Monday, January 18, 2010


Based on the famed play by Jean Giraudoux, The Madwoman of Chaillot is one of the the 60s most under-appreciated film treasures. It rewards careful and repeated viewings. The film is a morality play, meant to instruct and illuminate; it is not a typical linear drama – although the interweaving of the real world of contemporary Paris with the fantasy world inhabited by the Countess (Katharine Hepburn, brilliant as usual) and her coterie of elegant female eccentrics (Dame Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton, and Giuletta Masina) gives the movie much of its surface charm. Hepburn's Countess Aurelia is not so much insane as preferring to live in an imaginary world of rosy nostalgia and wishful thinking. She and her cronies fundamentally realize the difference between invention and fact, but they choose to ignore it.

The curious use of three aged women to represent the forces of justice at work in this dual world is perhaps meant as a deliberate hearkening to the witches of Macbeth, or to the Furies of Greek tragedy, (or even the Fates themselves.) Similarly, the huddled poor of the Parisian streets and the menial laborers mostly have no names because they represent archetypes, perhaps – a Greek chorus full of accusations for their tormentors. They contrast starkly with the smooth amorality of the movie's duplicitous villains – a tycoon (Yul Bryner), a clergyman (John Gavin) , a general (Claude Raines), a politician (Oskar Homolka), a business consultant (Charles Boyer), and a prospector (Donald Pleasence) – played to icy perfection and with just the right amount of absurd black humor.

Richard Chamberlain, playing an idealistic activist, adds a dose of romanticism when he leaves the world of the "faceless pimps" (in the damning words of Danny Kaye's marvelous Ragpicker) and journeys for the love of Irma (Nanette Newman), a poor waitress, into the shadow world of the Countess of Chaillot – although in doing so, he must destroy Hepburn's illusions forever, prompting her to take a terrible vengeance on the "greedy, stupid, lost" men who have caused the world to "not be happy."

The climactic mock trial sequence, where the Ragpicker must play the devil's advocate on behalf of the collective monied classes, placed in the docket for crimes against humanity, is a masterful performance by Kaye. (Who ever would have suspected he had it in him?) With honeyed words, he first seduces his "judges" into falling for his deceits; then, when his lies are exposed for the pretense that they are, he turns into a raging, bellowing monster, openly proclaiming his naked desire for money and power merely to make war and destroy what's left of the earth. Finally the mask has slipped; the court renders its verdict; and Hepburn's meting out of justice is as dreadful as any judgment of Nemesis.

Ponderous and heavy? Perhaps. But you can really take the film more than one way -- it is both a whimsical fantasy and simultaneously something much deeper, dark and quite disturbing. The choice rests with the viewer, much as it lies with the characters in the story to choose which path they wish to pursue. The Madwoman of Chaillot may have been made over 30 years ago but the issues raised and the attitudes it depicts are still very much with us today. Only someone as asleep and idealizing as the Countess wouldn't realize it.

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