In 1933, right off the heels of Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo had the power to do just about anything she wanted in Hollywood. So she decided to take on the infamous Swedish queen Christina, lover of the arts and lover to her female servants. And though Robert Mamoulian’s MGM retelling isn’t historically faithful (ie. she isn’t an outright lesbian), its spirit isn’t very far off. Its peculiarities help make it one of the most exhilarating entertainments to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Greta Garbo remains the most amazing creature to ever be captured on film: what happens between her face and the camera is inexplicable alchemy. But in Queen Christina one also sees a great artist at work. She plays a utopian philosopher-queen, using her very Swedish thoughts as an escape; an imperial war commander; a lover of literature, an aesthete taking amusement in Molière and Calderón; a Romantic muse and tragic figure; a comedienne unafraid to make a fool of herself; and, most tantalizingly of all, a man (a “bachelor”, as she puts it.) In the famous tavern scenes where Christina disguises herself as a Swedish man and drinks with the boys as if she were one of them, discusses life with them and then proceeds to sleep with “another man” (a Spaniard) in the same bed, the movie is vibrantly, tangibly subversive. (It would have been impossible to make in the years that followed, when censorship became harsher.) Garbo, a physically imposing Swede, carries herself with a masculine swagger in large portions of the film, not just when in disguise: she exudes an authority that defies genre. And whenever she dissolves into a woman again, the effect is deliriously erotic: her femininity is equally in charge. (There is a great post-coital scene where she memorizes the room where she made love, taking in the physicality of every object.) But these distinctions become altogether meaningless: no one has so blurred the lines between “masculine” and “feminine” as Garbo does here, in all her androgynous greatness. She is in a state of flux, like a deity so bored with human trappings that she cannot wait to move on to the next thing. (She won’t weep much for her lover, either.) Garbo’s Christina is escaping the world and herself.
Like Garbo, the movie is many things—a historical picture, a comedy, a romance, a tragedy—and none of them. The charmingly literate screenplay is full of surprises and high spirits; so is Mamoulian’s direction, decidedly inspired. There isn’t a dull moment to be found in this winning film, both ahead of its time and very much a product of it.
Dir. Robert Mamoulian / 1933 / US
Dir. Martin Scorsese / US / 2016
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD:
For about an hour and a half, the film looks like a masterpiece and often feels like a masterpiece. The trailers made it seem like Scorsese was channeling Kurosawa, but the early images of boggy fog-shrouded Japan have a much closer kinship to the greatest Japanese film poet of all, Kenji Mizoguchi, and his masterpiece, Ugetsu. And now Scorserse, driven by a love of the source material and a fascination with the subject, uses Japan to expand his idea of Christianity. The early scenes are Scorsese’s best work in exactly 40 years. They contain at least three great movies at once, none overshadowing the other. There is the spread of Christian piety among the Japanese peasants, which is the closest thing to revolutionary fervor these people have ever known. There is the folly of the Jesuit padres, who denounce the silence of God in a land that knows no real silence of its own; that is in fact bursting with life, with Prieto’s cinematography suggesting a kind of pantheistic elemental force enveloping these strangers. And in the great, furtive sequences in the caves, the villages, and the hideouts Scorsese evokes what primitive Christianity must have looked like in the first two or three centuries after Christ, when it was still a religion of rebellion. The Jesuits understood the original power of pre-Roman Christianity and sought to rekindle it, and Silence recreates this state of ecstatic Christendom, its aura of holiness. (What could be more revolutionary in Hollywood?)
But this great expansive picture becomes stunted in the movie’s second half. The film begins to look inwardly, meaning we get too close a look at Andrew Garfield’s face, his conscience and tortured soul in a string of unimaginative claustrophobic sequences that go on for too long and often feel dead. And so the limitless possibilities of the first half are reduced to theological abstractions (platonic God vs. nature), debates on what does or doesn’t grow in Japan and the Christian take on suffering. The problem isn’t just that what is said isn’t very interesting, but that it robs the film of revelations that should and could have happened organically. The movie becomes so lucid about its ideas that it kills them. There’s little mystery left to the film when it approaches the tortured final sequences with Liam Neeson’s character and God finally decides to speak (He should’ve stayed silent; there’s too much voiceover as it is.) What the movie gains in conceptual clarity, it loses in stature. The Japanese Ugetsu didn’t just expose the link between nature and spirituality: it went further by showing that the world of the senses is haunted. The idea that the Jesuits in Silence find God by denying Him—that is, by renouncing the martyrdom at the core of Christianity—is extraordinarily powerful and suggestive, but it has only a conceptual effect. The revelation is lacking in spirit.
Even with these flaws, Silence is in another league from virtually anything that came out last year, and in a different universe than the La La Lands of this world. It’s masterful in a number of ways. (Adam Driver does fascinating work as one of the Jesuits; Issei Ogata is great once more. And Rodrigo Prieto outdoes himself as a cinematographer.) Its fervor and ambition are exciting and genuine, and these are qualities that have been nearing extinction for a while now. As for Scorsese, this is his most epic work to date. Only Taxi Driver stands taller overall.
Baby Doll: Excuse me, Mr. Vacarro, but I wouldn’t dream of eatin’ a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth.
Silva Vacarro: You’ve got many refinements.
Baby Doll: Thank you.
Elia Kazan’s hilarious erotic farce about two men (played by Karl Malden and Eli Wallach) squabbling over cotton in Mississippi. Baby Doll (Carroll Baker), Malden’s virginal 19-year-old wife, is at the center of their fight. She hasn’t agreed to consummate the marriage, so she sleeps by herself in her crib. Wallach’s vengeance involves bringing her under his manly spell. The comedy in Tennessee Williams’ screenplay is that Baby Doll is only dubiously innocent. Baby Doll is no good at long division, but she’s great at fighting off the heat with Coca-Cola and sucking her thumb. She giggles for the entire duration of the movie, stuck in a state of perpetual flirtatiousness: the sexually charged pent-up atmosphere feels like Kazan’s version of hell. But this hell, shot in all its sunny glory by Boris Kaufman, is very inviting. The scenes between Baker and Wallach are among the funniest I’ve seen—they play like some perverse deflowering. (Their courting climaxes with a game of hide and seek.) For the two men, Baby Doll is just a test of their virility, but she’s playing a game of her own. They provide her with entertainment. Carroll Baker is amazing in the title role: radiant, wicked and unaware of the camera. This movie has a quintessentially American sense of irony: the very earth seems to be laughing at the characters, down to the extras who mercilessly (and openly) mock Malden from beginning to end. It’s a riot.
Dir. Elia Kazan / 1956 / United States
A cerebral take on what extraterrestrial contact may look like. Director Denis Villeneuve chooses an intimate approach, leaving the usual mayhem and human stupidity that characterizes end-of-the-world scenarios in the background. Amy Adams is our eyes and ears into it all, and she’s rarely been better—her performance has no preconceptions. She plays a linguist recruited to translate the aliens in their magnificent egg-shaped monoliths. Jeremy Renner plays the language-wary mathematician. These aliens (“heptapods”) are the cinematic antithesis of the Xenomorph: they bring about linguistic rapture and a god’s understanding of (non-sequential) Time. They are an idealist’s aliens. The movie is so clever that you almost overlook its essentially religious narrative. It sets up what seems like an insurmountable spiritual crisis and goes from bleakness to hope to ecstasy, culminating in a kind of reverse cosmic resurrection, but it’s constructed in a way that feels new, and there’s blissfully very little of the “love is the universal tissue that hides behind every proton” nonsense of other recent science fiction. This one is stimulating all the way through, and each close encounter is surprising on its own.