"The Devil is a Woman" - Josef von Sternberg (1935)


The Devil is a Woman (1935) was the seventh and final film of the legendary screen collaboration between director Josef von Sternberg and his alluring star Marlene Dietrich.  Like the greatest of those earlier films, The Blue Angel (1930), Morocco (1930), The Shanghai Express (1932), and Blonde Venus (1932), this film’s focus was entirely on how love can overpower a reasonable person’s mind and compel him or her to submit completely to its demands. And while all those earlier films pushed the limits of believability concerning what love can do, in some respects The Devil is a Woman went the furthest in this direction.

Romantic films typically have two narrative streams – a dramatic outer narrative that involves goals and threats in the external world and an inner, relationship-oriented narrative involving the main characters.  However, in the case of this film, the relationship narrative is pretty much everything.

The Devil is a Woman was scripted by John Dos Passos and was based on the French novel La Femme et le Pantin (The Woman and the Puppet, 1898) by Pierre Louys.  That novel also served as the basis of several other films, including La Femme et le Pantin (1959) directed by Julien Duvivier and starring Brigitte Bardot, and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) directed by Luis Buñuel; but those films are all different in style and substance.  Interestingly and uniquely in the case of The Devil is a Woman, the two main characters appear to have been specifically sculpted to correspond to the real personalities of von Sternberg and Dietrich, whose offscreen relationship was the subject of much speculation and which I will briefly discuss further below.

Although I have identified the relationship narrative as the dominant theme in this film, the most memorable aspects are not so much the specifics of the story but rather the expressionistic dreamworld that von Sternberg conjures up to tell it. As usual for a von Sternberg film, everything was shot in the studio, where von Sternberg had complete control of every last detail and where he could carefully set his lights to fashion scenes with the chiaroscuro that made the entire environment  contribute to and reinforce the mood of the storytelling. For von Sternberg the visual context of his action was so important to the storytelling that it was occasionally intentionally staged to obscure the activities of the principal characters under view. Von Sternberg’s dreamscape was further enhanced by the contextually-supportive musical score, which was adapted from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Spanish Caprice” and some classic Spanish folk melodies.

Von Sternberg’s love stories invariably involve three principal and entangled characters:
  • A beautiful, passionate, and bewitching woman whose mind and future directions are ultimately unknowable.  Marlene Dietrich played this role for von Sternberg during their time together, but there had been others, too, such as Evelyn Brent in Underworld (1927) and The Last Command (1928).
  • A young, studly and prepossessing male who is used to having his way with women.  This person is often thoughtlessly narcissistic but not malevolent.  The beautiful woman usually finds him irresistible.
  • An older more sensitive and reflective male who selflessly offers his love to the beautiful woman.  This person is more introverted and less confident, but his personality and character are richer, and his amorous commitment is deeper than that of the competing lover.
In The Devil is a Woman, whose story is set in Spain around the turn of the 20th century, these principal characters are present, and in fact there are really only four characters of any significance in the whole story:
  • Concha Perez (played by Marlene Dietrich) is a beautiful and capricious young working woman. 
  • Antonio Galvan (Cesar Romero) is a young, handsome republican revolutionary who is on the run from the government police and is getting ready to flee to Paris.
  • Captain Don Pasqual Costelar (Lionel Atwill) is an aristocratic officer in the Spanish military.  He is the older and more refined figure of Sternbergian dramatics who has a mad infatuation with Concha.
  • Governor Don Paquito (Edward Everett Horton) is the androgynous, yet ridiculously despotic, authoritarian commander of Sevilla who is trying to maintain order during a festival season. 
The film’s narrative is structured roughly into four sections, the second of which is a lengthy flashback period that takes up more than forty percent of the overall running time.

1.  A Meeting During the Spanish Carnival
At the film’s outset the viewer is plunged into the lavish spectacle of Sevilla’s Spanish Carnival festival, which is an extended celebratory fiesta just prior to the Roman Catholic Lent period.  There are masked parades, masquerade balls, and continuous scenes of merriment, all of which is brilliantly evoked by von Sternberg’s expressionistic staging.  Collectively, they remind me of the masked ball scene from von Sternberg’s Dishonored (1931), though these are perhaps even more flamboyant and colorful.

During a parade Antonio Galvan, who we will soon learn is ducking the police, is masked like all the others and enjoying the festivities.  He spots a beautiful woman, Concha, riding on a street float, and manages to catch her attention by making eyes at her.  Concha is a coquette and runs away, but before disappearing she has a note passed to him that he can meet in the evening when she normally goes for a carriage drive down a particular street.

2.  Don Pasqual’s Story
At a café, Galvan runs into an old friend, Don Pasqual, whom he hasn’t seen for years.  When Pasqual is asked if he knows anything about Concha, he launches into a lengthy account of his unhappy experiences with the woman, whom he first met five years earlier. This story-within-the-story of how this woman played with his affections and tortured him has five episodes.  In each of these episodes, Concha leads Pasqual on and then rejects him, leaving him in the lurch.
  1. Captain Pasqual first saw Concha on a train trip, during which the cheeky girl precipitated an onboard fight that Pasqual intervened to stop.  He was attracted to the girl, but she indicated to him that she was not an easy pickup, and when the train stopped, she departed alone.
     
  2. Sometime later, while investigating a cigarette factory, Pasqual sees Concha working there and is again attracted.  After giving her a valuable gold coin, she invites him to her home where she lives with her widowed mother.  After the two women ply him for more money, Concha kisses him, but she resists his natural response.  She tells him that she kissed him because she loved him – for a minute – but she will not let him kiss her without him loving her.  She claims (probably correctly at this point) that she merely pleases him and amuses him, but he doesn’t love her.  These remarks spotlight a key theme to the film – how deep is one’s love?.  Anyway, shortly thereafter Concha and her mother disappeared from town.
     
  3. Three months later Concha appears again and seductively tells Pasqual that she can no longer live without seeing him.  Again he is infatuated and immediately offers to marry her.  But after accepting a considerable amount of his money, she disappears from his life again.
     
  4. Months later Pasqual is sent down the coast on assignment and encounters Concha singing in a rowdy nightclub. Of course, we expect to see a song from Marlene Dietrich at some point in this film, and she delivers with her naughty “Three Lovers” song, which probably accurately reflects Concha’s amoral attitude about romantic fidelity. The two fo them repair to her dressing room, where Pasqual again professes his desperate love for her, and she seems to respond. But it is soon apparent that Concha is also having an affair with a handsome young bullfighter, Moreno.  When Pasqual breaks in on one of their trysts, he loses all control and gives her a beating (off-camera), thereby presumably ending their relationship.

    As we return momentarily to the “present”, Pasqual tells Galvan that this time he was really through with her.
     
  5. But the next day Concha comes to Pasqual and surprisingly tells him that she loves him.  He pays out more of his money to buy her out of her nightclub contract, but immediately afterwards she abruptly departs on a week-long trip with the bullfighter Moreno.  Pasqual is again humiliated.
Pasqual tells Galvan that his affair with her became public, he was scandalized, and he had to resign from his commission.  After Pasqual summarily points out that she ruined many men – indeed, the bullfighter she ran off with later killed himself because of her – he gets Galvan to swear he will not go near the demonic temptress.

3.  Galvan and Concha
Pasqual and Galvan shake hands and depart, but Galvan still can’t resist going out that evening to meet Concha when she takes her carriage ride. He does so, and she soon brings him to a private room in a nightclub, where she listens to his accusations about ruining Pasqual. In the middle of this, however, she receives a hand-delivered letter from Pasqual declaring his undying love for her, which she reads aloud to Galvan.  He is angry, but he cannot resist the temptation of her beauty, and he kisses her.

Just then Pasqual shows up to their private room, angrily accuses Galvan of breaking his vow, and swears he is “not going to lose her’.  At this, Concha, now on the side of Galvan, continues to humiliate Pasqual and dismissively says, “how could you lose what you never possessed?”

The posturing between Pasqual and Galvan escalates, until Pasqual slaps Galvan in the face,  symbolically inviting a duel.  After agreeing to a formal duel to be held the next morning, Pasqual menacingly fires his pistol at distant target and demonstrates that he is a crack shot. 

With the sound of gunfire, everyone disperses in panic before the police arrive.  Concha finds Galvan in his room and declares her love for him – she promises to run away with him to Paris.

The next morning at a secret location in the woods, the duel is held.  This is a brilliantly staged dark scene set during a pouring rain storm and evoking the utmost in expressionistic gloom. Concha, worried now about hew new love, Galvan, accuses Pasqual of trying to “kill the only man I’ve ever cared for.” The duel is then held, and Pasqual, surprisingly refusing to fire his pistol, is gunned down by Galvan.  The police then show up and jail Galvan.

4.  Escape
Concha still has some cards to play, though.  She goes to Governor Paquito and with her flirtatious charm seduces him into authorising Galvan’s release from jail and providing them with two fake passports so they can escape to Paris.  She also goes to the hospital to see that Pasqual is still alive, barely.  Pasqual, though at every turn he has been defeated, he is always honest: he tells her he didn’t shoot Galvan because of his total love for her.

Concha and Galvan pack their bags, get through passport control, and get ready to board the train for Paris.  At the last moment, though, Concha baulks and says she has changed her mind.   She is going back to Pasqual.


Your overall understanding and appreciation of The Devil is a Woman will probably depend on how you interpret that last action of Concha’s.  Most people, it seems, view with a cynical eye Concha’s final refusal to get on the train with Galvan and return to Pasqual.  From this perspective, Concha is seen as realizing her passion for Galvan is ephemeral and will soon run its course.  She prefers not to give up her role as the puppet master, knowing that she has a helpless slave in “Pasqualito” that she can perpetually use and torment to her heart’s desires.  People who hold this point of view see the film as a black comedy that scoffs at the hopeless naivete of the unrestrained human heart that often actively seeks its own ruin [1].

But one could alternatively interpret Concha’s last action as a commitment to true love.  According to this interpretation, she finally realizes that she has found a man who truly loves her (since he is willing to die and let her run away into another man’s arms).  When she earlier accused Pasqual of only being dazzled by her charm, she was probably thinking of all the otoher men who were blinded by her glamour but didn’t truly love her as a person.  Another point in support of this interpretation is that Pasqual at this point is a man whose career has been ruined.  She is not returning to a privileged man, but to a man whose position is now considerably diminished.  The prospects of treating such a man as a puppet would then not seem to be a major attraction for even a selfish flirt.  So according to this second interpretation, Concha and Pasqual are united in true love in the end.

Of course, some people might want to overlay their interpretation of the film with their understanding of the relationship between Dietrich and von Sternberg. Certainly von Sternberg crafted Dietrich’s screen image and made her a star – their relationship has been variously compared to that of Svengali and Trilby and of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle.  However they got started, though, it is generally understood that had a love affair during their period together.

In addition the suggestion that Concha’s character matches well with Marlene Dietrich’s real-life persona is given support by Dietrich’s own comments that her role in this film was her all-time favourite [2].  She was known to have been an amorous butterfly with an unending stream of brief love affairs with both sexes.  So in real life, Dietrich was perhaps just as capricious as Concha in this film.

Although such speculation may be spicy, I think it is best to focus on the work as it stands by itself.  Looking at just the film as it is, it is still a work of amazing splendour.  Nevertheless, I perceive some weaknesses when comparing it to von Sternberg’s greatest films. 
  • Lionel Atwill’s performance as Pasqual is so reserved and militarily tight-lipped that we never get to see the two of them (Pasqual and Concha) interacting in a spontaneous and vital way. There is never any real electricity between the characters, and there relationship does not appear to evolve or progress.
  • Marlene Dietrich’s behaviour is, virtually throughout, artificial.  The passionate, emotive glances that she sometimes gave in other von Sternberg films are missing in this one.  Her phoney unnaturalness here extends even to her heavy makeup, which featured extravagantly artificial eyebrows that were drawn inches above her physical brow ridge.  As a consequence of this artificiality, she, never evinces even hints of any convincing, true ardour for anyone in this film.
Perhaps, however, we should not really be looking for realism at all in this particular arena.  This film, after all, is really von Sternberg’s grand harlequinade, in which the outlandish characterizations are another aspect of the moody, atmospheric spectacle.  It is all part of an expressionistic masque under the control of the master marionettist, von Sternberg.

So all my previous reservations notwithstanding, I go back to my appreciation for von Sternberg’s aesthetics. What he presents are all-consuming love stories. I don’t know about you, but I hold to the second of the two above interpretations of this film.
★★★½  

Notes:
  1. Andre Sennwald, “The Devil Is a Woman (1935), The New York Times, (4 May 1935).
  2. Charles Silver, “Josef von Sternberg’s The Devil Is a Woman, Inside/Out, Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, (16 November 2010).

“The Adversary” - Satyajit Ray (1970)


The Adversary (Pratidwandi, 1970) is a dramatic Indian film by Satyajit Ray and based on a story by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Although this film’s prominence in Rays’ oeuvre is eclipsed by some of his more famous works, I regard The Adversary to be an outstanding achievement and one of Ray’s best films.  One thing standing in the way of further appreciation of the film today is the poor image condition of the only commercially available version of the film with English subtitles. Derived from a worn-out print from the US, the contrast range of this version's images is so limited that many shots are lost in darkness and key elements are difficult to discern.

Because Ray’s films at that time were increasingly situated in contemporary Indian social settings, there was sometimes a presumption that he was turning his attention to more social and political issues then confronting Indian society. In the case of The Adversary, the setting was contemporary Calcutta (Kolkata) [1], which in those days was convulsed with political turbulence associated with the violent Naxalite Maoist movement then raging across West Bengal.  So critical responses to the film have variously considered it to be ultimately a political commentary [2,3] or, oddly, even a social comedy [4].  In my view, however, the film’s main topic is neither of those – rather, I consider The Adversary’s focus to be a more profound examination of life, itself.  Like Ray’s other great films, this one also explores and reveals the precious nature of personal, existential experience – but here in a modern, contemporary setting.

The story of The Adversary concerns an educated young man struggling to find a job in the big city, where unemployment is rife and many qualified people are scrambling for the few available openings.  The narrative follows him closely as he becomes increasingly frustrated with his circumstances and the indifference of the people around him.  For this film, as was the usual case with Ray, who was the ultimate auteur, he was responsible for the film’s direction, script, and music. 

Given the film’s intimate psychological focus on the main character, Ray’s creative mise-en-scene is particularly effective here at conveying the protagonist’s evolving intentions and apprehensions. The focalization of the film is exclusively on the main character, and the camera follows him around in such minute detail that we get a feeling for the varying rhythms in his life. His life’s tempo includes intermittent stretches of waiting, inactivity and boredom.  Presenting such sequences in a film is risky, since the viewer’s attention can drift away.  But Ray’s cinematic pacing – which involves the use of closeups, camera movements, reaction shots, and on-action editing cuts – is so ingenious and effective that the viewer is always right there and in tune with the protagonist’s mental state.  In fact I think this film’s techniques in this area could serve as a model for other filmmakers.

The presentation of the main character’s mental state includes momentary flashback memories of youthful experiences, as well as imaginings or hallucinations that reflect nightmarish possibilities.  To convey the searing and unbearable emotional effect of some of these internal reflections, Ray sometimes presents them as black-and-white negative images, which transport the viewer into the protagonist’s agitated inner realm.

This may suggest to you that the main character is weird and disturbed.  And yet, to me, this frustrated protagonist is perfectly normal – more normal even than other fictional character’s’ of alienation with whom we can empathize and to which the protagonist in The Adversary might be compared, such as Mersault from Camus’s L’Etranger (1942) or Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976). That feeling of ordinariness and commonality with the main character is one of the things that make this film particularly appealing. 

The protagonist, Siddhartha Chaudhuri (played by Dhritiman Chatterjee), is at a fateful crossroads in his life.  A college graduate, Siddhartha had been studying in medical school, when his father passed away, and the loss of family funding had forced him to drop out and look for a job.  He has been looking for work for more than a year, and now at the age of 25, he is willing to take almost any job.  But he doesn’t want to leave the vibrancy of Calcutta. The provinces for him, as for most all educated young people, meant backwardness and stagnation, something to be avoided at all costs.  Siddhartha’s circumstances resonate almost perfectly with my own past experiences, and I can empathize fully what he was going through.  Perhaps you, too, have had experiences like these.  If so, you will also identify with Siddhartha in this story. 

Ray tells his story by winding through Siddhartha’s life in four rough stages of progression.  I will refer to some underlying story themes over the course of this progression, which may give the false impression that the story is schematized along these lines.  Let me assure you that these themes that I mention are very much in the background and that the story flows with organic naturalism.

1.  Siddhartha’s Situation
Getting a job for an advertised position in the city meant contacting the employer and presenting one’s credentials in some fashion and then hoping to be invited for an interview.  But it seems that employers were inviting more than ten times as many candidates to be interviewed than there were openings in their organizations to be filled.  So one’s chances even at the interview stage were slim.  In the film’s opening sequences, Siddhartha is shown waiting, without much optimistic expectation, to be interviewed for a position at the city’s Botanical Garden Survey Department. When he goes before the three-man interview panel, he reveals himself to the viewer to be an intelligent and thoughtful individual – perhaps too intelligent for the panel.
  • When they ask him if he likes flowers, he responds with, “not unconditionally”.
  • When he is asked who was the British Prime Minister at the time of independence, he first asks, “whose independence?” (after the clarification of which, he responds correctly with “Attlee”).
  • When they ask him what was the most outstanding and newsworthy event of the past decade (this is 1970, remember), he says the war in Viet Nam.  When they ask him why he didn’t choose the Moon landing, he says that the Moon landing was a great achievement, but not unexpected.  The courage and persistence of the Vietnamese people, however, was, to him, more amazing.  The panel then asks him suspiciously if he is a communist.
Needles to say, he doesn’t get the job.  Afterwards he strolls about the city.  He goes to see a movie, which is disrupted by a terrorist bomb attack.  Then he has a chat with an older family friend, Naresh, who may be a Communist Party organizer (but probably not a Naxalite).  It is obvious that Siddhartha is sick of receiving unwanted “fatherly” advice from various older people that he runs into.

Later he sees a buxom woman crossing the street, and he has a mental flashback of a lecture in medical school about the anatomy of the female breast.  These medical school flash memories appear sometimes in the story and represent one of the mental themes that have a hold on his thinking – that of objective science.  Siddhartha has studied medical science and from that perspective, everyone is structured according to objective and verifiable scientific laws.  The overlap between objective science and his interest in women’s breasts, however, is where personal experience shows its priority.

He stops at a monument by a river that runs through the city and looks over at poor people who must bathe and wash in the river.  Turning his head he sees some American hippy tourists all agog at the mystical wonder and beauty of Eastern culture – “‘this is where it all began”, they say.  Somehow we recognize and share Siddhartha’s detached understanding of both perspectives and how far apart the social and those cultural perspectives are.

2.  Siddhartha with his Acquaintances
In the first phase we saw that Siddhartha is alienated from the socio-economic and cultural external world around him.  In the second phase we see how this alienation comes to include his more personal surroundings.

He goes to visit his former medical school roommates, Adinath (“Adi”) and Shiben at their student flat.  Adi, the dominant character, is friendly but totally self-interested. He is seen diligently extracting coins from a Red Cross collection can so that he can pocket the money. 

Later Siddhartha comes home, and we see that he has two younger, but adult, siblings.  One is his self-confident and willful sister, Topu, who does have a job, but whose boss’s wife  suspects is having an affair with her huband in order to advance her career.  His younger brother Tunu is sill in college, but is apparently engaged in radical revolutionary, perhaps a Naxalite, activities.

Siddhartha experiences alienation with these two people, too.  He is sympathetic to revolutionary ideals and was politically active leftist in college, but he is unwilling to dedicate his life to violent insurrection the way Tunu is doing. 

Perhaps more importantly, he feels emotional conflicts with respect to his sister Topu.  She has a job, and he doesn’t, so that makes him uneasy.  In addition, he feels that this position as older brother entitles him to uphold family “honor” and intercede in connection with whatever is going on between Topu and her boss.  In response to that Topu simply dismisses his concerns and confidently informs him that she doesn’t need his interference in her affairs.

Siddhartha has a flashback memory, however, of earlier days as children when he and Topu were very close.  When they were out in the countryside, she called his attention to a beautiful, haunting birdcall, and they both listened enraptured by the sound.  This is a symbolic moment and a key metaphor in the film, because it represents Siddhartha’s responsiveness to the ineffable sweet mystery of life: there is something beautiful and wonderful out there that must be chased and found.  But only some people have the ear for it.  When he later reminds Tunu of the bird song, he knows in advance that his single-minded and near fanatical brother will have no recollection of or sensitivity to something that he probably never even listened to in the first place.

Seeking to follow up on his familial “honor” duties, Siddhartha pays a visit to Topu’s boss, Sanyal, at his home, in order to inform the man that his sister should withdraw from her job.  But Siddhartha’s heart isn’t in it, and his lackluster remonstrances come to nothing.

3.  New Avenues and Old Frustrations
In the third phase, Siddhartha starts to consider other possibilities.  Naresh has given him a letter of introduction and arranged an interview for him with one of his old friends who operates a pharmaceutical distribution company (it has nothing to do with Naresh’s political operations).  At the interview Siddhartha learns that if he were to take the job, he would have to leave Calcutta and work in the provincial city of Ballurghat, some 400 kilometers away. This is something Siddhartha is reluctant to do, and he is given a week to think about the offer.

Siddhartha also has more interactions with Adi.  They go to a bird market so that Siddhartha can track down that bird who made that call, but he doesn’t know the name of the bird and in the market cacophony, he cannot hear the bird calls.  Then Adi takes him to the flat of one of his girlfriends and offers a paid “session” with her to Siddhartha (“she’s all your’s”, he tells his friend). Siddhartha is horrified at the brazenness of it all and runs away in disgust.

On his way home, a young woman calls out to him from a darkened house and asks him if he knows how to replace a blown fuse.  The pretty young woman, Keya (Jayshree Roy) turns out to be someone whom he has met and shared a past class with.  After he fixes the fuse, they cordially, but guardedly, share a tea together.

There are additional unsatisfactory interactions with Topu and Tunu, but these only further serve to underline his separation from them.  At night he has a bizarre nightmare of all his fears: Topu is working as a bathing suit model, Tunu gets executed by a firing squad; and when a nurse comes to attend to Tunu’s fallen body, she turns out to be a conflation of Topu and Keya.

So far, the film has shown Siddhartha being drawn in different directions by conflicting impulses.
  • He feels social obligations about “protecting” his sister.
  • From his medical school experiences, he is attracted to the predictability and power of objective science,.
  • He feels that he had should act to achieve political justice, but he hesitates about carrying out violent injurious acts on individuals, even if they do belong to wrong class.
  • He is drawn to authentic and empathic human engagement with Keya
  • And he is drawn to the mysterious aesthetic call of the bird song that tells him that here is something more to life than what he has seen so far.
Perhaps it is that last item that has made him hesitant so far about some of the other directions and goals in his life.

4.  Becoming Decisive
Siddhartha starts visiting Keya more often now, sometimes taking her out to show her places in Calcutta (she is comparatively new to the city).  She shares with him her unhappy experiences inside her own family. The gradual evolution of their relationship is skillfully and sensitively developed by Ray, and features subtle acting on the part of Dhritiman Chatterjee and Jayshree Roy.  At a café he tells her, somewhat optimistically, that he’s a doctor and that he can answer health questions for her.  Referring back to his faith in objective science, he asserts that all bodies are basically alike, unless there is an abnormality.  She hesitates about this and says,
“and yet though we are all the same, . . . . how different we really are.”  
This channels Siddhartha back into his aesthetic mode, and he agrees with her.

Siddhartha tells Keya that he has one more interview opportunity for a job in Calcutta; otherwise he will have to take up the job offer in far away Balurghat.  She tells him that if he leaves Calcutta,  she will also leave and go to study in Delhi.

At the interview waiting room, he sees that there are 75 applicants for just four available positions.  The applicants will have to wait more than three hours, most of them standing up because of the shortage of chairs, in stultifying mid-summer heat for their three-minute opportunities before the interview panel.  In the steaming waiting room, one of the applicants faints to the floor and has to be carried away.  When Siddhartha humbly asks the interviewer to provide more chairs and mentions that someone in the waiting room has already fainted, they tell him that anyone who faints is unfit to work for them.  Siddhartha continues to wait quietly, but he starts hallucinating again.  At one point he recalls another lecture about the human skeleton and imagines that all the people in the waiting room are skeletons – again the scientific perspective offers no solace for the human who suffers.  Eventually his strained patience runs out, and he explodes.  He storms into the interview room, accusing the panel of being inhuman, and dumps their desk over before leaving in a huff.  So much for that opportunity.


The final scenes show Siddhartha on the way to and entering Balurghat, far from Calcutta.  He has accepted the out-of-town job offer.  In his small room, he begins to pen a letter to Keya.
“Today I left behind many people I have known for a long time.  Isn’t it strange that I think of you more than any of them?   After all, we haven’t known each other very long. . . .
    . . .
I don’t expect to live in comfort here. But compared with your trouble, this is nothing. What little there is will vanish when I receive your letter. . . I’m very tired, so I won’t write any more today. . . Just one thing more before I finish. . . . . . ”
But then he is interrupted by a sound from outside his window.  It is that mysterious bird song that he had long chased.  With that the film ends.


I have already mentioned the superb camera work, pacing, and editing of The Adversary.  I should also add to its list of virtues the excellent acting performances in the film.  All of the performances are subtle, nuanced, and authentic – even the minor characters. Together these elements combine to make an exceptional cinematic work.

Viewers will undoubtedly think of Gautama Buddha when they think of Siddhartha’s name in this film.  But perhaps a more direct reference is Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922), whose title character had to experience the full range of possible human engagements before he was ready to achieve enlightenment. 

At the end of The Adversary, there seems to be no overt resolution to Siddhartha’s problems.  He has had to leave Calcutta and gone work in a provincial city.  He is separated from further development of his budding relationship with Keya.  He is alienated from all his friends and family.  And the sociopolitical situation in India that he abhors shows no sign or pathway towards improvement.  Nevertheless there is a positive note at the end.  He has heard that bird song calling him, and he is going to continue to respond to its ethereal call.  I am with him on that one.
★★★★
                   
Notes:
  1. The Adversary is sometimes referred to as the initial offering of Ray’s loosely characterized Calcutta Trilogy, which included Seemabaddha (Company Limited, 1971), and Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976), although there is little connection among the three films.
  2. Acquarello, “The Adversary, 1972", Strictly Film School, (6 January 2008). 
  3. Dennis Schwartz , "Beautifully Observed Political Film of Disenfranchisement”, Ozu’s World Movie Reviews, (18 February 2011).
  4. Vincent Canby, “The Adversary (1971)”, The New York Times, (9 October 1972).

“Chaudhvin Ka Chand” - Mohammed Sadiq (1960)


Chaudhvin Ka Chand (English meaning: “Full Moon”, 1960) was one of a string of great films produced by renowned Indian producer/director/actor Guru Dutt (Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone).  It was released less than nine months after Dutt’s now-famous Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), which at the time was such a commercial and critical disaster that it ended Dutt’s career as a film director. With Chaudhvin Ka Chand, however, Dutt, still in the roles of producer and lead actor, came back with a big hit that reestablished his reputation. From today’s perspective, I would say that this film does not contain the searing expressionism characteristic of Dutt’s greatest films, like Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool – it is much lighter in weight, which perhaps accounts for why it went down better with the public at the time. Nevertheless, there are some virtues and interesting characteristics of Chaudhvin Ka Chand that make it still worth watching today.


One of the interesting aspects of the film is its socially contextual subject matter.  Set in Lucknow, in the midst of its substantial and cultured Muslim sector of society, the film can be considered what in Indian genre parlance is termed a “Muslim social”.  In this case it rather deftly takes on some social matters with generally light-hearted brush strokes.  In particular, a primary theme of the film concerns purdah, the South Asian Muslim practice of restricting women from interacting with any men apart from their own close family members. In this tradition, when women go out of their homes, they must wear burqas and face veils that keep them completely covered from view. Of course in such circumstances, young men are often interested in getting glimpses of women’s faces behind those veils, but they often wind up with very limited information.  This problem lies as the heart of Chaudhvin Ka Chand and eventually reaches farcical proportions. 
           
Another positive feature is Dutt’s justly famous mise-en-scene, which encompasses
  • moody, expressionistic scene lighting
  • in-depth compositions
  • dramatic camera movements
  • reactive, emotive closeups
  • songs embedded in and complementing the narrative

To achieve this in Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Dutt had much of his production partners again.  This included cinematographer V. K. Murthy and screenwriter Abrar Alvi.  Partly in consideration of the “Muslim social” subject matter, Dutt recruited veteran Mohammed Sadiq to direct the film, although Dutt presumably had a strong influence in the film’s direction, as well.  And, again, Dutt’s cast included two of his favorites, Waheeda Rehman and Johnny Walker (Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi). Whether just from built-up experience or for some other reasons, I think their performances in this film were more natural and narratively engaged than in Dutt’s earlier films.

Of particular note is the film’s music.  Although Dutt's usual musical composer S. D. Burman had disconnected from Dutt after Kaagaz Ke Phool, Dutt hooked up with another outstanding  composer in Ravi (Ravi Shankar Sharma, not the famous sitar player Ravi Shankar).  To convey the Sufi-oriented qawwali music associated with Lucknow, Dutt used Urdu poet and lyricist Shakeel Badayuni.  Together with the playback singers (Mohammad Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt, and Asha Bhosle), they produced music that greatly enhanced the story and fit perfectly with it.  In particular, I found the lyp-syncing to be outstanding – the best I have seen (and heard) in connection with Indian playback songs.

The story of Chaudhvin Ka Chand concerns how the practice of purdah obscures and entangles two men friends who fall in love with the same woman.  These things happen all the time in many contexts, and I find them invariably excruciatingly painful, because there is no possibility of a mutually satisfying resolution.  Such anguish was only intensified in the honor-bound circumstances of upper-level Lucknow society. 

Beyond the specifics of the purdah practice, there are two more general and contrasting social forces that exert influence over what takes place:
  • Male (or manly) Bonding (MB) and loyalty among close male friends.  This is regarded in some quarters as a special virtue that defines a man’s character and sense of self.  In this context women are viewed not as soul mates but as possessions that can even by traded in order to cement male bonding.
  • Selfless Love (SL).  This is the dissolution of self and the immersion in the beloved.
At various points in the film, MB and SL are shown in high relief.  With these elements in the background, the story progresses through six phases.

1.  Three Friends
The first section of the film introduces the viewer to three close friends,
  • Pyare Mohan (played by Rehman) is a wealthy young aristocrat and generally referred to with the honorific “Nawab” (I will use that reference in the following).
  • Shaida (Johnny Walker) is the wayward son of a prominent police inspector.  As usual with Johnny Walker roles, this outrageously effeminate character’s presence is primarily for comic relief.
  • Aslam (Guru Dutt) is a young businessman whose parents have passed away.  He was financially rescued by the Nawab and almost adopted into his privileged family.
They are so closely tied by male bonding (MB) that Shaida at one point in the story refers to the three of them as one life in three bodies.

Early on, Shaida and the Nawab are at a bazaar/fair, where women in attendance are completely covered in their burqas.  By chance, however, the Nawab catches a brief glimpse of a momentarily uncovered young woman, Jamila (Waheeda Rehman) and becomes instantly infatuated.  Later at an all-woman birthday party at the Nawab’s house for his sister, he spies on the young ladies from an adjacent room and notices with delight that his new beloved is in attendance.  

At the party the girls sing an engaging and meaningful song about how hejab-clad women are perpetually readjusting their veils, while interested men stealthily look on and yearn for more.
“Tell those in love not to provoke moon-faced beauties. . . . Tell them to keep away from beautiful women.     Should they be pleased, they will give you love. . . Should they be cross, there could be carnage.“
An underlying theme to the song is that were it not for those onlookers, beauty itself would have no meaning. 

The Nawab’s friends (under MB pressure to help), as well as one of his maids, seek to find the identity of the girl he loves, but the first of a series of misidentifications in the film takes place.  Since noone but the Nawab has caught a glimpse of her, the only evidence they have is a torn piece from the girl’s veil that the Nawab had picked up. The wrong girl is identified, and because of purdah, the Nawab’s only option is to send his emissaries (Aslam and Shaida) to the family to issue a marriage proposal.

2.   A Misarranged Wedding
Up to this point the film has basically been a light-hearted farce. But now things get complicated.  The Nawab’s mother has arranged for him to get married to a young woman that neither she nor the Nawab has seen.  But, of course, the Nawab wants to marry the woman he saw in the bazaar, so he wants to get out of this arrangement.  So he exerts his male-bonding (MB) pressure on Aslam to marry this yet-unseen girl that his mother has arranged for him. The viewer is probably not surprised that this woman turn out to be Jamila, the very girl that the Nawab pines for.

At the wedding of Aslam and Jamila, the bride is completely covered, so one, including the Nawab, can identify as the girl the Nawab wants.  Aslam is delighted with his bride, whom he only sees face-to-face after the ceremony.  There is a memorable performance of the title song when the newly married couple are finnaly alone in the bedroom, and this is the highlight of the film.  Meanwhile the Nawab learns that the girl Aslam and Shaida had earlier identified for him is the wrong one.

3.  Another Woman Identified
Now there are more shenanigans in attempts to locate the right girl for the Nawab (even though we know that the one he wants is at home with Aslam). Shaida dresses up as a bearded beggar and goes to the bazaar to find the woman, but again a mistake is made.  This time they wind up thinking that Aslam’s sister is the girl the Nawab wants.

Meanwhile we see that the naughty Shaida is in love with a nautch girl, Tameezan (Minoo Mumtaz) who sings, dances, and gives favors for a price. 

4.  A Chance Encounter
The Nawab is now convinced that Aslam’s sister is the one he is after.  He goes to their house to deliver some ceremonial gifts, and by chance, sees Jamila.  There is a shock of recognition on the Nawab’s part and further confusing events, but eventually it dawns on Aslam that his new wife, whom he now loves passionately, is the girl that the Nawab has been seeking.  He confirms this by showing a picture of his wife (and not telling who it is) to the Nawab, who immediately grabs it and, to Aslam’s horror, kisses it passionately.  Aslam rushes out of the house and sings a song of despair, moaning
“What was true for me is now a story.”
5.  Aslam’s Decision
Aslam is now faced with a horrible (and for me, incredible) dilemma.  He loves and is devoted to his wife, but he feels his loyalties to the Nawab require that he give his wife to the Nawab.  This is MB at its extreme. 

The only solution Aslam can come up with is to feign being an unfaithful and derelict husband by going to brothels.  This will force his wife to divorce him, and make her available to the Nawab.  Naturally, when Aslam goes to a brothel, it turns out, by chance, to be Tameezan’s quarters.  Although Aslam is only faking it and is not actually doing anything with Tameezan, everyone else is fooled.  When Shaida learns of Aslam’s activities, he is disturbed, but then his MB instincts take hold, and he says,
"If he likes Tameezan, she's his. I think if a friend can't make this little sacrifice, he's no good."
Among these men, women are little more than prized possessions. Meanwhile Jamila’s brothers, having heard of Aslam’s supposedly dissolute ways, threaten to kill him in order to uphold family “honor”.  When Jamila learns of their plans, she confronts them with almost an ode to selfless love (SL) :
“If he comes home late at night, I’ll wait all night for him. . . .Then I’ll feed him like a slave. . . .Press his legs till he sleeps.  That’s how I’ll attain heaven. . . . “
. . .
“I’m his servant, not his wife.  .  .  I can lay down my life for one smile from him.“
6.  The Denouement
The film’s final section is highly melodramatic. Aslam feels that if all else fails, his MB duty requires him to commit suicide. And eventually the Nawab learns, just before his wedding is to take place (to Aslam’s sister), that Aslam’s wife is the woman he wants. To heighten the dramatic tension, the presentation moves into parallel action, with scene switches back and forth between the preparations for the wedding ceremony and anguished activities elsewhere. 

I’ll leave it to you to watch the film and see how it all ends up.


Despite the outlandish and improbable nature of Chaudhvin Ka Chand’s plot, there are a number of things I like about the film.  In particular, I liked how the film took on the problematic nature of the purdah practice and demonstrated how keeping the visibility of women hidden from their potential fiances is a fully dysfunctional practice, even when everyone is trying to play the  game according to its crazy rules.

Another appealing aspect was the music, which complemented the story.  There were several songs – all sung with playback singers, but realistically presented – that I particularly liked:
  • The party song (mentioned above) about why and how women wear veils.
  • The song at Aslam’s wedding featuring Johnny Walker’s (Shaida’s) extravagant dancing and horn-tooting.
  • Two songs at separate points in the film by the nautch girl, Tameezan.
  • Aslam’s song of despair.
  • Jamila’s sad song when Aslam starts coming home late – “my master seems to have changed”.
  • The titular “Full Moon” song, which was the best of all of them [1].
In addition some of the performances were memorable. Guru Dutt and Johnny Walker present engaging characters who are good-hearted and well-intentioned, despite being hamstrung by social conventions of male-bonding. However, the Nawab character, as played by Rehman, was hard to take throughout.  When he is satisfied, he comes across as a person mostly devoted to striking self-satisfied poses (happening upon a picture of the Nawab early in the film, Jamila observes, "he probably thinks no end of himself"). Otherwise he is overbearingly selfish and presumptuous. 

Though Waheeda Rehman doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver in this story, I thought her performance was particularly moving. Her sensitive expressiveness demonstrates, more effectively than a doctrinal tract on the subject, that women should not be hidden behind a veil.
★★★

Notes:
  1. With color films starting to become popular in mainstream Indian cinema during the late 1950s, Dutt had the title song and one of the nautch girl dance songs reshot in color.  The version of Chaudhvin Ka Chand that I saw, however, was entirely in black-and-white.

Alain Resnais

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