Friday, October 29, 2010

Daisy Miller (1974)

Peter Bogdanovich's Daisy Miller is an odd mix of two tones that the director usually hits with skillful precision: comedy and bittersweet loss. Based on Henry James's novella of the same name, the film tells the story of an expatriate named Winterbourne who meets a beguiling young American girl traveling Europe with her flighty mother and surly younger brother. A relationship develops between the uptight Winterbourne and the vivacious Daisy, but Daisy quickly becomes the scandal of the American expatriate community and Winterbourne can't quite reconcile himself to the disapproval of people like the rich widow Mrs. Walker.

Henry James is notoriously hard to adapt to the screen because so much of his work takes place below the placid surface of the (in)action of the plot. Bogdanovich bravely waded into these deep waters with his mind set on staying true to the spirit of James. The result is in many ways his least accessible film. It reminds me in some ways of Welles's The Immortal Story, a film of similar somber control. The difference here is that Bogdanovich, a master of comedy, injects this film with a lot of daylight, in both the metaphorical and literal senses.

Most of the comedy comes from the members of the Miller family. Mrs. Miller (Cloris Leechman) is a motor-mouthed set of nervous twitches, while Daisy's little brother (future singer/songwriter James McMurtry) is a grumpy American xenophobe who's none to happy he's stuck in Italy with his big sister and mother.

And then there's Daisy herself, played by Bogdanovich's 70s muse Cybil Shepherd. A viewer's enjoyment of the film hinges in large part on his or her reaction to Shepherd's quirky charisma. Despite her beauty there was always something imbalanced about Cybil Shepherd, a combination of giddy eccentricity on the one hand and fair-haired banality on the other. That probably sounds worse than I mean it, but consider that both of her iconic film roles (in The Last Picture Show and Scorsese's Taxi Driver) position her as a man's unattainable romantic ideal. It's too much to say that she had a mystery about her, but in most of her film roles there's something untouchable about Cybil Shepherd, something a little playful and more than a little mean. More often than not, when she's playing opposite a man, Shepherd seems like a weird little kid pulling the wings off flies. Here, she plays Daisy as a bubbly innocent--or she tries to--but innocence hangs off her like an oddly tailored outfit.

Which may or may not be the point. Daisy and Winterbourne can't seem to ever say what they're feeling. With Winterbourne this makes sense. As played by Barry Brown, he's a man of tight reserve. With his dark, mournful eyes, Brown has no trouble selling us on Winterbourne's morose self-defeat.
(A tragic manic depressive who killed himself just four years after this movie was made, Brown should have been cast as Edgar Allan Poe in a biopic.) But Daisy is tough to figure. There is a scene toward the middle of the film where they dash to make it to a boat, and she turns and looks at him with unbridled joy--a joy she quickly bridles again. It's a terrific moment of acting by Shepherd because it plays off the confusion she usually causes in men: Is she toying with me? Even after the film supplies us with an answer, we're still not sure.

Shepherd is perfect for this role in the sense that you're never entirely sure what she's thinking. Her weakness as an actress, however, has always been that her obliquity doesn't seem to hint at unplumbed depths. She's a shallow actress in the best and worst senses of the word.

Daisy Miller is a fine film in many ways. Its production design is impeccable, and the cinematography by Alberto Spagnoli is often stunning. The supporting cast, particularly Eileen Brennan as the conniving Mrs. Walker, is top rate. Moreover, Bogdanovich shows once again that he is a master of intricate long take (I can't say for sure but I'm willing to bet that this film has fewer cuts than any of his others).

It is a film of surfaces and seems to be the spiritual precursor to Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and Ivory's Remains of the Day--yet Daisy and her goofy family make odd protagonists for such a tale. This goes back to what I was saying at the outset about the mix of tones.

In its day, the film was a notorious flop, suffering in part from the bad press that Bogdanovich and Shepherd's extramarital affair had generated in the tabloids. It ended Bogdanovich's period of skyrocket success, derailing for a time one of the most important directors of his era. Watched today, however, the film is fascinating. I can't bring myself to call it an unalloyed artistic success--but there is something about it. Like Daisy herself, it stays in the mind.

Here's a piece by Peter Tonguette over at Senses of Cinema, a retrospective of Bogdanovich's career with a lot of attention devoted to Daisy Miller.

No comments: