Thursday, June 09, 2005

What Pryce Glory?, or Wynter of Our Discontent

"Like moths to a flame, the greatest talents of turn-of-the-century Europe were drawn to Alma, a remarkable muse who ignited desire that would translate into masterpieces of art, music, and literature...Give yourself over to this tale of creativity and seduction, of art and love, and of the sacrifices one extraordinary woman -- a century ahead of her time -- made in an attempt to have it all."

So reads the video blurb for Bride of the Wind (2001.) Fair enough. It sounded just about right for the air-conditioned refuge of the screening room here at Bleak House, before an audience of one, which meant that I did not need to dress formally. One always hopes that those few fortunate films singled out for screening here will either be superb, or will be hilariously bad. Bride did not disappoint.

Bride purports to be the story of Alma Mahler, a woman I had thought to be a horrid bitch, a ruthless social climber, an artistic groupie, and a narcissist of the first order. This movie does not contradict my view, but rather softens it by giving her an angelic face, having her remove her clothing during some (though hardly all) of the scenes that drag, and presenting her as a prototype of today's mod-a-go-go with-it "strong woman" -- the sort who contradicts her elders (and anyone else who impinges needlessly on her small mind), complains a great deal about anything that (however slightly) obstructs her frivolous (and ever-changing) will, is the constant envy of other women (but of course) who don't possess her unique vision and her ravishing beauty, is perfectly dressed on all occasions (even when whining that she can't afford to buy clothes for herself), is the center of attention on all public occasions (to the point where crowds part spontaneously to make way for her), has a keen appreciation of the fine arts (which we know because she tells us, and because she sleeps with men who are artists), and who is (the video jacket advises us) "a century ahead of her time" -- i.e., a popular airhead who had the misfortune to live a century behind ours.

This is the sort of movie where dialogue is shamelessly used for historical exposition, in the manner of "What's this place called?" "Little Big Horn, General Custer." These are movies that are shameless in their combination of Classics-Illustrated narrative leaps, Junior Encyclopedia psychological platitudes, Did-You-Know? parades of facts, and play-to-the-flashing-lightbulbs gradeschool acting. Not that we can fault the actors, who are occasionally believable and never utterly implausible in their assigned roles, but who must deliver lines such as (my particular favorite), "You've broken my spirit, Gustav." We've all read phrases like this, in vaguely educational articles about historical figures, e.g., "Her spirit broken at last, she embraced a life of quiet yet noble suffering in a ruined abbey, there to die bravely because of the insensitivity of others." But the "broken spirit" line occurs too early in the movie to have any special dramatic resonance, especially when inserted into a lengthy Dr.-Phil-type "You've used me" list which includes her services to him as an accountant. Nor does her broken spirit seem to slow in the slightest her manic whirl through highbrow social trends and dumbstruck male celebrities.

Jonathan Pryce plays Mahler something like Henery Hawk might have portrayed Stokowski if Bugs Bunny had not been available. Even when his clothing fits well, it seems to be several sizes too large, and the skin on his face seems to be a bit like that, too. His manner is something like that of a clerk at the Registry of Motor Vehicles on his first day: "Go out there and bureaucratize, the way you've been trained." His voice is tentatively injured, like a shy lad whining to be taken to the lavatory for the eleventh time in a single hour. These comparisons might suggest range. And indeed Pryce's bag of tricks does pass for such against other performances in the movie. I suspect he was chosen because, from a distance, if you blur your eyes a bit, he does look slightly like photographs of Mahler; they're both geeks with glasses, after all. Alma, played by Sarah Wynter, needs a cloying yet unthreatening Mahler to bring some sort of dramatic contrast to her vapid portrayal. Yes, she looks good, even saintly if she gives one of the head tilts at which she is practiced, which is often. What is not clear is the sexual electricity that this woman was supposed to exercise over all and sundry; one keeps expecting her to produce a vial of magic potion the scent of which drives nearby males into passionate spasms of polite interest. Vincent Perez chews the scenery as Oskar Kokoschka, sort of like The Tasmanian Devil reading the ingredients from a box of bran flakes. And there is plenty of scenery to chew, with literalist evocations of famous turn-of-the-century Viennese paintings at every turn, and quick comparisons to the original paintings for small children, lifelong exiles in Antarctica, and others who may not have yet seen the thousands of coffee-table books in which they inevitably appear.

Alma went on to mesmerize the solemn Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, who is played here as though he were an especially uninspired socialist pamphlet; and largely forgotten novelist Franz Werfel, who here is at least allowed to be irritating. Alma "Music is my life!" Mahler does triumph over the trials of marriage to a succession of dolts to hear her lieder performed after Gustav dies conveniently. As I discovered some years ago from listening to a CD performance of Anna's songs, they are, all twelve of them, rather good, if no more than that. The movie, on the other hand, is rather bad, and sometimes less than that.

Oh. The photography is lovely, as is the art direction, and the music is fine.