Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Devil Is a Woman

Marlene Dietrich has always been a great hero of mine. If there is some sort of illuminati pyramid of cool in my personal pantheon, Dietrich is its apotheosis.

She worked with Hitchcock, Welles and Wilder, but the films she made with Josef Von Sternberg were both the bedrock and zenith of her legend. He didn't exactly discover her (she had made a number of German films) but he saw Dietrich in Marlene before even she did. They made masterpieces like The Blue Angel, Morocco and Shanghai Express, but also some films that didn't quite meet that mark. Their last two projects were The Scarlet Empress and The Devil Is a Woman, both beacons of high glamour, echt-exotica and design taken so far over the top it becomes both substance and surrealism.

The film was based on the novel Le Femme et Le Pantin by French poet and literary stylist Pierre Louys and a painting by Goya (yeah, this was back before we based movies on video games) but any storyline is simply an excuse for visual audacity. We open with a Spanish Carnival scene, plenty of costumed extras and streamers and confetti and elaborate pan shots and there, in the middle of it all is -- Dietrich! Wearing the most fabulous lace mask and net mantilla. There is not an outfit in this film that is not fully gay-gasp worthy. Cesar Romero is entranced, follows her home and is turned away at the door but learns the lovely lady with the exquisite millinery is one Concha Perez.

He's supposed to hook up with her later, but first he meets his old army buddy Pasquale. Cesar Romero explains that "For the last five years I've known nothing but jail, exile and manifestoes." Yes, certainly a lifestyle that leaves one in tight pants, patent-leather hair, gleaming teeth and a mustache that must have its own personal groomer. But even stranger is Pasquale, played by Lionel Atwill done up to look exactly like Josef Von Sternberg. Naturally,  he and Concha have a past.
"She is the most dangerous woman you'll ever meet." Thus comes about a lengthy flashback in which Pasquale Von Sternberg recounts his own run-ins with Concha La Dietrich, a peasant girl with two-inch beaded false eyelashes, a cigarette factory worker in a 15-inch high handcarved tortoiseshell hair comb. She and her ogre of a mother literally reel off a list of bills he is expected to pay. Concha jumps into his lap and kisses him, then jumps off screaming "Don't touch me!" She screeches at him about being unfaithful, throws him out and then is enraged that he has gone away. If none of this sounds like the cynical ice queen Dietrich we know and love, it's because it's not. She looks like Marlene Dietrich, but she acts like Marion Davies.

"How did you earn that money?"
"I? Earn anything?"

Concha -- or, to follow the pretense, Concha's mother ('cause i totally see the family resemblance between them) cleans out their benefactor several times, while Dietrich puckers, pouts and tilts her head back and forth like a flirtatious parrot. But, still, the outfits. Girl lives in the ghetto but rocks nonstop couture: It's okay for your blouse to be torn, if your have fifty bucks worth of flowers in your hair.

Not only that, but she clearly has a hair and makeup staff, as well as at least two wardrobe assistants -- the woman does change outfits from spitcurls to stockings, panties to pumps three times in one day. As always, Dietrich herself was as responsible for her "look" as director Von Sternberg or costume designer Travis Banton. The film can perhaps be best appreciated as one spectacular ensemble after another. (Devil is especially beloved by fashionistas.) Dig this "Queen of Hearts" styling...
Oh, yeah, since this is a Marlene Dietrich film, she winds up headlining a flashy cabaret act. In her run-down Spanish village.

She sings a number called "Three Sweethearts Have I" about all of the gifts she gets from her many suitors. They give her flowers and cakes and vegetables "and other things that aren't so nice." We are left to guess what those things are. A snuggie? Meth? The clap? The unwashed dildo that guy on the right is wearing on his nose? They cut a number entitled "If It Isn't Pain, It Isn't Love." Alas, we will never know what manner of elaborate, haute-chic domme drag Marlene would have come up with for that one...

Pasquale shells out even more cash, which she passes on to the bullfighter she keeps on the side. Pasquale is angry, Concha La Dietrich is disdainful of his rage: "What right have you to tell me what to do?  Are you my father? No! Are you my husband? No! Are you my lover? No! Well, I must say, you're content with very little!" And, with that, she saunters off into the rain and out of his life. In a sequined gown, of course.

Then, of course we're out of flashback -- most of the film is flashback -- and all that is left is for Cesar Romero de Tightpants to have a last meeting with Concha La Dietrich, which is crashed by Pasquale Von Sternberg. Words are exchanged, we have the talk of honor, the slapping of the glove and the duel. That's the men: Concha throws in two more costume changes and twirls her parasol.

This is her "I've come to visit you in prison" outfit. To be fair, it is also her "I'm going to see the governor and flutter my three-inch eyelashes at him until he sets you free" outfit. Eventually, she chooses one of the two men, although the decision seems pretty arbitrary and definitely not permanent.
Dietrich herself claimed that The Devil Is a Woman was her favorite of her films, "because I was most beautiful." She would have done better to claim Shanghai Express in which she is equally breathtaking and actually called upon her to act -- and in something with an actual story, no less! Von Sternberg was notorious for retakes -- in this film, Dietrich demanded her own when an eyelid twitched, a hair fluttered, taking his dictatorial attitude toward her and turning it on herself. As she later said, "The emphasis on the way I looked became a burden to bear, almost to great to enjoy."
Later in life she became one of those legendary beauties like the Comtesse de Castigilone who, once aged beyond the help of cosmetics or lighting or artifice or attitude, never leave the house again. So Marlene Dietrich spent the last years of her life seen by no one. The admiring eyes of all brings privilege but it's also a prison. It's great when you're proud of what they see and what you are (at that point, what they see so overwhelms that it is what you are, by default), but when that fades, when you no longer enter a room to admiring eyes but shocked whispers -- or complete indifference -- it's easier to close the door on the world for good.
Part of the problem in this movie is that you don't like anybody. Now, don't get me wrong, i love an antihero as much as anyone and probably more than most. But basically the characters of The Devil Is a Woman can be summed up as Concha is a bitch and everyone else is pathetic. Even when Dietrich's characters were heartless or amoral or simply ice-cold (and they often were), there was a core of nobility to her, a reason for her actions. Concha's only motivation seems to be "I do whatever I want." All well and good, except the only thing she seems to want is to take advantage of the suckers all around her. She is the femme fatale at its most one-dimensional -- a tragic thing in an actress who could convey emotional odysseys with a curl of her lip and entire philosophies with a raised eyebrow.
But perhaps Dietrich was too dazzled by beauty and Von Sternberg was too wracked by the fact that that beauty, the woman who had inspired his greatest art, was about to walk out of his life. One wants to write her off as a narcissist and him as an obsessive but, really, what more perfect relationship could there be? And so The Devil Is a Woman lacks depth but oh, what a glorious surface it is...

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