Monday, 29 August 2011

Ecstasy (1933) Hedy good!

Even 80 years down the line, you still feel that watching Ecstasy is a tad risqué... the very definition of a euro "art house" movie which some, misguided, individuals might see as an excuse for titillation. It is renowned of course for the opportunity it provides to view the legendary Hedy Lamarr in the nude and that's certainly something that attracted my younger self as I browsed the movie textbooks in my formative years...

But, is it any good? And, watching it with my wife and mother-in-law... is the nudity justified by the plot (that old excuse)? Did the 18-year old Hedy Kiesler (17 when she was cast) make the right decision in making the film and exposing herself in a way that was daring for 1930's middle Europe and explosive for 1940's middle America?

Directed by the Czech art film maker, Gustav Machatý, Ecstasy is the story of emotional and physical awakening. Its message is to trust to instinct and to seize the moment but to do so responsibly.Hedy plays Eva, a young woman just married to a much older man (Zwonimir Rogoz) who turns out to be incapable of matching her passion and energy. She is unleashed in nature as she rides her horse into the country and skinny dips in the famous lake sequence. Her horse runs off with her clothes (drawn supernaturally to it's mate) and she encounters a handsome young engineer (played by Albert Mog, Hedy's boyfriend at the time).

Eva and the engineer are drawn to each other and like Cathy compelled to visit her Heathcliffe across the moors, she goes to him in the late evening and they consummate their love in a rush of intercut shots: Eva's head thrown back, her arms falling limp to her side ... the beads falling to the floor...

It's hard to view this particular scene without thinking of the many, many times more modern films have depicted the act of love (including those with Leslie Nielsen and Pricilla Presley) but its well done and you can only imagine the impact this would have had on contemporary audiences. Some were shocked and others wanted a lot more (there were loud complaints from some more... hardcore elements) whilst Henry Miller, who saw the film a number of times, said: "their meeting is that of pure bodies, their union is poetic, sensual, mystical. They do not question themselves - they obey their instincts... (they) represent the life force blindly struggling to assert itself."

Machaty coached Hedy's performance and, painfully so, using a safety pin to help her emoting..."when I prick you a little on your backside, you will bring your elbows together and you will react!"

The two lovers decide to begin a new life together in Berlin but, as her makes his way to meeting Eva, the engineer is given a lift by her husband. Spotting his wife's discarded beads in the man's hand, her husband realises what has happened. After almost crashing his car the elder man is taken ill and helped by the engineer to the same hotel where the latter is to meet his wife... The two meet in passionate embrace but the sound of a single fateful gunshot breaks them up as the husband takes his own life.

The ending of the film is enigmatic. Eva leaves her lover at the station as she takes the train alone to a new future. Whether this is a decision based on guilt is unclear. Then there is a soviet-styled sequence showing railway workers in the field, their wives and young children as a stirring song is sung about the merits of hard work. The engineer is seen overlooking this industro-pastoral scene and imagining Eva at home with his baby... a bitter turn in his expression indicating this to be fantasy.

Ecstasy has the look and feel of a silent movie with only 15 lines of dialogue. It has many striking sequences and not just the obvious ones with a heavily symbolic approach echoing DH Lawrence and Freudian thought. Hedy and her lover's relationship is mirrored by the two thoroughbred horses at the two pivotal moments of their relationship: this is nature, validating their decision to submit to impulse over rational thought.

Hedy's performance is good and maybe one of her best. She is the visual fulcrum of the film and Machaty makes great use of her beauty. This is not the finely honed goddess of 1939-49 Hollywood but a teenager with limited experience and without the glamour-backup of the big machine. Yet she's well cast and the enigmatic almost over-powering nature of her looks works well - it's as if, here and throughout her career, her looks got in the way of her acting. We see Hedy Lamarr first and her characters second...there's a sensory delay that knocks things off kilter; stuck in the gap between "wow!" and her words...

Hedy's acting ability was always questioned and she seems to have been better suited to comedy. Watching her in Comrade X (1940) she pretty much matches Gable in the quick-fire one liners and you can sense her formidable intelligence, but, the great Algiers (1938) and a few others aside, she seems to have been less adept at drama; always cast for visual impact more than anything else.

Ruth Barton's excellent recent biography, Hedy Lamarr:The Most Beautiful Woman in Film tells her story well and I love the fact that Hedy co-invented the basis for spread spectrum broadcast technology in one of the most bizarre side-lines in film history.

In Ecstacy, Hedy is more remarkable as an actress than in many of her fully-clothed roles. And that is testament to her intelligence and ability to function in a role that wasn't always instinctive or natural. Hence the pin-prick and her preference for the light-hearted: how else could she take acting seriously?

In Ecstacy, she is believable, honest and true as much as she is beautiful.

So, I'd recommend Ecstacy, for most of the family - it's still available at Amazon. Comrade X is here and Ruth Barton's great book is here.


  1. Wonderful piece, Hedy was so amazing.

  2. Thanks Hannah, she really was!

  3. Almost perfect. Did she have the voice of Joan Greenwood? If so, oh boy, what larks!