Darling (1965, John Schlesinger)


John Schlesinger’s Darling can’t shoulder the burden of being a portrait of the stress placed upon women in the 1960s (and thereafter), nor does it deserve to be cast aside as a moralistic wag of the finger against the superficial vagaries and empty intellectualism of Swinging London, the peculiar mid-’60s crossroads of mod culture, fine-arts pretension and high fashion. It just so happens that it falls into such circumstances because of the time and place into which it erupted. Frederick Raphael’s insightful screenplay merely follows the pretty lady on the billboard (Julie Christie as bored model-cum-jet setter Diana Scott) and does not take extra pains to artificially exhibit the cracks in the facade or the bold truth behind the advertising lie in order to somehow boost the viewer convinced that his or her own life is superior, morally or otherwise, to this mess of shattered illusions, failed relationships and pervasive sadness. Rather, it serves to indicate that a larger stage only magnifies the mess we’re born with. Not that I can speak for anybody else, but I felt broken inside after watching it.

As her modeling career progresses and her apathy, misplaced allegiances, and the manipulation she faces by the men in her life all mount, Diana grows ever more numb. In so many thrillers, let’s say, the drama comes from pieces falling into place; this film is about the opposite event, as a broken mirror held upside down. Eventually all of the surface-level happenstances of who, what, where, when and how fall away and we’re left with a human being, alone and unsatisfied — a universal portrait of the shedding of youth and promise. The only lingering question that troubles us now is of how much the emptiness in Diana’s life by the film’s conclusion is meant by the script as a gendered thing — I hope it isn’t, because the movie is so progressive in so many other ways (including some largely disconnected from the story — there’s a cunnilingus scene, and gay characters who are depicted even-handedly). It’s unfortunate that the film is so often summarized as a document of a model sleeping her way to power and influence, finally royalty; that’s such a simplified, depressing way of reading it. Instead, it plays as a companion of sorts to Room at the Top — a desperation for conformity and comfort reinforced so easily by a shallow society, by the same sort of magazine stories Diana herself ends up propagating.

Schlesinger’s film is hard, cynical, funny in the way of so much British cinema from this period. Like Richard Lester’s movies of the mid-’60s, it’s almost drunken in its creativity, influenced as it clearly is by Jean-Luc Godard’s stuttering rhythm and witty jump cuts. It’s possible to get so lost in the film’s impeccable sense of style — and derisive treatment of the very notion of style — that you can forget how compelling the story and characterization are; it’s extremely crucial to the film’s success that it mocks the surprisingly old-fashioned, petty shallowness of its characters and their bubble without ever dehumanizing them. Even Laurence Harvey’s compellingly ice-cold asshole quietly displays a depth that’s never verbally outlined. The scenes come and go fast and furiously but nearly always embody a kind of radically expressed, cutting but heartfelt truth.

The highlights are too numerous to keep in your head — the progression of a relationship read in lipstick messages on a mirror is almost as telling as the breakfast table in Citizen Kane, only with both Christie and Dirk Bogarde’s faces gradually overcome by loss rather than smugness; the fishbowl as metaphor for a decaying optimism is beautifully troubling; the remarkable long take following Diane as she breaks down (alluded to directly in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette); the bizarre and revealing swinger’s party-game sequence, revealing horrible truths in the context of fake adult “fun”; the complex, urgent dialogue and sense of an almost musical intoxication; and most of all, the wit and savvy of Schlesinger’s wholly invented world of lifestyle magazines, TV progams, famed writers and French new wave directors who never really existed. The filmmakers create their own universe within the very real, very strange framework of 1965 England. In its elliptical, casual lightning-in-a-bottle documentation of a time and place within a narrative, you can easily look ahead to the same director’s Midnight Cowboy, which formed private tragedy from the vastness of the New York skyline.

Christie wouldn’t need this in her filmography to be easily declared one of the greatest actors in all of cinema, but her endlessly revealing, uncompromising work here stands with Petulia as the best work of hers that I’ve seen — and it’s an atypical credit to the Academy that she was honored with an Oscar for this film rather than for the far less interesting Doctor Zhivago. Bogarde too is almost flawless, and one of the great achievements here is that you love and hate Robert in equal measure just like Diana does. Really, that’s true of her as well, though I think her aimlessness is no less relatable than, say, Ben Braddock’s in The Graduate — or, for that matter, Joe Buck’s in Midnight Cowboy or Archie’s in Petulia. Despite the way the ’60s are now so often romanticized, perhaps such malaise and disappointment — how far, indeed, can progress take us so quickly? — was the true essence of those strange days, as captured by these and only a few other outstanding artists. Darling stands tall amongst these examples — a breathtaking film, I think.

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