Who says they don’t make love stories the way they used to?
Who says they don’t make love stories the way they used to?
IN MY PARTICULAR memory bank of films, the romanciest movie romance of all times is still Greta Garbo’s Camille. Ah, such perfect love. Ah, such anguish. Who could forget the fantastically beautiful Garbo, that face, such exquisite rapture with her beloved Armand, such confused torment when her butterfly inevitably comes skidding to a halt? If you are of my generation, considerably under 30 in 1968, you almost anticipate laughing at the hand-wringing emotionalism of such a film as Camille-, but leaving the theatre after a revival you say it out loud: “Ah, they don’t make love stories the way they used to!”
In fact, however, they still do. What has changed in romantic movies is mainly the style of expressing emotion. Today’s vocabulary is based on playing things cool, and no character on screen is going to behave the way Garbo and Robert Taylor did even if he or she happens to feel the same way.
The great romantic tradition of the movies has always been founded on three basic principles: (1) The love
story includes from the outset the strong possibility that the lovers will pay in the long run a price of great pain for the mutual pleasure they experience in the short run. (2) The lovers as well as the audience grow increasingly aware of this probability as the movie progresses; it intensifies their love experience, and this poignant double vision of life goes ricocheting back and forth from screen to audience, until they meet their fate unhappily and we are emotionally released. (3) Everything is hunky-dory between the lovers; the ultimate pain and separation come about at the hands of a society whose conventional moral strictures they have flouted.
And lest it be thought that these principles apply only to films set in the distant past, we should remember Bonnie and Clyde. The great emotional sweep of Bonnie and Clyde adhered strictly to the romantic tradition: two lovers became so perfectly entwined with each other that they could, in love and agony, tell the entire rest of the world to go to hell un-
til death did them part. By such myths do we construct the reaches of our actual emotional lives.
Now, however, along comes Richard Lester, the director of the stylish Beatles movies, with a distinguished film about the kind of people who have seen Bonnie and Clyde (and would have been deeply influenced by its romanticism) but who live in the morally undefined “real” world of hedonistic late-1960s San Francisco. The film is Petulia, starring the radiant Julie Christie in the title role, and let’s say for the moment, it’s a romantic love story — but with some very definite differences.
What keeps Petulia within the romantic tradition is the fact that its story is rooted in an extra-marital love affair, an intriguing emotionally promising relationship between a young married woman and an older man just about to receive final divorce papers, George C. Scott. But the love affair never really gets going; as Petulia says, the two don’t even spend enough time together “to give each other a cold.” So it remains, right through to the film’s end, a great might-have-been love story which wistfully slides into the past. And what could be more romantic than that?
But Lester’s staccato, thorny little rose bush of a film dallies with several very unromantic “whys.” Why is it, for instance, that none of the interested parties, neither Scott and former wife (Shirley Knight), nor Petulia and her husband (Richard Chamberlain), nor Scott’s uncomfortably married friends (Kathleen Widdoes and Arthur Hill), nor especially Scott and Miss Christie themselves, are capable of spending two consecutive happy moments together?
Scott’s shrug of an explanation is that of a worldly wise cynic: “Bad timing.” Petulia’s answer is that of a would-be romantic. Arriving at Scott’s doorstep, she carries with her a tuba she claims to have stolen from a pawnshop window. “But no burglar alarms went off,” she sighs. “Where will it all end if no burglar alarms go off?” In a permissive society which no
longer outlaws anybody for sexual wilfulness (no burglar alarms) confused believers like Petulia in the romantic drama of love find it very difficult to define what it is they actually feel, and with whom, and when, and why. The Vogue-\sY\ world of Lester’s film is peopled with characters who, apparently, want a good old-fashioned movie-style romance but who at the same time are too cynical to behave as if they believed such a thing could actually exist.
Made in a less articulate way, Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair is nevertheless also interesting for the dry twist it adds to the usual sweet romantic situation. Steve McQueen plays a Boston Establishment millionaire who gets his kicks by masterminding a very ingenious bank robbery. /Along comes the beautiful, intelligent Faye Dunaway as a private insurance company investigator out to solve the crime. Dunaway and McQueen fall into a zingy, expensive love affair, just like in the TV commercials only much, much better. The love affair is so great that McQueen agrees with Miss Dunaway to give himself up to the cops if they’ll make
a deal. But the cops — the ultimate Establishment — say, “No deals!”
And here’s w'here our neat little romance hits an unusual curve. McQueen the outlaw has no choice but to keep on playing his game one step ahead of the cops. Miss Dunaway, however, does have a choice. Romantic heroines are prepared to sacrifice themselves for the men they love (Camille), or with the men they love (Bonnie and Clyde) or in some cases, to the men they love if need be. In any case, they won’t betray them. But Miss Dunaway, the cool, wily, emancipated North American female, opts to stay with the law rather than her man. And, emotionally speaking, she gets her hands slapped for making this choice.
The lonesome hero of Norman Jewison’s film knows by heart a very important fact about romance in an unromantic world: a perfect love affair is a wonderful thing, but a woman who won’t stop playing her own odds is not worth sticking around for. In a flossy extravaganza of a movie romance, this thoughtful and unromantic finale comes as a memorable surprise.
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