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Snakes and Ladders (1980)

Zig-Zag - le jeu de l'oie (Une fiction didactique à propos de la cartographie) (original title)

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Pascal Bonitzer
Jean-Loup Rivière
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17 September 1980 (France)  »

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Snakes and Ladders  »

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The Best Kind of Nightmare: Brilliantly Kafkaesque
25 March 2009 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

It opens with H, a protagonist whose name evokes the nightmarish fictions of Franz Kafka, explaining that he woke up in a parked car with no recollection of arriving. The car is not operational so he walks across a field where he finds a strange man playing some variation of Snakes and Ladders. Although the man tells him that he has been sitting there playing the game for a long time and it isn't for two players, H is unwittingly sucked into the game. He becomes aware of his involvement with the game only two hours later when the game player calls to him on a Paris street.

H tries to tell the mystery man that he has an appointment and he cannot play but he is told he has already begun playing. The next phase of the game involves charting and solving the labyrinth of the city streets. As the film continues the game constantly changes scale and the goals of H and the other man change along with it; this is just as confusing to H as it is to the viewer. Just when it seems that H has escaped or wandered away from the game his opponent appears to talk about strategy again. To further complicate things, H sometimes falls asleep and his dreams (which almost definitely occur within a film which is a dream itself) reflect the things that are happening to him. As this continues, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish the new dreams from the reality of the film's main narrative.

This film features some very ambitious but very obviously low budget effects that I found to be quite effective. Some however, might find them to be somewhat silly, in fact well known critic Jonathan Rosenbaum compared them to Ed Wood.

I haven't really formulated a complete interpretation of the film yet but I do have a couple of half formed ideas about it.

Idea 1: Obviously Snakes and Ladders is at least partially about maps and the way people use them. The film implies that people need maps to understand the world and make places seem more familiar. People fear the unknown and having a map of a place makes it less unknown and hence less threatening. At the same time, however, no map is complete and even the best map is no substitute for first hand knowledge of a place. Like every human endeavor, cartography is an attempt by humans to master their environment and increase the power and influence of the human race but its true success is sometimes hard to measure. This last point is made especially clear in a scene in which the mystery man mentions that a certain mountain range which has been found on maps for over one hundred years only exists on paper.

Idea 2: It's no coincidence that the film starts off with an unrealistic setting/incident. The events that make up Snakes and Ladders are a dream, but this dream has larger significance than most; the game in this dream represent existence itself. At the beginning of the dream H is pulled into a game he has no understanding of much the way a newborn is pulled into a world he has no understanding of. As H progresses he gets tips from the other player and he begins to understand something about the way the game works. However, as the game continues new complications arise and he as he understands more he begins to realize that there is still much he does not understand. This is a metaphor for growing up and facing life's challenges. Ultimately the game goes beyond anything H or even the more experienced player can understand just as in spite of all the collected efforts of every human society there are things we still can't explain. Thus the dream teaches H something about the human experience and earns its subtitle une fiction didactique à propos de la cartographie which is of course somewhat humorously referenced in the film when the narrator says, "He is the victim of the worst kind of nightmare, the didactic nightmare."

I'll have to give both of these ideas some more thought but I think they both add to my own appreciation of the film.


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