Saturday, January 6, 2018

Film Review: "The Rise of Catherine the Great" (1934)

Catherine the Great is one of a handful of historical figures, like Napoleon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth the Virgin Queen, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, whose legend so exceeds the historical record that she proves an irresistible subject for filmmakers. Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Pola Negri, Jeanne Moreau, and Julia Ormond, among many others, have all played the Russian empress; in Alexander Korda's The Rise of Catherine the Great the part is played by German actress Elisabeth Bergner, who fled Nazi Germany for England after Hitler's accession to power and whose collaborations with Laurence Olivier and J.M. Barrie are of greater interest today for their sakes than for hers.

In fact, the most common complaint lodged against this sumptuous and historically fantastical film is that Bergner lacks charisma. She is accused of dullness, of vapidity, of artificiality, but I wouldn't call these charges quite fair. The screenplay, based on a play by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis, frames Catherine as an ingenue, devastatingly in love with the Grand Duke Peter before she sees him, easily softened by kindness, insistent on the right of the peasant to bread and the right of her mad and beloved husband to live. The domain where the young Catherine gained her skill in intrigue and her prowess in domination, the bedroom, must perforce remain off-screen; even under the less rigid censorship standards of England, as opposed to the absurd strictures of the Hollywood Production Code, the film suffers from the impossibility of allowing Catherine any but imaginary adultery. The centrality of sex in royal politics is not as prudishly papered over as it is in Hollywood films, but the insistence on Catherine's sexual purity as a sign of her morality, and thus right to be the heroine, prevents Bergner from delving too deeply into the most complex parts of her character. 

She stars opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose striking physical beauty isn't at all effaced by a blonde wig and a brilliant performance free of vanity. Fairbanks never attained the super-stardom of his athletic father, and is remembered today mostly for his debonair looks and his tabloid-sensation romance with the much older Joan Crawford, but as the Grand Duke Peter, volatile, moody, changeable, lusty, always contrary, and dangerously close to genuine insanity, Fairbanks proves his abilities as an actor. In the first scene of the film, without dialogue, he broods in his dacha as fawning courtiers sing songs and make love on cushions scattered on the floor. Staring into the fire, his ears prick up at the sound of a lady's tinkling laughter. He glances up and sees her, and the man, his dearest friend as it turns out, who ravenously kisses her arm and neck. Peter observes them a moment before taking the hand of the woman and leading her away. His entire character is established in this first wordless scene, a tour de force for directors Paul Czinner and an uncredited Korda, for production designer Vincent Korda, and for Fairbanks himself. He is matched by Flora Robson, as his strong-willed aunt, the Empress Elizabeth. Robson was an actress who became somewhat type-cast as powerful aging monarchs, even as a young woman, but she was consistently a stand-out in every film fortunate enough to include her. Here she is called upon to radiate power like the sun: her furious grip on power, Elizabeth claims, is all the more tenacious because she is a woman. Women ought to rule, she tells Catherine, for men lack the strength to do so.

In many ways, the film's story is beside the point. The title already says everything about the plot and even a glancing notion of Russian history reveals the ultimate fates of the characters. The real reason to see it is visual, not narrative: the enormous sets, grand rooms of state scattered with velvet and gilt furniture, ceilings painted with cherubs and adorned with candle-bestrewn chandeliers of crystal, balustrades set with roaring lions, and the lavish costumes, a sweeping, glossy black dressing gown for Peter, both rakish and hinting at his sickly mind, a fur-lined brocade gown for Elizabeth, making her seem twelve feet tall, glittering lace cuffs for Catherine as a princess, her luxurious shackles, as well as a stunningly boyish uniform, to match that of her regiment and to foreshadow her victory. Even if the drama passes without surprises or emotional highs, every frame is a treasure trove of exquisitely designed objects.

I can understand the reservations most critics have about this film, especially when compared to its predecessor, Korda's mega-hit The Private Life of Henry VIII, a film that made Charles Laughton an internationally renowned star and featured equally gorgeous costumes and sets with a story bursting with incident. The Rise of Catherine the Great moves at a more stately pace, its intrigues negotiated tacitly more often than not, its political alliances too clearly delineated by declarations of passionate love or loathing, but there is no scenery-chewing in the Laughton mold. Fairbanks, in particular, gives a performance quite modern in its subtlety, all the more striking given that it is insanity that he portrays so delicately. Yet, this film, in contrast to Henry VIII, embraces a more challenging and complicated perspective on despotism. The great rulers here are women, while men are essentially tools of power, dangerous, useful, alluring, but not eligible for the governance of empire. The throne of Mother Russia seems to demand a female body, but it would be too easy to simply stick a feminist label on Catherine and call it a day. Compassion, an abhorrence of cruelty, a horror of murder, a melting and maritally sanctioned adoration of a husband - these are the qualities that Catherine must combat in order to take power and save Russia from the wandering whims and tantrum-driven vagaries of Peter III. The paradox of queenship renders the political maneuverings of this film fascinating, for Catherine is both the perfect woman and the perfect empress, but cannot be both at once. Rather than a conflict between a mad emperor and a sane empress, The Rise of Catherine the Great traces the conflict between the woman who loves Peter and the empress whose rise to power necessitates destroying him.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Film Review: "The Triumph of Love" (2001)

It is perhaps a strange irony that the most performative literary genre, the play, rarely adapts well to the cinema. In the small gap between live performance on a stage and recorded performance on a set or dressed location, the difference between genius and imbecility lurks. This is made clear in Clare Peploe's adaptation of the 1732 play by Marivaux, The Triumph of Love, which despite its playful treatment of gender and flirtation with polyamory, fails to translate 18th-century sources of merriment into 21st-century comedy. Peploe injects the slightest of postmodern touches - an audience seated in transparent plastic chairs occasionally appears, looking frightfully bored - and sprinkles on a calcifying patina of progressive gender politics - the middle-aged Leontine is a scientist and seems to discover how to generate electricity. Though the soundtrack is mostly dominated by Rameau and a classically inflected score by Jason Osbourn, an electric guitar pops up at emotional moments, doodling at melodies that are not at all benefited by amplification. Such signs of contemporary provenance are jarring and distracting, but they are also rather slight and half-hearted. Rather than go for broke, Peploe makes a mere gesture at reinterpretation, and so makes neither a frightfully modern new version, nor an especially scintillating recreation of the original play.

Though produced by Bernardo Bertolucci (incidentally or not, the director's husband), and dominated by a story of seduction, deceit, and titillation, The Triumph of Love retreats to prudishness, partly faithful to Marivaux and partly a coy castration of the transgressive elements of the story. Mira Sorvino stars as a princess who disguises herself as an ardent young man in order to gain access to the rightful heir to the throne (Jay Rodan), who hates her as the daughter of the usurper. He is guarded by the misogynist philosopher Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his repressed sister (Fiona Shaw), while she is aided by her portrait-painting lady-in-waiting Corine (Rachael Stirling). The princess's plot involves seducing all three and ultimately restoring the rightful heir to the throne, without giving it up, by marrying him. All this is aided by two servants straight out of commedia dell'arte, Harlequin and Dimas (Ignazio Oliva and Luis Molteni). They are the only two Italians in the cast, which leads to an unfortunate ethnic metaphor: the aristocrats are all British and American, while the servants, buffoonish to a fault, are Italians speaking English with exaggerated accents.

Kingsley and Shaw both give deeply felt performances, too good for such a fluffy approach, and their inevitable, cruel disappointment shimmers like genuine gold on a bed of glitter. The effect, however, is to cast the dross into clearer light, thus highlighting the superficiality of the adaptation. It is upon Sorvino's shoulders that the weight of the film falls and she is not quite equal to it, never at all convincing as an ardent adolescent and too melting for a princess capable of such easy deception. She is not aided by a wooden performance by Rodan, who comes alive only when called to vigorous physical action, shooting arrows and stealing kisses with a zeal never felt in his line readings.

The Triumph of Love suffers not from being too stage-bound and static, as many play adaptations do, but from the resulting overcompensation. The camera swoops around trees, through carriage windows, and across long rooms, there are frequent jump cuts (at least some of which are meant to be self-consciously modern, but that more often come off as amateurish, or more worryingly, as though they couldn't get a decent shot together without one), and characters are constantly running about, presumably in order to do the next scene in a fresh location. The insistence on the possibilities of cinema, all those dynamic touches impossible in the live theatre, exposes the theatrical seams.

Since Marivaux's play resists being contorted into anything we could call 'realistic,' the filmmakers try to run the other way, into artificiality, affectation, and farce. Interestingly, the original play was a notable failure, possibly as a result of its heroine seducing multiple characters of both genders. This subversive element seems to beg for a deeper exploration of the dynamics of power, gender, sexuality, and monarchy, but the filmmakers get snarled up in the creaky turnings of the dramatic wheel. Rather than a fun, if slow-moving, romp in wigs and panniers, one longs for an anarchic dive into the treacherous waters of political and sexual machination, a pastoral Dangerous Liaisons or a gender-bent Rapunzel. This film is an attempt at a cappuccino without the espresso shot, and thus, despite its glossy costumes and sophisticated vocabulary, proves un-stimulating.