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James Bond, a momentous meeting

The moment of Bond meeting the woman who will cement his character/identity for the rest of his life. This post is just the one scene, because there is a hell of a lot going on under the surface....

Spoilers, etc.

So far:
broader context
royale, first scene (prague)
musical opening
uganda, freedom fighter camp
madagascar, chase scene

bahamas, le chiffre's yacht
england, m's apartment
bahamas, ocean club
usa, miami airport
bahamas, debriefing

Bond; waiter; Vesper Lynd.

Bond travels to Montenegro and meets Vesper en route.
Deceptively straightforward.

Here we get to the pivotal first meeting of Bond and Vesper, and the beginning of the slew of double meanings that we can be absolutely certain of. Virtually everything Vesper does and says in this movie has a different meaning for her than what she lets Bond, or us, see. (Another good argument that the writers have taken a similar tack.) Later, Bond says that everyone has a tell except for her, which tells us that there is absolutely no way to discover what’s really going on apart from watching her actions with the knowledge of her true agenda in mind.

First, the setting: two humanizing elements, Bond eating and travelling, also maintain the feeling of momentum, and simultaneously let the narrative take a breath. The setting also dictates the blocking, playing into the subtext of some of the lines. This is probably the most simple scene in either movie – just two people sitting across from one another, talking – which is necessary, because there is so much going on, and allows us to focus fully on the conversation.

As opposed to Vesper, Bond is typically straightforward – not very forthcoming, but not deliberately deceptive about himself, either. This seems to be a general character trait, but it also brings more gravity (and tragedy) to Vesper eventually falling in love with him, because she had truly come to know and value who he was. Interestingly, although at different points she responds to his charm, his intelligence, his wit, her response is uniformly unaffected – except for at the end, when he acknowledges that she came off best in their sword-crossing exchange.

Vesper: How was your lamb?
Bond: Skewered. One sympathises.

This brief but ungruding gesture of respect elicits what seems like a moment of surprise and a hint of a genuine smile. Considering the stress she’s operating under, and the way she’s being ruthlessly used (as well as her usual experience at her workplace, assuming Bond’s assessment is correct), it is not hard to see why this appealed to her. For his part, he is simply left with being impressed by her, and apparently amused at the thoroughness with which she shot him down. He likes her; his interest has been engaged in who she is, instead of simply seeing her as an object of desire.

His plot (which is the one we’re watching, not Vesper’s) in this scene is that he is challenged and stimulated by the love interest. It is immediately made plain that she will in no way be a “disposable pleasure” to him (compared to the already out-of-mind Solange from the very last scene, who may as well have had this tattooed on her forehead, and who he read” as well as he did Vesper – in order to ruthlessly use her), although not yet a “meaningful pursuit” (while we are in no doubt that she will be).

The scene serves his story, and the story in general, so well that we don’t notice a whole new subplot being stealthily introduced. (In fact, we won’t notice until the end of the movie, when it collides with the main plot.) We get various character notes and background for both of them, in a conversation that draws heavily on the poker/reading-people theme, all serving the primary identity theme. It also allows Vesper to challenge and stimulate Bond by matching or besting him in wit, perception, intellect, worldly sophistication and cold self-control. In this, as in later exchanges, Vesper is shown to be Bond’s equal without having to be a fearless action girl, which is actually rather refreshing these days. She needs his protection in his world just as he needs her guidance in hers.

This equality along with her vulnerability is what allows Bond to fall in love with her; she is no mere playmate good for a throwaway romp. (When she falls from her pedestal, it nearly destroys him, and he spends the next whole movie coming to terms with it before he can let her go.) If Obanno is the physical enemy, Le Chiffre the intellectual enemy, and Mr White the organizational enemy, then Vesper is the fourth villain: the enemy of the heart. This is Fleming’s fundamental story structure, but it’s interesting to note that as a villain, she blindsides the audience, and as an enemy, she (unintentionally) strikes at Bond in the only weakness he didn’t know he had.

However, as fun as Bond’s story in this scene is (and it is), Vesper’s is just fascinating. From the moment she drops herself aggressively in the chair across from him, she is as single-mindedly on-mission as Bond could ever be.

Looking at both movies, we know that she was in a fairly sensitive/influential position at the Treasury in order to be targeted by the Quantum organization’s version of a honey trap. She was in contact with Le Chiffre, because she was his informant during the game, but under Mr White’s orders (she had his contact details to give to Bond, and her French Algerian boyfriend, Yusef, was Quantum’s agent). Quantum were fortunate that Vesper was one of their current assets, but considering their members and influence, they would have found a way of inserting a double agent one way or another; there is no doubt that they pulled the strings to have her assigned to the case.

The only thing that is unclear is whether the staged kidnapping of her boyfriend happened some time before the events of the movie, or only when Quantum decided to help preserve Le Chiffre and his lucrative network of clients. If it’s the latter, she is almost preternaturally composed and good at being a double agent, considering what just happened to her; going by Bond’s scars, less than a week can have gone by since Le Chiffre lost his money and had to set up the poker game. Assuming the former, then Quantum’s usual mode of operation is to find useful targets and wring them dry over a period of time, so that she’d had time to become practiced at being a double agent; in all likelihood, she was promised this was the final thing she had to do for him to be returned. Certainly by the time we see her, she is fully committed and very skillful in her deception; there is no wavering or confusion that you might expect from someone who only just came to the decision to betray their country and aid a terrorist organization, in spite of her deep unhappiness in it.

Knowing this background transforms what we see in her identity. In place of a cold, ambitious Treasury officer, she becomes a deeply passionate, desperate, driven woman. It seems likely that part of the reason she has no tell that Bond (skilled in detecting them) can see is because during this movie she is always “bluffing”, although it is also likely that she is naturally very good at dissembling, masking her true feelings and even motives. She gives the impression of having spent a long time or even grown up in the kind of environment that calls for those kinds of survival skills.

Considering what was on the line, I imagine she armed herself with every piece of information she could get on Bond, which would have helped in her “read” of him. She sat down across from him with an opinion already formed of who he was, which he initially confirms but eventually subverts, beginning with her surprise at the line at the end of the conversation. More pertinently, though, she would have known he’s the best poker player in the service, and presumably also known that he’s good at reading people. For a double agent, this is a problem, and she sits down with all her defences up.

Nearly all the dialogue is rife with double meaning, intentional or not, but a few lines stand out:

Immediately after the exposition-laden introductions, Vesper carefully pushes Bond on the back foot, enough to unsettle him but not make him defensive; tellingly, the line she uses to do so is: I suppose you’ve given some thought to the notion that if we lose, our government will have directly financed terrorism.” There are some very complex emotions behind the delivery of that line. No matter how good we are at bluffing, we still tend to default to whatever is on our mind (And since your first thought about me ran to ‘orphan’, that’s what I’d say you are....) – and this has been plaguing her. Betrayal does not come at all lightly to her; she has been put in a terrible position, and the screw just keeps turning. The fact that she remains sane and functioning at all says a great deal about her inner strength, and also suggests that her clear priority is saving the one she loves, above her own life. A single unwavering loyalty can be very effective in maintaining the stability of someone caught in this kind of situation (as Bond will find out in the next movie).

On top of this, she can briefly direct some of her pain, anger, fear and self-loathing at him, placing him in a suggestion of the position and mental state she is in, and despising him for it. It’s neither rational nor fair, but she is in a cruel situation and perhaps there is some relief in being able to turn that on someone else, even in some small way share that with someone else, without giving herself away. In spite of being taken aback (as intended), Bond just soaks it up, as he does with pretty much everything else.

As the conversation moves to poker itself:
Vesper: So that would be what you call “bluffing”.
Bond: You’ve heard the term. – Then you’ll also know that in poker you never play your hand. You play the man across from you.
Vesper: And you’re good at reading people.
Bond: Yes I am. Which is why I’ve been able to detect an undercurrent of sarcasm in your voice.
Vesper: I am now assured our money is in good hands.

There are a number of shifts as these lines play out. Not only is she probing his ability to read people, but the blocking of the scene has Bond explaining “You play the man across from you” – while literally sitting across from the woman who’s playing him. The implication, apart from the writers being coy and commenting on Vesper’s actions without tipping it to anyone, is that this entire act is a poker game of bluffing, unseen hands and raised stakes.

The line “And you’re good at reading people” is the crucial one, and there is tension as she waits to see how this challenge will be received. Bond responds with light flirtation, and she concludes that he sees (and expects to see) only another beautiful woman, not a threat. He is not suspicious (presumably his experience of female opponents until now has been limited), and her response carries real relief under the sarcastic relief. Soon after, having become more sure of her standing, she challenges him to read her in more detail (before he can have a long enough sample of her behaviour to detect inconsistencies). This second test lets her know upfront if he is skillful enough that her cover will be blown, and she can also use his read of her to play into what he expects to see, what her room to manoeuvre is without rousing suspicion. A very bold but calculated move (not unlike Bond, ie, when he went on the offensive with M, going to her apartment to find out where he stood with her).

It’s interesting to note that Bond’s expectation of the Bond girl, and his reaction to her, is the same as ours, the audience. They use what we expect to see in a Bond girl: she affects the plot mostly indirectly, a stepping stone, a companion, or an obvious villainess (all of whom tend to get seduced, most especially the villainesses), keeping us from speculating as to her real purpose in the story. The girls almost never have any real leverage on the events. We’re expecting her to be the hard-to-get companion, not the villainess – although true to form she does still eventually get seduced.

She goes on to describe what she has concluded about him (and isn’t wrong, just incomplete), demonstrating her unflattering opinion of his worth, that he is little more than a cold-hearted bastard and MI6’s blunt instrument. However, it’s worth noting that she is at this moment finally face-to-face with the man she is tasked to betray, and through him betray everything he represents. I doubt she’s exaggerating her dismissive opinion (although before all this happened we can easily imagine her being a more generally compassionate person, or at least less uptight), but she has an emotional incentive to believe in it, too. It is a mark of his character, and hers, that this opinion will eventually rise to “more of a man than anyone I’ve ever met,” and that she unhesitatingly goes to her death for him.

Next bit.
Full links for Casino Royale.

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January 2016
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