Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Little Coincidence

Sometimes I plan a day of film watching around a structure: it might be that there are a few films I've been reading about and have been itching to see, so I'll watch them. It might be that I want to spend a day with a director, so I'll watch a few of his works, or with a certain genre, era, film movement, and so on and so forth.

Sometimes though I just pick something at random and watch it. Today was one of those days. Perusing the Criterion Collection streaming selection on Hulu Plus, I came across Rohmer's 1972 Love in the Afternoon. I realized it had been far too long since I'd seen a Rohmer film (My Night at Maud's, nearly two years ago), so I watched it.

Afterwards, while doing some research on Nicholas Ray, I stumbled upon the story about the making of his first collaboration with Humphrey Bogart, the courtroom drama Knock on Any Door. There was all sorts of conflict during the film's production, particularly with its other leading actor, the inexperienced spoiled Hollywood pretty boy John Derek. Though there was some potential star hype surrounding Derek after the film's release, his career never really amounted to much, I learned after briefly scanning his biography. His only real legacy is that he was married to Bo Derek and directed her in a few steamy movies in the 1980s. This made me realize I knew nothing of Bo Derek's career, at which I decided I'd better watch that famous debut of hers, the 1979 Blake Edwards film 10

Afterwards, it struck me that both of these movies share quite a bit in common. Now, Love in the Afternoon is a slow, talky drama while 10 is a snappy, restless comedy, and the specifics of the films' plots are completely different. But at their core they're about pretty much the same thing.

In both movies we're introduced to men who seem to have perfectly ideal lives but whose somewhat vague discontents keep them from fully appreciating their situations. In Love in the Afternoon, Frederick (Bernard Verely) practices law at a low key, low-stress firm and lives in a comfortable but average home with his wife and their young son (another baby is also on the way). He likes the ease of his job even though he could make more money somewhere else, and his wife, an English teacher who gets to engage in scholarship while he's at work, seems perfectly content with their situation as well. In other words, these are two people who have managed to steer clear of the bourgeois malaise. As Roger Ebert aptly pointed out, they're still living living like students. 

In 10, Dudley Moore, in the role that made him a major star, plays George Webber, a successful composer who has good friends, all the comfort life can provide, and to boot gets to live with Julie Andrews. 

Both of these men, though, are discontent with their lives, not so much because of circumstance but because of time. They're both noticing it's beginning to slip away. 10 opens with George walking into a surprise party for his 42nd birthday, but he's anything but thrilled. Gone are the glory days of youth and George only finds himself looking back and longing to be 20, or even 30. 

Frederick relates similar sentiments, feeling closed in by domestic life and continually thinking about the time when he was single and free to pursue any girl he chose to. His only real liberation now is the bustling streets of Paris, where it seems every other passerby is a beautiful young woman. It's physical beauty he's after, and he takes immense pleasure in simply looking at them, justifying this to himself by saying that because his own wife is beautiful, his appreciation of female beauty in general is simply a passive way of appreciating his spouse. It's a weak argument, but he'll only continue this sort of rationalizing as the film progresses and a woman from his past, Chloe (Zouzou) begins to make visits to his office. 

In 10, George has a similar encounter with Jenny, a tall, thin, tan blonde who simply takes his breath away. He sees her in a car on her wedding day and is so struck by her beauty that he crashes into a police car. She, of course, is played by Bo Derek, who exists in the film largely as an object not just for George to gawk over, but for the viewer as well. 

The way these two men pursue these women is also somewhat similar. Frederick at first treats Chloe as an old friend, someone to talk to and listen to. But as the film progresses, so does their relationship. Their conversation becomes more intimate, their bodies get closer, a kiss on the cheek becomes a kiss on the mouth, and all the while Frederick is finding ways to alleviate any sort of guilt over this.

George, who goes to off to Mexico to get away from his current situation, coincidentally runs into Jenny and her husband while on their honeymoon. He spies on her and is immensely attracted to her, and yet obviously she's a newlywed and so it would absurd to make any sort of move. In perhaps the film's best scene, we see him watching her sunbath on the beach, her smooth skin glimmering almost like gold as he fantasizes about having her as his own, all while her husband is floating in the ocean on a surfboard. When he hears that a man recently fell asleep doing the same thing and disappeared, he realizes that the husband is pretty far off in the water and probably has passed out. And yet he keeps still because in the back of his mind he knows that if the husband disappears, maybe this dream woman could be his. It's the kind perverse thinking that sex incites, but then suddenly we see George in a boat going off to rescue the husband. What are his motivations? Perhaps his conscience simply took over and he realized he couldn't let an innocent man possibly die. Or maybe he thinks that he'll be a hero for doing this and the the couple will invite him into their lives out of gratitude. 

George is a good man at heart but he's also in a time of crisis, so both of these motives are likely true. In any case, everything goes accordingly and better, as not only does George get to meet Jenny, but he does so alone while the husband is in the hospital. 

The two films share almost identical climaxes, as both women come onto the men (Jenny, it turns out, is basically a free love hippie with no inhibitions when it comes to infidelity, while Chloe has proclaimed to Frederick that she wishes to have a baby and wants Frederick to be the father-whether this is indeed her intention or just a ploy is simply part of Chloe's mystique, as she's a woman who needs other people while simultaneously expressing a devaluation of humanity) at which point both men reach their own respective epiphanies. These epiphanies seem to be related to the idea of guilty love versus non-guilty love, as both men would be arriving at the culmination of their dishonesty by allowing themselves to be swayed by these utterly sexy women. 

They both choose to walk away, seeing a better life ahead of them by doing so. And both films end in almost identical fashion, as they each return to the women they truly belong to and transfer their near sexual encounters with the wrong person to the deserving party. It's a two-fold gratification: physical and moral. 

With countless films having dealt with infidelity that usually wind up in same sort of dramatic territory of consequence and guilt, it was refreshing to see these two movies about men who engage in the game of infidelity only to realize that it's better to quit the game than to seek a victory that's not possible. 

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