By David Elliott
APPETIZER: Reviews of Marie Curie and Letters From Baghdad
Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge
You don’t expect a film about a great female scientist to include a pistol duel in the woods, but then you haven’t seen Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge. Curie (b. Maria Sklodowska) was surely Poland’s greatest export to France since pianist Frédéric Chopin (b. Fryderyk Chopin). She married the brilliant French chemist Pierre Curie, co-shared (by his insistence) the Nobel Prize, and after his tragic death became the first person to win a second Nobel. She co-discovered radium and polonium, pioneered the crucial theories of radioactivity (and cancer treatments), designed and conducted experiments (which finally killed her), uplifted female scientists and – touché!—was the Sorbonne’s first female prof, and the first woman buried in the Panthéon.
Marie Noelle’s bravura film makes us forget Greer Garson’s Madame Curie (1943), who hugged her nobility like a tragic fur from Bonwit Teller. In this Franco-Polish production (German financing), Noelle and photographer Michal Englert achieve French light of such Impressionist impact that we can almost believe radium is the source. Noelle gives us the scientific excitement, the work, the friendship with Einstein, the misogynist opposition including imbecilic anti-Semitism (she wasn’t Jewish), and Marie’s love of Pierre and their kids, notably Irene (who went on to her own Nobel). The couple stand before luminous vials of radium. Pierre: “It is glowing from inside.” Marie: “Like you.” OK, a touch corny, but great, radiant corn!
Noelle’s first film was Obsession (1997), with Daniel Craig, and Marie Curie goes well beyond. There is high fixation in Marie’s science, her feminism, her love of Pierre, her recovery from his death (street accident), her compensating love for Pierre’s great assistant Paul Langevin, which caused scandal. Noell has expert instinct for vividly cross-stitching the creative and personal, as Robert Altman did in his Van Gogh film Vincent and Theo. If Karolina Gruszka doesn’t quite have the Garbo intensity of Poland’s great Maja Komorowska, she attains her own erotic power, salted and served with innate dignity and intellect.
I haven’t seen Daniel Olbrychski in many years (he seemed to be in half the Polish films of the '70s), but here he is, excellent as a preening swine. Also terrific: Charles Berling as Pierre, and Arieh Worthalter as Paul (who fights the duel). Piotr Glowacki’s Einstein easily rivals the recent TV saga Genius. It is really Gruszka’s movie, by way of Noelle. When Paul calls Marie “my beaming radium queen,” we can believe it. Of course, there is also an old-school male to grunt, “Not bad for a woman, eh?” That “eh” is from the periodic table of macho piggery.
Letters from Baghdad
The masters of war who took us into the Iraq quagmire, in 2003, probably would have cared little for a British film that is a feminist history lesson, poetically realized. Or cared more than a dry, dusty fig for the movie’s subject: Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). In any case, the beautiful and stirring documentary Letters from Baghdad was not made until 2015, a dozen years after the start of our Bush-born misadventure.
Bell came from a wealthy if declining Yorkshire family, and tore herself from her roots (a lovely estate, a cherished father) after a youthful trip to Persia (Iran) besotted her. One of the great Victorian travelers, Bell applied her Oxford-honed brain to mastering Arabic (“I am so wildly interested in Arabic – and the fun of it!”). Alarming the Ottoman Turks, she led her own camel troupe into the baking interior of Saudia Arabia. Her enchantment with Brit-run Mesopotamia, once fabled Babylon, would lead to her advising Winston Churchill (as did her friend T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”) into forging the kingdom of Iraq after WWI. The acerbic, tireless Bell became a power, “one of the boys” in a blunt but feminine way. The man she loved was killed in World War I and Gertrude became, in essence, betrothed to exotic history. After Iraq was born, she founded and guided Baghdad’s museum of antiquities.
An excellent tribute and time capsule, Letters touches greatness with its form: an almost Arabian Nights streaming of old news clips, travelogs, personal movies and Bell’s often wonderful photos, in a shimmering cascade of times reborn. The film has a haunted fluency, Bell’s strong face looming among sandy vistas. Her letters are read with High Victorian grace by Tilda Swinton. Actors speak as other key figures, studio-posed in period costume. The makers, including editor Sabine Krayenbuhl (who co-directed with Zeva Oelbaum) and designer Erik Rehl, achieve perhaps the most poetic use of vintage film since Peter Delpeut’s entrancing salute to proto-cinema, Lyrical Nitrate.
SALAD (A List)
Memorable Women Starring in Documentaries:
Pina Bausch in Pina, 2011; Antonia Brico in Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, 1974; Louise Brooks in Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu, 1998; Marlene Dietrich in Marlene, 1984; Traudl Junge in Hitler’s Secretary, 2002; Vivian Maier in Finding Vivian Maier, 2013; Carmen Miranda in Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business, 1995; Ayn Rand in Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, 1996; Leni Riefenstahl in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, 1993; Eleanor Roosevelt in The Eleanor Roosevelt Story, 1965; Nina Simone in What Happened, Miss Simone?, 2015; Patti Smith in Patti Smith: Dream of Life, 2008; Susan Tom in My Flesh and Blood, 2003; Amy Winehouse in Amy, 2015; Gwen Welles in Angel on My Shoulder, 1998.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Partly for legal reasons, partly from pride-of-inspiration, Orson Welles always tried to deflect the idea that Citizen Kane is centrally about William Randolph Hearst. In 1941 he sought to elude that notion in an article: “The easiest way to draw parallels between Kane and other famous publishers is not to see the picture. It is the portrait of a public man’s private life. I have met some publishers, but I know none of them well enough to make them possible models. Constant references have been made to the career of Hearst, drawing parallels to my film. That is unfair to Hearst and to Kane.” His viewpoint has not prevailed. (Quote from Frank Brady’s fine biography Citizen Welles.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
Among those thrilled in 1935 by Katharine Hepburn’s moving Alice Adams was young Pauline Kael: “Hepburn made her feel ‘as if you were inside her skin.’ The Bay Area girl ‘was 16 when the film was first shown, and during the slapstick dinner-party scene, when Alice was undergoing agonies of comic humiliation, I started up the aisle to leave the theater, and was almost out the door before I snapped back to my senses.’ Alice Adams still snaps our senses.”
(From the Hepburn/Alice Adams chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, obtainable from Amazon, Nook, Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
A Pina Bausch dancer in Pina (IFC Films, 2011; director Wim Wenders; cinematographers Helene Louvart, Jorg Widmer).
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