- 1h 38m
Trapped in Puerto Rico, a beautiful young Swede is torn between her passionate, but mildly abusive Caribbean oligarch husband and her longing for her European homeland.Trapped in Puerto Rico, a beautiful young Swede is torn between her passionate, but mildly abusive Caribbean oligarch husband and her longing for her European homeland.Trapped in Puerto Rico, a beautiful young Swede is torn between her passionate, but mildly abusive Caribbean oligarch husband and her longing for her European homeland.
The first eighteen minutes of "La Habanera" constitute one of the most beautiful, economical sequences in film. The camera glides like the most sinuous and powerful of ballroom dancers; shots and sound accumulate artistic power like the carefully placed words in a sonnet. On the dramatic seaside cliff of a tropical isle, Astree (Zarah Leander), a sheltered Swedish tourist, watches Flamenco. The camera caresses everything it sees: sea, foam, rock face, palm fronds, the costume of the Flamenco dancer, her pride in her skill, Spanish and Indian physiognomies. With variations that make your heart ache, like the notes of a fugue, the same visual motifs replay throughout the film: exotically costumed women performing for audiences, caged birds, men saying goodbye, water, both wild and domesticated, fruits, flowers, and light filtered and fractured by venetian blinds, mosquito nets, ceiling fans, and snow. The ear as well as the eye is invited to participate in the dream: the shrill call of a bigoted aunt, "Astree, Astree!" frosts the most tender of moments, the bullfight crowd roars. "La Habanera" engulfs you; you're on vacation. Director Douglas Sirk's artistry never lets up till the final frame; symmetry serves as the strands of his web. "La Habanera," the title song, is insistently seductive as a toreador – you want to sway with his hips and let him dictate movement – and then it is grating and cruelly taunting – you want to slam shut the window and silence the singers – and, finally, it is heartbreakingly poignant – you want to follow, but realize that you no longer can.
A jeep driver with one flower behind his ear, another in his teeth, and a song in his heart picks up Astree and her overbearing, very chesty dowager aunt. They encounter Don Pedro de Avila, the island's padrone, astride a black horse. His face is framed by a wide-brimmed black hat and embroidered lapels. This romance-novel hero escorts the Swedish ladies to a bullfight. Don Pedro communicates his masterful inhabitation of his body. His steps spring; his arm, greeting spectators, sweeps with the majesty of inherited noblesse oblige; his hand nonchalantly tosses a handkerchief into a deferential peon's proffered hat, thus releasing a raging bull. When Don Pedro smiles his warm, crinkly-eyed smile at Astree, it is as if the sun is rising in the east. He is manly; when the bullfighter fails, it is he, at Astree's command, who dispatches the bull "with one thrust to the heart." He is attentive; Astree drops her fan in the bullring, and Pedro retrieves it, snaps it open, and returns it to Astree with a gesture that Nijinski could not perform with more seductive grace. Don Pedro accompanies Astree and Aunt Anna to their ship; he walks backward, away from the ship; there is a tension in his step as if he were a mime imitating a man saying goodbye to his love who is leaving aboard a ship. He pauses behind dockside exports to light a cigarette; even that casual, mundane move conveys erotic power. Within seconds, Astree has jumped ship; she's in his arms and her fate is sealed.
Fast forward ten years. Don Pedro, much aged, addresses Astree, nowhere to be seen. In her place, across an elegant armchair, drapes a lovely, lacey cloud, reminiscent of a brides' wedding gown. With a riding crop, Don Pedro tentatively taps, then seductively strokes, this white dress. His aggression rising, again, using the riding crop, he lifts the dress, as if lasciviously lifting a woman's hem. He then grabs the dress, manhandles it, rips it viciously, and throws it down. Only then does a very changed Astree enter. Her youth is gone. She, who had been so wild, gay, and impetuous, is now sober and resigned. Sirk has conveyed the previous ten years in Don Pedro's treatment of Astree's dress. Worship and passion morphed into obsession and then descended into oppression and contempt. Astree tells Don Pedro that she's come to despise the island, and him; she deeply regrets ever leaving cold, blond, superior Sweden.
Later, in a climactic scene, before hurting Don Pedro badly, Astree performs a profoundly sentimental gesture. She dons a traditional Caribbean costume Pedro had given her. By wearing this dress at a key moment, Astree gives Don Pedro a gift. Similarly, director Douglas Sirk, who was the husband of a Jewish wife, gives the audience, a gift. This scene undercuts the "Swede = superior; Caribbean = inferior" message. As Astree sings, Don Pedro watches her; he becomes ecstatic; it is clear that no matter how Nazi ideology or melodramatic convention dictate that this movie end, no one will ever love Astree as her racially "inferior," dark lover has. Pedro breathes her in like air; she moves him as his drug of choice. You know from watching her watching him that Don Pedro has given Astree the most unforgettable nights of her life.
There's so much else to talk about in this film, from the goofy font used in the opening title sequence to Astree's emotionally incestuous interactions with her strikingly cold, blond son. There's "Rosita," the male cross-dresser and Frieda-Kahlo imitator who plays Pedro's housekeeper. Rosita dresses like a nun, part of the film's anti-Catholic, pro-science, as well as anti-Caribbean, pro-Swedish, subtext. There's Dr. Gomez, a Simon-Abkarian lookalike, who, in a very funny scene, is regaled by a gallbladder-obsessed hypochondriac. There's Puerto Rico fever, perfidious islanders and the heroic Swedish doctor who fights both. There's the breathtakingly beautiful Zarah Leander, marketed as Nazi Germany's substitute for Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. But what this film amply demonstrates is that Ferdinand Marian was a compelling actor worthy of remembrance for so much more than having been coerced to appear in "Jud Suss," the "most hateful" film ever made.
- Nov 15, 2009