Triumph of Love
Contemporary cinema is obsessed with heaviness: misery, despair, ugliness, alienation, oppression and unhappy endings. Such heavy subject matter is matched to a heaviness of spirit. The world cannot be changed either on a personal or global level, these films preach. It can only be studied and unflinchingly recorded.
As a result, movies that explore the much-vaunted dark side of anything or everything are automatically rated higher than films which explore the light side. Where would P. T. Anderson (Magnolia, 1999) or Sam Mendes (American Beauty, 1999), among many others, be without this validation of darkness and heaviness?
There is a contrary tradition in modern filmmaking. It is almost a subterranean tradition, despite the fact that two of the greatest heavyweights of the 1960s are today at its helm. Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour, 1959) and Bernardo Bertolucci (The Conformist, 1970) have gravitated in their advanced years towards the light, whimsical forms of musical comedy and romance.
They seek, above all else, a liberating, graceful manner of symbolic weightlessness for their characters. Although the spectres of old age, sickness, death and social malaise are everywhere in Resnais’ Same Old Song (1998) and Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996), the films hold to the hope that, through the achievement of lightness, people might gently enchant and transform their surroundings.
Bertolucci’s wife and longtime collaborator, Clare Peploe, is the high priestess of cinematic lightness. Although she has directed four features, her contribution has gone virtually unrecognised. Perhaps that is because, for her too, whimsy (expressed in plots centred on love, magic and holidays) reigns supreme.
In Triumph of Love, Peploe shows the origin of her characteristic concerns in a great theatrical tradition. Adapted from an 18th century play by Pierre Marivaux, the story is a riot of disguises, accents, transvestism and mistaken identities.
Love is the greatest force in Marivaux’s world, and it is here incarnated by a Princess (Mira Sorvino). She is out to win the heart of the handsome Agis (Jar Rodan), her political enemy. To break the forbidding walls of repression built around him, she will have to melt the hearts of both the philosopher Hemocrates (Ben Kinglsey) and his sister, Leontine (Fiona Shaw). Questions of age and gender do not deter the Princess for a moment. She promptly becomes both a man named Phocion and a woman named Aspasie.
Modern performance theory has developed a highly attractive notion of histrionics or acting out. Histrionics delights in exhibitionism, artificiality and changeability. Characters are not fixed, psychological entities, as in the naturalistic school, but pure flibbertigibbets. Of course, comedy has always prized this kind of freedom, So too have many popular genres, like the musical.
Triumph of Love puts Peploe right up there with the masters of the histrionic, including Emir Kusturica (Underground, 1995), Jerry Lewis and Jacques Rivette in his wildest days (Celine and Julie Go Boating, 1974, and Duelle, 1976). Every gesture and movement is outlandishly played to the camera. To capture the sporting and jousting of her characters, Peploe adopts a no less exhibitionistic Nouvelle Vague style, full of energetic jump cuts, handheld camerawork and sudden saturations of light. All the actors are a pure joy to watch.
Peploe cannot entirely avoid the trap of all this non-stop exuberance becoming monotonal and so light that it threatens to blow away altogether. But it gathers itself up for a wonderful finale that evokes the spirit of both Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939) and Resnais’ Life is a Bed of Roses (1983).
The British critic Raymond Durgnat once wrote that, in Marivaux, “love is rarely a deep togetherness, always a formal dance. Social role, more than soul, keys the persona”. (1) Peploe, while remaining perfectly true to that particular spirit of superficiality, also unearths a little bit of life-saving soulfulness in love’s eternal dance.
© Adrian Martin September 2002
1. Raymond Durgnat, “Éric Rohmer: The Enlightenment’s Last Gleaming”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 678 (July 1990), pp. 187-8.