Ninety years old and still feels as fresh as a daisy: G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box reviewed

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

2 June 2018

9:00 AM

Two films this week, one that has stood the test of time, dazzlingly — it still feels as fresh as a daisy, almost 90 years on — and another that’s so tiresome it felt almost 90 years long.

First, Pandora’s Box, directed by G.W. Pabst in 1929, starring Louise Brooks and her iconic hair-do. It is always described as ‘a masterpiece of silent cinema’, which, let’s admit it, can strike fear into the heart of the average cinemagoer. It’ll be primitive, vaudevillian, barely watchable. There will be exaggerated hand-flapping and over-the-top faces. There will be a woman tied to the railway tracks and a moustached villain or, if it’s a comedy, then some poor bastard will surely get a plank in his face or will mistakenly wrestle his boss’s wife to the ground, ha ha. But with Pandora’s Box you forget that it’s black and white. You forget that the internet has yet to happen, or ready-made pastry. You forget that more than two hours have gone by. You forget because it’s completely modern — 100 per cent gripping and involving. I watched it with an early teenager, who said afterwards: ‘That was great.’ Could there even be a higher compliment? Given she could have been watching Real Housewives of Orange County.

The film hooks you in from the start, opening with Lulu (Brooks) dressed in peignoir in a Berlin art deco flat. She is gorgeous, vivacious, full of life and sexually confident as she flirts with the man who has come to read the meter. She is next visited by an old fella who may be her father or may be a kind of pimp (or both) and she sits on his lap, affectionately, until they are disturbed by another man, who lets himself in with his own keys. This is the prosperous newspaper proprietor who is obviously paying for the apartment. Lulu is not a prostitute as such but there is always an economic dimension to her relationships. He tells her he’s about to be married so their arrangement must come to an end, and it all takes off from there.

The plot takes many twists and turns as Lulu’s fortunes chop and change, often for the worse, alas. She’s not always innocent — the look of malice she gives that jilted woman after stealing her fiancé! — but she is, on the whole, generous-spirited and optimistic and you will root for her. She will be punished for her sexual desire, as women so often are but, interestingly, the men who exploit her are also punished, so it’s never a straightforward tale of sin and retribution. As for Brooks, she’s sensational, as are the subsidiary characters — a portly acrobat; a tight-lipped lesbian — and crowd scenes are especially rich and wonderful. (I particularly loved a court scene, if only for the hats.)

The film has been digitally restored so it’s not fuzzy, but as crisp as anything, and it’s being re-released by the BFI in selected UK cinemas, so it’s coming to you, Broadstairs, and you, Shetland Islands. I say simply: go see it as you might any other film. And if you regret it, I will personally give you your money back. (Not really. But it sounded good.)

And now on to L’Amant Double, as why should you be spared when I wasn’t. This is written and directed by François Ozon, who made Frantz, which was terrific, but he’s obviously gone quite mad since. It concerns a young woman Chloé (Marine Vacth) who falls in love with her shrink Paul (Jérémie Renier), just as he falls in love with her. So therapy is terminated as they move in together, after which she discovers his secret: he has an identical twin brother, Louis, who is also a therapist. Or is this all in her mind? Either way, she visits Louis whose therapeutic technique actually amounts to sexual assault, and ‘no’ always meaning ‘yes’ but that’s OK because, the film says, isn’t this what all women want deep down? (Um…no?) Chloé, who is like some dazed child, then ricochets between the two and some fairly wild sex scenes that may be hallucinatory because she is ‘hysterical’. It has been billed as an ‘erotic thriller’ but as it is, in fact, a rape-culture fantasy dressed up as one, I found it about as erotic as descaling the kettle, say. Also, it felt 90 years long.

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