March 26, 2010

Venus in and out of Furs: Joseph Losey’s “Eve” & “Accident”

Eve plays tonight, Friday, 3/26/10, and Accident shows this Sunday evening, 3/28/10 — both at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, as parts of the retrospective Joseph Losey:  Pictures of Provocation. Click here for more information about this series.

Jacqueline Sassard in Joseph Losey’s Accident

Joseph Losey’s massive body of work exists against an even greater body of odds. An upper-middle class boy from corn-fed Wisconsin, Losey drifted into theater from pre-med during his college days at Dartmouth and Harvard, became radicalized in the early years of the Great Depression, was introduced to the Harlem Jazz scene by a nineteen-year-old John Hammond, and was aesthetically marked for life by Soviet experimental theater and a first meeting with Bertolt Brecht on a trip to Russia in 1935. Returning to a burgeoning vocation as a director in New York’s leftist theater scene, Losey eventually collaborated with Brecht and Charles Laughton in their English-language production of Brecht’s Galileo, then began a promising career in low-budget Hollywood features, including a few now-classic Marxian-inflected films noir. Appraised of rumors he was about to be subpoenaed to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) to testify about his activities as a member of the Communist Party USA, Losey fled to Europe in 1951, where, tortured by the justified paranoia brought on by persecution, he slowly began to eke out a reputation as the most consistently brilliant director of British genre films of the 1950’s.

Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau’s foot and leg in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Marxist or not, Losey was a man of infinite ambition and little faith in received wisdom in whatever environment he found himself. “I like to listen to people who know what they’re talking about — my trouble is I never believe anything they say” ventures a Losey stand-in in his 1961 nuclear-panic thriller, These Are the Damned. Enviously watching as European Art Cinema began to fully flower on the continent, Losey yoked his chances to two equally enterprising British stars, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker, whose talent for on-screen self-laceration, and distaste for each other mirrored the splits within their director’s psyche. With their collaboration, Losey laboriously crafted an oeuvre which would take him to the highest pinnacles of the International Art-film game, and which reflected a world-view fully consonant with the Modernist take of modern man being out on a limb.

Stanley Baker and Jeanne Moreau in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Buoyed by a building vogue for his work in France, Losey was able to break into the big leagues with Eve in 1962. Aptly described by Losey’s biographer, David Caute, as “visually…a ravishing tour de force“, Eve pits fraudulent “author” and male hysteric Stanley Baker against the cold, high-class courtesan title character portrayed by Jeanne Moreau. The two encounter each other plying their trades amongst the jet-set of Venice. Baker’s Tyvian is an undereducated Welshman who has made fistfuls of cash by publishing his deceased brother’s manuscript as his own novel, then selling the screen rights. Though presenting himself as a rough-hewn raconteur and cocksure cocksman, Tyvian is awash with anguish and insecurities, the perfect prey to the wiles of Eve. This self-assured and self-contained manipulator of rich men’s self-images (especially those based on the contents of their pockets, and other items in close proximity) encounters

Jeanne Moreau and Stanley Baker in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Tyvian on a dark and stormy night, when one of her patrons plans on consummating a long-desired conquest by barging into Tyvian’s seemingly-deserted rustic author’s hideaway. Ty takes it as his right to shoo away her suitor and take his place. Eve sizes Ty up, seizes him by the nose, and spends the remainder of the film’s two-hour running time leading him to his destruction. Dolce Vita-era Rome and Venice are exquisite stages for their theatrics and follies, and the many conflagrations sparked by this emotionally sadomasochistic retelling of Tristan and Isolde spill every which way, and onto all bystanders, including Ty’s sensitive and fantastically beautiful fiancée (Virna Lisi), who, to her regret, follows through on her very bad decision to become Ty’s wife.

Jeanne Moreau in Joseph Losey’s Eve

Eve was one of the key early 60’s works which enthroned Jeanne Moreau among that era’s pantheon of Goddesses. Under Losey’s direction, Stanley Baker allowed himself to reveal deeply painful components of his psyche that few actors of his swaggering swain set could be content with — Tyvian, in fact, was largely based on the actor’s own personality. Unfortunately, it was Losey who would regret the self-revelation he would allow himself in Eve. Harrassed by the Hakim brothers, the film’s producers, from before shooting began, when Losey turned in his cut he found the Hakims ready with cleavers. The process of (often senseless) recutting rendered Eve the most painful experience Losey had suffered since falling prey to the blacklist.  In the future, he’d know to protect himself.

Returning to England, Losey gradually took up the project that made him a Film Director Superstar: The Servant (1963), starring Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, and Sarah Miles. The Servant‘s domestic psychological drama, in which a manservant masters a corruptible young toff, involving him in a bi-sexualized triangle with the Servant’s supposed “sister”, would prove the perfect (and relatively covert) frame for Losey’s obsessive thematic: oblique power struggles between classes, sexes, and sexualities — sometimes ritualized, at other times in earnest. The flamboyantly emotional openness of Eve (which years later, Losey would describe as “almost an orgasm”) was tamped down into the form of a constricted spring, dense with rippling undercurrents of resentment and menace. The Servant was the first of what would become a three-film collaboration with Harold Pinter, who over the course of time would reveal himself among the top half-dozen-or-so playwrights in the English language of the 20th C. (As an aside: there is an annoying tendency among litterateurs to ascribe the brilliance of these films to Pinter alone, even though Losey was the great-writer-to-be’s major scriptwriting mentor. In this writer’s view, it’s a moot point: all three of the Losey-Pinter films were adapted from other men’s novels, and their first two collaborations, The Servant and Accident (1967), represent the finest work of either artist.)

Goddess Jacqueline Sassard makes Dirk Bogarde nervous in Joseph Losey’s Accident

In Accident, all of Losey’s themes and obsessions fuse, as symbolized by its uniting of Bogarde and Baker, who had each previously played the lead in four and three Losey productions, respectively (interestingly, Accident would prove the last for both). Its narrative and Resnais-influenced time-scheme are notoriously complex: Bogarde and Baker play at-one-time-close Oxford dons in the midst of excruciating and calamitously competitive mid-life crises. Jacqueline Sassard, an Austrian aristocrat, is the incredibly beautiful student with whom they both fall in love, spouses be damned, and the young Michael York, a charming scion of the stiff-upper-lip set, is her doomed fiancé. At Accident‘s entry-point, York has just been killed in a booze-fueled crash outside Bogarde’s home, which Sassard has survived intact, but dazed. Convinced she was responsible for the accident, his children and pregnant wife conveniently absent, Bogarde secrets Sassard away in his house, hoping for a chance to chivalrously remove her from the scene, and glad for the opportunity to have at her alone. It will be a long night.

Jacqueline Sassard’s legs in Joseph Losey’s Accident

The bulk of Accident is spent in unraveling the many recent events in Bogarde’s life leading up to this point, alternating between the banal and the emotionally fraught: his fascination with both Sassard and York; his attempts to push them together; his jealousy of York’s youth and standing with Sassard; a long summer’s day and evening party crashed by an unwelcome Baker, who has surpassed Bogarde on the career track by becoming a media personality; Bogarde’s attempts to woo away Baker’s TV producers, whereupon failing, he consoles himself by dropping in on one-time girlfriend Delphine Seyrig; his returning to his supposedly empty house to find Sassard shacked-up with Baker; participating with York in a barbarous aristocratic indoor version of rugby; watching the sportive York excel at a gentlemanly game of Cricket.

These closely observed moments in the life of a middle-class academic serve as perfect springboards for Losey and Pinter’s exploration of the disassociation and disconnect within the soul and society of modern man. At the heart of Accident, however, is an element central to much of Losey’s work alone: the disruptive, confounding principle of the all-consuming Goddess. The innocent, winsome Sassard is also a mysterious siren, the infinite depth of whose eyes, and whose oft-disrobed limbs lure all of Accident‘s major characters, male or female, to their emotional or mortal doom.

Stanley Baker and Jacqueline Sassard with Kali in Joseph Losey’s Accident

Like the sirens of myth, she is first encountered in apparent distress. Her earliest appearance in the film’s chronological time-scheme features her blithely petting a goat, presaging the effect she has of turning any man who crosses her path into a cuckold. Dismissing her suitors, she exits the film clutching a statuette of Kali, Hindu Goddess of Death and Destruction.

The very present, if cruel and mercenary Goddess of Eve has withdrawn in Accident to an aristocratic remoteness made all the more painful to the middle-aged Bogarde by her unblemished youth and ample lusciousness. The five years between Eve and Accident had been without doubt the best of Losey’s career, but he was now a man approaching sixty. “I’m old!” Bogarde moans to York early in the film, and all of Baker’s actions betray his own suppressed cognizance of this thought. Yearning for a rational hold on their worlds, these old boys have no connection to symbol-systems which might allow them intuitive understanding of their divergent desires and impulses, leaving them landlocked in the Wasteland. Detached emotionally from their age-appropriate wives, they cast about like fish on land in their last living minutes. Accident‘s central sequence is Bogarde’s visit to his old girlfriend (Delphine Seyrig), who intriguingly has the same name as Tyvian’s ill-starred fiancée/wife, Francesca, in Eve. Bogarde’s Francesca is a deliberate amalgam of the roles played by Seyrig in Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel, and her sequence is hands-down the Resnais-est moment in cinema not actually directed by Resnais. Similarly to the (perhaps) former lovers of Marienbad, Bogarde and Seyrig reminisce about their poorly remembered relationship as they share a drink, go out for dinner, and lie together in bed, post-coitus. Eerily, their lines are delivered in a dazed, dream-like voice-over on the soundtrack, as the images show them languidly proceeding through the ritual without speaking, like zombies on auto-pilot. Bogarde’s attempt to revive a (for him) ancient Goddess is stillborn: Seyrig’s glamor in this film is frozen, lost in a past and youth she evokes, to which he’s now denied entry, and whose loss is teasingly reinforced by the endlessly tantalizing lure of Sassard.

Delphine Seyrig dines with Dirk Bogarde in Joseph Losey’s Accident

It’s no surprise there have been dismissals over the years of much of Losey’s work as “misogynist” clap-trap. In an era in which critical discourse is relentlessly confined to the social plane, deeper psychological and spiritual levels are forgotten, ignored, or misunderstood. It’s of course true there was much in Losey’s personal history which would lead to an endless resentment of women and their power over him. His biographer, David Caute, paints a vivid picture of a coquettish mother who’d withdraw her sexual favors from Losey’s junior executive father as punishment for his being unable to afford supplying her servants. The father’s cash was never enough, and he died a disheartened man at forty-five. As he grew up, Losey came to understand his inner disordered world as a reflection of skewed social realities. A self-described Stalinist until the early 70’s, Losey sought to create work which would shock viewers into awareness of social iniquities and political madness, to bring to consciousness the lies and delusions embedded by society into our psyches, rendering us slaves. But perhaps the greater delusion was the belief that humans wish to be woken up.

Jacqueline Sassard and Michael York in Joseph Losey’s “Accident”

The many elements not given to revolutionary utility in Losey’s work — their astonishing plastic beauty, for example, or their rampant confessions of anti-social feeling (he was well known for taking pleasure in “stirring shit up”—as they say—in his personal life, as well as via his work) gave the lie to his idealistic notions. His childhood traumas had activated an inner drama of a certain cast. The Artist dealing with images and narratives authentically must give reign to such private theater, for it is the only connection he or she has to undying archetypes, those psychic reflections of Cosmic Principles… Social consciousness and struggle were all very well in their way, but ultimately—how could they compare to the Goddess?

Eve plays tonight, Friday, 3/26/10, while Accident shows Sunday evening, 3/28/10, at the Pacific Film Archive, midway in this queen of Bay Area arts institution’s retrospective Joseph Losey: Pictures of Provocation, lovingly programmed by PFA curator Steve Seid and independent scholar/curator Peter Conheim. For more information about this series, click here. This post incorporates a few sentences from my program notes for the Film on Film Foundation’s 4/5/09 screening of Accident.

Comments (2)

  • Alice Ann Finney says:

    I’ve read this blog entry a few times now and it’s amazing how much my thinking is provoked and knowledge expanded from such a small amount of words and few paragraphs.

    I went to see “Accident” Sunday. I was thinking about this film yesterday and the segment with the past girlfriend felt to me like the navel of an unaware struggling beast or the eye of a tornado where it is eerily calm and disjointed with fractures becoming more exaggerated and frenetic/frantic as you move further from the center. I’m still thinking about this film – which is good.

  • Thank you for this informed and insightful essay! It gave me a handle on how to better appreciate last night’s screening of Eve and makes me all the more excited about viewing Accident come Sunday.

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