Thursday, February 4, 2016

Limelight (1952)

Charlie Chaplin spent years working on Limelight.  He based it largely around his own life as well as the idea of an entertainer growing obsolete ("what a sad business being funny"), and after it's completion was banned from the United States for supposed Communist ties. Because of this, and the fact Chaplin only made two, largely unremarkable films in Europe afterward (A King in New York, A Countess in Hong Kong), Limelight comes across as the artist's grand final statement, a swan song commemorating the world of comedy and reflecting on the melancholy that comes with having to say farewell to it. 

The movie concerns Calvero (Chaplin, acting worn, beaten, and tired, his smile often seeming painful or forced), an aging, washed up Vaudeville star who now spends his nights bumbling around drunk. As the film opens he happens upon a young ballet dancer living in his flat who has attempted suicide. He takes her to his room, gives her aid (all while being intoxicated-one of the funnier parts of the movie even though it theoretically shouldn't be), and literally helps her get back on her feet, as her recurring past traumas manifest themselves in leg paralysis. 

Essentially this is the story of an older man and a younger woman who have both given up on life and how they help each other find value in the idea of living. While this is certainly a familiar idea, what could have been a trite presentation of it becomes something more beautiful and mysterious thanks to Chaplin's understated performance and his unpredictable dialogue and plot structure. 

Calvero is essentially shocked that a young beautiful woman like Terry would want to stop living, as he sees in her youthfulness the potential for zest that he once had and embraced. As such, he sermonizes to her, talking about the vitality of the human person with grand, opulent lines like "think of the power that's in the universe! And that's the same power within you, if you'd only have the courage and will to see it." 

But Chaplin's too smart a writer to let such speechifying exist as so, and instead turns Calvero's attempt at getting Terry to embrace life into something of an act-understanding considering the life he's lead. The picture Calvero paints of life is not one he actually subscribes to (at one point he even says "since I've been preaching and moralizing to you, I'm beginning to believe it myself"), but that does not mean it cannot be effective and produce a change in another. After all, is that not a key function of drama--people doing and saying things that are't real but still impacting their audience in powerful ways? 

The film, which runs over two hours (at times it can feel messy and little longwinded), has a lot going on once Calvero rejuvenates Terry back into a dancer, including a reversal of their roles, a subplot involving a young composer Terry once admired, and even a lengthy cameo from Buster Keaton, who shares the screen for the first and last time with Chaplin (another reason, I suppose, Limelight feels like Chaplin's farewell).

But all the while it keeps its main focus on Calvero as a man who can't decide what to do with his life now that the glory days are behind him. The film doesn't come up with an answer, as Calvero's wishes ebb and flow between the idea of making a comeback and moving forward, even if doing so simply means being a lowly street musician. The combination of the psychology of Calvero and the personal aspects of the narrative makes us feel like we're inside Chaplin's own mind, and if so, a beautiful and complicated one it was. 

If this still doesn't sound like Chaplin's swan song, then watch the film and its final scene will surely change your mind. The last two shots in particular are stunning. Chaplin doesn't make a lot of dynamic visual choices in the film, but the penultimate shot, followed by a perfect cut inward that we don't expect, and then a slow track backward of the camera are brilliant, revealing a grand and selfless closing statement.  

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