Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Devil is a Woman

“To reality one should prefer the illusion of reality.” So said Josef von Sternberg, whose films bear the proof of this philosophy in their carefully sculpted worlds, typically crafted entirely in studio settings where Sternberg was free to indulge the exacting whims of his tyrannical imagination. The Devil is a Woman, his final collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, is no different. Set in turn-of-the-century Spain during carnival, the film is fittingly raucous, but with melancholy and violence behind its revelries. Free-spirited mobs dancing through air thick with balloons and streamers, giving way to empty streets where the streamers now reveal themselves as cobwebs, swamping our protagonist Antonio in desire and memory. All the settings, the lights, the costumes, are designed to drive us straight to the face of Dietrich, her mature eyes and childish mouth, those meticulously drawn features. At times, she seems the only real thing in this fantastic world. In Luis Bunuel’s no-less-masterful That Obscure Object of Desire (based on the same Pierre Louys novel), Dietrich’s character Concha is played by two actresses, emphasizing the fundamental capriciousness of the woman, and her unobtainable and indefinite essence. But here, all that is needed is Dietrich. Her smile shakes the world.

Considering the title, the film might at first appear like some musty old-world misogyny, but the sympathy of the story is clearly with Dietrich and not the pompous, frail male egos that frame her (“You’ve always mistaken your vanity for love,” she tells one, demolishing her entire suite of suitors/tormentors in a single blow). She draws them near and pushes them away, but it’s clear she’s just a woman looking to survive while adding interest to her assets. Her last line—“I used to work in a cigarette factory”—says it all. “I began with nothing, but now look at me.” And while she needs the men to climb out of her humble beginnings, it’s also clear that giving herself entirely to one would destroy everything she has worked for. None of the men are satisfied with this state—preferring, perhaps, a reality to the illusion she offers—and so she dispatches each in turn. But how startling to see the final shot set not in one of Sternberg’s studio sets, but the real world, where a carriage drives Concha not deeper into the tyrant’s dreams but out of them. A final bittersweet parting between director and star—she is banished from the dreamland, but at last free, free to go where you see not through a veil of rain and streamers, leaves and lace, but clearly, in harsh, unyielding light.

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