Video of the Day


Alex Carnevale

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Reviews Editor
Ethan Peterson

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

Live and Active Affiliates
This area does not yet contain any content.

Entries in deborah kerr (2)


In Which A Convent Remains Our Home Away From Home

Better Half


Black Narcissus
dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
100 minutes

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) had the good sense to select an order — an Anglican strain of the usual — that demands a renewal of vows once a year. This sort of optional religiosity is a breath of fresh air, for a young woman may learn all sorts of things about herself in a duration of 365 days. Kerr was only 26 when she took on this role as Mother Superior to a tiny convent in the Himalayas in 1947's Black Narcissus. Naturally, she spends most of her time thinking about all the hot sex she used to have, but does not anymore.

Shot entirely in England, Black Narcissus is a relatively wretched Indian film, but a substantially more exciting English one. By the improved standards of today, it is wildly racist. Jean Simmons portrays Kanchi, a seventeen year old orphan, in the most unconvincing blackface you will ever see — suggesting that perhaps the film's title was made somewhat tongue-in-cheek by this adaptation.

The best parts of the movie are actually the flashbacks to Deborah Kerr's life before she was a nun. Director Michael Powell was still obsessed with the woman who was his ex-girlfriend by the time Black Narcissus underwent production. Kerr's face is constantly shot in close-up as a matter of necessity; otherwise, she would just be another lithe body in a white habit. When we find Kerr in England, she is a whirling dervish of action, spinning to find her boyfriend Con (Shaun Noble), who seems perpetually out of frame.

The script of Black Narcissus was nothing special, faithfully based as it was on a rather turgid novel. Powell papers over this completely, shooting long sequences with music and limited dialogue, and pumping up the flashbacks whenever the pace starts to flag. (It still does, even in a film only 100 minutes long.)  His use of light here is particularly stunning, whether it is the way candles accentuate a growing despair, or how translucent cloth hides the light of the moon. Texture is the only morality left to abandoned people.

As Mr. Dean, the tempting male figure desired by both Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron, Powell's girlfriend at the time), David Farrar almost ruins the entire movie. He is the hairiest screen actor perhaps of his century, which is all to the good, but his entire performance is far too hammy, suggesting more of a parody than a realistic presentation. His shirtless scenes are still rather striking, even if he comes across as n oversized boy in them.

Kerr saves things anyway. The restrictions a nun's habit places on the actor is nothing to this brilliant performer, who utilizes her hands and eyes to communicate what the body cannot. Powell constantly pushes the native wind of the mountains through Sister Clodagh's habit, making her the film's clear Jesus figure. "Work until you're too tired to think of anything else," she tells someone, anyone.

Things begin to fall apart in the Himalayas when the nuns start screaming at a little boy and accuse of each other of being overly hysterical. The shocking twist of Black Narcissus occurs entirely in the past — the flashbacks Sister Clodagh reminisces about so fondly are merely memories of a guy who never gave two shits about her. "Now I seem to be living through the struggle again," she tells Mr. Dean without looking at him. He might as well not be there at all.

The film's bravura sequence occurs at its end. Kathleen Bryon's Sister Ruth has been driven insane by jealousy — her eyes are tinged with opiates, or maybe this is only an exaggerated version of herself. She has been spurned by a certain Mr. Dean, which was probably foreseeable given that the man she loved never blessed her with the knowledge of his first name. He decides to send her to Darjeeling, a proper distance, but instead she returns to the convent in order to murder Deborah Kerr. Ruth cannot even properly accomplish that.

In this dramatic, sunset-tinged manumission, Kerr climbs back up from the cliff's precipice and tosses Ruth off to her death. She pretends to be surprised as her charge shatters in the forest below. The feeling is not mutual. We all knew this was coming.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.


In Which We Remain Miserable Throughout France

No Time For Sad Lament


Bonjour Tristesse
dir. Otto Preminger
115 minutes

This summer, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting an exhibition of films featuring Deborah Kerr, a subtle and graceful actor born in Scotland. Far and away the best of this group is Otto Preminger's Bonjour Tristesse. This novella-type project feels today like an Americanized-Eric Rohmer moral fable, owing to a similarity in the source material. Anne (Deborah Kerr) is a successful fashion designer in Paris who is prepared to give everything up to marry Raymond (David Niven) against the wishes of his daughter Cecile (Jean Seberg) in a glorious house overlooking the French Riviera.

Preminger brings his own moral judgments to this milieu, and they are decidedly different from anything Rohmer had to offer. As a result, Bonjour Tristesse is a great deal less heartening than its peer films like Claire's Knee and The Collector, and probably one of the most depressing movies ever made. It begins with Cecile driving a young artist into the city. He asks her to marry him, but unfortunately she is largely dead inside, paralleling the real-life depression of Seberg, whose career in Hollywood slowed down considerably after she gave $10,000 to the Black Panthers.

Most well-known for her role in Godard's Breathless, Seberg is always initially charming to look at and listen to, like a perfectly preserved slice of cake. Gradually and sinisterly, we begin to loathe her in any role. As soon as Kerr comes on the scene and suggests she take care to study for her philosophy exam, she is dead set on eradicating this unpleasant new stepmother from her life. In order to do so, Cecile enlists the help of the local Jews – namely her father's ex-girfriend Elsa (Mylene Demongeot) and a law student named Philippe (Geoffrey Horne), with whom she never consummates a summertime affair.

Cecile's colorful time during the summer is contrasted with the following winter, which she endures in harsh black and white. Paris resembles a baby perpetually trying to be born into a lusher, more omnipotent reality. Cecile's severe depression as various men fight over her and request her presence at such amusing events as the racetrack, dinner and dancing is mostly due to her father's inability to parent his daughter.

Indeed, the disturbing kisses that Raymond gives his daughter on the mouth are more inappropriate than invasive, but whatever the meaning of these pecks, it is clear that Raymond should not be drinking with her daughter, double dating with his daughter, or pincing the ass of a very violated local woman he has hired as the family maid. Seberg's acting adds to the idea the relationship is rather unconvincing.

Still, reactions to Jean Seberg's performance at the time Bonjour Tristesse debuted to mostly empty theaters were a bit out of proportion. Critics seemed to believe that somehow an American playing a coy French girl was on the level of a cosmic calamity. In the New York Herald Tribune, William Zinsser explained that Bonjour Tristesse  is "as self-conscious as a game of charades played in an English country home. In the pivotal role, Jean Seberg is about as far from a French nymph as milk is from Pernod." The New Yorker suggested that Seberg required "a good solid, and possibly therapeutic, paddling."

When Deborah Kerr's Ann arrives on the scene, Raymond makes a big show of moving into the guest house while Cecile and Elsa occupy the other rooms in the main house. Ann's closed-off room parodies her private self – the walls are lined with books, and one lonely window looks out on the sea as she constructs deft and appealing sketches of her dresses. Meanwhile, Elsa's bedroom is atop the entire structure and features an astonishing amount of windows and doors, reflecting the transparency of her flighty, ethnic personality.

Preminger was the master of making do with what he had. Bonjour Tristesse's script, by Arthur Laurents, was written over the course of a few days, and Laurents passed on being on the set during film. "He really just left me on my own," Laurents later said of Preminger, whose direction never impressed him, "with one basic instruction, that we are to be removed from the characters, who don't have passionate emotions. Otto thought that kind of distance was 'high style.'" Where the screenwriter parted ways with Preminger was in the casting of British actors to play French parts. "Then, in the midst of this chic atmosphere, there is Jean Seberg - Miss Iowa," Laurents complained. He told Otto that Jean would sink all three of them and Bonjour Tristesse.

On the set of Bonjour Tristesse, Preminger was his usual tyrannical self. He particularly went after his pet project Seberg, who had little training as an actress. The starlet's face was also somewhat sore from an operation to remove moles from her cheeks and neck before she left for Europe to begin shooting. While Preminger undoubtedly had a very good reason to get her upset, since she is meant to be angry in most of Bonjour Tristesse, it made for an uncomfortable atmosphere.

As Forster Hirsch recalled in his biography of the director, Deborah Kerr stood up for her younger colleague against Otto's abuse.

I said, "Please, Otto, do you have to shout at the poor little girl like that? She seems to be taking all right but I'm not. I cannot work with this kind of atmosphere. I'm terribly sorry, but I just can't." The battering she received finished me, but it didn't her. I used to be a bit frightened for Otto. I thought he was going to have a heart attack, with his eyes popping and his face purple. But the next minute, it was gone. Completely gone. And this man who could be such a bully on the set, and who could destroy people, would then be a charming, witty companion at dinner who knew the best wines and caviar. 

Part of Preminger's antagonism towards Seberg was borne out of their previous collaboration, Saint Joan, a Joan of Arc biopic that had been Preminger's most devastating box-office bomb up to that point. Seberg has her struggles in Bonjour Tristesse, but her mannered style of acting is not all that out of place today. The sets and tailored environments ultimately overwhelm and distract us from Jean's inadequacies. Just to see the French Riviera in this special time and place transports us in and among the atmosphere so seamlessly that Bonjour Tristesse ages like the wines the man knew so well. Even a fake France of 1958 is substantially better than a 2017 anything.

The final scenes of Bonjour Tristesse, filmed in the somber black-and-white that Preminger slips into as a hokey conceit, accentuates Seberg's total  despair. At the age of forty, Seberg disappeared from her Paris home, taking only a blanket with her. She was found in the backseat of her car, a white Renault, having taken a massive quantity of barbiturates. Jean was on her third husband by then.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.