Tuesday, August 3, 2010

100 years, 100 films 30: Love Affair (1939)

Leo McCarey's Love Affair is a great movie for half an hour, a pretty good movie for the next half an hour, then an abysmal piece of shit for the last half an hour. This is because the film works as three completely tonally and stylistically different short films, haphazardly jammed one after the other. The first short film is a naturalistic character study about a French playboy (played with an abundance of charm by Charles Boyer) and an American chanteusse (played silkily, but with an underlying level of vulnerability, by Irene Dunne) - they meet aboard a ship sailing from France to America, fall in love, and have to work out what that means for their prospective futures. It is funny (sometimes hysterically so), but more importantly, it has a real feeling of authenticity to it. This authenticity was achieved because of Leo McCarey's directorial style. Rather than having all the dialogue and blocking of a scene worked out before the beginning of filming, he preferred to have a loose, improvisational atmosphere, leading to a surprisingly honest tone.

This honest tone is carried over into the second short film, which is a strange little religious tale. This would be terrible if it weren't for the redeeming performances of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, as well as the always marvelous Maria Ouspenskaya, as Boyer's mother. This is a short film about the importance of Christ and... family... or something. It was pointless and message-y, but it still managed to be entertaining enough, and it did nothing to ruin the greatness of the first short film.

The last short film, however, does manage to almost obliterate the greatness of the first. The film just suddenly shifts to infuriating and goddawful melodrama, for no reason except that McCarey needed to pad out the running time. It's not the ridiculous coincidence of what happens that bugs me (Dunne gets in a car accident that leaves her crippled, right before she and Boyer are about to be married), it's the fact that what follows is the biggest and worst example of what Roger Ebert has dubbed the "Idiot Plot" that I have ever seen. Why doesn't Dunne just tell Boyer what happened? Why is she acting like such a goddamn moron? WHAT IS WRONG WITH HER AND WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS MOVIE?

I don't know why a movie that started out at greatness chose to degenerate into piffle, but it did. It's still worth watching; for that first half an hour; for the performances of Boyer, Dunne and Ouspenskaya; and for Leo McCarey's directorial style. But, yeah, maybe it would be better to just turn the movie off after the scene at the top of the Empire State Building. Seriously, you won't be missing out on anything. Except, I guess, being bored and infuriated.

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