Archive for December 2, 2017

Fever Pitch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2017 by dcairns

Running a blogathon in early December nicely replaces the childhood excitement of an advent calendar — instead of opening little panels in a cardboard object with a bad painting of the nativity on it, I’m getting articles through email or the comments section, little treats more sweet than chocolate. “And the day Jesus was born, that was equivalent to a double-sized bit of chocolate!” Actually, in my day, the tabs opened to simply reveal more, smaller bad art underneath. So this is MUCH better.

David Melville Wingrove essays the final film of Gerard Philipe below, and finds it marks and end point in more ways than one. Philipe died at the age of 36, like Marilyn Monroe. Like Bela Lugosi, he had himself buried in costume — in his case, as Don Rodrigue, El Cid. Why?

FEVER PITCH

La Fièvre Monte à El Pao has one of those titles that invariably sound better in French. Its literal English translation – “The Fever Rises at El Pao” – sounds more like an idea for a movie that never got made than a lavish international screen epic. This tale of passion and politics on a sweltering Caribbean island was the last film of its star, the French matinee idol Gérard Philipe. Perhaps the most consummate romantic hero in screen history, Philipe is cast (uncomfortably) as an ineffectual bureaucrat trying to reform a corrupt and brutal system from the inside. As befits the perversity of such casting, La Fièvre was also the last vaguely disreputable film by its director, the Spanish provocateur and surrealist Luis Buñuel.

In fifteen years as a peripatetic hack-for-hire, Buñuel had turned out a fair few masterpieces (Los Olvidados, El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz). Yet much of his work was frankly awful and even his most vocal fans fall silent after watching Gran Casino or Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore. Whether for better or for worse, Buñuel lacked the whorish mentality required to handle cheap melodrama as if it were High Art. Unlike the masters of the genre (Douglas Sirk, Teuvo Tullio, Roberto Gavaldón) he made no effort to hide his contempt for his material. He seemed – in his very worst movies – to want to punish his audience for paying money to watch such tripe. In his choice of camera angles and mise en scène, Buñuel did his utmost to ensure a philistine movie public would derive no pleasure from its experience whatsoever. With luck, they might not darken the doors of a cinema again!

A Franco-Mexican co-production from 1960, La Fièvre Monte á El Pao was the last film Buñuel would ever make in this vein. A year later, he returned to his native Spain to shoot Viridiana, a scabrous black comedy that won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Like all his best work, it was cold, brilliant and almost wholly devoid of conventional entertainment value of any sort. Its success not only garlanded Buñuel as a gilt-edged international auteur, but also ensured that his later films – whether they were great (Belle de Jour) or abysmal (The Milky Way) – would hereafter be venerated as Art. Although it was by no means its director’s last film, La Fièvre marked the end of one career and heralded the start of another. Fitzgerald may have insisted there were “no second acts in American lives.” But movie-makers have as many lives as they can persuade a producer to pay for.

So how interesting is the film itself? The chief fascination of La Fièvre lies in the sheer epic folly of its star pairing. The script would have us believe Philipe’s character – a meek and rather unappetising little fellow – has been nursing a secret passion for María Félix, the voluptuous man-eating wife of the island’s brutal governor. Like other barn-storming divas of her ilk – Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Joan Crawford – Félix found it next to hard to find a leading men strong enough to hold their own against her. She was cast most effectively opposite icons of Latin machismo (Pedro Armendáriz, Arturo de Córdova) or, failing that, young men so handsome but insignificant that a director might just as well have borrowed a tailor’s dummy out of Wardrobe.

Quite clearly, Gérard Philipe is neither one nor the other. It may be possible, just about, to dream up a more incongruous romantic duo. Jeremy Irons and Carmen Miranda, perhaps? Or maybe Greta Garbo and Adam Sandler? Still, it is hard to picture Félix and Philipe in the same movie – let alone on the same island and least of all in the same bed. But that does not stop Buñuel from trying. When the governor gets assassinated, his widow (Félix) and his secretary (Philipe) promptly become lovers. They set about reforming the island’s penal colony along humane and liberal lines. Well, Philipe does anyway. Félix spends the film prowling about like a bored panther, wondering if Philipe has enough flesh on his bones to make a square meal.

From an audience point of view, the arrival of a new governor (Jean Servais) is a not entirely unwelcome distraction. He soon pegs Philipe as a dangerous liberal and forces Félix to go to bed with him, as a way to keep her lover out of prison. This sexual encounter is the one vaguely memorable scene in the entire movie. A man of somewhat ‘specialised’ tastes, Servais has the bedroom decked out as if for a funeral, with black crape curtains round the bed and a plethora of phallic votive candles. A none-too-subtle strain of necrophilia creeps through many a Buñuel film – from Abismos de Pasión/Wuthering Heights to Viridiana to Belle de Jour – and this scene is nothing if not true to form. Would it be rude of us to suspect that Félix actually has a better time with this monster than she ever has with poor befuddled Philipe?

The rest of La Fièvre Monte á El Pao is flat and rather boring – which is, for a melodrama, the one unpardonable crime. A lesser director than Buñuel would have revelled in the gratuitous sadism of the island’s prison guards. He might, in so doing, have egged on the audience to share in the mounting spirit of revolt among the prisoners – which spills over (largely off-screen) in a bloody and calamitous rebellion. Yet Buñuel seems to have thoroughly digested Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil.” The guards on this island are not sadists, simply bored functionaries doing their job. By the same token, Philipe’s character is not a hero – just a weak and well-intentioned liberal bent on reforming a system that is inherently beyond reform.

Philipe’s position seems ironically akin to that of Buñuel himself. Judging from what we see on screen, Buñuel’s only aim in directing this melodrama (apart, naturally, from the money he was paid) was to display his unalloyed contempt for his material and his own Olympian superiority to melodrama as a genre. That is a deeply unlikeable position for a director to be in – but when did Luis Buñuel ever want to be liked? His promotion to full-fledged auteur status, the following year, would turn out to be nobody’s loss and everybody’s gain. Not least because he could finally leave steamy and melodramatic trash like La Fievre to those of us who really enjoy it!

David Melville

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