Yeah, you know this story – this musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, in which a phonetics and diction teacher makes a casual bet with a friend that he can pass a Cockney flower girl off as a Duchess simply by giving her a series of elocution lessons – but he does so with little thought to how his pet project will fare after his little experiment is over.
And Audrey Hepburn is perfect as Eliza Doolittle, the flower-girl in question; she’s got the sass and spunk Eliza needs before her transformation, and the regal bearing she needs after. I could always totally buy her in both guises. She also overshadows Rex Harrison as Henry Higgins, the diction teacher seeking to mold her; he’s fine and all, but he’s got the sort of speak-singing habit that makes me dubious. He’s also playing a thoroughly unpleasant fellow to boot; in the original stage musical, as in Shaw’s play, Higgins is an unpleasant and selfish fellow, whom Eliza walks out on at the end. The musical tries to soften things with a happy ending, bringing Eliza back to Higgins after he’s sung an epiphany about how he misses her; but Shaw was opposed to this kind of ending in his original play, and Higgins is unpleasant enough that I didn’t buy it in the musical either.
I found I had a similar to-and-fro reaction to much of the rest of the film as well; loving some elements, repulsed by others. Some of the songs are delightful – I’ve always been fond of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and “On The Street Where You Live” (I even sang that latter song to myself one afternoon when a work errand brought me to the block where a new boyfriend lived). And the musical and film both preserve Shaw’s ideas about how providing aid to people needs to be more than just a cosmetic fix-up; and how in some cases it may make them worse off.
That last notion may be the whole point of Eliza’s father, Albert, and his inclusion in the play. But I honestly felt like you could have cut him out entirely without the story suffering at all; he’s absent from much of Eliza’s life, and appears only to sing a couple songs and then wheedle Higgins out of some money. His songs are fine and all, and Stanley Holloway does okay with them, but they could have been cut entirely from the whole thing and I wouldn’t have missed him. This story and this struggle is entirely between Higgins and Eliza, and Albert has little to nothing to do with it.
Also, I simply was bored by everyone’s musical performances save Audrey Hepburn’s – even though, ironically, she wasn’t the one singing; her voice was famously (and unnecessarily) dubbed by Marni Nixon, a singer who often provided the “singing voice” for other actresses in this period (we’ve heard her before in West Side Story as Maria, and we also hear bits of her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). It may be Nixon’s voice we hear, but it is certainly Hepburn’s performance which sells Eliza’s numbers. Compared to Hepburn, though, everyone else felt stagey and affected.
I realize it sounds like I’m damning this film with faint praise. I didn’t dislike it, though – I was more just lukewarm about it, and felt it went on a little long, with too much time in between Hepburn’s singing. And honestly, that’s one of the biggest reasons I wished they’d cut out Albert’s role – the whole film could have been shortened by a good 20 minutes without him, and I think it might have improved; again, not because Holloway does poorly with the role, but rather because I don’t think the story itself needed to hear from him at all.
There’s an interesting plot lurking in this film. And, I’ve also been intrigued by director Carl Dreyer’s vision in the past. But here it feels like either a weird mismatch, or Dreyer’s style feels like a bit of a throwback.
In Dreyer’s defense, the film world changed around Dreyer dramatically in the nine years since his previous film Ordet, and he’d also been trying unsuccessfully to launch other films in the interim. When his attempts to adapt works by William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill failed, Dreyer revisited an idea he’d had in the 1940s – adapting a play by Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg. Dreyer settled on Söderberg’s work Gertrud after reading a critic’s analysis pointing out how much of the play was driven by characters settling for trivial conversation instead of genuine communication. Struck by this observation, Dreyer chose to stage his adaptation in such a way that the dialogue was more important than the cinematography.
The problem is that it’s always been Dreyer’s imagery that’s struck me, so in a way he was abandoning his own best quality. The story itself also doesn’t really suit the all-talk approach; it’s a period piece and relationship drama, with Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) struggling to balance her younger ideals about love with a disappointing reality. She’s currently married to Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a lawyer and aspiring politician, but previously had lived a more bohemian life as an opera singer and lover to esteemed poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode). Her life with Gustav is calm, but stifling, and Gertrud shocks Gustav one day by asking for a divorce. Gabriel is in town for a visit, and Gustav assumes she wants to return to him – but actually she’s got her eye on a younger man, a pianist and composer named Erland (Baarde Owe). But that goes to pieces and Gabriel tries to lure her back – prompting Gertrud to finally tell him why she left him, and why she then was leaving Gustav, and why Erland also let her down so.
There’s some really heady stuff in this, and Gertrud is ultimately a tragic character – so caught up in an idealistic vision of What Love Really Is Like that nobody was ever going to satisfy her. Dreyer adds an epilogue to the original play that suggests Gertrud found her way to some happiness in a single life; I’m likely to end up that way myself, and I found that a refreshing change from the usual depiction of “tragically lonely older women”. But Dreyer is still pretty frank about how Gertrud’s monomaniacal commitment to those ideals of love is what leads her to this single life in the first place, and that’s also some food for thought.
The problem is that nearly all the scenes are conversations between pairs of people – Gertrud and Gustav, Gertrud and Erland, Gertrud and Gabriel, Gustav and Gabriel, etc. – with very little action. And nearly all of these conversations are strangely passionless, with neither person looking at each other – everyone seems to stare at some point in the middle distance as they speak, rarely reacting to each other. The most gumption we see from Gertrud is when she’s telling Gabriel about a moment from their old love affair, and we skip to a flashback when she discovers Gabriel’s written something that displeases her – but all she does is angrily rip a piece of paper in half and that’s it. Gustav has a similar moment at one point, Gertrud and Erland kiss a few times, and there’s a weird moment at a party in Gabriel’s honor when a college student delivers a lengthy tribute speech – but mostly it’s just people talking about how disappointed they are with their love lives, but in a tone of voice more suited to talking about how you had to settle for a different kind of cheese because your favorite was sold out.
So ultimately this felt like more of an intellectual exercise than a film.
Several critics have struggled over the years trying to categorize this film. Is it horror? A period piece? Fantasy? An erotic drama? Some combination? Me, I say – “who cares, just watch it.”
The entire story takes place in medieval Japan, in a reed-filled swamp near Kyoto where an older woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) struggle to make ends meet during a civil war. All the men have been drafted into battle, and any surrounding farmland has been torn up in all the skirmishes, so all the two women can do is scavenge, prowling the reeds to find bodies of dead samurai so they can strip them and sell the armor on a black market run by a neighbor (Taiji Toyonama) and consistently nixing his suggestion that they try going into prostitution.
Then another neighbor, Hachi (Kei Satō), turns up at their hut one night. Hachi was drafted the same day as Kishi – the younger woman’s husband, and older woman’s son – and he breaks it to them that he and Kishi both deserted the army after several months of ill treatment, but Kishi had been killed. Hachi made it out alive and had every intention of staying that way, returning to his old hut and laying low for the rest of the war. Both women are distraught by Hachi’s news – at least, at first. The older woman feels Hachi was always a slippery fellow and assumes he had something to do with Kishi’s death. But the younger woman can’t help but notice he’s kinda cute. And Hachi thinks she’s kinda cute too. And well, she is single now…and before long, the couple are sneaking off for overnight hookups, causing the older woman great consternation. As the days wear on, she goes to greater and greater lengths to keep the pair apart, first with threats and then spying. Telling the younger woman folk tales about demons who attack adulterous woman seems to work – for a while. But then the older woman meets a lost samurai (Jūkichi Uno) wearing a creepy mask, and tricks him out of it. Maybe if she wears the mask herself and uses it to give the girl a good scare…
There is a rawness to this film, an earthiness that grabs your attention. The women often sleep topless in their hut, and it’s not presented with any kind of hubba-hubba titilation; they’re topless because it’s bloody hot. In one scene, Hachi is following the younger woman from the river towards her own hut; and as he walks, the camera gives us a shot of the younger woman’s backside, which is exactly what Hachi is looking at. And the older woman also gets an intriguing scene where she stumbles upon Hachi and her daughter in law coupling in his hut – but instead of just being scandalized, we realize she’s got some sexual frustration of her own she’s also working through; which may be part of why she’s propositioning Hachi herself a scene later. But most of her motivation is a fear of abandonment – she’s lost her son, she may lose her daughter-in-law, and then she’ll be truly destitute. The war has brought her to this, and that is likely also why she takes out her anger on the masked samurai mid-film – these high-class noblemen dared drag her son into a petty squabble and that just ruined everything.
It’s unlike any other period Japanese drama I’ve seen; it feels more like a folk horror piece, more like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestorsin a way. It also avoids any kind of cliches about the lives of these peasants – they aren’t simple people, nor are they unusual noble or cruel. They’re just desperate and scared and tired and confused and willing to do just about anything to survive and thrive, and if that means putting on a creepy mask or hooking up with the skeevy neighbor, then fair enough.
So back when I reviewed The Wizard of Oz – another film I’d previously seen as a child – I was surprised that there were several scenes I had totally forgotten about towards the beginning. With Mary Poppins I had the exact opposite reaction – “boy, they are jumping right in with the songs and magic and everything right away, aren’t they?”
By all reports, author P. L. Travers resisted Walt Disney’s efforts to make this film for years, and the songs and animation were exactly the reason why. Travers was very protective of her magic nanny (played here by Julie Andrews) who’s turned up to care for the young Banks children, Jane and Michael (Karen Dotrice and Michael Garber); Travers had based her depiction of Mary Poppins on people who’d cared for her as a child, and she’d feared Disney would shave off some of Mary’s strictness – a trait which Travers felt did her own family a world of good. She was also afraid Disney wouldn’t get that Mary was there more for the benefit of Jane and Michael’s father, a workaholic banker named George (David Tomlinson). But mainly she was dead-set against the idea of Mary cavorting about with animated characters and singing goofy Disney-studio-penned songs.
And…ultimately she lost that battle. I have actually read Travers’ book, and book Mary is very different – a good deal stricter and unfussy, still magic but much more practical. Book Mary would never dance with chimney sweeps on rooftops or let a chimneysweep like Bert (Dick Van Dyke) serenade her, with or without a backing chorus of penguins.
But I got the sense that this wasn’t so much about Mary Poppins anyway as it was an excuse for Disney to do a British music hall revue. The songs and dancing are front and center right from the first, when we meet Bert cavorting about on a sidewalk in a one-man band getup. And the next song comes just moments later, followed rapid-fire by a second, a third, a fourth…at one point I actually tried tracking how many minutes Disney was giving us between songs. And there ain’t much.
Fortunately there are many good songs in here – Bert’s ode to the life of chimneysweeps, “Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”, won the Oscar for Best Song, but there’s also rollicking singalongs like “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” and “Step In Time” and “Spoonful of Sugar” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, ballads and lullabyes like “Feed The Birds” and “Stay Awake”. There are so many songs thrown at you that it’s totally understandable that you forget the weaker ones (I never liked the “I Love to Laugh” scene, not even as a kid; the whole moment where a disapproving Mary demonstrates some different ways people laugh always felt forced).
Surprisingly, this rewatch made me feel like Bert is the real hero in this film. He introduces us to Mary Poppins, he does most of the elaborate dancing – and crucially, he is the one who finally gets through to George Banks about mending his ways. Mary has been bamboozling him and shaking things up, trying to snap him out of his rut, but Bert has the man-to-man talk with him that helps him connect the dots and realize he’s being a jerk.
That felt true of the performances as well. Mary Poppins is held up as the Platonian Ideal of everything – and don’t get me wrong, Julie Andrews is a fine singer and dancer. But Dick Van Dyke blew me away. Yes, his “Cockney” accent is broad enough to sail the QE-2 through and isn’t authentic in the slightest, but – my God can that man ever dance.
In fact, let me show you something. Here’s a clip from when the Kennedy Center did a tribute to Dick Van Dyke last year, with an ensemble into doing their own version of the “Step In Time” number.
They’re all fine… but the actual “Step In Time” number is bigger, faster, more energetic, more….everything. Even if you ignore the special effects and focus just on the dancing.
In some ways, this film is exactly what it says on the tin; it’s a dramatization of the Gospel of St. Matthew, adapted in Italian neorealist style by Pier Paolo Pasolini (who also directs). Pasolini – a lapsed Catholic – had gotten bored in a hotel and read the Bible, and been so captivated by the Gospel of Matthew that he decided to stage it exactly as it was – using exactly the same words and plot points that had caught his eye. But for me – a similarly lapsed Catholic – it was the neorealism bits that resonated the most.
I have to confess to dozing off a time or two during this; but notably, my drowsy moments seemed to happen when there was a lot of talking. After weekly Masses as a child, I am probably wired to associate recitations from the Gospels with boredom and sleepiness, having been woken up early on a Sunday and shepherded to church, and not understanding the priest’s sermons and looking out the windows half-awake and impatiently wanting to go outside and play or go home and sleep. I’ve heard those exact words spoken again and again, have heard those stories again and again.
But I haven’t seen them this way. And it’s the wordless scenes which caught my attention and woke me up, again and again.
One example: the very opening sequence, with Margherita Caruso as Mary and Marcello Morante as Joseph sadly staring back and forth at each other. The camera cuts from shots of one to the other, head-and-shoulders the only things visible, about three or four times – and then we get a wider shot of Mary, hugely pregnant, and understand viscerally the reason Joseph looks so upset. We don’t need words, we get the context.
Or the scene following His Baptism, when Jesus retreats to the desert for 40 days; Enrique Irazoqui, the non-actor who plays Jesus, is kneeling in solitude and stillness; hands raised, his white robe stark against the deep black of the landscape as the camera tracks closer and closer until we can see his face.
But even though Pasolini leans on the visuals for some of the storytelling, he doesn’t give in to elaborate special effects; his imagery is simple, but raw. When Jesus heals a leper, there’s no thunderbolt or light flash; there’s just a man with a disfigured face, and Jesus laying His hand over it – and then removing His hand to reveal a healed face. The Angel (Rossana Di Rocco) just appears now and then, stepping into camera; there’s no thunderbolt or trumpet fanfare, she’s just there suddenly, when before she wasn’t.
Speaking of fanfares – the music Pasolini uses is inspired as well. He chose music from several genres; his only concern was that it be religious or spiritual in some fashion. So the soundtrack jumps from Bach’s Mass in B Minor to the Jewish Kol Nidre, to a passage from the Congolese Missa Luba. The Adoration of the Magi is set to the sound of Odetta Holmes’ singing “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”. A portion of Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevesky Cantata scores another scene.
And Pasolini also has a good eye for picking the right face for each part. Irazoqui was an economics student when Pasolini cast him as Jesus; after the film, Irazoqui only had minor roles in three other films and then went back to his studies, going on to become an expert in teaching computers to play chess. Several of the apostles were played by writers and philosophers Pasolini admired. And in a slightly Oedipal move, Pasolini cast his own mother Susanna as the older version of Mary. No one’s performance is groundbreaking; but they don’t really need to be. They all somehow look exactly right for their roles.
The Bible passage about God speaking in a “still small voice” isn’t in Matthew; rather, it’s in the Book of Kings. But it’s a verse I’m thinking of connected to this film; the Gospel isn’t just the words, it’s the things we see. The things we see don’t have to be super-impressive; Jesus can look like a Spanish college student, His mother can look like any Italian nonna. Things can be simple. And – that’s kind of the point.
This infra-black comedy by Stanley Kubrick is widely considered to be one of the best film comedies of all time, if not one of the best films of all time. I’d seen parts of it in the past and agreed that it was indeed good. However – it was in this viewing that I discovered that it was good enough to overcome childhood trauma.
I will explain in a bit. Hang in there.
This razor-sharp satire of the Cold War kicks off when an Air Force General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), implements “Wing Attack Plan R” – an immediate air assault on the Soviet Union. Part of the order involves a total shutdown of the base and the confiscation of all personal radios, a task he leaves up to his executive officer Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a visiting RAF officer. Mandrake happens to turn on one such radio and is surprised to hear not a breaking news bulletin, but a routine music broadcast. Alarmed, he rushes to Ripper’s office – only to discover that Ripper has had a psychotic break and has called for the attack in response to some half-baked conspiracy theories about fluoridation in water.
But Ripper’s plan is underway, and dozens of Air Force bombers are now speeding toward their various targets. Word very quickly reaches the Pentagon, where General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) breaks it to President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) that “Plan R” was only intended to be a last-ditch retaliatory attack, granting senior officers the power of command only if all other superior officers had been killed in earlier missile strikes. And, as such, part of the plan involves the bombers screening out all further communication unless it carried a three-letter code, one known only to the officer issuing the order. So President Muffley can’t override Ripper’s order. Muffley immediately orders the Army to storm the base and arrest Ripper, when they will force him to share the code. But just in case, after a brief consultation with Soviet ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), Muffley also calls the Soviet Premier to break the news and offers him a list of the targets – authorizing the USSR to shoot down the bombers if the Pentagon is unable to sort things out in time.
But Sadeski brings up another complication – the USSR has just finished building a “doomsday device” which will automatically detonate if even just one U.S. missile reaches its target. The resulting nuclear fallout would contaminate the entire Earth for 93 years. Muffley and Turgidson are dubious – they haven’t heard anything about it – but Muffley’s science officer, the enigmatic Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), confirms that such a thing is indeed possible; in fact, he had been working on a similar plan for the United States. Muffley re-iterates to the Soviet Premier that the USSR can go ahead and shoot down any of the U.S. Bombers, since four of them are starting to get kinda close to their targets. The Soviets manage to shoot down three – the fourth is only damaged.
However – during the chaos, Mandrake has managed to figure out Ripper’s three-letter code and alerts the Pentagon. And it works! All bombers start returning to their base – except for the damaged plane, which suffered a radio short. So Major T. J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) is still heading towards a Siberian ICBM site, prepared to complete his mission.
…So, everything about this film is ridiculous in the best possible way, and some of the best parts were nearly accidental. Sellers’ triple-casting was actually a studio idea – he’d played multiple roles in Kubrick’s Lolita, and the executives at Columbia Pictures felt this was a major part of that film’s success. I admit it’s an odd conclusion, but somehow the suits were on to something; Kubrick had already told Sellers he could ad-lib some lines, and three roles just gave him three chances to ad-lib.
Incredibly, Sellers was supposed to play four roles – along with Strangelove, Mandrake and Muffley, he was also supposed to play Major Kong, pilot of the rogue bomber. But Sellers injured his ankle before they were to shoot all the scenes with Kong and had to drop out. The part was written as a sort of “John Wayne type”, so Kubrick first offered the role to Wayne, and then to Bonanza star Dan Blocker – both of whom said no (Blocker’s agent said he thought the script was “too pinko“). Slim Pickens was hired on such short notice that they had to pause while Pickens secured his U.S. Passport (filming was taking place in England, and Pickens had never left the US).
Kubrick also stacked the deck a bit for Pickens – he only gave Pickens the script to Kong’s scenes, and never told him that the film was a comedy, so Pickens played everything absolutely straight – even the moment when Kong trades his pilot’s helmet for a cowboy hat was 100% serious. James Earl Jones, who made his film debut as Kong’s bombadier, recalled later that Pickens turned up on set with a cowboy hat and fringed jacket, prompting one stagehand to remark that “he’s arrived in costume!” unaware that this was how Pickens dressed all the time. Kubrick also played a similar trick on George C. Scott – asking him to do some larger-than-life takes of each scene “for practice”, as a warm-up before the more restrained takes Scott preferred. But – to Scott’s chagrin, Kubrick used the “warmup” takes in the film. Scott was angry enough to swear never to work with Kubrick again – but honestly, Kubrick was right. Turgidson’s bluster and bravado absolutely makes his scenes.
And that’s just the casting. Everything else about this film just works – the ridiculous trigger for Ripper’s breakdown, the inane standoff Mandrake has with a skeptical Army colonel, the one-sided conversation Muffley has with a clearly inebriated Soviet Premier, Turgidson’s drive to outdo the Soviets at every possible turn, Kong’s monomaniacal commitment to his mission. Even the music is spot-on – the recurring use of the Battle Hymn Of The Republic scoring Kong’s scenes, or the whole film ending with the sentimental Vera Lynn hit “We’ll Meet Again”, set to footage of nuclear explosions.
And that’s what I meant by the childhood trauma. Back when I reviewed Animal Farm, I mentioned that one characteristic of “Generation X” was a childhood spent fully aware of the looming threat of nuclear war. I first learned about the nuclear threat by accident at the age of nine – too young to understand the politics involved. The only bit I understood was that there were these really big bombs somewhere that could blow up everyone in the whole world, and they could go off any minute. I was still young enough to be slightly scared of the dark, and for a full year, instead of imagining that the monster under the bed was a big scaley beast, I thought a mushroom cloud was lurking there. Getting older only made things worse, especially after the broadcast of some made-for-TV specials in the 1980s about “what dropping the Bomb would be like”. For a good ten years, from the mid-1980s up until the late 1990s, I had unbelievably vivid recurring nightmares about nuclear war.
Those kinds of “what-ifs” actually started in the 1960s, and I’ve been wondering how I would handle revisiting images that scared me so when I was nine. But the rest of Strangelove was so funny, the satire so pointed and the performances so perfect, that I found myself laughing more than cringing, my childhood trauma averted.
Tippi Hedren is our lead as “Marnie”, a con artist and corporate criminal. Her M.O. is clever enough – disguise herself, move to a small city and apply for a boring secretarial/bookkeeping job. Explain away the lack of references with a sob story about being a recent widow who’s got to fend for herself. Land the job, and fade into the wallpaper along with the rest of the secretarial pool. Linger around long enough to learn how to access the company safe – then stay late one night, empty the safe out, and skip town.
It’s been working out okay for her – she’s able to care for an elderly mother in Baltimore (Louise Latham), and it keeps her solvent. She’s a loner by default, but she’s got an aversion to sex anyway, so it works out. But then she lands a job in Philadelphia, working for a publishing company owned by one Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), and Rutland takes a romantic shine to her. And when Marnie finally hits the Rutland Co. safe, Mark catches her red-handed; but instead of turning her in, he blackmails her into marrying him in exchange for keeping her secret. And at one point in their “honeymoon”, Mark gets sick of her protestations that she “doesn’t like to be touched” and forces himself on her.
Now, there’s actually a decent mystery the film goes on to solve; why Marnie is compelled to steal, why her mother seems distant towards her, why Marnie has aversions to sex as well as to the color red or to thunder. But that moment of marital rape is where Hitchcock lost me, especially when Mark doesn’t really seem to regret his actions. Marnie even tries to kill herself afterward, but Mark saves her in the nick of time; even that doesn’t seem to cause him any remorse. Instead, he treats the whole thing as proof that Marnie needs some kind of psychological help to “overcome” her “sexual problem”.
That honeymoon rape is a mighty big thing for Hitchcock to just hand-wave away, even if you play the “but times were different then” card. It’s traumatizing enough for Marnie that she tries to kill herself, but by the end of the film she is clinging to Mark and asking him to help support her while she “recovers”. Even more troubling – one of the film’s screenwriters, when adapting it from the novel on which it was based, told Hitchcock that this particular scene should be cut; but Hitchcock disagreed, asserting that this scene “was the whole point”. He then went on to fire that particular screenwriter for even raising such a complaint.
I’ll admit I was already disinclined towards this film, since there are allegations that Hitchcock sexually harassed Hedren while filming this and The Birds. Hitchcock’s actions might sound eerily familiar to anyone following Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault trials – Hitchcock persistently pestered Hedren to go out with him, tried to corner her alone a lot, and a couple times even tried to force her. When she continued to refuse him, Hitchcock finally blacklisted her – he even stopped the studio from putting Hedren’s name in for an Oscar consideration – and her career took a major hit as a result. I nevertheless tried giving it a fair shot – only to see that Hitchcock actually went a bit further than Weinstein, and depicted a sexual assault in the film itself, saying that “it was the whole point”.
I need to begin this review with an apologetic first: I swear to you all, I am not a cynic. I have been in love, I have also been in the kind of swept-off-your-feet love where the world is bedecked with stardust and where unlikely coincidences seem to point to your partner being fated for you. Those loves didn’t last, but often they ended with my beloveds and I growing into solid friendships instead.
I say all that because from the look of things, I’m going to be one of the very few people in the world who isn’t going to swoon over this as a beloved and poignant movie about First Love And Its Tragic End, and am instead going to grump about how it’s taken a run-of-the-mill plot and dressed it up in music and pretty colors in an effort to distract me. And I don’t like that.
The run-of-the-mill plot here is that of young lovers who pledge eternal fidelity before parting, only for life to intrude, alas. Catherine Deneuve is “Genevieve”, daughter of a widowed shopkeeper in the quiet French town of Cherbourg; her sweetie is Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), an auto mechanic living with his sickly aunt. They sneak out together whenever Guy can get away from his aunt or Genevieve can get free of her mother’s umbrella shop; but right when Guy proposes and Genevieve finally gets the nerve to tell her mother about him, Guy is drafted into serving in the war in Algeria. They postpone things until Guy comes back, pledging earnestly to write every day and to wait for each other – and then, big surprise, Guy doesn’t write often and Genevieve meets someone else and then so does Guy when he gets home and they go on to marry other people, the end.
Now you see why I was so defensive about sounding cynical. But try as I might, I simply could not get past the fact that I have seen this story a good many times before – once even here on this list, with Splendor In The Grass. This story has its own trope over on the TV Tropes web site, for pity’s sake. And while the music is empirically lovely, and the world of Genevieve and Guy brightly-colored, I kept feeling like it was there to distract me from the run-of-the-mill plot, and that just made things worse. Not that I hated the film, mind you – more like, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about and why this retelling of this old chestnut was so different from all the other times.
One moment did get a chuckle out of me – the fellow Genevieve ultimately does marry is Roland Cassard (Marc Michel), whom we last saw in the film Lola – and he even tells Genevieve about his unrequited love for Lola in one scene, confirming that it is indeed the same character.
I’m starting to think I’m not really into Antonioni. I acknowledge his skill just fine, and sometimes he’s captured some amazing things with subtext; but then there are times when he seems to get caught up in how things look, to the detriment of the rest of the film.
Like this film, for instance. Red Desert was Antonioni’s first foray into color film – and the look of things is gorgeous. Most of the action takes place in and around a petrochemical plant run by Ugo (Carlo Chianetti), with much of the landscape bathed in dull shades of grey punctuated by the shocking red of gas pipes, the sickly green of polluted waste water, and the acid yellow of toxic smoke. Most of the workers in the plant are also in greys and browns, and Ugo himself is in a conservative suit most of the time. Not so his wife Giuliana (Monica Vitti), a nervous woman who dresses in vivid colors in an effort to shake herself out of a weirdly persistent depressive state.
Giuliana catches the eye of Ugo’s friend Corrado (Richard Harris), visiting to recruit men for a business venture of his own. Ugo explains that Giuliana recently was in a car crash, that’s why she’s still a bit skittish. But as Corrado gets to know Giuliana – the pair bonding over a mutual dissatisfaction with modern life – he comes to suspect whether that “car crash” was the accident Ugo says it was.
And nothing else really…happens.
Now, for Antonioni this kind of existential ennui is usually kind of the point. Giuliana feels out of touch with modern life, the way that Lidia did in La Notte or Claudia did in L’Avventura. But in those earlier films, I had more of a sense where that disconnect came from, whereas here….not so much. I certainly see its effects – there’s a stunning shot partway through the film, as Giuliana gets spooked on an outing with Ugo and some other friends and starts for the car, urging the others to join her and head home. But when she looks back at them, they’re all standing still, looking at her with bafflement, as a thick fog from the nearby ocean rolls in and obscures them all one by one.
Antonioni clearly took great care with how this film would look. But I am afraid that the story itself suffered a bit, and so the whole film didn’t really gel for me.
The first time I saw Alec Guinness in something, I went through a disconnect; he’d been so cemented in my head as “Obi-Wan Kenobi” that seeing him in something else threw me a little. Seeing Vincent Price in this film had a similar effect, albeit for a campier reason: as soon as I heard his voice, I expected him to intone, “Darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand….” To be fair, it was Price’s work in films like this that lead to his to cameo in the song “Thriller” in the first place.
This film is indeed based on Edgar Allen Poe’s classic short story about a medieval Italian nobleman (“Prince Prospero”, the role played by Price) attempting to hide from a plague by shutting himself and several friends up in his castle, distracting them with a wild party. Director Roger Corman, apparently a huge Poe fan, had already adapted The Fall of The House Of Usher a couple years previously, and had already resolved to follow it up with this, his other favorite Poe story. But he was especially intrigued by a script from Charles Beaumont, a frequent Twilight Zone screenwriter. Beaumont made Prospero a Satanist in his draft, which suited Corman’s quick-and-dirty Grand Guignol camp style perfectly, as well as giving Corman an excuse to work in the plot from another lesser-known Poe story called “Hop-Frog”.
It also provided an excuse for some cheesecake – mainly in the form of Jane Asher as “Francesca”, a poor peasant lass who catches the eye of the evil Prospero and inspires him to corrupt her innocent Christian soul. Asher is…okay as Francesca, but unfortunately doesn’t really have much to do aside from look pretty in a gown and occasional react to how eeeeeeevil Price is. Prospero’s former mistress Juliana (Hazel Court) has a bit more to do – she was Prospero’s previous student, but has taken to Satanism with much enthusiasm and gets two scenes with “rituals” meant to cement her allegiance to Lucifer. Juliana’s role is a bit meatier – and, simultaneously, a bit cheesier, as these Satanic rituals usually involve her being in low-cut dresses for some reason.
I realize that last comment makes this sound corny as all hell. And it is. But – it is corny as all hell in a way that I like. Corman, Price, Asher and Court all know that they’re not making a film that is in any way realistic – and they don’t care, they’re having too much fun with the hammy dialogue and the eerie music and the eye-popping visuals (some lifted direct from Poe). The film is corny, but it embraces that corniness and has a blast with it.