Siddhartha Mahanta (contributing editor): If you’re looking for an exercise in poor taste executed to deranged perfection, consider The Ruling Class, the 1972 film British playwright Peter Barnes adapted from his play by the same name. It’s the story of Jack Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney—his upper-class family’s last, best hope in hanging onto its estate, social standing, and political power after the 13th earl accidentally takes his own life in an act of unintended (perhaps autoerotic) self-asphyxiation. The trouble is that this earl, a paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be Jesus Christ, has been living in an institution for some time. Facing a continuity crisis, his family decides to let him loose upon the world, leaving us to watch him preach, determinedly, a gospel of love, love, and love, as per the times.
Much of the plot revolves around the extended Gurney clan’s attempts to dissuade Jack of his delusions (in a particularly inconvenient turn, he at one point disavows his previous claim to be the messiah, deciding instead that he is actually Jack the Ripper) and pair him off with his uncle’s mistress in hopes of having him produce a more acceptable heir. Suffice it to say, the family finds Jack’s charismatic mania and belief in the “power of love” to be formidable obstacles, throwing a wrench or two into their devious little scheme. Does Jack know he’s being used? Does he really think he’s God? Two-thirds of the way into the film, I thought I had an answer. (Writing this now, it occurs to me it all sounds like the plot of a vintage Eddie Murphy film or perhaps a vehicle for Adam Sandler.) But the final 20 minutes plunges you into a nightmare that suggests the poorly-bred rabble—those who, in Jack’s words after he’s undergone something of a “class re-education” regimen—are “sapping the foundations of . . . society with their adultery and fornication! The barbarians . . . waiting outside with chaos, anarchy, homosexuality, and worse”—can and must be contained by force if necessary, and perhaps even when not entirely necessary.
Peter O’Toole as Jack Gurney is alternately terrifying, heart-breaking, and hilarious; you, the viewer, are never quite prepared for his explosive histrionics, and neither seem to be his colleagues on screen. Hysteria aside, O’Toole clearly grasps that the only way to land the laughs (and the shocked gasps) is to play it straight. His inflections and overladen gestures lampoon the classic British stage acting tradition—his own background, really—and his relish for language and rhythm, not to mention his pure delight in hidden meanings and reversals, charmed me, but they may test your patience.
Like O’Toole’s performance, the movie has a lot going on—again, for some, perhaps too much: the breathtaking poetry of the language, rapid-fire exchanges loaded with Wildean subtext (One exchange: Jack’s Uncle: “We’re just talking about you and the subject of marriage. We think you should take a wife. Jack: “Who from?”), a Communist butler who DGAF anymore, short, inexplicable song-and-dance numbers, almost Expressionistic camera work that utilizes high angles and dizzying pans to capture the sinister decadence of the Gurney home, and extreme closeups to inspect the pasty contours of their well-bred faces.
Peter Medak, the director, never misses an opportunity to skewer the landed aristocracy and its ossified, hypocritical sense of piety. There’s an anarchic quality to the movie that recalls Monty Python: a politics less of ”down with the Tories, up with Labour” and more “we are a ridiculous people, are we not?” The movie seems to want to seize a certain political and cultural moment: postwar, pre-Thatcher Britain, which saw a generation coming of age, questioning the old ways and the relevance of the upper class. But it does so without ever deluding itself about the entrenched nature of British aristocracy and the absurdity of its traditions and apparent values. The film has haunted me since seeing it. A fine outcome, in my view—top marks.
Dahlia Krutkovich (JC fellow): Last weekend, I took my colleague Mitch Abidor’s advice and went to see The Mother and the Whore, French director Jean Eustache’s close study of the last days of the 1968 generation’s idealism, with a group of friends. We didn’t know quite what we were getting ourselves into: It was only after purchasing tickets that we realized the film is an eye-popping three hours and forty minutes. But as Mitch writes, The Mother and the Whore is a work of “genius”—one that, while challenging to complete in a single sitting, was still enrapturing enough to prevent me from leaving the theater once between 6 and 10 pm.
The film is meandering and fairly plotless, following the emotional rhythms of jobless dandy Alexandre’s affair with a young nurse, Veronika, and the disastrous impact it has on his relationship with his live-in girlfriend and sponsor, Marie. The film takes a pointedly conservative stance on the freedoms (personal, professional, sexual) afforded to women as feminism gained political ground, with Alexandre declaring to another jobless (male) friend early in the runtime that you can’t tell the difference between a bourgeoise and a working girl, a nurse and a socialite—all women are the same now! Indeed, a reactionary undercurrent runs through the film’s drama, but I couldn’t help but empathize with Alexandre, who believes wholeheartedly in what ’68 could have been—and still, full of awe, recalls sitting in cafés among the working people the general strike sought to lift up—only to return, again and again, to the fact that all of the political grandstanding of the time has failed to deliver on its promises. (One of the most memorable back-and-forths of the film unfolds when Alexandre and the aforementioned jobless friend spot Sartre in the corner of Les Deux Magots, the intellectual watering hole of the day. They whisper to Veronika, with palpable glee, that he’s a total drunkard and a fake, claiming that he brings his own barrel to stand atop when he talks to working men.)
Alexandre is preoccupied with frauds, dupes, and liars—and implicitly, authenticity. In one of his monologues, he wishes that he could be like the men in cafés who sit around repeating the words of others. Later in the same scene, he abruptly turns on his radio to tune into “the Sunrise Preacher,” a booming Catholic priest who declares on his early morning show that contemporary society is full of lazy and licentious people, and that we should all take to an honest, traditional life. Alexandre tells Veronika that he loves the preacher, whose apparently authentic shtick never bores him.
Where the film was previously at least somewhat subtle, it takes an explicit turn in the final forty minutes, as it hones in on the supposed antidote to society’s collapsed social and sexual standards and total lack of political possibility: the traditional family. In an aching, minutes-long close-up, Veronika sobs, essentially, about how much it sucks to be poly and how the only way to live a truly decent life is to become a wife. This emotional marathon of a film ends with a proposal. For all of the film’s artistic transgression—and its truly funny, eccentric side characters whose lives lead nowhere—I was taken by the finality of its dramatic resolution. One more reaction, perhaps, against the current of its day: all those indeterminate New Wave fade-outs from a generation before.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Umberto Eco – A Library of the World, a new documentary that opens today at New York’s Film Forum, begins with Eco—the Italian novelist and semiotician who died in 2016—walking through his personal library, with its 1200 rare books and 30,000 contemporary works. The camera tracks his motion through the collection, showing us the volumes all neatly aligned on their shelves. There before me was the image of heaven.
For the film’s 80 minutes, my wife and I were as enchanted as if we were watching . . . well, I don’t know what would compare to this. Throughout the film, director Davide Ferrario intercuts scenes of magnificent libraries from around the world—some stately, with old-fashioned wooden shelves and card catalogs, others more modern and austere in their beauty. By the end, I realized that a documentary showing nothing but books on shelves would almost be enough for me.
However, Umberto Eco is a loving meditation not just on the book as object, but also on its title subject, who is featured through pieces of interviews, TV appearances, and talks from over the course of his celebrated career. It is Eco’s account of his own library that makes sense of his eclectic collection, which boasts sections on alchemy, esotericism, and the 17th-century German polymath Athanasius Kircher. His main interest, we learn, was in false ideas and those who think them up. His library thus omits Galileo, who was right, but includes Ptolemy, who developed an entire theory of the universe that held together perfectly, yet was absolutely wrong. That, for Eco, is far more interesting than a worldview that conforms to reality. Much like Borges, whom he often invokes in the film, Eco was also attracted to the odd and obscure. Who among us has heard of the French work Le Chef d’oeuvre d’un inconnu (The Masterpiece of an Unknown Man, not to be confused with Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece”)? In Eco’s library you can find this fascinating, pseudonymous 18th-century work, which opens with a two-page popular ditty—carefully transcribed, along with its music—before unfolding into 300 pages of analysis of this simple love song. Who needs Pale Fire?
Films like this, in praise of an individual subject, are almost always disappointing in their exaggerated claims, or suffer from the nullity of the things the subject says. (I’m thinking in particular of every film about Leonard Cohen, in which a second’s reflection on his supposed profundities reveals that everything he utters is hollow and meaningless.) But Eco’s words here never fail to please: Every phrase that comes out of his mouth is aphoristic, yet never pretentious or ponderous. How can we argue when, for instance, he declares that hate, rather than love, is the great universal sentiment? (Love, he explains, is directed at a person and craves exclusivity, while we can expend hatred on anyone and everyone.) All of his quotes are the priceless gems of a writer and thinker who was truly alive, a condition he equated with “being intellectually curious.” The joy of thought can sometimes make you tingle; Umberto Eco – A Library of the World inspires frissons of delight from beginning to end.