Watching a crowd of mostly senior citizens file out of a recent Tuesday revival matinee at LACMA, I envied them. I can think of worse company for my twilight years than a host of elegant old films made out of sheer movie love and presuming nothing in advance about their audiences’ lack of sophistication. The past, in any case, is glamorous just by virtue of being different from the present — and almost any past would look stylish, not to say baroque, by current minimalist standards. Though we of the turning millennium have our excesses, they can hardly be called extravagances of style when every second person you meet, on- or offscreen, is got up in Gap or Banana Republic, when art is elephant dung hung in a New York gallery, when shopping malls are the places we go to see and be seen, when we build a concert hall with mouse ears to house our classical music. I love the Disney concert hall, but for better or worse, we’ve lost the art — or maybe the trick — of lushness. All the more fun, then, that LACMA’s other film series this month abound with remembrance of glittering things past — the sirens of Howard Hawks movies, the Roaring ’20s in French silents. Short of the Renaissance, though, there is probably no period, place or sensibility more glamorously made for cinema (indeed, cinema was first made during it) than fin-de-siècle Paris and Vienna, whose heady innovations in politics, culture, ball gowns and all-around decadence are the subject of “La Belle Époque on Film,” a selection of mostly French films (from Max Ophüls by way of René Clair, Truffaut, Tavernier, all the way through Olivier Assayas’ most recent film) that recapture the era from a more chastened vantage point, two world wars later.
Even by our own sped-up standards, the Belle Époque — which lasted roughly from the late 1880s to World War I — was a time of frenzied change, or at least movement. In Vienna the complacencies of 19th-century liberalism and the idea of progress fell victim to modernist avant-garde challenges in painting (Klimt, Kokoschka), literature (Schnitzler) and even in the re-conception of the self (Freud). Paris was flirtier and dirtier: As writer Joanna Hunter noted recently in a New York Times piece on the Moulin Rouge, the city became “a haven for the political, the poetical, the pickled and the downright perverted.” Class boundaries shifted as aristocracies fell and communards rose, as bluebloods spent themselves in orgies of conspicuous consumption in ornate salons, or went slumming in the seething new variety halls, circuses and cafés of Montmartre, mingling with courtesans, prostitutes and actresses until it wasn’t clear which was which. Of all the artists (Gauguin, Villard, Renoir, Bonnard, Modigliani, Proust) who embodied or inveighed against the decadence of the period (many did both), Toulouse-Lautrec was its most representative, an aristocrat who both loved and loathed the Moulin Rouge as he feverishly documented its debauched excesses until he died at 37 of absinthe and syphilis — just as the penniless Modigliani died of drink and heartbreak, ignored until after his death by a new generation of ruthlessly opportunistic art dealers.
“La Belle Époque on Film” is timed to tie in with the new Modigliani exhibit at LACMA, so it’s a pity that the one film about the artist, Jacques Becker’s 1958 Montparnasse 19 (also known as Modigliani), is one of the weaker offerings of the series’ first week. Becker, a disciple of Jean Renoir and an admirer of Ophüls, inherited the film after the death of Ophüls, who wrote the screenplay. Though it has a lovely noir look, the movie feels glum and lifeless despite the luminous presence of actor-singer Gérard Philipe (who also died at 37) as Modigliani, and as his long-suffering wife a stunningly young, yet already stately Anouk Aimée, who has little to do but stand around looking magnifique et tragique. Only Lilli Palmer, as the artist’s former mistress, an iconoclastic drunk with a taste for being slapped around, lightens things up. Plodding through his anguish, Philipe’s Modigliani is the stereotype of the uncompromising artist starving in a garret while indifferent Parisians and vulgar collectors go their callow way. A less mawkish, more persuasively passionate feel for the period’s subterranean tragedies is to be found in Jacques Becker’s broody 1952 drama Casque d’Or, about the seamy underside of Impressionist-era Paris. Though its thematic relationship to the Belle Époque seems tangential, the movie is a must-see (not least because it is not available on video or DVD) for Simone Signoret’s smoldering turn as a hooker who falls for, and fatally endangers, Serge Reggiani’s honest carpenter.
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Livelier and more sympathetic to the giddy insouciance of the age is Ernst Lubitsch’s lavish 1934 MGM musical adaptation of Franz Léhar’s operetta The Merry Widow, with Maurice Chevalier as a Viennese playboy charged with preventing Jeanette MacDonald’s wealthy widow from marrying a Frenchman. Trying to ingratiate himself with the willful widow, Chevalier — whose facile charm hasn’t worn well — says, “Be a nahs girl . . . Ah’ve trahd to put a leetle moonlaht in yoor lahf.” To which the ineffably funny MacDonald later replies, “I’m not your slave. After all, we’re living in 1885.” She’s a treat to behold wearing a black tulle nightie in a white clamshell bed and, later, a traveling costume that looks like a bunch of holly. The cancan numbers are wild, the décor over the top, and Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda’s urbane script, at once mocking and celebrating this gilded age, is full of cheeky, pre-Code double entendres.
Whether guided by aesthetic considerations or constrained by limited access, LACMA film curator Ian Birnie has sidestepped some obvious choices — none of the myriad Moulin Rouge incarnations, from Alice Guy’s 1913 silent movie to John Huston’s 1952 Toulouse-Lautrec biopic to Baz Luhrmann’s overstuffed 2001 extravaganza, are featured. Nor is Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, whose breezy early scenes capturing the careless experimentalism of the Belle Époque subside into a wistfully mature regret about its failures and the destruction wrought by World War I. Absent also is Raul Ruiz’s brilliant and daring 1999 film Time Regained, in which a dying Marcel Proust mulls over his idyllic childhood and his adult life as a party animal and bondage freak in the Paris salons at the turn of the century. One seminal scene in that film, in which the camera glides after Proust as he passes from one salon room and one time period to the next, is surely either a crib or a comment on a famous sequence in Max Ophüls’ 1952 movie The Earrings of Madame de . . . , which deservedly opens “La Belle Époque on Film.” In this magnificent movie, whose style mimics the anxiously trivial restlessness of the period, a frivolous young society matron (played with delicacy and wit by a regal Danielle Darrieux), trapped in an arid marriage to a military man (Charles Boyer) and wasting her days in flirtation and ceaseless buying of jewels and clothes, whirls through a whole season of balls in one of Ophüls’ beloved endless tracking shots (of which James Mason fondly observed, “A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for poor dear Max”) with a new lover (Vittorio De Sica). As she goes she finds herself falling in love for the first time, and as the earrings she has secretly sold pass from hand to hand and return to haunt her, she moves from callow frivolity to true love to full-blown tragedy. Exquisitely made, The Earrings of Madame de . . . at once pays homage to a sumptuously consumerist age and lays bare the period’s underlying sickness. If, as some famous egghead once said, history is what one age finds worthy of note in another, perhaps we should be taking notes, the better to see our own less glam, but equally steep fall from grace.
LA BELLE ÉPOQUE ON FILM | At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art | July 18–August 2