There Are No Happy Loves: A Retrospective of Forgotten Films

by Sophie Gertrude Strohmeier

in collaboration with the institute of Sapphic studies
Isle of Lesbos cultural forum

 

Le prix du sel / Salt & its Price

BE/IT 1974. Written and directed by Chantal Akerman. Starring Delphine Seyrig, Maria Schneider. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Cinematography Babette Mongolte. 103 mins.

A brief encounter in Brussels at Christmas, then the flight eastwards: a housewife and a shopgirl caught up in an amour fou that will lose itself, unresolved, in a criss crossing of limbs and European landscapes, finally coming to a standstill in Trieste, along the Slovenian border. At the edge of the Western world, one burning question: where do lovers go when all has been escaped from?

An early and incomplete conversation piece, Le prix du sel offers an oracle of Akerman’s signature themes: of femininity and alienation, class and labor, borders and restless migration. The anti-space of the hotel room, the abandon of the foreign city, the ineffability of female desire and the rapport between mother and daughter. A few weeks later, Seyrig will star in Akerman’s iconic Jeanne Dielman - here, we see her as Highsmith’s Carol, predatory, vulnerable, the essential unreadable woman. 

 

Phantom Trial

CA/GB 1968. Directed by Joseph Losey, screenplay by Iris Murdoch. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Sharon Tate. 

The spectre of the neighbor in Wisconsin - horror or sociology?

Sharon Tate discovers the presence of Elizabeth Taylor in her street: starring as a soap opera icon with a relentless appetite for adoration, the grease of lipstick, flowers, and human skin. A film that discusses the nature of cleavage: does it combine or separate? And furthermore, what does it cleave: bodies to one another, or skulls in two…

Banned in its day for explicit scenes of violence, Losey’s personal obsession, the ritual, as (theatrical) ceremony and cultish, devilish act is pried apart here in beguiling technicolor.

 

The Opal Mermaid

USA 1932. Directed by Dorothy Arzner. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford. Based on the story by Isak Dinesen. Cinematography David Abel

From the questionable pre-post-colonial era: a young pilot (Hepburn), having crashed in a nameless jungle, encounters Joan Crawford’s very un-ethereal mermaid queen: sultry art nouveau and common sense incarnate. The mysterious opal links to the story of an eye: frozen in time and mythical terror of the unspeakable tiger god. The jungle, a matrix of the exoticising imagination.

Featuring a five-year-old Kenneth Anger as a water babe.

 

The Awful & Reckless

USA 1946. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer. Written by Herb Meadow. Starring  Hedy Lamarr, Ann Savage, Shelley Winters. Cinematography by Vincent Milner

Antebellum Louisiana: after an old-Testament-style plague of yellow fever has wiped away their fathers and husbands, three widowing sisters-in-law, obsessed with wealth, unite for an insidious economic scheme. In this ménage à trois, intrigue, bloodlust and perversion prevails.

Infamous for the face-slashing sequence between Ann Savage and Shelley Winters, as well as the shadow play of Southern vegetation against dark swamps, moonlit Greco-style plantations, and bare colar bones, The Awful & Reckless went on to inspire Anthony Mann’s Western thriller The Furies (1950).

 

Gasoline, Gasoline!

USA 1953. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. Starring Jean Peters, Maureen O’Hara. Technicolor by Eastman Kodak.

A western without horses. Following a stage troupe in motorcars, an unprecedented and bizarre steampunk wild wild west show, the audience is enthralled by a series of glorious and acrobatic adventures, romance, and a fantastically baroque ensemble cast featuring a homage to Lola Montez. At its center, Maureen O’Hara and Jean Peters in torrid amorosity. Watch for their wild pirate sabre duel in raging emerald and gold.

 

A Wicked Gait

USA 1941. Directed by Ida Lupino. Starring Joan Bennett, Barbara Stanwyck Based on the story by Dorothy B Hughes   

Set in New York City, this film noir revolves around the lives of working class women and their lives away from the people they work for. Hoping to protect her young daughter from poverty, a waitress (Stanwyck) becomes engrossed in a scheme to con a Manhattan society wife (Bennett), disguised as her personal shopper. The plan falls flat when a complicit solidarity begins to develop between the two women, when the boundary between consumer and consumed begins to blur. 

Lupino’s depiction of class boundaries in the American Metropolis is dystopian yet nightmarishly contemporary: the two women are trapped in the barbarism of their split societies. Around them the city noir is deceptive; false friends abide. 

 

Mademoiselle de Maupin

FR 1913. Dir. by Unknown, attributed to Abel Gance. Based on the novel by Theophile Gautier. Actors Unknown. Length Unknown. Coloring by Unknown.

Louis Aragon’s recollections of this mysterious film, which the surrealist saw, age 16, before its disappearance: a shape shifting, cross-dressing woman, from sword fighter to card player and horseback rider to the sirène of willowy hair and peach-fur breasts: “the crocodile-tentacled woman in green, her fern-eyes [ses yeux de fougère] unroll before me…” 

A hazy memory, hissing sounds. “Is Mlle de Maupin the mermaid in the passages of Le paysan de Paris?” (A.P.-d.-Mandiargues) ~ For another writer’s eyes only. 

 

The Price of Salt

USA 1960. Directed by Douglas Sirk. Starring Lauren Bacall, Natalie Wood. Screenplay by Eleanor Griffin, Gina Kaus, SG Sabelko, Leigh Brackett, Ben Hecht, Raymond Chandler, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith. In CinemaScope and Technicolor. Running time 169 mins. 

Sirk’s penultimate ultimate film, delayed and released one year after Imitation of Life. An opus magnum bought out of a Hitchcock contract with a screenplay drafted by Raymond Chandler and Leigh Brackett, a story that merges highway lanes from thriller to melodrama and back again.

Lauren Bacall’s Carol goes out to buy a doll for her daughter’s Christmas, and ends up taking Natalie Wood’s shopgirl home instead: another figure to dress and undress as pleased, on the road and in motels, across mountains and rivers, and in upper middle class houses and tiny Brooklyn apartments. As always, Sirk gazes skeptically at his players, needling them with the lingering question: what is the essence of happiness, and can it ever be attained?

 

Road to Smolensk

PL/AU/GB 1984. Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski. Starring Grażyna Szapołowska, Julie Christie.

A Polish nurse working at an Asylum in Canberra experiences sudden flights of terror. In these, she is subjected to visions of a woman living in wartime Russia: a psychic connection defying time and space.

An ode to the failed connections, to “starships passing in the night sky, computers whirring when no one can hear.”

An attempt at lucid communication is made at a mythical rock formation, and the film twists into science fiction, folklore, and the esoteric. 

 

Alberta

USA/CA, 1985. Directed by Dennis Hopper, Screenplay by Dennis Hopper based on the novel L’astragale by Albertine Sarrazin. Music by Neil Young

“What about Alberta?” Dennis Hopper famously said during a discussion at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York, “I know nothing of Alberta. Let Alberta remain in Alberta. That’s all I can say about Alberta!”

Based on the highly autobiographical novel of French ex-con Albertine Sarrazin, a Canadian convict escapes and, having badly broken her leg in her jump from her prison cell, goes to live with a group of lonely truck-drivers in a small town in the wild dark north. Wounds fester. Hopper, fascinated, tracks the demise of a limb and a soul. Alberta’s only connection is to Gladstone, a Montana cowgirl who ends up performing her amputation.

“After all, a leg might drive, but it can’t shoot.”

 

Tra donne sole / Among Women Only

IT 1964. Directed by Antonio Pietrangeli. Screenplay by Ettore Scola based on the novel by Cesare Pavese. Starring Simone Signoret, Emmanuelle Riva, Monica Vitti, Sandra Milo.

“Re-make of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le amiche (1955), the unfortunate film that forgot to make any sort of allusion to its Lesbian plot.” (Sylvia Bishop-Clifford Barney, president of I-o-L Cultural Forum)

A woman kills herself out of love for another during a Roman society dinner party, hurtling a group of friends into new confrontations, conversations, intrigue, and romance. 

During the infamous orgy scene set to the music of Verdi’s Il trovatore, no body doubles were used: rumor has it Milo broke her tailbone while Signoret sprained several fingers. 

 

Il lavoro amaro / The Bitter Bath

IT/AT 1959. Directed by Luchino Visconti. Screenplay by Suso Cecchi D'Amico, based on a fragment by Arthur Schnitzler. Starring Alida Valli, Claudia Cardinale, Romy Schneider.

In turn of the century Vienna, Alida Valli stars as the unfortunate Countess von Schwarzenberg, obsessed with the task of acquiring a pair of sapphire earrings for her unwitting governess, all the while haunted by a girlhood diary and anecdotes of another long-lost love, decades removed and set in Opatija. 

On the Croatian boardwalk, Valli becomes a twin sister to Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice, etched into old stone, a hanging head of futile desire. 

 

Wonder Woman vs Medusa

USA 1994. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Screenplay by Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron. Starring Angela Bassett, Gina Gershon, Anjelica Huston. 90 mins.

Wonder Woman teams up with Batwoman to defeat the terrible Medusa! 

Featuring an unforgettable performance by Anjelica Huston as the Medusa. 

 

Vetsera

GB 1967. Directed by Terence Young. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Ava Gardner. 190 mins

Screened alongside
Mme de …, avec sa chatte / Mme de … and her cat
FR 1949. Directed by Max Ophuls. Starring Joan Fontaine, Danielle Darrieux. 7 mins.

The tragic final days in the love story between Empress Elisabeth of Austria and her son’s courtesan, Marie Vetsera, who commit suicide in the palace of Mayerling. 

With Omar Sharif  (“I don’t recall the making of Vetsera. When I signed my contract, the film was still called Mayerling.”) as crown prince Rudolf. 

In accompaniment of the more lighthearted Mme de… and her cat, a little pearl shot in between the filming of Letter from a Woman Unknown. “A marvel to behold!” (S. Signoret)

Caitlyn Garcia