Archive for Forbidden Divas

Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

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The Birds in Peru

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2016 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove is BACK — with another Forbidden Diva column…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Something for the Birds

“If you are face to face with the impossible, all you can do is give in.”

~ Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Birds Come to Die in Peru

A naked woman lies on a beach, her arms spread wide in a crucifixion pose. Her face is hidden by a white mask, smooth and empty of features. The mask does not belong to the woman; it covers the back of a man’s head. The man is making energetic, even violent love to the woman. He pumps away at her but she does not respond. Her hands, in close-up, clench until her fingernails dig savagely into her flesh and draw blood. Stigmata. She wipes her palms on the mask, until its pale cheeks are stained with blood tears. On the sand, around the copulating couple, lie a score or more of dead seabirds. A trio of other men lie among the birds. They are dead too, or maybe just exhausted, dressed in ragged carnival clothes. One wears an 18th century frock coat and powdered wig. Another wears a plastic suit of armour with a matching mask. The third, who wears a gaudy matador outfit, sits some distance apart and strums on a guitar. Suddenly, the man who is on top of the woman climaxes and rolls over, half dead. The woman stares up at the camera, her eyes blank and exquisite, unfulfilled…

Five minutes into Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968), you may be fleeing up the cinema aisle and spilling your popcorn as you run. If not, you may be sitting there transfixed and feeling you are in the presence of something great. Perhaps the most wilfully bizarre erotic fantasy ever recorded on film, it is the brainchild of the French novelist and occasional film director Romain Gary. (The illegitimate son of the silent Russian star Ivan Mosjoukine, this man absorbed his devil-may-care flamboyance straight from his father’s sperm.) Gary conceived the film as a perverse valentine to his then-wife, the transatlantic American star Jean Seberg. Discovered as a teenage nymphet by Otto Preminger – in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) – the glacially lovely Seberg had an oddly schizophrenic career. At once an icon of the French Nouvelle Vague – Breathless (1959) for Jean-Luc Godard – and a bimbo in the squarest of Old Hollywood schlock – Airport (1970) for Ross Hunter. Yet her most indelible screen legacy, here and in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974) by Philippe Garrel, finds her in the service of outright and unapologetic weirdness.

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Her role in Birds Come to Die in Peru is that of Adriana, a frigid nymphomaniac of ineffable glamour and seemingly boundless wealth. All she does, it seems, is travel the world in search of the one man who can bring her sexual satisfaction. Doomed as that quest may be, there is no denying that she goes about it in grand style. Her husband, a sinister Middle Eastern tycoon played by Pierre Brasseur, combs the beach in search of her in his silver-grey Rolls-Royce. Their hunky chauffeur (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) wears a tailored black uniform and looks like a sexy Angel of Death in a Jean Cocteau movie. He sports a pair of black leather gloves that poke up, suggestively, from one shoulder of his jacket. His job is not so much to find Adriana as to keep her husband company on his search. “Wherever she goes,” he quips, “she does wonders for tourism.” A dark and doe-eyed youth in a white suit (Michel Buades) stalks Adriana and watches her from behind rocks. Is this lad her Guardian Angel? Or is he just a horny local beach boy who has not yet got lucky?

Once the five-way orgy is complete, Adriana – still unsatisfied – sees the sun is rising over the pounding surf. The beach around her is positively littered with dead birds. She takes refuge in an old clapboard whorehouse, which is run by none other than the classic French movie icon Danielle Darrieux. The lesbian Madame Fernande takes a none-too-discreet shine to Adriana; they share an unseen interlude behind a closed wooden shutter. As magnificent as Darrieux undoubtedly is in classics such as Madame De… (1953), I tend to find her chilly and remote. Here she is overtly raunchy and vulgar – and wears a rainbow-hued sequinned gown of consummate and eye-popping hideousness. Asked if she is truly French, she snaps back: “My heart yes, but the rest is international.” That is a touching tribute to her rival diva and fellow wartime collaborator Arletty. At the risk of disqualifying myself forever as a film critic, I confess that I have never found Darrieux as oddly likeable as I do here.

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Fearful that her husband and his chauffeur are closing in, Adriana flees the brothel and wanders a bit further down the beach. She stops and pays homage to a giant vulture that crouches atop a boulder – unsure, maybe, as to which of the multiplicity of dead or dying seagulls to snack on next. Feeling that her life is just too desperately empty, she wades out into the surf and tries to end it all. Has she perhaps been watching Joan Crawford in Humoresque (1946)? Like all of Adriana’s efforts, this too is doomed to failure. A dashing ex-revolutionary and failed poet (Maurice Ronet) just happens to glimpse her drowning herself through the giant picture window of his beach house. He runs after her and sweeps her up in his arms; carries her back to the safety of his bedroom. No sooner has Adriana come to than she and Ronet realise, in the same instant, that they are made for each other. Neither one of them has ever met another human being who was quite so poetically disillusioned, or quite so glamorously doomed.

These two outcasts spend the morning making love. At one point, we suspect that Adriana might almost be about to have an orgasm. But Jean Seberg, in her exquisite porcelain pallor, is an actress who makes Catherine Deneuve look like Anna Magnani. We suspect that undergoing (or at least miming) the throes of highest sexual ecstasy might cause her to break into tiny glass splinters. A more expressive actress might well come a cropper in Birds Come to Die in Peru. In a film so outré and flamboyant, any bravura emoting would surely be redundant. The face of Jean Seberg, as callow and coldly perfect as that mask in the opening scene, is a cipher of hidden neurosis and frustrated lust. Her performance blends the cool lasciviousness of Deneuve in Belle de Jour (1967) with the icy anguish of Liv Ullmann in a Bergman psychodrama. We know better than to hope that she and Ronet will settle down to any sort of happily-ever-after finale. Yet the ending is a warped twist that – even having sat through 90-odd minutes of insanity – we are unlikely to see coming.

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Needless to say, Birds Come to Die in Peru was a career-killing catastrophe for everyone involved. Savaged by critics and shunned by the public, it was released in America under a shorter title – Birds in Peru – that made it sound like a nature documentary. Unavailable today in any commercial format, it survives in blurred TV copies that utterly ruin its spectacular Franscope photography by Christian Matras. Seberg and Gary would make only one more film together – a 1972 political thriller called Kill! – before her real-life political sympathies (allegedly) wrecked their marriage. A fervent supporter of the radical Black Panthers, she died in mysterious circumstances in 1979. The official cause was suicide but rumours of FBI involvement persist to this day. Birds Come to Die in Peru still features regularly on lists of the worst movies ever made. Yet I defy anyone who has ever seen it to forget they have – or to say they have seen anything quite like it. A mediocre work of art will almost invariably resemble other artworks. Only the Greatest (and the Worst) art is entirely unique.

David Melville

A Solo for Three Voices

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by dcairns

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.

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The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.

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As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.

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Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.

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The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.

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It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.

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The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?

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David Melville