Friday, March 7, 2008

Great Films: Ecstacy

In the Phineas household we maintain a carefully negotiated balance of power in which Ms. Finn controls all meaningful decisions. This is particularly true of movie selection. And while she’s drawn me into her net with The American President and Notting Hill (both of which I openly enjoy and even admire in a way), my attempts at reciprocation continue to fail. The most recent salvo, “You’ll like THIS Woody Allen movie for sure” barely made it past the first 15 minutes.

So while she was out camping with our oldest daughter last weekend, I broke out an unopened copy of Ecstacy, the famous 1933 film starring Hedy Keisler, later known as Hedy Lamar. This movie is known most for its open nudity and sensual eroticism. But beyond that I didn’t know anything about it – not actors, director nor plot.

This is a wonderful movie that you should definitely seek out. There are a few flaws, but they are minor compared to the compelling story that is told almost wordlessly. The “famous” scenes are beautifully filmed, and central to both the plot and tone of the movie. The director Gustav Machaty alludes to the impending passion of the protagonists with an extended scene showing the animal magnetism of two horses – and while one run-away horse is central to the plot, the heavy handed imagery is clumsy. He uses this device – extended scenes using animals or insects – several times, only once to great effect.

Not remembering Hedy Lamarr from any notable films, yet knowing her from constant reference in Bob Hope's 1960's TV specials, I wasn't sure what to expect. What you'll find is a slightly plump, somewhat flatchested teenager, not a voluptuous pin up. She woudn't be cast today as a fat friend, but she sure wouldn't be the leading lady either. I also can't stop thinking of Hedly Lamarr from Blazing Saddles, the producers of which were theatened with lawsuit by Hedy's people.

The Plot: Young Eva marries an older, successful businessman who spurns her on their wedding night. After a divorce and return to her father’s mansion (she certainly wasn’t attempting to marry up) she encounters the swarthy young supervisor of a road crew. After discovering his sensitive nature, shown in brilliant counterpoint to her husband in parallel scenes involving insects, she falls for him. This leads to a love scene that would be considered racy up through the 1960’s, let alone 1933. Since the plot is not complex, but highly engaging, to reveal more would spoil the remainder of the film.

Dialogue: While this film was made just a few years after “talking pictures” were introduced, it seems closer to a silent film and uses the sparse dialogue to powerful effect. The first words weren’t spoken until almost 20 minutes into the film, and weren’t needed until then either. There is effectively no dialogue between characters. Rather, one speaks and the reaction of the other is expressed without words. Wonderfully performed and filmed.

Visuals: I’m anything but a film student, but suspect that the camera work and editing were greatly advanced for their time.

Prognosis: This is a movie you should definitely seek out. Chuckle over the symbolic scenes from a distance while you refill your glass of wine.

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