April 25, 2020

Manic pixie Bond girl: Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale

I've watched the entire James Bond series during quarantine, having only seen the Pierce Brosnan ones growing up. After watching all of them back-to-back, I've got plenty to write about.

For the opening post, I'll stick to a narrow subject, and one I've already been writing a bit about recently -- manic pixie dream girls. As it just so happens, one of the iconic Bond girls also plays the role of manic pixie dream girl -- Eva Green playing Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale (2006). While fitting the mold in most respects, there are a few ways in which she's the opposite of the typical MPDG, and that reveals which traits are defining vs. ancillary.

First, the movie she's in came out during a restless warm-up phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, as with most other cases. Indeed, during the ultimate heyday of the character type -- the late 2000s.

Second, her background is like that of the other actresses, born during a manic phase (the early '80s). Like the others, she has an hourglass body shape to emphasize the fertility of the character, although unlike the others, she's got more going on in the front of her body than in the back. And her cleavage-enhancing dresses only emphasize that throughout the movie -- which diminished her ability to play a woman who is not threatening or manipulative. It made her come off as trying to hypnotize a gullible boob man. That's really the only way in which she did not fulfill the role.

As for her character's relationship to the protagonist, she serves as his earthly guardian angel who manages to coax a romantically wary man out of his emo cocoon. She is not just a figurative nurse tending to psychological wounds, but someone who literally saves Bond's life twice -- when he's going into cardiac arrest after being poisoned, and when she makes a deal with their kidnappers to give them the poker prize money in exchange for killing Bond's torturer before he gets castrated and murdered.

Their relationship starts off flirtatiously, full of banter, as usual for the movie series. But she's one of the rare Bond girls who gets him to lower his guard, open up, and let her in. Since the late '80s releases in the series, the writers had transformed Bond from a ladies' man whose job allowed him plenty of time for casual sex, into an asexual / volcel type who served as more of a monk / warrior / eunuch devoted workaholically to his career. That changed for Casino Royale, where he's not only come out of his asexual monk-warrior armor, but chosen to give up his workaholic career in order to spend his life with her. (The series reverted back to the trend for the remaining Craig movies.)

Why does he need to retire from his career of protection, espionage, and killing in order to be with her? Because unlike the other Bond girls of the period, she's not also a butt-kicking spy, military asset, etc. She's just a bean-counting funds-controller from the treasury who supplies Bond with the money to enter the poker tournament with the villain. She's a total civilian, so if they want to become a serious couple, either she joins his world and puts herself in danger, or he joins her humdrum bureaucrat world and makes their situation safe and stable enough to last.

This creates an interesting inversion of the usual MPDG trait of being a spontaneous, adventurous free spirit, who brings zest and zaniness into the life of the buttoned-up, dull male protagonist. Here, it is she who's the pragmatic wet blanket, and he's the risk-taking adventurer who whisks her off onto a rollercoaster of unfamiliar and thrilling experiences.

However, that just goes to prove the point I made in earlier posts on the character type -- it's not her individual personality traits that make her a MPDG. It's her relationship to the protagonist, or the role she plays within the broader narrative and social dynamics (i.e., the earthly guardian angel who coaxes a romantically wary man out of his emo cocoon). Whether she has funky hair or not, whether she sports quirky clothing or not, is irrelevant. That's just individual-level cosplay stuff, not her relational role to the protagonist.

Now we see that the odd-couple nature of their relationship does not require her to be the adventurous one, and he the cautious one. That's just one possible source of his romantic wariness. It's also possible for him to be the adventurous one, yet still romantically wary -- if he's a monk-warrior type -- and for her to be the buzz-killing one, yet still wanting him to find a long-term girlfriend or wife.

But, as typically happens, the MPDG and the protagonist are not fated to be long-term partners. Her role is the practice girlfriend, while he's in the initial stage of leaving behind his cocoon. Neither one minds the necessarily temporary nature of their relationship -- she has a nurturing instinct, and finds meaning and fulfillment from healing the wounds of others so they can live healthy lives of their own, and he is glad to have received her motivation and encouragement, allowing him to find a genuine long-term girlfriend or wife.

In Casino Royale, it turns out that she had a boyfriend all along, and was being threatened by the criminal organization into acting as a double-agent in order to get them the poker prize money -- or else they would kill her boyfriend. Aside from already having a boyfriend, she dies at the end as Bond is killing off the criminals. And yet that doesn't diminish her role in acting as Bond's guardian angel (going so far as to sacrifice herself for him), nor her role in coaxing a romantically wary man into letting his guard down and connecting with a woman emotionally and socially (and physically), in preparation for a long-term relationship with someone else.

Bond is initially shocked and tries to dismiss her in an attempt to rationalize things -- calling her a bitch, traitor, saying it means nothing that she's dead so let's get on with our jobs, etc. It's not so dissimilar from the treatment of Zooey Deschanel's character in 500 Days of Summer, where the MPDG coaxes the protagonist out of his cocoon and falls for him, but ultimately falls more for another man and gets married to him, not the protagonist, who then resorts to casting her in negative terms in a desperate attempt to ween himself off of her.

In this movie, though, the ending of their relationship is more tragic for her, and not just because she dies. Even if she had survived, she's the routine-craving one and could not content herself with wandering her free-spirited way onto the next one of life's endless spontaneous adventures, as the standard MPDG could do once her role as nurse-angel had been completed. This makes her complex for a MPDG, as well as for a Bond girl. Her complexity -- even if it all comes together fairly late in the narrative -- explains why Casino Royale is one of the few standout entries in the post-'60s Bond movies.


  1. Casino Royale was coming off the mid-2000s(2003-2006) minor crime rate rise, when the quality of movies(and other media) temporarily improved.

  2. If you remember, I had created a template that matched the social status of girlfriends with the excitation cycle.

    Defractory = girlfriend has lower social status(for instance, Ryan Gosling dating a blowup doll)

    Warmup = girlfriend has equal social status

    Manic = girlfriend has higher social status(Ethan Embry writing a love letter to Jennifer Love Hewitt in "Can't Hardly Wait"(1998)

    I'm interested in how this would apply to Bond movies. I"ve only seen the Bond movies from the 90s, but I can look up some info on the ones I haven't seen.

    In "Tomorrow Never Dies"(1998 - manic phase), Bond sleeps with a rich socialite(Terri Hatcher).

    In Casino Royale(2006 - warmup phase), Vesper Lynd is another secret agent - equal status.

    In "Die Another Day"(2002 - defractory phase), Halle Berry is an NSA agent - which is civilianish and not as important as working for MI6(like Bond) or the CIA.

    In "Diamonds are forever"(1971), the main female lead, Tiffany Case, is a diamond smuggler - a petty criminal and therefore much lower status than being a secret agent like James Bond.


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