1934. A handsome man walking though the countryside in France sees a middle-aged widow get off the bus. She’s carrying a heavy package containing an incubator for chickens. He offers to help her bring it inside and lands himself a job in the farm and a bed with the widow, though that’s not strictly part of the bargain. The vagrant on the road is Alain Delon; the widow is Simone Signoret.
In the first few shots director Pierre Granier-Deferre lays out a location — a farm separated by a bridge over a canal that has to be raised for boats and lowered for pedestrians; a social setting — France in the grip of the economic and political incertitude that followed the Stavisky affair; and dramatises a whole series of antagonistic personal relationships: The widow lives with her father-in-law on one side of the bridge; her in-laws live on the other; the in-laws want to take possession of the old man in order to kick her out and take-over the farm; the widow sees the farm as her right and makes sure she keeps her father-in-law happy to ensure it. On the other side of the canal, her in-laws have a nympho daughter, already with a bastard child, who’s got her eye on the vagrant. Meanwhile the widow Courdec has her weary eye firmly on everyone who wants to take what she sees as hers.
La veuve Courdec is well-made film, an adaptation of a George Simenon novel, where the pettiness of people, their self-interestedness, their plotting for personal advantage, is couched in ideals not quite able to contain and mask the nastiness bubbling underneath them. They’re grasping, base; it’s what’s hardened the widow. She wants Delon, thinks money will keep him, but he’s his own man, goes after the younger tramp, her niece. He tells her quite clearly he fancies her niece because she’s younger. She gets jealous, kicks him out, finds out he’s a killer who has a gun. Nonetheless, she’s drawn to him and takes him back. There’s a scene where they sleep together and in the morning he reaches out for her in bed, and his whole body tenses as his hand wonders around the bed. She, looking down on all of this, on him, sees his body relax with relief as he finds her hand and she is moved. She knows his want for her is real. The look that Signoret gives Delon, it’s as if he’s the first person who’s ever showed her any affection.
There’s a great scene after, where we see the widow washing her man’s trousers and lording it over the other women’s disapproving faces. Those women have always disapproved but now they’re disapproving at her flaunting of her pleasure — she flaunts her man’s washing with pride cause she’s still clearly getting some and they’re not – and their displeasure is a further source of pleasure to her.
It’s a very deft film, cleverly directed by Granie-Deferre, and easy to under-estimate. On first glance we might think it akin to a made-for-TV movie but with a bigger budget. And yet, it’s a work that deepens and gets richer upon reflection. In a few shots you have a period, a political background, a rural setting with working people scraping by, each with a motive to hate each other, a killer on the run, a hardened widow too accustomed to petty cruelties, and a cross-set of desires heading in various directions. Granier-Deferre sets out the symbolism of the drawbridge, where people on boats loll pleasantly by but the hatred between the family is entrenched so firmly that lowering the drawbridge is only an opportunity for further hurts. There’s also the incubator, the promise of a richer way of life from giving life, but one that all of society is intent on destroying.
The setting is rural, the look is green, there are the sounds of birds, all Delon wants is some sun, all Signoret wants is a little love. But it’s a world full of hatred that won’t let them have the little they seek. Even the music, a romantic score by Phillipe Sarde, one with elegiac overtones but with a forward movement, evokes that which is dreamed of but will forever be impossible. Speaking of the real feeling between them, between a middle-age woman running to fat and a handsome man in the prime of his life, Signoret tells Delon, ‘Nobody would understand’. ‘Nobody ever understands’ he replies. However, at the end of the film, when we get a little coda informing us that the name of the character Delon plays is Jean Lavigne and that he’d shot two people because he’d simply had enough, we do indeed understand.
Simone Signoret being great
La veuve Courdec has sweeping camera movement, an eye for the image, a feel for period and for people but its core strength lies in its stars, two of the biggest in the history of French Cinema: Delon very effective and Signoret just absolutely great. There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where she tells Delon her story (see clip above)in front of her deaf father in law, and she raises her voices so her father-in-law can hear her, whilst her mind is still on setting out breakfast, that measures out a life-time of rage, and cuts through the well-crafted, middle-classness of the film into that which hurts, which is real, complex, human, trapped but in revolt. This is the realm of art which the film itself can never hope to aspire to but which the film is the setting and context for. There’s a reason Granier-Deferre attracted all the big stars. He not only helps them shine as stars but provides a platform where they can reach moments of greatness as artists which are not quite within the director’s own grasp.
The credits insist it is Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline so perhaps that is reason enough to blame him for this mess. Sheldon achieved great renown in Hollywood first as a very successful screenwriter (The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, Easter Parade), then as the creator of hit television shows (I Dream of Jeannie, Hart to Hart) but became a household name as a best-selling author. The L.A. Times called him ‘The King of the Potboilers’. In the 70s, tweens of my generation used to read him in conjunction with Harold Robbins (79 Park Avenue) and Irwin Shaw (Rich Man, Poor Man) for their melodramatic mix of characters of low origins clawing their way into high living, corporate criminality and purple-y passages of kinky sex. Interestingly many of these bestsellers were turned into highly rated miniseries where the author’s name was usually attached (e.g. Harold Robbins’ 79 Park Avenue). The works of Jacqueline Susann, Jackie Collins and Danielle Steele, at least as popular, are female equivalents, though these have a greater tendency to use showbiz or fashion as background setting.
Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline is directed by Terence Young and the screenplay is credited to Laird Koenig so some of the blame for this failure must go to them. The film feels like a television miniseries of the period but with a very big budget. The locations, the décor, the costumes, not to speak of that extraordinary all-star cast headed by Audrey Hepburn are all top. But the film is a mess right from the beginning.
You know a film is in trouble when a secondary character( Romy Schneider) gets a better star entrance than the star, Audrey Hepburn; Romy gets to whizz around a track in a sportscar, win the race, take off her helmet, reveal yet another covering — a beige balaclava — before whipping THAT off and finally bringing into view the wonder that it is ROMY SCHNEIDER guzzling a bottle of vichy water as if it was overflowing champagne; in contrast, we first see Audrey in a long shot in a museum brushing away at the skeleton of some prehistoric dinosaur looking like an aristocrat playing at housepainter – it’s very Greer Garson-ish grand and a tad embarrassing.
You’re convinced the film is heading down the toilet a few minutes later, when it gets its star and protagonist to perform the boring but necessary bits of telling the audience what it needs to know about her character. The director doesn’t even bother to get the reaction shots from the person Audrey is telling it to, Ben Gazzara. A better director would have given that exposition to Gazzara, nay a maid or an assistant, and let Hepburn ‘emote’ in reaction. Bit players tell, stars do and feel. You can bet Cary Grant wouldn’t have put up with the kind of treatment Audrey gets here.
I’ve made a point of using the stars’ names rather than the characters’ because the latter remain unknowable to us even after the film ends, and this is only one of the film’s many faults. Sidney Sheldon’s Bloodline has a screenplay that tells rather than dramatises. On the one hand, music and direction underline everything for you in case you’re too stupid to get the obvious: on the other, however, smart you are, the film simply doesn’t make sense.
The story is about a super-rich industrialist who gets killed. His daughter (Audrey) inherits a share in the business with her cousins (the characters played by Romy Schneider and Irene Papas; we also know that James Mason is a relation but unsure of what kind). They’re all after money; they’re all suspects in the initial murder; they’re all capable of killing Audrey.
The film plays as a whodunnit, with Gert Fröbe as Inspector Max Hornung, a Poirot-type detective who uses a massive computer instead of his little gray cells to solve crimes. The crime solving takes us through luxurious locations (Stately Home England, the Paris of Maxim’s and the George V, villas in Sardinia) with a detour via flashback to the Jewish ghetto in Cracow (where the family business started) and another into the lurid world of pornographic snuff films. It’s all unbelievably trashy but meant to be glamorous and jet-set decadent.
This is a film where most of those involved seem to be at their worst. Terence Young’s direction is a klang of over-statement; the editing has to be amongst the worst in any big-budget production (Bud Molin is credited); the great Freddie Young does no more than make the stars and locations look good (which is not nothing; it’s just not enough); and even Enio Morricone’s contribution is an embarrassing one – a slushy score that a disco beat occasionally pulses into life (as in the drug manufacturing sequence). Also, the movie has that distancing, empty-sounding quality one gets from bad dubbing and the whole film is so poorly put together that Irene Papas, Romy Schneider and Audrey all play cousins but speak in their own accents without any explanation as to why they all sound so different.
Still even a film as trashy as this has its compensations. Audrey Hepburn looks her age but still beautiful and ever chic, wearing those enormous glasses fashionable in the 70s that in America continue to be associated with Jackie O.
Romy Schneider doesn’t get to do much as the cousin married to a man who likes to stab beetles with pins and watch them slowly die (Maurice Ronet) but she looks stunning, is given a great entrance, and has the most interesting character to play. And of course, there are also James Mason, Irene Paps, Omar Shariff, even Ben Gazzara (though his part calls for a star rather than a very good dynamic actor). This is the type of production where one would expect the likes of Michelle Phillips, who is well cast here. The question is why did the others get involved? I suppose if Sir Laurence Olivier wasn’t too grand to star in Harold Robbins trash like The Betsy (Daniel Petrie, USA, 1978), only the year before this….
Bloodline really is as bad as everyone says and is only for fans of Audrey Hepburn, Romy Schneider or James Mason who, like I, are compulsed to be completists.
I have not read Henry James’ novel from which the film is adapted so I’m in no position to evaluate how faithful or true it is to the original novel or how well it is updated. On its own terms, the film is well-intentioned, serious, worthy. If effort were all, it would be wonderful.
The structure is classically symmetrical: Four adults, two younger, two older; four couplings; one dissolves at the beginning, the other begins at the end. One child to be tossed around amongst them.
The structure is filled out by a straightforward story. Susanna (Julianne Moore) is a rock star. Her husband, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer. The milieu is well-to-do but bohemian Manhattan. The film begins with the end of their relationship and the beginning of their brutal, acrimonious and selfish custody battle over their daughter, Maisie (Onata Aprile). Margo (Joanna Vanderham), the nanny, is at all times concerned with Maisie’s feelings and need. She initially offers stability but then gets married to Maisie’s father and becomes caught in the crossfire of Susanna and Beale’s selfish hatred. Susanna also marries someone, Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgärd), a tender-hearted hunk of a bartender and, like Margo, considerably younger. By the end of the film, it is Lincoln and Margo, now a couple, who are de facto doing the parenting the biological parents are too self-involved to provide.
How divorce affects a child is not a new theme in American Cinema: Mildred Pearce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), The Parent Trap (David Swift, 1961 and Mancy Meyer, 1998), Kramer vs Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979), Stepmom (Chris Columbus, 1998) and many others have in different ways touched on the theme. But cinema has rarely explored the theme as intricately as What Maisie Knew does. Susanna and Beale profess love for Maisie, and the film is complex enough to show us that they do indeed love their child. However, it also shows us how they see that child mainly in relation to themselves, as an extension, rather than as a separate consciousness and then only in the odd moments they do in fact happen to think of her. Neither acknowledges the child as having needs and indeed feelings outside their own presence or perception.
Susanna and Beale constantly declare their love for Maisie, indeed violently fight with each other for her possession, but the violence of their struggle with each other is itself a demonstration of their lack of duty and responsibility towards the child and of their own egocentrism. Is love pure feeling or is it feeling made manifest in actions; do you still love your child if you neglect it? How much do you love your child if the fulfillment of your needs is at the expense of theirs? I’m sure Maisie’s father thinks he doesn’t love her less when he decides that his business will go better if he moves back to England and thus really can’t be part of her life, at least not on a regular basis any more. I’m sure Susanna’s career requires that she go on tour. Both parents ‘love’ their child but see themselves in difficult situations in which they think they’re doing the best they can. However, the film shows us they can indeed do much better. And little Maisie knows it.
The film depicts the situation from Maisie’s vantage point literally and figuratively: her point of view is privileged and the camera is often placed at her eye-level to show us the action. Maisie is a warm, open, trusting and intelligent child. She watches and she sees, and slowly we see that she understands much more than a child should, and finally, we realise that she might even know and understand more than her parents. Onata Abrile, big eyes on that baby face, brings to mind Ana Torrent in Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1963), and seeing her is one of the film’s pleasures; her little arms reaching out for whoever’s handy for a hug, the eyes watching and weighed-down by the burden of knowing, and her little hand encased in Skarsgärd massive paw are moments that stay and resonate.
The rest of the performances are variable. Julianne Moore is never for one moment believable as a rock star, and the bit where we see her singing at the studio with what sounds like her voice, is pretty terrible (though of course that hasn’t stopped rock stars from being rock stars in the past); however, that aside, she’s not afraid of playing unlikeable and she screeches at her husband, cheats on her lover, and goes on tour with an abandon that always seems true to the character whilst also enjoyable to watch. She’s also very gentle and affectionate when she’s alone with her girl, and has a truly great moment where she goes to pick up her child from her former nanny and Lincoln and realizes with horror that she now makes Maisie afraid.
Skarsgärd is a pleasure to watch as well. I’ve never seen him this boyish on screen. Graphically, his enormous height contrasts well with tiny Abrile, and both are at their most appealing and vulnerable when shown together. Tender, sweet, responsible; he’s the man Susanna really doesn’t deserve. Joanna Vanderham is technically proficient, very nurturing with Maisie and a good match for Lincoln (what is incomprehensible is why someone so responsible and sensible would take up with Beale). Steve Coogan has been getting good reviews for his playing of Beale but I find him opaque in the part; Coogan traffics, and succeeds in irony, detachment, distanciation. He does technically convey the emotions his character’s supposed to feel but always at a distance; he never lets you in and, perhaps because of that, you never feel that that character is a person rather than Coogan acting out a set of character traits.
The film has many virtues. It does makes one think about love, relationships, parenting, responsibility and it treats those themes complexly. It has some good performances. Though not visually dazzling, it has some memorable images. The main problem I think is that it is too restrained. It’s dealing with material that borders on the melodramatic and doesn’t want to go there. But restraint in a film such as this should mean not to manipulate the audience falsely into emotion rather than simply abstaining from the attempt altogether. It is often through feeling that films get us to think. The main characters in What Maisie Knew deserve a tear. The film’s unwillingness to grant it feels overly detached and rather cold. A pity.
The 3-D is piercing — I literally shrank away from it (it was very effective though not pleasant). The colour is the brightest and happiest I have yet seen on digital. I adore seeing what Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis can do, even with roles so unworthy of their talents and their art. However, James Franco is the one with the meaty role and he makes the most of it: nobody could have captured the shabby, gauche, two-bit conman, kind-of-ladies man but too honest and goofy to be a lady-killer, sweet-but-not-innocent shyster of a wizard as well as he. He’s just perfect. Michelle Williams does better than anyone could possibly hope with that role (though, unless the intended look was mumsy, her make-up and costume people have done her no favours here). I love the doll character and Zach Braff voices the monkey with warmth and humour. The last scenes with the smoke and the face are superb. I liked it much more than I expected to.