A note on a wipe/fade in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

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Perhaps the most beautiful combination of horizontal wipe and fade; and an example of Lubitsch inventiveness with film form and the depth of expressiveness he was able to extract from it. Just before this sequence, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich), a fallen woman, has arrived at the races, shocking everyone with her presence, her too chic moderne dress, and luxuriant feather hairdress. She turns  back to look intently at Lady Windermere. We know she’s her mother because she’s been blackmailing Lord Windermere with the threat of making that knowledge public. It would ruin the daughter who thinks her mother’s dead; and it would not be without cost to Lord Windermere’s own reputation. That threat of blackmail is  how she has the money for the races and for the clothes. She looks at her daughter with a mother’s longing but the gentleman behind her mistakes that glance and is delightedly assuming it is directed at him.

As Mrs. Erlynne leaves, he follows her, a woman of easy virtue who likes being chased and enjoys being caught. We see first Mrs. Erlynne walking through the frame. Then her suitor does the same. Then we cut to Mrs. Erlynne walking but now near the left of the frame as the suitor enters from the right. They’re now both in the picture. As he walks faster and catches up with her, the wiping fade moves to the right until the wipe/fade snaps to a close and completely to black; a metaphor that itself becomes an act of consummation. Simple, beautiful, full of feeling, danger and fun but also of vulnerability. Mrs. Erlynne gets caught, trapped, ‘done’; she sets herself as bait, and the gentleman does doff his top-hat. But the pounce, polite as it is, still ends in a  snap, a kind of expiry, a petite mort, as the screen fades to black, evoking simultaneously the sadness, excitement and vulnerability that is Mrs. Erlynne’s lot to this point.

José Arroyo

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