Pote tin Kyriaki
***/**** Image A Sound B
starring Melina Mercouri, George Foundas, Titos Vandis
written and directed by Jules Dassin
THE MAN FROM ELYSIAN FIELDS
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C-
starring Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams
screenplay by Phillip Jayson Lasker
directed by George Hickenlooper
by Walter Chaw They could be sisters in philosophy. The school of happy-go-lucky hookers perfected by Billy Wilder and his Irma La Douce (1963) also graduated Melina Mercouri's Ilya three years previous in expatriated filmmaker Jules Dassin's ebullient Never on Sunday (1960). Dassin and Wilder are involved in a perverse sort of mythmaking--fed by the artifice of classic theatre for Dassin, and for Wilder, more, the hysterical artifice of musical theatre, reclaiming the state of whore to the state of Madonna in what feels like a mania for order in a world without it. The whore as pacific nurturer, Rose of Sharon recast as Xaviera Hollander, represents a cynic's compromise: the font of life and hearth nursed in the oft-fondled breast of a wanton woman. Mary Magdalene, unrepentant--ascendant.
The idea of a prostitute pleased with her lot in life takes on a strange rhyme for Dassin: in 1952, he was named a communist by fellow director Edward Dmytryk and forced into an exile that included seminal films noir Rififi and Topkapi, as well as the underestimated The Law (1958) with Gina Lollobrigida, an ecstatic fever-riff immediately preceding the sweaty buoyancy of Never on Sunday. The glimmer here, and it's nagging, is the idea that whoring oneself free of conscience is actually the higher state of being--the more joyful, the more profitable, the path of least resistance, certainly, human stain go hang. It describes with the simplicity of the wronged, Dmytryk in bed with HUAC with a magnum of champagne while Dassin toils overseas in the fitful warmth (read: cold comfort) of Gallic approval. (More echoes in the fact that Dassin eventually married his star Mercouri.) They are the sort of biographical insights that lend Never on Sunday a tiny twist of shadows in its tale of a hooker pleasuring an entire Greek fishing village and the American intellectual, Homer (Dassin), intent on educating the poor poule in the finer things.
Misunderstandings about "Medea" ("She doesn't kill her children, they all go to the beach afterwards") share time with musical sequences and spontaneous dips, Homer, all the while, beholding with slack awe Ilya's ability to entertain swarthy suitors six days a week and still live an unexamined life. Never on Sunday suggests that education and, moreover, self-reflection are the joy killers--Homer winning an argument about Greek tragedy leads to a breakdown and an agreement, his mandate that Ilya "improve" herself made hollow by the dimming of Ilya's light.
Worrying suggestions are buried with a piquant eloquence beneath the energy of Mercouri's performance (compare to Lollobrigida in The Law)--the brawls and lamentations of men seen as ephemeral and foolish, the power of female sexuality the only constant in all of human history. Her earthiness is grounding, the only element keeping the world from spinning off its axis; beware the man, and woe to mankind, for formulating her to a wall. Dassin vs. the gear of McCarthyism--transcending a moment by exposing its smallness against the awful clockwork eternity of panderers and solicitors. As Homer walks away bemused by the close of Never on Sunday, the smile at the corner of his lip is that of a victim to something larger than him, rowdily untameable, and we are the better for it.
With that in mind, the first hour of George Hickenlooper's The Man from Elysian Fields taps into the fear and desperation of a man forced to confront the possibility that he is incapable of providing for his wife and young son, and so sells his mind and body to the oldest profession. Byron Tiller (Andy Garcia) is a semi-failed author who, like Dassin's Homer, is named after a poet who worked in the epic form. After a string of hard luck, Byron meets up with the Mephistophelean Luther Fox (Mick Jagger), and agrees to employment in his "Elysian Fields" agency, an escort service specializing in pleasuring rich wives and wealthy spinsters. Rather than taking the "new cinema" route of equating prostitution with the machine/spiritual compromises of modernism (with its gods born in rat's alley), The Man from Elysian Fields finds itself at odds with pandering, catering somewhat to the safer idea that hookers are to be punished for their generosity--paddled for their comfort. That Byron is the Homer character rather than the Ilya (Lord X instead of Irma La Douce) compounds the disconnect, fuelling the thematic failure of the film's second half as the picture, desperate for a resolution in a situation that should have ended differently, resorts to convenience and romantic contrivance in place of the melancholy romanticism suggested by its protagonist's namesake.
Never really convincing, Byron's transformation from icy intellectual to throbbing priapic to ghost writer for flagging wordsmith Tobias Alcott (James Coburn) takes a backseat, then, to the quieter observations of Luther's doomed courtship of cruel Jennifer (Anjelica Huston) and of Byron's marriage to the supportive-to-a-fault Dena (Julianna Margulies). Killing them with kindness, Jennifer's crocodile affections and Dena's unwavering faith represent the opposite of the archetypal power of Wallace Stevens's artificer "She" and, directly, Dassin's Ilya--flipsides to the same gleaming coin, as it happens, and representative of that liberating understanding of the importance of knowing place in dependent relationships. The women work on instinct, it's dangerous to say, but true--and the men work on frustrated calculation. The women win. More to the heart of it, that first hour and its examination of what it's like to be a frustrated artist trying not to disappoint the people who have faith in him, all the while harbouring a surety of his own unworthiness in his heart of hearts, is shockingly immediate. An icicle to the heart: painful, brilliantly observed, and brilliant--too high a bar for the rest of The Man from Elysian Fields to equal.
MGM releases Never on Sunday on DVD under its "World Films" imprint in a sharp 1.66:1 non-anamorphic video transfer. Struck from a pristine print, the picture looks fabulous, bolstered by a remastered mono audio track that reproduces the Oscar-winning title tune in its various incarnations with fidelity and verve. The only special feature is a coy trailer ("Can you guess what she does? Because we can't tell you"). Meanwhile, TVA films of Quebecor Media releases The Man from Elysian Fields in an anamorphically-enhanced 1.85:1 video transfer that is rich and captivating for the warmth and depth of its colours. A Dolby 5.1 audio mix is full and vibrant as well, if light, appropriately, on the pyrotechnics. Junket interviews with director Hickenlooper and star Garcia are uncomfortable and generally disinteresting save for the twin revelations that both favoured the picture's weak ending. The disc is rounded out with a trailer for the film. Originally published: August 28, 2003.