CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT
Welles says of Falstaff "that he fights a battle that has already been lost." And further, "I do not believe that he is looking for anything. He represents a value. He is goodness." There is something very astonishing in the fact that power and genius - unanimously acclaimed as such - should celebrate only hopeless causes or grandiose falls, and that a man like Welles, whose influence on his colleagues is so undeniable, embodies in his art only those who have been defeated. Admittedly this is obscured by an impressive technology, but nonetheless his protagonists tend to be worn out by life, betrayed by those close to them. An extraordinary fate decrees that a man who is too strong can only come to a bad end. And yet from Kane to Falstaff, from pomp to nakedness, from a corpse one doesn't see to a coffin that is carried away, it is always the same story: that of a man who misuses his power.
The conquest of power (aspiring to it, living up to it, obtaining it by force) is precisely what Welles deals with the least. For him, this kind of power is represented by the witches who create Macbeth and the intuition which propels Quinlan. Welles' films start where others end; when everything has been won, the only thing left is to be stripped of all knowledge as death approaches: Quinlan yesterday, Falstaff tomorrow.
Welles' work, faithful to Shakespeare in this respect, is a reflection on the very idea of Power: that excess of freedom which nobody can pursue without finding degradation and ridicule at the end. Power is an evil that gives life only to those who do not already have it. Heroic undertakings, actions that succeed in changing the course of events, intricately woven plots: these belong to men of tthe future, who are born to "tread on kings," men to whom it is granted, at least once in their lives, to shake the world. Kings have other cares; their triumph, like repression or the fruitless re-creation of the past, confers no prestige by definition. Defeat is the only adventure left to them.
Absolute power destroys true power, reducing it to futility. "If there is a sense of reality," Musil says, "there must also be a sense of the possible." And a little further on he adds, "God himself undoubtedly prefers to talk about his creation as potentiality." When power is too great, the possible consumes reality, dooming it in advance: one action is then no more necessary than another; good and evil are interchangeable and equally meaningless. A man like Citizen Kane, who is master of the possible at the age of twenty, winds up being the slave of his whims, surrendering bit by bit to a power that has neither object nor echo, and to action which is arbitrary and foolish, useless and wasteful, which never involves him fully but which distances him more and more from others (like the career of a singer who has no voice, or the collections heaped up at Xanadu.) He who has the power to do the most achieves the least, or uses only a fraction of his power. The laws of humor require that a prodigious expenditure of energy results in a strictly useless life.
In film after film as his work develops and as Welles grows older, the inclination to mockery grows stronger, to the point of becoming the very subject of the film Welles considers his best, THE TRIAL. Everywhere and always, power is in bad hands. Those who have it either do not know enough (Othello, who believes Iago; Macbeth - who is the victim of wordplay), or too much (Arkadin, Quinlan, the lawyer Hastler) - all doomed to act for nothing out of excessive naiveté or intelligence.
In terms of money, the life of John Falstaff is a failure. Shortly before dying, he observes that his friend - the doddering but shrewd Robert Shallow - has succeeded better, and he resolves to cultivate his friendship. Only Falstaff's sudden death, of which there has been no warning, spares him what would undoubtedly have been a last disillusionment. Falstaff was not born to receive, but to give - indiscriminately and without hope of return - or, if he has nothing, to give himself theatrically. Welles calls this prodigality the goodness of Falstaff. That Falstaff - whom Shakespeare especially wanted to be ridiculous - should have become a moving character as imagined and then embodied by Welles, is not very surprising. His death is not the mysterious and legendary disappearance of a Kane, but the prosaic and unadorned event into which the end of the world must be read (although nothing is really emphasized.) "If all the year were playing holidays," says the young prince, "to sport would be as tedious as work." Of what is Falstaff guilty? Not so much of having misused his power, since he hardly has any, being a comic character and one without real courage or authority into the bargain. Perhaps of having been intemperate in his use of words, of having turned his power of parody into an interminably hammy act, an unproductive and tiresome one, where talent, if there is any, asserts itself to no purpose. Even more surely, he is guilty of having survived the squandering of his energy for so long (indicated by the wordplay on "waste" and "waist.") And even more seriously, he is the victim, rather than the guilty one, in making a bad use of his feelings, since he chooses as his friend the very person who will betray him.
Welles' work offers many examples of breaches of confidence (THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI) or betrayed friendships (OTHELLO.) The strange and scandalous complicity that links the young prince and Falstaff for so long reveals more and more clearly that which is never spoken: the differences in their natures. But there would be no mutual fascination if each of them did not feel himself as radically Other: they are symbols of two worlds that are inimical but complementary, opposite sides of same coin. On one side there is Falstaff, who lives off his past, off what he already is, in the gradual entropy of a freedom that has deliberately been abused. On the other, there is the future Henry V, who is nothing yet, who will perhaps be a great king if he discovers the proper relationship between the expenditure of effort and the object to be attained: the austerity and discipline which make the use of power possible.
Originally published in CAHIERS DU CINEMA #181, August 1966.
Translated by Bridget Lyons.