Archive for David Melville

Forbidden Divas: The Eyes Have It

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 21, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with another entirely guiltless pleasure:

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

The Eyes Have It

“It can get pretty dangerous to look your lover straight in the ass.”

  • An anonymous opera-goer, Mascara

It starts with a view of the sea. An expanse of pale blue water, flat and eerily serene. A white Art Nouveau monstrosity stands atop a cliff and looks out upon it. A lone figure comes out of the building, dressed in an all-white ensemble that suggests a sort of 80s designer space suit, complete with shoulder pads. She climbs into a compact but elegant silver-grey car and drives off. As night draws on, the lights of passing cars play across her face. We see in, a sudden close-up, that she is Charlotte Rampling. She looks quite rapturously beautiful, her hair cropped short so she resembles some exquisite androgynous boy. A white and geometrical earring, which looks weirdly akin to a Giacometti sculpture, dangles from one ear. Her mood is abstracted, so much so that she all but runs over a strange man crossing the road. She winds down her window and warns the stranger to be careful. He is a handsome man with a face of angular if slightly overripe beauty and an unruly mop of black and tousled hair. It is clear at once that he is not the careful type.

Our lady pays him no heed and drives on. Her car stops outside a solidly bourgeois apartment block in the heart of the city. She goes inside and comes face to face with a man who is looking, not at her, but at his own reflection (and hers) in a massive antique mirror framed in gilt. He is tall and distinguished and dressed immaculately in evening dress, adorned with a long and flowing white silk scarf. He is played by Michael Sarrazin, an actor best remembered as that most fetching of all Monsters in Frankenstein – The True Story (1973). We realise, with a quick double take, that this man and this woman look almost exactly identical. Their prominent cheekbones, sensual lips and cool blue eyes mean that each one is the other in an only very slightly modified form. Moving and speaking in the mirror, their images are at once their own and one another’s. “Your smile looks more and more like your mother’s,” the man says. “What does that mean?” the woman asks with cool provocation. “It means your mother had a beautiful smile.” We may or may not have guessed they are brother and sister. What we do know is they are two sides of a single self.

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A bizarre and hallucinatory psychosexual thriller, Mascara (1987) is a Belgian-French-Dutch coproduction and one of only two features directed by the poet and visual artist Patrick Conrad. It was dumped into cinemas by Cannon Films and sank almost without a trace. I can still remember sitting, enraptured, through a matinee in a cavernous West End movie house – empty apart from me and three other spectators, at least one of whom got up and walked out before the end. Mascara is that most curious and forlorn of objets d’art, a cult movie that has never found its cult. (To this day, it is unavailable on Blu-Ray or DVD.) To that vast majority of the human race who have not seen it, I can say only to imagine a film by Joe Eszterhas (Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct) that has been that has been consummately rewritten and restaged by Jean Cocteau. Or better still, a Pedro Almodóvar movie that is played lyrically, poetically and with barely a hint of camp. It is the archetypal Charlotte Rampling movie, the celluloid epitome of Divine Decadence and sulphurous yet seductive doom.

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That unnaturally intimate brother and sister are on their way to an evening at the opera. The sister, Gaby, tells an acquaintance that her brother, Bert, imbibed his love of opera with their mother’s milk. At that night’s performance of Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck, they are enthralled in particular by a long and rippling white gown that is worn by Eurydice in Hell. It comes equipped with an enormous headpiece of white feathers and is ornamented at the bosom with a glowing red neon heart. The brother and the sister act on their obsession in differing yet strangely complementary ways. She starts a romance with Chris the designer (Derek de Lint) who just happens to be that handsome stranger she narrowly avoided running over. Her brother, on the other hand, wheedles the designer into letting him borrow the dress. Or rather, to bring it in person to his oh-so-very-secret hangout, a place of which his sister knows nothing. This is an underground S&M club with the suitably operatic name of Mister Butterfly. It is a place where drag queens in chain mail masks pass raw oysters from mouth to mouth, where a man performs fellatio on a glistening black leather crotch bursting with lurid red orchids.

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Technically speaking, the gown is not for him. It is a birthday gift for a beautiful androgynous showgirl named Pepper, who is played by the real-life Italian transsexual Eva Robins. (She had a similar role in 1982 in the Dario Argento film Tenebrae.) Pepper, as expected, wears the haunted gown as if she had been born to it and lip-synchs a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice to the delight of the assembled guests. But back in her dressing room after the show, she unwisely declares her love to Bert. She has slipped off the gown and stands behind him naked, with most of her lithe body plunged into shadow. Yet we see, as she moves slowly into the light, that she has both breasts and a penis. This moment of shock revelation was pillaged more or less wholesale by Neil Jordan in his absurdly overrated The Crying Game (1992). To watch it in both movies is to see it staged, first, by a director with an authentically erotic sensibility and, later, by a director who is largely without one. (Jordan’s one truly erotic film Interview with the Vampire (1994) involves copious and extended bouts of man-on-man action, a thing Conrad shows us only in brief but tantalising glimpses.) It is scarcely a surprise when Bert turns round and strangles Pepper. Sexual confusion has been known to exact a frightful toll.

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The rest of Mascara hinges on Bert’s nefarious scheme to pin the murder on his sister’s hapless lover. The fact he is the chief of the city’s police gives him distinct advantage here. But very wisely, Conrad avoids shifting his movie into full-on policier mode. This is first and foremost a mood piece, dedicated to the purveyance of rarefied if distinctly kinky aesthetic and erotic frissons. He leaves ample time for Rampling to stare at her own exquisite form in the mirror, or out her giant picture window at that vast and seemingly tideless sea. Her wardrobe by Claude Montana appears to be more sculpted than sewn. It is undeniably opulent, but confining and constricting at the same time. Glimpsed above the fireplace in her sitting room is a huge Symbolist canvas of a naked woman with her hands bound by chains. Dare we hope that Chris can set her free of her brother and his clinging, incestuous love? (Among the many novel ideas in Mascara is the one that a man who designs gowns for the opera can be solidly and unimpeachably heterosexual.) Or will those sleazy and sinister denizens of Mister Butterfly get the better of Bert and Chris and Gaby and – who knows – possibly the entire known world?

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There is only one way you will ever know the answer to these and a multitude of other questions. That is to track down and snap up any surviving VHS copy of Mascara you can lay your hands on. It takes only a handful of hardcore obsessives to make a cult. The cult for this movie is many years overdue.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: All the Way to the Bank

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2018 by dcairns

Met up with David Melville Wingrove at Filmhouse yesterday — it was like one of those spy movie handovers of documents — and thus am able to bring you another of his marvelous works ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All the Way to the Bank

 

“I don’t worry about the news. I am the news!”

–          Romy Schneider, La Banquière

A late friend who worked in films in the 60s used to grow misty-eyed whenever he spoke of Romy Schneider. “Ah, poor dear Romy,” he would sigh and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. “She was a lesbian, you know.” He made the word sound dangerously exotic and glamorous. He also gave the impression of not being entirely sure what the word meant. My friend is long gone and I have no idea where his story came from. Quite apart from her 25 years of screen stardom, Romy Schneider was famous in the European press for her colourful and rather tortured love life – which may well have included women as well as men. She had a very public affair in the early 60s with Alain Delon and they appeared together (notoriously) as incestuous lovers in Luchino Visconti’s stage production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in Paris in 1961. Her death from suicide in 1982 (following the death of her eldest son) sparked an outburst of public mourning comparable with that of Princess Diana or Eva Perón.

Even in her earliest youth, it was difficult to separate the life of Romy Schneider from the fantasy of her life as it was seen by her adoring fans. From 1954 to 1957, the teenage Austria actress became famous worldwide with a series of four films based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (better known as ‘Sissi’) who was, essentially, the Princess Diana of the 19th century. The films are hideous – stodgy and interminable operettas, minus the songs – but the young Romy gives them a zest that Ernst Marischka’s direction entirely lacks. She became, from that moment, the uncrowned ‘little princess’ of Europe and recreated her role as Sissi in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). Her public throughout her life was largely European. Despite – or perhaps because of – her roles in What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) and Bloodline (1979) audiences in Britain and the United States never took to her at all.

From the late 60s, Romy Schneider was based primarily in France. She won the César for Best Actress twice – for Andrzej Zulawski’s L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and Claude Sautet’s Une histoire simple (1978) – and was easily the most famous Austrian to become an honorary Frenchwoman since Marie Antoinette. It goes without saying that Romy was vastly more popular, yet what a lavish and sensational biopic that might have made! The Francis Girod film La Banquière (1980) is not exactly a biopic. It was based loosely on the life of a real-life businesswoman, Marthe Hanau, but the name and most of the details have been fictionalised. It is in no way comparable, on an artistic level, with the work of Zulawski or Sautet. But it is arguably the one film (post-Sissi) that best sums up Romy’s iconic star presence.

Her character in La Banquière is not simply a banker. She is a working-class Jewish left-wing bisexual woman banker. A difficult enough role to pull off at the best of times, but against the politically charged backdrop of France in the 1920s and 30s, even the attempt would seem little short of heroic. Emma Eckhert (as her character is renamed) starts off as a delivery girl at her parents’ hat shop in the years before World War I. She goes to prison at a young age for ‘moral turpitude’ – after she is caught in bed with an aristocratic lady client. Shot in black-and-white, this prologue serves to establish two vitally important facts. Firstly, that this lady has an eye for other ladies. Secondly, that she has a keen and far more discriminating eye for hats. Not since Silvana Mangano in Death in Venice (1971) has any star sported such a dazzling array of headgear as Romy Schneider does here. They are designed by Jean Barthet, who was best known for the Technicolor cartwheels worn by the Deneuve-Dorléac sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). The advantage of his designs for La Banquière is that one may wear them without posing a danger to low-flying aircraft.

Once out of prison (and shot now in radiant colour) Emma wastes no time in getting married to an aristocratic mari complaisant. We assume he must be gay, partly because he seems unfazed by her affairs with other women and partly because he is played by Jean-Claude Brialy, one of the few ‘out’ French actors to survive the unpleasantly macho climate of the New Wave. (With films by Marcel Carné, Jean Cocteau, Marcel L’Herbier and Marc Allégret, among others, the much-ridiculed cinéma de papa of the 40s and 50s was artistically less adventurous, perhaps, but also a good deal gayer!) Emma pours most of her energy into building up a banking empire based on a new and revolutionary concept. At a time when large and established banks dole out a measly 1% in interest, the Eckhert Bank pays investors a whopping 8% on their savings. This involves, inevitably, some reckless high-stakes speculation and some insider trading of frankly dubious legality. Yet its central tenet is that ordinary folk should get a share in the profits of the banks. This was as strange and subversive an idea in 1930 as it is today.

Before long, Emma becomes a heroine to the lower middle classes of provincial France, known and adored universally as ‘Madame 8%’. Refreshingly uninhibited by paltry notions of good taste, she decorates her Christmas tree with giant gilded baubles carved in the figure of 8%. We may take this as a sign that she has, by and large, left her Jewish identity behind her. The ethical issues around casting Schneider as a Jewish woman are multiple and complex. Her mother, the actress Magda Schneider, was an ardent Nazi supporter who took her little girl to play-dates with the children of Doctor Josef Goebbels. Romy – who suffered a degree of guilt over this later in life – worked hard both on-screen and off to distance herself from her mother’s political views. In the last decade of her career, she repeatedly played a woman who suffered due to Nazi atrocities. In Le Train (1972) and La Passante du Sans-Souci (1982) she would play a Jewish refugee. In Le Vieux Fusil (1975) her character is savagely raped and killed by Nazi troops.

Taking on any or all of these roles demanded a moral courage that would make Jane Fonda turn pale. They make doubly distasteful the comments of Dirk Bogarde, who turned down Romy Schneider as his co-star in The Night Porter (1974) on the grounds that: “She would have to play the Nazi and I would have to play the victim.” Her character in La Banquière does not survive to see the Second World War and the role of the French authorities in the Nazi holocaust. An affair with a young left-wing journalist (Daniel Mesguich) leads Madame Eckhert further and further into the progressive and anti-Establishment politics of France in the 1930s. It leads also – in a twist that could only happen in a French film – to an enduring if Platonic friendship with his wife (Marie-France Pisier). Yet it also earns her the enmity of the Big Bad Bankers, led by a malevolently glowering Jean-Louis Trintignant and his bland but insidious boy-toy (Daniel Auteuil) who goes so far as to wear lipstick in his very first scene. These men decide to put a stop to Madame Eckhert and her anarchic business practices. It is a measure of how grim our world is that we never have any serious doubt they will succeed.

The director Francis Girod was and is a sort of Stanley Kramer á la française. His speciality is stolid but star-studded dramas on vaguely controversial themes. La Banquière is not appreciably better or worse than The Infernal Trio (1974) which stars Schneider and Michel Piccoli or René la Canne (1977) which stars Piccoli, Gérard Depardieu and Sylvia Kristel. Yet it is produced with truly eye-watering opulence and who can dislike any film that boasts a full transvestite ladies’ orchestra, kitted out in 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs? Such a film requires an overpowering star presence to sustain it and that is something Romy Schneider has in spades. She is by turns seductive, capricious, ruthless, generous, headstrong, courageous and doomed. You are left wondering why French people do not cut to the chase and appoint Madame Eckhert as President of the Republic for life. Most countries in the 30s could have done a lot worse. In fact, most countries still do.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: ‘Allo, Sailor!

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2018 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns to consider another movie star who is both deep scarlet and beyond the pale ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

‘Allo, Sailor!

 

“My mother taught me there are two fragile things

– a staircase and a reputation.”

–          Maria Montez, Hans le Marin

In my distant and long-ago youth, one of my favourite films was The Moon in the Gutter (1983) – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s disastrous but hyper-poetic follow-up to his international hit Diva (1981). Set in a hallucinatory night world on and around the docks of Marseilles, it tells the tale of a poor chump (Gérard Depardieu) in thrall to an exotic and glamorous dream girl (Nastassja Kinski) but finding comfort with an earthy hooker (Victoria Abril). I saw this film over and over in its (admittedly sparse) theatrical showings. Its cinéma du look visuals, its swooning Gabriel Yared soundtrack, its invitation to “Try Another World” – emblazoned on a billboard above Nastassja, pouting provocatively in her bright red sports car – are etched on my subconscious to this day. It is, most likely, a truly terrible film.

I do not love The Moon in the Gutter any less now I know it is, essentially, a remake of a forgotten French film noir of the 40s. Hans le Marin (1948) is the tale of a poor chump (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who arrives in Marseilles on shore leave from an American merchant vessel. (His name is Eric and he is originally French Canadian; that is the script-writer’s novel way of explaining why a Yankee sailor speaks in fluent French throughout the movie.) He goes to a bar called the Kit-Cat Club and falls under the spell of a glamorous and exotic hooker named Dolores. She is played by camp B-movie legend Maria Montez, best known for such absurd Technicolor extravaganzas as White Savage (1943) or Gypsy Wildcat (1944) or, of course, the immortal Cobra Woman (1944). She sleeps with him and sets him up to be beaten up and robbed by a pair of thugs – one of whom is the noted French character actor Marcel Dalio. In the best masochistic film noir tradition, Eric responds by having her name tattooed onto his forearm.

Going on the hunt for his attackers, Eric accidentally kills one of them and is forced to seek refuge in a gypsy encampment. There he finds solace with an earthy wench named Tania (Lilli Palmer) who tells fortunes by breaking a raw egg into a glass. (I swear I am not making this up.) He is still prey, of course, to his overpowering obsession with Dolores. His quest to recover and reclaim her will lead him deeper and deeper into Marseilles and its squalid nocturnal depths. (In fact, Wicked City was the film’s title when it surfaced – albeit briefly and badly dubbed – in English-speaking markets.)  His is not so much a case of amour fou as amour of a downright bloody fool. It is obvious to any spectator over the age of twelve that Dolores is completely and consummately rotten. As in her psychedelic Technicolor epics, Maria Montez is in the business of hunting down hunky and half-naked men and turning them into live human sacrifices. Judging from her wardrobe, it is a highly remunerative profession.

 

Her first appearance, perched on a high bar stool in the Kit-Cat Club, is possibly her most dazzling and iconic screen moment. Her camp followers will protest loudly that her infamous ‘cobra dance’ in Cobra Woman is a display of diva excess that has no rivals. The one drawback is that Maria Montez emphatically could not dance. She does, however, show a remarkable flair for sitting on top of a stool. Up until that point, Eric has been dancing and flirting with one of the other girls. He glances over casually at the far side of the bar and his face, abruptly, turns to stone. We get a close-up of a pair of long and shapely legs, rising gracefully and sinuously out of a pair of elegant black evening shoes. The camera rises slowly to reveal two rounded knees, crossed one over the other, emerging from the black velvet folds of a skirt. A gleaming black leather handbag is perched on top of them. A hand, heavy with bracelets of rhinestone and silver, strokes the bag with its long, sharp varnished nails. Whoever these hands belong to is ignoring – and triumphantly – Marlene Dietrich’s rule that “Dark nail polish is vulgar.”

The camera does not pause, but goes on travelling upwards. It moves more slowly perhaps – tantalisingly, almost imperceptibly – as it reveals a voluptuous torso in a tight black bodice studded with sequins, which wink and glitter in the too-bright light of the bar. A rhinestone necklace glows, like a circlet of cold fire, about the base of the neck. The face above it seems cut off, almost disembodied, afloat in a magic space all of its own. It is the face of Maria Montez – dark, sultry, magnificent. She is staring insolently back across the bar at Eric. The smile that plays about her lips is the smile of a hungry cat that has already dined off one bird and is searching idly for another one to round off her meal. Slowly, she draws a cigarette out of her handbag. With a cool nod, she gives her permission for the strange man to walk across the room and light it for her. Eagerly and walking as if under hypnosis, he does so. His entire fate is sealed in that moment. The rest of Hans le Marin is as tragic and inevitable as Euripides. No matter if the dialogue is not quite the same calibre.

This whole film, in fact, was something of a family affair. Montez and Aumont were married at the time. They had relocated back to France after her career in Hollywood began to fade and his, unfortunately, never really began. Their co-starring vehicle at MGM, Siren of Atlantis (1948), was a legendary fiasco commemorated by Gore Vidal in his satirical novel Myron, a follow-up to the more famous Myra Breckinridge. Their first outing as an acting duo in Europe, Hans le Marin was scripted by Aumont himself and directed by his brother François Villiers. In style, the film is an intriguing mix of the pre-World War II poetic realism of Julien Duvivier or Marcel Carné and the newly fashionable Neo-Realism of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica. It goes without saying that Villiers never became a big-name international auteur. Yet there are many worse-made films that were not directed by a member of the star’s immediate family.

If only Hans le Marin were better known, it might help to put paid to the idiotic notion that Maria Montez was possibly the worst actress in the history of movies. Her persona was flamboyant, to put it mildly, and an obscure Puerto Rican drag queen made something of a name in the 60s by performing in underground movies under the pseudonym of ‘Mario Montez.’ But her performance in Hans le Marin is sultry and hypnotic and about as finely nuanced as a portrayal of pure and unadulterated evil can possibly be. We can understand all too well why Jean Cocteau sought her to play the Princess of Death in Orphée (1950). Montez died tragically young in 1951 and Orphée would have been the ideal capstone to her career. We can only lament that she demanded too high a fee. Hans le Marin even lets her hint at a softer side. When she lures the hero back to her lair, we see keeps two white doves in a cage and cares for them with far greater tenderness than she ever shows to any of her men.

So was Maria Montez truly as bad an actress as film historians claim? I know a simple yet highly effective way to dismiss that charge. Just try to picture Meryl Streep playing her role in Hans le Marin or any of her other films. Talent is as talent does. And whatever it may have been, Maria Montez did it with a vengeance.

David Melville