Sunday, October 23, 2011
The Scarlet Empress
I was that my ability to make decisions carried over into how I feel about today's movie - The Scarlet Empress, directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1934. There were some things I sort of liked, but overall, I kept feeling like I didn't really "get" the appeal of the movie. This was further confused when I read Ebert's essay, which seems to frame the film as great because he finds Marlene Dietrich erotic (as does the director). The plot is maybe irrelevant, and while the movie looks cool, the charms of a lot of it were lost on me, I guess, because I wasn't really attracted to the actress.
So, the movie. Princess Sofia, the princess of Germany, is sent to Russia to produce a male heir with the doofy Grad Duke there. She doesn't so much care for him, but she likes other Russian men...and she does eventually produce an heir. Although not with Peter. Hmmm....
Other stuff happens to, and I sort of liked the plot, to be honest. Ebert dismisses it in his essay, but I kind of thought it was neat. I mean, it wasn't easy to follow. A ton of it is told through title cards, which I don't like, but once I got into it, it wasn't so bad. I liked that Sofia (renamed Catherine once she moves to Russia) wasn't a weak character, and was a bit manipulative. It wasn't the high point of the movie for me or anything, but it wasn't the worst thing ever, either.
The cinematography is the best here. I love that everything is Russia is apparently full of creepy statues and gargoyles that crowd every scene and loom over everyone. All the sets in Russia seem big, heavy, and imposing. It somehow sets up that they are in castle without ever really showing us a castle, you know? It's pretty cool. I really like the creepy gargoyles, I got a kick out of how weirdly they were leering over everyone and how strange they were. The black and white looks beautiful, and the director shoots Dietrich in some of the flattering lights and angles I've ever seen. It's really pleasing to look at, from the lavish costumes to the crowded rooms. I even appreciated the tablescapes of gross food, which just seemed to be good at setting a tone.
But my issue is that I didn't really get much out of this movie. The plot is alright, I guess. It looks good. But it really is all about Dietrich here. She gets a lot of special treatment on film, and honestly, is filmed pretty...erotically. She's always surrounded by feathers and lace and all sorts of things. It's fine, but it's not really for me, I assume, since I'm not a man. I appreciate that she's beautiful, but I don't share in Sternberg's gaze and fetish for her. So while I think many of the shots and situations she's in are cool, that's about it. Ebert spends most of his essay writing about her, and how wonderful everything involving her is - and that's all well and good. I guess my point is that as a lady, I don't really watch movies to look at other ladies. And while I appreciate her, I don't get a kick out of her scenes like Sternberg and Ebert do. Totally understandable, I hope, but it made the movie pretty blah at a lot of points for me.
This is one of those take it or leave it movies for me - I don't really care either way. I'm not really too overwhelming excited about the good parts, and the bad parts aren't really that offensive or annoying. It's just meh. It's not bad, but it's not great for me, either. I found that the historical (I should probably put that in quotes, since I doubt it's factual) aspects were occasionally confusing and heavy-handed (the title cards were often a chore to read and didn't really help me with anything). I felt like I tried really hard to watch this movie and put effort into it and didn't really get a lot back, unlike some movies that are worth the "work". I liked Dietrich, but not in way the director did, and I found his gaze a little tiresome to have to see. The movie's ok, I guess. It didn't really work for me.
Have any thoughts on The Scarlet Empress? Share them in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Scarlet Empress
Buy it on Amazon