Fedora

1978, Movie, PG, 110 mins

Review

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Billy Wilder's autumnal FEDORA is defiantly and proudly old-fashioned both in style and content, weaving an (intentionally) campy melodrama about the mysterious suicide of a faded movie queen into a spellbinding meditation on cinema and the price of manufactured illusions.

After a legendary movie star named Fedora (Marthe Keller) commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train, Hollywood producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden), who had a one night stand with Fedora in 1947, attends her funeral in Paris. He recalls how only two weeks earlier, he had traveled to Greece to try to lure Fedora out of retirement to star in his new version of "Anna Karenina," but his attempts to contact her were thwarted by her overprotective secretary Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen), her plastic surgeon Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer), her chauffeur Kritos (Gottfried John), and the Countess Sobryanski (Hildegarde Knef) at whose island villa she's living. Detweiler finally encounters the still remarkably young-looking Fedora in town, and she tells him that she's being kept a virtual prisoner at the villa. After Detweiler manages to smuggle his script to Fedora, he's invited to the villa, but the Countess tells him that Fedora is too mentally unstable to work.

Later, Fedora comes to Detweiler's hotel and begs for his help, but she's dragged away by Vando and Kritos. Detweiler goes to the villa the next day, but it's deserted except for Kritos, who knocks him unconscious. When he wakes almost a week later, he learns that Fedora has committed suicide. At her funeral, Detweiler accuses Vando and the Countess of driving Fedora to her death. The Countess reveals that she is the real Fedora and that her daughter Antonia had been impersonating her for years following an accident in which her face was horribly disfigured by one of Vandos's treatments. Antonia passed herself off as Fedora successfully, but when she fell in love with actor Michael York (Himself) while making a movie with him and wanted to reveal her true identity, her "guardians" conspired to break up her affair and put her under drug therapy, and she eventually killed herself. Detweiler says goodbye to the real Fedora, and six weeks later, she too dies.

FEDORA is a marvelous lesson in classical storytelling and the pleasures to be had from an absorbing narrative. It's almost as if Wilder is bidding adieu to the Golden Age of Hollywood, utilizing opulent sets, elegant crane shots, ultra-slow dissolves, and a flourish of voice-overs and flashbacks-within-flashbacks in a final demonstration of virtuoso scenario construction, only to tear it down at the end and show it was all a lie. Just as the Countess's villa is like a fortress of antiquity guarding against the encroachment of the modern age, Wilder's film is a bitter attack on the "New Hollywood," with Detweiler speaking for Wilder when he says "they don't need scripts anymore, just give 'em a hand-held camera and a zoom lens." The flashback where Detweiler meets Fedora while working as an assistant director at MGM is wonderfully evocative, as he covers the Garbo-like star's nude body with strategically placed water lilies. The loving re-creation of the era is filled with a rueful sense of nostalgia, as in the beautiful scene where Detweiler and Fedora make love in his car on the beach at night, while Nat King Cole wafts gently from the radio.

The film has been compared, unfavorably, to Wilder's all-time classic SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), and while it certainly shares some obvious similarities, it also deals with Wilder's abiding theme of masquerades and deceptions. FEDORA differs from SUNSET in that as much as it's about the demystification of the Hollywood glamour machine, it's equally an allegory for Wilder's status as a European expatriate who became an American filmmaking giant, only to be relegated to the role of an outsider and return to Europe at the end of his career (Detweiler talks about having to find "some tax shelter guys" to finance his latest project, as Wilder had to do with FEDORA, returning to his native Germany when no American studio would back him). But Wilder shows that he has not lost his touch, creating a number of haunting images and indelible scenes, such as the wheelchair-bound Countess surrounded by portable heaters; Fedora's terrified eyes peering out through the holes in her head bandage; and Detweiler's discovery of the Michael York collage hidden beneath the wallpaper in Fedora's room, and her notebooks filled with page after page of the same line: "I am Fedora" (which is much more chilling than the similar device later used in THE SHINING). The film is not perfect, and would have undoubtedly been better still had Wilder been able to pursuade Marlene Dietrich to play the Countess, but it's still a worthy late addition to the work of a master. (Profanity, nudity, violence.) leave a comment

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