Monday, November 5, 2007

11/5: The Apartment

Billy Wilder's classic The Apartment is coated with the thinnest layer of comedic disguise, as though Wilder had taken his film and simply put a blatantly fake mustache and Groucho Marx eyebrows on it, hoping its deeper identity would somehow remain hidden in spite of the flimsiness. Or, more likely, he very much hoped the disguise would fail, hoped that audiences wouldn't fall for that veneer of comedy, would notice the deeply melancholic air that hangs over the whole film, or the biting satirical wit that coldly reveals the film's characters as ridiculous. In any case, Wilder need not have worried or hoped: there's little chance of anyone mistaking The Apartment for a straightforward comedy, in spite of its many funny moments. Jack Lemmon is the film's comedic linchpin, its clown, but one gets the definite sense that beneath his clown's makeup, he might be crying.

Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, an office drone at a megalithic insurance company, set up at desk number 861 as he informs us in voiceover in the film's introduction. But Baxter is destined to head up the corporate ladder quicker than most, because he's stumbled upon a gimmick by providing company executives with the use of his apartment for clandestine trysts. This set-up works to Baxter's advantage in his career, but it wreaks havoc on his life, which becomes an endless routine of waiting and shuffling around the city alone, while his apartment hosts wild bacchanals every night of the week. Baxter's glum over the lack of control he has in his own life, and there's an increasing disparity between his humdrum existence and the image his neighbors form of him as a freewheeling ladies' man and partier. Baxter is the ultimate parody of the company man, a man whose business has taken over every inch of what might be called his personal space, finally intruding upon his home itself. His only semblance of a sex life, even, is lived through other men, higher up than him in the chain of command.

Wilder presents this wicked satire with a vicious wit that spares no joke at the expense of the philandering, manipulative, dishonest louses who populate the upper echelons of business management. Even Lemmon's affable jokester persona can't smooth the edge of this satire, and his general likability only increases the sadness surrounding his predicament. This melancholy only increases when Shirley MacLaine enters the picture as Fran, the young elevator operator who's the object of Baxter's affections, but herself loves Baxter's married and compulsively cheating boss Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). This tragic love triangle slowly takes over the film, finally overshadowing the more humorous satirical threads and taking the film's indictment of corporate "culture" and its lack of human feeling to the logical extremes. Surrounded by corporate lackies and craven manipulators with no regard for who they hurt, Baxter and Fran can only be meant for each other. They are innocents in a corrupted milieu, naïve to the cruel nature of the people around them.

Wilder presents this tragicomic satire with a straight face and his characteristically understated sense of film aesthetics and spatial relations. This is especially apparent in the contrast between Baxter's office and the titular apartment. In the former, Baxter is just one of the drones, lost in a massive space that's dominated by a geometric arrangement of cubicals, possibly a future reference for Tati's Playtime, which extended the exploration of corporate geometry to hilarious extremes. In The Apartment, this squared-off space is contrasted with the homey sloppiness of Baxter's home, which is cluttered and filled with the detritus of Baxter's existence. Even if he doesn't get much use out of the place, it's clear that it's his home nevertheless. Wilder frequently resorts to deep focus shots, in both contexts, further accentuating the differences in locale. In his office, Baxter is isolated by the long shots, which cause the rows of identical cubes to stretch out towards the horizon line, converging in a triangle. One memorable shot has a forlorn Baxter walking away from the camera down the center of this triangle, bisecting it with his path. In Baxter's apartment, there isn't the same sense of distance and spaciousness, and it's replaced by a wealth of objects which serve to situate Baxter in his space. In the office, he's lost in the blank and ordered surroundings, seeming to float amidst all the white walls and carefully arranged objects; only in his apartment does he really seem to fit in somewhere, to belong to the space around him rather than simply passing through it.

The Apartment remains such a classic of Hollywood comedy because, in spite of its abundant humor and Lemmon's light touch with his performance, the film has a stringent dedication to its deeper, darker subtextual elements and its bitter commentary. Wilder's camera pitilessly explores the nature of love, sex, and deception in modern corporate culture, with the translation of corporate "values" into the personal sphere and the resulting threat to individuality, morality, and human decency. It's a rare comedy that can take on such serious themes with the appropriate intensity while still maintaining its comedic edge, but if there's any artist who could balance these extremes, it was definitely Wilder.

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