Sunday, December 15, 2013

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948 and 2004)--tribute to Joan Fontaine (1917 - 2013); Shrek Forever After (2010)

(In tribute to an actress who, if I don't exactly consider great, did appear in one of the greatest melodramas I'd ever seen. As famous as her face and roles was her lifelong feud with sister Olivia de Havilland; with this one film in my book she both settles the sibling rivalry and cements her reputation amongst the cinema immortals)

The last temptation of Shrek

For the record I'm not exactly a fan. The Shrek movies are hardly groundbreaking animation, are hardly paragons of storytelling art; that said, there's something smart-alecky about them, a stand-offish and cynical crust hiding an inner core of loneliness (the persona Mike Myers developed in the first film) that I find more appealing than, say, the relatively straightforward earnestness of Pixar (which in turn, if we can believe Pixar founder John Lasseter, was inspired by the earnestness of Hayao Miyazaki--only in my book Miyazaki earned his right to be straightforward thanks to the incredible detail and beauty of his films' animation, the subtlety and understatement of his films' storytelling).

Think it helps that I have always enjoyed Shrek's below-the-belt digs at animation rival Disney: the amusement-park parodies, the broadsides aimed at The Rat Factory's endless lines of merchandise, the slander hurled at Disney's then monarch Michael Eisner (superbly incarnated in the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad (don't forget the 'r')). And, at least for the first movie, the romantic/parodic soundtrack that seemed fresh and meaningful at the time.

Not a fan of the sequels--without Disney for a target, the bile seemed to dribble out of the parodies, and the jokey soundtracks quickly grew old. We came to bury Shrek, not honor him--he was fun for at most one picture, a killjoy grump in the rest.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself enjoying Shrek Forever After. Always considered movie franchises to be something like seafood; after a few days they start smelling of pungent regret. Going into its fourth installment, this particular franchise should have been months past its sell-by date. Were they at liberty to take risks (maybe not--the movie wasn't that different)? Did they feel, this being the franchise finale, the need to end things with something other than a whimper?

It's basically The Last Temptation of Shrek--that, or the umpteenth iteration of It's a Wonderful Life. Shrek's offered a deal--one day from his life in exchange for a day when he's just a regular ogre again, an unwanted, unloved green monster; of course as with all such deals the day in question turns out to be the day he's born, and the whole world changes as a consequence.I don't know; I don't know why this particular sequel feels head and shoulders (well, maybe a couple of inches) taller than the other two--the drama seems a tad more poignant this time, the sight of Shrek and his true love Fiona together gives off a sexier, more electric aura (I'm actually disappointed that they don't turn their meet-cute duel into regular sparring sessions, to spice up the marriage a little). Not knowing what you have till you lose it is the hoariest of dramatic cliches but, and I suppose this is the best compliment I can give the picture, this time the filmmakers managed to invest some dramatic force in the proceedings, raise the emotional stakes a little. Not great, but not bad either. 

A pair of unknown women 

Speaking of great, what other word can you use on Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman? Hollywood refused to allow Ophuls too many of his trademark long shots, but even so you do recognize the Ophuls style--in shorter gasps, perhaps, but alive and consistent. More than mere long takes you see people in the grip of the moment, their every senses poised, alert, knowing that the volatile nature of life will transform them irrevocably, like butterflies at the edge of flame.

And the sheer beauty of the film--remarkable because it's so brittle, so delicate. Vienna is all studio sets, the actors a hodgepodge of accents, and at one point the two lovers board a train with a rolling painted backdrop for a view, and yet that was the arguably the loveliest moment of all. It's its very artificiality that's so breathtaking, the experience not unlike watching the tiny figures in a crystal ball, or gazing at diorama cutouts of a small town. Even more remarkable, the little figures, the cutouts, they live--they talk, walk, make frantic little gestures and somehow, in some way, pierce your heart with their tragic comicality. Magic.

Instructive to compare the Ophuls with Xu Jinglei's Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 2004). Time and setting has been transposed, from turn-of-the-century Vienna to war-time Peking, and the characters have been re-jiggered (Louis Jordan's celebrity pianist Stefan has become Wen Jiang's Mr. Xu, a writer)--otherwise the main plot details are the same.

After Ophuls' rapturous theatricality, it's difficult to appreciate Jinglei's quietly realist version. Wen Jiang is a tremendous actor, but his Mr. Xu as written and directed tends to recede into the background--this is more thoroughly the story of Miss Jiang (played by the director herself), told almost always from her point of view. To be honest, I love Jordan's Stefan; he is a sublime comic creation, constantly aware of his boyish beauty, confident of his considerable impact on women. He's the leavening that gives the rather grim and unrelenting story a yeasty uplift, and in his development from foppish dandy to disillusioned has-been to someone in whose eyes glimmer the spark of human dignity, Stefan adds the poignancy of belated redemption.

Some have suggested that Jinglei's picture has a more feminist agenda, and I can see how one might think that: Joan Fontaine's Lisa is a gentler creature, more accepting of her lot and position, less likely to take advantage--however furtively--of her beloved's ignorance. What's really interesting is when you compare both film versions with the original story by Stefan Zweig--then realize that Jinglei's version is more faithful, not Ophuls: in the story Stefan was a writer not a pianist, he never fell into obscurity, and the story wasn't framed by a duel meant to kill him off. Those were probably Ophuls' and screenwriter Howard Koch's contributions,  presumably to make the man more 'morally acceptable' (whatever that means). 

Which raises the question: is Jinglei's version genuinely feminist, or simply more faithful to Zweig? The story is told from the girl's point of view (she's unnamed in the story--an easy feat, at least on text) and right off you know whose voice will--intentionally or unintentionally--dominate. Her obsessive fixation with Stefan is more overt; in Ophuls it's been softened, made more understated. Is it just coincidence that what moved Jinglei to do this adaptation--the feminist undertones, the suggestion of a neglected woman finally able to win recognition of her self--may simply be accidental by-products of Zweig recording a young girls' abnormal psychology? Or is Jinglei trying to make a point, that a feminist reading is possible even when using a turn-of-the-century writer as source material--or that this particular turn-of-the-century writer is a feminist, at least within the terms of this story? Fascinating to think of Jinglei and Zweig, a beautiful young Chinese actress and an early 20th century Austrian writer, as being kindred spirits, more so than Ophuls (a German film director) is with Zweig.

 There is a point in Zweig's story where the woman dispassionately notes the man's kindness and probable willingness to help her--which is why she'll never ask for it. She doesn't want that kind of kindness from him, with its attendant dismissal. In a single sweeping thought she takes in the man's full measure, from meanest sentiment to most charitable act, and ruthlessly judges its true worth.

In Jinglei's version a similar moment occurs: Mr. Xu has left town, then comes back; in voiceover Miss Jiang notes that she could contact him, but doesn't bother--he never even thinks to look for her. Again a swift judgment, again a harsh verdict.

Finally, there's that moment in Ophuls' film when Lisa (note the movement from nameless entities to formally-addressed characters to first-name acquaintances) has left her husband and all the attendant social and material security he represents to be with Stefan. She gradually realizes that Stefan is chattering away at her like he would at any other conquest, then walks out of his apartment without another word. Again the judgment, again the quiet rejection but this time in the face of so much loss--she can't go back to her husband now, and one wonders how she can afford to keep her son in that expensive boarding school. She has taken years of carefully built material wealth and security, for both her child and herself, and tossed it aside like a used tissue.

Three scenes, at three different emotional temperatures, involving two characters addressed three different ways. I'm a romantic fool, I suppose--I prefer the Ophuls. But they're all different, all fascinating to observe set beside each other. 



Wes Huizar said...

So where's the Peter O'Toole tribute?

Noel Vera said...

Working on it!