Theory Teacher's Blog

Even More Globalization Cinema: Duplicity

So…uh… yah, my addiction to globalization cinema continues — this time with Duplicity, starring Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. That makes three globalization thrillers for Clive, first Children of Men back in 2005, and now two more, practically within a month of each other. As you may recall, I blogged on The International exactly five weeks ago [here]. And a couple years ago, our theory pal  Slavoj Žižek talked about Children of Men in the context of global capitalism, and you can watch the YouTube of the clip which appeared on the DVD special features [here]. And, by the way, if you haven’t seen it yet, Children of Men is pretty damn good. And by the way, can you believe that there is already a journal dedicated to this guy? Žižek Studies. Very tacky, in my opinion, to create a journal about someone still alive, but nobody asked me… and maybe nobody asked Žižek. 

So, apparently, with three movies in rapid succession, Clive Owen has somehow become something like the spokesperson for this new genre that I am calling the globalization thriller, beating out the prettier but less articulate Daniel Craig, who only has the two Bond films to his globo-thriller credit, unless you count his not-so-memorable role in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Perhaps it’s Clive’s clever-sounding British accent, or maybe it’s his permanent, five-o’clock-shadow scruffiness that seems to vaguely symbolize the shadowy “new world order” of globalization, as if globalization must be represented by a character who is simultaneously civilized (in that imperialistic British way) and scruffy (also in that imperialistic British way — since empire building is never actually that civilized and is always actually brutally chaotic and… ruggedly unshaven.)

My question is this: how to analyze this movie? (And I guess I ask this question because apparently I’m obsessed with globalization thrillers and maybe should write a book on the subject… if only I had the time… or were even more obsessed than I pretend to be.) On the one hand, we can analyze it the way we were taught to analyze poems in high school — to find the meaning. So…

… even though the story is told in a disjointed, deliberately confusing way, the plot is actually straightforward. An American CIA agent (Julia Roberts) and a British MI6 agent (Clive Owen) decide to leave their government jobs and become spies for rival cosmetics corporations. The metaphorical/allegorical concept of the movie is obvious but nevertheless well conceived and artfully done. Like an earlier movie starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the spy world is a metaphor for their romantic relationship… or, maybe their romantic relationship is a metaphor for the spy world. It’s hard to tell which is the metaphor and which is the meaning, but in any case, the directors take considerable effort to make one express the other — to make the standard conventional plot structures of the romantic comedy parallel the standard conventional plot structures of the spy thriller.

So, the two lovers/spies find it hard to trust each other, because… uh… you know…  they are spies/lovers, and everyone knows what lovers/spies/spies/lovers are like, especially when one is a metaphor for the other….

Hold on, I’m confusing myself.

Uh… did I mention that they don’t trust each other?… And did I mention that, despite their lack of trust, or perhaps precisely because of it, they have secretly teamed up (because they are secret agents, after all… and secret lovers) to steal the new secret cosmetic formula and sell it on the global market and become rich, rich, rich, to live out their days in secret-lover-agent bliss in one of those gorgeous global locations…. Where exactly? The particular location hardly matters, as over the course of the movie, they are doing their secret-agent-lover business in posh-picture-postcard locations such as Rome, Miami, The Bajamas, New York, and Zurich. And any one cosmetically beautiful (pun intended) location could be substituted for any other cosmetically beautiful location in the genre of the global thriller, so long as there is something cosmetically classic like Italian architecture and/or something decadent and unshaven (metaphorically speaking) like endless white beaches, cosmopolitan martinis, and high stakes gambling.

Spoiler Alert: as it turns out, in the end, they learn to trust each other because they discover they really are in love (awwww), and AND AND, they learn that love is all they need, just as the Beatles promised us, which they learn when they find themselves suddenly poor… duped by they very same corporation they sought to dupe. And we learn that there never was any secret cosmetic formula for curing baldness, because apparently that symbol for male virility (a lion’s mane of Sampsonite hair) isn’t necessary when what you really value is at home, waiting for you (awwww.)

So, the moral of the story is that the Beatles were right, all we need is love… lesson learned. This is the allegory… yawn.

But, on the other hand, isn’t it more interesting to read this movie metonymically (instead of metaphorically) — to chase the chain of signifiers across the cultural landscape of the postmodern twenty-first century? Isn’t the more interesting question, why now? Why at this precise moment in the spring of 2009 is Hollywood giving us this movie about spies for multinational corporations? Okay, admittedly, the answer to this may be all too obvious, given that we’re all experiencing the economic recession and given that we’re all hearing global corporate scandal after global corporate scandal on the news. Why else would the script writers include a lengthy monologue by the CEO explaining how human nature may have gone into genetic recession (pun intended), but the multinational corporation has taken mankind’s place in the evolutionary order… no longer are individual genius and moral fortitude the seats of invention; rather groups of human beings incorporating themselves are…?… Gag, OK, I admit it, maybe the metonymic reading isn’t so muy interesante either. 

Perhaps the really interesting thing to do here is put the metaphorical reading in conversation with the metonymic reading… a conversation we might call a dialectic if we want to sound real fancy-pantys. After all, according to Jacques Lacan, we create metaphors to explain our existence, and we chase metonymies to fill in our lack, our feeling of void.

Damn, I’m confusing myself again…. No, wait… here it goes, I can do this.

What does the lover/spy metaphor have to do with the metonymic context of global capitalism and its void? What indeed? The very lesson that the romantic story distracts us from is that at the end of the day, the cosmetic company actually had no real product. (It is a cosmetic company, after all, get it?) And apparently, even though real corporations are supposed to be built on “trust” (both in the moral sense and in the banking sense of the word), this one is built on “duplicity.” It spent millions of dollars spinning the simulation (or simulacrum, if we want to sound fancy-pantsy in a postmodernist sort of way) of its economic potential, all the while trying to outwit the other company. And at the end of the day, what they actually had… and what we in the audience are left with is… nothing… nothing but the love between Julia Roberts and Clive Owens… and really, not even that, because all we really have is the image of that love, and a group of capitalist conspirators chuckling voyeristically (like the movie’s audience itself) at a clandestine videotape of Roberts and Owen lovingly play-acting their duplicity on their cheap futon mattress on the floor of a decrepit apartment.


March 24, 2009 - Posted by | global, movies

1 Comment »

  1. Right, but I’m still trying to make sense of what the movie is all about. The disturbing thing (and I realize I’m betraying an old-fashioned moral outlook by beginning a sentence that way) about the movie is that duplicity seems to be much, much more than a metaphor in this film. It is the order of the day. What you didn’t mention about that last scene is that those “capitalist conspirators chuckling voyeuristically” at the end of the film are mostly spies—or moles. Every one of them (well, except the triumphant CEO of the cosmetic company, I suppose) is at least a double agent—may be triple or more. In this dizzying vortex of duplicity, it’s hard to imagine a space (in this movie, I mean) where one might stand and recognize a problem. I mean, is there any other way of doing business that would show this up as a duplicitous way? And perhaps that’s just it—duplicity is not a problem, merely a strategy.

    And yet the film does posit a “winner.” I keep going back to that silent tableau at the beginning of the film: two CEOs fighting it out in slow motion on a rain-drenched airport tarmac (probably my favourite scene in the movie). One of them does emerge the chuckling victor at the end; significantly, it’s the same guy who had sententiously pronounced earlier that corporations now hold the key to human evolution. Survival is all important, and apparently a company doesn’t need to produce anything to survive; it only has to annihilate its competitors.

    Yes, I’d say the movie speaks to our times.

    Comment by Madhu | March 31, 2009 | Reply

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