Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

17 May 2009

Charles Boyer Double Feature

I didn't realize this when I sent for them, but I ended up with two Charles Boyer movies at my house this weekend. He was great in both of them, though they were not both great films.

The good one first:

I have never been a fan of Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, nor its adaptations—you can keep that David Hare Blue Room mess, and I'm even a little bored by Sleeping Around, which boasts collaboration by my boy Mark Ravenhill—and so when I first saw Max Ophüls' film La Ronde, I did not understand the fuss. I will probably have to revisit that movie now that I have seen Ophüls' absolutely fantastic film Madame de... a/k/a The Earrings of Madame de...

First off, there is a beautiful new Criterion DVD of this movie, and it shows up just how gorgeous Ophüls' camerawork is. Madame de... is a film all about the camera. The film is a love story. Danielle Darrieux, a beautiful society lady sells a pair of earrings that her husband (Boyer) gave her for their wedding. These earrings (through a series of plot twists) come into the hands of a diplomat (Vittorio De Sica) who then becomes the lady's lover. The plot is contrived in Madame de..., but everything else about it is genius. The acting is phenomenal. Darrieux is particularly great. The camera follows her constantly and so we see every flicker of pain, every moment of indecision.

But as I mentioned earlier, the camera is the most notable element of Madame de.... Ophüls shot the film in these incredibly long tracking shots. Obviously, tracking shots have become a staple of fancy camerawork (cf. Atonement, The Passenger, Children of Men), but this is 1953, and the tracking shots tell the story in a fascinating, very cool way. Ophüls' camera chooses who to follow, and each time he decides on a character to pursue they seem hounded by a decision they need to make. The intensity of the moment, the very real time of the choice the character must make seems apparent and all the more exciting.

Madame de... is a tragic love story, of course, but it involves some bright, delightful dialogue as well as quite a few moments of outright slapstick comedy. My favorite snatch of dialogue:
A woman refuses to look at the jewelry her lover has bought her. When he asks her why she won't look at it, she says:

"A woman can refuse a jewel she hasn't seen. After that it takes heroism."
The other Boyer film I screened this weekend was Joshua Logan's Fanny. The name Joshua Logan itself ought to strike fear into your heart. And by "strike fear into your heart" I mean put you on high alert for sentimentalism. This is the man who directed Sayonara, South Pacific, Picnic, and the disastrous Camelot. Fanny is based on a play and feels like a play, though I cannot figure out why a story this bubbly and silly—and one that stars Maurice Chevalier and Leslie Caron to boot—is not a musical. The entire thing is shot in bright Technicolor as though it were a musical, and its situations are so romantic and sentimental that songs would have redeemed it nicely.

Still, I am being more unkind than I need to be. Fanny is passably entertaining and the young man who plays Leslie Caron's love interest—Horst Buchholz—is dreamily beautiful. Chevalier is his typically entertaining self, and there is a fun supporting cast. The best thing in the whole picture, though, is Charles Boyer. He received a Best Actor nomination for this part and that he did so is baffling, though completely deserved.

The plot of Fanny is that Marius (Buchholz) and Fanny (Caron) are very much in love, but Marius wants to go away from Marseille and sail the oceans, you know, make his way in the world, etc. When Marius leaves Fanny pregnant, the much older M. Panisse (Chevalier), a friend of Marius's father (Boyer), offers to marry Fanny, with whom he is in love. He accepts the child as is own and is a great husband, etc. Fanny is still in love with Marius, of course, and when he returns we have the sudsy drama that comprises Fanny.

As you will have noticed, Charles Boyer is at best a supporting character in this drama. The thing, though, is that his performance is note perfect. Every choice is superb. He brings the perfect amount of bluster, frustration, comedic timing, and pathos to every one of his scenes. He makes himself the drama's central figure through sheer acting talent. And this is a movie that stars Maurice Chevalier!

Anyhow, I am not recommending Fanny to anyone; it is far too silly for a serious viewing of any kind. But if you don't know and love Charles Boyer, you really ought to rent something of his and marvel at his brilliance. The best are Gaslight and Love Affair, but I also recommend Algiers or even All This, and Heaven Too or The Garden of Allah.

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