Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Horse's Mouth (1958) - #154




Go and do something sensible, like shooting yourself! But don't be an artist! 

The Horse's Mouth captures, among other things, the moment when Alec Guinness was at the peak of his commercial box office appeal. He'd just come off his triumphant performance as Colonel Nicholson in  The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which he'd earned an Academy Award for Best Actor and a slew of similar honors from various international cinematic juries, and had also concluded his relationship with Ealing Studios where he'd begun his career. Guinness was now a bona fide star and would go on to play pivotal roles in numerous films, including David Lean's 1960s epics Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, and of course Star Wars, where he lent artistic credibility and substance to the project as the venerable Obi-Wan Kenobi. But each of those roles, as prestigious and memorable as they may be, were in support, not the lead. His run as the top-billed star of major releases was relatively short-lived, which is not that surprising, since Guinness made his living playing peculiar, eccentric characters - quite brilliantly, of course - but his talents were such that directors generally valued his contributions as a way to spice things up rather than as the main course.

But thankfully, we do have this vehicle, The Horse's Mouth, to give us a vivid sense of what Guinness could accomplish when given a generous helping of creative control. It's fitting that a film about a painter offers perhaps the fullest expression of Guinness' artistry as an actor (at least, when he confines himself to a single role, unlike his tour de force Kind Hearts and Coronets in which he tackled eight parts in various disguises, some quite briefly.) Guinness not only showed how deeply he could invest himself in a role (taking on the gruff persona and grimy appearance of his character Gulley Jimson for several months of shooting, much to his wife's consternation), he also took his only screen writing credit, successfully adapting what's reputed to be a very complex and nearly "unfilmable" novel by Joyce Cary. At least, Ronald Neame thought it was unfilmable, until Guinness persuaded him to do the project and allow himself to do the screenplay. And given Neame's experience working alongside David Lean on his Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, I trust his appreciation for the magnitude of that task. So hats off to Alec for bringing this uniquely enjoyable film to fruition!

Gulley Jimson's story is that of a surly, cantankerous man who's settled upon painting as his primary coping mechanism for life. Lacking badly when it comes to social skills or any kind of a work ethic that involves what most in society consider "productive labor," Jimson has had to resort to selling off his works for what he knows is a pittance of their market value simply because he doesn't have an interest in cultivating the business sense that would be required to earn top dollar. He's too busy spending his time looking for large flat surfaces to slather his paint on, in thick gooey strokes that often rise an inch or more above the surface of his "canvas." We first make his acquaintance as he's being released from jail, where he'd been consigned a short while earlier for making harassing phone calls under assumed identities to wealthy benefactors, asking for money, nicely at first, but resorting to intimidating threats as needed to get his point across. But even these desperate tactics are handled so awkwardly as to provoke more laughs than shivers. Jimson is just a misfit when it comes to human relations, a classic misanthrope who nevertheless has a profound and aesthetically compelling insight into life and the world around him that he struggles to express in his art.

Pestered by a would-be disciple, Nosey, and hovering back and forth between his ex-wife Sara and Coker, a lady friend and barkeep to whom he's in debt for a few pounds, the aging Jimson senses the onset of his physical and creative decline, and seems to be at a critical junction as he sifts through his future options. Even though he lives on the cheap in a decrepit old tugboat and is quite adept as a freeloader, he still needs money, and he recognizes a potential source of cash at his disposal in the form of Hickson, one of his patrons who happens to possess a stash of Jimson's highly valuable early works. Sara also owns one particularly prized painting, a souvenir from the happier days of their marriage that means a lot to her but also appeals to Jimson as a lucrative meal ticket, if he can just talk her into handing it over so they can split the loot. But Sara's not so easily persuaded. The witty exchanges between the characters, poking fun at upper, middle and lower classes with equal agility, and Jimson's antics while trying to connive an angle to get his hands on the precious artifacts keep things moving along quite humorously in the early going.

But aside from those amusements and some laugh-out-loud moments of physical comedy, what stands out in The Horse's Mouth is the sensitive portrayal of an artist's melancholy, even in the midst of creating some vibrant and impressive images, from the spectator's point of view anyway. An influential English painter of the time, John Bratby, was commissioned to do original work for the film, including a massive exterior mural that took six weeks to paint and was quickly destroyed for the sake of the film shortly after its completion. Bratby's paintings are formidable, and work quite well on film, thanks in large part to the highly textured surfaces and bold figures he rendered. The pictures convey both madness and mystery - huge oversized feet, a glowering enraged tiger head, primitive voluptuous nudes - as Jimson meditates on timeless themes - the Fall from Eden, the Raising of Lazarus, the Last Judgment. Appropriately, there's no significant attempt made to explain the works and as is the nature of film, we only get brief (but adequate) shots of the finished paintings (though I'm glad to live in the freeze-frame HDTV era!) 

But getting back to the artist's melancholy... It's that sense of never quite being able to capture the essence of one's initial epiphany, that blazing moment of perception that first compels the act of creation, before sheer will and habit drive an artist (in whatever medium) to complete the work after the primary burst begins to fade. The dissatisfaction felt by the creator at his or her own inadequacies when it comes to the execution of the work is only compounded by the inability of our fellow humans to properly appreciate or understand the finished product. The hard-to-bridge gap between sublime and mundane sensibilities is wonderfully captured in this bit of dialogue, which I'll transcribe here. You can watch the scene for yourself in this clip, starting at the five-minute mark: 


It's the scene where the transfixed Gulley and the pragmatic Coker are in a luxurious parlor, contemplating a nude portrait of Jimson's ex-wife.
Jimson: Look at my picture, Cokey.
Coker: I saw it once.
J: You didn't think about it.
C: I know that if it was a postcard and some poor chap tried to sell it, he'd get 14 days!
J: You're missing a big slice of life, Cokey. Half a minute of revelation's worth a million years of know-nothing.
C: Who lives a million years? 
J: (slight pause) A million people, every twelve months. I'll show you how to look at a picture. Don't look at it, feel it with your eyes. First feel the shapes in the flat, like patterns, and feel it in the round, feel all the smooth and sharp edges, the lights and the shades, the cools and the warms...
C: Oh, the jugs look real, I'll give you that.
Like a fine painting, The Horse's Mouth is an object better appreciated the longer it's pondered, or indeed felt, following Gulley's directions above. My first viewing didn't make the lasting impact that the film has now left on me, possibly because I was expecting something a little more screwball-y and raucous after watching this original trailer, that markets the film to an audience that seems a bit repressed and uptight, but probably typical of its times: 


Or maybe I was just a bit sleepy and inattentive. Gulley Jimson's gruffness can be a bit off-putting until you get to know him, especially since his problems are mostly self-inflicted. Ronald Neame's direction is straightforward, not too flashy or interested in drawing attention to himself and thus easy to take for granted. As usual, watching the supplemental interview with Neame on the DVD sheds a very helpful light on the story of the production and the interplay between Guinness, Bratby and the other fine actors who played a part in bringing The Horse's Mouth to life. The disc also contains a very wonderful surprise, the first short film of D.A. Pennebaker, who went on to film some amazing documentaries that Criterion has released over the years. It's titled Daybreak Express, included on this disc because Pennebaker had the good fortune of renting his film to the New York art house theater where The Horse's Mouth had its US premiere, as an opening short subject. A brief five-minute tour of New York on a soon-to-be demolished elevated train line set to a Duke Ellington soundtrack, I'll describe it as a forerunner to Koyaanisqatsi, nearly 25 years before that landmark film made its debut. All in all, I recommend a good long look into The Horse's Mouth. I think you'll like what you see there!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Ashes and Diamonds (1958) - #285

A souvenir of unrequited love for my homeland.

For someone like me, who's spent a bit more time reading up on the significant art house films of the 20th century than actually watching them (though I'm making steady progress in balancing that equation), Ashes and Diamonds is one of those films with a reputation for greatness that precedes itself. That reputation definitely enhanced my eagerness to see it but also inflated expectations a bit, leading me to feel a minor let-down when I found myself not utterly blown away in amazement (despite an extremely gripping ending sequence) after my first viewing. But I stayed focused, dug into the historic background, listened to the commentary track and now feel like I've connected with the original vitality and courage that secured Ashes and Diamonds' fame and lasting significance.

Its inclusion as one of Criterion's Essential Art House line is indicative of the high esteem that this masterpiece by Polish director Andrzej Wajda has earned ever since it managed to slip past the Communist censors in 1958 to take the international cinema scene by storm. There's apparently a significant audience that wants to own this film as a single release rather than as part of the more expensive (but eminently worth it) Three War Films box set that also includes A Generation and Kanal. Wajda's fluency as a serious artist comes through clearly enough to anyone watching Ashes and Diamonds without the aid of supplements and commentaries, but I have to go on record here as recommending the full package if you want to fully appreciate this fine piece of work. Ashes and Diamonds is a rich and carefully constructed film, covering events at the very end of World War II from a unique and (to American viewers at least) obscure point of view. Anyone unfamiliar with the history of Poland and its cultural symbols would miss out on quite a bit without the helpful guidance provided on this DVD.

The story takes place on the very date that Germany signed the surrender papers, May 8, 1945. Poland had been occupied by the Nazis since September 1939, and the invasion of that country was the event that formally launched the Second World War to begin with. However, despite some weary formalities staged to observe the occasion, the end of the war didn't kick off the euphoric celebrations that took place in the USA and elsewhere. Polish citizens understood, to varying degrees, that their long sad history of submission to foreign overlords was far from being over, as the Soviet Army was now sweeping through from the east, aiming toward Berlin in the west, with no intentions whatsoever of letting go of the territories that it now held without any significant armed opposition. I say "significant," because Poland did in fact have a native resistance force, a militia known as the Home Army, that fought valiantly to disrupt the Nazi occupation but by 1945 was too fatigued and depleted to seriously challenge the swarming and triumphant Red Army under Stalin's command. The Home Army was comprised primarily of patriotic Polish Nationalists, as opposed to totalitarian communism as they were of totalitarian fascism. But as such, they were now considered enemies of the new Soviet-friendly order that was even before the war's end starting to establish itself.

Ashes and Diamonds opens with a peaceful, almost bucolic scene of two men, lounging in the springtime sun on an open lawn near a small country chapel. The men have nothing resembling pastoral or devotional thoughts on their mind though. They're waiting in ambush, with an assignment from their Home Army superior to assassinate a Polish Communist official who's due to arrive in town to commence his duties as the local power broker. As a vehicle rounds the corner into their trap, we see them leap into action, gunning its occupants down with brutal efficiency. One of them, Maciek, carries out his task with manic zeal, grimacing almost gleefully as he unloads his machine gun into the back of his target with such vehemence that the victim's jacket catches on fire. Sporting tinted glasses, a 50's style haircut and wardrobe and brimming with youthful swagger, Maciek instantly impressed audiences of his time as a cool, charismatic killer, imbued with style - a classic riff on the "women want to be with him, and guys want to be him" type that's served as the basis for countless youth-oriented action heroes for as long as movies have been made.

(the AR is pinched in this clip - it should be 16:9! Sorry, but it's the only subtitled sequence I could find.)

Shortly after the assassination is carried out, Maciek and his partner Andrzej discover that the men they shot were poor schmucks who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the man they were ordered to kill, the middle-aged communist Szczucka, was not only still alive, he was a guest in a local hotel. Recognizing the opportunity to finish the job, Maciek rents a room, talking the clerk into giving him the room right next door to Szczucka. But as the killers bide their time in the hotel bar, Maciek meets a pretty barmaid, Krystyna, unleashing his natural charm and setting up a rendezvous for later that night. He's not really sure if she's interested - he just likes what he sees and in his fatalistic resignation, realizing the constant danger he lives in every day, figures there's nothing to lose by inviting her up for a bit of fun. But events that occur between their first casual flirtation and their eventual farewell stir up tensions and conflicts that have been mightily repressed in the desperate days leading up to the end of this war. Maciek has let events shape him to the point where he'd become a nearly unreflective killing machine, carrying out his orders and not giving much thought to what he'd do with the rest of his life when hostilities ceased. Now, with the signing of the truce, Poland's national life and destiny, like that of its individual citizens, required a drastically sudden reorientation. Ashes and Diamonds captures that pivotal moment for posterity, even as it triggered the memories and conscience of its original Polish audience to consider what had just transpired in the 13 years following the end of that war.

Ambivalent notes of melancholy and lost opportunities permeate most scenes of Ashes and Diamonds, with just enough touches of humor and ever-so-brief moments of fulfillment dropped in from time to time to remind us that even in the harshest of circumstances, all is not lost as long as life itself continues. The grievous reality that Poles and so many other survivors of WWII grappled with, of course, was that for many beloved sons, life itself was irretrievably lost. Maciek, emblematic prototype of the sensitive and intelligent student transformed into cold-blooded killer and ultimately a tragic martyr to war's random and senseless violence, serves as a surrogate for so many diamonds reduced to ash, regardless of whatever higher cause was served, whatever lasting victory was earned by the defeat of Hitler and his Axis allies.

As I alluded to in my opening paragraph, the first viewing of Ashes and Diamonds may not make as powerful an impression as it does once we settle into a greater degree of familiarity with the struggles of the individual characters and the various strains of the Polish national saga that they represent. Keeping track of the various characters and their motivations requires some close attention, since they don't spell out their emotions or inner drives as plainly as, for example, Paths of Glory, a powerful anti-war statement from the same era. Maintaining those plot threads does enhance our comprehension of the finer points, but don't let that work distract you from the fascinating visual elements that Wajda packed into so many scenes. Ashes and Diamonds delivers a bounty of memorable, compelling images - an inverted crucifix in a rubble-strewn church, a riderless white horse, vodka shotglasses aflame on a bar like so many votive candles, blood-soaked linen evoking the Polish national flag, fireworks inadvertently illuminating the scene of a brutal assassination, a sobbing, spasmodic death scene that closes the film atop a plain of garbage. And then there's Maciek himself, bursting with reckless confidence and the exhilirating freedom of being able to channel his frustrations into the deadly missions assigned him, sipping his vodka from the bent aluminum cup that's accompanied him on who knows how many harrowing excursions that could have easily sealed his doom. From behind the darkened lenses that shield eyes damaged from "too much time in the sewers" (see Kanal to get that reference), Maciek over the course of a fateful night fulfills one carnal longing fulfilled, which in turn reignites a vision of what life could be, awakening a spiritual sense that was all but extinguished in the preceding months of fury.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Days of Wine and Roses (1958) - #495

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
First, let me get the disappointing news out of the way: while watching this version of Days of Wine and Roses, you won't be able to listen to Henry Mancini's gorgeous, elegiac, Oscar-winning song. That was saved for the more famous 1962 movie adaptation starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, directed by Blake Edwards. So I've done you the favor of sharing the tune via this link, if you'd like to give it a spin. But it's really not necessary and maybe even works a bit against the grainy, rough-hewn realism of this original presentation of a romance both enabled and ultimately destroyed by alcoholism. As the final selection offered up in Criterion's The Golden Age of Television box set, Days of Wine and Roses sufficiently marks the end of its era, as the phenomenon of live televised broadcasts of original stage productions finally fizzled out in response to increasing production costs and a wider audience acceptance of filmed and edited sitcoms, cop shows, doctor dramas and Westerns as staples of their nightly TV diet.

A product of the longer format made possible by Playhouse 90's hour-and-a-half running time, Days of Wine and Roses demonstrates that even as live television was nearing the end of its run as a distinct subgenre of American theater, it wasn't due to a lack of creativity or compelling subject matter. There's a good reason that J.P. Miller's script (with significant changes, not necessarily for the better) went on to serve as the basis of a successful and still-respected Hollywood movie just a few years later. He tells a terrific, though ultimately heart-breaking, story that probably played a substantial role in framing the problem of alcohol abuse away from moral failure or simple over-indulgence brought about by insufficient exertion of willpower. From one angle (and rather obvious, hard to miss), Days of Wine and Roses plays out like a calling card or even a fundraising pitch for Alcoholics Anonymous.


The story is told within a flashback framework at a local AA meeting, as John Clay gets up to give his first talk after four months of sobriety that followed a decade of drunken downward spiral. He recounts, with a few interruptions from the boozer who opened the program draining a pint in a shadowy alley next door, his sad tale of woe that began ten years earlier at an office party. He made the acquaintance of Kirsten, a pretty secretary who made herself comfortable in that setting through frequent trips to the open bar. He's out to prove that he's capable of being more than a low-level office flunky if he only gets the chance. She's looking for acceptance and purpose even as she wrestles with anxieties about being murdered in the bushes. Recognizing that they share a mutual enjoyment in escaping the tensions of the day in a good stiff drink, they happily succumb to the onrush of inebriation that sweeps over them - was it the liquor, the night, or sheer physical attraction that drew them together? Probably all that and more had its influence, but actors Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie had a real chemistry on screen that comes through strongly despite the subpar lighting and murky kinescoped image that survives to this day. I really had the sense of a young couple finding love together, no matter how flimsy a foundation they seemed to build it upon.


Joe's bankable skills are summarized, in his own words, as "a great line of bull," which puts him on the career arc of becoming a public relations man. Not to mention a conniving codependent dysfunctional and untrustworthy addict. When their daughter Debbie comes along early on in the marriage, Kirsten's maternal drives are powerful enough to make it easy for her to put the bottle aside for awhile, but Joe's two-martini lunches and evenings spent schmoozing his company's big clients pressure her to return to the good-time gal persona that initially drew them together. The progressive stages of ruin that their alternations between indulgence, craving and short-lived periods of abstinent sobriety that follow over the course of Joe's retelling are predictable enough, but the episodes are poignantly drawn. We see Joe push back against the advice of his boss to lay off the juice, the family's descent into poverty as they sell off every last thing of value in order to buy another jug and the sick procession of thinking errors and desperate rationalizations that cloud their judgment. It culminates in a wild outburst of manic energy as Joe spectacularly falls off the wagon, destroying his father-in-law's greenhouse in frantic search for a bottle of rye that he'd hidden in a flower pot but was too drunk to properly remember where.


Sorry to say, but I'm unable to find any extended clips of the charismatic and effective performances turned in by either Robertson or Laurie. The only sample available on YouTube is posted below, but it's a spoiler from near the very end of the movie. Before I get to that, I just want to reflect a bit on the genuine sense of sadness and loss I felt over the course of Days of Wine and Roses, as we see a cute young couple deteriorate so dramatically before our eyes. Joe's charming swagger, probably a compensation for underlying insecurities, and Kirsten's fascination with literature (she quotes the poetry that leads off this essay and gives the play its title as part of her initial infatuation with Joe) and her quest to read her entire multi-volume encyclopedia from A to Z - both characters resonated with me! And though I've never struggled with addiction anywhere near the level portrayed on screen here, I've overdone it enough - and convinced myself that I was having great fun - at various times in my life to have a sense of empathy for what they were going through... as well as an appreciation for the real damage that they were doing to themselves, their relationship and their daughter (who plays only a small part in the squalid goings-on - I don't think TV was quite ready to drag children directly into drunken bedlam back then.)


And the marvel of it all is that this was done, again, in one continuous take. Well, there are a few videotaped sequences blended in - the flashback interludes of Joe giving his AA talk were pre-recorded so that Cliff Robertson didn't have to execute miraculous wardrobe changes to pull off his scenes. But he does flip the switch between emotions ranging from booze-fueled giddiness, rage and mockery to grim white-knuckle sobriety and severe introspection. It's an amazing display of nerve and talent to commit to such volatile moodswings over the course of a brief 90 minutes with the cameras rolling on coast-to-coast TV.


So it's no wonder that Days of Wine and Roses caused viewers to take notice and eventually led to a full-fledged movie production (like several of the other titles in The Golden Age of Television.) It's been a long time since I saw the Lemmon-Remick-Edwards version, and I hope to get a chance to do a comparison in the not too distant future. The quick take I've read is that the film expands the setting to picturesque San Francisco (a big plus in my book) but that it plays up the comedic elements and sentimentality a bit to take advantage of Jack Lemmon's strengths as an actor. I'm not in any position to say which is better, but my hunch is that this raw first take that probably introduced a lot of Americans to the 12 Steps (seen on a wall-hanging as "The 12 Suggested Steps" - maybe AA was trying to not come across as too authoritarian or scary or something?) might leave a more vivid impression than the slick star vehicle designed to provided a well-rounded entertainment package for mainstream viewers of its time. (It was, after all, Blake Edwards' follow-up to Breakfast at Tiffany's.)


Anyway, it's time for me to share that clip - and wouldn't you know, "embedding disabled by request." So I guess that means you really have to go get it if you want to check out a sample. Watching it again, just a short 53-second snippet, stirs my emotions once more, as Joe lays some tough love on Kirsten as they reach a critical point in their journey. It's not as much of a spoiler as I thought it would be either, since a new viewer wouldn't really know how she answers his question. But even in that small fragment, the confidence and sincerity of Robertson and Laurie come through in their respective parts, reminding me that for all the audio-visual shortcomings of the 1950s era video-to-film-to-video-to-DVD presentations that we get in this three-disc Golden Age set, it is truly a treasure chest of some of the finest and gutsiest American acting of its time that we have access to today. A remarkable collection that in its own way played a pivotal part in expanding and opening the barriers to free expression that the Nouvelle Vague and all the cultural tumult of the 1960s was on the verge of unleashing.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Lovers (1958) - #429


We'll sleep together always. I'll take care of you. My life for yours. We'll be fine.


I watched a bit of TV last night, catching up on the network news to hear the latest on the riots in Egypt and the massive snowstorm due to blow in later today. My curiosity satisfied, the TV remained on anyway as the program rolled over to Inside Edition, a tabloid-style newscast specializing in titillating gossip and crass exploitation. It led off with an exclusive interview with an attractive young woman who agreed to appear on the show billed as "the porn star at the 'epic party' that wound up sending Charlie Sheen back into rehab." Which is about as far into that particular story as I'm interested in venturing here. Mr. Sheen's adventures with cocaine and prostitutes aren't very important concerns to me. I merely cite the example of this tawdry incident blithely streaming into America's living rooms at the 7 p.m. dinner hour as a marker of just how far our culture has traveled from the time when a film as impeccably tasteful and benign as The Lovers could generate official denunciations by high-ranking clerics, scolding reprimands from nervous producers and indignant censorship boards, and sensationalistic appeals from advertisers to see something truly shocking and previously forbidden. This quietly dignified, patiently unfolding story of a well-kept wife whose tosses her scrupulously managed life into upheaval after a spontaneous eruption of love at first sight had a similarly turbulent effect on European and American societies of the late 50s. The film wound up being discussed by the Supreme Court of the United States, where its role in clarifying the legal standard of obscenity led Justice Potter Stewart to make this famous statement: 
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
1958 turned out to be a watershed year for breakthroughs into explicitness, it seems - from the grotesque spluttering gurgles of the Fiend Without a Face, to the sick absorption of victims into The Blob's bloody amorphous wad of goo, and now this: a prolonged (that is, 30-second) gaze at a man and woman making love (that is, kissing passionately as his lips glide down past her cheek and onto her upper chest), leading to her gasps of pleasure and then, most provocatively, a bold and brazen direction of the man to hold her hand at the moment of climax! Wow, just... unprecedented.


Here's what all the fuss was about, if you simply must see it for yourself. Fair warning: iIt's quite a spoiler if you haven't taken the time to understand Jeanne's predicament, but make your own decision about whether or not you want to cut right to the payoff shot:




Beyond the (for its time) graphic intensity of that erotic interlude, which to me still retains its power as an honest, convincing depiction of lust fulfilled and release accomplished, my hunch is that the real scandal of The Lovers struck an even deeper nerve in its challenge to the conventional mores of its initial audience. What got The Lovers into a little bit of trouble (and a whole lot of commercial success) wasn't the fact that she was a stylish, married, upper-class woman who was screwing a man she'd just met the day before, cheating on her husband in the middle of the night while he slept in the next room in the very home they share. Movies had been toying with such liaisons for years, and marital infidelity was a staple of French cinema. The Lovers' notoriety erupted from several other aspects of how the story was told. Chief among them are the lack of a proper story-ending comeuppance for the passionate adulterers, who drive off together scot-free on the morning after their night of sensual pleasure, and the wife's impulsive decision to not only leave her husband but also their young child, whom she tucks sweetly into bed just before climbing into the sack herself with her new boyfriend. In fact, that last bit was actually cut in some countries, Germany among them. The notion of a wife walking out on her controlling jerk of a husband was certainly understandable, but the breezy casting-off of maternal affections, especially for the sake of raw carnal pursuits, not so much. Best not to introduce such notions into the consciousness of the bourgeoisie!



But silly me - I've fallen into the same hazard that the uptight moralists and leering exploitationists stumbled into as they each sought to manage the explosive power that Louis Malle's second feature film (a hastily assembled follow-up after Elevator to the Gallows surpassed all expectations) unleashed into the cinema of that era. Hyping up the controversy, or coyly brushing it off as really not such a big deal, when it's clear that controversy was The Lovers' initial calling card, has its place in discussing the film's historic cultural impact, but after bringing that note to the forefront, prolonged dwelling on it feels superfluous to me. I have no insight into Louis Malle's ability to predict just how the loosening of restrictions would play out in the movies over the next few decades following The Lovers' release, but if his effort had amounted to little more than a slice of prescient late-50s ooh la la, I doubt that Criterion would have bothered releasing it (regardless of whatever opinion you might have, comparitively speaking, of ...And God Created Woman's aesthetic merits.)


No, The Lovers rightfully earned its place in the Collection as a whole piece of work, as it picks up cues from some great films that preceded it while reconfiguring the basic story into an emblematic commentary on its times. One part trenchant satire of the smug banality of the upper class (cue Renoir's The Rules of the Game, with which it shares scenes of arrival at the country manor, the husband's reckless invitation of his wife's lover into the domestic confines, and Gaston Modot as a servant), with a dash of bemused examination of the sensual interiority of a refined domesticated beauty (with a nod to The Earrings of Madame de..., whose author Louise de Vilmorin also adapted this screenplay) and even a shrewd decision to lean heavily on the sumptuous symphonic work of a renowned 19th century composer (substituting Brief Encounter's use of Rachmaninoff with a similar employment of Brahms) gives The Lovers considerable replay value. 


Second and third viewings stir up a fond admiration of the female protagonist's voyage to self-discovery that replaces the suspenseful anxiety we feel on first watch over how Jeanne will extricate herself from the traps laid for her on her journey to self-discovery. We see the beauty of her navigation through the emotional tumult that grows out of not one but two spurned admirers - her husband Henri, a respected and prosperous publisher who's probably inherited his wealth and prestigious social ranking, and Raoul, an athletic Spaniard who fits precisely the kind of "acceptable" profile that would make Jeanne's adulterous escapades tolerable if circumstances should ever force them to come to the surface. While Raoul is at least willing to heap charm and flattery, despite its thin substance, as best he can on Jeanne in order to keep her happy, Henri proves himself to be a cruel and cunning sadist, who expertly uses every wrench that his sarcastic wit and supposedly inviolable marriage vows have placed at his disposal to ratchet up the pressure as he suspects her wavering loyalties. Still, as reprehensible as Henri's behavior may seem to many of us, he's simply following the "all's fair in love and war" edict that aggrieved spouses typically resort to in justifying their revenge.


What's simply intolerable to so many though, certainly then and for the most part still now, in many quarters of society, is Jeanne's willingness to disregard all the other proprieties and considerations that ought to keep her passions in check, ought to compel her to make her peace with the emotionally hollow but materially comfortable existence that's been prepared for her. The more fully we enter into her world, with its routine of fashionable diversions and pseudo-sophisticated friends and acquaintances that create an illusion of excitement and vitality, the more justifiable her abrupt jettisoning of "all that" becomes when she impetuously trades it in for the risky and most likely ephemeral rewards of a new male companion. Jeanne and Bernard are referred to in the film's title as The Lovers, but are they, really? I don't think too many viewers who stop to think about the bigger picture would be convinced, regardless of the ecstatic sweetness of the moment that they undoubtedly share. And yet, it's obvious that something beautiful and profound transpired between them on that magical moonlit night when they took advantage of a possibility that they both recognized was too amazing to forsake altogether.


None of the considerations that I lay out here should be construed as a full-fledged endorsement of Jeanne's choice, or even an implication that she did the best she could given the situation at hand. As a married man and father of children myself, I would be devastated if my wife (who is, when it gets down to it, quite different in temperament than Jeanne) made a decision to sleep with a stranger and drive away from our home and family, even for a brief weekend spree, the next day. I suppose I'm old-fashioned enough, despite my deep appreciation for Malle and Moreau and what the other combined talents achieved in The Lovers, that I still have to regard the story's outcome as a thorough calamity, a disaster that should have been avoided. But rather than focus my disappointment, anger or any other emotion on the woman who grasped for the fulfillment of an unmet need, I'll point the finger at the foolish men who took Jeanne for granted and failed (despite numerous opportunities) to show her the love she deserved and that she would have eagerly returned had she felt it in time. 


I won't attempt to conjure up a woman's response to The Lovers, but to any man who'd look down on Jeanne's moral scruples or failures as a wife and mother, I'll kindly point out our own task as husbandly lovers to make sure that we're living up to our own responsibilities in the relationship before we go dishing out the blame.