Tag Archives: courtship

A Cruel Romance (1984)

a cruel romanceA Cruel Romance (Ruthless Romance, Zhestokiy Romans) is a gem of Soviet cinema. Based on the play The Dowerless Girl by Aleksandr Ostrovsky and directed by Eldar Ryazanov, this is the story of Larissa Dmitrievna (Larisa Guzeyeva), a young girl from an impoverished family of the gentry in late 19th century Russia.

The film begins with the wedding of Larissa’s sister, Olga, who’s being married off to a Caucasian prince. The wedding is over, and Olga, obviously a desperately unhappy bride, is about to sail off to the Caucasus with her new, wildly jealous husband whose tribal culture is vastly different from her own.  Olga’s future happiness may be doubtful, and while wedding guests murmur their amusement with the situation, the marriage is seen as a stroke of luck for Olga’s mother, Kharita Ogoudalova (Alisa Frejndlikh).

The Ogoudalova family was once considered the finest family in the region, but when the film begins those days are long gone. Matriarch Kharita lives on the family estate which is mortgaged up to the hilt. There’s no mention of Kharita’s husband, but she has three daughters. Anna is married to a gambler and living in Monte Carlo in somewhat desperate straits, and now with Olga married off, that leaves Larissa in the nest. Marrying off the last daughter is an imperative.

Kharita lives beyond her means in order to continue the facade that she’s wealthy, but her problems go far deeper than this. Kharita’s poor judgment is reflected in her dress–she dresses like a much younger woman, but even worse, she places herself and her daughter Larissa in a most morally precarious position by allowing married banker, the portly Moky Knurov (Alexei Petrenko) to give her money–sometimes with questionable objectives.

Larissa seems to have no shortage of suitors. Or at least it would appear so from the large number of men who flock to the social events at the family home.  One of Larissa’s most patient suitors is the dull post office worker Yuli Karandyshev (Andrei Myagkov) who’s very easily made to look like a complete idiot by the suave playboy Sergey Sergeyevich Paratov (Nikita Mikhalkov).

Just as Larissa seems to on the path to engagement, fate intervenes. Will she be saved or destroyed as several males in Larissa’s circle take her fate into their own hands….

While A Cruel Romance is the tale of exactly what happens to Larissa at the hands of the men in her social circle, the film also makes a larger statement about Russian society and the erosion of the gentry by the merchant class. The Ogoudalovas are the ‘finest’ family around, but the mother resorts to fobbing off her daughters on the highest bidder, and since the girls have no dowry, they are sold off quite cheaply. Kharita must be held at least partly responsible for what happens to Larissa. Kharita’s carelessness cannot be blamed on either naivete or a desire to see her daughter happy. And then what of Kharita’s relationship with the married banker Moky Knurov? Does Kharita find it convenient to turn a blind eye to his intentions?

Ivan Petrovich is also a member of the gentry, and while he appears as a glamorous, dashing lover–a perfect foil to the stodgy Yuli Karandyshev, in reality, Ivan has plunged his family estate into debt. He owns The Swallow, a huge steamship and plans to become a successful businessman. Wherever Ivan goes, he moves in a self-created cocoon of splendour, action and adoration, but Ivan’s world is as false and empty as he is. Meanwhile while Larissa is courted and romanced, both Ivan’s and the Ogoudalova’s  family fortunes are carefully monitored in a predatory fashion by the banker Moky Knurov and Ivan’s rival Vassily Vozhevatov (Victor Proskurin).

A Cruel Romance is a marvelous costume drama, beautifully acted, with a marvellous musical score, and full of gorgeous shots of the Volga. While there’s plenty of romance, it’s delivered with a bitter touch that’s certain to please Russophiles.

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Mansfield Park (1999)

Ordinarily, I’m a bit of a Jane Austen snob….

In Mansfield Park–a film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel–young, poor Fanny Price is sent from her overcrowded and squalid Portsmouth home to live with her widowed Aunt Norris. The invitation from Aunt Norris was based on a fleeting, charitable whim, but the whim is already gone when Fanny arrives. Fanny is quickly passed to her wealthy relatives, Lord and Lady Bertram, who live at Mansfield Park with their 4 children–Tom, Edmund, Maria & Julia. Fanny’s loneliness is compounded by Aunt Norris who is determined that Fanny should never forget her humble place in the Bertram household.

Fanny grows up at Mansfield Park and remains in touch with her impoverished family in Portsmouth. Dreadful Aunt Norris more or less rules Mansfield Park by default–this is partly due to Lord Bertram’s interests in the West Indies and partly due to Lady Bertram’s inertia and inebriation. Maria is engaged to the doltish Mr Rushworth, and while Maria acknowledges that her future husband is a fool, she is willing to overlook this fault as it is ameliorated by a large fortune. Fanny’s sole friend is Edmund–the younger son, and he is slated to become a clergyman. But then an attractive and worldly brother and sister–Henry and Mary Crawford join local society, and their presence sparks everyone’s dormant passions.

I was prepared to dislike this production from director Patricia Rozema–Jane Austen is close to my heart, so I intend to be a bit picky when it comes to screen adaptations of Austen’s novels. I did not, for example, like Emma (the Gwyneth Paltrow version), and I couldn’t abide Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson). I do like the BBC adaptations of Austen’s novels, however. I must admit that I almost didn’t even bother watching Mansfield Park as I dreaded yet another disappointment. However, encouraged by another Janeite I decided to give this DVD a go.

The strength of this production is in its acting and in its humour. All of the actors and actresses are top notch, and the script flowed forth with a light, ironic touch. Henry and Mary Crawford were simply perfect. Unfortunately, the script writer did seem to mingle Jane Austen (the real person) with Fanny Price when creating the Fanny Price for this film. This gave Fanny Price pertness and wit that was largely absent from the novel. Also, many excellent parts from the novel were cut, and the PC additions to the script were–quite frankly–out of place and slightly ludicrous. However, overall, I enjoyed this film version of the book–it’s not perfect, but for perfection, I can always go and read Mansfield Park yet again.

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Daniel Deronda (2002)

 “I shall be better for having known you.”

derondaThe marvelous BBC mini-series Daniel Deronda is based on the George Eliot novel. Daniel Deronda is a weighty, problematic novel, and it is not considered to be Eliot’s best. The BBC adaptation is excellent, well-paced, and truly elegant. The Victorian, multi-plot novel is far better suited to the series format–there’s just too much plot to expect the story to squeeze into a standard 90-120 minute film. If someone tried to squash the novel Daniel Deronda into a film, it simply wouldn’t work as effectively.

The major theme of Daniel Deronda is the pursuit of the spiritual versus the pursuit of worldly gain, and this theme is worked through the characters, Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen Harleth is the eldest daughter of a impoverished widow, and so the hopes of Gwendolen’s mother rest upon the chance–slim, though it is, that penniless Gwendolen will make a good marriage and provide for her younger sisters. Gwendolen’s mother and uncle promote Gwendolen in society with the idea that she will make a good match, and in fact they consider her a sort of investment. Gwendolen’s horse-riding, for example, is encouraged even though the family cannot afford it, but she is indulged as an ultimate pay-off is expected. As a result, Gwendolen becomes an accomplished horsewoman, excelling at many sports, and outshining all the other girls (including the rich ones). But as the product of indulgence, Gwendolen’s sense of self worth is grandiose, and her character suffers as a result–she isn’t a particularly good friend, and she isn’t a particularly nice person.

All of the hopes for an improvement in the Harleth family fortunes seem to bear fruit when Gwendolen catches the eye of the wealthy and arrogant Henleigh Grandcourt. It is with a sort of perverse intensity that Grandcourt drops his interest in a local heiress–Gwendolen is better looking and more accomplished than the heiress–and yet there is something not quite right in Grandcourt’s interest. Grandcourt seems to be on his best behaviour when first courting Gwendolen, but it is clear that he is a rather unpleasant fellow. No one likes or respects Grandcourt, but he does have money, prospects and position at his command. There is something quite dark about Grandcourt, and this sense of the unpleasant is not alleviated by the fact that he is always accompanied by his obsequious and equally unpleasant henchman, Lush. Grandcourt desires Gwendolen, but he does not love her. Gwendolen is attracted, at first, to the very unpleasantness of Grandcourt’s odd nature, and she prefers him to her other suitors because he isn’t as easy to manipulate. She sees him as a challenge and imagines that she will rein him in just as she has controlled other suitors.

Daniel Deronda–the main male character–is the very earnest and serious young man who is rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Lord Mallinger. Daniel is the antithesis of Grandcourt, and some rivalry exists between Grandcourt and Deronda as Grandcourt is Mallinger’s heir. Daniel meets Gwendolen when she still has the choice of pursuing material gain above all else. Gwendolen recognizes that Daniel is an unusually good and superior man, but at the time, she lacks a true appreciation of his character. Daniel rescues a young Jewish girl, Mirah Lapidoth, and it is through Daniel’s acquaintance with Mirah that the truth of Daniel’s past is revealed. Mirah is the antithesis of Gwendolen, for Mirah has experienced and endured terrible hardships. Whereas Gwendolen’s nature and character accept luxury at any price, Mirah refuses to sell herself for material gain. Mirah’s steadfast character and serious nature are in complete contrast to Gwendolen, and so the two main female characters serve as perfect foils for one another. There are several plot twists and turns–this is, after all, based on a Victorian novel, and as such, one must expect co-incidences and parallel storylines.

The BBC series is broken up into three sections, but the film flows very smoothly. The acting is all quite superb–although Barbara Hershey is a bit out-of-place in her role of Contessa Maria Alcharisi. The development of the characters is the very best part of both the book and the BBC series. Gwendolen Harleth isn’t exactly a shallow person, but due to the nature of her social position and the emphasis placed on the desirability of wealth above all else, she fails to gain any moral perspective about herself, her behaviour, or the choices she eventually makes. Adversity is the making of Gwendolen, and through suffering, she becomes a decent human being. If you enjoy BBC costume dramas, or if you are a fan of Victorian literature or George Eliot (one of my very favourite writers), no doubt you will enjoy this excellent adaptation. From director Tom Hooper and a screenplay from Andrew Davies.

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Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987)

 “Some things are better left unsaid.”

In the French film, Boyfriends and Girlfriends Blanche works for the Cultural Affairs office in a small urban town. She’s 24 years old and single. One lunchtime, she meets Lea, a student, who lives with her boyfriend, Fabien. Lea and Blanche–although opposites in many ways, strike up a relationship, and soon they are the very best of friends. Blanche even begins giving Lea swimming lessons. One day, at the local swimming pool, Blanche spots Alexandre, and she’s immediately smitten. Apparently, most of the women who come in contact with Alexandre are similarly smitten. He’s a notorious ladies’ man, but he’s also known for his poor taste in women.

boyfriends and girlfriendsLea immediately begins encouraging Blanche’s interest in Alexandre, but at the same time, Lea emphasizes that he’s not really Blanche’s type. In fact, the more Lea talks about Alexandre, it seems likely that he’s more Lea’s type–at least she seems to feel the challenge of a relationship with him. Lea is also blatantly dissatisfied with Fabien, and she notes that with Fabien, “all my little games fall flat.” Lea is just marking time before they break up.

Rohmer delightfully dissects the difficulties involved in both beginning and ending romantic relationships. The delicate progress of courtship is recorded before the characters even seem to be aware of the new relationships they find themselves in. The uncertainty surrounding Blanche’s hopeful and desperate interest in the rather caddish Alexandre is touching. The characters–as always in Rohmer films–create all the interest. As a director, he enters the minds of his characters and studies their motivations through their conversations and their actions.

Blanche is sweet, pert and rather easy-going. Lea is much more elegant, complicated, and harder to please. Alexandre is very much at ease in his elegant skin. He’s confident and suave–the complete opposite of the much more sincere Fabien. The film gravitates around the idea that opposites do indeed attract–and knowing one’s ‘type’, does not necessarily lead to making better choices.

Boyfriends and Girlfriends is one of Eric Rohmer’s Comedies and Proverbs series, and this series tends to be a little fluffier than many of Rohmer’s other films. Rohmer’s Moral Tales Series, for example, includes more substantial and philosophical films which deal with weightier subject matter. The Comedies and Proverbs are lighter–less serious fare and the other five films in this series are: The Aviator’s Wife, Full Moon In Paris, Le Beau Mariage, Pauline at the Beach, and Summer. Rohmer films are always full of conversations–there is rarely action here–and most of his films seem to mention, at the very least, holidays. The characters in this film find that their romantic lives are somewhat influenced by holidays. People seem to either love or loathe Rohmer films–the most critical find the films boring and pretentious–I, however, return many times to my Rohmer collection, and I am fascinated by the characters and the relationships they form.

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