David Bowie’s latest video for the title track of his recent release, “The Next Day”, is enough to send the religious into sacrilege-screaming mode. This bizarre send-up is a wonderful retro-ized trip back into the MTV days when videos actually tried to mean something, or when artists felt impish enough to light the gasoline, push boundaries, and toss out a range of images wild enough to keep the most ardent fans busy with bookish decoding. No doubt Bowie’s latest concept video is meant to stir up talk over the record, but it deserves more artistic credit than that.
The video stars a vatic Bowie, dressed in monk’s robes, singing in a nightclub called “The Decameron“. It’s an interesting name for this doomsday tavern, and should perk the ears of all those English majors who recall reading 14th-century writer Boccaccio or those films lovers who’ve just come off purchasing Criterion’s Pier Paolo Pasolini DVD box set. The video also stars actor Gary Oldman (summoning some of that sinister air he had in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula”) and Academy Award winning French actress, Marion Cotillard, looking stunning as ever — until she gets the stigmata. Yeah, the video is full of Christian symbolism, portents, and visions of saints and the damned, with little distinguishing. It’s a walk into Ken Russell’s “The Devils” and Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth”.
But there’s a lot of Bowie cheek here. A devilish Oldman in priestly garb, gives a beggar a beat-down before entering this club of debauchery and revelation. He’s accompanied by a woman sporting her own eyeballs on a plate, who also happens to have hair growing where eyelashes should be. “Father” Oldman tries to nuzzle up to a distraught prostitute (Cotillard) at the bar. There’s a self-flagellating sadomasochist, a knight, and a girl kissing what looks to be the hell-burnt shriveled hand of a bishop in exchange for cash. There’s spurting blood, Bibles, booze, and a quasi-recreation of da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”. In short, it’s fantastic art. (Although I’m not a huge fan of the “disappearing act” ending. A tad lame. However, I love Cotillard’s slo-motion dancing, the Oldman close-ups, and Bowie’s wild pointing as the song’s frenzy builds with each jump-cut.)
But let’s take a breath here, before the self-righteousness begins to boil over. This is a song about a man on the run from a crowd that revels in other people’s pain. The lyrics are largely about hypocrisy (and in particular religious hypocrisy), with Bowie saving the best verse for last: “They can work with Satan while they dress like the saints / They know god exists for the devil told them so / They scream my name aloud down into the well below.” The video was directed by Floria Sigismondi. — David D. Robbins Jr.