BURNING THE TRASH
A Woman in Flames
Starring Gudrun Landgrebe and Mathieu Carriere.
Directed by Robert Van Ackeren.
By Christopher C. Harmon
German director Robert Van Ackeren and his gorgeous new starlet Gudrun Landgrebe have given us a feature-length demonstration of something we never had cause to doubt: Utter nihilism with a pretty smile is still utter nihilism.
Eva the "woman in flames," is all beauty and smoothness, but empty-headed. (Surprisingly, this cliché dominates a film whose script was co-authored by a woman, Catherine Zwerenz, and welcomed by some female reviewers.) Eva is bored by her man. Husband or lover? We can't tell. She departs the house in the middle of a party, leaving behind a note that says: "I don't love you any more." This she does with a slight and self-satisfied smile, which she will wear in nearly every scene during the next hour and a half.
Needing employment, Eva immediately turns to prostitution. But the film is eager to show us that, while she is a whore, she nonetheless keeps her pride. She is proud to be a whore and proud enough to turn down clients who treat her like a whore. Anyone who thinks that's not both making money and saving grace has not yet understood our modern situation which, as director Van Ackeren has told the newspapers, has left "more and more middle-class women and university students turning tricks, for both simple economic reasons and more complicated ones. . . ."
Eva is not complicated, though she does find herself fascinating. When not picking and choosing among clients, she prances through chic shopping districts, adding to her wardrobe. This is evidently "Eva in control of her life." A sidewalk coffee shop is the setting for perhaps the most characteristic scene of the movie. Eva is seated by a window, wreathed in beauty and cigarette smoke, alternately gazing out and writing in her diary such inanities as: "I am ready for anything." How much is there to a movie which proves only that, in fact, she is?
At the end of one working day, Eva's Madame is lolling in a nightclub with a tall gigolo named Chris (Mathieu Carriere). She notices his interest in Eva, who is sitting at the bar. "Is she a woman or a whore?" asks Chris. The Madame, knowingly (everyone in the film acts knowingly) tells Chris to approach Eva and insult-her: "If she's a whore, she'll slap you. If she's a woman, she'll laugh." Eva laughs.
They move in together, performing their vocations in separate rooms. But because Chris is a "sensitive" whore, he is unable to endure her business relations with clients with unconventional tastes such as masochism. Eventually, Eva leaves Chris, after he has drenched her with vodka and set her afire, but the discomfort is only momentary. When the film's credits roll, Eva has regained that self-satisfied smile.
All of this could very easily be ignored. Movie house patrons would get along very well without any of it. The reviewers, however, are thrilled, and this is what is particularly distressing. Newsweek's David Ansen finds the show "unforgettable." David Denby of New York Magazine discovers in Gudrun Landgrebe "a sultry, proud beauty . . . a dark-eyed knockout who suggests a sexier Ingrid Bergman." Andrew Sarris at the Village Voice thinks ". . . she functions very effectively as an erotic art object." Rex Reed and Vincent Canby were much impressed. Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times calls this the debut of a new "international star, and it's not hard to see why . . . she is spectacular, mesmerizing, sizzlingly fine."
This last review is especially disappointing. Benson's notices of Chariots of Fire and One From the Heart are among the most skillful film reviews of the last five years. And she had no trouble attacking a beach flick like Blame It On Rio as "vulgar . . . a rancid romp." But only a week after her denunciation of Rio, Benson greets A Woman in Flames-this witless story about a kinky whore and her "sensitive" bisexual live-in gigolo-as "a bemused look at stolid middle-class ideas of love, sex, and ownership in Germany today."
It isn't funny. Robert Van Ackeren has completed a hideous project: He has taken lovely looking people and revealed their inner ugliness. His script turns around sex, yet is peculiarly devoid of what we would like to appreciate as sexual intimacy. Everyone is together all the time, but there are no friendships. Of course, such portrayals come naturally to a director who has made pornographic movies.
By way of contrast, consider John Steinbeck's classic, East of Eden. Steinbeck's Cathy was nearly identical to what Eva is here. She was strikingly beautiful, but cold and hard. Adored by a simple but bland man, she walked away from marriage and into prostitution. Like Eva, she began her trade "conventionally" but soon turned to ugly methods. And Cathy, too, drove her pimp-lover to despair with her beauty and her viciousness. She began her odyssey by burning down her parents' home while they slept; Woman in Flames ends with Eva set afire by Chris, who can no longer hold her, and whom she scorns precisely because he can no longer hold her.
Steinbeck's Cathy was a fascinating study in evil: Her creator hated her. But this film invites indulgence, and even admiration, of Eva. Cathy was an ugly counterpoint to all the other characters in Steinbeck's panoramic story. She was bizarre and frightening, for she had no sense of the good and no will for the struggle toward it. That struggle was the heart of life for Steinbeck, and so he depicted his Cathy as less than human.
A Woman in Flames stands the lesson in evil on its head. Eva is almost a heroine. The gross immorality, the coldness, the cruelty are but background for her love affair with herself. If Cathy is a failure in the moral realm, Eva never knew there is one. Wealth and success in her chosen "business" were things to which Cathy was driven by her hatred and her emptiness; Eva is rich and cannot tell anything is missing. The characters of the two are the same, but while Steinbeck shows us a depraved whore, director Van Ackeren gives us someone splendidly modern, someone financially and emotionally independent, a woman who "knows what she wants."
Maybe the difference, in the telling of the two stories, is one of "values": Steinbeck can be allowed his naive indignation, but Van Ackeren is self-assured and sophisticated. Then again, maybe the difference it between good and evil.
FILMS IN BRIEF
Begin this TV series about the Father of our country as though it were a bad sitcom, spin it off into a colonial anti-Dynasty, and then fly it into the Winds of the (Revolutionary) War. George marries a dumpy, recently widowed Patty Duke Astin and resists the allurements of an ex-Charlie's Angel. Humanize George, take him off his pedestal, even though the historical record is far from supportive of the storyline (here provided by the mediocre biography of James T. Flexner). To hell with it, we were tempted to say, we'll take the cherry-tree.
But after the first two hours the remainder of the series more than redeems the awkward beginning; perhaps for modern tastes Washington had to be made to look ridiculous before he could emerge as the truly sublime figure he was. Washington's strength of character dominates the action-from his alleged infatuation with Sally Fairfax, through the strains of generalship during the Revolution, to his refusal to become an American monarch. The series makes it plain that Americans are reasonable in demanding excellence, both of character and military ability, in their chief executive. Moreover, the viewer cannot avoid surmising that the American Founding commenced a drama, which even today continues to be played out. Finally, Alexander Hamilton's positive portrayal is worthy of note, for this most maligned of Founders deserves a flattering series of his own. Despite its shortcomings, George Washington was a remarkable achievement for commercial broadcasting; may it presage similar series.
Moscow on the Hudson
Has patriotism become fashionable and hence profitable for the movie industry? One might think so from the well-acted Moscow on the Hudson. Robin Williams (Claremont McKenna College, class of 1973) plays Vladimir Ivanov, a Russian circus musician whose troupe is about to visit New York City. The first part of the film, set in Moscow, depicts the grimness of Soviet life: brutality, corruption, propaganda, and scarcity, all watched over by the KGB.
Despite official and unofficial Soviet warnings of American decadence, the opulence of Bloomingdale's is too much; Vladimir defects and becomes a hard-working American immigrant. But the film's subsequent portrayal of America actually corroborates the Soviet charges of decadence. Indeed, the very principle of the "pursuit of happiness," from the Declaration of Independence, encourages corruption. Vladimir simply comes to accept that this nation's freedom of opportunity also fosters a twisting of the human spirit. The Soviets have their evils, we have ours (thus the meaning of the title). The best that Paul Mazursky's America can say to the Soviet charge of decadence is "Enjoy!" (Thus, the film reminds one of the message implicit early in Louis Malle's Atlantic City, where a drug deal takes place in front of Independence Hall.)
Moscow on the Hudson can portray at best a maudlin patriotism, for it concentrates almost entirely on rights and freedoms, ignoring concomitant duties and obligations. (The conspicuous exceptions to this praise of individualism are the marvelous actions taken by Bloomingdale's employees during Vladimir's defection.) Will not this film's version of "the pursuit of happiness" enervate America when it must display strength and hence call for duties?