[It is useless to read the following before my review of The Tree of Life, The Imaginary Family of Terrence Malick.]
Many directors made some of their best films with their wife or just the woman they were in love with (not the same thing, I am fully aware). It always happened and the examples are in great number. Malick makes part of them, as his (real) wife played the Queen of England (or the king’s wife) in The New World. Like I wrote, it is a joke, as his name (malick) means “king”. But let us think in more important cases, like…
The seven magnificently obsessive Sterbergs with Dietrich. The Renoirs with Catherine Hessling. The two films Chaplin did with Paulette Godard, among the most important of the century. Orson Welles and Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai. The six Rosselinis with Ingrid Bergman. All the films Ingmar Bergman did with the actresses he was married or living with. The Godards with Karina. The Minnellis with Judy Garland. The Fellinis with Masina. The Rays with Grahame. The Antonionis with Monica Vitti.
These few examples fit into three types:
- director filming the loved woman/wife (the male character might or might not be aprochable to the director)
- director filming and acting with the loved woman/wife (Chaplin, Welles)
- a third situation, exemplified by Vivre sa vie
The last type is the reason of this post. I am encouraged to discuss Vivre sa vie also but not only because of Malick’s allusion to it in Badlands. Even if it was absent of Malick’s work as a source it would be interesting to explore. (I moved the three images below from a previous post about Godard.)What did Godard in Vivre sa vie? As you know, in the last of the 12 episodes (tableaux) constituting his film, he leant his voice to Nana’s boyfriend to read her Edgar Allan Poe’s The Oval Portrait, in Baudelaire’s translation. “This is our story”, he tells her, “a painter making the portrait of his wife.”
“This is our story. A painter making the portrait of his wife.” (Vivre sa vie) “But at length, as the labor drew nearer to its conclusion, there were admitted none into the turret; for the painter had grown wild with the ardor of his work, and turned his eyes from canvas merely, even to regard the countenance of his wife. And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him. And when many weeks had passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, "This is indeed Life itself!" turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—She was dead!” (E.A. Poe, The Oval Portrait)
A discrete allusion to Godard (Vivre sa vie). Note how the shot is reworked. Besides the usual (and highly symbolical) inversion (left/right), in the French classic Nana is shown detached from an anonymous client, while in Badlands there is complicity between Holly and Kit. We hear what might be… another allusion to Godard, to the iconic gesture of Belmondo (Breathless): “In the stench and slime of the feedlot [i.e., the American Film Institute], he’d remember how I looked the night before, how I ran my hand through his hair and traced the outline of his lips with my fingertip.” Interesting, and maybe revealing of this director’s relation with the cinema: it is Holly who is said to have traced the outline of his lips (and not himself).
A funny game Godard played here. I might be wrong, but I believe this is the first film where a director took possession of an actor’s image to address a character of his film, in this case the one played by his real wife. We can say it is all fake, a play between Godard, Karina and us, without any necessary truth about the personal relationship between the director and the actress (let us forget what we think we know about that). Godard playing for a minute the “mad painter” as Karina is playing the solitary prostitute. But even accepting it is all “fake” (the artificiality of this scene is underlined in several ways), we have to admit the game was taken very far in this case.
Vivre sa vie offers a remarkable sociological portrait of prostitution. But the oldest profession in the world is also a metaphor in Godard for a society ruled by money and consumerism or, in this film we can’t forget that possibility, for acting itself.
Malick decided to quote a shot of Vivre sa vie with Nana delivering herself to a client. Why? I am not suggesting they are always passive and innocent, but it is not rare to hear actors saying that they “gave” themselves, that they put themselves in the director’s hands.
Before being closed in 1946, Paris had some extravagant brothels for rich people, with period rooms, although their exterior was always discrete. The One Two Two even had a “Pirate Room” with workers outside threwing water against the porthole to perfect the illusion (not reproduced). For the client to choose. A safari tent, a castle room, or... whatever the imagination demands and the house can provide. I suppose you know Ophüls’s make-believe train (below). We have already talked about trains, remember?
First thought, I would remember the heterotopical nature of the brothel (maisons closes, "shuttered houses") to explain this choice and I would certainly underline the function of the prostitute to satisfy masculine phantasies. The brothel, prostitution, is most often a theatrical realm of fake names, elaborate scenarios and private plays. The golden age of brothels is long past but the nature of the business remains.
Few actresses played more times a prostitute (or something not far from the concept) than Marlene Dietrich. Nothing surpasses her role as Tana, the Mexican Madame welcoming us with the sound of her old pianola. “Quilan: That pianola sure brings back memories. Tana: The customers go for it – it’s so old, it’s new. We got the television too. We run movies. What can I offer you?” (Touch of Evil) The image of the brothel in art varies greatly, between the sordid and the oasis in the sordidness of the world. Ophüls famous “maison” shines with life in the night, exciting our curiosity (Le plaisir). Below, Mizoguchi’s Venus (Street of Shame). In spite of everything, the life of the brothel is the only place where the prostitutes find moments of joy. Life is dark outside, very dark.
The image from Badlands can be understood at least in two ways.
One, focusing Malick as a movie lover. His relation with cinema might be passionate, but certainly the moving images are as much interested in him as Nana is in her client. Only in his imagination, the client’s imagination (we also pay to watch the movie), that girl on the screen cares about or desires him. What we see in Badlands is the film going on in the head of that man with no face.
The other way, focusing Malick as a director, we can say he compares his films to a brothel where the actors deliver their bodies to his phantasies. Spacek is as much Nana as that girl in Belle de jour is a “marquise”. What matters is that she becomes Nana in the play Malick organizes.
Note how Karina is (obsessively?) prepared to satisfy Godard’s fantasies (or preferences, if you don’t like the word). She is given the name of one of Renoir’s characters (played by his wife), her hair is cut to resemble Louise Brooks’, she is filmed à la Dreyer and I don’t know how many more filmmakers and painters of his election. The loved wife must sacrifice her own image (her own life?) in order to embody her husband’s (artistic) desire. A rather perverse, if not cruel game, no?
Guess what film hangs over Vivre sa vie in this respect.
As you know, Godard catches us from the first second with Nana’s head. Left profile, front, right profile, framed in the way of mug shots. If you watch carefully Vivre sa vie, you will notice that profile images of her are repeated three times or so. I only know one film where the profile of a woman is so important, so fetishized. It is a film by a director that Godard’s generation started to establish as one of the great artists of the 20th century, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, our friend’s “rich man”. It is that film.
Hitchcock’s vertiginous nightmare also starts with the inspection of the woman’s face, fetichized in its details. But there is something more important. In Vertigo, Hitchcock really exceeded himself to film the restaurant scene. It is as beautiful and dreamy as possible. Madeleine, a pure ghostly image whose voice we haven’t even heard yet, stops herself for a moment in front of us in a profile against the obsessive red of the walls that stays impressed in our memory and Scottie’s. This profile, this ghost of desire, haunts the rest of the film, insinuating itself several times, including when Scottie sees Judy in the street after going out of the mental hospital. It is as if he was searching for that profile, for that image where all his desire and phantasies fatally concentrated. The profile reappears again in the famous scene in the hotel room. That cheap hotel where Judy accepts to be kept by Scottie and where she finally gives herself to his necrophiliac desires, in a relation that stripped of its glamour is certainly not far from prostitution.
In Judy, Scottie is painting a portrait, a living portrait, of his dead “wife”, Madeleine.
I am not sure if Godard did this intentionally, much less if Karina was aware of it. If the French director was really thinking in Hitchcock… and Karina didn’t know of this little hypothetical cinematic joke, what would be her reaction finding out? I can think of more than one person who wouldn’t have sense of humor for this kind of stuff. But, as someone said, we all go a little mad sometimes, right?
“I can’t speak badly of him! He was my teacher, my love, my husband, my Pygmalion. He taught me everything.” (A. Karina on Godard) As a matter of fact, Karina likes to refer to her former husband as her Pygmalion, whose myth Vertigo explores in the most perverse fashion. A Shaw-like Pygmalion, a Professor Higgins, though.
In theory, Shaw’s Pygmalion wants merely to produce a fraud for others. And Eliza would accept to make it possible because she would learn good manners and to speak properly, necessary steps to climb in the social ladder. She would participate in a joke for the professor’s amusement, the ball, but not without her own ends. The problem is that for Higgins and Eliza the true passion becomes what should have been only the means to their ends, their relation, their common life, their home.
Karina presents Godard has someone who brought her to life, who gave her access to it, through his love and art, no matter the suffering involved in the process and their final separation. In Vivre sa vie, Godard was presenting is art as something which took Karina from him, no matter how much he might have loved her. It was not his will. This was not The Stepford Wives. There, when the double is finally ready to substitute the real wife, it murders her. It was something like a curse. Like if the ghosts of the cinema were too strong.
“Why can’t a woman be more like a me?” (My Fair Lady) This said, I think Higgins is a wonderful model to understand Malick. A solitary, empty, cynical man who takes no true joy from all his knowledge and discovers a game to play with society, to make fun of it. To pass the flower girl - his cinephile doll - for a duchess - Art. Imagine his private speech to Eliza, The Tree of Life, this is: Finally, you will be taken to Cannes in beautiful colors and adorned with lavish music and all the critics will examine you...
There is a kind of narrative that might be interesting to remember here, the one where an artist, film director or not, develops an obsessive relation with a woman or her image. I suppose a complete list would be very long. Two examples from Malick’s family.
A typical way of dipicting a problematic relation between life and art is the insinuation of impotence/frigidity, as Mankiewicz did in The Barefoot Contessa. Ava Gardner plays a Spanish dancer of turbulent sexuality. From flesh to marble, all the life in her will be drained. Carnally speaking, in the world to where she is brought from the dirt, she will consummate nothing. She needs to go back there whenever she wishes to. Her destiny, announced by Bogart, the platonic director, right in the beginning, is be to become a statue, an image for adoration.
The story of Waldo and Laura, although it develops differently, has some similarities. The writer must kill her in order to have her forever, to continue the illusion of their sterile love affair. With her dead, with the real woman out of the way, he can keep the romance in peaceful necrophilia.I want to stress that this is only a minor detail of the 1962 film, which is one of the most complex and beautiful of the decade, if not of the history of cinema. Unlike Malick, Godard is not a monomaniac. Things like this accumulate with other levels of meaning. Each one does not impose itself over the others. That’s the acknowledge richness of Godard’s work. In Malick, every image, every little thing merges in that sick sun of his.
A few words for Poe’s morbid tale. It is one of the finest examples of the mad, idolatrous artist story. The man who begins in love with life and ends in love with an inanimate, dead object. Each story has its own specificities. Poe’s is short and emphasizes the vampiristic dimension of artistic creation. Balzac’s Frenhofer (The Unknown Masterpiece) as much more time to praise of his fetishistic love. As you might know, he was painting his wife, better, he was painting a wife, a painting he refused to show anyone. Why? He tells you:
“"What!", he finally cried in sorrow. "Show my creation, my wife? Rend the veil with which I've chastely covered my happiness? But that would be a terrible prostitution! For ten years now I live with this woman, she is mine, mine alone, she loves me. … My kind of painting isn’t painting, it’s emotion, passion! She was born in my studio, she must remain there as a virgin, she can only leave when fully dressed. Poetry and woman surrender themselves naked only to their lovers! … It isn’t a a canvas, it’s a woman! – a woman with whom I weep, laugh, converse, and think. … Do you want me suddenly to leave off being a father, a lover, God? That woman isn’t a creature, she’s a creation. … Do you want me to submit my idol to the cold looks and stupid critiques of imbeciles?"”
(« Comment! s'écria-t-il enfin douloureusement, montrer ma créature, mon épouse? déchirer le voile sous lequel j'ai chastement couvert mon bonheur? Mais ce serait une horrible prostitution! Voilà dix ans que je vis avec cette femme, elle est à moi, à moi seul, elle m'aime. … Ma peinture n'est pas une peinture, c'est un sentiment, une passion! Née dans mon atelier, elle doit y rester vierge, et n'en peut sortir que vêtue. La poésie et les femmes ne se livrent nues qu'à leurs amants! … Ce n'est pas une toile, c'est une femme! Une femme avec laquelle je ris, je pleure, je cause et je pense. … Que tout à coup je cesse d'être père, amant et Dieu. Cette femme n'est pas une créature, c'est une création. [in a previous version: cette femme n’est pas une création, c’est une créature !] … Veux-tu maintenant que je soumette mon idole aux froids regards et aux stupides critiques des imbéciles? »)
Not like Frenhofer, Godard and Malick “prostitute” their wives, the first, the real flesh and blood, the second, the imaginary. Godard, because the social purpose of his art wouldn’t be achieved any other way. Malick, because there would be no true erotic power if his play was strictly private. The thing gets beautifully sick and joyful for Malick exactly if it is dangerous, worst, condemned to disaster, and - this is important - if he is able to make you desire his creation. He wants to be more than just Holly’s father, lover and God, he wants to be all that to you too. That’s Jack.
Monteiro ended his Le bassin de J. W. with a TV interview (inspired in Pasolini). Jean de Dieu (John of God, Monteiro) is departing to the North Pole with his wife Ariadne. Here, I believe, we have another kind of couple. The artist and his muse, not a concrete one, not this or that woman, but a personification of the conducting thread of his art.
In the present case, the fetishistic situation is developed with other men’s works/films, during many years of an anonymous life. Properly speaking, the “Vertigo project” is about to make cinema’s goddesses one. So the former spectator, now director, can marry her. That is The Tree of Life, the marriage of Terrence Malick with his love. To the end of time. A refreshing twist in the romantic ideal of the artist married to his art, no?
“It’s your play” (Badlands; below, The Blood of a Poet)