AT LONG LAST LOVE (Peter Bogdanovich, 1975)

For me, the two highlights of the 1970s phase of Peter Bogdanovich’s filmmaking career are At Long Last Love starring then-lover and muse Cybill Shepherd and the gritty, atmospheric post-Cybill Saint Jack (1979) starring wonderful Ben Gazzara. A financial flop in its day, the first of these has often been ridiculed, as though writer-director Bogdanovich didn’t know what the hell he was doing in making a musical romance set to music and lyrics by Cole Porter. With the passing years, though, Bogdanovich’s assurance and his film’s poignant charm have become clearer. The film is a sumptuous, stylish feast of those delicate feelings that infuse sexual love’s volatility in the shadow of mortal anxiety. In a way, At Long Last Love is Bogdanovich’s version of Victorian poet Robert Browning’s “Two in the Campagna.”
     The silken white Art Deco sets evoke the 1930s of Astaire & Rogers, to be precise, Top Hat (1935)—but as Ernst Lubitsch rather than Mark Sandrich might have directed it. Although it is set in a single time and a unified space, the film conjures the exquisite ache of impermanence and time lost of Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943).
     A comedy of errors, the deliberately slight plot of Top Hat, based on misidentification, expresses the ambiguous and elusive, if overwhelming, nature of romantic love, including its potential for evaporation and reformulation. “Change partners and come dance with me,” Astaire sings to Rogers in another Irving Berlin musical, Carefree (1938). Applying the non-narrative tendencies of Michelangelo Antonioni’s great cinema to the musical-comedy-romance genre, At Long Last Love has even less plot than Top Hat, creating instead a sublime, haunting limbo of desire and atmospherics where the gentlemen in two couples—one is a rich playboy, the other a gambler, whose fortunes may thus change—end poised in the direction of each other’s partner, their own original partner, on a posh dance floor. In reality, romance is an illusion, a seeming permanence cloaking a spirit of dalliance, as the whimsical shot of a mirror’s reflection suggests.
     Shepherd’s Brooke Carter is goddessy and composed, bittersweetly ironical, and practiced and innocent in equal measures at roughly the same time. It’s a grand performance, perhaps closer to ones by Myrna Loy and thirties Bette Davis than to Ginger Rogers. As a singer, Shepherd is no Merman, as a dancer, no Hayworth; but she is surprisingly good as both. In his heart and mind, this viewer found himself holding on to her for dear life.

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