The Turner Classic Movie Festival has rolled into Hollywood for its second year, a finely staged event in celebration of great movies and the theatre experience. As such it is a festival of indulgence, perhaps discovering something new but mostly rewatching old favourites in their optimum setting. So where better to start than with the Emperor of Indulgence himself, Josef von Sternberg and his dreamy1935 picture The Devil Is A Woman.
- Director: Josef von Sternberg
- Screenplay: John dos Passos, from the novel by Pierre Louÿs La femme et le pantin
- Producer: Josef von Sternberg
- Cinematography: Josef von Sternberg
- Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Cesar Romero, Lionel Atwill, Edward Everett Horton
During the Spanish Carnival, handsome young blade Antonio makes an assignation with a mysterious and alluring woman, Concha, but that night runs into an older friend Pasqual, who warns him of her devilish charms; Pasqual had fallen in love with Concha and been treated as a (rich) plaything before being abandoned. When Antonio meets with her his resolution to resist is eroded, until Pasqual bursts in, still in love and enraged at Antonio’s ignoring his advice. Happiness does not ensue.
Over the course of five features with Marlene Dietrich, Sternberg molded her into a ravishing, perfect star. Increasingly stylized photography and production design took precedence over sense and plot as he boiled everything down to pure aesthetics, whilst building the Dietrich persona from saucy beer hall girl to irresistible goddess. The creative marriage was perfected – with all the bitterness in which Sternberg perpetually reveled – in their final collaboration, The Devil is a Woman.
The story – adapted by John dos Passos – is taken from the Pierre Louÿs novel that Buñuel would use for That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and tells of the Spanish Concha, a great beauty whose means of subsistence seem to be men. Her story is told initially in flashback as the older man warns his young friend of her cruel and inescapable charms; it is Sternberg’s hymn to Dietrich, and a lament for their relationship which was already souring, and it’s no accident that a Lionel Atwill is mustachioed as a dead ringer for the director. Realism is out the window; this is a fevered poem to the exquisite emotional anguish of the cast-off lover. Sternberg – and Atwill – make Pasqual a perfect embodiment of noble bearing brought to ignoble humiliation, the still-burning flame of desire unquenchable by even the most flagrant cruelties. Whatever the specific circumstances of Sternberg’s and Dietrich’s parting of ways, the heart-wrenching realization that a relationship can no longer be, the bitter satisfaction of that realization, and the act of defying one’s own plain common sense are transferred to the screen straight from his heart. The original novel is entitled The Woman and the Puppet, the perfect roles for a man who would make a goddess of his woman and then submit willingly to her every whim, and to the exquisite masochism of the cuckold.
So there’s a certain amount of indulgence in the emotional line of the film, but it’s not a patch on the visual. For much of the flashback, Sternberg takes us to a port town where he can sling the fishing nets wherever he likes, and he conjures two wonderful fairytale woodland scenes. But the present tense – and opening – of the film take place over Carnival, allowing Sternberg to go crazy with streamers, ribbons of thin white rope, somewhat grotesquely, a suggestion that’s bolstered by the preponderance of long-nosed masks. What to make of the film’s hero covered in these ejaculative strings? Nothing specific to sexual preference but rather an indication that sex and desire will engulf everything. Jaunty Rimsky-Korsakov themes constantly encourage us not to take anything too seriously; Concha’s mother supplies rather grating comic support; Edward Everett Horton is the buffoonish (but not entirely) town mayor; and the Republicanism subplot is consistently dismissed as unimportant. The frivolity may be a carnival mask for Sternberg’s emotional pain (and vanity, which Concha pointedly accuses Pasqual of confusing with love) but it is a sumptuous one and, as photographed by Sternberg himself, is inescapably, personally bound up with it. No-one photographed (or lit) like Sternberg and here finally he gets to let his aestheticism run rampant without anything so troublesome as a plot to get in the way. Emotion is conjured through light and shade and the screen is filled with extras and production design, perfect, suggestive objects and décor that overleap realism to conjure a physical poem of reality.
Most hyper real of all is Dietrich’s Concha, as presented by Pasqual, an all-too believable incarnation of a fickle, playful Satan. In the extreme stylization of her character, Sternberg and Dietrich create an ideal – she embodies not only a certain ideal of sexual womanhood but is almost the personification sex itself; her every look, her every gesture is suffused with it as though she has nothing else on her mind. No-one can glance approvingly at a strong hand laid on her shoulder like Dietrich can. Much of this is used merely to inflame, and so the film is drenched in the non-rational, febrile state of mind of the aroused lover, of crazed, unfulfilled desire wherein sensual gratification becomes of primary importance. The reliability of Pasqual’s narrative is less in question than his motives in telling it (and he claims he doesn’t like to speak of himself!) but if he has exaggerated his tale, that’s all to the good, allowing Sternberg to dispense with mundanities.
Returned to the present tense Concha starts to seem a little more human, with possibly even a little weakness for handsome young César Romero. And who can blame her? For with those cheekbones and that curiously sculpted, subtly muscled mouth Romero is something of an ideal himself. Which makes the ending a somewhat half-hearted vanity on Sternberg’s part, but the shape of the story is not the point – the point is Dietrich, and her spell. Even dressed in a sack (or a gorilla suit..) she could be the most bewitching woman imaginable, the beer hall girl never quite losing out to the goddess, but oh, that wardrobe! Each scene brings a newly jaw-dropping ensemble, with outrageous jewelry and a series of increasingly fantastical headpieces. Sternberg’s films with Dietrich are almost as much about her clothes as they are the people, but of course she could carry them off with effortless insouciance, and so her characters are necessarily the sort of women who can do likewise. For all the excess of production design, these elements are still in service of character, setting and emotional atmosphere; Sternberg can never be written off as merely a self-indulgent aesthetician because the clothes, the jewels, the décor, the nets, the lace, the shadows, the rain all work with a dream-like relevance to character and situation, and aspire to induce a heady, Stendahlian state where the feverish emotions of his stories most properly belong.