Nate’s Double Features: Romance Across the Ages

In this edition of Nate’s Double Features we will be looking at two romantic films from different eras; Frank Borzage’s Lucky Star (1929) and Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990). Both directors are delirious in their expression of romantic love, but only one of them has a moral center.

Lucky Star

No director of the silent era did romance better than Frank Borzage. At the height of his powers while working at Fox, Borzage partnered with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell to create a string of popular and beloved romances, with 7th Heaven being the most recognizable. But it was with Lucky Star (a title that has absolutely nothing to do with the film it represents) that Borzage finally found the most potent mix of pacing and emotional directness. Lucky Star doesn’t have the visual splendor of many of Borzage’s other films, but it is far more effective as a tearjerker. It also drops the elements of fate that are present in 7th Heaven and Street Angel in favor of something more Earthy. Despite it’s melodramatic underpinnings, Lucky Star is dead serious about romance in ways that few films then or now would even begin to approach. 

Like all of Borzage’s other films with Gaynor and Farrell, the story focuses on two outcasts who fall in love with each other almost against their wills. They have outside obstacles to face, and those obstacles are overcome, naturally. In Lucky Star Gaynor plays Mary, a countrified version of a street urchin; she’s unkempt, loves to steal, cheat, and cause mischief. Farrell plays a likable local who lands in a wheelchair after a leg injury during war. When he returns home from the front, he meets up with Mary, who is selling berries that she’s picked. She tries to charge him extra because he’s in a wheelchair (you know, for the convenience of not having to pick them himself). Instead of taking offense, Tim sees that she doesn’t take pity on him and, after scolding her a little, he honors her exorbitant price. Mary takes the lesson in stride and they both are able to laugh about it. The scene, where we first see their affection for one another, is a tender evocation of the open-heartedness that both characters are capable of. Neither Mary or Tim has been much loved by the world around them and just being together lifts up their spirits. The romance begins in friendship.

Mary begins to go to Tim’s house regularly. He cleans her up, shampoos her hair with eggs, and gets her to take a bath. She cooks for him and bring him berries and other items from the outside world. He treats her with the utmost respect while lifting her up out of the gutter. She in turn gives him much needed company. Their love blooms because they are willing to accept each other on their own terms and give to each other what little they can.

Their romance is sexless, but it’s not without erotic attraction. When Tim tries to get Mary to wash herself, he shyly asks her age first. She tells him that she’s just past 18, and even then he takes precautions. He gives her the soap and tells her to wash up somewhere else. When she sneaks around to the waterfall behind his house, Tim catches a glance, but turns away in propriety. There’s purity and innocence in both of them; it seems to ooze right out of their skin. Farrell and Gaynor commit themselves to every wave of emotion that Tim and Mary feel, no matter if it is good or bad. There seems to be no barrier between their rapture and sadness and us. These are characters that we want to believe in. They are the upright people that we wish we could be. It is because of this that we can feel their plight so deeply.

When Mary is courted by a lecherous man posing as a military hero, the situation becomes palpably uncomfortable for the audience. Mary’s mother wants her to forget about Tim and marry the scoundrel, believing that a marriage to a cripple wouldn’t get Mary anywhere in life. Instead of raging against Mary’s mother, Tim counsels patience and submission to parental authority. He’ll appeal to Mary’s mother directly instead of whining about it.

Though the conclusion of Lucky Star is fairly obvious given the conventions and cliché’s of any Hollywood romance, I won’t reveal any more than I already have. I will only say that it is one of the most powerful endings I’ve seen in any movie. Borzage nails each moment to perfection. But none of it would work if these characters weren’t so right. I don’t mean that that they are right for each other or that they are fated, but that their relationship has moral fiber to it. They are shining examples of selfless conduct and innocent hearts. They are the babes in the woods that we want to protect. We can wish them no harm.

The Hairdresser’s Husband

Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband comes at romance from a totally different angle.

As a young boy Antoine discovered his adolescent urges at the sight of a local hairdresser. He caught glimpses of her breasts and thighs at just the right age. These sights not only introduced him to erotic pleasures, but they also locked into his mind a life-long romantic vision of all hairdressers. Much to the chagrin of his parents, Antoine announces at the dinner table soon after that his ambition in life than to marry a hairdresser, which he finally does in his old age.

When he does find his hairdresser, Mathilde, it is love at first sight. They immediately lock themselves into a relationship that is entirely erotic. They do not get to know each other in any conventional sense. There is no friendship or common ground; not even a conflict that might produce love. She cuts the hair while he watches. When there aren’t any customers, they busy themselves giving each other the eye and making love. Even when there are customers, these two can’t keep their hands out of each other’s pants. Their love, even in marriage, is an act of total isolation. They do not desire social interaction outside of each other’s company and they do not want to explore the world beyond the walls of their salon. There is no family and there are no friends. They believe that to live outside of their love would be to violate its purity.

This poster rightly depicts the emotional center of The Hairdresser's Husband - between the legs.

Contrast this with Tim and Mary in Lucky Star. When Mary wants to go to a local dance, Tim encourages her and even allows her to change at his house, giving her a ribbon for her hair, despite the fact that he could never accompany her. Tim teaches Mary the virtues of obeying her cruel mother and the value of honesty in social situations. He tames her wildness, but with love and generosity. She returns the favor by desiring him over a safer choice. Their love reaches outward towards upright citizenship. There is an underlying social responsibility to their relationship.

Leconte’s film celebrates erotic love well, because it connects our erogenous zones to the process of discovery and adolescence. It is never graphic and always suggestive. Jean Rochefort and Anna Galiena do everything they can with their slight parts. They bring presence and warmth to each moment. They are natural. But the lovers in The Hairdresser’s Husband can’t get beyond the erotic. SPOILER COMING. Their isolation leads to a warped despair. Mathilde commits a preemptive suicide for fear that their love might fade away with time. In an attempt to mummify their love, she, without warning, drowns herself in a river. Antoine, almost comically, seems to take her death in stride. Even the possibility of their love dying is enough to prompt the most selfish of acts. Emotions must survive independent of any effort for these two. Romeo and Juliet committed suicide because they believed that their love had ended. They reacted to a perceived tragedy. In The Hairdresser’s Husband tragedy isn’t even given a chance.  SPOILERS OVER.

If erotic desires and expression were the only virtue in romance, Leconte’s film would be a masterpiece. Instead, it reduces romance to it’s most primitive elements and romanticizes isolation.

Borzage Vs. Leconte

Despite the pantomime melodrama of Borzage’s romantic films, it seems that they are rooted in a reality that consists of giving and receiving. Emotions are earned and they are raw, but they are not the only thing that matters. They are an outgrowth of action rather than a reason for it. Leconte’s romance is childish in its desire for pleasure and isolation. Though he is right to connect adult eroticism with adolescent discovery, Leconte’s lovers live in a fantasy bubble that, once popped, has nothing left to offer.

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