A gentleman thief and a lady pickpocket join forces to con a beautiful perfume company owner. Romantic entanglements and jealousies confuse the scheme.A gentleman thief and a lady pickpocket join forces to con a beautiful perfume company owner. Romantic entanglements and jealousies confuse the scheme.A gentleman thief and a lady pickpocket join forces to con a beautiful perfume company owner. Romantic entanglements and jealousies confuse the scheme.
And then there's this other maker who made the leap from Germany to Hollywood. Yet another way of dealing with fictitious reality here. With Lubitsch I come for the joyous dismantling of expectation; the constraints of fictions, our expectation that story plays out a certain way, are marvelously upended, opening us up to paradox and surprise. Here fictions are fanciful guises we put on to push each other, the constraints are opportunities for improvisation. There's this famed thing people call the Lubitsch 'touch', often in vague terms of exaltation, as any synonym for mastery. It's a specific thing he masters; spontaneous illogicality.
You'll see a great demonstration in just the opening sequence here. It's one I'll keep with me when needing to discuss Lubitsch.
A man lies unconscious in a dark empty apartment at night; something sinister has happened. Now cut to a man and woman meeting in another place. They're both royalty we find out, baron and countess. She had to sneak in there to meet him, improper mischief is implied, a desire to conceal. Soon we understand that neither is who we thought they were and the place where they meet is right next door to the unconscious man.
It's a small masterstroke in pushing back horizon with just a few gestures. Like when the man gets up angry at having been found out, locks the door, draws the curtains; we imagine violence is coming. But they sit right back to eat, kindred souls delighted in each other's brilliant boldness of play-acting.
The rest of the film flows by with much the same play-acting. We see a woman being set up to be conned, a rich Parisienne who scoffs at the men who desire her but falls for his suave charm. He insinuates himself into her home and begins controlling a story, fictitious reality. The suave charm of the film lies in seeing him, ever the cunning narrator, con his way out of difficult situations that might expose him while the noose tightens around him.
Eventual unmaskings come with a certain largesse of heart that can only come by the hand of a filmmaker who sees fictitious reality as one large stage play and revels in the illusoriness of it all. It beats sulking into a corner, taking the caprices of human behavior to heart.
So no hard feelings on her part at having been set up with fictitious romance. She shoos them out like mischievous kids. In turn he regrets that he couldn't split himself in two and leave one self behind to live a life with her. Herbert Marshall has more ruthless eyes than needed to convey longing here (or perhaps the point is that he cannot resist feigning to the end); but he's superb as wily narrator.
But how about this notion as well. His girlfriend partner in crime has been in on the con all along, disguised as secretary in the same house. Had she not caved in to jealousy at the last moment, they would have pulled their plot clean off. It's this outpour of impulsive self that destroys the fiction and allows us to have the generous letting go of.
- Aug 16, 2017