Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Different Kind of Love

Films: The Philadelphia Story, Belle de Jour
Format: DVD from Davenport Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop (Philadelphia); DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television (Belle).

What do you get when you take three of the finest actors of their generation and put them in the same movie? If you answered “a crap shoot,” you’d be right. Put that many powerful egos in one place and you’re apt to get a mess. Of course, if you can get them all to work together, you can end up with something significant. Of course that takes a significant director; fortunately George Cukor is up to the task.

The Philadelphia Story is the sort of film that made Hollywood great back in the day. It opens with perhaps the greatest break-up scene in movie history. C.K. Dexter Haven (the great Cary Grant) is being kicked out of his house by his wife, Tracy Lord Haven (Katharine Hepburn). His arms are full of bags, and she follows with his collection of pipes and his golf clubs. With nowhere for him to hold the pipes, she drops them unceremoniously on the ground, then does the same with all but one of his golf clubs. That, she breaks over her knee, then walks back to the house. Dexter follows her, and when she turns for a last retort, he mimes punching her, thinks better of it, palms her face in his hand, and shoves her to the ground. From there, we get the title card, “Two Years Later.”

Here’s where our other players enter. First, we have Tracy’s younger sister, Dinah (Virginia Weidler), who is at that strange age of innocence and not-so-innocence. She clearly misses Dexter and dislikes Tracy’s current fiancĂ©, George Kittredge (John Howard). Kittredge is an up-and-comer with possible political aspirations. We also need to encounter Macaulay Connor (James Stewart) and Elizabeth Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), a writer and photographer for the society magazine Spy.

Spy also happens to be the employer of one C.K. Dexter Haven. The job of Connor and Imbrie is to get into the big society wedding and get a story for the magazine, with any help that Haven can muster. Of course, Haven isn’t too pleased about the wedding, and might be causing the story himself.

While all of these characters are real characters, the one I enjoy the most without any reservation at all is Dinah. The kid cracks me up. When she and Tracy discover the real reason that Connor and Imbrie are at their house, they do everything they possibly can to give the reporters the impression that the entire family is out of its collective mind. Dinah prances like a ballerina, talks in French, and wallops out a nice version of “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” on the piano before running off because she might have smallpox. Great stuff.

I’m not entirely sure where to place this film in terms of genre. Is it a screwball comedy? Kind of, but not the sort I’m used to seeing. It is loads of fun though—rather than simply wacky hijinks, the constant situation is one of an elephant in the room. Connor and Imbrie eventually get wise to the fact that they’re being played. The Lord family, particularly the family matriarch Margaret Lord (Mary Nash) knows exactly what’s going on but refuses to admit that there’s anything fishy with her daughters both claiming that her brother is her husband or Imbrie’s constant photographing of everything around her.

This is beautifully played comedy. As Margaret attempts to keep things looking normal, Tracy and Dinah act in a manner to give the reporters a real sensational story, Uncle Willie (Roland Young) is completely confused, Haven stands in the middle attempting the ruin the impending nuptials, and through all of it is the not-so-subtle click of the camera that constantly stops conversation for just a half second each time a new picture is snapped.

This of course says nothing of the fact that there is an evident attraction between Tracy and Connor. She is touched by his evident skill as a writer. And, of course, Kittredge is something of a sweet, little nobody. This is further complicated by the fact that Connor and Imbrie are, without really saying it, something of an item. It’s less a love triangle than sort of a love pile-up.

The way a film like this works, the place to really start paying attention is right around the middle. Dexter Haven absolutely dresses down his ex-wife in a way that can only happen in the movies. And he’s right—Tracy Lord is a scold, a nag, and has the sort of standards that are impossible for anyone but her to live up to. Any deviation from what Tracy wants, since Tracy has always gotten what she wants, cannot be handled. Her father, who has run off with a dancer, tells her essentially the same thing. She doesn’t like it, but she can’t deny it. She is a snooty prig.

Of course, it’s a 1940 romantic comedy, so everything works out in the end. The ending is perhaps a little too pat and cutesy, but it’s still damn fun. And really, Cary Grant in this movie simply reaffirms that he was the most suave man to ever put on pants.

As for Belle de Jour, I’m not really sure where I should start. I’ve had the movie in my possession from the library for close to three weeks and simply haven’t had the courage to watch it until tonight. When a film is called Luis Bunuel’s “erotic masterpiece,” I start to worry a bit. Flatly, erotica makes me a little uncomfortable.

I shouldn’t have been worried. Certainly, Belle de Jour is a sexy film, and that’s most definitely one of the selling points of this movie, but it isn’t the entire point. Rather, it’s about desire and the blurred line between reality and fantasy.

Severine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve) is the young housewife of a doctor named Pierre (Jean Sorel). In her mind, she lives in a fantasy world of kinky and somewhat degrading sex, but in the real world, she’s pretty frigid—to the point where she and her husband sleep in separate beds per The Dick van Dyke Show. A friend of her husband’s, Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli), gives her the creeps because of his rather open sexuality and evident desire to see more than might be appropriate of Severine.

A friend tells her of a mutual acquaintance of theirs who has garnered a new job for herself—working in a local Parisian house of ill repute. Evidently the money is pretty good and it’s exciting, so she keeps doing it. Husson tells her the same thing, and also of a similar place he used to go to that is still in business. Looking for a way to free herself from the boredom of her life, Severine goes and becomes the newest member of the staff.

This isn’t easy for her at first. Madame Anais (Genevieve Page) christens her “Belle de Jour” (beauty of the day) because she can only work during the day. It takes her a few clients to get it right, but Severine quickly takes to this new double life of hers, finding the “work” to be both exhilarating and something much more than she had with her marriage.

The trouble starts with a young client named Marcel (Pierre Clementi). The two are almost immediately attracted to each other—him by her obvious beauty and her by the fact that many of his teeth are metal from an accident and just as much by the fact that she is terrified of him. The problem becomes obvious—Marcel can’t have her, and he wants her. And he’s a violent criminal and will not stop at anything to have her.

The lines blur in this film between the fantasy sex world Severine lives in and the reality of her new life with Madame Anais. This is inherently interesting, of course. What I find more interesting is Bunuel’s incisive look into the human mind and spirit. One of Severine’s early clients is a gynecologist who wishes to be degraded, beaten, and otherwise humiliated. Severine is told to observe so that she can learn something, but she is disgusted by what she sees. This is a brilliant counterpoint to many of Severine’s fantasies, which involve her being degraded, beaten, covered in muck, and then forced into sex. Degradation is fine for her, evidently, but her embarrassment of this leads her to severely judge others who want the same thing.

This is an interesting film, and while there’s plenty of sex, legs, and a naked back or two, it’s not particularly racy in anything more than subject matter. I’m not sure I’d watch it again, but I was certainly wrong to dread it.

Why to watch The Philadelphia Story: A remarkable romance that goes in a lot of directions.
Why not to watch: If you’re at all like me, you’d rather slap Katherine Hepburn than kiss her.

Why to watch Belle de Jour: An interesting look into human psychology with a side of sexy.
Why not to watch: It’s not as sexy as you may be looking for.


  1. I like the term "a love pile-up". It is getting really confusing who is really in with who and why and why not. But I guess that is the point. We should become as dizzy as the characters, who are getting the shake up of their lives. Nice review. I like Dinah too.

    1. Just wait until you get to High Society. It's the same damn thing with additional characters.

  2. I really like The Philadelphia Story but I can't say I love it or that it's one of my favorites of any of its stars filmographies. I think it has something to do with Hepburn being such a hard case for a good deal of the film even if she softens at the end, she's hard to warm to until the party scene. Cary Grant & Jimmy Stewart both do well by their parts, though Stewart winning an Oscar for this is absurd, but it's fascinating to wonder what it would have looked like if Hepburn, who owned the rights to the property, had been able to have her original picks for those parts, Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy. I love Ruth Hussey as Liz but Shirley Booth did it on Broadway and I think her unique personality would have put an interesting spin on the character. But I can't fault any of the work of the ultimate choices.

    So glad you pointed out Virginia Weidler's wonderful performance as Dinah. What a scene stealer! That introduction scene is brilliant but she pulls the focus whenever she's in a scene with a wicked slyness. She was such a significant talented child actress but within three years of this she was finished which I've never understood. I can't see her making it as a conventional leading lady but she had a strong comedic touch which would have seemed a natural for parts similar to those Eve Arden played. Perhaps it was a personal choice, she didn't work in show business much past the end of her Metro contract and never made another film after leaving the studio. She also had a bum ticker, she was only 41 when she died of a heart attack, so maybe that played a role as well. Be that as it may she's dynamite in this film.

    1. I think that's a fair assessment. It's much more a fun and entertaining movie than it is a great movie. I won't comment on Stewart's win here (I've got two to still review for that battle), but I think it's safe to say that I'll likely agree with you on that. I love Stewart, but this doesn't seem like an Oscar performance.

      Gable and Tracy would have been interesting, but I don't know that there was ever anyone better suited to light comedy than Cary Grant. In addition to his distinctive voice and devastating good looks, Grant possessed nearly perfect comic timing. Even many of his more dramatic roles featured his ability to play comedy. Both Tracy and Gable had their virtues (although I'm not a huge Clark Gable fan), but this is the sort of role that Grant was built to play.

      I knew that Virginia Weidler had given up film at a young age, and that's a loss for everyone. For me, she's far and away the best part of the film.

  3. On Belle de Jour I do not think Severine joins the brothel out of boredom and, though everybody seems to think so, I do not think she is particularly infatuated with Marcel.
    I think Severine instinctively knows that she needs to come to terms with her sexuality and degrading herself may make her more open and receptive. In her locked up state sex is a horribly demeaning thing that disgusts her, but if she can climb down from that tower she can embrace sexuality. Marcel is a symbol of going too far in that direction, of becoming "bad". If she gets consumed by this trip of hers she will end up with him instead of Pierre.
    It is a smart movie and a lot of psychology. In the end however I think it takes symbolism too far. A common problem in movies from the sixties.