"Felix si Otilia” - Iulian Mihu (1972)

Felix si Otilia (Felix and Otilia,1972) is a Romanian romantic drama directed by Iulian Mihu and based on the novel Enigma Otiliei (Otilia's Riddle, 1938) by the famous Romanian writer and literary scholar George Calinescu. Some reviewers have complained that Mihu’s film production strayed too far from Calinescu’s original material and, in particular, lost track of some of the alleged social themes covered in the novel.  Not having read Calinescu’s novel, I cannot comment on that issue, but I can say that the film, as it stands on its own, is a bizarre and haunting masterpiece.  It deserves more exposure on the wider world stage.

What Mihu has done is present the viewer with a broad, expressionistic tapestry concerning love  and its various manifestations within the mad swirl in which we struggle to find our places.  In particular, within the scope of all the ways love is supposedly sought for and expressed, there is a focus in this tale on the elusiveness of true love.

The story of the film is set mostly in a wealthy landed estate in Bucharest, sometime in the early years of the 20th century.  Felix Sima (played by Radu Boruzescu) is a young student who has come to Bucharest to study medicine and intends to stay at the estate of his wealthy but eccentric uncle, Costache Giurgiuveanu (Herman Chrodower).  The only person he knows in Costache’s extended household is his cousin Otilia Marculescu (Julieta Szönyi), who is Costache’s stepdaughter and who was Felix’s playmate many years ago when they were children.

Early on there is established two parallel and what seem to be rather separate narrative threads:
  1. The Greedy Family Quest for Costache’s Money.  
    Costache Giurgiuveanu is a crotchety and self-centered old man approaching senility.  His younger relatives living with him at his large estate are all equally self-centered in their various ways.  Since none of them seem capable of making their own way, they are concerned about how they can secure a large portion of Costache’s money after the old man dies (which event appears to be imminent).  To make things more difficult for them, Costache is selling off various elements of the family estate and hiding the cash from everyone. So when Costache dies, it is feared that a large portion of the estate will be lost to the relatives. Some of these relatives are:
    • Aglae Tulea (Clot Bertola), Costache Giurgiuveanu’s sister.  She is a stoic cynic who tries to look after the practical affairs of the estate.
    • Olimpia Ratiu (Gina Patrichi) is a married daughter of Aglae.
    • Stanica Ratiu (Gheorghe Dinica), Olimpia’s husband, is a lawyer and an outlandishly greedy gold-digger who devotes all his energies towards extracting money from his in-laws and acquaintances. He does have some money but not enough to support his visions of a lavish lifestyle.
    • Aurica Tulea (Elena Dacian), another daughter of Aglae and unmarried, is obsessed with her fears of spinsterhood,, and she aggressively beseeches every eligible bachelor she meets to consider marrying her.
    • Titi Tulea (Ovidiu Schumacher), son of Aglae, is another self-centered and unemployed individual who fancies himself to be a fine artist.
    • Simion Tulea (Árpád Kemény), Aglaei’s husband, is already senile and mired in his own selfish fantasies of resentment.
  2. The Romance of Felix and Otilia.  
    Felix is clearly in love with Otilia, and he makes little effort to disguise his affections for her. Otilia seems to respond to Felix accordingly, but the situation is complicated by her being courted by wealthy and gentlemanly landlord Leonida Pascalopol (Sergiu Nicolaescu). Throughout the film Felix and Otilia have various romantic encounters, but Felix has difficulty getting Otilia to commit and bring their relationship to full fruition.
What connects these two seemingly disparate narrative threads is the nature of love in its various guises and manifestations.  To be sure, true love is the most profound experience we can have in life and represents the most authentic encounter of one’s true, inner nature with the world.  Compared to these authentic encounters, everything else we experience is bizarre, fragmentary, and meaningless. And this is how things are portrayed expressionistically in this film.  Most of the scenes from the first narrative thread not involving Felix or Ortilia show characters who are exaggerated phonys, in fact, almost clownishly so.  This gives the first narrative thread the character of a phantasmagoria – like a house of horrors – and it offers a striking contrast with the characterological authenticity of the scenes in the Felix and Otilia thread.

Mihu achieves this moody effect by locating much of the film inside the ornately decorated mansion that serves as Costache’s estate house.  In fact the production design is key to this film’s effectiveness, and evidence of that emphasis can be detected when note is taken of the fact that Radu Boruzescu, who plays the role of Felix, was primarily a film production designer, not an actor.

The lush feelings of the interiors in the film are presumably enhanced by a new color photography technique, Graphys Color, that was invented by Alexandru Intorsureanu and Gheorghe Fischer and which was used for the first time in this film.

But the most important production technique of all is the use of the many extended camera tracking shots that sinuously course through the labyrinthine and claustrophobic interiors as they follow the action.  This is what really creates and sustain’s Felix si Otilia’s moody atmosphere.

In the various contexts presented in the film, the viewer is exposed to a number of different ways that love, or the imitation of it, takes shape in the world.  Some contrasting examples are embodied by the following characters:
  • Aurica  
    Aurica is desperate to find a husband and is essentially selling what she calls love to anyone who will offer a settled marital existence for her.  Yet there is a certain naive sincerity about this plaintive selling of herself.
  • Weissmann  
    Felix’s fellow medical school student Weissmann is an avowed proponent of free love.  For him this means the mutual momentary satisfaction of sexual desire with no thoughts of a longer-lasting amorous union.  He finds a willing partner in Aurica.
  • Georgeta  
    Georgeta is a beautiful mistress of a general who has a brief affair with Felix when Otilia is away. She sincerely offers her unrestricted affection to whomever appeals to her fancy.

  • Stanica  
    The lawyer Stanica is a hypocritical narcissist, who uses the external, conventional signs of “love” for his utilitarian purposes. When towards the end he secures his fortune, he cold-bloodedly uses his legal skills to annul his marriage to Olimpia and then marry the beautiful Georgeta.
  • Pascalopo  
    The aristocrat Pascalopo sincerely loves Otilia, but in a paternal way.  There is no clear passion between the two, and he essentially sees Otilia as the daughter that he had always wanted.
All of these other expressions of love contrast with Felix’s soulful and fully immersive love for Otilia. Otilia seems to genuinely love Felix, too, but she has questions – she wonders whether their love can stand the test of time.  She is a little older than Felix and feels that her beauty will begin to fade when she reaches the age of thirty.  And she is also curious about Felix’s ambition to become a doctor and wonders if his professional goals would take precedence over their love.

At what appears to be a joyful and culminating point in the story, Otilia finally avows her total love for Felix.  But the next morning, Felix finds her bed empty and that she has run off for good with Pascalopo. In her farewell missive to Felix that he finds, she tells him that she ultimately thought she would wind up being a drag on his professional career and that he should now forget all about her. So her pragmatic doubts about love’s infinite possibilities finally took hold of her and ended their chances for lasting bliss.

In the final scene some years have passed, and Felix is shown now serving as military medic during World War I. He is attending to the wounded and dying soldiers after a horrific battle and is shocked to discover Pascalopo, who has been mortally wounded. With little strength left, Pascalopo tells him to pull out a picture from his pocket. Asked if he recognizes the person in the picture, Felix says, no. Pascalopo tells him that the unrecognizable figure is Otilia. Then Pascalopo dies before Felix can find out where Otilia is now, and the film comes to its somber end.

The beauty of Felix si Otilia is the aura of fatalism accompanying its melancholy portrayal of love – love that inevitably finds itself cast into the context of a practical world that appears, in comparison to the authenticity of true love’s profound experiences, as a phantasmagoric show of fakery and false love. True love is real, but it is elusive and ephemeral.  When it does come, it is only in those loving moments that we are truly alive.  It must then be embraced and held for as long as possible. For only as long love endures, we, in the sense of our truly authentic being, endure.

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