Foolish Wives (Erich von Stroheim / U.S., 1922):

The bowl of caviar and the sewer hole and the roulette spinning between them, the Stroheim configuration. Monte Carlo ("Europe’s playground") is the setting, sham bluebloods soak up the sun while the auteur introduces himself by firing a pistol straight into the lenses. (In this insular Mediterranean playpen, the stinging reminder of recent carnage arrives in a soldier’s uniform with vacant sleeves.) One Russian count (Stroheim) and two princesses (Maude George, Mae Busch) on the veranda, as authentic as the francs they pass at the casino, monocles and medals to cover up depths of imperial decay. The blind husband this time is an American ambassador (Rudolph Christians), his wife (Miss DuPont) is catnip for the scoundrel whose business and joy is "to stroke the white doe." The warty view of desire is suffused with a forthright surrealism encapsulated in the count’s seduction of the visiting ingénue: Their countryside stroll disrupted by a sudden downpour, the couple is briefly imagined as a pair of drenched, long-snouted dogs rushing back to the lodge until a crone’s dilapidated hovel is revealed as their sanctuary, a dour monk materializes to stop the predator in his tracks. (A goat’s mangy backside takes up half the screen as Stroheim uses a tiny mirror to sneak a peek at the leading lady’s bare shoulders, surely an image to enchant the young Buñuel.) Private mythologies scorched by an unblinking camera, oneiric titles (Villa Amorosa, Hotel des Rêves, "hell’s paradise") floating mockingly through the stark realism, such are the elements of a masterwork of counterfeit characters. What truly counts in a world of falsification? The forger-artist (Cesare Gravina) watches over the treasure that is his feeble-minded daughter (Malvina Polo), a rare tracking shot locates a spark of literally incendiary revolt in the darting eyes of a wronged maid (Dale Fuller). And then there’s the unmasked villain at the close, shorn of everything except for a self-destructive recalcitrance the director can’t help admiring. Nabokov in "The Leonardo" takes up the theme, Visconti’s Ludwig has the garland-adorned grotto vessels. Cinematography by Williams Daniels and Ben Reynolds. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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