Director: Erich von Stroheim
Starring: Erich von Stroheim, Miss Dupont, Maude George, Rudolph Christians
Erich von Stroheim has done it again! Jump with joy for the anticipation of an overlong, completely over the top morality play! Oh thank goodness, because there really isn’t enough of that in my life at the moment.
“Count” Sergius Karamzin (von Stroheim) is a con artist masquerading as an aristocrat, preying off of the gullible upper class in Monte Carlo with the aid of his “cousin,” Princess Olga Petchnikoff (George). When an American dignitary (Christians) and his much younger wife Helen (Dupont) arrive, the tricksters immediately set their sights on fleecing the couple for everything they have. Sergius sets to work charming Helen, slowly, of course, and trying to keep the husband relatively unaware. Ultimately, however, Sergius’ womanizing ways catch up with him.
As I watched Foolish Wives for a second time, I kept on trying to put my finger on what the story reminded me of. Was it soap opera? No, soap opera moves slower than this. Was it crappy romance novels? No, crappy romance novels have a hero, and Foolish Wives has no hero, just ridiculous naïve characters and Evil Villains of Evil. And then it finally hit me. I thought to myself, “Sergius is Don Juan.” Which then made me think Don Giovanni, (in particular, Mariusz Kwiecien in Don Giovanni… mmm, Mariusz Kwiecien…) Mozart’s operatic reimagining of Don Juan. And that’s precisely what Foolish Wives is: it’s an opera plot without the actual, y’know, opera.
Now, I am a definite fan of opera. Like, pretty darn big time. All my students know it. All my friends know it. Opera rocks, man. I will preach this from the highest hilltop.
But Foolish Wives does NOT rock, despite this association I made. Why? The last thing I’m looking for from my opera is plot, and that’s ALL that Foolish Wives has going for it.
The plots of operas are not the point of the opera itself. If you wanted interesting story development, no one in their right mind would think, “I know! Let’s all hit up Il Barbiere di Siviglia tonight! That’s got one crackerjack plot!” The operatic plots are mere scaffolds on which fantastic music is hung. What’s more, they are usually simple to their core. Any opera I’m familiar with can be summed up in two sentences, three at the most. If it’s a comedy, it’s “mistaken identities prevent the hero and heroine from proclaiming their love for one another while a baritone gets in the way.” If it’s a tragedy, “everyone makes bad decisions then dies.” Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but not by much. And opera plots are notoriously slow to progress. Because the plots are so simple, there isn’t a tremendous amount of plot progression, and the story can move rather slowly. The arias are rarely about plot progression in an opera, instead being about the fabulous music. Even my mother, whose only experience with opera is when I’ve tied her down and shoved some Juan Diego Florez in her eyeballs, noticed that “everyone tends to repeat themselves in the songs, just singing the same thing over and over.” Yes, exactly. And what they’re repeating is usually something straightforward, like “I love her.” Or “I hate him.” Or “Wow, I’m so happy.”
To bring this back to Foolish Wives, imagine now that simplistic plot that operas have, where everyone says the same thing over and over again, where the plot is ridiculously slow to progress, and then remove the awesome music from it, and you have this movie. A plot so utterly simple – con man corrupts gullible wife – and a story that moves so damn slowly – I don’t understand why this has to be two and a half hours – that is absolutely full of the characters doing or saying the same thing over and over again – how many scenes do we need of Sergius being a smarmy bastard to Helen? Add them all together, and you get Foolish Wives, the non-opera opera story. I don’t watch opera for plot, I watch it for tremendous singing and amazing music, both of which Foolish Wives lacks, making the whole movie rather dull.
What is impressive about Foolish Wives are the sets. Watching this through, I assumed it was partially shot on location somewhere; if not Monte Carlo itself, then a spot that looks like Monte Carlo. But no, it wasn’t. Nope, von Stroheim being the egotistical bastard he was, he built Monte Carlo, complete with a fake lake, in studio backlots. Alright, von Stroheim, I’ll give you your due, that’s rather amazing. Although not perhaps as grand as some of the set work in Intolerance, it’s pretty close.
Many silent films do not translate well with modern audiences. There are some that do, and some that are still spectacular today, but most feel dated in many ways. Time has not been kind to Foolish Wives. The story is one that modern audiences would barely register an interest in, and when you throw on von Stroheim’s ego in insisting this be an “epic” in terms of length, what results is a product few would find compelling.
Arbitrary Rating: 4/10