Gossips at a ball in Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan

In this clip, Mrs. Erlynne (Irene Rich) has inveigled her way into a ball she’s been actively forbidden. What drives her? First, her selfish desire to gets re-integrated into society; or is her desire to see a daughter  she abandoned many years before  more important? Here Irene Rich communicates a motherly yearning but also a little shrug when she sees how aghast the daughter, Lady Windermere (May MacAvoy), is at her presence, as if her main purpose is  neither to communicate not to please but to achieve and attain. One remains unsure.

What Lubitsch communicates clearly, however is how restrictive this society is. Those huge dwarfing door, those large forbidding spaces, all to be walked through slowly so others may judge at leisure. Her look at Lord Windermere, his walk towards her and the formal greeting: the niceties must be observed. But the shock of the wife at the sight of such a couple is palpable; as is the titillation with which those dowagers, previously sat on benches like mummies ready for the embalmer suddenly come alive, though their interest must be measured, sideways, on edge, underneath the radar. The images Lubitsch composes, that old master drawing that occupies the frame, and these titillated gossips entering the frame from below, allowing their gazes to glance, judge, hide-away below the frame, protected by the ancientness of their protocols, their wealth, their closed-off homes, and their priceless art, all property, all markers of manners, all hiding a civilisation not far and not above cut-throat. The clucking will begin later, in private. This is what Lubitsch’s extraordinarily imaginative and beautiful staging, framing and composition so vividly suggests.


José Arroyo

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