Saturday, February 07, 2009

JOSEF VON STERNBERG: EROS & ABSTRACTION—Morocco (1930)

Again, Heaven's imperial rule is like some trader looking for beautiful pearls. When that merchant finds one priceless pearl, he sells everything he owns and buys it.—Matthew 13:45-46.

The Father's imperial rule is like a merchant who had a supply of merchandise and then found a pearl. That merchant was prudent; he sold the merchandise and bought the single pearl for himself.—Thomas 76:1-2.

I found the system; but, I lost the pearl.—Laura Nyro, "Money"

One of my favorite themes from fairy tales is that of the false marriage. And one of my favorite parables from Christian lore is that of the pearl of great value. Conflated, they contrast the resonance of authentic desire against contrived desire and pose—not so much a conflict—but a tension between the sensual and the spiritual. Especially at a time when marriages were prearranged, what could have been more mysteriously transgressive than the meeting of the eyes—as in the story of Tristan and Iseult—wherein the arranged marriage is denounced as false and the true marriage proclaimed as desire exchanged in the dalliancing glance?

Of course, it would be easy to desire Marlene Dietrich's Mademoiselle Amy Jolly as she appears in Josef von Sternberg's Morocco—even more so Gary Cooper's Légionnaire Tom Brown—both radiate a lustrous, gynandrous and downright gorgeous luminosity. Notorious in its day for its woman-to-woman kiss (and intriguing to the present when one considers Cooper's attraction to a woman in masculine guise), Morocco rightfully perseveres as a classic for its formal beauty exactingly filmed, its cinematic tribute to desire, even if time reveals a somewhat clunky pace to the narrative and odd halting dialogue. Much has been written about the film so suffice it for me to massage only a couple of details.

You know the story. Amy and Tom have fallen in love and spend most of the film pretending they haven't ("I've changed my mind"). Concurrently, the wealthy and powerful Monsieur La Bessiere, patiently played by Adolphe Menjou, pursues Amy and lures her with wealth and privilege. It's in the scene of the engagement dinner that my eyes widened. Presuming Amy would prefer La Bessiere's wealth over him, Tom has marched off to almost certain death with his fellow legionnaires, leaving Amy resigned to the persistent advances of La Bessiere. Eventually, she succumbs and agrees to marry him, admitting that, yes, everything he has given her has made her happy, including an opera-length strand of pearls. Yet when she hears in the distance the sound of the legionnaires marching home, she comes to her senses, recalls her true love, and in an agitated moment of indecision, accidentally snags the strand of pearls on the edge of a chair. The strand breaks and the pearls fall onto the floor.

I was instantly reminded of a comparable scene in Emilio Fernández's Enamorada (1946) where "La Dona" Maria Félix—likewise torn between the financial security of a marriage to the anglicized Eduardo Roberts (Eugenio Rossi) and the passionate revolutionary General Jose Juan Reyes (Pedro Armendáriz)—breaks the string of pearls given her by her fiancé Roberts as she abandons her engagement dinner to chase after her beloved revolutionary. Both women break the strings of pearls confining them to an inauthentic life in order to respond to true desire, which places them in rear guards following their beloveds. I make a note in the back of my head to investigate if Fernández consciously lifted this image from von Sternberg?

My audience at Morocco laughed at this final scene of Dietrich rushing off into the windy desert, abandoning first her pearls, then her pride, and finally—of necessity—her high heels. But the truth perseveres, however quaint. If by the marriage of souls we enter the Kingdom of Heaven, then what do literal pearls mean when one can have the pearl of great value?

As Juliet Clark notes in her introduction to PFA's ongoing retrospective (through February 22): "Sternberg transformed the nether realms of human experience into worlds of picturesque poetry, where décor stands in for society, costume is character, and emotions are phenomena of pattern and light. Pacing and plot are irrelevant to a transcendent glamour, defined by the director as 'a play of fluid values, of imponderables artfully arranged in a spiritual space, a visual stimulant achieved by flummery.' (Tag Gallagher, Senses of Cinema.)"

Cross-published on
Twitch.

3 comments:

Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been about thirty-five years since I've seen Morocco but what I do remember are two of the most perfect moments in cinema: Dietrich kissing another woman, and chasing after Gary Cooper in the desert, wearing high heels.

Maya said...

Yup. This is how rumors get started. Heh. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Peter. Will you be attending the Boulder International?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I didn't even know there was a film festival in Boulder this weekend. I guess I'll have to wait to see Revanche on DVD.