Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)


I revisited this in the hopes that, after becoming a huge fan of Lubitsch’s earlier films, I would better understand its reputation; unfortunately, despite some scattered laughs and — near the end — a few genuinely affecting moments of strong characterization, undoubtedly a result of Billy Wilder’s contributions to the script, I continued to find it a thin, bad-faith justification for the director’s (and perhaps the screenwriters’) own internalized misogyny. You get a sense in many of his films (even better ones than this, like The Love Parade) that Lubitsch knows his attitude toward women is wrong and unhealthy, but he typically contorts himself to find a way to make it seem cute; in this case, as well as in the later Heaven Can Wait, he mostly fails, with the added insult here of wasting an excellent, iconic performance and padding out the running time with a weak plot comprised of much oddly dull business about aristocratic jewels. I have little to add to what I wrote in 2007, and I can’t help feeling I was better at passionately articulating my frustration with it when I was younger than I would be now, so I present it below, albeit slightly cleaned up, and I do apologize for some of the rambling that happens, though I can’t see where any of it is inaccurate.


Guys, if you don’t remember anything else about life, keep this in mind: If you ever meet a strong woman, a woman with power and individualism, a woman who has the audacity to dress in business wear and act like she knows what she’s talking about, a woman who’s an authority figure, a woman who might actually be in a position of superiority to you, a woman who is who she wants to be, a woman who loves her work and does it well, a woman who might get pleasure on her own terms, a woman who is a complete person, it is your mission to flirt and mock and degrade her until you manage to deconstruct her and turn her into the beautiful, cooing, long-haired, powerless, selfless, wide-eyed babe of your dreams. (Don’t forget that once you’ve seduced her, she’s in this relationship for your sake, not hers; she might give a blowjob daily but if she happens to come, it’s mere coincidence because female pleasure is just… well, immoral.) Make sure if you discover a movie about this situation that you praise it as if it is Great Comedy instead of an ancient artifact of a shitty attitude that is still widespread.

Actually, I liked Ninocthka, the Ernst Lubitsch classic partially scripted by the great Billy Wilder. It’s a very funny movie with a stunningly brilliant lead performance by Greta Garbo. But its unadulterated sexism still made me gag. The movie is commonly criticized for its rather lazy social commentary, but all the jokes about Bolshevism and Karl Marx were much more appealing to me than what ends up happening to the title character. (There’s a “Heil, Hitler!” joke that is just wonderful, proving that dated humor isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) Garbo shows up in the film — in a hilarious entrance — as a tough, smart, scary, possibly bisexual Soviet ambassador to clear the waters after a few Russian lunkheads fuck up a French business arrangement. (Garbo’s character could easily have been equally commanding but less androgynous in form… but that would have made the initial premise far less interesting, and considerably less erotic.)

Up to this point in the film I was with it; it was abrasive, witty, varied, and I was laughing a hell of a lot. But when Ninotchka meets up with “aw, shucks” wisecracker Melvyn Douglas, she instantly begins a long and painful transition to Marilyn Monroe. This subversion of indviduality in favor of a status quo is what I find sexist, and — along with the shrill nagging and screaming of the female characters who populate, for instance, Martin Scorsese’s work — it’s the reductive stereotype Hollywood loves best. This is offensive when directed toward men or women, but it’s almost always targeted toward the latter, in the 1930s and now. I think My Fair Lady is one of the most infuriating major movies in existence; I think it’s more likely to send someone over the edge of sanity than any action or horror film. And it’s not just because the songs are awful, Audrey Hepburn is miscast, and George Cukor’s direction is clunky beyond words, it’s in large part because George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” is tripe that people shouldn’t have to read in high school, and that should not be celebrated with a musical on Broadway or in the movies.

The hatred extends in Ninotchka to sexuality; the true “objectifying” of women occurs less in pornography than in mainstream media, in the suggestion that there is only one way to be attractive, sexy, desirable, fulfilled. Probably this idea has done almost as much damage to people as belief in the supernatural. And here we have Garbo, one of the greatest icons of the screen, giving a phenomenal performance in unconventional guise, attitude, voice; she is mysterious, unusual, uncompromising in avoidance of conventional “femininity”, and frankly — not that it’s any big deal but it is a movie — sexy. But of course that’s the point when, by the script’s terms, she is cold as ice; only when she takes off her hat and mannish suit can she truly be a Woman, when she laughs with her mate and alters her life’s direction to coincide with his, basically laying down all of her traits — body and mind in equal proportion — because the guy with the cockeyed smile and unfunny jokes has made her his. Ain’t love grand.

The best scene in the movie is an example of how it should have worked: Douglas spends ten minutes in a restaurant trying to make Garbo laugh amid her rants about the “working people”; he fails so miserably that finally she laughs, but only at his expense, so that his “triumph” is in fact a complete bitter failure. A movie about a woman whose lack of compromise in her self-respect and individualiy who leaves a bunch of drooling simpleheaded men reeling in her wake sounds like a pretty solid idea to me. And she’d have a job! And her ultimate goal wouldn’t be to live in a kitchen! Maybe she could even be the one with some kind of sexual hunger? Instead, for some unstated reason — I suspect just because he’s a cad who won’t stop following her, which is the Hollywood definition of how men should demonstrate desire — she’s suddenly smitten with the man, forgiving of all of his ideological opposition to her, completely and mysteriously beholden to his “charms.”

[2017 note: Actually, I strongly suspect that one of the buried implications here is that Ninotchka is seduced mostly by the beauty and glamour of venturing for the first time outside of the world she knows; Garbo’s performance captures this feeling of ebullience then deflation beautifully. To really probe at this would require the film to be more serious and sincere about politics than I feel it is; the world it posits is one strictly of extremes, of either drab and invasive communism or a jolly, carefree, colorful free market devoid of consequence. Perhaps some deep reading of the film could uncover a coherent philosophy behind such silliness, but I’m not capable. Interestingly, there is a brief and valuable sequence late in the film about Ninocthka’s life after her return to Russia that captures a complexity in her longing and briefly takes her values seriously while carefully examining how they have been challenged — but the film’s reluctance to actually investigate or resolve this is a microcosm of its larger problems with the character, who’s essentially ridiculed for having convictions and an inner life.]

People might tell you that most or all old movies are just as casually sexist as this one; this sort of wisdom is generally spread by those who have seen about three pre-1970 films, maybe fewer. His Girl Friday is the complete antithesis of Ninotchka in its attitude toward women, and it was made the very next year. Rebecca is not only anti-misogynist in tone, it’s basically about the fight — and victory — over charm-poison sexism, mocking the ideal of the knight in shining armor with shady asshole Maxim De Winter; Suspicion same thing, this time even more directly attacking the standard of the “awkward”, “homely” bespectacled girl (Joan Fontaine) “transformed” to a beauty queen by her con artist darling Cary Grant. For chrissake, Gone with the Wind has some of the most multilayered, strongly written female characters in screen history to this day, and it ends with a woman who declares (so arrogantly!) that she doesn’t need a man to live her life. Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby revolves around individualistic, relentlessly unconventional Katharine Hepburn lusting after a man. I could go on.

And then there’s Billy Wilder, whose The Apartment is a vindictive assault against disrespect toward women, whose Some Like It Hot is the all-time definitive movie about androgyny and the ultimate meaninglessness of gender boundaries. Did Wilder really progress so far in just twenty years? Or did the times just change? Either way, Ninotchka remains a delightfully fun movie, but one thwarted by its ancient ideas and one that in the end can’t really be more than a pleasantry.


[As noted at the top, slightly reformatted version of a review from 2007.]

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