image as embodying the perfect Irish woman [12]. The previous murdered victims have been arranged in a similar pose to O’Murphy in the painting, and he soon sets about persuading Patricia to mimic the pose as well.

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Running throughout the film’s duration is a thread of scopophilic desire, which comes to a climax in this sequence. The inspector sees his victims and watches them from afar, seeking to own and possess the woman in as much as she echoes the painting of the courtesan so prominently featured at the denouement. He attempts to control her attire, her posture and her very image. The room filled with photographic images of Patricia is a testament both to the voyeuristic scopophilia and the possession/control of the woman. It is not enough for the Inspector merely to look at her (we see him openly photograph Patricia at the horse races), but he must interact with her – hence the phone calls – and ultimately to possess her through the control of her body in replicating the painting. He takes the idealised sexuality of the renaissance painting, replicating the positioning and framing through the modern photographic methods. Through possession of the photographs, he possesses Patricia, and the lost idealised original of the painting. She supplants the image which has been his idealised woman. It should be stressed that the woman in the painting is a prostitute – a submissive participant in a sexual relationship subject to the male whim. The presence of the unsheathed knife on top of the camera has obvious phallic connotations, but also serves as a very real threat should Patricia not comply with his desire. Its placement alongside the camera also serves to remind the viewer of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960).

Throughout her ordeal as Patricia is requested to strip and adopt the pose of the courtesan, she is seen to be complicit. Rather than take a strictly submissive position, we observe her watching her attacker intently, and also looking into his eyes. The strictly voyeuristic gaze of the attacker is broken, and we have a mutual act of scopophilia.

The sequence mirrors that of Willow’s dance in The Wicker Man. In each we are presented with a naked female form, which is engaged in a dance (of sorts) which serves as a prelude to sex. In The Wicker Man, the dance (complete with Willow’s rhythmic slapping of her own body) is meant to entice Sgt. Howie to sleep with Willow. The sequence in The Fantasist has the Inspector beating Patricia’s bare buttocks, presumably as a prelude to a sexual assault which he will act out. Patricia defies the expectations of both audience and perpetrator by taking over the sexual assault. She moves from a passive position to that of sexual dominance, eventually screwing him into a feverish sweat. She is seen to enjoy this act of female rape, which itself cannot have sat well with the Irish censors. It was the sequence in Straw Dogs (1971) in which Amy (Susan George) is raped by a former lover and seems to enjoy the rape that was largely responsible for the British censors banning the film until 2002. For Hardy to present us with a sequence as bold is testament to his challenging of Irish cinema laws.

The Fantasist’s reputation is that of one of the worst films ever to come out of Ireland and Irish critics have accepted that tag almost without question. British critics have generally looked to its universal storyline (the story could have worked equally well in Cornwall, the Highlands, the lake district, Brittany, the American deep south, etc.), but remain disappointed due to comparisons with Hardy’s previous film. Non-Irish critics at the time of release view it objectively as a mixed bag.

If viewed without expectations or prejudice, The Fantasist is a perfectly watchable thriller. Granted, it has some excruciating lines, and some odd performances, but these are part and parcel of one of the most bizarre stories ever committed to celluloid on this island. At times uncomfortable, and constantly challenging, Hardy’s film viewed now merely seems ahead of its time. Ireland simply wasn’t ready to face its sexual identity.

See also www.cowboysforchrist.info for more on Hardy’s follow-up to The Wicker Man

Robert J.E. Simpson is a writer and academic based in Belfast. He can be contacted at robert@avalard.com

1. Michael Dwyer, ‘Juxtaposition of laughter and death adds to the intrigue of Forstater and Hardy’s The Fantasist’, Screen International 542, 5 April 1986, p22

2. ‘Sneak preview for “Number One”’, Screen International 491, 6 April 1985, p14

3. Derek O’Connor, ‘Irish Trash Classics – The Fantasist’, Film West n. 28 12 May 1997, p10

4. Quoted in ‘Dublin start for “Fantasist”’, Screen International 518, 12 Oct 1985, p4

5. Interview with author, 17 June 2006

6. Screen International 523, 16 November 1985, p17

7. Interview with author, 17 June 2006

8. Robin Hardy, written introduction to screening of The Fantasist at Fantastic Films Weekend, Bradford, read Friday 16 June 2006. Text available at: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/fantastic/2006/filmdetail.asp?ida=6221

9. There is some discrepancy about the funding sources – contemporary trade publications variously reported the budget as being raised completely by private Irish finance, Irish and American private investors, and largely British funded with Irish completion finance.

10. Much could be written about the comparisons and connections with The Wicker Man, of presentations of sexuality, of the Hitchcockian theme of ‘the wrong man’ which sees the roles of hunter and hunted as interchangeable, etc. but I shall leave those for another study.

11. Quoted in ‘Irish backdrop for universal story’, Screen International 550, 31 M ay 1986, p16

12. Louise O’Murphy posed for the painting at the age of 14. It is beyond the scope of this article to investigate the implications of her age on a reading of this film.

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