Archive for Ivan Desny

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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