Forbidden Divas: The Greeks Have a Word for Her

Shadowplay is delighted to welcome back David Melville Wingrove with another of his Forbidden Divas. Now read on!


The Greeks Have a Word for Her

“You don’t know what it means to have no choice.”

~ Ingrid Thulin, Games of Desire

Early on in Games of Desire (1964) we watch as Ingrid Thulin drifts her way through yet another dull diplomatic cocktail party. We are in Athens and she is the wife of an ambassador. (The country he represents is left politely unspecified.) Thulin wears a long white gown that is draped like an antique Grecian robe. Her arms are bare and so is one of her round and shapely shoulders. Her blonde hair is piled high atop her head and her adorably too-wide mouth is stretched in the sort of smile that threatens to extend all the way round and meet above the nape of her neck. It is her mouth, in fact, that saves her face from bland and anonymous prettiness and renders her entrancing and perverse. One of the guests looks at her and exclaims: “You look like Aphrodite!” What sounds like an absurd bit of hyperbole becomes, in that moment, no more than a bald statement of fact.

Not many actors could bear comparison with a Greek mythological goddess. But Ingrid Thulin is the most radiantly glamorous Swede since Greta Garbo and shrugs it off as if to the manner born. Of all the actresses in the Ingmar Bergman stock company, she it was who built the most adventurous and satisfying career away from her dour Svengali and his highly rarefied dimension of Nordic gloom and doom. Her work ranged from films with other Great European Auteurs – The Damned (1969) by Luchino Visconti or La Guerre Est Finie (1966) by Alain Resnais – to such frankly tawdry fare as the psychedelic giallo Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971) or the all-star Eurotrash disaster epic The Cassandra Crossing (1976). She even made a foray into soft-core porn as the madam of a Nazi whorehouse in Salon Kitty (1976) where she appeared to be having a whale of a time and came out with her dignity defiantly (and miraculously) intact.

This may or may not be welcome news but…Games of Desire is far more the latter type of movie than it is the former. It is vulgar and lurid and sensational and written and directed by two Germans (their names are Hans Albin and Peter Berneis) who deserve fully to be every bit as obscure as they are. But then just about any nonentity can look classy in a classy production. It takes a truly great actress to look stellar in an unapologetic piece of junk. It may not come as a surprise to learn that Thulin’s radiant exterior in this movie hides a profoundly troubled soul. Her husband (Paul Hubschmid) is a prissy, poisonous closet case who is trying to instil his handsome blond secretary (Bernard Verley) with his enthusiasm for all things Greek. He even has the effrontery to fly a psychiatrist in from Rome to analyse his wife – as if the parlous state of their marriage were somehow her fault!

Being of a practical nature, Ingrid knows better than to waste her money on doctors. No sooner has the last of her guests gone home than she high-tails it out of the embassy and heads for a squalid white hovel at the foot of the Acropolis. There she changes out of her chaste white robes and into a figure-hugging dress of black silk. (The kind that makes wandering about in the nude look like a sudden attack of modesty!) She lets her hair hang loose and wraps it in a tacky gauze scarf spangled with giant sequins. Then she heads to a sleazy bar in the red light district and offers herself for sale to room full of horny sailors. An urgent question springs immediately to our minds. If she gets arrested for hooking, will her husband’s diplomatic immunity be enough to get her off?

She certainly does not lack for clients. Before too many scenes have elapsed, she is shacking up with a stud (Nikos Kourloukos) who works on the docks. He has smouldering dark eyes and a mouth that is overpoweringly sexy in its cool, cruel perversity. His sister (Claudine Auger) is a tramp who strips in the bar for money and even (or so it is hinted in one scene) performs live sex shows in the side. Whatever money she makes goes to her no-good lover/pimp and she is distinctly unreceptive when her big brother lectures her on her morals. “You pay for a woman,” she tells him. “I pay for a man. The only difference is that men are a lot more expensive.” To be fair there is a certain logic to that and the script hints that brother and sister are (or at least have been) incestuously involved. Just in case we miss the point, the young lady is given the name of Elektra.

The sister is also – as her name suggests – a vengeful and vindictive little minx who tumbles rather more quickly to Ingrid’s secret double life than her husband or her lover seem to do. She muscles her way into a job as Ingrid’s personal maid, seeing this as a means to scheme and blackmail her way to a better life. Would it be giving away too much to say she sets out to seduce the husband’s gay lover? Games of Desire has enough plot to fill several seasons of your average afternoon soap opera. The fact it all gets telescoped into a mere 90 minutes makes the melodrama even more deliciously overheated than it was to begin with. If you fear you might get lost amid its multiple twists and turns, just remember that nothing that is even the least bit credible has any chance of ever happening. All the rest should follow very neatly from there.

The dialogue is wondrously overripe and studded with the sort of non sequiturs that might well pass for Art if only they were directed by Bergman. “Did you know that Siamese cats are monogamous?” asks the psychoanalyst apropos of nothing. When Thulin gets a tad overwrought and takes to driving her car along a perilous winding road, Auger reminds her: “It takes an expert to drive a car over a cliff and get out in time.” Has neither of these women ever seen Deborah Kerr in Bonjour, Tristesse (1958) and whatever happened to plots with coherent motivation? Games of Desire is the sort of rampantly insane melodrama that actresses in the studio era used to go on suspension to avoid making. But much like Greta Garbo, Ingrid Thulin not only has the power to turn Trash into Art. She even dazzles us to a point where we can no longer tell which is which.

David Melville

11 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: The Greeks Have a Word for Her”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    According to the IMDB the original title of “Games of Desire” was “Die Lady” — remindful of Charles Busch’s marvelous “Die Mommy Die”

    Thulin had a marvelous way of looking elegant while behaving like a slut. She accomplished this most memorably in Mai Zetterling’s “Night Games” — w film which drove a former child slut named Shirley Temple into a fir of rage. The then adult Temple had some sort of U.S. Ambassador authority and felt Thulin was going to corrupt us all. As Graham Greene had already made clear in the greatest piece of film criticism ever written, Temple was America’s chief sexual corrupter.

  2. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    Unfortunately the ‘Die’ in ‘Die Lady’ is simply the German word (feminine singular nominative) for ‘the.’ So it’s nowhere near as suggestive in the original as it sounds to us in English.

    As for ‘looking elegant while behaving like a slut’…Thulin had few if any equals.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    The Greeks Had a Word For Them (aka. “Three Broadway Girls”) is an utterly marvelous comedy about big city gold-diggers by Zoe Atkins starring Ina Clare, Joan Blondel and Madge Evans. A great success it was even more successfully remade as “How To Marry a Millionaire” with Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe

  4. The “three girls on the make” scenario was huge in the 30s — the Lowell Sherman film cited is great, but Ladies Must Love — directed by EA Dupont — is my favourite example.

    Peter Berneis, of Games of Desire non-fame, seems to have had a hand in the screenplay of Portrait of Jennie!

  5. Chuck V. Says:

    “If she gets arrested for hooking, will her husband’s diplomatic immunity be enough to get her off?”

    Well played, sir, well played…

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    George Cukor’s “Girls About Town” (1931) was also written by oe Atkins and sports the same formula. It stars Lilyyan Tashman — Hollywood’s chicest lesbian befor Holland Taylor.

  7. Jim Cobb Says:

    Of course Thulin’s experience of Hollywood filmmaking, Minnelli’s FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE, was pretty much a disaster. Her accent was deemed too thick and so Angela Lansbury dubbed most of her dialog. The film is a mess with miscasting all around, but it does have an incredible score by Andre Previn. How many great scores were wasted on bad films?

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Indeed it was the biggest Hollywood money-loser prior to “Heaven’s Gate.” Metro management really thought Glen Ford was equivalent to Valentino. By this stage he wasn’t equivalent to the Glenn Ford of “Gilda” Minnelli pulled out all the stops but the damned thing just sat there.

    Previn’s great scores include “It’s Always Fair Weather” and “Inside Daisy Closer”

  9. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    The main problem with FOUR HORSEMEN is that Glenn Ford looks at least twenty years too old – and also too bland and too Republican and too WASP. He simply isn’t believable as a hot young Argentine stud. Everyone else in the film is similarly miscast and misused apart from Ingrid who is ravishing, dubbed or not. Her scene in the gardens of Versailles is the one part of the film that really works.

  10. Probably my next Minnelli!

  11. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Be sure to consult what the Ultra-Auteurist scribes of “Movie” had to say about “Four Horsemen”. They adored Minnelli

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