Monday, January 16, 2006

Some years ago, Martin Scorsese was on the Charlie Rose Show, talking about screen violence, and mentioned William Wyler's 1949 The Heiress. He was making the distinction between physical violence and emotional violence, mentioning in particular a scene in which the father (Ralph Richarsdson) tells his daughter (Olivia de Havilland) that she isn't beautiful. Scorsese's words motivated me to see the movie the first time, and they came to mind again as I was watched it yesterday. It's one of the most beautifully violent films ever, and I so much prefer the adjective to something like "emotionally charged." No, this is a violent film -- the way Bergman's great films are violent, or Bunuel's; Bunuel himself once said that the ending of his own Nazarin -- in which the title character has an epiphany over the state of his own saintliness when an old woman takes pity on him and offers him a pineapple -- is a violent scene, because it highlights a powerful state of doubt. Violence all the more powerful because no blood is shed whatsoever and the physical contact is minimal; it's the violence of words that reveal, wound and alter forever.

Based on the play of the same name, which was adapted from Henry James' novel Washington Square, the film casts the beautiful de Havilland rather against type as the ugly duckling Catherine Sloper, living under the rather selfishly protective wing of her doctor father, Austin (Richardson). Like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, de Havilland is a kind of bird in a gilded prison, a shy, retiring unattractive -- make-up seems to have worked overtime trying to downplay the actress's natural good looks -- she's a would-be society belle who is also her father's greatest disappointment. Austin is still wedded to the image of Catherine's mother, to whom his daughter supposedly cannot remotely compare in any way, a fact he doesn't mind telling her in that stuffy, reserved, fatheaded, proper society way of his (Richardson is perfection itself in the role).

Salvation seems to come to Catherine's rescue in the form of Mossis Townsend (Montgomery Clift, perfectly beautiful, but no Richardson as an actor), a young wastrel who sweeps her off her feet. Since Catherine receives a handsome yearly allowance, which will triple on her father's death, Austin figures rightly that Morris is only after Catherine's money -- and tells her so. A father tells a daughter that she is not pretty, that she has no talents, that there is nothing charming about her whatsoever, that her only value is her money -- and it's more riveting and powerful and dramatic than the goriest scene in Kill Bill.

The trusting Catherine doesn't listen -- instead, she plunges head, only to have Morris prove that her father was right along. Morris breaks her heart, and the great thing about de Havilland's performance (she won an Oscar for this, by the way) is that you can see it being broken, see her disappointment, see her anguish, and see what arrives in its place: a heartlessness all her own, as she proceeds to pay Morris back in kind. The movie ends with poor Morris beating uselessly on the door of Catherine's home as she refuses to answer. Her home, no less than her heart, is closed to him forever.

There's a great line of Catherine's in the movie, as her character turns from doormat to vindictive spinster. Someone tells her she has become cruel and she agrees; she's learned from masters, she says. In this regard she's not unlike the character played by Juliette Binoche in Kieslowski's Blue -- hardened by life; cold, bitter, unsympathetic. She's a victim who becomes a victimizer; and however righteous her vengeance is, you know too that experience has shaped her character for the worst.

This is, I think, the only kind of drama that really excites me any longer: deep, personal, volatile, raw. The most violent changes in life, the ones that stick the hardest, are the ones where you learned the most unpleasant truths about yourself or someone you loved, and it changed you forever.

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