Wednesday, January 4, 2012

So Little Time, So Much Intrigue

Some fancy oysters. But for most people, power ranks as the ultimate aphrodisiac.

It's not necessary to get decked out in full leather to get off on power. The mere thought that you can dominate others (or that you are at someone's beck and call) can provide the spark which leads to something more intense than makeup or revenge sex.

Knowledge, after all, gives someone an inside track to manipulating a situation to his or her advantage. While incredibly powerful women (Cleopatra, Elizabeth I of EnglandMadame Nhu, Jiang Qing, Margaret Thatcher, and Angela Merkel) may seem few and far between, many a woman has used her feminine wiles to obtain classified information. Some have become infamous in the process.

A 1906 picture of the famous spy, Mata Hari

In 1967, producer David Merrick decided to close his new musical based on the life of the famous World War I spy, Mata Hari, during its out of town tryout in Washington, D.C. Directed by Vincente Minelli, choreographed by Jack Cole and co-starring Pernell Roberts (from the popular TV westernBonanza), the show boasted music composed by Edward Thomas, lyrics by Martin Charnin, book by Jerome Coopersmith, and orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. With costumes by Irene Sharaff, the cast included a young Blythe Danner.

Unfortunately, one of Mata Hari's biggest problems was that Austrian actress Marisa Mell did not have the kind of vocal training needed for musical theatre. During the calamitous gala opening night performance, after Mata Hari had been gunned down by a firing squad, Mell rose to make her exit before the lights dimmed.

In his book, Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops, theatre historian Ken Mandelbaum notes that at a preview performance at Washington's National Theatre that had been sponsored by Lady Bird Johnson, "the show ran well past midnight, scenery collapsed, and the virtually nude Mell was accidentally spotlighted during a costume change."

Marissa Mell as Mata Hari in the ill-fated 1967 musical

I thought of the ill-fated Mata Hari after watching another failed musical devoted to a female spy's exploits during World War I. Not many people may remember that Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson starred in 1970's ill-fated Darling Lili, which was co-written (with William Peter Blatty) and directed by Andrews' husband, Blake Edwards.

Andrews plays a popular English music hall performer named Lili Smith (born Schmidt), whose uncle, Colonel Kurt von Ruger (Jeremy Kemp), is an undercover agent working on behalf of Kaiser Wilhelm II.  Over the years, the Colonel has trained Lili to be an extremely effective spy who uses her appeal to acquire information which he can then pass on to German military intelligence.

Part of the film's problems included casting Julie Andrews as a jealous bitch and Rock Hudson has a convincing lover.

Much of the action takes place in and around Paris, which allows the production to include a musical number featuring the Can-can as well as Lili's attempt to get even with her boyfriend by doing something shocking onstage.

Not even the action scenes featuring replicas of World War I aircraft (that were originally used in 1966's The Blue Max) can bring this dud to life. With a score by Henry Mancini, Darling Lili is available on YouTube and Netflix. Devout fans of Julie Andrews will appreciate the beautiful costumes Donald Brooks designed for her to wear.

* * * * * * * * *
Whereas the 2009 British political farce, In The Loop, was a romp and a frolic, it's much harder to achieve that kind of furtive comic energy when dealing with a real politician. While all eyes will soon be focused on dissecting Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, another contemporary political powerhouse dominates the screen in The Conquest (which claims to make cinematic history by being the first feature film to be made about a powerful political leader who is still in office).

Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydès) and his second wife,
Cécelia (Florence Pernel) in a scene from The Conquest

Written and directed by Xavier Durringer, The Conquest retraces the steps of Nicholas Sarkozy (Denis Podalydès) during his rise to power as he attempts to become the President of France. The film begins on May 6, 2007, the day Sarkozy achieved his ultimate ambition (as well as the day his second wife, Cécelia -- who had been his closest political ally and consultant -- left him for another man). As Durringer explains:
“The story reads like a Shakespearean script. It was important to show Sarkozy rehearsing in front of empty theatres before appearing in front of his audience. When he flaunted his sadness or his dismay before journalists, it was nothing less than a stage performance aimed at showing the French people that he was just an ordinary man. All of this was done to strike a chord with voters. We didn’t actually shoot the sets -- what we shot were faces and bodies. That’s why there are so many long shots, to give pre-eminence to the actors’ bodies and to give priority to the pacing and the movement so that no two scenes are alike.
Just like theatre actors, politicians are cut off from the reality of the world. I wanted the music to create a feeling of distance from the action. I wanted a baroque counterpoint that would call to mind the circus or the opera and conjure up the dramatic quality of political life as well as its burlesque aspect. I do think that Sarkozy, with his twitches and almost jumpy gait, looks a bit like Charlie Chaplin. Other shots reveal the loneliness of this man who, paradoxically enough, is always surrounded by people in his office, in front of a cheering crowd, at a sidewalk café, etc. He is definitely a Shakespearean character."
Poster art for The Conquest

In today's media, Sarkozy is seen as a powerful player married to Carla Bruni (a former singer, songwriter, actress, and fashion model). In October of 2011, the couple became the proud parents of a daughter named Giulia. But in the years prior to his becoming the President of France, Sarkozy was looked down upon by his political colleagues as an egotistical little runt, a self-serving clown who could be his own worst enemy.
But, as one watches The Conquest and witnesses the costs of Sarkozy's fame, old adages frequently come to mind:
  • "Beware your fantasy, it might just come true."
  • "Behind every successful man is a smart woman."
  • "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."
Sarkozy's outsized ego is beautifully captured by Denis Podalydès. But as his political star continues to rise, all of Sarkozy's "family moments" become transformed into media events. Patrick Rotman, who wrote the film's script and dialogue, notes that:
“Sarkozy himself can be grotesque at times. This is a man who puts his obsessive lust for power before anything else and who consequently loses his wife. He is a bit like a gang boss with very loyal advisers. He needs to be supported, cheered up, entertained etc. That’s why I found it interesting to remain inside the clan of the ‘Sarko boys’ and watch their rivalries and internecine wars.”
Nicolas Sarkozy (Denis Poldaydès) leads a gang of "Sarko's Boys"
down a hallway in a scene from The Conquest

While Durringer's pacing and Sarkozy's political ambition relentlessly drive the film forward, one of its greatest strengths is Nicola Piovani's marvelously mischievous score (which often makes The Conquest feel more like a cheeky heist film). Here's the trailer:

No comments: