It is immeasurably difficult, even impossible, not to crack the glossy lens of “keep it on the screen” in Under the Volcano, peering behind the frame to explore the harsh climate of personal disfigurement and torment in director John Huston’s life. The comparison isn’t unwarranted; it may even be begged for. Huston wanted the film, much as he actively pursued all of his late life projects (perhaps livid with his work-for-hire reputation). And the protagonist, an aging British diplomat in the perpetual downfall of alcoholism wasting away his time in the oppressive Mexican heat, bears an unmistakable imaginative resemblance (if not a physical one) to Huston himself, deeply sick at the time of production and nearing his last bow after decades of severe alcoholism and smoking had withered away his features and left what might be considered a husk of a man in their wake. The comparison catalyzes a reservoir of brutally tormented emotions and hand-crafted, personalized filmmaking on Huston’s part, no doubt, but it also elides the fact that, in Under the Volcano, the primed, pared-down potency of the screen most assuredly speaks for itself.
Of course, the death-stricken, malarial atmosphere also misses the other half of the Huston dialectic: whatever ailed him, and perhaps because his ailments fueled his intensity, the man was always, especially in Under the Volcano, positively brimming with the vital essence and vivacity of life and art, despite directing many films about waiting for death. Although Albert Finney as Huston’s on-screen interpreter is dexterous and intense as Geoffrey Firmin, a British expat wasting away his final day in Mexico and serving as Huston’s corollary, and his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) and friend Hugh (Anthony Andrews) appear in a desperate frenzy to resurrect him before his final hours, Huston is the primary mover in Under the Volcano. And by mover, I mean a pace between a crawl and a ricochet, because the film is at once cathartic in its unflagging forward momentum and elegant in its simmered-down standstill, with time at once impassively moving forward into death and somehow trapped in a continual, luminal state between life and death.
Fittingly, the film explores the same trap. Returning to cinematic Mexico for the first time in twenty years, Huston conscripts Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (who photographed Huston’s Mexican-set The Night of the Iguana, a drunken slur of a film similarly about vacation warped into exile and escape curdled to a runaway death). Now, the tone of Under the Volcano is considerably more observant and unromantic than that film. Rather than jumping into the toxic party-going fun until it passes out in a kinetic, jumbled, poisonous bout of dehydration, Volcano instead lingers at a harsh remove with an awareness of its own death hovering overhead. But the style is similarly wont to suffuse itself with the venomous interplay of light and dark, hoarsely rendered with desaturated colors that turn this ostensible fugue from reality into a torrid purgatory rapidly strangling you with a lack of egress.
Slightly too theoretical symbols abound (candy skulls, bone masks), pricking the film with a too-metaphorical understanding of death, but the images are more ancillary canvases for the brutal poetry of the savage cinematography. Sharpening the metaphors into pointedly matter-of-fact, even barbarous trees in an at once frighteningly motile and petrified forest, the bustling, brassy activity is both a discordant contrast to Firmin’s immobility and an astringent reminder of the way he hides from life while the people around him alloy a celebration of the dead to an appreciation of life. Exteriorizing Firmin’s interior, mental conflict, the film dialectically suggests the cornucopia of roles that death plays in society, from the vivacious respect the Mexican public affords it to the crippling subsistence to it for many of Huston’s vicarious lost souls.
Which is to say, although they are perhaps symbols, the film’s evocative contrasts between motion and stillness, between perspectives even, arouse us to the understanding that symbols are what we make of them, that they are mere material backing for the fluxional human mind, and that they are only imbued with power by the mind’s willingness to awaken material objects with always-unstable meaning. Thus, even Mexico itself becomes an amalgam of vital life and toxic purgatory. Perhaps the film wanders into a questionable vision of Mexico, if not Mexican people, but even then, the film’s lively interiority channels this Mexico through Firmin’s mind; he necessarily sees the location as an exotic foil to milquetoast British life (as Huston probably did). Swipes to other views outside his perspective deny the totality of his mind and suggest that geographic location, like many things, is inextricably intertwined with our mental expectation for it.
Still, Mexico being a go-to-location for Huston through the years for both business and pleasure, the milieu of the film is certainly a workout, an imaginative massaging of location into pure, primal sensation. The overexposed daytime grants the pummeling sun full passage to secrete shafts of light into every nook and cranny of Firmin’s world, rendering him a pallid ghoul. And the nights are a bramble of appearing and disappearing apparitions, mirages of the woolliest character. It’s a caricaturized Mexico, to be sure, but also an expression of the particularly imaginative space of a man whose interior world is rapidly crumbling and curtailing his ability to consider the exterior world naturalistically. Because he is already wallowing in it, the celebratory, expressive death of the Mexican parade becomes a coil, and a foil, for him. The film’s cinematography, at once sickly looking and vitally brimming with life, jumbles the binary opposition of jaundice and vigorous ebullience, evoking conflicting emotions overlaying one another in mortal poetry.
Stylistically then, Under the Volcano is a definitive visualization of the premises of Huston’s mind, a work of simultaneous daredevil antics and terminal illness, where liveliness and deadened demeanors are the same side of the same coin of treacherous, hard-luck life. Even the quivers of mythic death feel like the shudders or glimmers in Firmin’s mind, his need to find meaning and enormity in death to combat or mollify the trembling bluntness of it as it actually happens. The film’s tone reflects a death-caked inversion of magical realism with magic as a satiating device of a fractured mind deploying whatever weapons into the exterior world it can so that it doesn’t have to confront reality. Huston, as he was wont to do, dynamites an exotic situation into drab, painful, in-your-face griminess, with the skin of mystique excoriated so that the raw bones are left out in the sun to singe.
As a statement about Huston’s failing physicality, though, Under the Volcano also doubles as an elegy to the beauty of his art, his sharp-as-a-tack style of direction, and his unflagging aspiration, even hunger, to tackle works of literature (Malcolm Lowry’s famously unfilmable novel of the same name in this case) that frightened off the ambition of even the most radical of filmmakers. In this case, no lesser a talent than Luis Buñuel, who had worked with Figueroa a half dozen times before during his decades-long stint in Mexico, had considered the book for a while during that forced sojourn to Mexico but still couldn’t find it in himself to tame this particular beast of a novel. Huston reacts by not taming it, but unleashing it bucking and rancorous; even though he lived his life perpetually under the volcano, and perhaps because he lived that way, Huston erupted like Mt. Vesuvius until the end.