Sunday, June 13, 2010

100 years, 100 films 10: The Doll (1919)

I've always felt somewhat uneasy about Ernst Lubitsch, the director of The Doll. This is because one of his films, a film many critics have basically dubbed his 'masterpiece' (or at least one of his masterpieces) is a horrible piece of sexist trash. Heaven can Wait filled me with such bile that now whenever I think about Lubitsch my first thought is, "man, I feel sorry for his wife." The moral of Heaven can Wait is basically that it's okay to be a philandering shit of a husband, because what's your wife gonna do? Leave you? Ridiculous! She has no means of support! She's trapped! Hooray!

So now whenever I see a Lubitsch film, I am always hyper-aware of the sexual politics at play. And it was to my great relief that The Doll has no real problems in that department. In fact, it was actually a somewhat subversive exploration of sexual and marrital politics, and what, exactly, a woman's role was in relation to her husband.

The plot of the film involves a very sheltered man who lives off of his rich uncle and is terrified of women. The uncle (who is a Barron) decides that he doesn't want his lineage to die out, so he says to his nephew that if the nephew were to get married, then he would receive a huge dowry, as well as a hefty inheritance. In order to gain this inheritance, the nephew decides to stage a fake marriage, with a robotic doll. He goes to the local doll/robot maker, who has just the thing for him - a robot doll that looks exactly like the doll maker's duaghter. Unfortunately, the doll is broken by the doll maker's apprentice, and in order to save the apprentice's hide, the daughter offers to pretend to be the robot. Hijinks ensue.

What makes this film better than the outline above implies is partly the self-consciously 'fairy tale'-esque atmosphere the film evokes, making the ridiculousness of the set up part of the film's charm. But also, it's the fact that the film uses this somewhat stupid plot to examine exactly what goes on in male-female relations.

Our heroine, Ossi, is a lively, funny, vivacious sort of person, but because she is pretending to be a doll she is forced to stifle those urges. But it is through the occassional outbreaks of personality that occur, when she stops pretending to be a doll and just becomes herself, that cause Lancelot (the Barron's nephew) to actually fall in love with her. And it is only when she finally throws off the pretense of being a 'doll' altogether that the couple can be properly happy with each other. The film's basic point is that a happy marriage is a marriage between two people who are honest with each other about who they are, and like each other anyway.

The most interesting part of all this, though, is that the film is promoting honesty in marriage, but not in courtship. By the end of the film, Lancelot and Ossi are in love and happy because they have told each other the truth. But they never would have gotten to that point if Ossi hadn't first pretended to be a doll, because Lancelot, who was deathly afraid of women, only managed to become comfortable around her because he thought that she wasn't a real person.

The point of the movie, then, is that it's important to start off a relationship fulfilling all of your partner's desires so that they fall in love with you. With that accomplished, you should gradually reveal your real personality to them, first in little chunks to acclimatise them to it, and then, eventually, you should be able to be yourself without the other person stopping loving you. Or maybe the point of the movie isn't that this is how male-female relations should work, but rather how they do work, at least sometimes. Maybe it's more observational than moral.

But whatever the case, it's still a hell of a lot better than Heaven can Wait. At least it acknowledges the fact that women have feelings, and that men should maybe sometimes think about them when contemplating their actions.

I'd like to point out that, although this review has been largely analytical, the film really doesn't need to be watched in an analytical way to be enjoyed. It is really funny, really sweet and really charming. It's just a whole lot of fun.

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