Moullet on Minnelli (x2)

Designing Woman
Luc Moullet

One explosive evening, a sports reporter meets a ravishing fashion designer.  Their friendship is established under rather extraordinary circumstances.  Four days later, they get married.  In her luxurious New York apartment, the designer (and not the female model, as we are led to believe by a poor translation, plus a bad pun, that a belies the colossal difference between the respective salaries of the two careers)* receives and entertains dressmakers, dancers and writers while, in the room next door, the journalist plays cards with boxers and managers.  After falling in love at first sight, they discover their differences: it’s the story of a relationship.  Disagreements increase with misunderstandings: she suspects him of infidelity at the very moment when, chased by the corrupt boxing gang he’s fighting in his articles, he’s forced to hide under a false name in a hotel room.  After a certain number of quiproquos worthy of Molière, everything ends well, thanks to the intervention of the virtuous dancer while the scores are being settled.

It’s clear that genres are mixed, but the film’s tone fills us in immediately: it’s a comedy.  A serious comedy, however, because it seems that Vincente Minnelli, an interesting, but uneven auteur, tried to direct the film of his life by describing certain dramatic and paradoxical aspects - hence the recourse to comedy - of American life, that take on an importance at once eternal and universal.

Is this an exaggeration of the range of a film that was made, above all, to entertain?  I don’t believe so because Minnelli expresses himself not by words and theories but rather through extremely subtle brush strokes in the dramatic construction as much as in the arrangement of the lines.  

It isn’t necessary, however, to possess a deep knowledge of American sociology to grasp Minnelli’s intentions, all the more so as the difference between this sociology and our own is slim.  Two milieus are, then, opposed, modeled after reality: that of the intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals - from Greenwich Village and Broadway - and that of the sports fans, regulars at Madison Square Garden; two milieus that are absolutely foreign to one another, inheritors of two opposite civilizations.

Minnelli belongs, moreover, to one of these clans: that of the snobs whose position he takes by exploiting certain very personal considerations.  Both groups have chosen to live by abstracting reality - either intellectual or physical reality - therefore becoming unfit for their jobs in order to be content.  Stupid and defeated boxers, corrupt managers, and vicious gangsters having nothing to envy of artless artists, effeminate dancers, and accomplished gossipers.  Their movements are similar, not by what they are (though let’s not forget the extraordinary gag with the henchman who elegantly wipes up his adversary’s blood), but by their baseness, highlighted by the director’s talent.  The stunning A Song is Born had already established the connection between the mores of gangsters and library rats.

Our two heroes (and the dancer in the final scene - but her case is special!) partially escape from this fallen world because they love each other and because they are originally from opposite worlds.  And the climax explains the film’s structure in a way that I hope you’ll allow me to qualify as brilliant: Lauren Bacall finds happiness because she learns to overcome her fear of physical violence, and she calls for action four times; Gregory Peck is saved from the fight not thanks to the all powerful blows of his moronic bodyguard, but thanks to the ballet routine of the dancer with bizarre movements. 

Carried by such a big subject, Minnelli seems to have resolved the formal questions that previously limited his talent.  He directs his actors better, without, however, attaining perfection in this area.  Lauren Bacall remains the goddess of American cinema, but a better director would have known how to make better use of the possibilities of her skills.  Just like the script, the photography and colors are remarkable.  The cinematographer John Alton, who does a good job with the very short camera movements, isn’t there for nothing.  But what is essential remains the liveliness of the strokes and the economy of means (not on the financial side, the cost being more than a million, but on the dramatic side).  Fifty or so out-of-the-ordinary gags - not to mention the effects from the voice over - make up the film’s force (but also its relative weakness because the ideas of the intellectual Minnelli and the distinguished hedonist Minnelli are inspired by the conventions of comedy rather than by the subject’s internal necessities).  

In any case, this is a miniature masterpiece of finesse at which you can’t not laugh throughout its two hours.   

*The film was released in France as La Femme modèle (The Model Woman).

Originally published in Arts, August 15, 1957.

The Cobweb
by Luc Moullet

Behind the Curtain

Executive Suite - a film entirely consecrated to the narration of a meeting of the board of directors of an important company and an account of the motives of the board members - had a lot of commercial success.  John Houseman tried to do it again with this Cobweb: for over two hours the managing members of a psychiatric house compete for power.  The reason for their struggle?  Will the patterns of the curtains in the boardroom be designed by the doctors or by the patients?  Two generations of psychiatrists confront one another.  This affair is on the verge of destroying the career and threatening the homes and lives of a dozen characters.  This time, the stunning thinness of the subject matter and, especially, the absence of suspense caused the failure with the public.

One might be shocked that the film was directed by Minnelli, classified once and for all among the specialists of musical comedies.  Let’s not be mistaken, Minnelli is just as much an intellectual and The Cobweb, just like an earlier attempt, The Bad and the Beautiful which it strongly resembles, carries the mark of his personality.  Helped by his screenwriter John Paxton, who is interested in psychological and social problems (cf. The Wild One), Minnelli looked to reconnect to the old tradition of realism - inspired by the French novel from the end of the last century, and the Anglo-Saxon novel that followed it.  There is some of William James and Frank Norris in this film.  The patients, because they know their faults, sometimes behave more normally than the sane people, who experience multiple distractions.  If our psychiatrists appear like the mentally ill it’s because no distinctions can exist between human beings: there are neither good nor bad ones; nor crazy ones, nor sane ones.  Everything is relative.  As the hero of the film says, as Minnelli told the French press, we have, in our thoughts, good and evil, which are equally reflected in our actions.  And we are submitted to this destiny that creates, on this cobweb that is spun, the diverse actions of life; in the same way, our private life cannot escape from the influence of our professional life: all the facts of existence are inseparably linked, whether we want it or not.  From this subtle dance of the acts and the characters comes the apparently casual construction.  The famous curtains are always there, whatever happens.

Note Minnelli’s taste for troubled feelings: madness interests him a lot, more particularly, the artist’s madness.  He himself is a filmmaker on the margins: he is very ambitious, however he prefers to shoot entertainment films.  We discover here, in certain moments, a desire for self-justification.

The direction doesn’t keep the promises contained in such a brilliant theme.  Relativism has unfortunate influences on the aesthetic.  Minnelli considers his characters like typical cases, entities, rather than human beings.  The best actors in Hollywood are here.  Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Lillian Gish, Susan Strasberg, John Kerr, Charles Boyer are more or less below their capabilities.  Only Gloria Grahame, because she doesn’t know how to act, because she is always like she is in real life, contrasts with the hamming of certain actors around her.  She walks in a bizarre manner, which makes her sometimes deviate from her path; she takes off her shoes, makes a phone call, frowns with a marvelous naturalness.  The scenes with two actors lack nerve (cf. the break between Widmark and L. Bacall).  These weaknesses are, however, made tolerable by the diversity and multiplicity of what we are shown.  This baroque film leads us to bizarre, messy residences that we didn’t suspect in the New World, to poetic landscapes, natural or recreated in the studio, like the nocturnal river lit by the liveliest colors.  More than Minnelli the philosopher, it’s Minnelli the mannerist, the decorator, who brings to his film a certain positive element: the beauty of insignificant details, a rickety telephone, suddenly revelatory lighting, the beauty of a tracking shot, the beauty of strong and precise framing.  The color, alone, with its yellowish browns, is rather ugly; but such is the house style at Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  

Originally published in Arts, 1955.

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