Who says European films are superior? Only the snobs
Who says European films are superior? Only the snobs
DURING THE PAST decade or so, with the influx to North America of many great European films with off-beat themes and characters, the idea has flourished among certain allegedly sophisticated movie makers and movie viewers that any film dealing with peculiar people and made in the style of a whiz-bang European soufflé is automatically more “artistic” and honest about life than anything Hollywood puts out for “mere entertainment.” And until recently, this contention had considerable validity. Generally speaking. Europeans have always lived in a morally and artistically freer climate than we have, and their films have been alive with diverse qualities of humanity to a degree that has made the typical goody-goody Hollywood product seem like a clear-
cut case of death by mass market suffocation.
Lately, however, this kind of attitude as a rule of thumb to the movies has become a nonsensical nuisance. For, on the one hand, the European masterpieces of the recent past have begun to spawn imitations whose pretensions to controversiality and style have all the vitality of yesterday’s dead fish. The latest such film to hit our screens is The Fox, an effort which was actually shot in Ontario with considerable Canadian-American financial backing, but whose withered roots lie in the European tradition of sexually decadent muck. The Fox is the kind of film which has the gall to suggest that because it does some fancy technical footwork in telling a story of lesbianism, it is somehow intrin-
sically more worthwhile than your average bad Hollywood melodrama.
And on the other hand, the current vogue-ish belief in anything that reeks of the sensational has tended to obscure one relevant fact: Hollywood has always produced films which, in their simple desire to entertain without raising a moral storm, can win a place of respect in the minds of their audiences as well as their hearts if the films are essentially honest within their modest ambitions. There is such a film on view at the moment that is a pleasure to recommend. The Odd Couple.
But to get back to The Fox for a moment. Based on a novelette by D. H. Lawrence, it tells of two women in their late 20s who live in domestic isolation on a farm and raise chickens. One (overplayed to the hilt and beyond by Sandy Dennis) conceals her distaste for sexuality behind a mask of insipid feminine mannerisms; the other (rendered with quiet good will by Anne Heywood) conceals her true feminine sexuality by assuming the role of the man about the house. There is no doubt that the two women have -developed a neurotic dependency upon each other.
Then, one day, Heywood accidentally confronts the fox which has been robbing their chicken coop: she is struck numb by the animal’s absolute masculinity. And the animal becomes a symbol of the young man (Keir Dullea) who later enters the strange menage and destroys it by seducing Heywood into her true role as a vital, sexually responsive woman.
If there is a way of properly transferring Lawrence's serious intentions onto the screen (which I doubt) producer Raymond Stross. scriptwriter Lewis John Carlino and director Mark Rydell certainly haven’t found it. What Lawrence does halfway through his story is focus carefully and in considerable prose narrative on the character played by Heywood. By allowing herself to become a full woman, at the same time she unavoidably plunges herself into a dilemma which she never quite resolves: on the one hand, she yearns for complete independence — but life without a man has come to seem impossible. Yet, while she needs her man, she can’t be happy in submitting herself with the utmost passivity he demands. In his story, Lawrence has come very close to describing the complicated, ambiguous emotional make-up of many emancipated women with a subtle genius that makes the work still pertinent to this day. In the movies, only a few giants (Godard in The Married Woman, Contempt and others, Bergman in Persona, Fellini in La Strada and Juliet of the Spirits, Antonioni in much of his work) have come close to the depth of Lawrence’s insight.
Compared to these giants, the makers of The Fox are as elves at play with distorting mirrors. And commercialism is the name of the game. Heywood's sexual tension, for instance, is exploded into a scene of auto-eroti-
cism (oh so fashionably “adult” since Bergman did it in The Silence) and, of course, the latent lesbianism of the two women is presumed to be the main drift of the story (invented love scene and all) rather than the overtone. Phallic symbolism goes tumbling throughout every frame as if the film were about things rather than people, and the whole blatant mess is fast-cut edited in a complete reversal of the naturalistic, life - fruition - and - death tempo which was the guiding spirit of Lawrence’s original theme and the one element of its technique which might have been effectively simulated on screen. The result of all this is a film which titillates its audience into suspecting they are seeing some really hot stuff, and that is movie-making by sleight-of-hand, not honest art.
The art of the film version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple lies in the fact that, as directed straightforwardly by Gene Saks, nothing is allowed to interfere with the zingy wit of Simon’s dialogue and situations. Here too we have an unusual domestic encounter, one which might be played for kinkiness (some critics have speculated about its being Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in comic drag) but which comes off best when taken simply as a hilarious game of verbal ping-pong.
Two divorced men (the brilliantly funny Walter Matthau and the reliably funny Jack Lemmon) decide to share an apartment for convenience. What they discover, in language which is the best of New York humor and all-American boisterousness, is that it’s as hard for them to live together as it was with their former wives, and for pretty much the same reasons — one is a compulsive slob, the other a neatness bug; one likes to watch sports on TV. the other likes to talk, etc., etc.
At first, all this seems frou-frou especially designed to please the crowd which goes for cheesecake at Lindy’s. But listen carefully to Simon’s dialogue in the midst of your laughter, and similarly watch the bits of business he has devised for the Matthau-Lemmon domestic circus, and you will discover that Simon’s flights of inventiveness are substantially based on some shrewd observation of personality, some fearless pinpricking of typical myths beloved by delusion-prone domestic America, and ultimately, on a rather tender and intimately knowledgeable sense of how people live and learn from each other in love and conflict.
In other words, this apparently seamless comedy manages to work so beautifully because an honest mind did a lot of subtle hard work to make an illusory situation seem like real life. That's what art is all about, and when the process is operating skilfully, it can make a Hollywood comedy of manners more truly insightful into the human condition than all but the very best of serious drama, and certainly better than a grotesque piece of tripe like The Fox.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.