Summary of Discussion on Death in Venice

(Apologies for the few months delay in posting this summary. I’ve backdated it so that it fits in with the flow of discussion on the blog, allowing the focus to be on our more recent events such as The War Illustrated project.)

Our discussion on the film covered: its relation to melodrama; its music; its setting in time and place; films it reminded us of; the film’s place in Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images; material in magazines.

We discussed melodrama in terms of the suffering of the film’s main character, composer Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde). The film unfolds at a leisurely pace with the seriousness of Von Aschenbach’s purpose for staying at a hotel in Venice, an illness, revealed as time progresses. This is compounded by Von Aschenbach contracting cholera after witnessing those around him undergoing the awful effects of the disease. The film ends with dying on a beach. Furthermore, Von Aschenbach undergoes emotional distress as he feels unrequited, and inappropriate, desire for an adolescent boy, the Polish Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen).

The film’s flashbacks also convey Von Aschenbach’s previous suffering. This is mostly emotional, rather than physical. Von Aschenbach has an extreme reaction to the poor reception of one of his musical works, and subsequently collapses. The inclusion of these scenes suggests that Von Aschenbach is still feeling their effects. Not all the flashbacks are unhappy. Some show Von Aschenbach happily spending time with his wife and daughter. This fits in with the rhythm of melodrama, since it shows both the highs (happy moments with his wife and child) and the lows (his extreme grief at their loss). We thought it interesting that Von Aschenbach’s wife and child, and indeed the happiness, was included given the film’s main focus on Von Aschenbach’s controversial desire for young Tadzio. Von Aschenbach is a complex character with a backstory which is revealed in a piecemeal fashion.

We also commented on Death in Venice’s relation to the mystery, violence and chase elements of melodrama. Only the last of these was present in the film. As Von Aschenbach becomes increasingly ill, he worries about Tadzio’s health, and pursues him through Venice’s streets. This ends with him collapsing in the street with exhaustion. Unusually for a pursuer in the chase, then, Von Aschenbach action causes him suffering, heightening this aspect of melodrama.

Death in Venice’s musical score, later released by EMI, was also discussed by the group in terms of melodrama. The opening shots of the film are languid long takes accompanied by the music of Gustav Mahler. Music also punctuates other significant moments in the film. Von Aschenbach feels embarrassed by his desire for Tadzio and decides to leave Venice. As he embarks on a long boat journey leisurely music accompanies the close-up shots of his sad face. After a mix up with Von Aschenbach’s luggage, he chooses to return to his hotel, and to Tadzio. Again, close-ups of Von Aschenbach are provided, though he is now smiling, and the mood of the music also seems to have lifted. Other points at which music is used especially effectively include the chase sequence referenced above, as well as the moving end of the film where Von Aschenbach falls ill on a beach and passes away.

The film’s extra-diegetic music seems especially appropriate because the occupation of Von Aschenbach is altered from a writer in Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella, to a composer. Such a change also suits the medium of sound film. Von Achenbach’s musical background affords opportunities for music to be present within the diegesis. The flashback to the failure of Von Aschenbach’s concert includes music. We also see Von Achenbach’s responses to others playing music. Tadzio briefly picks out a few notes, badly, on the piano at the hotel. This does not seem to dampen Von Aschenbach’s desire. But he appears to be more judgmental about local musicians who are playing several instruments to try and inject some jollity into the cholera-stricken district.

The film’s European Edwardian-era setting as a backdrop for Von Aschenbach’s suffering was also commented on. This is undoubtedly connected to the date and location of the original setting of Mann’s, novella. But we thought that Death in Venice’s title, as well as its depiction of disease, foreshadowed the upcoming first world war which would decimate Europe. Tadzio’s family also reminded us of the Russian royals the Romanovs who were killed following the Russian Revolution which began in 1917. Much of this was connected to the film’s mise en scene. The hotel is large and ornately furnished, denoting its expensive nature. The people who can afford to stay there are generally of the upper classes – such as Tadzio’s family. The clothing worn by Tadzio’s family, especially the exquisite dresses, also suggest wealth. Tadzio’s sailor suit costume reminded us of some of the photographs of the Romanovs. His costume therefore effectively reflects the time period in which the film is set, and his status as a member of the upper class. It also significantly emphasises his youth in comparison to Von Aschenbach. (We thought that Tadzio’s hair style reproduced the 1970s of the film’s era of production, however!) We also briefly mentioned other films set in Italy’s iconic landscape, such as Don’t Look (1973, Nicolas Roeg) and A Room with a View (1985, Merchant and Ivory).

Since we have been screening several Bogarde films, we compared the melodrama in Death in Venice to other Bogarde films we’ve discussed. The suffering of Von Aschenbach raised thoughts about Esther Waters (1948, Ian Dalrymple), especially William Latch’s death-bed scene. We thought that the beautifully lit last moments of Bogarde’s character recalled similar deaths of heroines in film melodramas (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/06/summary-of-discussion-on-esther-waters/) The fact that some aspects of chase were involved in Death in Venice reminded us of our discussion of Hunted (1952, Charles Crichton), which depicts killer Chris Lloyd’s attempt to escape pursuing police (https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/10/18/summary-of-discussion-on-hunted/).

 

Like Hunted, Victim (1961, Basil Dearden) combined suffering with mystery, violence, and chase. Death in Venice has significant differences from the UK-set Victim which had a crusading agenda tied to its time. Von Aschenbach’s desire for a young boy is of course not the same as the gay theme of Victim, and he is a more tragic character than Melville Farr in Victim. In Victim, Farr lost a close friend and was a closeted homosexual who the film suggested would continue to live with his wife in what might be seen as a compromise at a time when gay sex was illegal. Von Aschenbach’s sexual desire for a child places him further on the outskirts of society. His wish to be desirable to Tadzio means that Von Aschenbach undergoes a makeover. At the start of the film, Von Aschenbach visibly recoils from an older man whose hair looks suspiciously colourful and who is acting in a jaunty manner. After he becomes increasingly ill with cholera, Von Aschenbach visits a barber. The barber not only dyes Von Aschenbach’s hair to remove the grey but applies heavy make-up to his face. This sad visual demonstration that Von Achenbach is trying to recapture his youth is made even more poignant when he collapses sobbing in the street after losing sight of Tadzio. With his hair dye and make-up running, Von Aschenbach is a pitiful figure.

 

Bogarde did not exclusively portray provocative characters like Von Aschenbach after Victim. For example, in 1963 prior to playing the sinister titular character in Joseph Losey’s The Servant, Bogarde starred in I Could Go on Singing (Ronald Neame – see blog post here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2019/01/15/summary-of-discussion-on-i-could-go-on-singing/ ) as well as the last Doctor film, Doctor in Distress (Ralph Thomas). The move to comedy was even briefly seen in Bogarde’s work with Losey, as he appeared in the spy parody Modesty Blaise (1966) before the pair returned to more serious fare with Accident (1967). Bogarde’s work with other European directors included Visconti. Just before Death in Venice, Bogarde starred as a man with links to the Nazi party in Visconti’s The Damned (1969).

 

Bogarde’s more controversial roles – especially in The Damned and Death in Venice – seem to occur in films which in some way foreground artifice. The makeover scene in Death in Venice emphasises that while Von Aschenbach is trying to present himself in a certain way to Tadzio, as an actor, Bogarde, is also casting himself in a certain light. The hair dye and make-up in fact cover the greying hair and subtler make-up Bogarde is already sporting as Von Aschenbach. We also considered the Bogarde’s star image – the way his ‘real self’ appears to us. We primarily thought about this in relation to the changing of the novella’s character from a novelist (and perhaps a stand in for Thomas Mann) to another type of artist – a composer. Classical music could still have been heavily used in film whose main character was a novelist, so the change perhaps has further significance. Bogarde’s main writing career occurred well after Death in Venice’s 1971 release. His first memoir, Snakes and Ladders, appeared in 1978, with his first novel, A Gentle Occupation, following two years later. Bogarde had, however, previously written articles for magazines (perhaps most notably a series of 5 for Woman magazine in 1961). The fact that he writes essay and poems is even mentioned in coverage about Death in Venice from the time. In Gordon Gow’s interview with Bogarde in Films and Filming, he self-deprecatingly comments that he doubts anyone will want to publish him (May 1971, p. 49): https://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/films-and-filming-may-1971/ Although it was unlikely to have happened, it would have been unfortunate if audiences mistakenly conflated the character of Von Aschenbach with the ‘real’ Bogarde.

Such a view is of course retrospective, and heavily Bogarde-centric. Other magazine coverage from the time instead emphasised the similarity of Von Aschenbach to composer Gustav Mahler. Gordon Gow’s review of Death in Venice comments that Von Aschenbach’s hairstyling and spectacles make him resemble Mahler (Films and Filming, May 1971, p. 87). Furthermore, Gow claims that the director Visconti thought Mann’s novella was responding to Mahler’s 1911 death. By changing Von Aschenbach to a composer, Visconti believed he was able to draw out Mann’s original intent. A similar opinion is expressed in Philip Strick’s review in the Spring issue of Sight and Sound (pp. 103-4): https://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/sight-and-sound-spring-1971/. Analysis of contemporary publicity and promotion therefore reveals that rather than distancing Von Aschenbach from Bogarde, changing him to a composer made him closer to Mahler.

If you’re interested in reading more about Dirk Bogarde’s screen and star images, I’ve written several posts about the British Film Institute’s (BFI’s) collection of magazines bequeathed to them by his estate. You can find these on the NoRMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/tag/dirk-bogarde/

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp761@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the melodrama blog.

Summary of Discussion on A Tale of Two Cities

Our discussion about the film included: consideration of its melodramatic elements; its relation to Charles Dickens and other film adaptations of Dickens’ novels; its placing in Dirk Bogarde’s filmography and screen and star images.

It was noted that a certain suspension of belief was necessary when faced with the twists, turns and coincidences of the plot as well as the suffering, sacrifice, hidden secrets and lost memories of the characters. The film opens with the carriage in which banker Jarvis Lorry (Cecil Parker), lawyer Sydney Carton and Basard (Donald Pleasance) being stopped dramatically. This is not the high-jacking the occupants and the audience initially fear, and instead the enigmatic message ‘recalled to life’ is delivered to Lorry. We discover that this relates to the news that Frenchman Doctor Alexandre Manette (Stephen Murray) has been rediscovered, after spending 18 years in the French Bastille prison. The reunion of Doctor Manette with his daughter Lucie (Dorothy Tutin) is prefigured by her expressing extreme emotion and this is furthered when the pair meets since it is clear that her father has lost his memory as well as his wits. With Lucie’s help, Doctor Manette is soon on the road to recovery, but the entrance of two men into the story – attractive Frenchman Charles Darnay (Paul Guers) and handsome English lawyer Sydney Carton (Dirk Bogarde) soon complicates Lucie’s life. After Lucie briefly mistakes Carton for Darnay, the former, now of course in love with Lucie, soon coincidentally helps to represent his love rival in an English court. Darnay is facing trumped up charges of treason which have been instigated by his cousin the Marquis St Evremonde (Christopher Lee) and Basard. Carton succeeds in achieving Darnay’s acquittal by pointing out his own and Darnay’s resemblance to one another in order to undermine a witness’ testimony.

The situation in Paris is also eventful. The Marquis St Evremonde stands in for the entire aristocracy who are so despised by the ‘common’ French people. His family has previously traumatised Madame Defarge (Rosalie Crutchley), the wife of Manette’s servant (Duncan Lamont), by killing her siblings and parents. The Marquis St Evremonde continues this awful behaviour by sexually abusing his female servants and callously dismissing the peasant Gaspard’s grief as his young son is killed under the wheels of St Evremonde’s carriage. Gaspard exacts his revenge by stabbing the cruel aristocrat to death, and the French revolution is soon fully in flow and the and the Bastille violently breached.

Following the Marquis St Evremonde’s death Darnay (now married to Lucie, though keeping his family identity secret) travels to Paris, only to be caught up in the anti-aristocratic feeling. He is put on trial again, this time as an enemy of the French people. Tense scenes see him acquitted after Lucie, her father, and Carton travel to Paris to speak on his behalf. This is then overturned by the understandably vengeful Madame Defarge denouncing Darnay with evidence found in Manette’s old cell. Darnay is sentenced to the guillotine and the now-pregnant Lucie faces danger as the baby she is carrying means continuation of the despised St Evremonde line. Carton steps in when he recognises the Marquis St Evremonde’s former partner-in-crime Basard who is now a jailer at the Bastille. (Basard has, somewhat incredibly, earlier escaped justice in England by faking his own death.) The doubling of Carton and Darnay which has first been seen in Lucie’s misidentification and put to use by Carton in defending Darnay in court comes to the fore once more. Carton arrives at the Bastille, apparently drunk, to visit Darnay. He overpowers Darnay and takes his place, having persuaded Basard to accompany the now insensible Darnay out of the building into the care of Darnay’s wife, father-in-law and Lucie’s faithful companion the elderly  Miss Pross (Athene Seyler). The seemingly drunken Darnay is mistaken for Carton as he travels with his family to the check-point, since Carton had previously discussed his own love of French wine with the guards on his journey into the country. Finally, in perhaps the most famous instance of self-sacrifice in English literature, Carton takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the amount of plot to rattle though and the revelations of various characters to be uncovered, there is a notable variety of rhythm in the film. Generally, the more staid and slower scenes are set in London, with those in Paris more rapidly paced. Time is also found for Dickensian comic relief provided by the lower-class English characters, especially Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher (Alfie Bass). We also noted a hierarchy since the lower-class English characters are in the main depicted as better than the lower-class French characters. This is most obviously expressed when proud Briton Miss Pross (in her first, and she hopes only, visit abroad) is pitched against embittered French revolutionary Madame Defarge: Miss Pross is victorious.

Despite the fact that the French are portrayed as unnecessarily vengeful, we commented on similarities to some scenes from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s films which celebrated that county’s revolution. The relation of this to rhythm of A Tale of Two Cities’ editing was noted, especially its occasional use of montage (with the drumming revolutionaries centre stage) as well as its employment of unexpected camera angles. We also remarked upon the symbolism of peacocks. These birds are seen strutting around on St Evremonde’s lawn to demonstrate the Marquis’ arrogance and sense of entitlement. This brought to mind the way revolutionary leader Alexander Kerensky’s importance was punctured by comparing him to a mechanical version of the bird in in Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927). Interestingly, the film was apparently popular with Russian audiences according to its director Ralph Thomas (Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 559). He attributed this to the non-commercial decision to film in black and white rather than colour, though it is also perhaps helped by the revolutionary subject matter, notwithstanding its negative portrayal of those involved.

The film interestingly does not open with the novel’s famous narration ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ but dives straight into the action of the possibly hijacked coach. Unlike other British films of Dickens’ work – such as Henry Edwards’ Scrooge (1935) and David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – A Tale of Two Cities (1958) does not start with a shot of the novel. It consequently pushes Dickens somewhat into the background. This is especially noticeable when it is compared to Jack Conway’s 1935 Hollywood interpretation A Tale of Two Cities starring Ronald Colman. This not only starts with the page of the book pictured on screen but voices the famous opening lines. Perhaps then, the 1958 film points to changes in whether, and how, films claimed fidelity to their source texts.

The adding of Carton to the opening of the 1958 adaptation strains credibility in terms of coincidence but allows star Bogarde to appear earlier in the narrative. The film also diverges from Dickens’ novel with a rather disjunctive flashback as Lorry explains to Lucie her father’s history. Scenes depicting members of St Evremonde’s family abusing those of the lower classes explains the motivations of those rising up against the aristocracy, especially Madame Defarge. For much of the film some of us even forgot that we were watching a Dickens adaptation, our memories only being jolted by Dickens’ characteristic inclusion of unusual names – such as Mr Cruncher. Like Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1841) (set in England during the religious Gordon riots of 1780) A Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel. The society being criticised is therefore not the one that was contemporaneous to Dickens. This shows onscreen as the film’s events and costumes set it decades ahead of most of his works. While the Bogarde version distances itself from Dickens by not including the famous opening lines, changing when Carton enters the narrative and inserting a flashback early on, it does include the novel’s famous closing lines. We found the ending when Bogarde voices Carton’s thoughts ‘it is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’ profoundly moving. This was aided by Bogarde’s performance and his interaction with Marie Gabelle (Marie Versini) erstwhile maid of the St Evremondes who realises the sacrifice Carton is making, and with whom he shares his final moments.

Since the film does diverge from Dickens it is helpful to briefly consider the writer who adapted it for the screen. T.E.B. Clarke was a writer better known for his Ealing comedies including Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). He also wrote dramas, notably The Blue Lamp (1950) – a semi documentary style film in which Bogarde starred as a young villain. While initially his comedy background makes Clarke seem an unusual choice, he was nonetheless connected to Bogarde. Indeed, Bogarde later praised Clarke’s adaption of Dickens’ novel as ‘excellent’ and capturing the ‘essence’ of Dickens’ original (McFarlane, 1997, p. 69), though production designer Carmen Dillon was less complementary, describing it as not being Clarke’s ‘cup of tea’ (p. 178).

It is useful to comment on where A Tale of Two Cities sits in Bogarde’s filmography. It was released three years after the last Bogarde film we screened, Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), in which he played a wife killer with no redeeming features. In A Tale of Two Cities, Bogarde’s Carton is to start with a little unsympathetic, though his drunkenness is self-destructive rather than harmful to others, and he has charm despite his occasional moroseness. Carton finds purpose by sacrificing himself for the woman he loves, and this in turn saves him.

 

These two sides of Carton’s character are not as divergent as some of Bogarde’s earlier roles in films we have screened – most notably in Esther Waters (1948) and Hunted (1952). But it contrasts to the less complex roles Bogarde played after Cast a Dark ShadowThe Spanish Gardener (1956), Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) and, most significantly, the third in the popular series of Doctor films: Doctor at Large (1957). The films in this series were helmed by A Tale of Two Cities director Ralph Thomas. In case audiences at the time were concerned that this would simply transplant Simon Sparrow to revolutionary Paris, Bogarde apparently commented on this according to British fan magazine Picturegoer. He states that this was why he was keen for Thomas to direct – he would be able to recognise any appearance of his Doctor character and this could then be removed (31st August, 1957, p. 10).

There is, unsurprisingly, a difference between the film’s reception in popular fan magazines and film periodicals. Picturegoer’s review places Bogarde centrally. It considers it his most original performance since he started paying Simon Sparrow, and questioning whether another Dickens adaptation of the novel was necessary (1st of March 1958). Fellow British fan magazine Picture Show’s premiere also mentions Bogarde, though it is more respectful of Dickens and his relevance (8th of February 1958). The March issue of film periodical Films and Filming’s review by Rupert Butler deals with Dickens the most. It praises Jack Conway’s 1935 version and provides more comparison of the source text and the 1958 adaptation than is present in the fan magazines (p. 25). Significantly, the periodical criticises the film for its lack of melodrama: it regrets that Miss Pross’ vanquishing of Madame Defarge (which it describes as ‘one of the most ridiculously splendid bits of Dickens melodrama’) occurs offscreen.  The periodical’s understanding of melodrama is further articulated as it complains that the film has a ‘desire to understate the action, to avoid even the slightest risk of excess.’.

None of this material touches on the doubling aspect or the relationship between Carton and Darnay. This is, however, key to John Style’s chapter “Dirk Bogarde’s Sidney Carton—More Faithful to the Character than Dickens Himself?” in Books in Motion, Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (2005): 69-86. Style reads the performance of Bogarde as a queer one (p. 69), commenting that he employs the ‘queenish gestures of a diva’ (p. 79). While Style usefully contrasts Bogarde’s performance to that of the ‘wooden’ Guers (p. 72), this use of gendered terms and those relating to sexuality are subjective. This is especially evident in Style’s close analysis of the ‘mirror’ scene in novel and film (pp. 80-81) focuses on its homosexual overtones. It is understandable that these were not commented on at the time, but we thought they were little present in the film text too.

It is perhaps valuable to acknowledge that these aspects appeared more clearly in Bogarde’s later films, and after information about his star image (the revelations of his personal life) came to light. The doubling aspect of A Tale of Two Cities is seen to greater effect in Libel. In our discussion of Libel, we considered that the doubling which saw Bogarde play two roles and how this connected to ideas of homosexuality. (See the discussion and the brief consideration of doubling in A Tale of Two Cities here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/11/21/summary-of-discussion-on-libel/) Homosexual elements were even more pushed to the fore in Basil Dean’s Victim (1961) which was the first British film to use the term ‘homosexual’. (By happy coincidence, we’ll be screening Victim next time!)

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

 

Summary of Discussion on I Could Go On Singing

Our discussion on I Could Go On Singing included consideration of melodramatic aspects such as  Jenny Bowman (Judy Garland)  as a suffering woman and the genre of maternal melodrama; Judy Garland’s star entrance and moments of spectacle which privilege her; the film’s music: especially the way the songs commented, or neglected to comment, on the film’s action and themes; the relationship between the character Jenny Bowman and Garland’s own screen and star images; Dirk Bogarde’s character David Donne; Bogarde as a supporting star to Garland both on and off the screen.

The film was screened as part of our exploration of the many different facets of melodrama in films starring Dirk Bogarde. While Bogarde retains above-the-title billing, much of our discussion unsurprisingly focused on Judy Garland’s character, Jenny Bowman. We especially noted that the suffering which is central to many melodramas is evident in three parts of Jenny’s identity: as a performer, as a woman, and as a mother.

Revealingly, the original title for I Could Go On Singing was The Lonely Stage. The pressure on a performer in a one man or woman musical show is immense: he or she must be in the right place (often far from home) at the right time, fully rehearsed, and note-perfect. He or she also has to match the audience’s expectations of him or her as existing just for them in that moment. Jenny experiences problems towards the end of the film when she becomes drunk due to emotional distress and does not want to perform. Nonetheless, the show cannot go on without her, and she does not only appear as promised, but maintains an on-stage façade of being bright and fun.

The well-worn trope of a performer suffering behind the scenes has perhaps be shown to its best effect in the several versions of A Star is Born. The narrative sees a young female performer falling in love with an established star, and then eclipsing him. This leads to suffering for them both. Following William A. Wellman’s first iteration (in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) emphasis moved to musical versions. George Cukor directed Judy Garland herself alongside James Mason in 1954. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson were next in Frank Pierson’s 1976 film, and just recently Lady Gaga appeared opposite Bradley Cooper in his 2018 production.

Jenny’s suffering as a woman is expressed in terms of her romantic and familial relationships. She tells ex-lover David that she has been lonely since their relationship ended, even (in fact especially) during her two failed marriages. This is what partly fuels her desire to see Matt (Gregory Phillips), the son she left his father, David, to bring up 12 years ago. It also gives Jenny an excuse to see David again. Although David agrees to mother and son meeting once – under his supervision during Matt’s rugby match at boarding school – Jenny craves further contact. Predictably, Jenny’s precarious life as a performer (rehearsals, late performances, a focus on what is essential for her career success – herself) leaves little room for Matt.  When they spend time together at her hotel in London she sleeps late, and they miss sight-seeing opportunities.  Jenny, and David, also selfishly argue within Matt’s hearing, leading to him discovering the truth about his parentage – that David is his real, and not adoptive father, and Jenny his mother. Jenny’s sadness that she cannot be the mother she wants to be leads to her going on the drinking binge which jeopardises her career at the end of the film, revealing the impact of the personal on the professional.

I Could Go on Singing therefore comments on a woman not being able to have both a family and a career. Such notions still exist today, though they were even more prevalent at the time of the film’s production. Significantly, we thought that the film demonstrated that David’s relationship with Matt has also suffered due to his being away for long periods due to his work as an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. David has a warm and jokey relationship with Matt and he is clearly protective of him. But father and son do not spend much time together – not only is Matt away at boarding school (presented on screen by King’s School in Canterbury) during term time, but it is mentioned that he will also be spending some of his holidays with his Aunt in Kent. We should be wary, however, of viewing the father/son relationship through a modern lens. David certainly has a closer relationship with Matt than Jenny does, and one which was probably viewed as typical of the time.

Jenny’s relationship with Matt is similar to, but also different from, other maternal melodramas the group has previously screened. In both Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor) and The Old Maid (1939, Edmund Golding) the mother loves her child deeply but considers that she would be better off without her as a mother. In the former case this is due to the mother’s low-class status, and in the latter to the fact she is unmarried. (You can find more information on our responses to these films by searching the blog for the film titles.) I Could Go On Singing is a less extreme maternal melodrama in terms of Jenny’s suffering and sacrifice. Similarly, her child’s suffering is not brought about by parental cruelty or malice: Jenny and David could both handle their relationships with their son better, but this is not deliberate.

Our discussion of Garland also commented on her introduction. She is treated to a star entrance. Her figure, at first not especially recognisable, alights from a car and she proceeds to walk, with her back to camera, to a front door. This delays our first proper glimpse of Garland. The scene cuts to the well-lit interior of the house as a woman descend the stairs to answer the door and greet the visitor.  Garland is framed by an internal window, soon proceeding into the house and becoming recognisable to the audience. She then mounts the stairs to meet the advancing David.

Other moments which privilege Garland are more striking. Many of these relate to the staging of her songs. Garland’s rendition of I Could Go On Singing plays over the opening credits which are superimposed on abstract blurred coloured spotlights. I am the Monarch of the Sea is sung by Garland, and others, after Matt and his school classmates’ production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. Later on, Jenny performs Hello Bluebird, It Never Was You, By Myself, and I Could Go on Singing on stage.

We commented on the placement of these three songs in the narrative and how the lyrics related to the actions and emotions present in the film. The joyous Hello Bluebird appropriately occurs just after Jenny has learned, in contrast to a telegram she has just received, that her son Matt can in fact attend her concert. The lyrics of It Never Was You concern a disappointed woman who has searched for, but not yet found, a lost lover. While this may be seen to relate to Jenny’s relationship with David, the parallels in the next two songs are more conspicuous. By Myself is also about suffering connected to expectations of love not being met. But its highs and lows seem more extreme, more melodramatic.  Its lyrics declare that ‘this is the end of romance’ and reject the notion of love as ‘an overrated past time’; it is ‘only a dance’. While it is clearly not meant to be a song about recent or current events (Jenny is not improvising the song on the spot) its timing is significant:  it occurs just after Jenny’s heated argument with David when Matt finds out the truth about his parentage. There is also defiance in By Myself’s lyrics, despite the emphasis on being alone. The singer vows to ‘face the unknown, build a world of my own’ and is ‘sure that I am old enough to fly alone’. This suits Jenny’s action at the song’s completion: she strides off the stage and startles her manager, George (Jack Klugman) by demanding answers about the possibility of her gaining parental access to Matt.

I Could Go on Singing is arguably the film’s most important song. It not only frames the film – it is present over the opening credits, and on screen at the end after Jenny has been propped up by David – but is the only one expressly written for the film. It connects Jenny’s desire to sing (which is of course necessary to her career success) to being in love. The song’s claim that ‘When I see your eyes I go all out, I must vocalise till you shout “enough already”’ certainly supports its statement that ‘love does funny things when it hits you this way’. Memorably it avows that the singer could carry on until the ‘cows come home’, reinforcing this with an expression about an even less likely occurrence: the moon turning pink. It is worth considering a matter central to the film: who is the object of Jenny’s affections?  Is it David, Matt, herself, or possibly even her audience?

 

Differences between the way these songs were filmed (and especially how these emphasised Jenny’s status as a performer) were also commented on. The Monarch of the Sea fittingly includes no obvious means of amplification since it is an informal gathering around a piano. By contrast, the technology Jenny needs to deliver Hello Bluebird to a theatre full of people is not just visible, but made noticeable.   Jenny takes the microphone off its stand as she sings ‘I’m back home today’. This visually underlines the importance of her statement (the stage is her home) but also allows her to demonstrate this by actively moving around the space. The microphone lead trails with Jenny as the camera follows her walking across the stage. The other half of the performing equation – the audience – is also depicted. As well as crowd shots at the beginning and end of the song, cutting away to the audience during it means that Jenny can be re-framed in a longer shot which further conveys her status as performer.

It was noted that the obvious use of technology contrasts with It Never Was You, By Myself, and I Could Go On Singing. These are more in keeping with the traditional film musical which erases the amplification apparatus, despite often pretending that songs are performed ‘live’. Such invisible technology shifts the film from stage to cinema spectacle. They are also noticeably unlike footage of Garland’s concert and TV performances which show her with a microphone in her hand.

These songs also show the audience, and Jenny’s status as performer, to differing degrees. Garland’s performance of It Never Was You (which was apparently sung live on stage) appears to have been achieved in one take. This focuses entirely on Garland, closing in on her from a straight ahead shot until it moves to show her in profile. The filming of By Myself also does not emphasise the audience’s presence. However, unmotivated cuts seem to comment directly on how the stage and film audiences should view Jenny.  The camera switches to a longer shot as the song’s lyric emphasise that the singer is ‘alone’. Jenny is seen as a small figure on a dark stage lit by only a spotlight.

I Could Go On Singing, like It Never Was You and By Myself, suggests that Jenny is not using unnatural means to deliver the necessary amplification. However, in common with the staging of Hello Bluebird, it focuses on the on-screen audience. Furthermore, it places Jenny (and Garland) in the context of her audience; several shots seem to be taken from the wings, depicting Jenny and the audience in the same frame and supporting interpretations of this being where Jenny (and Garland) belongs.

This important relationship between Jenny and her theatre audience is mirrored in that of Garland and the film audience. US trade magazine Box Office’s review and exploitips note that I Could Go on Singing is the first opportunity in nearly a decade to see Garland singing in character. A behind-the-scenes piece on the film in the May 1963 issue of US magazine Screen Stories compares her role as Jenny to those Garland played in earlier films. It is claimed that this is the first time Garland has smoked on the big screen or seemed the worse for drink; meanwhile Garland herself supposedly comments that this is her first ‘really adult love affair’ (p. 53). Implications that her recent roles were somehow child-like are not wholly accurate.  Following Garland’s role in A Star is Born, Garland appeared in the hard-hitting film dramas Judgment at Nuremberg (1961, Stanley Kramer) and A Child is Waiting (1963, John Cassavetes). But such statements importantly reposition expectations about Garland’s current screen image. While Garland will once again be singing, she will not be playing the less adult roles of her early musicals. This was perhaps necessary since other than these earlier film musicals, Garland’s more regular concert performances were occasionally televised, meaning that audiences would have been more familiar with her singing ‘as herself’.

We can never know the ‘real’ person of the star, only what is said to be true about them (his or her star image). A star’s star image is often similar his or her screen image (the characters he or she plays), but this is especially true in Garland talking on the role of world-famous concert singer Jenny Bowman. The close relationship between Jenny and Judy was commented on by the March 1963 issue of UK film magazine Films and Filming.  Richard Whitehall opines that the film is a ‘demonstration of the ultimate in star quality with an artist moulding the material to her talents’ and that Garland ‘is the film’ (p. 34).

Some in the melodrama group thought that the film’s mining of Garland’s star image was exploitative.  It is, however, common practice, and we should be wary of denying her agency in choosing to make the film. Such views are of course coloured by our knowledge that this was Garland’s last film and that she died young, 6 years after its release. Contemporary audiences would not have been aware of these facts. Extratextual material at the time drew parallels between Judy and Jenny as singers, but also emphasised Garland’s good relationship with her children. The aforementioned March 1963 Screen Stories article displays a prominent photograph of Garland celebrating her birthday with a cake, alongside her 3 children, as well as her co-stars Bogarde and Phillips. The text of the piece also quotes Garland on the ridiculousness of this film constituting her first adult love affair, when she has ‘3 wonderful children in real life’. She has brought them to London for filming (Lorna and Joey were even extras in the film) and the article closes with an anecdote about the family sight-seeing (p. 53).

Of course we also discussed Bogarde’s role supporting Garland – both on screen and off. The film does not afford Bogarde the opportunities to show both the sensitive and villainous qualities we have noted in previous screenings (Esther Waters, Hunted, Libel, and The Singer not the Song). Our knowledge of David does develop from his first appearance on screen to his last, however. The way the pair first interacted was especially praised. There was formality and doctorly concern in his manner, while it was only slowly revealed that they have previously known one another and indeed have a son together.  Warmth between David and Matt allow for Bogarde to play the nice guy, who is protective of his son, but still willing to give Jenny a chance to share their son. Bogarde is especially effective in the scene in which he and Jenny clash over her desire to tell Matt the truth. His initial outburst of anger is followed by crestfallen regret when he sees Matt and realises that he has heard the truth.

 

The final scenes show yet more dimensions as David tends to Jenny’s wounds and promises to stay with her as long as she needs him. There was debate about the fact that David disappears while Jenny is singing I Could Go On Singing on stage at the end of the film. Some thought that his previous words had therefore meant nothing and that he had never intended to stay with Jenny. Others were of the opinion that the defiant way in which Garland performs this final song – which after all is about someone who can keep singing until the moon turns pink – showed that she had sufficiently recovered. This view is supported by the end of the fiction-version of the story which appeared in the May 1963 issue of US fan magazine Screen Stories:

   ” “I’ll stay,” he said.

“How long?”

“Until you can stand by yourself again,” he said….

She limped onto the great empty stage in her street clothes, late, but willing to sing. The audience yelled out, “We love you, Jenny,” as the lights came up; and Jenny yelled back, “I love you, too.” The spotlight on her face grew brighter, and the orchestra began to play. Jenny Bowman was home again, back where she belonged.”

 

THE END

(accessed via the official Dirk Bogarde website: http://dirkbogarde.co.uk/magazine/screen-stories-may-1963/)

Following Judy’s return to the stage David’s absence is not noted in the text. Neither is his presence – it almost seems as though he is irrelevant. Jenny’s need for love is fulfilled by her adoring audience and it is stated that she is ‘home again, back where she belonged’

This led us to briefly consider Bogarde’s off screen role. While Bogarde’s support  is partially seen in his not competing with Garland for the emotional scenes, information he purportedly provided about the production gives further insight. He claimed that, sanctioned by Garland, he rewrote some of Jenny’s dialogue (John Coldstream, Dirk Bogarde, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2004, p. 287) This potentially gave Garland more agency, a matter about which the melodrama group had earlier expressed concerns.  It also highlights Bogarde’s many talents – he had a successful career as a writer as well as an actor. Furthermore, in addition to reminding us of the importance of production and reception contexts, it highlights the fact that such contexts place stars among other stars, both on and off the screen.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

Summary of Discussion on The Singer Not the Song

Our discussion on The Singer Not the Song included: comments on its melodramatic characters and plot as well as the Western genre; the film’s camp sensibility; Bogarde’s screen and star images; information on the film’s production.

As with other Dirk Bogarde films we’ve screened this term, we commented on the characters and the plot in terms of melodrama. In The Singer Not the Song, these were especially tied to certain tropes of the Western. John Mills, as the newcomer Catholic priest Michael Keogh, enters a small Mexican town dressed entirely in black – he wears a long soutane and clerical hat. While this might signal in traditional Westerns that he is the villain, his vocation and polite interaction with Mylene Demongeot’s local young woman, Locha de Cortinez, instead point to him as a heroic figure.  This is even more clearly delineated when Bogarde makes his first appearance as Anacleto Comachi. He too is clad entirely in black, but in tight leather trousers which, unlike the priests’ costume, leave very little to the imagination. There are also moments when Bogarde’s three-dimensional performance becomes less nuanced. We especially noted Anacleto calmly stroking a pure white cat, a sure-sign of villainous intent.

Anacleto calls for his associates to kill Father Keogh after the latter refuses to back down in the face of violence. The brakes on the priest’s car fail as he is being driven on treacherous mountain roads, with him and the driver only narrowly cheating death. Later on, when Father Keogh is exiting the church, he is saved from being injured by a machete by raising the heavy book he is holding. Father Keogh considers both his escapes to be miraculous and states that they were directed by God.  The mountain was moved by faith which provided a new track on which the car could run, and the book which affords him protection at the church is the bible. While Father Keogh sees these as miraculous, such incredible escapes are not all that unusual in melodrama.

Father Keogh takes these attempts on his life in his stride, perhaps because, as he tells Anacleto, everyone must face suffering – especially priests. Such suffering is often at the heart of melodrama, especially in relation to women. Indeed, the film’s main female character, Locha, is bound by her gender and her class. Because she is privileged, she is kept safe and in comfort, but she has little to do. Her lack of mobility is starkly conveyed by her wish to learn to drive in order that she has some independence. Locha’s suffering, and inability to act on her desires, is increased when she falls in love with a man she cannot have.

While Locha continues to be a one-dimensional and formulaic victim, the line between hero (Father Keogh) and villain (Anacleto) becomes increasingly blurred. The priest’s life is attempted for the third time, but Anacleto steps in to save him, at great personal cost. Anacleto’s associate, old Uncle (Laurence Naismith), has just abruptly left Anacleto to visit the priest. Anacleto soon follows, pausing only to collect a gun. In a confrontation at the priest’s house, the man who has been like a father to Anacleto accuses him of liking the priest so much he is turning against his old comrades. His view is substantiated when Anacleto shoots the old man dead to halt his attack on Father Keogh. The scene wraps up with the police chief (John Bentley) arresting Anacleto, and the criminal forced to leave town. While this vanquishing of the threat may seem to conclude the film – despite the fact it occurs just over an hour in to the narrative – at least half of its running time is left, ample space for the film to explore Anacleto’s complex motives.

Anacleto returns to the town after about a year away. He continues to wear a similar costume, though there is some variation as the sombre black is relieved by a little colour – such as his yellow waistcoat. Anacleto directly appeals to Father Keogh for forgiveness. More importantly, Anacleto asks if he can move in with the priest so that the religious man can help the man without a God understand the purpose of faith. While the priest’s horror-stricken face suggests he is not amenable to Anacleto’s request, he allows him to stay in his spare room. From this position it becomes easier for Anacleto to influence both Father Keogh and Locha. He makes Locha doubt her decision to marry Phil from Florida, a man considered suitable by her parents. Anacleto correctly intuits that Locha is in love with the man who will perform the ceremony.

While Anacleto is right to attempt to come between Locha and Phil, his motives are unclear. Furthermore, his manipulation of her becomes more obvious. There is a level of performativity as Anacleto at first pretends to believe Locha’s mother’s assumption (which she shared with Father Keogh) that Locha is besotted with Anacleto. It is credible that this may be the case. Although he is a violent murderer, he is attractive and has a certain charm – indeed he is almost gentlemanly in his politeness. There also appears to be a suggestion of a previous friendship, or perhaps more, between the pair. Earlier in the film, Anacleto and Locha meet accidentally in a shop in the town.  He says that she should be served first, and they appear to be on polite, if not quite friendly terms. Locha even reminds Anacleto that he once said that he would do anything to help her. He responds that this was said a long time ago, closing down the suggestion that changes his criminal ways.

Anacleto’s ulterior motive in asking for Father Keogh’s spiritual guidance is also revealed. Initially Anacleto argued that the priest should not be killed since this would be a tactical error, him a martyr to the cause.  Although Anacleto later agreed to two attempts on Father Keogh’s life because it appeared his intimidation was not working, he switched back to his earlier standpoint when old Uncle attacked the priest. His return to the town is therefore part of a very cunning plan to make Father Keogh doubt himself and his faith. Anacleto does not achieve this by undermining the priest’s religious beliefs (despite his questioning of the logic of these) but through Locha’s love for Father Keogh. By whisking Locha away before her wedding (which her father views as kidnap) Anacleto engineers for Locha and Father Keogh to meet at the criminals’ hideout. This leads to an awkward scene, at which Anacelto insists being present, as Locha and the priest share a forbidden kiss. Father Keogh then gives Anacleto his word that if he frees Locha, he will tell the townspeople to support Anacleto. A set-piece at the church, in front of a full congregation, including Anacleto, shows Father Keogh breaking his promise. Anacleto accuses the priest of betraying him, and indeed Father Keogh seem more tormented by this than by his illicit romance with Locha.

Unsurprisingly, what Anacleto views as Father Keogh’s treachery does not go unpunished. The film ends in a Western-style shoot out.  Although the priest does not brandish a weapon, he is caught in the cross-fire as he goes to the injured Anacleto’s aid. Father Keogh remains close to the injured man, urging him to confess his crimes. The two men become even closer physically when the priest is shot by one of Anacleto’s followers and he falls on top of the bandit, the two men lying together in death. The film has been leading up to this sexually charged, homoerotic moment due to its camp sensibility.

This is perhaps most obvious in Anacleto’s costume. His tight-fitting trousers seem especially calculated to draw attention, in a bid to display himself as a sexual being. Anacleto’s deliberate physical posturing, his precise vocal delivery and his archly-raised eyebrows at key moments also contribute to the camp mood. Exaggeration is also evident in Anacleto’s role as dangerous bandit, as well as the fact that this calls for a certain performance – the townsfolk must believe in the threat in order to be frightened of it.  Furthermore, this increases when Anacleto returns, supposedly seeking forgiveness, but in fact faking his contrition.

In relation to performativity, it is significant that Anacleto’s only moment of heterosexual romance is strictly for show. Having been informed by Father Keogh of Locha’s supposed love for him, Anacleto, Anacleto attempts to kiss her. She rebuffs him, and he admits he only tried to embrace her in order to confirm his suspicion that she loves Father Keogh.  Anacleto’s pushing together of Father Keogh and Locha is for his own purposes, rather than an endorsement of such relationships. The lack of heterosexual romance does not necessarily mean we must assume that a homosexual one is present, but the in addition to the film’s camp tone, some of the film’s dialogue supports such a reading.  Anacleto tells Locha that ‘it must be heart-breaking to be in love with a man you can’t have’ and that he ‘understands’ it.  This makes us view the film’s ending, with Anacleto and Father Keogh united in death, in a certain light.  Any passion the two men may have for one another is deemed impossible.

We also commented on the film in relation to Bogarde’s screen and star images. In between last time’s screening (Libel) and The Singer Not the Song, Bogarde appeared in two films, both in 1960:  The Angel Wore Red (Nunnally Johnson) and Song Without End (Charles Vidor; George Cukor). The former’s status as an Italian-American co-production and the latter’s as a US film extend Libel’s US/UK co-production.   Bogarde played international characters in both: a Spanish former Catholic priest and the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt.  Bogarde’s Mexican bandit therefore expands his repertoire of characters of different nationalities.  From the available contemporaneous fan magazine materials it certainly seems to be the case that The Singer Not the Song, and perhaps Bogarde, were more lauded in France than in the UK.  The British Film Institute’s Collection of Dirk Bogarde magazines includes two from this period which cover the film, and Bogarde, extensively: Cinemonde (11 April 1961) and Cine Tele Revue (15 September 1961).  (You can read more on my cataloguing of the BFI’s Dirk Bogarde collection here: www.normmanetwork.com/) This prefigures Bogarde’s European films in the late 1960s, as well as his own move to France around the same time.

In addition to the international appeal of Bogarde, The Singer Not the Song builds on the ambiguity of Bogarde’s screen image since Anacleto, at least for some of the film, appears to have crossed from the bad to the good side. We’ve noticed throughout the term how Bogarde was able to be both hero and villain. The rogue Bogarde played in Esther Waters did not deliberately forsake the heroine, while in Hunted his killer-on-the-run sensitively cared for a small boy. In Libel Bogarde essayed two characters: one who attempts to kill the other, with the issue of lost memory meaning that the surviving man remains is unsure of his identity.

More specifically, The Singer Not the Song expands on Libel’s gay, but especially, camp sensibilities. The Singer Not the Song’s contemporaneous reception shows that the interpretation of it being about passion between Anacleto and Father Keogh is not just a modern reading-in. In the November 1961 issue of the UK’s Films and Filming, well-known film reviewer and commentator Raymond Durgnat says as much, though within the context of society’s reticence on the subject. While this was not necessarily a widely-held view (i.e. the opinion of most filmgoers), it is worth considering how it might relate to Bogarde’s next film, Victim. The title of Basil Dearden’s ground-breaking film about a married gay barrister (Bogarde) points to its sympathetic attitude: at a time when sex between men was criminalised in the UK, it does not view its protagonist as a perpetrator. Victim was released six months after The Singer Not the Song. It is interesting to debate whether at the time, and indeed now, we may see Roy Ward Baker’s film as continuation of the gay and camp themes of Libel, or a retrograde step (with stereotyped characters and the deaths of both men) before Victim’s sensitive handling of the matter.

It is difficult to know how much of a performance originates from an actor, and how much is already present in the script, or is prompted by the director or the editing. Additional information we can take into account is Bogarde’s relationship to The Singer Not the Song and Victim.  While Bogarde fought for the role in Victim, he only undertook the role in The Singer Not the Song under sufferance as his last film under contact with Rank.  Director/producer Roy Ward Baker was apparently also not keen on the project. Both aspects are documented in a newspaper article present in the BFI’s Dirk Bogarde collection (though not available on the official website). Matthew Sweet’s interview with Roy Ward Baker appeared in the Independent Review on the 7th of February 2003. Bogarde especially disagreed with the casting of Mills as the priest, being of the opinion that the man Locha falls for should be played by a younger actor.

Specifically, in terms of how this affected Bogarde’s performance, Bogarde himself claimed he ‘did the whole thing for camp’ (in an interview with Bogarde in Brian McFarlane’s fascinating 1997 An Autobiography of British Cinema, p. 70, reworked from his 1992 Sixty Voices: Celebrities Recall the Golden Age of British Cinema). In Derek Collett’s 2015 biography of The Singer Not the Song’s screenwriter, Nigel Balchin, he goes as far as to attribute the most visible signal of the film’s camp sensibility – Anacleto’s leather trousers – to Bogarde. In His Own Executioner, Collett details that Bogarde obtained them from a tailor in Rome.  Such production insights help us to further frame the film, and Bogarde’s screen and star images, especially in relation to camp. This is in addition to sources like Bogarde’s own memoirs, other people’s autobiographies, works on directors and films and the fantastic British Entertainment History Project. Running for more than 30 years, this includes more than 700 audio and video interviews with those working in film, television, theatre and radio:  https://historyproject.org.uk/

 

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

Summary of Discussion on The Skin I Live In

Posted by Sarah,

Frances has very kindly provided the following summary of our post-screening discussion on The Skin I Live In (2011):

skin i live in

This week’s discussion centred on the topics of sexual identity, motherhood and other representations of femininity, performance and the use of the male gaze as evoked by the screening of The Skin I Live In. The session began with an introduction from Keeley, as well as some notes on the film’s production from Rosa. Rosa explained how the shooting of the film was quite stressful for all involved and this seems to have affected the performance of the actors in the film which is particularly apt for the film’s troubling themes. A lot of the film was shot at night and on location and Almódovar was quite an excessive character to work with, demanding sets be re-built from scratch if they did not meet his exacting standards. Rosa also noted how the colour red is important for the film, and Spanish culture more widely, representing as it does passion, love, war, blood, fire and sexuality. Almódovar is particularly adept at skin i live in almodovar and redutilising the colour as red can be found in a lot of his films (especially on the posters) and red is also present somewhere in the frame in most of the shots in this film. Rosa also told us that the vintage shop seen in The Skin I Live In is a real shop belonging to costume designer Paco Delgado (who, more recently, has worked on and received an award nomination for Les Miserables).

Rosa remarked how these anecdotes of a difficult shoot are fascinating to consider, as they both reveal the unique workings of the director and how such a stressful production, combined with a difficult plot, can infect the crew and their modus operandi. Rosa commented that this production history translates into the viewing experience of the film, as The Skin I Live In draws audiences into its complicated tone and difficult story, as though making them a ‘prisoner’ of the film as well.

Keeley offered another thorough introduction to the film which focused on the main themes of the narrative. She mentioned how, in particular, maternal devotion, sexual identity, family relationships and the home are central to the film. Another recurring and important motif is that of the double: this is present on a narrative level with the physical transformation of Vicente to Vera, but it is also apparent elsewhere in the film, such as with the visual similarity of characters (Vera is made to look like Robert’s deceased wife) eyes withoutand through the comparable roles assigned to characters (there are three mothers which feature in the film). The double can also said to be present in the way The Skin I Live In relates to other melodramas, such as Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and Rebecca. Obsession and sexual identity also features in the narratives of these films, just as it does in The Skin I Live In.

Keeley found the following quote particularly helpful in thinking about this film. It reads:

“In its final scenes, The Skin I Live In takes a turn that is as unexpected as it is brilliant. It no longer tells a story or revenge, but rather the story of a conversion.” (Gustavo Martin Garzo in The Pedro Almodovar Archives, edited by Paul Duncan & Bárbara Peiró, 2011. p. 373).

The film, in this way, is about accepting (or not) the identity forced upon you and this has particular implications for the film’s ending: is this positive or not? Keeley stated she thought that it was as it signalled hope for Vera and this was a discussion point we returned to later. Keeley also noted that The Skin I Live In is an important film to think about Almódovar as an auteur and where it fits into his larger body of work. This film is, in many ways, Almódovar’s most polished film although skin i live in directionmelodrama runs throughout all of his films. The Skin I Live In is a denser and more emotionally complex film. It is also interesting that Antonio Banderas should appear in the film: this is his first film with Almódovar for a long time and also signals Banderas’ return to Spanish film. The Skin I Live In allowed Banderas to explore a deeply emotional character and our reaction to Robert was another discussion point we returned to later.

skin i live i  vera

After the screening of the film, comments opened with the thought that secrets are an incredibly important aspect to the film’s narrative and melodrama more widely. The secret as to the ‘true self’ occurred on several occasions in The Skin I Live In and is reflected by the film’s unusual structure: the crucial backstory explaining who Vera is – and how she became Vera – is delayed. Another delay occurs with Vera’s true intentions, which sees her murdering Robert at the end. There is some debate whether this was Vera’s plan all along or as a result of seeing Vicente’s image in the newspaper again after all those years. Vera’s actions at the end of the film are also complicated because the love making scene which takes place between her and Robert seems genuine and affectionate and therefore not does hint at Vera’s murderous intent moments later.

The relationship between Vera and Robert was discussed at length and we commented how the almost incestuous nature of their coupling is an important part of the film’s difficult narrative (by making love to Vera, Robert is having sex with the person who raped his daughter). We agreed that the most disturbing sex scene is the earlier one between Robert and Vera, following the latter’s rape by Zeca the ‘tiger man’. Although Robert clearly expresses his desire for Vera earlier on in the film (by watching her intently on the large TV screen), this sexual liaison Skin I live in screenappears to be for the purpose of Robert reclaiming Vera as his ‘property’ and ‘marking his territory’ after her defilement by the tiger man. The fact all of these scenes take place before the revelation of Vera’s original identity and early on in the narrative, makes the film an uncomfortable viewing experience from the start.

We discussed the film’s enigmatic ending and Keeley explained how she finds this conclusion quite hopeful for Vera: Vera’s return to the shop points to the cyclical nature of the narrative and emphasises how she is now free from her captivity. The shop assistant is important to this scene: we see earlier Vicente’s banter with his fellow employee and the emotional and physical attraction between them is evident again at the end, perhaps even more so with Vicente’s transformation into Vera. The shop also seems like a fitting and safe place for Vera to return to not only because this is home but because this is the only place where we see some humour in the film take place (the dubious customer service and buying of ‘fat’ clothes seen earlier in the film when we are first introduced to Vicente). Yet even in this seemingly light-hearted sequence, the film appears to prophesise Vicente’s demise, as there is a visual match between the skin i live in endingearly shot of the dress in the window (with Vicente on the inside of the shop), and the shot of the dress in the window again at the end (with Vera reflected from the outside). Keeley also noted how this latter shot features a background patterning in the shop which is similar to the drawings Vera makes on the walls of her locked room in Robert’s house, as though foreshadowing Vicente’s inevitable imprisonment as Vera.

Although there is a hopeful tone to the film’s concluding moments, the ending is not without its ambiguities and frustrations for the viewer either. Importantly, the film fades to black before Vicente’s mother can react to her son’s new appearance, which is also significant because the mother firmly told the police that she believed her son to still be alive. We expanded this point to comment how an integral part of the melodrama of the film is not just the suffering of Robert and Vera (and, by extension, Norma whose downfall is a combination of her mother’s death and Vicente’s actions), but the narrative also includes three suffering mothers. These are: Robert’s mother, who tells Vera her tragic life story and is also the mother of Zeca; Robert’s wife, who attempts to elope with Zeca but is left to burn in their crashed car and eventuallyskin i live in suffering mother commits suicide; and Vicente’s mother, whose child is pronounced dead by the authorities even though she believes he was kidnapped. Therefore The Skin I Live In features several personal melodramas occurring simultaneously and the complexity with which these stories relate poses a challenge for spectators and their engagement with these characters.

We also discussed how performance, identity, and costume become conflated in The Skin I Live In, with characters frequently embodying the roles of their outer appearance. For example, Zeca’s tiger ‘skin’ is an apt costume as he acts aggressively first towards his mother (who he ties up in the kitchen) and then towards Vera. Zeca’s depraved treatment of Vera begins by him licking the TV screen displaying Vera in her locked room and we then see several cuts of Zeca ‘stalking’ his prey before raping her. Vera also plays the role dictated to by her outward appearance. For example we see Vera perform domestic chores, cleaning her room and preparing breakfast for Robert. Robert skin i live in vera defends robertattempts to enforce a very specific definition of femininity onto Vera, by supplying her with dresses and make up. Yet Vera also uses her new ‘feminine wiles’ to trick Robert, as when she attacks him when wearing the black stocking she asked him to zip up, or later when Vera tries to convince Robert to give her freedom to roam the house by attempting to seduce him.

This rather stereotypical representation of the feminineSkin I live in mannequin is also emphasised by the exaggerated use of the male gaze in the film. This occurs with Zeca and his licking of the TV screen, but Vera is also subjected to Robert’s gaze. Robert watches Vera on the huge TV screen in his room and he fragments Vera’s body for his own gratification by zooming the camera in on Vera and again, quite literally, through the process he performs to transform Vicente into Vera and the other procedures he performs to reinforce her skin. Vera’s body is also juxtaposed with the paintings of figures in Robert’s house and the clay bodies Vera makes and decorates with her torn dresses. Yet Vera also subverts this male gaze by performing for it: she knows Robert watches her and Vera hopes this knowledge of Robert’s attraction towards her will help win her freedom. Vera also returns the gaze: she looks down the camera towards Robert forcing him to reflect upon his own act of looking. The male gaze is subverted again as it is Robert’s and Zeca’s mother who witnesses Vera’s rape on the TV screens.

We commented on the unusual structure of the house, where the majority of the film’s melodramatic moments takes place. The house’s geography is complicated and it remains unclear where the distinctive areas of the house exist in relation to each other (thus contributing to Vera’s hopelessness at achieving freedom on one occasion). There is also a strange mix of styles present in the home, with the cave-like place where Vicente is kept initially, combining with the traditional façade of the house (and rooms like the kitchen), which in turn contrast sharply with the clinical sight of the operating theatre. The film’s central debate of whether one is ‘at home’ in one’s own skin and ultimately defined by this outwardly appearance is thus mirrored by the house’s abnormal structure: it, too, is an ‘un-homely’ home.

skin i live in vicente and normaWe also discussed how the central event in the narrative – Norma’s rape – does not evoke the ‘melodramatic showdown’ one might expect from such a story. Indeed this part of the story is the most difficult to interpret, as Vicente expresses to Robert that “I don’t think I raped her [Norma]”. The scene depicting Vicente’s encounter with Norma is challenging: at first Norma seems to be engaged with Vicente’s attraction to her but, after the edit which takes us back into the house and to the wedding party, her participation in the liaison is no longer consensual. The scene is also difficult to evaluate because it is clearly portrayed as a subjective memory, as both Vera and Robert’s dreams take us into these flashbacks.skin i live in norma Leaving aside the question of whether such memories are to be considered reliable, the difficulty for interpretation and identification is pushed further as Vicente’s original role as the rapist and Robert as the doting and loving father is swiftly usurped by Vera’s depiction as the victim and Robert as the oppressor. The moral compass of the film is constantly misdirected and confused.

We concluded our discussion by talking about how successful and well received the film was on its release. This is in contrast to this week’s set reading from Film Quarterly, which was quite dismissive of the film’s representations of sex, sexuality, aesthetic qualities and apparent misogyny. We disagreed with these conclusions as we found the challenges posed by these questions an important part of the viewing experience for a film which does not offer any easy answers.

Many thanks to Kat, Keeley and Frances for jointly selecting such a fascinating film for us to view, and for providing the great introductions and summary. Thanks too to Rosa for the extra, inside, information on Almodovar.

Do, as always log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Of Human Bondage

Posted by Sarah

Our first post-screening discussion after the lengthy Summer Break was lively, and encompassed several areas relating to melodrama, this specific film and Bette Davis. It included comment on: Bette Davis’ performance; the film as an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel;  the film’s music; comparison of the female characters; later adaptations of the novel; stars Leslie Howard and Bette Davis’ other work together; Somerset Maugham as a writer.

Unsurprisingly the discussion began with comments on Davis’ tour de force performance. Davis’ ability to convey Mildred Rogers’ attempts to appear more refined through her voice was deemed especially effective. She shifted effortlessly, and at the appropriate moments, between strangulated cockney and strangulated cockney with a slight hint of unconvincing cultivation. This undulating movement was also present in Davis’ physical performance. This was quite exaggerated.  Using gestures and facial expressions liberally, Davis wonderfully conveyed both Mildred’s flirtatious nature and her at times pointedly indifferent attitude to Philip. We especially noted Davis’ use of Of Human Bondage eyesher eyes to express these contradictory aspects of Mildred’s character.  Occasionally Mildred with her head tipped down, steadily and flirtatiously looked up at Philip across the top of her champagne glass (see picture on right).  More often though, she flicked her eyes away from him, either quickly or slowly, to signal her disagreement with him or to reveal that she was mulling over an offer he had made.

Of Human Bondage tiradeDespite the fact that throughout the film Davis employed theatrics, and could hardly be described as restrained, her two big scenes were stunningly effective. In Mildred’s tirade against Philip, which we discussed at length, Davis ratcheted her performance up a gear. There is constant movement in this scene. Both by Davis, who turns to and away from the camera whilst striding away from it,  and by the camera itself which follows Davis at some speed. Extra impetus was added by the fact that the scene was fairly quiet up to this point.  It was also the first time we saw Mildred really furious. This was prompted by Philip’s comment that Mildred disgusts him. This, in turn, was in response to her attempt to seduce him. After repeating Philip’s words with her voice and body shaking with disbelief and anger, the scene reaches its climax as Davis performs a violent gesture. She tells Philip that every time he has kissed her she wiped her mouth. Mildred clearly thinks this is a useful phrase to torment Philip with, and she repeats it, atof human bondage mouth increased volume. Davis also emphasises the point by ferociously rubbing her arm across her heavily lipsticked mouth.  It is notable that while the gesture is arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments, partly due to Davis’ heightened performance, it does not appear in the novel.

What made it unforgettable is that as Mildred is shouting angrily with mad, staring eyes, she is also smiling, or perhaps more correctly, grimacing. She clearly relishes having the opportunity to express her true feelings to Philip. This was compared to other moments in Davis films when her characters’ real self is unleashed, for example In This Our Life (1942, John Huston).

Davis’ other ‘big’ scene revealed more of Mildred’s vindictiveness. This is very possibly even worse than her spontaneous reaction to Philip’s comment as she has had time to consider her actions.  She gleefully rampages through Philip’s apartment, destroying the works of art which mean the most to him, but which she has declared she finds vulgar.The music which accompanies the following scene is revealing. Mildred coolly picks up ‘baby’ from her cot in preparation of them both leaving Philip’s apartment.  There is a ‘frowsy’, almost comedic, quality to the music. While the audience has never entertained the same illusions about Mildred as Philip has, it suggests that after her tirade and the following rampage the film is now signalling through music that her real nature is indeed shabby. It was mentioned that apparently after the first screening of the film, some of its music was changed as it was considered too comedic in places.

Our focus on performance, and in particular specific moments of heighted emotion and gesture was related to some of the discussion we engaged in at our previous screening sessions. Of special interest, and worthy of further consideration, is how these instances are juxtaposed with elements of restraint.

of human bondage novelAs with some of our previous discussions, we spoke about the suffering woman. While the film showcased Davis’ performance, it was perhaps less about Mildred’s suffering than Philip’s.  This is similar to the source novel.  Much of its 700 pages detailed Philip’s childhood, his time spend living abroad, his medical training and his later search for employment. Unsurprisingly the 83 minute film dispensed with much of the novel’s plot. The fact it chose to focus on Philip and Mildred as its main characters was testament to the pernicious effect Mildred had on Philip and clearly related to Hollywood’s privileging of the romantic couple.

of human bondage kay johnsonPhilip’s other romantic relationships Of Human Bondage Frances dee(with Norah, played by Kay Johnson, left, and Sally, played by Frances Dee, right) were given little screen time, not really enough to compete with Mildred’s central position. The female characters and performances other than Mildred/Davis were very restrained.  Other characters (such as Dr Jacobs, the medical student Griffiths and especially the flamboyant Athelny) were sketched more broadly. We thought these characterisations probably lacked depth because they were given very little time to make their impression. It is perhaps also telling that these are all played by male actors – Desmond Roberts, Reginald Denny and Reginald Owen respectively. While the performance styles differ to the lesser female characters, they also supply contrast to Davis and Howard’s more nuanced portrayals.

Some of the film’s more avant garde touches were also discussed. We noted the straight-to-camera acting of Davis and Howard in particular, during which eyelines did not match and the 180 degree rule was violated. The film’s ending which shows Philip and Sally crossing a busy street was deemed particularly odd. We presume that Philip is telling Sally of Mildred’s death, and the fact he is now free, but the unnecessarily loud traffic noise drowns out the dialogue. There did not seem to be any real reason for this, especially as we had already seen Davis at her most unglamorous as the dying Mildred was collected from her room and taken to hospital.

There was also a dreamlike quality to much of the film, not just during the projection of of Human Bondage dreamPhilip’s dreams. The latter afforded a greater opportunity for Davis to display her acting skills as in these Mildred is far more responsive to Philip, especially facially. In his dreams Philip imagines Mildred speaking with Received Pronunciation. As the ‘real’ Mildred, Davis shows Mildred’s doomed attempts to achieve this accent. This is revealing of Philip’s prejudices and it is also notable that in the dream sequences his physical disability has disappeared. This split between reality and dream also effectively highlights the unusual  social realism of the film and Hollywood’s usual focus on the glamour of coupledom and romance.

Of Human Bondage Henreid ParkerWe wondered about later versions of the story. In 1946 Paul Henreid (Davis’ co-star in Now Voyager 1942 and Deception 1946) and Eleanor Parker starred in a Hollywood remake directed by Edmund Goulding (who often collaborated with Davis).  Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey starred in the 1964 UK film (see a clip of Mildred’s death scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8iVYV93BYw). Interestingly this was written by Bryan Forbes and partly directed by him (uncredited) alongside the UK’s Ken Hughes and Hollywood’s Henry Hathaway. Forbes is known for his kitchen sink drama The L Shaped Room in 1962.

This highlights further melodrama and British social realism’s connections, mentioned in last term’s discussion on Love on the Dole (1941).

TV adaptations were made in a 1949 episode of Studio One starring Charlton Heston and Felicia Montealegre (watch the whole episode here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klGfU5VKGAc)  and as part of  Somerset Maugham TV Theatre  in 1952.  Cloris Leachman appeared as Mildred.

PetrifiedWe also discussed Howard and Davis’ other films together. They appeared in The Petrified Forest (1936) and It’s Love I’m After (1937) – both directed by Archie Mayo.  While the former could also be described as a melodrama, a gangster melodrama, the latter is a light romantic comedy in which Howard and Davis play a bickering couple. Performance is central to this film too, however as their characters are actors. (Do take a quick look on www.youtube.com for clips and trailers.)

Discussion ended with brief mention of the critical evaluation of Maugham as a novelist. MaughamHe is considered by some to be trashy, and this complements Mildred’s character in Of Human Bondage. Unusually for a male author can be considered middlebrow. We will look into this more next week when we screen Rain (1932) which is a screen translation of his 1921 short story.

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a wonderful film which certainly gave us plenty to chew over…

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.