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FANTASTICA Presents: Existing with Non-Existence within “ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD”

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In Tom Stoppard’s now 25-year-old film ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, the playwright-turned-director does something precious few have ever done: he eschews the format of reality completely. Comparable to say Quentin Dupieux’s equally undefinable dark comedy RUBBER, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN has no defined rules, no defined roles and coasts along on the oblivious nature of oblivion. And thanks to that attitude, Stoppard does Shakespeare by the way of Gilliam, offering something where the very world where the film exists is so unpredictable that there’s no way of knowing exactly what is at stake, a notion that is simultaneously hilarious, bizarre, tragic, terrifying and amazing.

Make no mistake: ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is not a horror film, nor would this writer pretend it is, hence the FANTASTICA label under which this essay exists. But that’s not to say that the tale of Hamlet, fluctuating throughout time and space in a narrative that explicitly calls into question the fluid nature of fictional storytelling, doesn’t change in a horrific way when presented through Stoppard’s prose. In essence, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN are wry, unusual characters who constantly call into question their own existence in Hamlet’s world, but unbeknownst to them, they’re the equivalent of two men plunging down an undefinable vortex, the end of which is surely their demise. And if that’s not something that will at least induce a feeling of unease, if not dread, this writer doesn’t know what will.

Luckily, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN is a comedy first and foremost, and as the reality (whatever that is) unfolds before their very eyes, Stoppard makes sure to remind us that we are also in on the joke. Akin to Matt Gourley’s I WAS THERE TOO podcast, this film provokes its audience to think of a story through the lens of those on its outskirts, but in a way that also asks you to remember the fictional nature of it all. In Stoppard’s eyes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply do not exist when not called upon to serve the purposes of Hamlet, but yet, they are conscious beings, drifting through a solitary lifestyle with no concrete memory of a past or their transitions from scene to scene.

Rosenkranz und Güldenstern / Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

In basic rhetoric, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD treats narrative fiction as if it was a piece of paper. Paper can be a beautiful, meaningful work of origami, but at the same time, it’s a piece of paper. Paper can be the kindling that could save the life of a freezing family, but at the same time, it’s a piece of paper. Stoppard looks at the lives of men who don’t exist in a world that doesn’t exist, but acknowledging the entire time that they do not exist. Narrative fiction can be HAMLET, but at the same time, it’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.

And yet in a way that poses a bizarre parallel to the flexible existence of the film is its treatment of genre, atmosphere and relevance. While more cynical minds could would carve a parody or a more misanthropic statement about art, Stoppard is too invested in the existential crisis of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do so, carefully plotting out his dialogue and humor to make the film’s vast leaps in tone feel organic and natural. And almost masterfully so, Stoppard gives the audience good reason to find an emotional investment in the doomed pair, even while reminding us of their non-existence with every appearance by the ever-present theater troupe and genre flips.

But in a weird way, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is so unwieldy in its snake-eats-tail execution that it has prevented the film from achieving Gilliam-esque prestige and embrace from beyond the heady art film crowd. The truth is that ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is just as fantastic and bold as Gilliam’s revered satire and most modern twists on Shakespeare, and it’s INCEPTION-like treatment of existence within non-existence is something fans of heady, surreal cinema should embrace. Perhaps one day the film will find an audience outside the intellectual cinema crowd, but until then, much like the work of Jodorowsky, Lynch and Dupieux, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD will have to rely on discovery to cement its reputation.

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is now on Blu-ray from RLJ Entertainment.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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