As off-putting as the pageantry surrounding Titanic was during its initial theatrical release, characterized by an omnipresent hit single and staggering financial success, none of the facile hype sullied the content of the film, standing in direct contrast to the marketing melodrama through artful grace and a measure of restraint. Its romantic temperament does ascend to operatic apexes and the monumental setpiece is milked for its emotional resonance, but moments of catharsis are well-balanced with tranquility, imparted through color-tinted, deep-blue photography and hypnotic, cherubic intonations on the soundtrack. The finished product is ethereal, even reserved, achieving intimacy despite the magnitude of James Cameron’s vision and the devastation of the majestic ocean liner’s plunge into the glacial water.
Titanic’s frame story opens in present-day aboard a research submarine, its team of intrepid explorers surveying the wreckage of “The Ship of Dreams,” probing the depths for sunken treasure. As “Duncan,” their robotic excavator, inspects the shell of the submerged monolith, a safe is discovered peeking out from beneath a sodden doorframe, surmised to be the final resting place of “The Heart of the Ocean” diamond necklace. To the crew’s dismay, the strongbox is severely water-damaged, containing nothing more than ravaged documents and a nude sketch of survivor Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), donning the missing sapphire around her rosy neck. Seeking guidance in their search, the crew invites the spry centenarian on board to review their findings, regaling her with details of their underwater adventures and a computer-generated rendering of the great craft splitting and sinking to the seabed. Rose is wounded by the objectivity of the image, referring to it as a “forensic analysis,” one sapped of the human struggle waged against insurmountable odds. As she recounts her personal story of embarking across the Atlantic, we see her face reflected in the footage of the ghost ship, her skin bathed in the turquoise glow of the ocean floor as if preserved by the frigid salt water.
As we’re transported back in time with her evocative words, the tone follows suit, sliding into an old-fashioned narrative that parallels the vessel in sprawl, marked by the striking mass of characters waiting to board the ship and the astounding reconstruction of the RMS Titanic preparing to set sail. We see a teenaged Rose (Kate Winslet) slinking out of her candy red Rambler, wearing a capeline hat bedecked with a bow, stately in her regal appearance and “well brought up,” but trapped in a world of her mother’s design. Her polar opposite is the scrappy Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a transient who won his ticket in a hand of cards and is just crafty enough to hoodwink the staff into letting him board without the prerequisite lice check.
Rose is first-class and Jack is trapped in steerage, two star-crossed lovers that perfectly embody Cameron’s passion for contrast, highlighted in the divergent worlds of the Titanic; one cool, clean and refined, the other fiery like the pits of hell and dusted in a layer of coal. Distinctions are also made between old and new money, classic and contemporary art (Picasso gets a mention) and live-action and CGI, a hybrid of concrete and abstract that lends a certain realism to sequences impossible to recreate by hand. “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (Kathy Bates) is also a study in opposites, acting as go-between for rich and poor passengers, marrying wealth with frank conversation, and defending Rose during a misguided debate on phallocentrism during diplomatic dinner discussion.
Rose’s fiancé, Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), is particularly critical of his future wife’s outspoken nature, overpowering our protagonist like he’s breaking a horse, restricting her reading material and snatching the cigarette from her contemptuous lips during supper. Overwhelmed by the demands of her beau and the vapidity of polite society, Rose stands “at a great precipice,” contemplating suicide as she precariously hangs over the upper deck, observing the steely surf below. As she climbs the rungs and prepares to dismount, the lovestruck Jack intervenes, having admired the girl from afar, distracting from her despondency by beguiling with an ice fishing story from his childhood, one that would foreshadow his own demise.
Much is made of “what’s suitable” in Rose’s world, but it quickly becomes apparent that the confrontational nature of Jack’s honesty and the knowledge he’s accrued through experience best affluent passivity, though it’s debatable as to whether or not the mechanics of spitting are representative of a fulfilling existence. Unlike the commandeering Cal, Jack agrees to meet the smitten Rose halfway, dolling up in a tuxedo for their dinner date and modifying his roguish behavior through keen observation. Yet, his bohemian roots show a bit during the first course, as the placement and volume of silverware and surplus of condescension wage war against his plain-spoken sincerity.
Cameron sticks with this study in disparity, detailing the pleasures of both classes in direct succession, forcing Rose to carouse with those at the lowest berth following dinner, a new experience that she thoroughly adapts to through hearty drink and acrobatic dancing. Despite this newfound vigor and tolerance, the survival of Rose’s wealth hinges on the marriage to Hockley, trapping her in a prison of refinement just as she has begun to discover the pleasures of the flesh. Crestfallen, the stoic Rose decides to fall on her sword, regardless of Jack’s promise to love her unconditionally and promote her independence.
Coincidentally, mechanical problems parallel these bouts of domestic turmoil. Despite the ship’s inability to turn, the powers that be choose to fire the last boilers for publicity, a grave error that will eventually send this maiden voyage careening into a towering iceberg. The mass of frozen water emerges just as Rose musters the courage to abandon her sycophantic family and elope with Jack, the crash acting as ironic confirmation of their eternal bond.
Beholding the water as it surges through the damaged hull is shocking, despite prior knowledge of the Titanic’s fate, and tension continues to mount as mechanics rush to slide beneath the closing doors as liquid rapidly fills the undercarriage of the boat. As patrons prepare to evacuate and the frantic meet a tragic end, the film begins to verge on the absolute, replacing narrative with a symphony of sound and motion. The once massive and airy space becomes claustrophobic as ocean permeates the sleeping quarters and Rose rushes through knee-high water to locate her incarcerated love, captured in a ruse orchestrated by the covetous Cal. There’s a sad, delicate beauty to the image of the stately liner sinking as strings play. Natural sound slowly fades as the ship’s quartet occupies the soundtrack, showing private moments of select travelers lost in thought; the captain and architect realizing their culpability and an elderly couple awaiting the inevitable, clutching each other as sea foam springs onto their bed sheets.
Cameron manages to represent the less contemplative passengers with equal aplomb, encapsulating the frenzy and chaos of the class structure in the face of uncertainty. While the wealthy cling to ritual even in death, the poor wrestle against the gates padlocked between each floor, struggling against the “order” that restrained them both in life and death. As the ship opens like a mouth, ingesting its passengers, those floundering for survival in the piercing climes of the ocean scale their fellow casualties, holding each other beneath the surface as they cling to their remaining breaths.
Capturing the overpowering rush of the sea and creaking of the dying vessel, Titanic’s sound design crackles with life, reproducing natural sound in an unnatural environment through creative use of stereo and credible foley work. James Horner’s score is just as rousing, boasting a sense of adventure and sentimentality that is essential to a film of this enormity. Though the dialogue teeters toward the overwrought and the lead performances are stagy, Cameron would rather represent nostalgia for a period of the time than actuality, favoring the grandiose sweep of emotion over the dreariness of substance. His instincts are right most of the time, but fleshing out his insinuations on the corruption of class and gender may have added a layer of nuance to complement the viscera of his imagery.
Russell Carpenter’s photography is certainly the boldest aspect of this melancholic adventure, enchanting and accurate in its representation of reflection, both in light dancing on the rippling water and monitors casting a glow on the arches and lines of the human face. Slow-motion is also employed to depict the beauty of simple gestures, swaying gracefully with the flow of Rose’s dress as she dashes across the deck or adding psychological weight to the rush of escaping passengers. Though it runs well beyond three hours, it’s lithe and necessitates the ambitions of its astonishing and poignant second half. Titanic is unapologetically emotional, but if you relieve yourself of the burden of irony and immerse yourself in the mood, you’ll be spellbound.
Titanic (Paramount Pictures, 1997)
Written and Directed by James Cameron
Photographed by Russell Carpenter