From past lives and purgatory to Terry Gilliam and Marcel Proust, we take a look at the five most compelling interpretations of Spectre.
Spectre suffered through a difficult production process, not helped at all by the famous Sony hacking, resulting in a film with a lot of half-finished ideas and plot-threads. While it may not be the most fully realised Bond film ever it is by far one of the most thought-provoking and aesthetically interesting. In no particular order we count down the five best fan theories that have cropped up around the film since its release.
James Bond is Dead
If you were to identify one key theme that the film beats you over the head with at every opportunity it would be the theme of death. Usually a big action production will do this to evoke a sense of urgency and solve the persistent problem that films with invincible protagonists have of “how can the audience ever really be invested in the safety of a character who, they know, cannot die?”. But is Bond already dead? Are we simply witnessing his journey to meet the devil that is Blofeld and face his final judgement? Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann tells Bond a vague story about how a man came to her house as a child to, presumably, harm her father but was killed by her. Or, at least, somebody died. Later Blofeld mentions that he visited her as a child, though she does not remember. Is she too dead? She’s certainly a more angelic, saviour-like, figure than most female action leads, particularly for a Bond film. Bond’s ultimate choice to spare the devil and leave with his angel, riding off into the unusually peaceful streets of London on a grey morning is emblematic of Bond’s ascendence to peace from war.
James Bond is Death
One of the numerous reasons that Daniel Craig gave for his retirement from the role resulted from the film’s decision to have him adopt a method style of acting. In short, Craig had a look inside Bond’s brain and he really didn’t like what he saw. It turned out there really wasn’t much more to the guy than killing people, an idea that Spectre doubles down on. Is Bond in fact the Grim Reaper himself? Everything he touches seems to die. Spectre completely flips the Bond fantasy lifestyle on its head from a life of freedom and exotic locations to an existence spent doomed watching everyone you love die in front of you while you never settle down, moving from one cold and isolated location to the next. “I always knew death would wear a familiar face” muses Mr White before Bond hands him the weapon of his suicide. It makes Bond’s decision to spare Blofeld at the end of the film more substantial.
James Bond and M: Agents of Spectre
There’s been speculation throughout all of Craig’s run as Bond that his iteration of the character is actually a villain, and not just for his lack of scruples. Throughout Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall Bond is nothing but a royal pain for MI6, causing problems for British intelligence and triggering a series of committee hearings that stretch throughout all of the films. All of which ultimately limit the powers of the intelligence community and double 0 program; finally resulting in Blofeld’s puppet, C, taking control of the entire apparatus. There’s little to suggest that Bond handed power over to Spectre knowingly, since he has no idea what it is, but one unanswered question proves very interesting when viewed in relation to this. How did Judi Dench’s M know about Blofeld when no one else did?
It’s her message to kill Spectre agent Marco Sciarra and, more importantly, to not miss the funeral (implying that she both knows that Blofeld will be there and that she knows who Blofeld is) that leads Bond to discover the organization and its plot. She also creates the message before her death, before she embarks on her Scottish vacation with Bond, and knows that Silva’s mission is to kill her. The whole thing reeks of an insurance policy. She knew not only that she was going to die but that someone from Spectre was going to kill her. Blofeld taunts Bond near the end of the film about how he killed M and Vesper Lynd to punish him, but was he actually punishing employees who’d gone rogue like Mr White? M talks about her belief in the necessity for intelligence work to be conducted “in the shadows” (the word spectre can be interpreted as shadow) and shares a lot of opinions with C who could be the man sent to finish the job which she refused to do. So maybe Bond was an unknowing participant in Spectre’s schemes but was M a member herself, and was Silva simply the first to volunteer for the suicide mission of assassinating her?
The Marcel Proust Connection
One thing that Bond fans have noticed since Skyfall is the franchise’s desperation in signing long-time Bond fan Christopher Nolan for directing duties. Roger Deakins and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography, whilst very much still their own, is very reminiscent of the visual style Nolan has built through the years with his primary cohort Wally Pfister (Hoytema’s project before Spectre was Nolan’s Interstellar and his one after was Nolan’s Dunkirk). Spectre also utilises several of Nolan’s key thematic overtones, chiefly those of time and memory. But there’s another, stranger, connection which includes these themes that goes back all the way to Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The themes of memory (Blofeld comes from a past Bond tries to forget and attempts to wipe his memory before killing him) are very clear but the pivotal part of this theory lies in Dr Madeleine Swann, a very interesting choice of name given that the Swann family are an integral part of Proust’s novel and the novel’s most famous section (pertaining to memory) is referred to as “the madeleine episode”.
Like the madeleine in Proust’s novel there are numerous examples of sensory cues being used to evoke memories, primarily photographs, and during his torture Bond looks up to Madeleine and smiles saying “I’d remember you anywhere” before handing her a watch, the instrument of their escape, and quipping “how time flies”. Blofeld also frequently refers to Bond as a cuckoo due to a childhood grievance but it also carries the connotation of the cuckoo clock, the cuckoo’s appearance signifying finality and time being up but also perpetuality. Another translation of the novel’s title is Remembrance of Things Past, which ties into the idea that Bond is a character simply remembering previous events from another life (Spectre contains a huge amount of references to other Bond films beyond just Blofeld). The full extent to which Spectre encapsulates other ideas by Proust is something that you’d have to ask a scholar about but it is the first of two theories about Spectre’s examination of the human psyche…..
The Brazil Theory
The “Brazil” in the Brazil theory refers not to the country but to Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name. Specifically to its ending. After a particular point in Brazil’s third act, where the protagonist is strapped to a chair and tortured, the film becomes a dream sequence; something that the audience is only made aware of at the end of the film. The theory simply states that after Bond’s first incision with the cranial drill during his torture the film becomes an idyllic dream sequence where Madeleine loves Bond despite his flaws and he’s able to save the day with tremendous ease. It’s not an uncommon thing to see in film and it’s very similar to the nihilist’s favourite ending style of “it was all just a dream”. Some believe, considering how many references to other Bond films are contained within Spectre, that all of the Bond films are simply delusions of this version of James Bond. Certainly, the film revolves around the idea of not just psychology but mental health altogether. Madeleine Swann is a clinical psychologist and can be heard during her introduction dictating notes on a patient with post-traumatic stress disorder, recommending cognitive behavioural and craniosacral therapies, foreshadowing Bond’s fate at the hands of Blofeld’s cranial drill. It’s entirely possible that Bond’s journey in Spectre is all about him overcoming his PTSD.