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Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The How Of Desire

By Kevin John

Pleasure in narrative cinema often lies not in the what of desire (the achievement of marriage, say, or death) but, rather, in the how (the delays on the path towards marriage or death). Take, for instance, Max Ophuls' "The Reckless Moment" (1949), which was revived recently here in Milwaukee to capitalize on the current remake, "The Deep End." Joan Bennett plays Lucia, a California suburbanite being blackmailed for $5,000 to cover up the death of the lover of her teenage daughter Bea (played by a typically radiant Geraldine Brooks). The blackmailer, Donnelly (James Mason), forces Lucia to come to Los Angeles several times throughout the course of the film in an attempt to raise the money.

It would appear that Donnelly is the bad guy in this scenario, but Ophuls' impeccable attention to mise-en-scène suggests that the family has become a prison for Lucia. The closing shot of the film, for instance, shows Lucia talking on the phone to her husband, Tom, who is overseas on business. At the level of the narrative, everything seems to be fine — Lucia is no longer threatened with blackmail, and Christmas is just around the corner. However, the mise-en-scène tells a different story. Lucia is shot through the banister rails of the staircase, which appear like a row of jail bars in front of her. Also, her son David appears out of focus in the background, finalizing the family's stifling presence throughout the film.

Given this mise-en-scène of containment, as Elizabeth Cowie called it in her 1984 essay "Fantasia," I find that Lucia's trips to Los Angeles offer a series of delays as a structure of desire. For if the family has become a prison for Lucia, then these trips get her out of the house. Thus what the delays are stalling is the inevitable reinsertion back into the home. That the reinsertion will be inevitable is apparent from the very beginning of the film.

Over an image of Lucia driving across a bridge, a male narrator, whose voice belongs to no character in the film and who never returns, intones: "The Harper family lived in a charming community called Balboa about 50 miles from Los Angeles. Early one morning, Mrs. Harper took her car and drove to Los Angeles and...." At this point, David, who is fishing below, "completes" the narration by calling out to Lucia: "Mother, mother, where are you going?" This device not only suggests an eerie, unseen ideological presence, but David takes it up, cementing the notion of family as oppressive. Since the mere fact of a drive is noteworthy (even illicit, given the stunned, halted cadence of the narration) for Lucia, the synergy between the narrator and David functions as an attempt to reproduce the existing relations of production — i.e. Lucia must ultimately remain in the home.

Nevertheless, Lucia's sojourns seem an ideal structure of desire for a female spectator in 1949, a time when the project of reinserting Rosie the Riveter back into the home was in full swing. Historical context thus seeps through "The Reckless Moment" like blood in an orange, precisely the riveting characteristic which sets it apart from its remake.


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