Friday 19 June 2009

Phaedra (1962)

Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Melina Mercouri, Anthony Perkins and Raf Vallone

While Jules Dassin's very name sounds French and he is possibly best known for a truly awesome French film, Du rififi chez les hommes, which is known in the west simply as Rififi, he wasn't French. He was born in the States, as Julius Dassin, and made films there until he was blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He then went to France, where he struggled but succeeded. Eventually though he died in Greece, the widow of a Greek actress, Melina Mercouri. They weren't married in 1962 when they made this Greek film together, but they'd known each other for years, and when they did marry in 1966 it was for life. I wonder what nationality he thought of himself as.

Our story is a classic one in the truest sense, based on a play written by the Greek tragedian Euripides in 428 BC, though he's not deemed important enough to gain a credit, probably because it's seriously updated to fit in the modern day. The first of the main characters we meet is the least of them. He's Thanos, a Greek shipping magnate, as rich and powerful as you might imagine for a Greek shipping magnate but probably a little better looking if you're thinking about someone like Aristotle Onassis. Now Thanos had married an Englishwoman but they're divorced. Both are remarried: she's in Hong Kong, married to a member of the diplomatic corps, and he's in Greece, married to Phaedra.

Phaedra is our focus, of course, in the lovely form of Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin's future wife. As the wife of Thanos, Greek shipping magnate, it's pointed out by a jealous onlooker that she has everything. Given that he's launching the newest vessel in his fleet, named Phaedra, she may have a point, but we soon discover things that the onlooker never dreamed of. You see, there's a third wheel in our romance: Alexis, the son of Thanos and his English wife. She brought him up in England where he's trying to become a painter, but Thanos wants him back in Greece and he sends his wife to persuade him to come.

When they first meet, in the British Museum, he points out that she isn't pretty and he's right. She isn't pretty but she has that je ne se quoi that makes her magnetic and alive. And Alexis sees this too, because she persuades him and when they get back to Greece and his father/her husband promptly leaves for New York, they fall utterly in lust. Given that this is 1962, this is of course hardly surprising, given that Alexis is played by the charming Anthony Perkins and as we discovered two years earlier in Hitchcock's Psycho, he has a thing for mothers.

It doesn't take too long for them to consummate their mutual lust, in front of the fireplace no less. This might sound trite and clichéd but it's an amazing scene, set up through superb and subtle acting and then shot through clever cinematography to unite their passion with water and fire. It feels less a love scene and more a piece of art. The film follows the scene, definitely from the European art house mould rather than the Hollywood approach to tragedy. No wonder it was so popular in Europe and so slated in America. They probably didn't appreciate the wonderful soundtrack of Greek folk and jazz music by Mikis Theodorakis.

The film is consistently solid, except for unfortunate shots that didn't pan out and couldn't be shot again. Luckily these are few and far between. As an example, just compare the accident scene which is something of an anticlimax, with the scenes with the grieving widows which are not far off masterpieces. Whenever there's time to set up a shot and fix it if need be, the end results are joyous, with artistic lighting and composition of frame. Whenever that isn't possible, there are points where things slip.

The acting is universally excellent and we feel to different degrees for all the main characters, with the single exception of Phaedra's son. He's a spoilt brat with nothing going for him except his family and if we ever really find out quite how he fit into the picture I must have blinked and missed it. Sure, he's unwittingly the trigger for Phaedra to turn everything utterly pear shaped, but he doesn't really do anything else except annoy us and bring hope to his mother. Luckily we don't get to see too much of him and we can watch the leads do their work with power and effectiveness.

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