Archive for Capucine

Forbidden Divas: “…And the Film is Pretty Long Too”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by dcairns

A new piece by David Melville Wingrove is always a cause for celebration at the Shadowplayhouse. I perhaps am more to be credited/blamed for this one than usual, because it was I suggested Charles Vidor’s final filmmaking attempt as a suitable subject, having an inkling that the Dirk Bogarde/Capucine friendship would be of interest… But which one’s the diva?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

…And the Film Is Pretty Long Too

“God will not fail you, madam. I shall.”

          ~ Dirk Bogarde, Song without End

 A lavish 1960 biopic of Franz Liszt, Song without End throws up a number of fascinating questions in its 2-hour-and-10-minute length. From how many different angles is it possible to photograph one man playing a piano? In the mob of expensively costumed extras at a concert, which one has the whitest and most immaculately pressed kid gloves? And whose job was it to ensure that the innumerable candles in those ever-blazing candelabra were all of precisely the same length? Critics may complain that Lisztomania – the 1975 Ken Russell film with Roger Daltrey playing Liszt as a rock star and a line of chorines high-kicking on the composer’s enormous plaster cock – was one long and unpardonable lapse of taste. But that film at least was never dull. Song without End, alas, is seldom anything else.

Surely it need not have been this way? Song without End was the last film directed by Charles Vidor, a well-upholstered Hollywood hack who made his name with A Song to Remember (1945) – a luxuriantly cheesy biopic of Frédéric Chopin with Cornel Wilde looking soulful while Merle Oberon (as his mistress George Sand) looked dashing in a man’s suit. Vidor went on to make Gilda (1946) – one of the definitive films noirs – and The Loves of Carmen (1948) – a vividly vulgar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy passion. (Both those films starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as sure an antidote to dullness as Columbia Pictures could find.) Ironically, Chopin and George Sand appear briefly at the start of Song without End. But even they are boring in this movie. Vidor died some time before shooting was complete and the more prestigious George Cukor was drafted in to finish the job. Sadly, the lavish but lifeless staging suggests that rigor mortis set in while Vidor was still at work behind the camera.

Not that the film lacks other claims to distinction. Song without End marked not only the beginning, but also the end, of Dirk Bogarde’s career as a Hollywood leading man. He portrays Liszt as a lusty piano virtuoso who longs to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. He also has inexplicable leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. He toys with the idea of taking holy orders and declares himself to be “part gypsy, part priest.” In most respects, Bogarde’s performance is a tour de force of tortured genius and charismatic egomania. Embarking on a concert tour of Russia, Liszt is warned by his manager that even Napoleon Bonaparte failed to conquer that vast country. Liszt answers, with a self-confident smirk: “Napoleon couldn’t play the piano.” In addition, Bogarde is one of the few leading actors whose physique looks well in tightly-tailored breeches and wasp-waisted frock coats. In that frightfully genteel sub-genre known as ‘Dirk Bogarde Porn,’ Song without End must rank very highly indeed.

The drawback is that Dirk Bogarde never seems gayer than on those (understandably) rare occasions when he is cast as a voracious heterosexual. At the start of the film, the script comes right out and asks us to believe that Franz Liszt has fathered a brace of children in an adulterous affair with a married French noblewoman, the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Geneviève Page). The action is set in the 1840s and we do know that artificial insemination was not widely practiced until at least a century later. Hence we are left wondering if these children are, in fact, a delusion. Could that be why they never appear on camera? The career of Franz Liszt appears to have been a lifelong orgy of sex and celebrity, in which he seduced ever so many women. But the only other one we see here is a glamorous but unhappily married Russian princess, Carolyne Wittgenstein, with whom he forms an obsessive and well-nigh mystical liaison. She is played by another Hollywood debutante, the statuesque French model Capucine. A lady of distinctly androgynous beauty, she was rumoured at various points in her career to be a bisexual, a lesbian and a man.

Of her performance in Song without End, the kindest thing to be said is that she wears an array of Jean Louis gowns more than adequately. Nor does she embarrass herself or anybody else by overacting. Driven by an insurmountable passion, Princess Carolyne signs away half of Ukraine to her ghastly husband (Ivan Desny) all in an effort to secure a divorce and become Liszt’s lawfully wedded wife. She is very devout and hence plagued by doubts of a largely – although, perhaps, not entirely – religious nature. When she and the countess come face to face, Carolyne feels compelled to quiz her rival on the minutiae of her conjugal relations with the Great Man. “Did he drive you there?” she asks her rival. “To paradise?” The dialogue is atrocious but the subtext, even so, is clear enough. The countess gives a wry smile and says: “He doesn’t know the road.” Song without End must be the one Hollywood film in which two love-crazed women pass the time by impugning the hero’s sexual prowess. All this might matter a lot less if we did not suspect they were right.

Ironically, Bogarde and Capucine became close friends while filming Song without End. This suggests, at the very least, that they enjoyed working together far more than audiences enjoyed watching the result. Unlike many of the people around him, Capucine encouraged Bogarde to accept his pioneering role as an embattled gay lawyer in Victim (1961). He did his best to return the favour, trying to persuade Luchino Visconti to cast Capucine as the aristocratic mother in Death in Venice (1971). Prompted perhaps by his Italian backers, Visconti refused and cast Silvana Mangano instead. (Dirk and Cap, who thought her vulgar and plebeian, referred to her privately as ‘Madame Mango.’) Later on in the 70s, Bogarde retired to the South of France to write novels, while Capucine sank into chronic depression and full-scale career meltdown. In 1982, she made the soft-porn film Aphrodite in which she was the only actor not to remove her clothes. She committed suicide in Switzerland in 1990 and Bogarde wrote a touching tribute on her death.

On the plus side, Song without End is quite magnificently photographed by James Wong Howe. In one scene, a dark-robed Capucine kneels in prayer on the far right of the Cinemascope screen. She is racked by guilt at her adulterous affair and tormented by her love for Franz Liszt. In the background on the far left, Bogarde hovers just out of focus like some beautiful ghostly mirage. The shot is a triumph of colour, lighting, composition and sheer visual finesse. But beautiful photos of nothing are still…well, not very much at all. Even the music – which includes Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi and Wagner, as well as Liszt – winds up sounding bland and identical, as if it had all been written under pseudonyms by Max Steiner. The saddest thing is that Song without End is not even convincingly bad, apart from one scene where Liszt rashly makes a return to his native Hungarian village. A mob of torch-wielding peasants show up and dance a riotous czardas on the doorstep. They even drag his piano out of doors, so he can play along merrily with their roistering.

Moments like this are like some nightmare vision from the worst 1920s operetta ever written. They are, alas, too rare to make Song without End into the egregious camp classic it has the potential to become. Instead, they serve to remind us of just how boring the rest of it actually is.

David Melville

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The Sunday Supertitle: Porn Yesterday

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2018 by dcairns

“I believe back in England the papers call you a merchant of death.”

“I know, I keep meaning to write and thank them.”

On the Adriatic private island of a rich arms dealer, a selection of toffs celebrate a “festival of Aphrodite,” justified by a rare astrological occurrence. That’s about it for plot, but the pre-WWI setting gives the coupling a prelapsarian poignancy. And the whole film is out of time: a stylish exercise in period erotica made just a year or two too late to succeed even in its own modest terms.

APHRODITE (1981) is a ripe piece of soft-focus softcore Eurosleaze which happens to be the last feature credit of Robert Fuest (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, THE FINAL PROGRAMME), a Shadowplay favourite. Fuest had his fingers burnt by AIP on his previous feature, THE DEVIL’S RAIN, any mention of which would cause him to become incandescent with rage even decades later. It’s a good thing that the subject of APHRODITE never came up, since this artsy and genuinely quite intellectual, or at least plausibly pseudo-intellectual, smut film suffered even more violence at the producers’ hands.

As well as finishing Fuest off (though he directed a fair bit of TV afterwards), this was the last writing credit for actor John Melson, who also attained screenplay credits on BATTLE OF THE BULGE and Alessandro Blasetti’s SIMON BOLIVAR). Unfortunately, he’s given very English dialogue to a pan-European cast who sound very odd saying it: it’s a film that feels badly dubbed even if it might not be. It’s also the last film of its cinematographer, Bernard Daillencourt, a specialist in “classy” porn (BILITIS, THE BEAST) who also participated in Raoul Ruiz’s THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING: he’s a participant in one of the film’s tableaux vivants. Not sure what became of him: probably rendered obsolete by changing trends in wank-fodder.

The whole thing is so sloppily released that this English-language version begins with a scene-setting text crawl — in French. I reproduce it here for Francophone smut-hounds/historians and so I can spuriously make this post a kind of Sunday Intertitle.

But the film’s quite pleasing in places, even as a ruin of what it might have been if someone hadn’t spliced a lot of grotty porn into the “classy” and “sensual” film Fuest shot. The pretty and pretty debauched people name-dropping Clausewitz while dropping their garments include Horst Buccholtz, a young Valerie Kaprisky, Delia Boccardo and Capucine. What they must have thought of the end product I can’t imagine. To make room for the heavier stuff, presumably those who took it upon themselves to butcher the movie must presumably have ditched plot scenes, since the runtime is under 80 minutes as it is, even with the added toe-sex (yes, someone has sex with a toe). The film as conceived may have been merely EMMANUELLE crossed with a Ferrero Rochet advert with a few historical allusions thrown in, but it was too smart an affair for somebody in charge. A shame: with his fetish for elegant production design and costumes as displayed in the PHIBES films and elsewhere, Fuest could have been trusted to stage a sexy, even kinky film without getting gross.

The, ah, inserts are rammed in willy-nilly, if you’ll forgive the expression, with the original music tracks (Dvorak, Mahler) allowed to continue as the only glue holding the film together. Bob Guccione’s hardcore additions to CALIGULA are comparatively elegantly worked into the narrative by comparison. Vulgarian artistic mutilations can be judged horrible or pleasing only by comparison, you know. Poor Fuest’s relatively delicate but still spicy sequences are interrupted by random organ close-ups, spliced in like commercials for genitalia. We don’t NEED commercials for genitalia!

While it’s true the original movie was, in every sense, kitsch — the sapphic writhings have the listless, lugubrious languidity so common to the late seventies, like all the young lesbians were on Valium to help them deal with being letched at by David Hamilton — it at least had a definite and consistent style, from what we can see here. I used to argue with a producer friend about the director’s creative rights. “Why should the director be presumptively right?” he would propose. “Surely others, equally involved, such as producers, have as much chance of being on the correct side of any artistic disagreement?” I kind of lean towards the assumption that if the director is, as Gilliam likes to say, the filteur rather than the auteur, having one consistent sensibility more or less in control of what goes in or stays out of a movie, will give the thing a cohesion it can’t have if a variety of sensibilities are imposed. So that, even when the director is WRONG, she or he is still the best person to make the choice.

At the end, somewhere offscreen an archduke is assassinated, and the rich shaggers prepare to get even richer as the world burns.

“Even in our new world, there’ll always be a place for you, and me.”

See Naples and Die

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 7, 2016 by dcairns

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GIALLO NAPOLETANA isn’t a giallo in the usual, Dario Argento sense, being more interested in detective mystery than drawn-out setpiece assassinations — all of the murders are committed by defenestration and seen from outside, so they’re unusually brief. It’s also as much of a comedy as a thriller, with Marcello Mastroianni as a humble mandolinist, legs disabled by polio, who has to contend with his gambling-addict father, played by popular Italian comic Peppino de Felippo (like many comedians from Italy, very much a local/acquired taste), before getting embroiled with gangsters, the police, and a serial killer.

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I guessed during the movie that it might be adapted from a book, but it isn’t: it does however have a separate credit for story, which ties in which the strange disconnect I was feeling as I watched: the tone is just OFF. Mastroianni is playing a low-status loser, like Jim Rockford, pushed around by all the other characters, so we’re sympathetic, but the movie seems to want us to laugh AT him, or at his Job-like travails. Mastroianni does his best with a typically spirited turn, topped off with a ludicrous hairstyle.

There’s also tacky jokes about the insane asylum where some of the action takes us, though this wasn’t as bad as I feared, and then the story turns out to have an unexpected Holocaust connection, which jars so badly with the would-be jaunty manner of the movie that I would probably have bailed on it in disgust if it wasn’t virtually over by that point.

On paper, the best joke may be the way everybody keeps falling from windows/high places, but this plays out in a slightly weary way. The very last moments before the final freeze-frame are laugh-out-loud funny, which is saying something because by then we were feeling pretty hostile to the movie. one the whole, a serious giallo from this director — Sergio Corbucci of DJANGO and THE BIG SILENCE fame — would have been a more attractive proposition.

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This is a shame because the movie looks quite nice, despite it being almost the eighties, and its twisty narrative unfolds in a genuinely intriguing way — you have to find out what happens next, or Fiona and I did. Plus you get Ornella Muti, Michel Piccoli, and Capucine (but the movie wastes her beauty and comic talent).

So, only occasionally funny, not a proper giallo, likely to leave a bad taste in your mouth… but perhaps worth seeing as a lesson in slick mystery plotting. And also it’s a Christmas movie! Watch it in a month and feel bad.