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The film opens with a whip pan blurring a 360 circle around a middle-class Tokyo neighborhood and an intertitle popping-up to announce 'Thief!'. A crowd runs across the street and clamors around a man. Outraged at the accusations, he makes a vehement public display, a show, that allows him to extricate himself. Only in the following scene do we recognize that we were, in fact, tricked. All this prefigures main tenets in the film about trickery, motion, acting, bargains, subterfuge, moral dilemmas and cleverly situates us inside the movie as part of the crowd of onlookers who will have to surmise a plot from the spirals of deceit.
Ordinarily it would be about sex and money as the main objects of power. Here the coveted treasure is a child. Motherhood is the social role worth deceiving for. The plot is about a famous Hollywood actress coming back from the Americas to reclaim the daughter she abandoned. Meanwhile the child is growing up with her dad and stepmother.
So a double perspective is what we have, on one hand the love and safety of the family nest, but which exists on a certain dishonesty on the part of the father and the ability of the stepmother to perform a role, on the other hand the biological mother who really wishes to atone and make good, noble intentions but once more obscured by deceit and pretending. The father is sent to prison for financial mismanagement, karmic payback.
So the first layer is successful, a melodrama but structured in such a way as to allow us to recast tumultuous dramatic life as a matter of theatric conventions. The household is the stage. Actresses vie for control of the kid's innocent gaze. The larger world is the adults' organized cruelty.
This is fine. But there is no additional layer as a way of annotating the first in terms of images being performed. This would involve our gaze next to the kid's. The camera would travel around the edges of who these people present themselves to be. Instead you will notice that the camera is always thrust in the face of the participants, head-on, anxious, like a mic set up for a comment. They comment but always as expected after first meeting them.
The audience is never really outwitted as promised by the opening scene of deceit in broad daylight. There is never any serious doubt about who the daughter belongs with. Morally the thing is of simple value.
Sternberg was getting this part right at around the same time, staging images in a way that we became complicit in dreaming about them.
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