Archive for the Heiress

U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2014 by dcairns

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

U is (almost) for Eugenia Grandet

Do you cry often, Eugenia?”

There’s so little to do here. It helps pass the time.”

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Given his role in pioneering melodrama as a literary genre, it’s amazing how rarely Honoré de Balzac has been adapted for the screen. Cinemas are crying out for a film of Cousin Bette or A Harlot High and Low. (And, no, Des McAnuff’s 1997 travesty of Cousin Bette does not count!) The neglect is especially striking in the author’s native France. Just imagine Gérard Depardieu as the flamboyant master criminal Vautrin or Alain Delon as the spoiled and dissolute Lucien de Rubempré or Jeanne Moreau as the vengeful and venomous Bette. Balzac’s plots and characters are so much the stuff of movies that reading one of his novels may come eerily close to running a movie in your head. Do film directors tend to avoid Balzac, because they know they can’t compete? That being said, Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis – possibly the all-time French masterwork – plays uncannily like a Balzac novel, but one that was created directly for the screen.

In contrast to most of his work, Balzac’s 1833 novel Eugénie Grandet has enjoyed a lively history of screen adaptations. This tale of a miser’s daughter and her unrequited love for her wastrel cousin was adapted by Rex Ingram as The Conquering Power in 1921 – a vehicle for his wife, Alice Terry, and his latest male protégé Rudolph Valentino. In Italy in 1946, a ‘calligraphic’ version by Mario Soldati launched the young Alida Valli on her international career. Eugenia Grandet – the one in question here – was made by Emilio Gómez Muriel in 1953. Despite a lavish dedication to el gran autor Honorato de Balzac, it moves the action from France in the 19th century to a small town in Mexico in the present day. If the move works (and perhaps it shouldn’t) that may be because the lifestyle and social structures depicted by the novel seem alarmingly unchanged.

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Unlike most Mexican films of the Golden Age, Eugenia Grandet does not star a resplendent diva along the lines of Dolores del Río, María Félix or Libertad Lamarque. The popular Marga López – who plays the harried and lovelorn young spinster – comes across (incredibly) as more of an actress than a star. Attractive but not particularly striking, López gives a performance that is subtle, nuanced and low-key (at any rate, by Mexican standards). The film, too, is stylistically less flamboyant than one by Emilio Fernández or Roberto Gavaldón. Its director, Gómez Muriel, was a sort of Mexican counterpart to George Cukor – a tasteful and self-effacing craftsman who excelled at directing ladies. Even when directing María Félix as a swashbuckling transvestite swords-woman (in La monja alférez/Sister Lieutenant in 1944) or as a ruthless bed-hopping film star (in La estrella vacía/The Empty Star in 1958) his mise-en-scène is disarmingly tasteful and restrained.

Eugenia Grandet is a film of small but disquieting moments, of stray details caught with cool precision by the camera’s eye. As it opens, an elegant black car drives hurriedly out through the gates of an imposing mansion; a gunshot rings out somewhere inside the house. All we see – when we venture inside for the next shot – is a dead hand stretched out on the floor, behind a desk. A few scenes later, the rich young playboy Carlos (played by the adorably named Ramón Gay) arrives at his uncle’s house in a tiny provincial town. He learns that his wealthy father has shot himself, because he was facing financial ruin.

As it happens, the day of his arrival is also the 21st birthday of his cousin Eugenia. Her rich but miserly father (Julio Villareal) ekes out a single bottle of cider among twenty guests, and frets at the extravagant overuse of electric lights. Some cousins have bought Eugenia a radio; they persuade her loving papa to risk a higher-than-normal electricity bill by plugging it in. Carlos arrives just in time to give the young lady her first real dance. (He does not yet know, you see, that his father is dead!) As the pair dance closer and closer – and father watches with mounting distaste – the wall socket the radio is plugged into bursts into flame. The next morning, old Grandet refuses to buy food for the young man’s breakfast. His long-suffering wife (Andrea Palma) sends the maid out to pawn one of her rings.

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The film’s obvious Hollywood parallel is William Wyler’s The Heiress (1949), based on the Henry James novella Washington Square. Another classic tale of a repressed spinster, a domineering father and a heartless but handsome young stud. Of course, Eugenia Grandet cannot hope to rival the visual richness of Wyler’s film. Yet its exploration of character and relationships is more subtle and, perhaps, more convincing. Montgomery Clift in The Heiress is all too obviously a fortune hunter; his romance with Olivia de Havilland is clearly bad news from the start. But the young man in Eugenia Grandet is too spineless and inert to be a schemer. Had he been allowed to marry Eugenia early on, their lives might have been no more disastrous than any others in the film. But when his uncle protests and sends Carlos to work in Brazil – the better to snaffle what’s left of the dead man’s fortune – the boy forgets his cousin because writing letters is simply too much trouble.

Gómez Muriel tells their story, not in thunderous operatic tableaux, but in fleeting close-ups. The hands of the lovers, clasped tenderly as they lie together on the grass. Eugenia’s hands alone, slowly tearing up the last of her letters to be returned unanswered. Grandet on his deathbed, catching a glimpse of the priest’s gold crucifix as he administers the last rites. The icon fills the camera, as the old man gasps out “Oro!” (“Gold!”) and falls back dead. Ten years later, a close-up of Eugenia as she waits at the airport for Carlos to return. Having inherited her father’s fortune, she has transformed herself into a woman of wealth and fashion (complete with a chic but hideous white snood). Her clothes are expensive but her face is chalky pale, her eyes lifeless and drained of all feeling. As she explains earlier on: “The tears that hurt most are the ones you keep inside.”

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Eugenia Grandet keeps a lot inside, in a way that Mexican movies – and, to tell the truth, Balzac novels – do not normally do. It has something of the Spartan splendour of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) and improves immeasurably with each successive viewing. A Mexican film for those who don’t even like Mexican films? Perhaps. But also unmissable for those who do.

David Melville

Greenwood, Plainview, Skeffington and Copland

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2008 by dcairns

D-Day 

I thought I better write the comparative study of MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944) and THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), before anyone else does.

Seriously, the two have nothing in common so this is the usual exercise in absurdity but both films did make me think about MUSIC a lot.

Of course, Jonny Greenwood’s monumental work for T.W.B.B. is extremely praiseworthy and interesting and has rightly provoked much discussion. And the fact that this major work has been denied a place in the running for an Oscar is an outrage — it’s more obvious than ever that the Best Score award is a closed shop and non-Americans need not apply. Ennio Morricone, f.f.s, has never won, despite a nomination for THE MISSION, one of his great works — when Bette Midler read his name from the podium, the applause brought the house down — “Ennio has a fan,” observed Ms. Midler. Nino Rota for THE GODFATHER and Michael Nyman for THE PIANO were barred on the same grounds as Greenwood: their scores used previously existing themes (but, perversely, Rota was allowed a half-share in a golden swordsman for THE GODFATHER II, even though that movie features predominantly themes written for the first film,) In the absence of an award for “Best Adapted Score,” the system should be altered so that an Oscar need not be denied to the year’s best soundtrack. 

I generally try to ignore the asinine decisions arrived at annually by the academy, but when the best film score of the year or maybe DECADE is excluded even from the privilege of being overlooked by numb-skulls, something has got to be done. Or, at any rate, said. Or blogged.

End of Oscars digression. Start of MR. SKEFFINGTON digression. A product of Warner Bros’ esteemed Masochism Department, this wartime weepie takes Bette Davis and Claude Raines through one marriage and two world wars, and is one of the few Hollywood films to mention Jews and concentration camps. The propaganda element is very delicately stitched into the overall pattern, while the central theme, “A woman is only beautiful when she is loved,” is wielded like a length of drainpipe in the hands of an enraged Viking (how the Viking got his hands ON the drainpipe is outwith the purlieu of this piece, which is an exercise in film criticism rather than Scandinavian ethnography or plumbing).

Vincent Sherman, who made one of our favourite gangster / women’s picture crossovers, THE DAMNED DON’T CRY, is here a smooth and sensitive channel for what they call the Genius of the System, creating an elegant and emotional studio picture that isn’t anonymous but isn’t exactly personal either, but is extremely GOOD.

Jerome Cowan turns up as an aging suitor, bringing home to the heroine the reality of her advancing years — a function he repeated years later in Mitchell Leisen’s great Twilight Zone episode, “The 16mm Shrine”. I’m certain Leisen must have seen and remembered him here.

Abel bodied

Walter Abel does what Walter Abel does, marvellously. Imported from Broadway and unsuccessfully cast as D’Artagnan, Abel found his footing in second banana roles, bringing cut-throat timing and toothy wit to his comic work.

Claude Rains supreme

But Claude Rains is MISTER WIT. A film automatically gets wittier when he’s around. Here, as in CASABLANCA, he has the Epstein brothers supplying him with some great material, but he always makes more of it than anyone else. “When a man becomes repetitious, it is time to see the District Attorney,” is a lovely line in context, but C.R. makes it soar over our heads, flip round in a vertical 180°, and skewer us right in the occipital lobe.

Set whimsy to stun!

Bette Davis presides over the whole affair with an iron hand, in a velvet glove, clutching a length of drainpipe (a different one). She plays the lighter scenes with the whimsy turned up to 11 (a whimsical Bette in full flow may be too much for those of a delicate sensibility) and throws herself into the third-act suffering with the zeal of a flagellant. It’s a terrifying lesson in Star Power.

she's got Bette Davis EVERYTHING!

But the music… I love Franz Waxman. His score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is of Total Importance in the history of Hollywood music, and is a joy to the ears. When angels and demons have interspecies sex with each other, this is what they listen to. Waxman also brought the same wit to another, more obscure, James Whale movie the same year — in the opening party scene of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? Waxman appears to provide a jazz tune as source music, but is actually underscoring a series of little dialogue vignettes in the most precise way: foreground music masquerading as background. And that’s just two films out of five scored in one year out of a thirty-five year career (which also includes that Twilight Zone episode…)

But for some reason, Waxman can’t quite get a handle on MR. SKEFFINGTON. Faced with a film that starts mostly light and journeys into dark and tortured terrain, Franz attacks the comedy like it’s a Carry On film, while overstressing the subtle hints of tragedy to come like Bernard Herrmann accompanying the sinking of the Lusitania. Once the film settles into weepie mode, the score finds its correct register and things progress smoothly, but it’s a rocky first hour.

This dovetails with what I wanted to say about Mr. Greenwood’s exciting score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, because one of the striking things about that, apart from the sheer impact and originality of the sonorities, is the way the highly emotive and forceful music DOESN’T synchronise with the moods onscreen. While Waxman is slamming emphasis onto each flutter of an eyelid, Greenwood lays thick aural layers of terror over scenes that don’t have any apparent terror in them — he’s preparing you for the NEXT scene, which will have plenty. When Plainview (John Huston [Daniel Day-Lewis]) is promising wealth and health and education to the townsfolk, the music is plangent and heartbreaking, playing the mood of some upcoming scene, an hour away at least, where they find out they’ve been cheated, and playing it so effectively that the scene doesn’t even have to be included in the film.

Unusual!

fires on the plain

The score is actually so overwhelming that if it DID synchronise precisely with the tones onscreen it might seem hammy and bombastic — instead it manages to be poetic and allusive without pulling any punches whatsoever.

It did remind me a very tiny bit of Aaron Copland’s score for THE HEIRESS, but Copland only gets ahead by a few seconds. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable thing he does — by signalling an emotional change, a realisation or a plot development before it’s happened, he’s actually re-writing the movie. Copland and Greenwood both show how a score can be far more than an accompaniment or a mood-enhancer, it can be both part of film story-telling and an abstract force whose role can extend beyond the moment.

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