Tuesday, October 30, 2007
10/30: La Truite; Holiday
Joseph Losey's La Truite is a strange and deeply unsettling film, not so much because of what happens on screen not much happens at all, actually but because of what it obliquely suggests. It's a work of odd stasis, with a curiously elliptical narrative that frustrates at every turn. Of course, Losey has always been a somewhat difficult figure to get a grasp on, and that is perhaps nowhere more true than in this nearly asexual meditation on sexuality. Isabelle Huppert turns in a stellar performance as the manipulative Frédérique, the daughter of the owners of a country trout farm, where she works, as the opening scene shows, squeezing out the bladders of fish as though she's milking them. This casually disturbing image sets the tone for the film, as Frédérique has made it her mission in life to milk men for all they're worth without ever offering them much in return. She marries the fey, perpetually ailing and conflicted homosexual Galuchat (Jacques Spiesser), to whom she seems genuinely devoted despite their sexless union, but this doesn't stop her from seducing, almost offhand, two businessmen who the couple meet at a bowling alley.
She runs off with one of these men, Saint-Genis (Daniel Olbrychski) on a business trip to Japan, and though she turns on the charm in some ways, she keeps him constantly at a distance and totally frustrated. Huppert's performance is remarkable because she manages to convey a subtle aura of seduction that emanates from her body at all times without her ever even doing anything. Frédérique is crass and hardly a match for the glamorous women who are set against her, played by an aging but still radiant Jeanne Moreau and the black model Lisette Malidor. Nevertheless, she exudes a subtle sexual pull that seems to draw every man in her vicinity to her, like a trout letting off pheromones.
Losey lets the implications of her manipulations and coldness play themselves out from such an objective distance that at times it feels like the narrative is in danger of slipping out of reach. Losey's objectivity verges on indifference at times, a coldness towards these characters that is very much like Frédérique's indifference towards the men around her. His presentation of the nouveau riche business class is a deadpan satire with few enough jokes but plenty of sharp critical observations, as in the dryly funny dinner scene where Losey skewers the banal chatter and pompous self-inflation of the bourgeoisie money-makers. The film is all about careful observation and accumulation of detail. Not for the sake of psychological insight, since the characters are ciphers with little enough explication of their actions, but for the examination of the ways in which sex, power, class, and money interact with each other.
This was Losey's penultimate film, made in France at the end of his lifelong post-McCarthy exile from Hollywood, and it finds the director's keen analytical mind and unique perspective still in full flower. The intentionally showy camerawork, marked by constant pans, unsteady tracking, and attention-getting zooms, keeps the viewer destabilized at every point, always too far away from Frédérique's story to really get into her head. The only exception is the haunting and powerful final shot, in which Losey finally allows a moment of psychological insight to penetrate his character. He sustains a long close-up on a cryptically smiling Huppert, framed against a window as her husband is visible outside, pacing back and forth. By the end of the film, she's manipulated herself into a position of relative power and prestige, a seeming happy ending, but when asked if she likes things better now, she can only say, "It's all the same." Losey holds the shot a moment longer, the static close-up offset by the background tension of the pacing Galuchat, an enduring image of disillusionment and Frédérique's belated realization of her life's essential emptiness.
Holiday is the kind of fun, witty, vibrant, and intelligent Hollywood comedy that, unfortunately, modern Hollywood no longer shows the least interest in making. This film is a sheer joy to watch, the kind of film where you can simply get lost in its characters and milieu while they're on screen, only to find that they're still lingering with you long after the film is over. Director George Cukor has a light touch for comedy, deftly balancing the witty banter and comedic scenes with a real sense of drama. This drama arises from the fact that one senses, from the very beginning of the film, that Cary Grant's Johnny is a much better match for the free-spirited Linda (Katharine Hepburn) than he is for her more straitlaced sister Julia (Doris Nolan). Part of this is sheer Hollywood gamesmanship when Katherine Hepburn shows up in what seems at first to be a supporting role, it's instantly clear that she's going to have to take control of the film and end up with the leading man somehow. But Cukor is also wise to let the romance between Grant and Hepburn develop naturally, subtly, so that their growing love is clear to the audience well before it's clear to either of them.
When the film opens, Johnny and Julia have just gotten engaged after a whirlwind romance when they met on vacation. Johnny's a rough-and-ready fellow who's pulled himself up from very humble origins to become a moderately successful businessman, but he's stunned when he discovers that Julia is a fabulously wealthy heiress from the old-money Seton family. The fit proves to be poor, especially since Johnny has dreams of striking it rich in business early in life so he can then take a few years off to explore the world. He's therefore not too eager to settle down into the kind of staid life in finance that Julia's father envisions for him, and as the engagement announcement looms closer, it becomes increasingly clear that Julia is carved from the same mold as her father. In contrast, the iconoclastic Linda is a true breath of fresh air. Of the three Seton children, only Julia seems comfortable in their sheltered, money-über-alles existence. Linda retreats into childhood memories of their mother and the "play room" that she set up as an alternative to the marble pillar glamour of their mansion. Their brother Ned (Lew Ayres), meanwhile, retreats into alcoholism, and his bleary-eyed performance provides a kind of foreshadowing of what might become of Johnny if he follows through on marrying Julia smashed dreams and chronic depression.
At the heart of this film is a magical New Year's Eve party that locates a small core of fun-loving vibrancy amidst a sea of pretension and empty riches. Linda is distraught that her father has not allowed her to throw the intimate party she envisioned for Julia's engagement, instead turning it into yet another dull society ball. Linda retreats once again into her play room, and over the course of the party her inner sanctum becomes a similar retreat for all the party's genuine souls. Johnny's whimsical friends (Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon, in great bit turns) are drawn there before long, as is Ned, and finally Johnny himself. The quintet find themselves throwing an impromptu party of their own, with a puppet show, Ned playing the piano, and Johnny and Linda attempting back flips and acrobatic feats. It's a magical interlude, a small holiday from the dullness of the society party happening a few floors below, and the intrusion of Julia and her father at the end is a rude awakening, the destruction of something beautiful and pristine that was developing among those free-wheeling spirits.
The film never actually gives poor Julia much of a chance. Jean Dixon isn't much of a challenge for the wise-cracking, earnest Hepburn, and the audience is rooting for the proper match between Grant and Hepburn from the very first moment they appear on screen together. What's special about the film is the urgency with which it imbues this budding romance, the sense that this is a crucial decision for Johnny. In the climactic scene where Julia's father begins laying out the road ahead for them if he marries Julia, the tension begins mounting to tremendous levels as it becomes clear just how bad a fit for Johnny this constricted life would be. The film certainly parodies the old money lifestyle; when Julia earnestly tells Johnny how much fun business can be, one can't help but laugh, especially in light of Grant's shell-shocked expression. But more importantly, the film stresses that different lifestyles suit different people, and that the choices we make in life define the paths that are open to us. Johnny and Linda, ultimately, realize this, and realize the importance of going off on their own holiday together, making choices for themselves.