Cinematic Identity Crises and Francis Bacon – Part 2 (The Shout).

Part 1.

The Shout (1978)

“I’ve always desired to be able to paint the mouth like Monet could paint the sunset.” – Francis Bacon (1966, interview with David Sylvester).

Though Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978) is equally as complex as Performance in terms of narrative linearity (or lack of it), Skolimowski’s film and its complexity derives not from the identity crisis surrounding individual characters within themselves but instead around the crisis of manipulated relationships; the power-play is not between two opposing (but ultimately singular) forces but really the reaction of a third party between a dominant and a submissive pair of characters.  More importantly, however, Skolimowski uses the paintings and aesthetics of Francis Bacon to deploy the affect of this tension, more so than Cammell would do as The Shout features actual works by Bacon as well as a deliberate recreation of a specific painting by the artist as well.

The Shout begins in a mental institute where it tracks back through the meeting between two of the patients: the previously successful avant-garde musician, Anthony (John Hurt), and the mysterious Crossley (Alan Bates) who has the ability to kill people with his “shout”.  This shout was picked up on his travels in aboriginal territory and is a voice technique that has strange and dangerous powers.  Of course, Anthony is interested in hearing it, perhaps for his own compositional use.  He greatly underestimates the its deathly ability, both as weapon and as a powerful tool to pull apart the life he has with his wife, Rachael (Susannah York).  The narrative becomes pitched and blurred with the likeliness of the events seen coming into question as the story flips back and forth between the home and the coastal village where the three characters live.

Bacon’s role is hinted at early on within the narrative when Anthony’s studio is shown.  This isn’t a normal recording studio, clearly aping the more radiophonic model of composition.  His walls are littered with inspiration, namely a number of prints of paintings by Bacon including 1948’s Head VI and Paralytic Child Walking On All Fours (1961).  Both have a vital role in reflecting the film, its reversal of control, and the complex collapse of identity between the three characters who share a broken form of a ménage a trois.

The first aspect to mention is the visual likeness between Crossley’s shout and Head VI.  Both seem to be implying a scream but one that is more of anger and power rather than fear; almost a release of energy designed to hurt.  Skolimowski himself describes his script-writing as an “outburst of energy” (2014, Interview with Michel Demopoulos), perhaps linking in the release to being both a creative and destructive force.  No doubt if Bacon could have envisaged a sound for his painting, it would have resembled the shout created for the film.  Skolimowski’s placing of it in the film also raises the question of the relationship between Anthony and Crossley too.  Clearly Anthony was looking for some sort of aural equivalent of Bacon’s painting in the first place as it was there within his studio for inspiration.  Yet, by having the painting in the studio before he has properly met Crossley implies that their meeting was pre-destined; that perhaps their cataclysmic story is retribution for Anthony’s clear infidelity with a local woman.

This leads on to the presence of the 1961 painting of a paralytic child and Skolimowski’s attempt to recreate it visually within the narrative.  Wieland suggests of Bacon’s work that they were “…not aimed at the intellect, but directly at what he described as the “nervous system”: he wanted “to give the sensation… without the boredom of the conveyance.”” (2009, p.47).  This is interesting in the context of this painting as its subject is directly and appallingly effected by the nervous system; the spinal cord clearly malfunctioning to such an extent that the child has to crawl on an arched all-fours to move about.  Bacon’s paintings are often about motion or at least some form of impossible motion on a still life (the skin of many of his figures, for example, seems to be in some form of permanent motion) and the idea of capturing a struggling motion outside of the norm is almost typical of the artist.


Questions around why Skolimowski put such emphasis on this painting are difficult but not entirely impossible to answer.  Though the painting is again in Anthony’s studio, it can only been here to pre-empt its physical appearance later on rather than comment on the composer’s work like Head VI does.  Once the power-play in the narrative has begun, the relationships between the three characters and, specifically, who Rachael identifies with as a lover, becomes distorted, almost disturbingly so (brought about of course by Crossley’s demonstration of his Head VI-like scream to Anthony earlier on).

Rachael becomes Crossley’s lover, almost falling under some sort of spell perhaps linked with his aboriginal magic.  They sleep together, not caring about Anthony’s presence in the house, with Crossley even suggesting that he go out to get food for them afterwards.  When Rachael leaves the bed, Skolimowski does a number of things to recreate the paralytic painting of the child.  The film reverts to black and white for a number of seconds (Anthony’s print is in black and white unlike the actual original painting), Rachael crawls on all-fours, the camera angle shifts sideways to capture the exact same perspective of the painting, and even several aspects of a window pane strangely appear in the right hand side of the image just like in the painting.

Skolimowski could be doing all of this for a number of reasons; it’s overt enough to be clearly relevant to the narrative of the film and not simply an ambiguous ploy.  At this point in the narrative, Crossley has become the dominant figure to both of the characters.  Anthony shows his submissive role by cowering, hiding and eventually relying on the presence of the police to fight back.  Rachael on the other hand shows her submissive role by literally reverting to some animalistic, sexual form, being a physical slave to Crossley’s pleasure.  The recreation of the painting implies a very physical transformation of a character, from strong willed and independent to a very literal sub-dominant figure (being little more than an object to Crossley, just like the food he devours).

The identities become blurred, to the point where the married couple have moments of excited hysteria when they realise that they are unable to control their minds and their bodies because of Crossley’s magic.  This lack of control over the inner self contrasted with the ultra control of the outer self is a perfect summation of several of Bacon’s later styles of painting.  Many of his figures, especially of his various lovers, pose with a great physical, toned shell.  It is only when Bacon paints them that their inner chaos and flux overtly spills over into the outline of their toned physiques.  The Shout comes to embody this, suggesting that identity can be broken completely when questioned violently; leaving the two males in a mental home playing a game cricket, trying to fathom what exactly happened when the sounds of the inner screams of existence finally made themselves heard.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

4 thoughts on “Cinematic Identity Crises and Francis Bacon – Part 2 (The Shout).

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