Despair (1978)

I'm still determined to blog about every new-to-me Dirk Bogarde movie that I see, so after watching Despair for the first time last night I felt compelled to write something up today. The only problem is that I actually don't want to do a full post until I've seen it again, and that won't be for another couple months.

In 2009 when my obsession with Dirk was in full swing, very few of his movies had commercial releases so I had to resort to watching really horrible probably-recorded-from-a-tv-program-in-the-1980's copies to get my fix. So my copy of Despair was so bad it would likely throw any honest to goodness movie lover into a fit of.... despair.

I mean, I missed at least 1/4 of the dialogue because it kept cutting out or the sound was just that bad. From what I could see/hear/grasp I really enjoyed the movie, though, and as soon as it was over I whipped out my iphone to see it if had had a proper release in the intervening years. It turns out that it was fully restored and released on dvd (AND BLU RAY, MIND YOU) a couple years ago. I'm currently on a pretty strict self-imposed budget of one new DVD per month and June is already claimed by Criterion's upcoming release of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, so it'll be about another two months before I can get a crystal clear copy of Despair into my eager hands. But as soon as that day comes, I will be reporting back with a much better review. I just wanted to kind of log this on the blog to record that it had, indeed, been watched.

It's a funny thing, though, to think that if I had been on the ball and watched this when I bought it in 2009 I probably would have written a full review right off the bat. Sometimes I feel spoiled by things like Criterion and official DVD releases. I grew up on shoddy VHS recordings with terrible tracking, pan and scan movies with commercial interruptions, public domain tapes of Hitchcock movies so grainy and foggy that you could barely make out the image. Even now sometimes a lot of my foreign film purchases are horrible quality because good transfers with English subtitles just aren't available anywhere, and I make do. It's only when I know for a fact that a better alternative exists that I just literally can't even with these mediocre, substandard offerings.


The Damned (1969)

In 2009 I started this blog so that I could document each new-to-me Bogarde film that I watched. The last entry was in July of 2011. Did I simply slack off in the post-writing-department and consume the remainder of his filmography without chronicling my thoughts on this blog? No. Sadly, I haven't watched a single new-to-me Bogarde movie since 2010. I have no idea how that's possible, but here I am, SIX YEARS LATER, still discovering Dirk Bogarde.

I wish I could say that I loved The Damned, but I honestly still have no idea how I feel about it. It confused the HECK out of me, for one thing. I felt like a complete idiot -- I couldn't figure out who was who or how anybody was related. My ego was comforted a bit when I read some reviews afterwards, though --

"..so many characters introduced so quickly that one part of your mind will spend the rest of the movie just trying to sort them out." - The New York Times

"Characters and plots keep slipping away from us, as in a frustrating dream. We are never quite sure where we are." - Roger Ebert

I want to revisit the movie at some point (not right away though, it's an experience that nobody should subject themselves to more than twice in the span of a few months) and I think I'll grasp the plot a lot better with this handy dandy family tree that I whipped up today:

the damned family tree 1969

It took me hours sifting through reviews and synopses to break this down, and even then it was still puzzling. Some articles cite Konstantin as Joachim's son, while others refer to him as "an unscrupulous relative" and make reference to Sophie's ex-husband as Joachim's "only son." Who knows.

War-and-Peace-level character confusion aside, it's a... strange film. I think it's probably best known today for all of the shocking elements that made it a cult classic, including (but not limited to!) a gay Nazi orgy, pedophilia, incest, rape, child suicide, and drug abuse. Fetch my smelling salts! While I tend to prefer my movies pedophilia-free, I can understand things like that being included when they're essential to the plot. This didn't feel necessary though, it seemed like it was intended to shock, and that's it. The only truly outrageous deed that felt like it was crucial to the plot was the incest (now THERE is a sentence I never thought I'd type!) but honestly even that could have been replaced with an equally horrendous but less gag-inducing act and still been effective.

The acting was occasionally too dramatic (mostly Reinhard Kolldehof, who I've seen likened to George C. Scott but I felt like he was much more Lee J. Cobb) but overall any issues I have with the movie fall squarely on Luchino Visconti's shoulders. While a lot of the lighting is beautiful, especially a few scenes shot with an eerie green pallor reminiscent of early two-strip technicolor horror films, the camera movements remind me of home videos when my parents would hand the camera over to me or my brother. Zooming in on a face, then quickly zooming out, panning over to the side and then back up to someone else.. while I get that the intended effect is a kind of operatic level of drama (sort of like the exaggerated zoom-to-close-up of a soap opera) it just struck me as too erratic. Visconti would also be responsible for the fractured script --originally 4 hours, then cut down to 2.5. Somehow it's simultaneously too long to enjoy but not long enough to fully spell out anything that's happening in the story.

I'll give him points though, for two things -- the cast and the lush visuals (despite my annoyance at how exactly those two things were filmed.) Even Reinhard Kolldehof, in all his overacting pompous glory, was perfectly cast. Dirk Bogarde's character is a mild-mannered employee that's thrust into a number of unsavory predicaments, constantly working that meek mouse/conniving genius balance that Bogarde pulls off so well in so many films (I'm looking at you, The Servant!) And despite my opinion that most of the shocking elements were unessential, Helmut Berger indulges in pretty much all of them with a finesse that's as mesmerizing as it is unsettling.

I definitely want to give this one another shot, I just need some time to recover first...