Monday 20 September 2010

Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935)

Director: Henri de la Falaise
Stars: Goesti Poetoe Aloes, Goesti Bagus Mara, Saplak Njoman and Njoman Njong Njong

Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de Coudray, led an interesting life. Born into the French aristocracy, he was awarded a Croix de Guerre for bravery during both the First and Second World Wars and in between he married Hollywood actresses. First came Gloria Swanson, who he met in France on the set of the now lost film, Madame Sans-Gêne, where she was the leading lady and he was a mere translator. With a title but no money, a cynic could call it a win/win situation but Swanson described him much later as the love of her life, though he was only the third of six husbands. To add to her regret, her children were born to the husbands on either side as the child they would have had together was aborted under studio pressure. After Swanson came Constance Bennett, who formed a production company, Bennett Pictures, to finance a couple of exotic docudramas for him to write and direct. This fascinating film was the first of the pair.

According to the recent Milestone DVD release, Legong: Dance of the Virgins was shot in 1933 but released in 1935, while Kliou the Killer (or Kliou the Tiger) was shot in 1934 but released in 1937. IMDb lists 1935 and 1936, but I won't quibble. They were out of time, whatever the details. They were the very last films to be produced in two strip Technicolor, which worked with red and green. They were among the final silent films to be released in that era, at least in the US where the last true Hollywood silent is generally seen as Charlie Chaplin's City Lights in 1931, itself an anachronism that arrived a few years after the big studios had completed their switch to sound (Modern Times, which Chaplin released in 1936, is usually described as a mute sound film). One reason for staying silent here is that both films were shot entirely on location, in Bali (then in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) and Indo-China (now Vietnam) respectively, with native casts.

The subtitle after the subtitle is 'A Story of the South Seas' and the key word comes shortly after: 'romance'. This is a romance in both senses of the word, not just a tragic love triangle story but a rather fanciful and archetypal one set in the 'isle of perpetual summer'. There are only four lead characters and, while we are given names, close to the real names of the actors, it's so generic that de la Falaise could have done away with them entirely and simply referred to them as 'girl', 'boy', 'father' and 'half sister'. Poutou is a chaste maiden and sacred dancer at the Tampaksiring temple who has her eyes on Nyong, a free soul from the countryside who has come to play in one of the temple's gamelan orchestras. Unfortunately Nyong is only interested until he catches sight of Saplak, Poutou's half sister and if you can't picture precisely how the rest of the story is going to unfold from there, then you haven't read anywhere near enough Shakespeare.

What Shakespeare didn't have is the profusion of naked breasts that populate this film. What's surprising is that Legong: Dance of the Virgins, suggestive title notwithstanding, really doesn't play out like many of what were called goona goona epics, after a prior Balinese picture called Goona-Goona, An Authentic Melodrama of the Island of Bali. Such goona goona epics showed as much nakedness as they possibly could, using the excuse that it was all culturally important, like a copy of National Geographic. Not one of those naked breasts ever belonged to a white woman so it was anthropology not exploitation. Yeah right. This film has more flesh than most but it never seems to be exploitative, perhaps because there's so much more than the usual token attempt to show some of the local culture too. This film is full of it, from native dances like the title legong to the religious beliefs and funerary ceremonies. It's all fascinating to watch.

Two things leap out very quickly. The first is how truly incredible these women are, and no, I'm not talking about those consistently naked breasts. I'm talking about the way they carry insane amounts of stuff on their heads, often without the benefit of balancing hands. I've seen this sort of thing many times before, of course, but never to the degree that this film shows, where these ladies don't so much carry bowls or baskets on their heads as they carry enormous, intricately stacked pagodas of offerings to the gods or goods to take to market. I'm talking also about the way Poutou crushes rice by merely bouncing a bamboo pole on it, the pole almost alive as it dances from hand to hand without any apparent effort. To reiterate, these are not actors, they're real Balinese villagers and it's patently obvious that what they're doing on film is precisely what they do in real life. They make it all look scarily easy.

The second thing ties to how morally different these people seem. These Balinese villagers are depicted in a very human light, rather than being looked down upon as savage heathens. There is no moralistic judgement of their actions but so much of what they do is completely alien to us now, perhaps even more today than in the thirties when the film was made. Part of it is the skin, of course, as most people in Bali seem to go topless, whether male or female. This includes all four lead characters, only Poutou ever hidden occasionally under a blouse or sarong. It isn't just walking around topless though, it's in concepts like bathing in public, not only in scenic lagoons but in rivers shared with water buffalo, hardly the most hygienic approach to cleanliness. When not naked, these folks seem to divide their time between the temple and the cockfights, Poutou's father Gousti Bagus being a breeder of fighting roosters.

It's interesting to see the mixed reactions of the world's censors. In the US, the film was shorn of scenes of nudity, though it's hard to imagine how much there could have been left after such an act. In the UK, the nudity was left in but the cockfighting scenes were removed instead. What both countries presumably retained in their respective releases is the footage at Tampaksiring. The suggestive title refers to a dance which really isn't that suggestive and before the legong we see a djanger. Earlier on we see a lion dance, a barong, which is magical. It's a mythical tale of a prince who has been turned into a lion by an evil witch called Rangda who survives an attempt by the prince's followers to slay her and bewitches them into commiting suicide in a dangerous dance that could easily end in tragedy with even the slightest lost footing. We're also treated to a cremation which uses accoutrements every bit as ornate as the dance costumes.

The film is a joy to watch, not only because of the fascinating glimpses into a different culture but because it was shot so well. The cinematographer was William H Greene, better known as W Howard Greene, a three time Oscar winner. Two were honorary awards, for The Garden of Allah and A Star is Born, but the third was a competitive win, for the 1943 Claude Rains version of The Phantom of the Opera. By this time he was well overdue, having racked up seven nominations between 1940 and 1944, all for colour cinematography in an era when most films were shot in black and white. He was a pioneer of the industry, something magnificently highlighted here. He reprised his role in de la Falaise's follow up, Kliou the Tiger, which unfortunately no longer exists in its colour form though a 16mm black and white print was recently discovered and restored for the Milestone DVD release of this film.

The only downside for me was the slight given to the Balinese music. Nyong plays in a gamelan orchestra but while we see him play we never hear him because the score is a typical Hollywood exotica piece, something of an insult given how much culture we're shown. Fortunately the DVD includes a newly commissioned soundtrack that apparently redresses the balance, courtesy of Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Club Foot Orchestra, though, to be fair, I haven't heard it. As much as I love gamelan music, though, it's relatively easy to overlook this and just enjoy a simple but effective slice of life in an utterly different culture, especially in the company of such engaging lead characters. The leading ladies are a delight but Goesti Bagus Mara steals the show as their father and it doesn't take much imagination to see why he was prominently cast. In the company of such charm and character, it's easy to look past a storyline as clichéd as the day is long.

1 comment:

Chris Earle said...

Excellent review, Hal. Just watched the DVD and can add that the gamelan soundtrack is far superior. "The Killer" is also on the DVD; alas, although shot in 2-strip Technicolor, only a 16 mm B&W print survives. Nonetheless, a very engaging film for showing us Vietnamese village life in 1932.