Archive for Stefan Zweig

Forbidden Divas: 24

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2018 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove hits us with another of those Forbidden Divas. You know the ones I mean! This movie was previously covered by Scout Tafoya in our ’68 Comeback Special, here.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

24

“It is not enough to be innocent.” – Danielle Darrieux, 24 Hours in a Woman’s Life

 Let me start with a terrible confession. Danielle Darrieux is one of those stars I admire but have seldom actually liked. Even in her greatest roles such as the frivolous socialite transformed by love in Madame de (1953) she exudes a chilliness that makes her hard not engage with. I admire her coolly, remotely, from a distance – like an exquisite artificial orchid that has been sculpted in ice and preserved at a sub-zero temperature in a display case of finest cut glass. She seems less an actress than an icon put there to be venerated, a luxurious but rather hollow objet de culte.

None of her remoteness was apparent in her off-screen life – which was considerably livelier and more dramatic than most of her films. A leading lady from the age of fifteen, Darrieux was married in her youth to the film director Henri Decoin and the notorious gigolo stud Porfirio Rubirosa. (Yes, the name Italian waiters give to their supersize pepper mill.) After a brief flirtation with Hollywood, she returned to Paris just in time for the Second World War and the Nazi Occupation. Her enthusiastic but unreliable collaboration won her a notoriety that persisted until her death. She was forced to go into hiding at the end of the war, having been marked for death by both the Gestapo and the Resistance. Darrieux weathered the scandal by scorning even to discuss it. She kept working into her nineties and died in 2017 at the age of 100. Yet she never lost her air of icy hauteur. When a concert she gave in Paris sold out in record time, she remarked: “Nobody really wants to hear me sing. They just want to see if I drop dead in the middle of it.”

As a woman whose life story reads like a potted biography of 20th century Europe, Danielle Darrieux was a natural choice to star in Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life(1968). The film is based on a story by the Austrian Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, who prided himself throughout his life on being a European whose identity transcended national boundaries. Forced into exile by the Nazis, Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. Allegedly, they were unable to live with the loss of their ideal, which had always been that of a united, cultured and cosmopolitan Europe. One weeps to imagine what Zweig would make of Brexit – or of the populist thugs now governing Italy, Hungary, Poland and other European countries. His life and work bear witness to the futility and downright idiocy of borders and nation states. Are we heading for an era in which any educated person may soon start to feel like Stefan Zweig?

These are some of the issues that Twenty-Four Hours in a Woman’s Life, with its running time of less than 80 minutes, seeks to address. Its story takes place at the height of the First World War. Darrieux plays a French aristocrat, married to an English lord and on holiday in neutral Switzerland. Her husband is busy with his war duties so she is travelling with a group of with a group of upper-class Parisian ladies. Among them, oddly enough, is a teenage Romina Power, the pretty but utterly insipid daughter of Tyrone Power and Linda Christian. This girl would go on to appear in Jess Franco’s soft-core sleaze-fest Justine (1969) and achieve lasting notoriety as a pop star in Italy. Music plays an important part in Twenty-Four Hours as well, but rest assured it is of a far more elevated sort. As the film opens, the ladies are attending an outdoor concert by a lake, where a Hungarian pianist is playing music by the German composer Johannes Brahms. A few hardcore patriots are aghast at being forced to listen to “Hun music.” But for Darrieux, as for any cultivated Zweig protagonist, matters of art and culture take serene and automatic precedence over politics or national identity. It is symbolic, perhaps prophetic, that the concert is interrupted by a loud and torrential rainstorm.

Her friends catch the boat back to their hotel on the far side of the lake. But Darrieux, on a whim, decides to stay and hear the concert out, rain or no rain. Coming back alone late that night, she inadvertently gets on the wrong boat. It carries her – to her shock and surprise – across the border into Italy. At first she is mystified when a man in uniform asks for her passport. How, after all, can there be a border in the middle of a lake? When it transpires that she has no passport with her, the only option is to drop her on the Italian side and tell her to catch the first boat in the morning. Darrieux faces a night alone in a strange country, an undocumented and entirely illegal alien. She is, paradoxically, free for the first time in her life. The strait-jacket of identity has ceased, for a few hours anyway, to exist. She finds herself in the dubious position of doing (and being) whatever (and whoever) she wants.

She finds her way, through the rain, to an opulent casino. Its sumptuous Art Nouveau staircase is dominated by a giant stained-glass image of a peacock. Ladies parade up and down the stairs, resplendent in lilac wigs and glittering sequined gowns, fluttering their giant fans of ostrich plumes. Two stuffed peacocks spread their tail feathers on either side of the stairs. The writer-director Dominique Delouche (once an assistant to Fellini) served as his own designer for the costumes and sets. He creates an aura of boundless luxury on what was obviously a very small budget. Wandering into the main gambling hall, Darrieux spots a young blonde man (Robert Hoffmann) seated at a table playing roulette. His fingers drum nervously on the green baize, as he gambles away what is clearly that last money he has in the world. The wheel spins and he loses. Slowly, he gets up from the table and walks out alone into a thunderstorm. Darrieux – not even quite knowing why – follows him.

Although the man is easily young enough to be her son, the two become lovers for the night. The next day she learns he is a German. He has deserted from the army, as he can no longer stand the senseless act of killing for the sake of borders and nations. They go out rowing in a small boat on the lake. He points out a villa that reminds him of his family home. “It has an Italian terrace and a French garden,” he says. “But the house is in a Viennese style, the essence of Mozart and Schubert. That is my country!” Like the educated young Europeans of his day, he has grown up with no concern for national identities or boundaries. Suddenly, such things have become literally matters of life and death. The cosmopolitan Europe that was his home has become a hostile and alien world, one in which he no longer feels able to live. He carries a revolver with him in the pocket of his coat. He feels prepared, at any moment, to use it.

Hoffmann bears a passing resemblance to the young Helmut Berger, but is also a considerably worse actor. The plentiful nude shots – including just a few too many in a vaguely Crucifixion-like pose – suggest that Delouche did not really hire him for his acting. Delouche would make only two other features: L’Homme de Désir (1971) about a husband and wife who fall for the same young man and Divine (1975) about a young man’s obsession with a flamboyant theatrical diva, played once again by Darrieux. Having seen only the first of these movies, I cannot say which one is gayer. Twenty-Four Hours, which should have won Delouche an international reputation, was deprived of its world premiere when the 1968 Cannes Film Festival was called off due to the wave of strikes and student demonstrations across France. Delouche himself joined in the protests that prevented his own film from being shown. These days, in interview, he wonders why. Surely his costumes alone were worthy of a Palme d’Or?

Yet the revelation of 24 Hours must be Danielle Darrieux herself. As an older woman in love with a drifter half her age – and with all Europe going up in flames around her – she dares not just to make us cry, but to make us laugh. Her situation is poignant because it is ridiculous and she, a sophisticated and intelligent woman, knows precisely how ridiculous it is. She is passionate but not deluded, world-weary but never cynical. She makes us aware that irony and emotion do not merely coexist; they may, in fact, be two sides of a single overpowering and life-transforming experience. Darrieux gives a performance to rank with the very greatest. I may have to become a fan after all.

David Melville

A is for Amok

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2011 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer David Wingrove, writing as David Melville, presents the first in a series on Mexican melodramas (his views, especially those on Bunuel, are entirely his own) —

CINE DORADO 

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

A is for Amok

If an English-speaking film buff sees a Mexican film of the 40s or 50s, odds are it was directed by Luis Buñuel. Living out his exile from the Franco regime, the Spanish auteur was based inMexico City from 1945. He worked within the country’s commercial film industry (at the time, the largest inLatin America) and employed many of its leading stars and technicians.

You may argue that the Mexican films do not show us the best of Buñuel. It’s equally true that the Buñuel films are far from the best of Mexico. What drew an audience to Mexican cinema throughout (and beyond) the Spanish-speaking world was its indulgence in everything that Buñuel most notably lacked. Its lush visual beauty; its wallowing sentiment; its breathless worship of impossibly glamorous stars. Rather than excoriate the bourgeoisie from some dour Marxist perspective, the Mexican industry made films whose sheer visual and emotional excess was a challenge to bourgeois taste – and allowed the oppressed masses something they might actually enjoy! In the context of that industry, Buñuel looks like a stern minimalist trying (and failing) to compose a bel canto opera.

Stretching from the early 40s into the 60s, the Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama is widely available on DVD. Most of its key titles have been released in the USAwithout subtitles – aimed at a vast (and nostalgic) Spanish-speaking market. The print quality is good, in some cases, and wretched in others. Produced on a shoestring, the majority of discs are not regionally coded. If you worry that your language skills aren’t up to scratch…well, don’t. Made to be watched rather than listened to, most of these films are easy to follow. Like the icons of the silent screen, stars like María Félix, Pedro Armendáriz, Dolores delRio and Libertad Lamarque are mythic beings who transcend the spoken word.

All of which brings us nicely to the first film. Shot in 1944, Amok is the product of not one but three European exiles. Stefan Zweig, the Austrian Jewish author who wrote the original story, committed suicide in Brazil in 1942. (The best-known film of his work is Letter from an Unknown Woman.) Max Aub, who wrote the screenplay, was a Spanish avant-garde writer of French and German parentage, who fetched up inMexico to escape the Civil War. The director, Antonio Momplet, was another runaway Spaniard who would, finally, wander back toEurope to direct low-budget gladiator movies. The clash of three such talents will be anything but dull.

The film opens on a luxurious ocean liner, with an appropriately Gothic storm brewing in the background. A drunken doctor (played by actor and director Julián Soler) staggers about the deck. Romantically gaunt and tormented, like a sort of latino Jeremy Irons. Teetering up to the window of the grand ballroom, he looks through it and spies…Mexico’s most famous diva, María Félix, her raven hair dyed a most fetching shade of blonde. If you have trouble picturing this, just think of Jeanne Moreau in La Baie des Anges. This new look is that incongruous and that effective.

What could explain this dye-job but a flashback to the Casino at Monte Carlo? Here the blonde María, a silky-smooth adventuress and serial collector of rich men, lures the promising young doctor into absconding with the funds from his clinic – which he promptly gambles away at roulette. Striving to pull his name out of the mud, Soler signs on for 10 years as a doctor in “the colonies of the Indian Ocean”. Exactly whose colonies, or where, is never spelled out…but films like Amok treat petty facts like geography with Olympian contempt.

Cut to another flashback (or is that now a flash-forward?) to Soler stranded in a straw hut – deep in a steaming, studio-built jungle – with only an exotic native concubine (Estela Inda) to keep madness at bay. Word is out of the amok, an all-consuming destructive rage that takes hold even of civilised white men when the tropic heat is at its most oppressive. Just in case we’re wondering if that’s a rumour, a dusky extra in a loincloth runs obligingly amok right outside Soler’s window. He’s about to slaughter the good doctor when the native girl shoots him dead.

Seconds later, a fancy open-topped car pulls up bearing a white lady in dark glasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. We glimpse right away that it’s María, only with dark hair this time, cast as an outwardly prim and proper colonial wife. She has come to the depths of the jungle to seek him out because, you see, she’s pregnant by her lover and her husband (who’s been in England for six months) is due to arrive home in three days. Could the doctor help her out of this little problem? Well, yes and no. One look at Félix and her eerie resemblance to his lost love, and Soler is inflamed with lust. “You forget that I am not only a doctor, but also a man!” He demands sex as a fee – and María flees back to the city in horror. Contrite yet obsessed beyond redemption, he follows her by the very next train…

Some unkind gringo critics, notably David Thomson, have made cruel comments about María Félix and her acting. (“The drive and ambition of a Callas but without the talent.”) All I will say here is that she plays two radically different women in Amok, and is equally convincing as both. True, there is one awkward moment – at a lavish diplomatic reception – where María sits down at the piano to play the Appassionata Sonata by Beethoven. Her hands hover ineffectually above the keys, as if she were communing with a Ouija board. Still, she is exquisitely attired in a jacket of Oriental silk, and only the truly mean-spirited would hold her musical skills against her.

As the hero’s obsession with María takes hold, she even crops up in smaller roles. For one moment, as the native girl lolls lasciviously across his bed, her face morphs into that of Félix. We spot her towards the end, masked, as a nurse – as Soler languishes on an operating table, hovering between life and death. The climax of Amok – back on that storm-tossed ship – is a delirious orgy of amour fou as both Marias (the light and the dark) conspire to lure Soler closer and closer to his doom.

It’s alleged that Jean Cocteau begged Maria (Cobra Woman) Montez to play the Princess of Death in Orphée. He might just as well have asked María Félix… and she might even have said yes. One of the grandest of screen femmes fatales, she was never one to let a man get out alive. Or not, at least, with his sanity intact.

David Melville

D Cairns here — just wanted to add that Maria also plays a nurse, seen in just one close-up, as Soler lies on the verge of death, so it’s a triple role rather than double — or maybe quadruple if you count the ghost/vision. It was this touch above all that convinced me that AMOK is truly deranged.

The Dream Elevator

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2010 by dcairns

The dream sequence from Robert Siodmak’s BURNING SECRET. Stefan Zweig, the original author of the book, was a contemporary of Freud, and so like Schnitzler, partook of that whole fin-de-siecle Viennese psychological world, so the symbolic dream probably stems from the book. In Siodmak’s hands, it becomes a fascinating precursor to the language of film noir, and is particularly reminiscent of the cod-Freudian dream in Edward Dmytryk’s MURDER, MY SWEET, although it doesn’t really have an equivalent in Siodmak’s own Hollywood work, or none that I can think of.

But maybe you can?