Trouble In Paradise

December 6, 2009

I have decided to add a critical section to KittensInCarbonite, consisting of essays and musings on cinema, art, aesthetics, and anything else that strikes my fancy. I’ve had no less than two conversations about Ernst Lubitsch this week, and so it seems fitting to kick it off with an essay on one of my favorite Lubitsch works, Trouble In Paradise.


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“That’s my wife, Carolyn. See the way the handle on her pruning shears matches her gardening clogs? That’s not an accident.” ~Lester Burnham, American Beauty

Hollywood was, and still is, a cinema that implores formalist tactics to create a realistic effect.  The smallest elements, meticulously crafted to create continuity and unity within the frame, exist for no other purpose than to create a feeling of subconscious integration in the mind of the spectator.  Baudry would argue that this, in turn, leads to a dangerous feeling of omniscience— a 90-minute looks into a sublimely ordered microcosm in which all the elements are perfectly arranged.  We wouldn’t notice that Carolyn’s shears match her shoes, but we like it.  We believe it.  Granted, the above exemplifies a scripted, cynical commentary on a character trait rather than production design in and of itself, but Classical Hollywood cinema employed such invisibly meticulous methods without the wry observation.

More After The Jump…

If Hollywood’s techniques to elicit regression have become increasingly foregrounded as years progress, it stands to reason that those films produced during Hollywood’s inception exhibit said techniques in purer form.   Classical Hollywood’s erasure of its own modi operandi is beautifully embodied in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, which utilizes its invisible slickness of design and structure to produce a sense of ordered omniscience, lending the semblance of closure to a story that should be anything but tidy.  For beneath Trouble in Paradise’s frothy exterior lurks one of the saddest characters ever portrayed.  More on this later.  For now it suffices to say that Trouble in Paradise successfully indoctrinates the spectator via invisible technical aplomb by appealing to the sense of pleasure that a feeling of omniscience typically evokes.

A prime example of such technical command is the film’s first model shot; atop the balcony of a posh Italian hotel, the larcenous protagonists bask in the moonlight and enjoy a bottle of champagne.  The camera lingers on them for a moment, then widens by way of an elegant crane move, up and around the building, capturing the scope of the hotel’s entire structure and surrounding geography in a single, 180-degree sweep.  And then the inevitable impression insists, “If God has eyes, he’s watching the world like this.”  Or such is the effect.  This seemingly seamless sequence is actually the result of miniature trickery and sly editing.  After the camera tracks past the first wall on the live set, a match dissolve invisibly transitions to an identical wall on a scale model of the hotel, allowing the camera to pull back and absorb an otherwise impossible expanse which exists for no other reason than to satisfy the spectator’s desire for absolute knowledge.  The rubric is clear; Formalist manipulation creates a Realistic effect in order to elicit a superlative sense of pleasure unique to Classical Hollywood cinema.

Occasionally, Lubitsch will cast off the tenets of Realism entirely in order to maintain the momentum of a satisfactory spectatorial experience, which is not altogether surprising given his Formalist background in German Expressionism.  See Monescu at the opera, for example, spying on Mme. Colet through his binoculars.  The angle is Monescu’s direct POV through the binoculars, a longshot of Colet sitting in her box complete with a binocular shaped matte covering the edges of the frame.  Suddenly the stones on Colet’s purse catch the light and, as if by reflex, the camera tracks rapidly towards the glittering object.  This is, of course, an impossible move in the realistic sense, as Monescu has not budged from his seat.  It is, in effect, a first person, live-action manifestation of cartoon bug eyes.  But because it maintains story momentum by satisfying the spectator’s innate urge for complete visual information, s/he accepts it without a second thought.

It is impossible to consider Trouble in Paradise without addressing its impeccable production design.  Saturated with opulent materialism and, by extension, corruption, it is a movie of objects.   Lubitsch is no stranger to the manipulation of plastics to create psychological effect.  No style is more overtly acquainted with this method than his cinematic pedigree, German Expressionism.  But whereas German Expressionism manipulates the plastics of the mise-en-scène to create horror, Hollywood labors under the tenet that art is achieved by viewing the spectator as film’s essence and thus caters to the pleasing of said spectator by manipulating elements of production to achieve pleasure.  This process is twofold: the coordination of elements to create a sense of visually ordered continuity, and the manipulation of elemental form to induce a subliminal feeling of heightened understanding.

It is no coincidence that the Art Deco mirror in Monescu’s office perfectly matches the clock on his desk.  Moreover, the design consists of a three small circles mounted in a triangular formation along the edge of a larger sphere.  Viewing this triangle of circles as analogous to the love triangle between the three main characters, the metaphor becomes further heightened when overlaid on the mirror and clock—recognition of self and recognition of time, respectively.  The fact that both metaphors are realized via their superimposition onto gorgeous Art Deco trinkets further enhances the larcenous impetus that sets the story into motion in the first place, and wherefore the relationship between Monescu and Colet is a ticking time bomb.  Monescu is reminded of this every time he looks in the mirror or looks at the clock.  Colet’s affluence is first conveyed through a series of dissolves between increasingly expensive clocks, simultaneously conveying her material wealth, the number of rooms in her vast house, and embellishing the time motif that is hurtling towards inevitable heartbreak.  It is no accident that Lily lifts Monescu’s pocket-watch no less than three times throughout the film, or that the story’s climax comes down to missing a train.  After all, time is money.

Here I think it germane to conclude with a thought on the darker side of Trouble in Paradise, specifically as it relates to the character of Mme. Colet.  On its surface, the film seems the benchmark of blithe buoyancy, but the story at its core is far gloomier.  A charming thief allows a young widow to fall in love with him, robs her, breaks her heart, and runs off with his true love.  Sure, he confesses his folly to her at the end, but the fact remains, there is nothing funny about a heartbroken widow.  Because of the near-total omniscience that Lubitsch allows us as spectators, watching Monescu’s relationship with Colet is like watching a car accident in slow motion.  We know how it has to end.  Perhaps, miraculously, they will both stumble away with little more than whiplash, and as this is a romantic comedy, the chance of miracles is high.  Lubitsch accomplishes this feat by creating a subliminal sense of balance.  Monescu’s final scene with Colet parallels, shot for shot, his first scene with Lily down to the very minutest of gestures.  Continuity comes fully circle as Monescu removes Colet’s wrap, just as he did for Lily in Scene One, a gesture that poignantly derives new meaning here as he literally strips Colet of her wealth and trust.  Ultimately it comes down to a gesture, an element of invisible design, to tie continuity together, create closure, and make a potentially uncomfortable ending palatable, moving, and above all, fitting.

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