Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Scarlet Empress

What can you say about a film set in the 1700s that concludes with the triumphant strains of the 1812 Overture? The Scarlet Empress may not care much for historical accuracy, but it sure knows what works. Josef von Sternberg’s penultimate—and greatest—pairing with Marlene Dietrich is, among other things, hilarious, decadent, ravishing, and one of the great clothes-horse epics to boot. This broad telling of Catherine the Great’s rise to power is overstuffed with style to the point of delirium (it almost seems like Sternberg assigned someone to follow the camera around and hang a chandelier over every shot). The visuals are so dense that they almost overwhelm, but that’s also what makes them so incredible—an abundance of artifice so vivid it is more real and undeniable than your own hand in front of your face. Forget wispy dream worlds: Sternberg is after sheer material depth. You couldn’t walk five steps in this film without tripping over a drape or statue or courtier. The force and beauty of Sternberg’s work is best understood when you see Marlene Dietrich in close-up through a veil, reduced to innumerable squares as if in a pointillist masterpiece—abstract realism, you could call it. But whatever it is, it works.

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