Director: Bryan Forbes
By Marilyn Ferdinand
By now you may know that I find year-end wrap-ups a difficult exercise. I don’t make lists, so I can’t fall back on that well-worn discussion starter. I hardly see any mainstream films, so I can’t form a common bond with the moviegoing audience at large. I look for the films in the attic, so to speak, so it’s not always easy to relate to even my most loyal readers. What I’ve decided to do to bid 2008 farewell is present you with a film that I think represents this moment in time—the fading of a dark and destructive era in the United States, and the rise of hope for a more peaceful, just, and generous country than we’ve seen in a long time.
The Madwoman of Chaillot started life as a play. Written in 1942 during the Nazi occupation of France and first mounted in Paris in 1945, Jean Giraudoux story imagines good triumphing over evil, life enduring against living death, and above all, the survival of France and all that is unique about the country. Its fantasy quality and 19th century nostalgia are reminiscent of the fairytale and period films French filmmakers were forced to retreat to during the Occupation to appease the German authorities. Some of these films conveyed a veiled message of resistance that only their French audiences would understand. Thus, I imagine these films influenced Giraudoux in his protest against the Nazis, lending weight to this exaggerated parable. It’s a message that was current when the film was made, and unfortunately, it still reverberates today.
The film announces visually the turbulence of the late 1960s and the forces that will join to set things right: a street protest violently broken up by the Paris police and a tall, elderly woman dressed in fin de siècle garb moving through the streets causing minor havoc—cutting a surveyor’s line so that she doesn’t have to walk around it, pouring a window washer’s bucket of water into a window box of flowers. The woman is our madwoman, Countess Aurelia (Katharine Hepburn), on her way to her favorite café in the Chaillot district. She will ally with one of the young protestors, Roderick (Richard Chamberlain), nephew of the rich and lunatic Prospector (Donald Pleasence) who sets the plot in motion.
Roderick returns to his uncle’s home just as a new addition to The Prospector’s collection of toilets is being hung on the wall—a very rare outhouse from Johannesburg for which The Prospector paid 1.5 million francs. Roderick, bleeding from the blow he received from a policeman’s baton, goes up the stairs to tend to his wound. The Prospector complains that he is bleeding all over the towels. Roderick answers that he has been injured doing something that matters, to which The Prospector sneers that he’s all talk and no action. He then hands Roderick a large suitcase containing a bomb and tells him that if he really wants to take action, he should plant it in Room 22 of the Municipal Hall, where a truly nefarious bureaucrat is making plans for war.
The scene switches to a Chaillot café where The Reverend (John Gavin) and The Commissar (Oscar Homolka) sit at a table awaiting the arrival of the rest of “The Board.” The General (Paul Henreid) and The Chairman (Yul Brynner) arrive in a white limousine. Shortly thereafter, The Broker (Charles Boyer) arrives to tell The Chairman how, with a bit of market manipulation, he helped The General make 5.5 million francs. Happily, The Chairman announces he will pay for lunch, until he recalculates his profit and comes up with only 5 million francs: “You pay for lunch,” he instructs The Broker.
The usual denizens of the café, including a juggler (Gaston Palmer), a flower seller (Harriet Ariel), and The Ragpicker (Danny Kaye), come to The Board’s table, as they do to all the tables. The Chairman rudely dismisses them and shouts insults and orders at their waitress Irma (Nanette Newman). He tells the rest of The Board that he is waiting to see a man he has never met to receive instructions for his twelfth successful campaign. This is no ordinary rendezvous: the stranger will have the very key to the scheme and the proper name for it, and they will recognize each other through some strange look in the eye. As it happens, the man The Chairman is looking for is The Prospector. Indeed, The Prospector comes over to their table and having secured enough dirty secrets from each of them to insure against a double-cross, reveals the secret. He has been all over Paris sniffing and sampling the tap water and finally found what he was looking for—the taste of petroleum at this very café. “There’s oil under the streets of Chaillot,” he declares. The Chairman’s eyes light up as he orders the Board into the café to sample the tap water at the bar, bothered by the appearance of an eccentric—The Countess—demanding her usual table from its current occupant.
The only thing standing in the way of drilling is a pesky clerk who won’t issue a permit. The Prospector has seen to that by sending his nephew to blow the man up. Unfortunately for The Board, Roderick sees a family with small children sitting outside of Room 22 and runs to a bridge over the Seine and tosses the bomb in. He is mistakenly thought to be jumping, and gets punched unconscious by a policeman. The Countess and Irma see to his care. When he comes to, he and Irma lock eyes and fall in love. When Roderick realizes his uncle planned to do away with a simple clerk and the reasons behind the assassination attempt, he reveals all to the good people of Chaillot. The Ragpicker—the philosopher of the group—must explain to the Countess how the world has changed. “I looked at people, and they looked back. Now, they stare back with dead eyes.” Realizing that they are now living in an age of The Golden Calf, the Countess lays a trap to stop The Board from destroying the world.
The view from the café appears to be the same one used when little Pascal first finds his balloon companion in The Red Balloon, establishing Chaillot as a magical place for this viewer. Certainly to the “good guys” in this film, their world is indeed a wondrous place. For Countess Aurelia and her three similarly garbed friends—Gabrielle the virgin (Guiletta Massina, in a rare English-speaking role), Constance the Madwoman of Passy (Margaret Leighton), and Josephine the adjudicator (Edith Evans)—the world is an illusion into which they can slip when they aren’t living in their ancient memories of youth. The common men and women of Chaillot must break through this illusion to convince the Countess that the world has changed, grown coarse and mean, to rouse her to action. The Countess is, in fact, a representative of historical France—an aristocrat from the 19th century, when monarchy returned for a time to the French Republic. Her decision to exterminate the members of The Board is the type that an absolute monarch would make; it is Josephine who insists that a trial must take place, thus marrying the ideals of the Republic with the nostalgic place of the monarchy in France.
To lure her victims to her mansion, she plays on their greed. She visits each of them and shows them a sample of the oil that is under her home—in fact, a mixture created in the café kitchen. She has the opportunity to see for herself the darkness they spread. From The Broker she learns that to make futures trading profitable, crops that could feed thousands may be burned. She watches The General bumble around with nuclear missiles. The Reverend reveals himself to be an Elmer Gantry with an intolerance for other religions. And The Prospector and The Chairman are unbridled greed itself. These episodes may be preaching to the converted among many in the audience, but they are important in order for the Countess to enter the modern world and do what must be done.
The members of The Board are delightfully villainous. Yul Brynner and Donald Pleasence are yin and yang as The Chairman and The Prospector, their bald heads nodding in unison, their madness perfectly matched. Brynner assumes a maniacal glee as he plays his role large, not an unpleasant caricature by any means. Pleasence, however, really convinces as a man who trusts his nose. When the others wonder at his prediction of oil under Paris, he wags his nose in their faces, turning profile to emphasize its impressive size, as a phallic symbol of his power over nature.
The most compelling scene of the film—and also the most stagey—is the trial. Josephine (a shrill creation of Dame Edith) rules that the criminals can be tried in absentia as long as they are provided with proper counsel. The Ragpicker is chosen to defend them. This may be Danny Kaye’s finest hour on film. He presents arguments about the legitimacy of progress and the rights of innovators over those who would squander their resources, and wins Constance over. This alarming development encourages him, and he reveals more of his clients’ naked purposes. Revealing the true hubris of the oligarchs, The Ragpicker sums up his defense with, “We buy the legislators who make the law. We ARE the law!” Kaye’s performance taps the potential cruelty and arrogance in us all, infusing The Ragpicker with the integrity a defense attorney should have for his clients, but also their guilt. Those who only know Kaye as Hans Christian Andersen are in for a shock here.
Katharine Hepburn has a sufficiently imperial air to glide easily into the role of a nearly untouchable grand dame. Yet she fails to capture a real sense of madness, preferring to be a garden-variety eccentric in a role that calls upon her to commit some highly significant murders. We see moments of callousness in the Countess during the opening sequence and in her offhanded treatment of her mad women friends. But Hepburn softens her character so much, particularly by dissolving into tears early and often, that the strength and, yes, righteous cruelty she represents don’t come through. Her supporting cast offers little to bolster the sense of power that I always associate with a nation of commoners who could overthrow a monarch and establish a republic.
Bryan Forbes is entirely too enamored of the keyhole shooting style that was popular in England at the time. He frequently shoots Hepburn through a “gauze” of leaves, scenery, and monuments, perhaps to suggest her illusory life; to me, however, it just looked like he got his framing wrong. The cinematography in the Countess’ mansion is appropriately gothic, but not nearly as horrifying as it could or should have been as, say, the kangaroo courtroom in M was. The film’s look is at its best in the streets of Paris, where the cause the Countess and her friends are fighting for can be seen and appreciated.
While The Madwoman of Chaillot comes up short in various areas, the overall impression of a cautionary fable does its job. Standing at the doorway of 2009, I hope along with the rest of the world that the United States will be a better place in the coming year. But in keeping with the above title card, I’m not holding my breath.