Remakes rarely approach the quality of the original films, least of all American remakes, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the original artist has generally already given the material the best possible form, requiring the remakers, to distinguish their work, to settle for a second-best form or one even more inferior than that. Also, whereas the original filmmaker could focus on the relevant thematic material, the remaker has also the earlier version with which to contend, and this can distract the remaker, diluting his or her efforts. Recently, most of us were shocked at the vastly inferior nature of Christopher Nolan’s loud, crass, diffuse, and just plain stupid remake (2002) of the brilliant Norwegian police procedural Insomnia (1997), by Erik Skjöldbjerg, one of the most stunning feature debuts in cinema. In this instance, another recurrent problem kicked in: its transplantation to a different country required a herculean effort to make the remake’s action seem “at home.” Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. At least in passing I should note that the most massively moving and beautiful film ever made, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s exalted expression of his Christian faith, Ordet (1954), from Kaj Munk’s play, far exceeds Gustaf Molander’s estimable earlier version (1943).
Ironically, Molander did much more to “open up” the play; stirred by Munk’s death at the hands of the Nazis, Dreyer instead hewed to the text out of respect for Munk’s memory. The recent well regarded thriller The Deep End, written and directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, remakes a film from Max Ophüls’s Hollywood sojourn in the 1940s, The Reckless Moment (1949); but in this instance, I cannot relate either version to the novel on which both films are based, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall, having never come across it. (Raymond Chandler regarded Holding as the most suspenseful mystery writer of their day.) As a result I don’t quite know what to make of the remake’s singlemost shift in plot. Did the version that appeared two years after the book’s publication radically change this element to accommodate Hollywood’s timidity at the time regarding homosexuality in films? (Charles Jackson’s study of homosexual guilt, The Lost Weekend, a few years earlier had become an Oscar-winning film with all the homosexual references—the guts of the book—expunged.) Are McGehee and Siegel returning to or altering Holding?
I can compare only the films then, without reference to the original story. In both versions a mother disapproves of her teenaged offspring’s affair with an older man. In the Ophüls film, the child is a daughter; in this newer version, a son. The rest of the two plots is roughly similar. A lovers’ quarrel results in the death of the older partner; the mother disposes of the body and covers up the event. She in turn is blackmailed by two individuals, one of whom befriends her and eventually dispatches the other blackmailer before sacrificing his own life so that the woman can proceed to bring her life back to normality. In both films the military father is absent: in Germany, helping that nation rebuild after the war, in the Ophüls; at sea, in the McGehee and Siegel.
Ophüls’s Reckless Moment, befitting one of cinema’s premier artists (and one of the great Jewish artists of the twentieth century), is an atmospheric domestic thriller with profound reverberations. Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett, in the performance of a lifetime) is not acting as “the father” in her husband’s absence in order to maintain the family’s security and order. Rather, she is replacing—supplanting—him in order to contest her daughter Bea’s incest-by-proxy, which she (unconsciously) perceives as exacerbated by her husband’s absence. In effect, this absence prevents Bea from normally working out an Electra-complex, helping to turn her mother into a kind of therapist. Lucia does all she can to keep her family, as it were, inviolate; any intrusion must somehow be disposed of. In her harried attempts to protect her daughter and to raise blackmail money, she is an utterly sympathetic character; enhancing her sympathetic nature, as she clandestinely goes about trying to rectify a sordid and taxing situation, she is besieged by meddlesome inquiries from her son and father-in-law: males who would keep her tied down in a back seat. Indeed, a feminist portrait emerges of a subtly heroic woman battling the male prerogatives arrayed against her. At the same time, however, the sleazy world into which Lucia must descend in order to protect her family—a world of death, corpse-disposing, blackmail, loan sharking, quasi-adultery—taints her and adds something deeply unpleasant to the film’s portrait of her. Ophüls finds Lucia admirable; he also finds her ruthless in her determination to prevail. It’s elusive, to be sure, and her husband’s stint in Germany helps us to touch upon it, but Lucia displays glints of what Ophüls may regard as fascistic. (Perhaps her Italian name also helps us along this line.) The depth of all she is willing to sacrifice in order to protect what after all is a bourgeois domain, including the life of perhaps the only man she ever loved, the sympathetic blackmailer, Martin Donnelly (James Mason, marvelous), implies a horrifying aspect, as though the sordidness that initially had seemed so alien to her was in fact in some sense a part of her destiny. The severe nature of Lucia’s hairdo, even, with its careful arrangement of slick straight hair and iron curls, suggests an offputtingly formidable aspect. Ophüls’s ultimate point, it seems to me, is that the Second World War has changed the world, including America, on a purely domestic level, casting certainties—including male domination—into flux (a good thing), but also steeling with harsh, determined, unpleasant accents much in the everyday world that had once been guided, or seemed to have been guided, by clear, simple emotions. I can sum up The Reckless Moment in three words: Hitler changed everything.
The McGehee-Siegel version, updated to the present, has no such resonance or intellectual reach. It lacks conviction, in fact, because Margaret Hall, the mother that Tilda Swinton plays, never seems touched by the sordidness into which she also must plunge herself. (Swinton, good in Sally Potter’s Orlando, 1993, and even better in Tim Roth’s The War Zone, 1999, does only a tepid job here.) However, the shift of the relationship that leads to the accidental death from heterosexual to homosexual stirs up some exotic interest, especially when a videotape shows Margaret a scene of her son in bed with the sleazeball. Her rationale for ceding to blackmail then becomes the need to keep this information about their son’s sexual orientation from his father—a patent metaphor for the mother’s own denial of the matter. (Her dispatch of her son’s lover’s corpse to the ocean deep is almost too literary a device for suggesting her desire to drown the boy’s sexuality along with it.) In this redistribution of accents effected by the shift to homosexuality, Margaret’s complicity in the killing event amounts to symbolic incest with her son—I suppose an ultimate form of denial by a woman of her son’s homosexuality. Compared to the Ophüls film, this one is trivial and (psychologically) overelaborated. It’s borderline goofy.
Still, McGehee and Siegel thoroughly entertain. Those who ask no more than that from filmmakers won’t be disappointed.
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