What a strange story Peter Ibbetson is.
That’s not a mark against it, mind you. It just felt very different from the stories told by many of the other films I’ve been seeing, in the way that the little indie films of today are often different from the blockbusters. Where A Night At The Opera and The Thin Man are kind of like today’s Pirates of the Caribbean or Fast And The Furious, Peter Ibbetson is more like….I don’t know, maybe Upstream Color.
We first meet Peter when he is a little boy going by the nickname “Gogo”, living with a single mother in a Paris suburb, and friendly with a little girl “Mimsey” who lives next door. The children are feisty but constant playmates. Things change drastically when Gogo’s mother dies; his uncle, a stern disciplinarian from London, is charged with raising him. His uncle literally has to drag Gogo away from Mimsey when they take their leave and rechristens him Peter as they travel.
We then jump ahead 15 years to find Peter as a young architect, dissatisfied for reasons he can’t quite name. His boss sends him on a vacation to Paris to relax a little; while he’s there, Peter revisits the house where he grew up and realizes that all this time, he’s simply been missing Mimsey. Ah well, can’t be helped – his vacation is over, and he doesn’t think finding Mimsey would even be possible anyway. As soon as he’s back in London his boss sends him out on a job – the Duke and Duchess of an estate in Yorkshire want to make over their stables. Or, rather, the spirited Duchess wants to make them over – her much older husband is letting her call the shots. The opinionated Duchess clashes with the cocky Peter about the stables’ design at first, but gradually they both get caught up in the project, turning their contention to collaboration. And towards the end, things start getting….flirty. Especially one afternoon when the pair discuss having had unusual dreams the previous night – and realize that they’ve shared the same lucid dream.
The Duke isn’t blind, however, and calls the pair out one evening over dinner. Peter admits to his affections – which he hasn’t even confessed to the Duchess yet – and agrees to leave. But before he goes, he says – he wants to thank them, since his feelings for the Duchess have cured her of the lifelong torch he’s carried for his childhood playmate. But this makes things worse – because the Duchess is Mimsey, all grown up. And she’s been missing Peter all this time too.
The pair concoct a plan to run off together, but the suspicious Duke surprises them. In the ensuing scuffle, the Duke is killed; Peter is charged with manslaughter and sentenced to life in prison, while the Duchess is largely shunned by the surrounding community.
….That, however, is not the end of the story. The third act begins with Peter in prison, drifting off to sleep on his cot – and having a dream that the Duchess has come to visit him, urging him to remember that they shared a dream once. Maybe that’s what they can do every night, she says. Dream Peter scoffs – how does he know that it’s really the Dream Duchess coming to visit him, and he isn’t just making it up? She’ll send him a sign, she says, before he wakes up.
And thus, the last act is about the pair trying to connect in a shared dream reality every night for the rest of their lives, all while Peter is in his cell and the Duchess is in her mansion.
…See what I mean? A film from the 1930s that devotes a full 20 minutes to parallel-reality dream-world exploration. It felt more high-concept than I expected for the 1930s, and I was genuinely surprised. Mind you, I’d rather have seen more exploration of the dream world itself and less romantic shmoopery, but will definitely grant that’s a personal preference. I was also pleased that they didn’t try to get too cute with special effects to signal “we are moving to the dream world”, and instead handle that fairly simply, with a couple of cinematographic tricks and careful editing.
It even seems to have been well received at the time. Critics fell all over themselves praising it – the film was based on a beloved novel by Franco-British writer George du Maurier, and critics especially praised how the film dealt with the “dream world” concept. Stars Gary Cooper and Ann Harding also received high praise – in fact, critics didn’t even seem to notice that Cooper made absolutely no attempt to adopt a British accent (or a French one, for that matter) for the Anglo-French Peter. But I have to admit I didn’t realize until just now that “oh right, he could have done a British accent”. The story simply distracted me from that detail.
I admit I’d probably not watch it again. But it made me realize I had some misconceptions about how “conventional” the film world of the 1930s may have been, and proved them wrong.