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The Scarlet Empress (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on June 30, 2012

A recent episode of the “They Shot Pictures” podcast got me thinking about Sternberg.  In general I’ve liked and even loved Sternberg’s work in the past, but it’s only the past couple of years I’ve really come to appreciate his extravagant style.  I felt it was time to revisit a couple I haven’t seen for a while.

“Extravagant” is a good word for this film.  Ostentatious sets overflowing with ornate detail, towering and horrific religious icons, piles of valuables and one of the most absurd dinner tables you’ve ever seen.  It’s a sensory assault, aided by delirious visuals that make use of rich shadows and soft glows and diaphanous barriers, punctuated with wild tempests of motion… Dietrich got quite a workout in this film, having to do so much running in such heavy costumes.  There are scenes of sheer poetry, a particular favorite is the stable seduction, with Dietrich’s playful teasing of the straw in her mouth (which gets a nice callback later).

Although I’m much more taken with Sternberg’s glorious mise en scene than I was four years ago, I can’t entirely abandon my previous complaints.  Dietrich is wholly unbelievable as the shy naif she plays in the first half.  She can leave her mouth gaping in shock or wonder all she wants, she can’t hide the knowing mischief in her eyes.  Sometimes it’s ridiculous in a quite enjoyable way, but usually just ridiculous.  I’d also say the content of the story doesn’t often match the dizzying decadence of the presentation.  Granted, it’s old Hollywood and can’t get too outrageous, but it’s still a pre-Code film (as evidenced by the tortured naked bodies early on) and there are times where it felt like something was being held back.  I certainly would have liked to see more of the “new” Catherine.  But we see enough to get the point.  The movie’s aesthetic and cinematic achievements overshadow the slight narrative weaknesses.  Rating: Very Good


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