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Two women love the same man in a world of few prospects. In Budapest, Liliom is a "public figure," a rascal who's a carousel barker, loved by the experienced merry-go-round owner and by a young, innocent maid. The maid, Julie, loses her job after going out with Liliom; he's fired by his jealous employer for going out with Julie. The two lovers move in with Julie's aunt; unemployment emasculates him and a local weasel tempts him with crime. Julie, now wan, is true to Liliom even in his bad temper. Meanwhile, a stolid widower, a carpenter, wants to marry Julie. Is there any future on this earth for Julie and Liliom, whose love is passionate rather than ideal? Written by
The film writer Daniel Shaw, in his Senses of Cinema essay on Fritz Lang, dismisses the director's take on the Ferenc Molnar play Liliom as "a piece of fluff". He should have done a bit more research, because Lang himself described Liliom as one of his favourite of his own pictures. This is a fact that, of all people, an auteurist like Shaw should not be ignoring.
You can see why the confusion arises. Liliom is very much a product of its time and place. Made in France in the early 30s, it has the same blend of down-to-earth realism and dreamy sentimentality that characterises the early films of Rene Clair or Jean Vigo's L'Atalante. And this is surely why many commentators on Lang, most famous for his paranoiac thrillers, find it so hard to accept as part of the director's canon. But Lang, while he may have inflexible in style, was by no means limited in genre.
What connects all of Lang's pictures is the extravagant oddity with which they are shot. Metropolis is a baroque sci-fi, Scarlet Street is a baroque film noir, and Liliom is a baroque romance. The picture has the same intense and often musical rhythm of Lang's late silent pictures. As usual, he places us somewhat forcefully within the action at key moments, such as the opening scene where the two lovers meet, where the camera accompanies them on the carousel. We are made to feel Julie's strife through numerous point-of-view shots of Charles Boyer, or ones of a plaintive Madeleine Ozeray looking straight into the lens. The heaven and hell sequences are pure Lang fantastical indulgence, a far cry from the minimalist equivalents in the musical adaptation Carousel.
But to the consternation of the auteurists, who would maybe have Lang turn Molnar's classic into a grim fable of doom and destiny, Lang makes it abundantly clear that he can "do" romance, and do it with sincerity. In fact, viewing the director's work as a whole this is not entirely surprising Spione, You and Me, The Big Heat and many more are incredibly tender at times. Here he gives weight to the relationship between Liliom and Julie from the way he shoots its beginning. We see Charles Boyer doing his exuberant barking act, always in mid-shot, often partly obscured by foreground business. When he lays eyes upon Ozeray, he suddenly comes into close-up. We thus connect with the character at the same time he connects with his beloved-to-be. Their first moments together are shot with typical Lang quirkiness low angles and rapid edits. However, as the romance blossoms their moments together are allowed to play out in long takes and single camera set-ups.
Which brings me onto my next point. There is one way in which Liliom differs markedly from the average Fritz Lang picture. Normally the actors under Lang's jurisdiction were excessively hammy, all wild gestures and crazy faces, even in the lead roles. In Liliom however the keynote is one of restraint and credibility. We have a young Charles Boyer displaying all the charismatic charm that would propel him to Hollywood stardom a few years later. Sure, he is highly expressive, but in a way that is believable for that character. Madeleine Ozeray makes an incredibly fragile figure, playing out her emotions through tiny, soft movements. It's a pity she didn't share Boyer's later success. There's also a wonderfully mannered performance from Henri Richard as the commissioner. Commanding acting such as that on display here is surely the most important asset any picture can have. Regardless of how it fits into the general scheme of his work, Lang was right about Liliom. It is one of his best.
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