Published June 1, 2001
To some extent it is a problem to be expected with all biopics and costume dramas. Lady Caroline, I’d like you to meet Lord Byron. Abelard, je vous présente Héloise, Caesar, ecce Cleopatra. Because we already know the momentous consequences of these meetings, when we see them on film we are reminded not so much of them as of our knowledge of them. And our sense of the importance of that knowledge to what we are watching introduces an element of self-consciousness that can be fatal to the dramatic illusion which, I think, is still a necessity unless one is trying to create farce. Perhaps the best solution is to begin one’s cinematic account of famous partnerships, as Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy did with Gilbert and Sullivan, in medias res. This presents us with a coupling that, like the world itself, seems as if it has always been there.
Obviously, that was not an option available to Bruce Beresford’s Bride of the Wind, a movie-biography of Alma Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel—a woman whose own name cannot be repeated without name-dropping. But after her introduction to Gustav Mahler (Jonathan Pryce) you’d think he’d have been particularly concerned to play down the inevitable moments of dawning self-consciousness instead of emphasizing them with one portentous introduction after another, as it seems he does, as the very structural points on which his narrative hangs.
“I’ve missed being taken care of, Herr—?”
“Gropius,” says the stolid Simon Verhoeven in the role of the great architect to Sara Wynter’s Alma.
So also: “Alma, may I introduce Franz Werfel (Gregor Seberg) to you?” Or “Alma, this is Oskar Kokoschka (Vincent Perez),” says Gustav Klimt (August Schmölzer). “I’ve commissioned him to paint my portrait.” And then, as if this were not bad enough, Kokoschka himself has to explain his artistic philosophy: “Any fool can paint a likeness. I’m interested in thoughts, feelings, motives.”
“You are the Freud of painting,” breathes Alma admiringly, dropping yet another name.
In the same way Gropius helpfully explains that “We have to be more functional—get rid of all this ornamentation.” Thus the inevitable problem of seeming to be name-dropping is further aggravated by having each of the names accompanied by an identifying tag, as if we were meeting them at a convention: “Hi, I’m Walter Gropius and I’m a modernist architect.” Why does someone who used to seem a talented director do this? Maybe because he was told he had to dumb it down for commercial purposes. “Your audience won’t know who these people are, Bruce baby, so you’ve got to tell them.” Nor, the studio exec must have added, will they know when they are. So in order to help out, the script has Alma’s father reading a newspaper in 1914 and shaking his head about what will happen “if the Balkans keep heating up”—just to remind us that the Great War was imminent.
The result is a species of vulgarity that somehow suits the vulgar, soap-operaish quality of this tale of a neglected wife, two and a half selfish husbands, a selfish lover and her own allegedly lost potential— though of course the samples of her music provided here cannot but suffer by the comparison with that of her first husband, which is some of the greatest music ever written. “You drove me to him,” she tells Mahler of her affair with Gropius. “You bullied me into giving up everything for you…You have crushed my spirit, Gustav…You used me, as your assistant, your accountant and your servant.” Similarly, of her relationship with Kokoschka she says, “He stifled me. I couldn’t breathe.” Finally, she seems to find happiness with Werfel, who tells her: “You shouldn’t have stopped composing, Alma….Your music is wonderful…It’s you, Alma. It’s passionate, it’s charming, exciting.”
It is a sad and ironic state of affairs that a film which is supposed to be trying to bring Alma Mahler as an independent woman and a composer in her own right out of the shadows of the great men in her life should so assiduously push her back into those same shadows as its sole means of generating emotion. Poor woman! How she suffered for trying to play the traditional role of wife and mother and putting her husbands’ interests ahead of her own. Yet the process really only makes it clearer that Alma was born for the shadows. It is not as a musician but as heroic victim and feminist martyr that she was destined to achieve greatness, and we can see her in Beresford’s film loving that distinction much more than she ever could have loved a musical one. There are lots of pretty pictures, though.