Monday, April 29, 2013

Off Book: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, Greg Wise

While I know very well that this film is not in 1001 Movies, I love it so dang much that I'm going to go right ahead and review it anyway.  Because it's awesome and it's one of my go-to comfort films.  I've seen it more times than I can count, and I will continue to watch it over and over and over again in the future.

Throwing fuel on the fire of the Jane Austen craze that overtook Hollywood in the mid-nineties is this truly impeccable adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  I adore Austen, and I adore Austen movies and miniseries, but after a recent rewatch of nearly every Austen film in my library (an undertaking that took several days), I realized just how far above the rest this particular film was.  It has a beauty, a heart, and a lyricism that others lack.  Nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in its year, it was beaten by Braveheart, a passable but forgettable epic.  Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, has only grown more beloved over time, at least in the circles I run in.

The classic story focuses on Elinor (Thompson) and Marianne (Winslet) Dashwood, sisters who must relocate to a simple country cottage after their father’s death.  Elinor is sensible and practical, pragmatic in everything, whereas Marianne is a hopeless romantic, determined to fall dreadfully in love.  For Elinor, the shy and composed Edward Ferrars (Grant) catches her eye, while Marianne falls for the dashing and impetuous Mr. Willoughby (Wise), much to the chagrin of Colonel Brandon (Rickman), who is desperately in love with her.  Money and status and scandal put up roadblocks, but our heroines are pure of heart, and true love triumphs in the end.

Ang Lee’s gorgeous camerawork combined with Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation bring this 200-year-old tale to life in a vivid, brilliant manner.  Ang Lee paints the film in lush, supple golds and greens, casting his heroines in wonderfully warm candlelight and golden sunsets.  The countryside looks as if it came out of a painting, with rolling green pastures and hills, blue ponds, and low-hanging willows.  When peril begins to loom for our heroines and tragedy seems apt to take over, the color palette changes to a cold, steely blue, with lots of rain and cloud and fog, signifying the change in overall tone.  But Lee brings us back to the warm tones of the opening of the film for its closure, after danger is averted, ending with such a beautiful shot of a country wedding, so golden in its happiness, that it cannot help but bring a smile to the face.

Alan Rickman has made a career of playing bad guys.  His looks, his accent, his basso profundo voice all lend themselves to a villain.  How refreshing that he is not one here.  His Colonel Brandon grows increasingly heartsick, increasingly in love with Marianne, but it is his restraint, his sad acceptance of the fact that she loves another, that makes him the most interesting male character in the story.  Ferrars is cute but a bit boring, more interesting in his reflection through Elinor than in himself (perhaps a comment on how far Hugh Grant is in over his head in this film), and Willoughby is simply a plot device to confuse and mislead our heroines, but Brandon is real, Brandon is substantive.  His opening scene as he first hears Marianne is positively hypnotic, and as he falls in love with her in that moment, every single woman watching this film falls in love with him.  Who on earth wouldn’t want a man to look at her the way Brandon gazes longingly at Marianne?  When Marianne is taken ill, his quiet yet desperate plea with Elinor to “give me an occupation or else I shall run mad,” speaks volumes for his quiet love for her.  Thompson, in her screenplay, presents a truly satisfying relationship between Brandon and Elinor.  Elinor clearly understands that Brandon loves her sister but that her sister loves Willoughby, yet she has a feeling that her sister has chosen wrongly.  Elinor and Brandon have a bond, a friendship, that lends a depth to both characters.  Colonel Brandon is one of Austen’s purest, truest heroes, and Rickman gives him such heart, such life, such romanticism, that every time I watch this film, I fall more and more in love with him.

Kate Winslet roared onto the Hollywood scene with this role, which she filmed when she was only nineteen years old.  She was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role, the first of her six (thus far) Oscar nominations (finally winning in 2009).  She is truly a whirlwind in the role; impetuous, carefree, strong-willed, and impulsive, heedless of society’s strictures on a lady’s behavior.  She is the highest high and the lowest low, flying back and forth between the two as only a teenager could.  Marianne’s ultimate growth is that she learns from her heartbreak, learns to temper her behavior.  She is not domesticated, per se, but after flying too close to the sun, she learns to balance herself, to learn more from her sister.  Winslet pulls off this transformation with utmost believability, and in the years following this film, she has proved, again and again, that she in undoubtedly one of our finest leading ladies of the time.

In contrast to headstrong Marianne, there MUST be a level-headed, careful Elinor, and Emma Thompson is the cautious heart of the film.  Personally, I am much more apt to sympathize with Elinor and her careful repression than Marianne’s recklessness.  I adore Thompson’s portrayal of Elinor, mostly because Thompson is very mindful to show us the cracks in Elinor’s well-studied façade of calm and tranquility at all the right moments.  They are subtle; a sharp intake of breath here, an uncertain word there, but they all combine to convince us that this is a woman very much in love, but disappointed in her love.  One of the most stunning scenes in the entire film, a scene which wrenches my heart every single time, is where Elinor reveals to Marianne that she has known she cannot be with Edward for months, keeping it a secret.  Thompson explodes in her heartbreak at her sister’s shallow condemnation of her lack of emotion.  To me, this scene personifies Elinor, and almost defines the film.

The plotline becomes very serious in the second half, as life looks increasingly bleak and sad for our heroines.  The intense drama is satisfactorily eased by light moments of humor, deftly placed to alleviate the encroaching darkness.  Hugh Laurie, a college chum of Emma Thompson’s, is positively scene-stealing as the bored and annoyed Mr. Palmer, a role that only has about a half-dozen lines, yet he makes the most of it.  His silly wife, played by Imelda Staunton, is a fool but lightens the mood as well, and her mother, the loud and unstoppable Mrs. Jennings, is worth a laugh every time she opens her mouth.  

At its heart, the relationship of the two sisters is paramount in this story and this film.  Elinor and Marianne may be opposites in terms of their personalities, but they love each other very much and would do anything for each other.  This is a romance, to be sure, but the romances of the film are nothing without the devoted sisters going through life at each other’s sides.  Having a sister myself (Meaghan, this one’s for you), I simply adore the sisters and how much they love each other.  This is an achingly beautiful film that plumbs the emotional depths of Austen.  Without sounding too saccharine, it makes my heart soar to watch this movie, and I find myself alternately moved to tears and smiles.  Because really, who isn’t smiling when Elinor bursts into tears of happiness when she realizes that Edward, feared lost to her forever, loves her after all?

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.

Sunday, April 28, 2013


Producer: Walt Disney
Starring: Leopold Stokowski, Disney animators

Fantasia is wholly unlike any other movie out there, excepting, of course, Fantasia 2000.  Its entire premise is completely different from a typical film.  It is about music.  Any sort of narrative in the film is derived entirely from the music, and not the other way around.  Any sort of image in the film is derived from the music, not the other way around.  The music was not implemented after the fact, meant to accompany what had already been committed to screen; the music came first, and the screen came second.  This is avant-garde filmmaking, but made by Walt Disney, of all people.  We tend not to think of Fantasia as experimental because it comes with the Disney tag, but you better believe this is out there in terms of basic structural design. 

Because this is a movie entirely about music, and classical music no less, most of my review is going to focus on just that.  I am a classical musician.  I have decades of experience performing in groups, and I listen almost exclusively to classical music of one type or another. 

In case you want to skip to the punchline, I’ll say this right now: I love Fantasia.  Why?  Because it’s entirely and exclusively about the music that I adore.  How awesome is that?

There are seven distinct pieces of music in Fantasia, and given that the entire film is “about” them, in a sense, I am going to discuss each one.  We have J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (which I’ve played), selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet (which I’ve played), Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Beethoven’s entire Symphony No. 6 (played it), Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain (played it) smashed together with Schubert’s Ave Maria.  I’m going to discuss each one because you have to consider this film.  These distinct seven pieces were chosen from all of classical music to BE Fantasia.  They were not picked because they would make a good soundtrack accompaniment to whatever action Disney had already put to film; they were chosen FIRST, and THEN Disney created images to match.

We start with Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.  It’s the only baroque selection of music in the film, but it’s fitting to open the piece.  Baroque was one of the earliest styles of classical music.  In my head, I call it a very “up and down” style of classical music, in that the focus is mostly on music theory and technique, and not on evocation of emotion or even imagery.  Now, I’m sure some will argue that last point, but really, when you compare baroque to romanticism, there IS no comparison about which style is more emotive.  Given that, of all the styles of music, I find baroque to be LEAST emotional, I also think it’s incredibly fitting that in Fantasia, this is the one piece that is the most abstract in terms of the animation.  There are no recognizable characters, let alone anything resembling a story.  It is purely impressionistic, which is dead on, spot on perfect for a baroque piece.  The picking of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue is a fine representation of baroque music, and one that audiences at the time would have been familiar with.  The iconic work had already been used in horror films (starting with The Black Cat in 1934).

The next selections are pieces from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.  Now, in order to explain why this is an interesting selection, I have to give you some history about the Nutcracker ballet.  Nowadays, everyone is familiar with the Nutcracker.  It’s a Christmas staple, performed in every major city in December, and in many more small towns as well.  You cannot get through a Christmas season without the music from the Nutcracker being used in multiple television commercials or piped endlessly through shopping malls.

In 1940, when Fantasia was made, this was not the case.  

The tradition of annually performing The Nutcracker at Christmas is a wholly American one.  When it originally premiered in Russia in the 1890s, the ballet was not successful.  It languished for about half a century, until it gradually started being performed again in the 1940s.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that it got its big break.  George Balanchine started performing The Nutcracker with the New York City ballet in the mid-1950s.  In 1958, CBS television approached him about airing a live broadcast of the show.  It was a huge hit for CBS, and they started airing it annually at Christmas.  Thus was born the completely American tradition of staging the Nutcracker ballet at Christmastime.

Having said all of that, let’s go back to Fantasia.  How Disney animators picked this particular piece, given that it held little cultural touchstone appeal for society at the time, is beyond my comprehension.  Surely Swan Lake would have been a more famous piece of Tchaikovsky’s at the time, or even his Symphony No. 5.  But no, they picked The Nutcracker, and I’m glad they did.  What we have, therefore, is an interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker that is wholly freed from the story of the ballet.  It is focused entirely on the MUSIC.  While there isn’t a story associated with the Nutcracker segment in Fantasia, it is not nearly as impressionistic as the first segment, containing distinct and recognizable images.  The images are essentially scenes from nature.

I adore the Nutcracker ballet.  I have either been in it or been to see it every year since I was three.  I know the music by heart.  And I really love this segment of Fantasia.  I love the alternate interpretation of the pieces, and they are lovely interpretations. 

Tchaikovsky, in terms of musical style, falls squarely within the Romantic era of classical music, characterized by highly emotional, even melodramatic musical gestures and pieces.  Personally, I love Tchaikovsky – he has such a distinctive compositional style, I could easily pick a piece of his out of a lineup – and I think it’s entirely fitting that he be included in Fantasia.

The next segment is the most iconic one in Fantasia, Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  This is a terrific piece of classical music, telling a very definite story, and like Tchaikovsky, falling squarely in the Romantic era.  I like the animation in this section, and it has, in large part, defined the film as a whole.  How many times have you seen it parodied on other animated shows like The Simpsons?  From a music standpoint, I think this is an absolutely stellar interpretation of the piece.  There is a moment – a trumpet fanfare – at the climax of the piece that just makes the entire recording for me.  Most recordings of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice gloss over this very brief fanfare, but Stokowski ever so slightly slows down the orchestra for this moment.  It makes the entire thing for me.  It sends chills up down the back of my neck.  I’ll put it this way – I never listen to any other recording of Sorcerer’s Apprentice than the one from Fantasia, because I have yet to find a better one.  

The next segment in Fantasia is easily the most courageous musical choice in the film.  Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is also the most musically different piece from all the rest in the film.  It debuted in 1913, a mere 27 years before Fantasia, making it the most modern piece in the film as well.  It is a glorious work, immensely complicated, dissonant, and it freely plays with rhythms and time signatures; yet, unlike so many of its twentieth century progenitors, there is a definite musical theme and melody.  I have never played The Rite of Spring, but I have been to two live performances of it, and I’ve seen the score.  It’s fiendishly difficult.  The entire Rite of Spring is more than half an hour long; the Rite of Spring that’s in Fantasia is truncated and reorganized.  I’m alright with that; I understand that, in order to create a film, some editing needed to take place. 

The animation accompanying it is sometimes cited as the most exciting segment in Fantasia.  It tells of the evolution of the universe, of our planet, of early life, then of the dinosaurs – the dinosaur segment usually being the bit that people remember.  Rite of Spring was originally composed to represent a primitive, tribal ceremony, and I think Disney’s reinterpretation works well.  While not depicting an actual tribe or actual people, the idea, the intent is there.  In terms of violence, this is the most aggressive section of the film, and to me, that makes absolute perfect sense in terms of Stravinsky’s piece.  Rite of Spring is a boldly aggressive piece of music.  Seeing volcanoes erupting and dinosaurs killing one another just makes inherent sense when listening to something as deliciously dissonant as Stravinsky.

Next up is the big one.  The central rock of Fantasia, at least to me.  Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.  I love Beethoven.  I’m going to repeat that, because it bears repeating.  I love Beethoven hardcore.  He is my favorite composer.  You might think it a bit cliché to pick Beethoven as your favorite composer, but trust me, this comes from years of exposure to many composers’ work.  I keep coming back to Beethoven.  I have an intense emotional connection with Beethoven’s work.  He is the only composer whose pieces have moved me to tears.  I don’t think there are any other composers capable of such painful beauty as Beethoven.  In his music, I see such loveliness, but under it, there is often a melancholy air.  His Sixth Symphony typifies this.  I will never get tired of listening to the Sixth.  As a symphony as a whole, it’s my favorite.  And trust me, I know Beethoven’s symphonies.  The only item on my bucket list is to either perform live or see performed live all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies.  I’m missing three: the second, the third, and the fourth.  I’ve either performed or been to see all the others.  Sure, there are individual movements of his other symphonies that I think are stronger or more emotional than those in the Sixth, but in terms of the symphony as an entire work, the Sixth is unbeatable.  Yes, more than the Ninth.  Yes, I love the Ninth.  Yes, I still prefer the Sixth.  (Perhaps I am slightly biased – I am a clarinetist, and the clarinet part in the Sixth is just amazing.)

When I was a young girl, I loved this section of Fantasia because it was basically a half hour episode of My Little Pony.  Having grown up now, I find it to be a little immature for my taste.  Basically, I love Beethoven’s Sixth so much that I don’t like seeing silly little animal creatures being played for laughs in a piece in which I find so much emotional profundity.  Having said that, though, I have to go back to my original statement – when I was little, I loved this section.  And isn’t that huge?  I mean, this part of the movie was instrumental (ha! Get it?) in nurturing my love and adoration of classical music.  So what if there’s a little bit of silliness or commercialism mixed in there?  If it can help youngsters of today get into classical music as well, then I’m okay with it.  Disney certainly got the “pastoral” part of the piece right, though.  I like the bright pastel color scheme; I think that fits with the piece very well.  I just picture something different than Disney when I hear the Sixth.  Not so many naked cherub butts.

This is not my favorite recording of the Sixth symphony.  I think the second movement is a little too slow, the third movement not quite jovial enough and lacking in life, and the final movement a little lacking in grandeur, plus the whole symphony is truncated.  In terms of that last point, again, I understand why it was truncated, this being a feature film after all.  I do not argue the right of the editors to edit.  However, I will argue that if you wanted Beethoven and you wanted pastoral AND you wanted something shorter, why didn’t you use the first movement of the Seventh symphony?  It’s much shorter and just as “romp in the countryside” as this.  Or, for that matter, the third movement of his violin concerto.  Ah well.

In terms of musical style, there is a bit of argument as to where Beethoven belongs, so I’ll just tell you where I think he belongs.  Beethoven was the crossover composer; he ended the Classical era in classical music and issued in the Romantic era.  If you listen to Beethoven’s First and then listen to Beethoven’s Ninth, they are worlds apart.  His First Symphony is highly derivative of Mozart, the king of the Classical era.  By Beethoven’s Ninth, he had fundamentally shifted how he wrote music, using far more emotional motifs and much less emphasis on technique or precision.  In terms of Beethoven’s career, I firmly place the Sixth Symphony in the Romantic era.

Man, I love Beethoven.

Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours is the penultimate selection in Fantasia.  The piece itself very clearly depicts the passing of the hours of the day, starting in the morning, then having a sleepy afternoon nap, then a wild evening party.  Dance of the Hours is by no means the only classical music piece to do this; von Suppe’s Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna overture follows a similar structure.  But Dance of the Hours is a great piece, highly evocative of its title, clearly containing distinct imagery.  This is the also the goofiest of all the segments in Fantasia, what with ostriches in pointe shoes, fat dancing hippos, and alligators sadly unable to catch said hippos.  To reiterate some of my comments about the Sixth, I don’t really like this segment NOW, but when I was young, I loved it.  I feel I’ve somewhat outgrown this particular animation, but I wouldn’t cast it aside.  It’s important to have some kiddie appeal – this is Disney, after all.  I also think this is the funniest of the segments.  Again, I don’t know how much I personally like it, but I do think it’s important to have some broad comedy in there.  It helps coat the pill of classical music, making it go down much easier with little ones.

In terms of musical style, Dance of the Hours is much akin to Tchaikovsky’s work, being written within about fifteen years of the Nutcracker ballet.  As such, it is also firmly Romantic in its style.  Are we noticing a pattern here?  I hope so. 

The final segment is Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain mashed up with Schubert’s Ave Maria.  A Night on Bald Mountain is an effing creepy piece of classical music.  Stephen King is said to have seen Fantasia and been terrified by this particular segment.  I find that those of my high school students who have seen this film remember this segment the best.  It’s a towering piece of infernal music, incredibly frightening at its core.  The animation that accompanies is absolutely perfect in its ghoulish splendor.  There seems to be a bit of experimentation with animation techniques to achieve the ghost effects.  The dance of death is so frightening, perhaps one of the most supernaturally frightening scenes that Disney ever put to film.  In terms of the animation, it’s probably my favorite part of Fantasia.

All of which makes me sad that Disney basically took a butcher knife to the piece, picking and choosing what they wanted, and then discarding the ending.  Instead of using the actual ending of A Night on Bald Mountain, which has a definite Ave Maria sacrosanct feel to it, they feel the need discard most of it and tack on Schubert’s actual Ave Maria, one of the most sinfully boring pieces of classical music ever.  A Night on Bald Mountain has everything Disney wanted for this final piece.  Why the hell did they have to mess with it, cut it up, and throw in that damn Schubert piece?  That bugs me. 

Again, going back to musical style, both Mussorgsky and Schubert were Romantic era composers.  So we have seven sections of Fantasia, and of them, one is baroque, one is twentieth-century, and the other five are Romantic.  Personally, the Romantic era is my favorite era in classical music, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain, and I can understand from a storytelling point of view why choosing Romantic pieces was the easiest as many of them already have distinct emotions or even stories built it, but I highly question their omission of the Classical era.  I mean, Mozart is the behemoth of classical music, and his work does not appear in either Fantasia or its sequel.  What gives?  In my opinion, this is a glaring omission that should never have gotten past the initial discussion of what this movie would be. 

In many ways, I wish Disney Studios would return to the studio that produced this film.  Today, Disney is synonymous with Cash Cow, merely existing to sell little girls the Princess Dream and bank off whatever Pixar produces.  But back in 1940, when Disney produced Fantasia and then Pinocchio, it was a much different studio.  Artistic experimentation and expression were more important (or, at least, just as important) than making money.  To this day, Fantasia remains the single best classical music movie ever made because it is wholly about the classical music.  The classical music does not take a back seat to any sort of contrived plot line about struggling musicians or some other nonsense.  The classical music came first, and the images followed.  How brave of the studio, how incredible a film, and how wonderful for someone like me.  It’s the perfect marriage of two of my greatest passions: classical music and film coming together.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10.  There are moments of pure perfection, but also moments that are not so perfect.  And this is a hugely significant film for me.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Queen Christina

Queen Christina
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith

Biography films aren’t really my cup of tea, let alone biography films that cherry pick certain events or characteristics to portray a white-washed version of a real person.  Queen Christina is better than most early Hollywood biographies, but honestly, that’s not saying much.  Garbo is good, but the sentimental nature of the story is overpowering.

Queen Christina of Sweden (Garbo) ascended the throne at six years old after her father, who raised her as a boy, died in battle.  Grown, she maintains many masculine sensibilities like wearing men’s clothing, riding, and hunting, all while maintaining several (male) lovers, most notably in the form of Count Magnus (Keith) who’s a bit of a hothead.  Sweden is in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War and Christina rules her kingdom well, sacrificing much in the name of honor and duty, but she is growing tired.  One night, trapped at an inn in the middle of a snowstorm, she must share a room with the Spanish ambassador, Don Antonio (Gilbert).  The two quickly fall in love.  Christina soon realizes that politics and romance do not make comfortable bedfellows.

I enjoyed Garbo pretty well as Queen Christina.  She plays the queen with an unrelenting confidence tempered by an extraordinary sense of duty which is hard for me to dislike.  From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate that Christina doesn’t crumble into a heap of nothing once she falls in love with Don Antonio.  The movie does NOT have just the message that she was somehow living a worthless existence until she met the right man (although that is tinged around the edges, I admit), but instead, we see that Christina is strong and meeting Antonio is simply a significant chapter in her life.  Garbo is a natural fit for this type of character, one who can be lit on fire with passion but who can also utter proclamations, one who loves her people but also craves solitude.  Being Swedish herself, I can imagine that Garbo felt more connected to this role than others.  In my head, Christina is someone she identified with very much.

But if Christina is strong, I find most of the men around her, including Antonio, to be prissy little drama queens.  Antonio is all pissed-off and childish when he finds that Christina deliberately did not tell him of her true identity.  Dude, she’s a queen.  She figured you’d judge her – just like you’re judging her now.  And what is there unique about Antonio that makes Christina fall so passionately in love with him?  Blowed if I know.  He seems so thoroughly average, such a run of the mill standard issue “Hero” with all the heroic traits one might expect.  And then there’s Magnus, Christina’s former lover whom she jilts in order to have sexy times with Antonio.  If Antonio gets a bit bitchy, it’s nothing to Magnus.  Why are all these men so utterly adolescent?  Whining and scheming and gossiping, they’re worse than my high school students.  I honestly lose respect for Christina for picking Magnus at any point in the film because he’s so slimy and immature.  Dear lord, woman, what was the attraction there?!?


I have some problems with the ending of the film as well.  I really wish that Mamoulian had simply finished the story after Christina’s abdication.  Up to that point, I understand that Christina is abdicating not just because she fell in love, but because she is tired of sacrificing absolutely everything to her country.  It’s not wrong to make that sacrifice, but she wants to live her own life, not Sweden’s.  I’m with you, honey.  I smell what you’re stepping in.  The last fifteen minutes, however, completely undermine all of that and try to bring it back to a soppy romance flick, which vastly undercuts Christina’s power as a person, making her out instead to be simply “another lovesick woman.”  The duel was pointless to me, putting the focus unnecessarily on Antonio instead of Christina – it makes the climax of the film shift from Christina’s abdication (what it SHOULD be, given the title of the film) to a duel between two men.  I don’t give a flying you know what about the petty squabbling of Antonio and Magnus.  Their fighting over her drags her down to their level and completely saps her of any feminine independence.  It would have been a far more powerful end if it was simply her leaving her court.  I know the actual final shot of the film with Christina on the bow of a ship is heralded as one of the most memorable of the film, but there would be ways to achieve that same effect without the stupid men fighting over her sequence.


Mamoulian has some pre-Code fun with Queen Christina, mostly around the idea of Christina dressing like a man.  When Antonio first meets her, for example, he has no idea she’s a woman (a fact I didn’t buy for a second, by the way, what with Garbo’s clearly shaped breasts and fake eyelashes), and when he later finds out, his reaction is priceless.  The segment where Antonio and Christina shack up in the inn is sultry and passionate, and has enough clear statements of sexuality that I’m certain it would have been censored in the years that followed. 

I read up a bit on the actual Queen Christina while watching this film (because frankly, it bored me a little) and discovered that the filmmakers actually significantly toned her down.  The romance with Antonio was mostly a fabrication, but reports vary as to her actual sexual appetites.  The real Christina seems even more colorful and salacious that we get here, sleeping with possibly both men and women and rather hell-bent on doing things she shouldn’t (an affair with a priest, for example).  If anything, Hollywood toned DOWN the true stories, even for a pre-Code film.  

Honestly, when it comes down to it, I’m remarkably ambivalent about Queen Christina.  I neither like it nor dislike it.  And that fact in and of itself is a bad sign.  A film should register somehow, somewhere, for me, and this one is just… there.  That’s it.  Is it good?  I guess.  It didn’t make me apoplectic or anything.  But it also never drew me in to its world.  It never intrigued me.  I liked Greta Garbo, but I didn’t fall in love with her.  I felt completely disengaged the entire time. 

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10 for a thoroughly middling film.  Good Garbo, everything else was just there, and what could have been a huge POW! for feminism is massively undercut by unnecessary focus on the men.