Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More Joan: Memoirs, Early Days and an Early Film

If there is one standard acting-analytical vacuity that the Siren would like to see permanently retired, it is the old "well, she always played herself." Read even a modest number of Hollywood books and you will discover that the actor who actually played anything close to his/her actual personality was rare indeed. (Carole Lombard comes to mind, but of course her earthy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary could not be reproduced on screen.) Archetypal tough guy Humphrey Bogart came from a well-heeled Manhattan background. Bette Davis often played self-sacrificing heroines and Davis was anything but that. Henry Fonda played warm, compassionate roles and we have the testimony of his children that in life he was quite closed-off and difficult to know. The Siren could go on with this parlor game for quite some time, but let's bring it round to Joan Fontaine; she wasn't much like the timid second wife in Rebecca or the terrified bride in Suspicion.

Read Fontaine's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and what you get comes close to something said by her sister, who said "Joan is very bright and sharp and can be cutting." The woman who published the book in 1978 seems witty, confident, possessed of a wide range of interests and, perhaps, not nearly as fascinated by her Hollywood past or even by acting as she once was. It must be admitted that this isn't the best star memoir the Siren has read, nor is it even one of the best. There is something rather perfunctory about it, a sense of oh-gosh-I-guess-they-want-to-hear-about-this-now. Social life is covered in more detail than most of the movies, although this may have little to do with Fontaine. Like most star memoirs it was ghost-written and it's axiomatic in the publishing industry that people want gossip from Hollywood books, not moviemaking analysis. The Siren has to believe that Fontaine would have preferred to write more about Letter from an Unknown Woman (which gets one--one!--brief graph) and less about her ghastly stepfather and his pawings or about her celebrated feud with her sister.

About that feud--the Siren wrote once before about the difficulty of peering into family matters, and she reiterates that here. The Siren, who has enormous admiration for Olivia de Havilland as well as her sister, does not presume to understand what seems to be quite genuine bad blood between the two. One explanation Joan offers in her book is strikingly simple, however. They got along badly because they were raised to do so. The Siren spends a good part of her day trying to patch up sibling rivalry; Joan and Olivia's mother, a frustrated actress herself, spent her days fanning it. She raised the two in perpetual competition with one another, and the habit stuck. No matter what is behind the rift, it's a shame to think that these two women, with so few people alive who remember the years and the people they do, are still cool toward one another. The Siren has this bright little fantasy that they actually call each other regularly and keep the "feud" alive in the press for the sake of appearances--it's part of their legend, after all, darlings.

Anway, the book has plenty of examples of Joan's lively sense of humor. One instance got her in considerable hot water avec Olivia, when a reporter called to ask Joan's opinion of Olivia's new husband Marcus Goodrich. Joan replied, "All I know about him is that he has had four wives and has written one book. Too bad it isn't the other way around." The Siren found this quite funny. Olivia, predictably, did not. Here's Joan's summary of filming A Damsel in Distress: "I tripped over fences and stepping stones to the tune of 'Things Are Looking Up.' George and Ira Gershwin also wrote the haunting 'Foggy Day in London Town' for our film. I also fell on my face."

She fell in love with George Stevens during the filming of Gunga Din, but nothing came of it, nor did she learn much about acting from him. Speaking of multiple-take directors--Fontaine says Stevens' basic direction was "I don't know what's wrong. Let's shoot it again." Stevens would sometimes halt filming cold to go off and pace or stare into the middle distance. Joan reports that "it was Carole Lombard who solved the mystery of George's brown studies. 'You know what that s.o.b. is thinking about when he's in one of his trances? NOT A FUCKING THING.'"

Reportedly Joan's first husband, Brian Aherne, quipped that the book should have been called "No Shred of Truth." But the ex-husbands and lovers don't come off all that horribly, though none of them emerge with much credit either. Take Conrad Nagel, for example. Surely no man wants to think that when he is dead and buried, a woman whom he deflowered will contribute to keeping his memory alive by saying the whole thing reminded her "of when I had to stand up in class as a child and be vaccinated."
Aherne, for his part, went off to knock back a few with director Jean Negulesco the night before he was to marry Joan, then had Jean call for him to say he was too afraid to go through with the marriage. Joan told Jean that she'd be at the church the next day and wasn't about to call off anything, no matter what Brian did subsequently. Brian showed the next day, they got married and apparently this didn't come up later on in their marriage. The Siren isn't sure whether it's this part of the book that upset Aherne, or the part where he spent much of their wedding night dancing around their hotel room in his dressing gown. The Siren suspects most men outside of a professional corps de ballet do not want the word "pirouetting" to show up anywhere near a description of them, not to mention the word "tassels."

Irrelevant though this next bit is, Siren can't abandon this phase of Joan's life without a favorite anecdote, told by Joan and quoted in Boze Hadleigh's Hollywood and Whine:
[During] a trip under the aegis of a British War Relief campaign [in World War II] we were at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. It happened to be the anniversary of a college sorority and all the girls celebrated by coming to meet the handsome actor. Microphones were thrust in front of us. Brian [Aherne] was to deliver a message to the RAF pilots who would be listening to a shortwave rebroadcast. Did have to anything in particular to say to these brave airmen?

Brian said yes indeed, he did. 'Chaps, keep your peckers up!' Silence...the girls fled in embarrassment. The president minister blanched. Only when I got my English husband back to our hotel did I inform him that in America 'pecker' did not mean 'chin.'

Yesterday on the TCM Birthday tribute the Siren caught one early Joan movie, Blond Cheat. In her autobiography Joan showed her opinion of this one pretty clearly by failing to mention its existence. The Siren can't say she disagrees. Joan is exquisitely pretty in the movie--more slender than other stars of the day, perfect bone structure, skin so dewy it seems to come with its own inner key light. Unfortunately this is part of the problem. One characteristic of an inexperienced but beautiful actress is that she will often play to her loveliness. By that, the Siren means that every move will show the young lady is excruciatingly conscious of how she looks. (Amy Irving was frequently guilty of this early in her career, and Scarlett Johansson still is.) You can see that she feels the lipstick on her lips, the mascara on the lashes. She knows how beautiful she is, but she doesn't own that beauty yet. She is trying it on in front of the camera--pirouetting, if you will. Every aspect of the character becomes subordinate to this physical effect. On top of this, Joan is saddled with one of those lead-balloon imitation screwball scripts--where the leading man declares "whatever it is, I'm not going to fall for it," and then falls on his face.

The most fascinating part of this movie was the date on it--1938. One year removed from respectable performances in Gunga Din and The Women, and just two years from Rebecca, one of the best performances Joan ever gave. Olivia was right, Joan was bright and sharp indeed.

Postscript: Do check out this birthday post for Joan at JJ's place, As Little as Possible. It includes a fab clip of Joan, wearing Pucci or something close, and stumping the panel on What's My Line.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Happy Birthday to Joan Fontaine

Today, Oct. 22, Joan Fontaine turns 90 years old. And this week the Siren intends to do her doggonedest to post as much as possible, and devote each post to Joan. There are precious few stars from the glory days of Hollywood who are still with us, and none are dearer to the Siren than Ms Fontaine. Can you guess why?

She was a delicate clinging vine in Gunga Din, one of the greatest of all 1930s action films. She was a teary-eyed, but still sympathetic "sheep" in The Women. She was Fred Astaire's first post-Ginger partner, in A Damsel in Distress. She was Hitchcock's first Hollywood blonde as the terrorized, given-name-less second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca, the role Ms Fontaine believes most likely to keep her name alive with the public. She won an Oscar with her second film for Hitchcock, Suspicion, beating a roster that included her own sister, Olivia de Havilland. She was nominated for another Oscar for The Constant Nymph. She was the title heroine in Jane Eyre, opposite Orson Welles in one of his few outings as a romantic lead.

Any of this would merit a good long post from any classic movie lover, but for the Siren one reason towers above all. Joan Fontaine didn't merely give her finest performance in Letter from an Unknown Woman, which the Siren firmly believes is the greatest woman's picture of all time. Ms Fontaine also selected the Stefan Zweig story, developed the project with her then-husband William Dozier and was instrumental in hiring the great Max Ophuls to direct.

It just doesn't get much more impressive than that. If there were any justice in the world, they'd be altering the lights on the Empire State Building today for Ms Fontaine. As it is, maybe she is catching up with some of her lesser-known films on Turner Classic Movies today. As of now, the Siren plans to spend the week going through Ms Fontaine's career more or less chronologically, winding up with some thoughts on Letter. If you have the time or can get to your Tivo, do try to catch some of TCM's offerings. The Siren saw Until They Sail a while back, and though Ms Fontaine is hard on it in her memoirs, she is pretty good in it. Unfortunately the Siren won't be able to see Born to Be Bad, but Nicholas Ray directed it and if anyone catches it please let us know what you think. Also, if anyone else posts birthday tributes, drop the Siren a line via email or comments and she will link it up.

The Siren treasures her one tiny personal connection to Ms Fontaine. According to IMDB, she now lives in Carmel, California, but in the early 1990s she still maintained at least a part-time residence in New York City. In those days the Siren's roommate, Bill, managed a chic, high-end costume jewelry boutique on the Upper East Side. This store specialized in pieces that echoed real jewels sold in the legendary stores a few blocks away on Fifth Avenue. The ladies who shopped there were the sort who could throw on a little cubic zirconia and have everyone assume it was the real deal--with none of the insurance risk from taking the genuine sparklers out of the vault. Bill waited on a number of breathtakingly famous women, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Imelda Marcos. (Imelda didn't actually speak to him, communicating instead through her companion, a Mrs. Batista--prompting the Siren to wonder forever afterward if New York is home to some sort of Ex-Dictators' Wives Club.)

Anyway, Bill's favorite client was Joan Fontaine. She came in several times a year, still beautiful, always dressed in perfect taste, always warm and courteous and always picking out his favorite pieces. The Siren yearned to dash uptown from her office job and catch a glimpse of Joan, but alas, the rent had to be paid, and the Siren's boss at the time had this dreary insistence on one's bodily presence throughout the working day. (And he never went to the movies. Boy, was the Siren glad when that gig ended.) Every time Bill came home and mentioned Ms Fontaine had been in the store the Siren almost chewed her arm off with jealousy. Finally she made him promise that the next time the lady dropped by, he would at least mention his worshipful roommate.

So some time later, in comes Joan, glamourous as ever. Bill waited until he was almost done wrapping her purchases, then finally remarked, "You know, Miss Fontaine, my roommate is a big admirer of yours." A polite murmur of "how nice" or something from Ms Fontaine. He ventured further. "And she asked me to tell you that her favorite movie of yours is Letter from an Unknown Woman."

At that, Bill said Ms Fontaine lifted her head and gave him the most dazzling smile he had ever seen from her.

"Is it really?" she said. "Mine too."

Just Concentrate on the Beard

The Siren had sworn off this sport for a while, but some things are too good to pass up and besides, Lance started it. TCM is showing The Life of Emile Zola tonight.

MS Encarta on Zola: "He had come to be known as a champion of the innocent, an upholder of justice, and a defender of the downtrodden. As novelist Anatole France declared in his eulogy, Zola had become 'the conscience of mankind.'"

Libertas says: "Whatever you may think of Zola’s politics, don’t let it diminish your enjoyment of Muni’s masterful performance in a perfectly realized film."

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Memoriam: Deborah Kerr, 1921--2007

She was living in London at the English Speaking Union in Charles Street, Mayfair. It was a fine morning and she walked over to see me in Chester Square. She was bare-headed, and I remember her hair shining in the sun like burnished copper...We looked at the bulky script [for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp] together and I watched the subtle transformations that passed over her face as I made suggestions about the script. Again I felt that mysterious affinity, as between an artist and his model, which is one of the most inexplicable of the sensual sensations...

We all depended upon one another, we all learnt from one another. I was not the only director. There were four directors. I learnt from Anton what an artist is. I learnt from Roger what a man is. I learnt from Deborah what love is.
--Michael Powell, A Life in Movies

Deborah Kerr died Tuesday, and Michael Powell has been dead for many years. They fell in love while making Colonel Blimp. Soon after Kerr took up a contract with MGM, and Powell told her if she went to Hollywood it would be without him. He married someone else, and eventually she married too. "The camera always seems to find an innate gentility in me," Kerr laughed. But in Colonel Blimp, and a few years later in Black Narcissus, Michael Powell's camera found love and longing in that beautiful face, as he did in life.

The most romantic story the Siren knows concerns Powell and Kerr. They separated, but he never forgot. They shared a birthday, September 30. Each year on that date, right up to the year before his death, he sent her a bouquet of flowers with the simplest of notes: "Happy Birthday, Darling."

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On the Manliness of Montgomery Clift

This post is part of the Montgomery Clift Blogathon, organized by Nathaniel R who writes the fine film blog The Film Experience. On this, what would have been Clift's 87th birthday, please follow the link to Nathaniel's place and read the other entries inspired by this great actor.

The true originator of the rebellious twentieth-century antihero was Montgomery Clift...not Marlon Brando or James Dean...the restrained performer with the inner tension and those ancient, melancholy eyes...his presence so unobtrusively strong that it lingered even when he was off-camera.
--Marcello Mastroianni, quoted in Movie Talk

Mastroianni perfectly summarizes the Siren's feelings about Montgomery Clift. He was a supremely talented and dedicated actor. Like many others in the American film pantheon, the sad, sordid facts of his alcoholism and unhappy life tend to dominate discussions of him, but in Clift's case there is another twist: He was gay, primarily attracted to men despite strong and lasting attachments to women such as Elizabeth Taylor and Libby Holman. Even in our more enlightened times, that colors discussion of Clift in ways that usually work to his detriment. The Siren would like to see that change.

Even before Clift's personal life was widely publicized or discussed there was a certain tone to colleagues' talk of him. He was fragile, "the most sensitive man I ever knew. If somebody kicked a dog a mile away he'd feel it," said Edward Dmytryk, director of the ill-fated Raintree County. "My arm still aches from trying to teach Montgomery Clift to throw a punch," said Howard Hawks, thirty years after making Red River. "He's a little queer, isn't he?" said John Wayne to his secretary after meeting Clift. Wayne's macho clique on the set of Red River included Web Overlander, who showed why he was the makeup man and not in casting when he snorted, "Clift couldn't take a piss by himself. Hawks must be an idiot if he thinks that s.o.b. can act." You still can go into corners of the Internet and find people describing Clift as effete or androgynous, such as this introduction to From Here to Eternity that quotes a biographer to the effect that Clift "punched like a girl." This sort of thing never fails to draw a double take from the Siren. From the second she first saw Clift in Red River, he was all man to her.

It comes down, of course, to how you define masculinity. If you see it as behavioral, rooted in camaraderie with other men and cemented with activities like poker playing, hunting, fighting or, at its most extreme, war, then the refined Clift, with his upper-class background and intellectual bent, doesn't rate. If it's being able to hold one's liquor, well, Clift was a famously sloppy drunk. If machismo depends on chasing legions of women, Clift wouldn't have qualified even had his inclinations been in that direction. All his life, sexual partners came to him, not the other way around--at first because of his beauty, later because of his stardom, still later because of that ineffable air of psychic trauma that made people yearn to soothe the wounds.

If the ideal of masculinity is defined instead as strength that radiates from the inside out, then you get closer to the Siren's take on that elusive quality, and you see why Clift had it, and how.

What? inner strength? from Clift, the man whom Marilyn Monroe supposedly called "the only person I know who's in worse shape than I am"?

You bet. In his art, both physically and mentally, there were none stronger than Montgomery Clift. Perhaps that was why Monty had so little left over to see him through his personal life.

Begin with Red River, Clift's first film (although not the first to be released). Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy says that Clift tried at first to play poker and back-slap with Wayne's set, even going on a bear hunt at one point, but eventually decided he didn't want to join in any reindeer games. "The machismo thing repelled me because it seemed so forced and unnecessary," he said later. Instead Clift worked to put what he had learned on screen. He'd spent three weeks absorbing the ways of a cowboy--how to saddle up, how to walk, shoot, rope and how to measure his words like a man who uses action far more than talk. In the finished movie Clift sits on his horse with easy grace, more than equalling Wayne, who notoriously hated horses anyway.

Hawks may have been unable to resist a joke at Clift's expense, but he was still so impressed with the actor's dedication that he gave Clift a treasured keepsake, a cowboy hat the director got from Gary Cooper. Clift wears it in the film. "He worked--he really worked hard," said Hawks. The physical disparity between the two leads (Wayne was a strapping six-foot-four, Clift a slender five-foot-ten) is what could have undone the final fight, but Hawks has Matthew match Dunson the way he has throughout the picture, through patience, fortitude and a bit of guile.

McCarthy says Wayne eventually gained some respect for Clift, but as far as the Siren can tell, not all that much. "They wanted to give that poor kid an Academy Award so bad that they simply forgot about me," he pouted, after Clift was nominated for his beautifully nuanced portrait of a soldier in The Search. Other costars were less grudging.

Burt Lancaster, a macho actor if ever there was one, had a good idea of Clift's talent, and Lancaster was consequently a bundle of nerves when filming a scene in From Here to Eternity:

The only time I was ever really afraid as an actor was that first scene with Clift. It was my scene, understand: I was the sergeant. I gave the orders, he was just a private under me. Well, when we started, I couldn't stop my knees from shaking. I thought they might have to stop because my trembling would show. I was afraid he was going to blow me right off the screen. [from Movie Talk]

In the end Lancaster held his own in the scene, rising to the occasion, and Lancaster's simmering sex appeal and strength are vital to the movie. But for the Siren, the enduring image is of Clift blowing "Taps," not a hint of swagger about him, but unbowed all the same.

William Goldman has written that the choices of many stars are heavily dependent on how they want to be perceived by the audience. Certain bits of business may be rejected if they make the character, and by extension the actor, seem like a wuss. Clift didn't care. He did what was right for the character. If that meant playing his brief scene in Judgment at Nuremberg like an abused child, so be it. At that point in his career Clift was having trouble memorizing lines, but when director Stanley Kramer permitted him to improvise his dialogue Monty was able to show the man's simple mind and pathetic defensiveness in harrowing detail. It is hard to conceive of many other 1961 matinee idols, even a faded one like Clift, who would have been willing to enact that character in all his heartbreaking victimhood, a man who will never be able to recover the manhood stolen from him by the Nazis.

Clift was not a wordy actor. For him, dialogue was one piece of the puzzle, and depending on the character it might not be a very important piece. His performances begin with body and movement, which is why it is so hard to watch Clift in Raintree County. In that film the pain from his car accident was fresh and so intense Clift couldn't seem to work around it. He's like a pianist playing a sonata with one hand. Drugs and alcohol, always far too prominent for Clift, became the focus of his daily existence as he fought against physical agony for the rest of his life.

But after Raintree County you can see Clift taking what he had left with his body and still using it, as stiffness in The Misfits suggests the old injuries of a longtime cowboy. Clift biographer Patricia Bosworth describes how in preparing for that role Clift got cut on the nose by the horn of a brahma bull. During the actual filming Clift's hands were badly cut during a scene of roping a mare, and a rearing horse squashed him against a fence so hard his shirt was ripped apart--which take director John Huston kept in the movie. Little more than a year later, on the disastrous shoot of Freud, Clift hurt his hands again during a scene where Freud dreams of holding onto a rope that is pulling him toward his mother. Clift kept his mouth shut through take after take. Huston saw the injuries on Clift's hands and reacted with typical sang-froid: "Did I do that to you? Son of a bitch."

It's often observed that the post-war Method actors redefined masculinity. It is more precise to say that Montgomery Clift (who was not entirely a Method actor anyway) expanded the definition. Forever afterward, a man on screen would seem half-formed if the actor could not suggest some sort of inner life, no matter how much derring-do was shown. And exposing that inner life takes nerve, nerve that Clift had in abundance. Rosalind Russell said "acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly." Showing yourself naked doesn't sound so bad--but the Siren wouldn't do it. You probably wouldn't. John Wayne wouldn't have either. Montgomery Clift did, in every role he ever played.

And if that isn't manly, the Siren would like to know what is.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Bitter Taste of Vichy

The Siren has seen only a handful of movies since posting about Jezebel, and two, by pure coincidence, were connected to Vichy France. One was Le Corbeau, Henri-Georges Clouzot's film about the effect of a poison-pen writer. Made during the occupation for the German-controlled Continental Films, it pinpoints mob psychology and collaboration so effectively that it managed to unite right and left in France by offending the hell out of both groups. The other was Un amour à taire (A Love to Hide), a telefilm made for France 2 in 2005, that shows the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis. Clouzot's movie, itself made under circumstances of collaboration and without a single scene of Nazi atrocity, makes far more telling points about the era, but that isn't surprising. The comparison between the two films is somewhat unfair and the Siren admits this right off the bat. It's like watching CSI: New York and sitting down to compare it with The Naked City. Taken together, though, the Siren does think Le Corbeau and Un amour à taire highlight the problems she has with certain fictionalized Holocaust movies.

Le Corbeau would easily have made the Siren's Top 25 Foreign Films had she seen it in time. Set in "the present," it shows a small French town convulsed by a series of poison-pen letters, many of them directed at the place's popular young gynecologist (Pierre Fresnay). On this simple framework Clouzot and his co-screenwriter Louis Chavance build that rare and precious cinema specimen, a genuinely subversive film. Clouzot gives the audience clue upon clue about the identity of the letter writer, who signs the missives "Le Corbeau" (The Raven), and the movie forces viewers to identify with the suspicious locals and make the same mistakes they make. At one point, a key character theorizes to the town doctor that the Raven has a physical deformity. In walks another character, and for the first time you see her pronounced limp. An obvious visual joke, but at the same time Clouzot has guaranteed that neither the doctor nor the audience will ever view the disabled woman in the same way.

The doctor's practice dries up, as previously fawning townsfolk suddenly discover they aren't so sick after all. Wonderfully typical is the local seamstress, whose apologetic tone turns to petulant anger when the doctor refuses to pretend he understands her decision not to come to him. How dare the doctor make her feel bad about her cowardice? She is just the first of a series of aggressive innocents.

Clouzot underlines his points with several recurring motifs. Several times the letters float down from the sky, like bombs, but they are seized eagerly, not avoided. The doctor accidentally drops a particularly incriminating letter into a courtyard and runs to retrieve it. The wide-eyed child who denies having found the letter devours it line by line as soon as the doctor is safely out of sight. As befits a movie about mob psychology, the crowd scenes are particularly memorable. Children burst from a schoolyard, a funeral cortege turns into an ugly rally against a suspect. Eventually, as the consequences of the letters grow more dire and the town's frenzy grows, the final group of suspects are herded into a schoolroom and forced to take dictation (an extremely French form of writing practice that the Siren herself experienced in high school French classes). Dark echos of other roundups occurring when the film was released in 1943 compete with the nasty but undeniable humor of adult "students" bending head over paper and carefully writing out, "Slut! Whore! What about your abortion?"

No such morbid humor occurs in the painfully well-intentioned Un amour à taire, shown on the US version of TV5 recently with a capricious set of subtitles (now you see them, now you don't). The Siren doesn't question the motives of anyone with the spiritual fortitude to tackle this godawful subject matter. The fate of gay men under the Nazi regime hasn't been much dramatized, aside from the groundbreaking play Bent, which the Siren read some years back (she hasn't seen the movie). Somewhere there may be a film that does justice to this part of history. Un amour isn't it, though.

In occupied Paris two gay men, Jean and Philippe (Jérémie Renier and Bruno Todeschini) are busy concealing their affair and trying to stay clear of the Nazis. The childhood friend of Jean, Sarah (Louise Monot), is arrested with her family; as Jews they are all scheduled for deportation. Sarah manages to break free, and Jean and Philippe help her hide. But the safety of all three is jeopardized by Jacques (Nicolas Gob), Jean's brother, who loves Sarah and hatches an underhanded scheme to get her. Eventually Jean is arrested and sent to a concentration camp, and the movie includes a long sequence showing the horrors endured by the gay prisoners in the camp.

At this point, the imperative to remember the Holocaust, always, seems in no danger of being violated by Hollywood, as the crimes of the Third Reich are regularly filmed in one form or another. It is probably no coincidence that most of the fictional movies the Siren considers artistically accomplished--from Enemies to the precise reenactment of The Wannsee Conference--avoid actual depiction of the camps. The effort to dramatize what took place in Auschwitz and its ghastly siblings is always in danger of devolving into melodrama. Melodrama has a fine cinematic heritage but this subject, of all subjects, does not need it. In fact, the stark facts of the Holocaust scream at you to avoid melodrama at all costs. Melodrama, however, is what Un amour serves up, with Nazis interrogating Jean in a manner that owes more to Hitler's Children than Shoah. When Jean befriends a young gay man in the camp, you cringe for what lies ahead, knowing that the companion will die, and die horribly. But this victim's brief appearance in the movie cannot adequately move the audience. He does not have enough presence or life to be more than a way station to Jean's own depressing fate. And if a filmmaker cannot make this death more than that, then the Siren would rather he not show it at all. The death agonies of this human being--just one, mind you, among millions--should wrench an audience to its soul.

Instead of provoking thoughts about what savagery lurks under any civilized surface, or the huge, echoing "Why?" behind the millions of deaths, movies like Sophie's Choice or (god help us) Life Is Beautiful cater to our desire to tease some sort of meaning out of the carnage. It isn't just millions dying a senseless, horrific death under circumstances you weep even to contemplate--it's also a plot device to bring a writer to maturity, to enshrine a father's love for his dewy-eyed child.

Worse, the camp scenes themselves, as intensely as they make the audience feel, play to its smugness. I'm not a Nazi, you think, as you look at the ghastly violence on the screen. I'm too civilized for this. Never again! Can anyone honestly say we have earned that sense of superiority? Surely the Siren doesn't have to go through the sad catalogue of further crimes against humanity committed since World War II. She often thinks of writer David Rieff's bitter remark, "'Never again' might best be defined as 'Never again will Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s.'"

A movie like Un amour invites you to identify with the courageous gay men and the strong, supportive Sarah, not the sniveling, two-faced brother. Le Corbeau tells you, in no uncertain terms, not to lie to yourself. For every Jean Moulin and Gilbert Renault, there were thousands in France who kept their heads down and tried not to make waves. When it was all over, they took out the pent-up frustration on some who were genuinely monstrous, as well as others who made convenient targets but may have been far less guilty, such as the women who had affairs with Nazi soldiers. While they were marched through towns with heads shaved, others like Maurice Papon managed to continue their lives with tidy, Vichy-free biographies. In this, too, Le Corbeau is eerily prescient, as a young woman is carried away screaming in a van, even as the guilty party prepares his final letter.

Postscript: This piece is now cross-posted at Newcritics. Of the things she read while preparing this post, the Siren is indebted to this piece about Le Corbeau at Raging Bull and this one at Jigsaw Lounge.