Sunday, May 10, 2009

Pink Champagne and Skyscrapers.

"It's the nearest thing to heaven we have in New York"
- Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) referring to the Empire State

What's the measure of a great movie? Perhaps the fact that after a million viewings it still has a huge effect on the viewer.
If so, then Leo McCarey's "Love Affair" can be counted among the greats. The story is quite known; French playboy Michel (Charles Boyer) meets American singer Terry (Dunne) on a cruise ship. They are both in relationships but end up falling in love.
Before docking in New York City they agree to tie up their affairs and meet six months later atop the Empire State.
They never do.
The film was later remade by McCarey in 1957 starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, by Warren Beatty in 1994 (in what happened to be Katharine Hepburn's last film role) and served as inspiration for 1993's "Sleepless in Seattle". Which is why even if you haven't seen the original one, there's at least some measure in which the story will seem very familiar.
And it's this very element that makes the 1939 version the more vulnerable in terms of believability.
It's easy to see how the film moves contrivedly, working towards a melodramatic crescendo, almost as if the first hour or so had been merely a McGuffin of sorts.
It's also quite clear how McCarey threw in every element that would guarantee the film would move the audience in some way or another (cute little singing orphans, a wise foreign widow living in a French paradise, catchy songs...).
Watching the film it's impossible not to notice these things, especially if you know your film history and genres well.
What isn't as obvious is that regardless of these things, the film's eventual melodramatic finale works; more than that, it will put a lump in your throat you never saw coming.
Much is owed to the charming lead actors. Boyer, who more often than not came off as smarmy and odd (the "Gaslight" effect maybe?) is absolutely enchanting here, his scenes with his grandmother (played by Maria Ouspenskaya who with one scene got herself an Academy Award nomination) are magical and tender.
Dunne, practically steals the show with her poised dignity and seducing pride. As an audience member you'll wonder why her character makes some of the choices she does, but Dunne makes her best effort to make even the craziest decisions seem like the best.
But 70 years after it was made perhaps what makes this film, and its subsequent incarnations classic, is how it subverts stereotypical genre expectations.
"Love Affair" is considered by many to be one of the ultimate chick flicks ever made and it might be so, but as history has proved, "chick flick" is almost a derogative term most of the time.
Upon hearing those words we're expected to see women (both on and off the screen) crying for no reason, going after ridiculous promises of love, suffering out of some sort of pleasure and overall being puppets of a chauvinistic play where they don't make any choices.
A strong headed feminist would say that pictures like this only serve to subjugate the role of woman in society, but if they bothered to look closer they would be in awe of how in fact it's the importance of women that drives the entire film.
Not just in terms of plot twists and turns (although that might be a case as well) but as a more subtle underscore, like some sort of Freudian ghost.
Here we come to realize that Michel's life for example has become absolutely dependant on the place of the women in his life.
He comes to his grandmother after having his heart broken and upon not finding her there goes straight to her chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
It's also the women who give the man a purpose in life. His love for Terry forces him to leave his old ways and look for a real profession to make him worthy of her.
They work like the muses in Greek mythology pushing the hero forward in his journey. It might be that he's the one taking advantage out of them, but once the curtain falls who do we remember the most?

- This begins a series of posts dedicated to celebrating 1939.
I'd decided to start it at the beginning of the year, but then managed to procrastinate and was inspired by Oscar to do so again.

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