NINOTCHKA (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939)

Greta Garbo proves herself a wondrous comedienne as Nina Yakushova Ivanov, nicknamed Ninotchka, a no-nonsense Soviet emissary sent to Paris to sell former tsarist Grand Duchess Swana’s jewels to alleviate Soviet financial duress. Swana, living in Paris, wants back her jewels—for themselves, but also in a psychological attempt to reverse history. Meanwhile, Ninotchka has fallen in love with Swana’s representative in the matter, Léon, Comte d’Agoult, who is also Swana’s lover. Léon has fallen for Ninotchka as well. Swana feels that Bolshevik history is ransacking her all over again.
     This hilarious film was cleverly written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, along with Walter Reisch, from a story by Melchior Lengyel. Deadpanning, Ninotchka, referring to recent Stalinist purges, hews to the official Party line: “There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” Sarcastic Léon tells her, “I’ve been fascinated by your Five-Year Plan [for national economic growth] for the past fifteen years.”
     But Garbo’s sublime acting and Ernst Lubitsch’s filmmaking are what matter most. Everything dour in the impassioned young communist slides into grace in Garbo’s romantic portrayal. Surpassing even Fredric March in Death Takes a Holiday (Mitchell Leisen, 1934), Garbo is revelatory with Ninotchka’s more and more appreciative apprehension of a Parisian world entirely new to her, the symbol for which is a purely decorative (hence decadent) hat that Ninotchka initially disdains but later buys for herself. Lubitsch achieves radiant visual slapstick and wit when Ninotchka bursts into laughter in a café after Léon, after trying unsuccessfully to make her laugh, falls from his chair onto the floor. Gorgeous, and full of anxiety: the shot of the empty safe where Ninotchka had been keeping the jewels—an anticipation of the vacant mail slot in Lubitsch’s next film, The Shop Around the Corner (1940).

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