A rare screening of the Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece--and last completed film--Cluny Brown (1946) opened on Christmas Eve at The Film Forum for one week, while the new animated feature The Illusionist directed by Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) adapted from an original script by the late Jacques Tati (Mon Oncle) debuts on Christmas day in New York and Los Angeles.
It's natural to conflate the two films: They arrive just in time to transport us--during a holiday season fraught with troubling domestic and international affairs--to days gone by. Each movie powerfully evokes a sense of old-fashioned enchantment and innocence. Run don't walk to see Cluny Brown--it's still not available on the standard, American DVD format (Region 1) and who knows when TCM may show it again. Unpredictable also is how long The Illusionist may grace American screens even though it's been a festival favorite and recently nominated by the Golden Globes as Best Animated Feature and won The National Board of Review's Spotlight Award.
Plumber's Niece Rocks England
Cluny Brown takes place in London and its country environs in the late 1930s, which provide a safe haven for an anti-Hitler, Czech refugee, Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), who is short on cash and pretty much homeless. Eccentric but charming: "Some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?", he wiggles his way into a posh cocktail party in London hosted by Hilary Ames (Reginald Gardiner) distraught that his sink is clogged just hours before his guests are to arrive. To the rescue (on a Sunday no less) is Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones), a plumber's niece who's been dying to try out her own techniques with hammers and wrenches in a quest to keep English pipelines "flowing properly." Belinski and Cluny can't help but delight us with their screwball frisson until her curmudgeon of an uncle shows up and sweeps her away. Belinski stays for the soiree, takes a nap, and meets a rich young man, Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford), who will become his benefactor.
As fate would have it, Cluny and Belinski will not be separated for long. Andrew offers his parents'--Sir Henry (Reginald Owen) and Lady Alice (Margaret Bannerman)--country manor so Belinski can hide out, while the uncle sends Cluny there to burnish her station in life as a chambermaid.
Lubitsch's last film is a zany yet sophisticated satire on English manners laced with hilarious, sexual innuendo using every plumbing metaphor available. The English and their drains are just too damned stopped-up, which provide Boyer and Jones--her first, highly successful attempt at comedy--golden opportunities to delight us at every turn. When they can no longer deny their attraction, Belinski declares: "I would build you the most beautiful mansion, with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing, I would hand you a hammer, and say, Ladies and Gentlemen, Madame Cluny Belinksi is about to put the pipes in their place!"
The Kindness of Strangers
The Illusionist is an absorbing tale about an aging, French sleight-of-hand entertainer who becomes a surrogate father to a young, Scottish girl who cleans the village pub and inn in which he's been forced to perform when his regular stage work dwindles. Fueled by melancholy and just the right touch of humor, the film is all about the kindness of strangers who don't speak the same language, but form a touching relationship. Chomet's hand-drawn, animation technique authentically portrays the cusp of time between the old-fashioned styles and sensibilities of Vaudeville--crafted and represented so movingly in the figure of "The Illusionist"--fading before our eyes just as the new, "mod" world begins its love affair--represented by "Alice" and the "Young Man"--with rock 'n roll.
Chomet has resurrected an abandoned, 50-year-old script by Jacques Tati, which the production notes aptly describe as "a love letter from a father to his daughter," and turned it into a tour de force of film animation for adults, which exemplifies how the old gracefully and generously makes way for the new.