Thursday, September 21, 2017

DAISY MILLER 1974

“Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history”
                                                          The Lion in Winter (1968) 


Well, someone could certainly write a book (and a heavy tome it would be) about the role of sex in Hollywood history. Especially when it comes to the influence libidinal urges have had on the casting of films, and the part that sex and sexual attraction has played in the launching and ruination of careers.
During award season, when film industry types love to go around giving self-serious interviews calling each other artists, lauding the challenges of “the work,” and praising their colleagues, ad nauseum, for their bravery, vision, and artistic courage; one would think that all decisions relative to the making of films are based exclusively on talent and artistic merit. Closer to the truth (thanks to decades worth of autobiographies, tell-it-alls, and TV talk shows) is that a great many decisions—particularly those relative to casting—generally seem to emanate from below the belt.

When it comes to casting, the Hollywood paradigm has traditionally been that of a patriarchic boys club built upon cronyism, nepotism, and cliques; its inherent misogyny and sexism feeding into the normalizing of a kind of “vertical casting couch” sensibility when it comes to the relationship between those in power (male producers and directors) and those with little (actresses). 
Few behind-the-scenes Hollywood clichés are as enduring and tiresomely pervasive as that of the movie director who falls in love/lust with his leading lady. Whether it be infatuation (George Sidney and Ann-Margret: Bye Bye Birdie), obsession (Alfred Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren: The Birds, Marnie), love affair (Clint Eastwood and well…everybody), or subsequent matrimony (Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom)—the faces change, but the particulars have the same weary ring: movie contact = movie contract. (I’ll save the male-on-male wing of this phenomenon [director Luchino Visconti and Helmut Berger] for another time.)

An inevitable phase of soundstage lust blossoming into true love is when the father-figure/mentor has the impulse to star his muse/protégé in a work of classical literature. Paramount head Robert Evans acquired the rights to The Great Gatsby for wife Ali MacGraw to star in before she made a literal getaway with her The Getaway co-star Steve McQueen, summarily ending both her marriage and her career. Roman Polanski had a dream of casting wife Sharon Tate as the ruined heroine of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles before her tragic death.
And, representing the only film in this category to  come to fruition as envisioned: director Peter Bogdanovich, after falling in love with model-turned-screen-ingenue Cybill Shepherd during the making of The Last Picture Show, leaving his then-pregnant wife Polly Platt (the film’s production designer) and their toddler daughter, decides to star his lady love in an adaptation of Henry James’ Daisy Miller
Cybill Shepherd as Annie P. "Daisy" Miller
Barry Brown as Frederick Forsyth Winterbourne
Cloris Leachman as Mrs. Ezra B. Miller
Eileen Brennan as Mrs. Walker
Mildred Natwick as Mrs. Costello
Duilio Del Prete as Mr. Giovanelli

Adapted from Henry James’ novella, Daisy Miller tells the story of a headstrong, somewhat spoiled young lady from Schenectady, New York traveling Europe with her family in 1876. The Miller family: vivacious, gadabout Daisy (Shepherd), bratty little brother Randolph (James McMurtry), and distracted mother (Leachman); are ragingly nouveau riche clan and the epitome of the ugly American. Uncurious, unsophisticated, and forever talking about everything is so much better back home, though they appear to be, they are not “modern” so much as they are primitive.

But Daisy, (no one calls her by her given name, Annie) imbued with enough beauty, charm, and convivial graces to mitigate her shortcomings, has turned her baseness into a kind of performance art. A mass of flirtatious affectations and frilly adornments, Daisy is a perpetual motion machine of restive parasol twirling and fan-fluttering, all choreographed to the relentless trill of her own mindless chatter.

So thoroughly is Daisy a creature of self-interest, that in the restrictive atmosphere of European society and its rigidly-adhered-to codes of conduct and decorum, her guileless impudence might easily be mistaken for nose-thumbing recklessness at worst, proto-feminist rebellion at best. But of course, given Daisy’s thorough lack of awareness—self or otherwise—what we’re really witness to is a display of America’s top commodity and chief export: entitled arrogance.
Our Daisy as you're most apt to find her...mouth open and talking a blue streak

While touring Vevey, Switzerland, Daisy meets American expatriate (the name white immigrants have devised for themselves) Frederick Winterbourne; a formal and reserved young man who has lived in Europe so long he has absorbed the repressive manners and moral customs of the people. Ever the flirt, Daisy takes great pleasure in ruffling Winterbourne’s starchy feathers, heedless of the obvious fact that her actions largely succeed in merely confounding him.
As both parties later descend upon Rome, Winterbourne’s cautious courtship of Daisy both mirrors and is impacted by the pressures of aristocratic propriety. The difficulty arising out of Daisy not caring a whit for social conventions and Winterbourne being fairly ruled by them. Though there is mutual attraction, things keep getting gummed up by the near-constant misunderstanding of overtures and misreading of gestures.
In this beautifully composed shot, Mr. Winterbourne keeps his eye on Daisy (seen in the mirror behind him, talking to the hostess, Mrs. Walker) while Mrs. Miller prattles away to no one in particular, and Randolph amuses himself with the silverware

Daisy’s greatest sin stems from the fact that she’s a self-possessed grown woman who dares bristle at the socially-mandated obligation that she conduct herself like a helpless child. The affectations of propriety requiring women to seek male authorization, maternal escort, or societal consent for even the most innocuous activities don’t sit well with the freewheeling Daisy. Thus, it isn’t long before her penchant for doing just as she pleases results in tongues wagging, invitations withdrawn, and puts her reputation and social standing (such as it was) at risk.

The romantic dilemma this poses for Winterbourne, who keeps company with far too many old gossips and is forever second-guessing himself, is whether the mere appearance of transgression is as damning as the actual thing. Winterbourne hopes Daisy is only a recklessly naïve girl and not the fallen woman everyone believes her to be, but things are not helped by his never thawing out enough to honestly express his feelings for her, nor does Daisy drop her flirt-and-tease façade long enough to be as direct with him in her words as she prides herself as being in her actions.
The outcome of Daisy Miller is foretold by the deliberate names of its characters, the combination of daisies and winter evoking images of growth restricted and certain death.

Daisy Miller is largely remembered as the film that broke Peter Bogdanovich’s three-film winning streak (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc?), and while critics at the time treated it with more kindness than its reputation would suggest, it was nevertheless a film 1974 audiences found very resistible.

Part of this, I think, is attributable to something Bogdanovich references in his DVD commentary: that Daisy Miller was made several years before the vogue in Merchant/Ivory-style period picture adaptations of literary classics. But as a member of “the public” who was around at the time, I can say that a good deal of resistance to Daisy Miller had a lot to do with the public’s oversaturation with the Svengali/Trilby roadshow Bogdanovich and Shepherd treated us to on talk shows and in magazines.
Innocent flirt or fallen woman?
Bogdanovich likes to believe that people resented the couple’s happiness. Closer to the truth is that Bogdanovich and Shepherd failed to see how callous and unfeeling their public declarations of love and happiness came across given that everyone with access to Rona Barrett or Rex Reed knew it came at the cost of betraying a pregnant wife and abandoning a child.
True love may have been in flower for this “beautiful people” pair, but us common folk merely saw an oft-repeated Hollywood cliché: neophyte director dumps his lean-years wife for blonde goddess starlet at first flush of success. In addition, the public likes to think it makes stars, but Bogdanovich was shoving Cybill down our throats (he produced an ear-torture vanity project LP of his lady love singing songs by Cole Porter), branding her a star before it was earned.
I’m not sure what Bogdanovich saw when he looked at Cybill Shepherd (likely, the talented, funny, actress and singer she eventually grew to be), but at the time, I have to say I saw only a meagerly gifted girl of well-scrubbed attractiveness. She was wonderful in The Last Picture Show, but as part of a strong ensemble, not star material.
When it was announced that the inexperienced former model was to actually star in Daisy Miller, everyone (except Bogdanovich, apparently) seized on the irony of this well-known Orson Welles idolater in essence recreating those scenes in Citizen Kane where Charles Foster Kane insists on making his modestly-talented sweetheart into an opera singer for his own ego-driven reasons. No, by the time Daisy Miller made it to the screen, the public not only wanted this couple to fail, they needed them to.

While I recognize it’s unfair to judge a film based on the personal lives of the people making it, I’m also not so naïve as to not also understand that the obfuscation of reality and fantasy is the absolute cornerstone of the Hollywood star system. The public’s interest in Elizabeth Taylor’s real-life scandals helped make many an Elizabeth Taylor clunker into a hit (The Sandpiper), in fact, the studios relied upon it. The only time people in the film industry think the merging of private and professional is unjust is when it bites them in the ass at the boxoffice.
Winterbourne: "Wouldn't it be funny if they both were perfectly innocent and
sincere and had no idea of the impression they were creating?"
Mrs. Costello: "No, it wouldn't be funny."

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
With Daisy Miller, Peter Bogdanovich has crafted what I feel is a handsomely mounted, exquisitely filmed and costumed, and at times, genuinely moving adaptation of Henry James’ short novel. Uncommonly faithful to its source material, not only are the locations precise and the actors fit the physical descriptions of their characters to a T; but the script adheres so closely to the text you could actually follow along with the book while watching the film. 
Bogdanovich's cinematic eye is as sharp as ever, and the film never feels sluggish or airless like a great many costume dramas. Daisy Miller is a rarity in period dramas, in that it is very entertaining and watchable. Its flaws are minor and it plays very much like the old-fashioned period films of Hollywood's Golden Age, when sharp storytelling and keen pacing took precedent over the kind of over-referential stiffness that later came to exemplify films of the genre.
Indeed, so much is so ideal about Daisy Miller that it’s rather a shame my only complaint falls on the weakness presented by Daisy herself. The actress portraying her, not the character.
Daisy, making friends and influencing people. Not.
With a great deal of humor, and style, Bogdanovich has constructed a semi-tragic comedy of manners that feels like Theodore Dreiser American vulgarity meets Edith Wharton British propriety. He finds ample opportunities to dramatize the contrasts between the dreary Eurocentrism of the Miller family and the studied hypocrisy of Americans abroad who have adopted the customs of the British aristocracy.
Interweaving this with a love story that never can get started, Bogdanovich, who clearly envisions Daisy as something of an early suffragette and feminist, still leaves it up to us to draw out own conclusions as to whether Daisy’s independence is the result of a unique brand of Yankee boorishness or an admirable resistance to senseless social constriction.

This societal drama is sensitively and amusingly played out, but what’s lacking is a Daisy capable of conveying even a hint of why, beneath all the flirting and white-noise chatter, she is worthy of the attention James/Winterbourne/Bogdanovich expend on her.
Watching Daisy Miller, I was left with the impression that the fatal flaw of the film is that Bogdanovich took Shepherd's appeal as a given. Certain that Cybill was "born for the role" and that she and Daisy were one in the same, he simply plops her in front of the camera. Gone is the protective, loving care of the sort lavished on her performance in The Last Picture Show. Here he allows Cybill to merely be Cybill, certain that audiences will find her to be as bewitching as clearly had found her to be. But it takes talent to project  one's personality on the screen, Shepherd at this point was simply too green.  

PERFORMANCES
For a brief moment in time Bogdanovich had wanted to star opposite Shephard in Daisy Miller with Orson Welles directing. While the idea sounds positively bananas, the side of me that loves Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and Showgirls wishes it had actually happened.
In considering projects for Shepherd to star in, Bogdanovich stated that it was down to Daisy Miller and Calder Willingham’s 1972 novel Rambling Rose. Rambling Rose was made into a film in 1991 and garnered an Academy Award nomination for its star, 24-year-old Laura Dern.
I bring this up to illustrate why I think Cybill Shepherd’s largely cosmetic performance in Daisy Miller is what ultimately stops it from being the film it could be. Shepherd and Dern were roughly the same age when making these films; both stories about naïve young women who innocently threaten the pervasive social structure. 
Somber Barry Brown, who committed suicide in 1978, gives the film's best performance;
his sad-eyed melancholy fairly aching to be relieved by the life force that is Daisy

Going by type alone, Cybill Shepherd would have been-well cast as Rose, just as Dern would have made a fine Daisy Miller; but to look at what these two actresses do with these roles is to understand the subtle but lethal difference between capable amateur and gifted professional.
Shepherd is not awful in Daisy Miller, she does have her moments. But her performance is largely external and superficial. Saddled with a character who never shuts up and a director fond of long single takes, Shepherd obviously had her hands full. Thus (as my partner noted with his usual perspicacity) perhaps Shepherd can’t be faulted if, after delivering - in machine gun rap - what must be page upon page of dialogue and hitting all those marks, she invariably resorts to hoisting that prominent chin of hers and adopting a look of smug self-satisfaction at having simply made it through the whole thing without having made a mistake. It's clear she's doing the best that she can. Nuance of performance be damned, she remembered it all!
Try as she might, lovely Cybill Shepherd has but a single, all-purpose expression to offer the camera when it comes in for a closeup. Ideal for magazine covers, it's a non-look that communicates considerably less than Bogdanovich thinks

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
As literary heroines go, I find Daisy Miller to be a captivating (if exasperating) heartbreaker. I loved her on the printed page, her deceptively complex, out-of-step-with-the-times character fitting in with the women I fell in love with in Far From The Madding Crowd, Madame Bovary, Sister Carrie, and Anna Karenina. Perhaps because I liked the book so much and because Bogdanovich’s adaptation is so glowingly faithful to it, I can overlook the shortcomings I have about Cybill Shepherd in the role.
As I’ve stated, the film can be very moving at times (I get waterworks at the end, no matter how many times I see it), so perhaps, when I relinquish my desire for what Daisy could have been and allow myself to enjoy THIS Daisy (Shepherd is not without her charm), the emotions and thwarted romance of the story are able to reach my heart.
Mildred Natwick is a real delight in her brief scenes. This amusingly well-turned-out bathhouse is just one of many examples of Bogdanovich adding visual interest to dialogue-heavy sequences

Staying true to his devotion to creating a kind of Orson Wells-type repertory company of actors, Bogdanovich features many players from The Last Picture Show,  Eileen Brennan and Duilio Del Prete going on join Shepherd in Bogdanovich's next feature, the equally ill-fated At Long Last Love.

Had I seen Daisy Miller when it was released, I'm fairly certain I would have disliked it. In the heat of huge 1974 releases like Chinatown, The Godfather Part II, The Great Gatsby, Mame, The Towering Inferno, and countless disaster films and Oscar contenders  (1974 was a biggie!), I'm afraid I wouldn't have appreciated Daisy Miller's small-scale virtues.
When it comes to watching the film today, I'd be lying if I said it didn't mitigate matters considerably knowing that time and cruel fate has mellowed what once seemed so obnoxious insufferable about the Hollywood's "It" couple (Peter & Cybill) and my feelings about the project as a whole. It's easier to recognize and appreciate what a talented director Peter Bogdanovich is when he's not telling us so. Likewise, knowing that Cybill Shepherd went out and studied and ultimately matured into a very good actress and comedienne, that I like her introspective take on her younger self (her autobiography Cybill Disobedience is a great read), and respect her political activism; well...it all goes a long way toward getting me to relinquish my dogged resistance to her professional inexperience as Daisy and simply enjoy the many pleasures this film has to offer.
Funny how time has the power to work that kind of magic.


BONUS MATERIAL
When in Rome, Daisy and her family stay at The Hotel Bristol. Which also happens
 to be the name of the fictional hotel where Barbra Streisand wreaks havoc in What's Up, Doc? 

From 2004: Shepherd tells her favorite Elvis Presley anecdote on The Graham Norton Show
HERE
Cybill's bestselling 2000 autobiography is available for free download in its entirety on her website 
HERE


"I have never allowed a gentleman to dictate to me, or interfere with anything I do."
 Copyright © Ken Anderson

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

THE CEREMONY (La Cérémonie ) 1995


The rich are always with us. And if you’re a resident of Los Angeles, the acute inevitability of their presence and ubiquitous cultural sway is perhaps even more keenly felt than anywhere else. I’ve always envisioned myself as positioned somewhere between ambivalence and indifference when it comes to the rich; certainly not impressed by them, but neither envious nor begrudging of affluence in those for whom it holds some level of significance.

Of course, this moderate stance has shifted considerably amidst today’s political climate of wealth as god, legitimizer of systemic cruelty, and validate of all human worth. America has always harbored a rather twisted attitude towards the well-to-do; the poor being so enamored of the wealthy that in elections they consistently vote against their own best interests, unaccountably protective of the fortunes of the “haves” whom they irrationally see as guardians of the well-being of the “have-nots.” The in-your-face, historical reality of immovable wealth in America has never proved much of a match for the durability of people’s belief in the myth of the American Dream.
More to my liking and closer to my own feelings has been the attitude towards the rich reflected in European films. While America movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Great Gatsby can’t seem to make up their minds as to whether they’re repulsed or enthralled by rapacious capitalism; European directors like Luis Buñuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Jean-Luc Godard share a singular lack of ambivalence on the topic. Often depicting the rich as parasitic exploiters casually unaware/unconcerned with the plight of others, these directors harbor what is to me a healthy (if not refreshing) disdain for wealth and the bourgeoisie.

Post-election fallout has left me with a faintly intensified antipathy towards the rich, manifesting itself in ways which are exasperatingly reactive and frustratingly internal. For example, I’ve caught myself eye-rolling to the point of strain every time I find myself witness to yet another retail establishment outburst by some “I’m used to good service!” type sporting one of those I’d-like-to-speak-to-the-manager haircuts and a look of unearned righteousness.
The only truly external reaction to the wealthy I exhibit—and mind you, I’m bearing no pride in confessing this—is one both petty and passive-aggressive. And therefore, enormously gratifying. My shame is that I’m one of those L.A. drivers more than happy to allow cars to merge and cut in on the freeway…unless I see it’s a luxury automobile: in which case, I tend to let Herr Mercedes and Monsieur Maserati fend for themselves.

Whatever name one attributes to these feelings, however irrational, whatever their degree of latency or full-blown realization; these emotions represent the seeds of festering resentment and contempt at the center of Claude Chabrol’s masterful (and often agonizingly intense) psychological thriller La Cérémonie.
Isabelle Huppert as Jeanne
Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie Bonhomme
Jacqueline Bisset as Catherine Lelievre
Jean-Pierre Cassel as Georges Lelievre
Virginie Ledoyen as Melinda Lelievre
In truth, to describe La Cérémonie as a psychological thriller or even frame its narrative in terms of mere class warfare seems somehow to diminish the complexity of the layers of intense emotional and social collision woven into this well-constructed drama with overtones of black comedy. Adapted by Chabrol & Caroline Eliacheff from the 1977 novel A Judgment in Stone by Ruth Rendell; La Cérémonie is a bracingly easy-to-immerse-oneself-in thriller of culture, class, character, and circumstance. A film whose shifting focus of empathy and identification keeps the viewer ever on their guard and off balance.

La Cérémonie is a cause-and-effect tragedy in which characters who should never meet are nevertheless brought together by chance and fateful incident (past and present) that cruelly conspire to bring about the most dreaded of outcomes. As though on a piteously preordained course doomed to inevitable collision, these individuals, benign in isolation, become combustible when merged.
The setup is so good, the sense that none of this is going to end well, so strong; I found watching La Cérémonie to be like assembling a jigsaw picture puzzle whose final image you really don’t want to see.
And indeed, from its initial scenes (which on repeat viewing reveal themselves to be chock full of telltale clues and hints) La Cérémonie establishes itself as a puzzle.

As the film opens, wealthy Catherine Lelièvre (Bisset), chic manager of an art gallery and wife of industrialist Georges Lelièvre (Cassel), is interviewing a potential live-in housekeeper. The applicant, one Sophie Bonhomme (Bonnaire) is a wan, taciturn type who, while suitably experienced, nevertheless comes across as slightly odd. There’s something subtly out-of-step about her behavior. Behavior which, under the circumstances, could easily be attributed to nerves or a sign of a blunt efficiency.
Still, there’s a hint of something constrained and impervious in Sophie’s manner (the questions she asks, the halting vagueness of her responses) that makes her eventual engagement by the Lelièvres (rounding out the household: teenage Gilles and college-age Melinda, only there on weekends) feel less like the longed-for solution to a domestic problem than the unwitting opening of a Pandora’s Box of trouble.
Georges fails to find the new TV to be as enthralling as stepson Gilles (Valentin Merlet)

Sophie’s entrance to the Lelièvre household, a spacious mansion in the secluded French countryside, coincides with the hooking up of an enormous—by 1995 standards—TV; a trivial detail Chabrol wryly uses as juxtaposed commentary. The acquisition of this time-killing, emotion-benumbing “100 channels of nothing” device augers a threat as insidious and destructive to this erudite, cultured family as the arrival of their detached and uncurious housekeeper.
Once ensconced, Sophie proves a tireless worker, albeit emotionally undemonstrative and idiosyncratic in oddly discomfiting ways. I.e., she refuses to use the dishwasher, keeps the house immaculate save for the books in the library, and her spare hours are spent indulging in sweets and staring transfixed at the small TV in her room. In another time, Sophie’s remote demeanor would be a non-issue, her status as servant unequivocally branding her “beneath” her employers; the significance of her existence determined by how well she carries out the duties of her job.

But this takes place in the mid- ‘90s, a time by which the rich had mastered the subtle art of treating the hired help as though they are members of the family while still making abundantly clear that by no means are they actually equals. 
Like a vampire at the portal of a church, Sophie finds herself unable to enter the family's library

Given Chabrol’s traditional unsympathetic depiction of the bourgeoisie, the Lelièvres appear at first to be implicated in this tale of suppressed class warfare; but they are shown to be an affectionate, kind, and intelligent family (the sound of their name even suggesting “book”). They’re the type of aware, well-intentioned rich folk who debate over what to call the housekeeper (maid, servant, domestic) and grapple with the fine line between being caring and patronizing (they offer to pay for Sophie’s driving lessons and prescription glasses). 
If guilty of anything, it’s a kind of selective, blithe obliviousness characteristic of privileged classes whose wealth affords the luxury of a blinkered world-view (“You know I don’t read the papers”), and a casual self-centeredness that puts their personal concerns before consideration of others.

There are several marvelous moments when the Lelièvres exhibit near-imperceptible displays of class superiority (just like they happen in real life): Catherine conducts the entire job interview detailing what she needs in a housekeeper, completely forgetting to tell Sophie how much she'll be paid. Similarly, she treats Sophie's requiring a day off as more of an irritation than a human necessity. Georges, the autocrat, watches Sophie with a coldly judgmental eye. And even Melinda, the champion of the downtrodden, has a telling moment with a borrowed handkerchief. 
"I know about you."
That line is repeated frequently in this film about secrets, gossip, and the past 
But if affluence breeds a relative disinterest in the world beyond its immediate environs, its lack seems to foster a fixation on the comings and goings of the moneyed set that whiplashes between overawed captivation and bilious resentment.

This attitude is exemplified by Jeanne (Huppert), the town postmistress, gossip, and all-around troublemaking busybody who insinuates herself into the closed-off life of Sophie. Initially drawn to one another out of mutual exploitation, then ultimately, a shared, intuitively divined psychosis; the bonding of these women of no consequence evolves (a la Shelly Duvall & Sissy Spacek in 3 Women) into the pair becoming something together that neither could be on their own.

Feeding off of one another—Sophie supplying Jeanne with gossip access to the Lelièvre family, for whom she bears a grudge for real and imagined slights; Jeanne giving voice and rebellious action to Sophie’s suppressed disaffection—they are mob mentality in microcosm and cultural catharsis at its most horrific.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I’m mad about good thrillers, but with La Cérémonie I’ve hit the trifecta. It’s a rollicking good suspenser that keeps tightening the screws of tension with each scene and unexpected reveal; it’s an unusually perceptive character drama and dark-hued study in abnormal psychology; and lastly, it’s a sharp-toothed, sinister social critique.

When La Cérémonie was released in 1995, TV’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, that long-running, vomitous exercise in wealth fetishism, was in its 11th and final season. I never could figure out who the audience for that show was, but a little bit of Chabrol cynicism was the perfect antidote for America’s steady diet of “rich is good!” mythologizing (which, perversely enough, goes head-to-head with that other American myth: the one devoted to reassuring the poor and unsophisticated they are happier and better off that way). 
Like One of The Family
Movies about lower-class resentment play well in America only if they are about white characters like Norma Ray and Karen Silkwood. Black characters and other people of color traditionally exist in films to reassure white audiences, not scare them. We here in the States have always been able to absorb European narratives that humanize the lower classes because the rebellious underlings in The Servant, Gosford Park, The Maids, and Downton Abbey are white.

The majority of household staff in well-to-do U.S. homes are people of color, but America has such an uneasy relationship with its racism and unacknowledged class systems (he says, to the surprise of no one) that when it comes to the depiction of class tension, we need to feed ourselves nonthreatening pablum like The Help. Therefore, because it would require audiences to recognize and humanize the suffering of people we systemically deem invisible; an American version of a film like La Cérémonie is virtually unimaginable.
The Bane of the Bourgeois: Service Worker Insolence
Georges is convinced Jeanne opens his family's mail 

PERFORMANCES
Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers are so well-constructed that I tend to overlook how often I find his casting choices to be a tad on the bland side (Robert Cummings? Farley Granger? Diane Baker?) and the acting variable. Claude Chabrol (dubbed the French Hitchcock) has well-constructed films, too, but he also had a gift for getting the best out of actors. So much so that even his weaker efforts (Masques, Ten Days Wonder) are salvaged by their outstanding and sensitive performances. 
Le Boucher (1970) may be a favorite Chabrol film, but a very close second is the more accessible La Cérémonie; a film distinguished by its intelligent screenplay, deftly handled dramatic tension, and superlative cast.
In 1974 Cassel and Bisset co-starred in Murder on the Orient Express  
and in 1991 (rather presciently) a comedy TV-movie titled The Maid
Jacqueline Bisset has grown more beautiful with age, and in this (my first time seeing her in a French language film) she gives an aware performance that fits like a glove with that of the always excellent Jean-Pierre Cassel. The members of the Lelièvre family are depicted in a natural way, devoid of caricature, making their subtle hypocrisies as keenly felt as the genuine intimacy and affection they share.
Isabelle Huppert appeared in seven of Claude Chabrol's films.
Chabrol died in 2010 at the age of 80

But the obvious standouts are Isabelle Huppert (whose gift is making us interested in, and maybe even understand, characters we’d otherwise find reprehensible), and Sandrine Bonnaire. First off, Huppert is a force of nature and makes any film she appears in exponentially better the minute she appears; but Bonnaire’s performance is another revelation. Unfamiliar with the actress, I was so struck by the way she made a character’s silences so eloquent. Her Sophie carries around a lifetime of humiliations she struggles to conceal, some horrific, others pitiable; but she’s positively chilling in her lack of self-pity. Also in her conveyance of the kind of pent-up anger evident in certain kinds of children who, when confronted with things they don’t understand or can’t access, resort to a kind of self-protective belligerence.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Looking over my recent posts, I see that La Cérémonie is the tenth thriller I’ve written about since the start of the year. And on my own, I’ve watched all of four horror movies in August alone. Coincidence? I don’t think so. I’ve always held that in times of stress, horror films, suspense thrillers, and psychodramas offer a great outlet for cathartic release.
Scary movies seem to fill an anxiety void by providing an environment where one can give vent to bottled up tensions and feelings of distress that in real life have no recourse or resolution.
One of the reasons revisiting La Cérémonie proved so gratifying to me is because it feels like a curiously relevant movie in our current social climate. The film touches on themes like anti-intellectualism and the baseless fear of the unfamiliar. It brushes against the kind of resentful envy you read about in this day of social media, where people preoccupy themselves with the lives of others, only to come to resent those very lives they imagine to be happier than their own. It looks at the superficial balm of religion, and explores the futility of trying to escape one’s past.

The film makes reference to how easily we pacify ourselves with television. We don’t learn anything from it, we don’t really watch it so much as lose ourselves in it. All it asks for is our undivided attention, and in exchange it helps benumb us to the pain of thinking, remembering, or feeling.
But mostly La Cérémonie (apparently an archaic term for the act of executing someone for a capital crime) offers an image of insanity that is infinitely saner than the world I’ve been waking up to since November 8th. I was in the perfect frame of mind to see a film which framed the rich in a context of inconsequence, impotence, and unwitting perniciousness. I needed the horror. And while Chabrol films it all ambiguously and with a great deal of anticipation and élan, the ultimate effect of this remarkable thriller was like shock treatment. It jolted me so that I actually felt relaxed for the first time in ages.

“There are many things I find loathsome in men, but least of all the evil within them.”


BONUS MATERIAL
Jacqueline Bisset & Jean-Pierre Cassel / 1974  and 1995
Murder on the Orient Express / Le Ceremonie

  Virginie Ledoyen & Isabelle Huppert reunited in Francois Ozon's 8 Women (2002)


Themes similar to those in Le Ceremonie can be found in Jean Genet's The Maids.
The 1975 film adaptation starred Glenda Jackson and Susannah York

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

STILL OF THE NIGHT 1982

Warning: Possible spoilers

All filmmakers start out as film fans, so perhaps it should come as no surprise when—and I stress “when,” not “if”—they find irresistible the urge to pay homage to the movies and directors that inspired them. I don’t mean those directors who’ve built their entire careers on appropriating the style of others (Brian De Palma, Quentin Tarantino); rather, those filmmakers brave/foolhardy enough to adopt imitation as their chosen form of flattery.

Peter Bogdanovich hit critical and boxoffice paydirt by candidly riding the cinematic coattails of John Ford and Howard Hawks, respectively, with The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc?. That is, until the leaden At Long Last Love exposed the director as having no gift for the light touch required of aping the musical romantic comedies of the 1930s. Macho Martin Scorsese fared no better with his stab at the stylized realism of the studio-bound 1940s musical with his shapeless and meandering New York, New York (1977); and Interiors (1978), Woody Allen’s first dramatic film and beginning of many attempts to clone his idol Ingmar Bergman, was such a tin-eared East Coast transmutation of Bergman’s trademark Swedish existential dread, many understandably mistook it for a tongue-in-cheek comedy spoof. 
Fragile Victim or Femme Fatale?

When writer/director Robert Benton (Bonnie & Clyde, Kramer vs Kramer, Places in the Heart) tried his hand at updating the 1940s private eye flick, the result was the smart and quirky The Late Show (1977): a small, unpretentious little gem (which flopped tremendously) that made self-referential neo-noir look effortless.

Kramer vs Kramer, Benton’s wildly popular follow-up to The Late Show, still strikes me as little more than a pedigreed Lifetime movie (decades before there was even such a thing as a Lifetime movie), but it nevertheless proved to be a mainstream cash-cow/award-magnet (a whopping nine nominations) netting Benton Oscars for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Success on such a grand scale does nothing if not feed expectations, so when it was announced Benton’s next film was to be a suspense thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock vein starring such heavy-hitters as Kramer vs Kramer Oscar-winner Meryl Streep (hot off The French Lieutenant’s Woman), two-time Oscar nominee Roy Scheider (most recently for the critically acclaimed All That Jazz), and actual Hitchcock alumnus Jessica Tandy (The Birds); anticipation was so high it’s likely that no film Robert Benton released could have lived up to the hype.
As it turns out, the public was spared from having to weigh in on the truth of such speculation when Robert Benton (collaborating with screenwriter David Newman) released Still of the Night. A film that, while unremittingly stylish, well-acted, atmospheric, and one of my I’m-pretty-much-alone-in-this personal favorites (Streep’s take on the Hitchcock blonde is my favorite of all her screen looks)—critics and audiences alike felt it to be a tepid toast to the Master of Suspense that failed to live up to even the modest expectations one might harbor for an episode of Columbo.
Meryl Streep as Brooke Reynolds
Roy Scheider as Dr. Sam Rice
Jessica Tandy as Dr. Grace Rice
Josef Sommer as George Bynum
While reeling from the dissolution of his 8-year marriage, emotionally insulated psychiatrist Sam Rice (Scheider) learns that one of his clients, an auction house antiquities curator named George Bynum (Sommer), has been brutally murdered. Bynum, a married, middle-age narcissist with a Don Juan complex, had come to Dr. Rice seeking treatment for difficulty sleeping due to a recurring nightmare somehow related to the much-younger, enigmatic woman he was seeing.

Following Bynum’s death, Sam is paid a visit by the very woman in question, one Brooke Reynolds (Streep); Bynum’s assistant and a fragile nervousy type with darting eyes, a hesitant manner, and a hairdo in constant need of being brushed away from her face. Sam, through his sessions with Bynum, had already developed something of a dream-girl fixation on Brooke, meeting the icy blonde in the flesh triggers within him paradoxical feelings of attraction and fear.
Killer's Kiss?
Basically an instance of an emotionally immovable object meeting a cryptic irresistible force, the fact that Sam and Brooke’s attraction intensifies in direct proportion to both the amount of danger their association places them in and the degree to which each fears and/or mistrusts the other, becomes a (grievously underdeveloped) part of their chemistry.

The investigation into Bynum’s murder, deemed to have been committed by a woman, appears to implicate Brooke, Bynum's assistant at the auction house where he's employed. On the surface, Brooke appears to be as fragile and damaged as the antiquities she oversees, but she is just as likely to be the potential target of the murderer, or indeed, a cold-blooded serial killer herself. And for Sam, the investigation proves a race against time as he tries to keep himself alive long enough to discover if his tapes of Bynum’s psychiatric sessions hold the key to the murderer’s identity.
Joe Grifasi and Homicide Detective Joseph Vitucci

In fashioning a Hitchcockian romantic thriller set in the cultured world of multimillion dollar art auction houses and Park Avenue shrinks, it certainly can’t be said of Robert Benton that he faulted on the particulars. For indeed, Still of the Night is an enormously sleek and handsome film; a sophisticated murder mystery fairly drenched in atmosphere and style. Oscar-winning cinematographer Néstor Almendros (Days of Heaven, Sophie’s Choice) channels Fritz Lang and Hitchcock’s trademark closeups, imbuing Still of the Night’s color-saturated interiors and shadowy nighttime exteriors with a tension and dynamism not always present in Benton’s intermittently dormant script.
But as many filmmakers before and since have learned, capturing the look and feel of a Hitchcock film is a relative cakewalk when compared to replicating Hitchcock’s gift for storytelling, his understanding of the elements of suspense, and his mastery of rhythmic editing and pacing.
Sara Botsford as Gail Phillips

Still of the Night is a film I rank amongst my favorite Hitchcock homage movies, a list comprised of, but not limited to: Donen’s Charade, Chabrol’s The Butcher, De Palma’s Obsession, Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black, and Zemeckis’ What Lies Beneath.

But as much as I take delight in Still of the Night being a smart and worthy entry in the faux-Hitchcock romantic thriller sweepstakes; I've no problem in confessing that I find the film to be somewhat lacking as a romance, and that the payoff of the ending feels like Benton's screenplay was perhaps a story meeting or two short. That or the victim of last-minute tampering, as Benton had a reputation for reshoots and rewrites.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
If any of what passes for objective observations about Still of the Night ring false in my writing, blame it on the film’s title sequence. Composer John Kander (sans longtime collaborator Fred Ebb) composed music for Still of the Night described by biographer James Leve as a “nocturnal waltz theme.” When I sat in the theater on opening weekend back in 1982 and heard this beautiful melody playing beneath an elegant credits sequence comprised of a full moon floating gently across a midnight sky…I knew instantly, no matter how flawed the forthcoming film might be, there was no way I was ever going to completely "dislike" Still of the Night. That opening gave me goosebumps. 
To this day I think it’s one of the loveliest, most simply poetic title sequences for a “thriller” I’ve ever seen. So much so that while working on this piece, I made a nuisance of myself by asking my partner to play it for me on the piano nearly every day.
John Kander's theme for Still of the Night is intended to
"create an uneasy balance between romance and terror" - James Levee

As for the film itself, I largely regard Still of the Night as a sensual pleasure. I enjoy its surface pleasures while trying not to focus too much on all the lost potential. Unlike many, I actually think Still of the Night is a very effective thriller, providing suspense, mystery, and a few surprises along the way.  It has style, tension, strong performances throughout, and a visual distinction that marks it as one of the few films from the '80s to emerge unmarred by hideous fashions and embarrassing hairdos.
But while I easily find myself stimulated by the particulars of the plot, the ritzy setting, and the overall glossy production values; Still of the Night never engages my heart, rouses my empathy, or involves me in any meaningful, emotional way with the characters. I watch the film at a pleasured remove; happy to be seeing so much talent assembled in the service of an impressive Hitchcock carbon; all the while suppressing my disappointment that the film doesn't ultimately live up to the potential suggested by the collaboration of Benton, Streep, Scheider, Tandy, and Almendros.
Still of the Night succeeds stupendously in capturing the look and feel of a Hitchcock film, but Benton's screenplay sacrifices character for plot. Which wouldn't be so bad if the ending were more satisfactory (the marvelously intricate dream which plays such an important role in the narrative yields such a banal Freudian secret). 


PERFORMANCES
Although easy to forget now, but one of the major selling points of Still of the Night in 1982 was that it was it was one of the rare thrillers made for grown-ups. In a marketplace flooded by horror sequels, teen slasher flicks, and sleazy erotic thrillers, Still of the Night's promise of a return to the classic suspense thriller shone like a beacon.
I'd been a Meryl Streep fan since The Seduction of Joe Tynan, so the idea of my favorite actress appearing in one of my favorite film genres was irresistible. In assessing her take on the Hitchcock blonde, here again it must be said, objectivity is not likely to rear its head. I'm crazy about her in this movie. She's just so marvelous to watch. I just wish her role were better written.
Roy Scheider, perhaps one of the last of the grown-man actors Hollywood favored before switching to its current taste for superannuated frat boys, is also very good here. But again, his character is underserved by the screenplay, resulting in his chemistry with Streep being more muted than it should be for a film dubbed a romantic thriller.
An actor whose performance has improved over time is Josef Sommer as George Bynum. I was 25-years old when I first saw Still of the Night, and I remember being somewhat grossed out at the time by this "old fart" who fancied himself a ladies man. Well, remarkably, Sommers was only 47 when he made this film (15 years older than Streep), a good 12 years younger than I am now. Suddenly he doesn't seem so old (although his character has remained every bit as odious). Sommer may not be playing a very likable individual, but his George Bynum is terrifically realized.
She's not given much to do, but it's always a pleasure seeing the great Jessica Tandy onscreen


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Perhaps in an effort to stay one step ahead of Hitchcock-savvy audiences apt to figure out whodunnit by the 30-minute mark, Still of the Night clocks in at a brisk 93 minutes. And while there’s nothing wrong with a thriller being fast-paced (a wise choice in this instance, given the relative simplicity of the plot), haste of the sort that forces events to proceed too swiftly—leaving characters and relationships undeveloped—results in a story that feels rushed.
After breaking a desk statue in his office, Brooke gives Sam a Greek Tanagra figurine
Still of the Night handles its suspense duties nicely, taking the time necessary to set up pertinent plot points and having them pay off later, also, allowing for the gradual disclosure of past events (via Bynum’s taped therapy sessions) to inform and alter our perception of things in the present. Similarly, the film handles the central murder mystery extremely well, cleverly revealing details in dual “cherchez la femme” narratives: one told in flashback by the victim himself (Bynum) as he tries to unravel the mystery of the woman with whom he’s carrying on an adulterous affair; the other relayed in the present by Sam, who alternately fears and fears for the woman he barely knows, yet has fallen in love with. It is on this last point—the romantic relationship between Brooke and Sam—where Still of the Night could have most benefited from a few more minutes running time.
Innocent Seduction
Still of the Night takes two classic Hitchcock archetypes: the icy blonde-with-a-past (Kim Novak in Vertigo, Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest, Tippi Hedren in Marnie) and the physician-heal-thyself emotionally fucked-up hero (James Stewart in Vertigo, Sean Connery in Marnie); and plops them in the middle of a genuinely intriguing murder mystery. Genre conventions demand they fall in love, but Benton’s screenplay devotes so little time to helping us understand these characters beyond the plot devices they signify, their union lacks the emotional intensity the film needs. 
Two beautiful enigmas kissing does not a romance make
Brooke’s allure and mystique is wrapped up in our inability to quite figure her out, thus her abrupt interest in Sam fuel’s the film’s suspense. We’re never sure if her attraction to him is authentic or masking a sinister, ulterior agenda. 
But Roy Scheider’s Sam is the character from whose perspective the film is told, so our being given so little information about him severely undercuts our engagement in the story. As written, Sam left me with more questions than Brooke: Is Sam’s remoteness a result of his marriage, or the reason the marriage dissolved? Why does a successful psychiatrist live a life of beige austerity? Beyond her beauty, why exactly is he drawn to Brooke? They never really even have a normal conversation.
Sam and his psychiatrist mother share a moment of "shop talk" in his
sparsely furnished I'm-not-ready-to-be-a-bachelor-again pad

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Filmmakers who venture into the land of Hitchcock homage do so at their peril, for nothing wrests a viewer out of a narrative faster, nor tugs at the willing suspension of disbelief more aggressively, than being invited by the director to engage in a game of “Spot the Hitchcock reference.”
North by Northwest
Still of the Night features an auction sequence similar to the one in the Hitchcock film,
but where Cary Grant sought the attention of the police, Scheider tries to divert it

Unlike those De Palma films where entire sequences are lifted from Hitchcock films, Still of the Night wisely adheres to “in the style of” homage when it comes to its storytelling. Hitchcock references abound (North by Northwest blonde, Marnie red, Notorious daddy-issues) but they're subtle and unobtrusive enough for the film to be enjoyed by those not possessing a vast familiarity with the works of the Master of Suspense. Of course, for those who do, Still of the Night offers a wealth of Hitchcock-related dividends, but none so overt as to prove a narrative distraction.
Saboteur/North by Northwest
The one arm, hanging-by-a-thread rescue attempt
Rear Window
Bynum watches Brooke's apartment and spies her undressing for a stranger  
Vertigo
A bell tower is the site of a death suspected of being murder
Spellbound
Brooke and Sam analyze the details of a dream to solve a murder and unlock a dark secret
The Birds
An attacking bird features in the film's biggest "jump" moment

Psycho
The working title for Still of the Night was Stab, so...there you have it


BONUS MATERIAL
Although they share no scenes together in Still of the Night, Meryl Streep and actor Joe Grifasi are longtime friends, their association going back to their days at the Yale School of Drama in the '70s. Grifasi has appeared with Streep onscreen in The Deer Hunter and Ironweed. Click HERE to see them performing the musical intro to an all-star 2014 charity event.

For those who can actually stand to watch Andy Cohen (I can't...does the man ever shut up?) here's a clip of Meryl Streep from a 2012 episode of  the TV program Watch What Happens: Live in which she answers the question: "Name one bad film that you have made."  HERE (at the 13-minute mark).

I remember back when Still of the Night was still known as Stab, Meryl Streep and Roy Scheider were presenters on some award show. Their pairing in the soon-to-be-released Stab was announced as they approached the podium. At some point in their stage banter Streep joked, "Oh, I kill him in that!"   As unlikely as it is Streep would divulge the actual ending of the film, I've never forgotten her saying this, and thus always wondered if there was ever an alternate ending for Still of the Night

Copyright © Ken Anderson