Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Coward (1965) - #668

Cold things are all I expect from you.

Even though The Coward doesn't have its own spine number in the Criterion Collection, I consider it substantial and important enough on its merits to justify a separate review here. This short film, with a running time just over an hour, was originally distributed in theaters as the first half of a double feature, alongside another title of similar length, The Holy Man. The two movies, though significantly different in tone, are both essentially comedic affairs, and their Hindi titles (Kapurush and Mahapurush) have a nice resonance with each other. They also continue Satyajit Ray's exploration of things happening in contemporary India, which makes The Coward a more thematically fitting companion piece to The Big City, with which Criterion paired it in last year's home video release, than with the 19th century setting of Charulata, the title immediately preceding it in Ray's filmography, which also features the two of the three actors central to bringing this story to screen. Oddly enough, The Holy Man is not available on disc through Criterion, though you can watch it on their Hulu channel... which, just as strangely, is not the case with The Coward. Obviously, these issues of international cinematic distribution and reproduction rights are much more complex than I am ever likely to fully comprehend.

All those details aside, if I had to choose between one or the other half of this Satyajit Ray two-fer, The Coward is the clear favorite as the one I can relate the most to and appreciate most fully. The Holy Man has its moments, and certainly drew my interest as an immediate precursor to the upsurge of interest in Indian religions, gurus, swamis and enlightened masters that was just about ready to explode in western popular culture in the latter half of the 1960s. But The Coward feels like a story of more enduring relevance to most of us, so I guess I can't fault Criterion for exercising their editorial discretion in unlinking the two from each other. The story is about Amitabha, a screenwriter en route to a rural Indian location that he needs to research and write about for an upcoming script. The cab that he hired to take him across the subcontinent breaks down in a small town early one evening, with no chance of a repair until the following day. Upon learning of the writer's predicament, a local tea plantation owner named Bimal invites Amitabha to spend the evening at his estate. The prospect of having some lively and unexpected conversation appeals to Bimal, balding, bored and settling into a complacent middle age, who usually has to spend his nights accompanied only by his beautiful young wife Karuna. We quickly get the impression that the couple has largely run out of things to talk about at this stage in their relationship.

The twist in this otherwise bland set-up occurs when Amitabha and Karuna are first introduced to each other, because they are both equally surprised to recognize the face of a former lover looking back at them in the moment. However, they both manage to contain themselves in a marvelous demonstration of "less is more" acting skills, so that Bimal never picks up on their prior acquaintance, though it's clear to the viewer that this is indeed a painfully awkward and poignant moment of reconnection for them both. Amitabha continues to play the part of grateful and considerate guest, Karuna flawlessly maintains her pose as her husband's modest but attentive wife and hostess to this unexpected visitor, and the early part of the evening is occupied by genial chatter that would hardly merit further mention if not for the dark irony hinted at by this revelation of a subliminal love triangle.

As the evening progresses, the men drink themselves into a state of lowered inhibition, with Bimal's tongue loosened to describe in some detail the woes of a hard-working but chronically unfulfilled "gentleman farmer." Amitabha patiently bites his tongue throughout most of Bimal's ramblings as he awaits his chance to confront Karuna and try, if he can, to pierce the icy indifference toward him that she has donned somewhat like an armor of self-protection in his initial attempts to ask her about what has happened to her since their break-up. When he finally gets the opportunity to address her directly, Amitabha discovers, to his dismay, that Karuna's determination to safeguard her emotions is resolute, and unfathomably deep. The appalling brusque encounter triggers a flashback of their last conversation, a few years prior to this evening, which fills us in on just how The Coward earned his title.

One evening, before Amitabha had launched into his career, when he was still a struggling young writer who had yet to accomplish anything, living in a low rent storage closet of an apartment in downtown Kolkata, Karuna came to visit him in a state of distress. She was being forcibly relocated due to family obligations and a more generally misogynistic dismissal of the concerns of women... and if she complied with their directions, she would most likely have to break off her relationship with Amitabha. Her only route of escape in that place and time would be marriage, the trump card that would free her of the duties that her older relatives sought to impose. Once explained and laid out so plainly, the burden clearly fell upon him to make a decision... to declare himself unequivocally... to place his trust in the power of love... to exert himself to whatever lengths were required in order to realize the potential of that bond that had developed between him and her.

And in that moment of testing and trial, the coward failed.

Now, surprisingly graced by this incredible opportunity to redeem himself, Amitabha was determined to not let the moment pass him by a second time. Unable to rediscover that mysterious alchemy that allows a man to "fall in love" with another after having been burnt by the fickle flames of romance once before, Amitabha recognizes just what a rare circumstance he's landed in. But the question remains: can he summon up something different from within himself that would bring about a better outcome than the flaming disaster that he self-inflicted the last time Karuna came calling?

Before we can get an answer, Amitabha, Karuna and the rest of us have to endure the unintentionally depressing knife-twists of Bimal's rather smug pronouncements on the verities of life. It's a classic demonstration of the age-old axiom of how guys who prove themselves to be assholes so often end up snagging the girl of our dreams - an inexplicable phenomenon if we stay strictly within the parameters of personal merit as to who does and doesn't deserve to be in their most intimate company.


Once we factor in an abundance of nerve and a willingness to just go for it as the keys to winning a potential lover's heart, of course, we see that the playing field is not only leveled, indeed, the advantage itself goes to the most boorishly oblivious of their own faults and limitations, as long as they remain focused on serving the immediate needs and interests of the object of their affection. In a series of flashbacks, we see abundant evidence of Amitabha's excessively tentative, self-reflective tendencies - that meta-awareness that so often seems to be an insurmountable handicap to reaching a point of interpersonal closeness for the most intuitively perceptive among us. Too much recognition of all that could go wrong... the actual or potential incompatibilities... the slight divergence of interests and priorities that, if clung to so tightly, portend inevitable doom to whatever feelings of tenderness and shared purpose might otherwise develop.

I won't divulge any more about the ending except to say that it's perfectly suspenseful and brilliant, well worth the hour of build-up that it takes to reach that gut-punching moment of resolution. It's in the last 15 minutes or so of The Coward that Satyajit Ray most powerfully shows his impressive skills as a storyteller, though the whole film is quite effective and efficient in that regard. I deeply respect the discretion and restraint he shows here, limiting the use of a perfectly compelling story to a mere hour and a few minutes, rather than adding on enough pointless padding to make it a standalone feature film of the usual 90 - 100 minutes or so.


And I also enjoyed the symmetry of watching this film, about a frustrated man who simply cannot find the key to make his chosen woman love him in the way he wants to be loved, in close proximity to Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, which features a very similar plot in its "making of" back story, involving the wreckage of JLG's relationship with Anna Karina, more than in what comes through on screen. And for that matter, the peculiar resonance of a line from Ernst Lubitsch's One Hour With You sticks with me, from a scene in which Maurice Chevalier's character, finding himself suddenly in the back of a taxi with a married but oh-so-willing attractive blonde suddenly orders the driver to slam on the brakes so that he may depart (at least temporarily) from her dangerous clutch. "Madame, you may think I'm a coward," he sternly, frantically announces, recognizing just how abrupt and absolute his rejection of her advance is coming across. And in the face of that admission, he can only acknowledge, "I am!" before slamming the door and making his escape. Sometimes we have to experience cataclysmic, heart-rending loss to discover what is really there to hang on to and build with.
Next: Repulsion

2 comments:

ptatleriv said...

Really need to see this. I love all the Ray I've seen Criterion release (still sitting on that Eclipse box, unfortunately).

On the topic of whole films as extras, have you checked out THE REPORT, the additional film on CERTIFIED COPY? Really worth your time. I actually think about it more than I do COPY (which I loved).

David Blakeslee said...

I did write up a brief paragraph on THE REPORT when I reviewed CERTIFIED COPY for Criterion Cast back in 2012. You can read it here!