Movies, Movies, Movies
I read a short essay about how Robert Aldrich’s Autumn Leaves (1956) is “unapologetically optimistic” about the “idealism of modern medical science,” but when I watch it, I see the opposite. If you take away the tacked-on final scene that is painted over with hopeful music and a couple walking towards a horizon line, the film concludes with a manipulative, troubled, and unpredictable man (Cliff Robertson) ravenously flirting with his psych ward nurse until he’s unexpectedly interrupted by his almost 20-years older wife (Joan Crawford), the second wife he’s abandoned in favor of indulging a mommy complex, and, seeing that she’s broken enough to take him back, switches gears and lets her.
What the essay gets right, in my opinion, is that even though Aldrich also directed Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962, category: hagsploitation aka psycho-biddy) Autumn Leaves is anchored in melodrama, not pulled out to the sea of camp, if just barely. I’m picturing Crawford thrashing around in the Pacific ocean as if she were still in a silent film, Robertson coming to her rescue and suggesting her character remember to breathe. The tide could take her in and wash her up while some stringed instruments are wildly bowed. Instead she jokes, “That’s the coward’s way, can’t breathe and swim at the same time,” and it almost sounds like a throwaway line at the time.
And there’s the chiaroscuro dissolve from Crawford’s face—in black and white, each of her eyebrows are the same shape and color of her lipsticked mouth, making a little circle, or a triangle made of parentheses—to a record’s highlighted grooves while it plays in a dark room; the out-of-focus diner customers’ faces taking up half the frame as she enters the establishment, ridiculously dressed up, always, and alone. The ending, its forced warmth and use of Hollywood’s studio-system tropes, isn’t so much a happy one, even if both its protagonists appear blissful, as it is a devastating picture of what it takes to believe in happiness.
Aline (2020) is mostly about the relationship between Celine Dion and René Angélil, although Celine Dion’s name is changed to Aline Dieu, surpassing certain pitfalls of writing an über-adored and still-living personality’s biopic, I guess. Celine/Aline meets René/Guy-Klaude when she is 12 and he is 38. The 26-year difference is softened in some ways by director Valérie Lemercier’s choice to play Aline for the entire narrative, from childhood to current day.
This choice makes it so there is never an actual tween interacting with an adult onscreen, but it makes us uncomfortable in another way: by reminding us that even if Aline has grown into a woman, she was always this girl and always will be; that, within a romantic relationship, a person can only ever be the version of herself that was disrupted by that first meeting. Aline, acted and directed by a true fan, is in love with her manager and then married to him until his death—in love with, more than she can even understand, it seems, her career. I wish Aline pulled a few other stunts to balance out the one weird casting, because it has cult classic potential, especially since it forefronts the best Celine songs, like “Ziggy.”