With that tagline, who could resist?
Ecstasy, directed by Bohemia (now Czech)-born Gustav MachatÃ½, was notorious by the time it hit the screens in the US, in 1935. It had been filmed in Prague, and had already been seen by international audiences; hence: the tagline. Ecstasy caused a firestorm of controversy, and when the print was sent to the US, it was seized by customs, due to its supposedly being “obscene”. Shades of James Joyce here. The obscenity was due to the fact that Hedy Lamarr, star of the film (then named Hedy Kiesler) has a scene where she runs through the woods, naked, after skinny-dipping, and you get some full frontal nudity going on. The US exhibitor pleaded his case for the film, and an edited version was cobbled together, taking out Hedy’s lady-bits, as well as adding a “moral” (along the lines of the “We don’t condone any of this” message added to the beginning of James Cagney’s Public Enemy, another pre-Code film which pushed the boundaries of what you could show)- basically making it clear that there was a divorce, and adding an ending that justified her behavior … as though wanting to be sexually happy (in your marriage, let’s not forget) was somehow shocking.
The film does not judge her, and that’s what is so extraordinary about it. Perhaps that was the most shocking “obscene” thing of all, and the focus on Hedy Lamarr’s nudity was a smokescreen for that larger “disturbing” issue (rolling my eyes). Once the Code came down, women were put in their place, and “bad” girls were punished, or feared … separating women out into split personalities. The thought that a woman would love sex was not to be mentioned … and the sneakiest directors were able to get around the Code and suggest what they needed to suggest. I mean, Only Angels Have Wings, in 1939, is HOT – the scene between Cary Grant and Jean Arthur at the bar, where he invites her to “come up to his room” to see photographs … I mean, it’s not a coy film at ALL. But the words hide the true meaning – as opposed to reveal it. The Code films are full of euphemisms and metaphor, to trick the censors, but a discerning viewer will certainly get the message.
What is startling about Ecstasy is the lack of euphemism. There are some clever sight-gags – like her lying alone in bed on her wedding night, longing for him to come to her – and we see only his feet, in another room, and they suddenly sag – suggesting he has fallen asleep standing up.
The man is sagging … what could THAT represent?? But again: this was not a tricky way to get around censors. It’s quite blatant what is happening, and the sight-gag is merely a clever storytelling device, a way to make the situation visual. (There is barely any dialogue in the film, either. Most of it is a very sophisticated pantomime.)
If you list the plot elements, it sounds silly and vulgar:
1. Man and woman on wedding night. She wants to have sex. He is not interested.
2. They are out to lunch, and he reads the paper, and she stares at all the dancing couples, and feels like she is missing out. Then she watches her husband kill a bee. It is upsetting to her.
3. Eventually, she leaves him and runs home to her father. She is upset. The father is a bit distracted because one of his mares is in the process of giving birth. She hugs the horse as the horse gives birth. I mean, duh.
4. Divorce proceedings happen.
5. One day, our heroine, living with her father, takes a horse ride. She comes across a pond and decides to take a swim. She takes off all her clothes and dives in. She swims and frolics by herself, as her horse grazes on the sidelines. Meanwhile, in a nearby field, a stallion in his pen sees the grazing horse … and begins to snort and stamp and flare his nostrils. He wants some SEX, his muscles ripple, he is a fearsome and gorgeous beast. The grazing horse takes notice (I mean, wouldn’t you?) … and basically bats her eyelashes at the stallion (I am not even kidding – the horse sequences are pretty amazing) and runs off to meet up with her potential lover … leaving our heroine naked and stranded in the pond. Panic! Our heroine runs out of the pond, naked, and so begins a chase. Hedy Lamarr chases her horse through the woods and fields. The horse ends up running into the middle of a surveying project – with lots of workers – and the head of the project, the head engineer, starts to run off after the horse. (I am never clear why he chases the horse for so long. Isn’t it enough to just chase the horse out of the middle of his work area?) Our naked heroine sees the man coming and she runs and hides behind a bush. Engineer-Man sees that the runaway horse has white overalls draped across its back … so he begins to wander thru the woods, basically looking for a naked woman who has obviously lost her clothes. He comes across the cowering naked Hedy Lamarr. Grinning, he throws her her clothes. She dresses. (I just have to say that I WANT her overalls.)
She leads her horse away. She trips and sprains her ankle. Engineer-Man runs after her and takes care of her ankle. They do not speak. It is highly erotic, him massaging her foot as she lies there, passive. Then they sit together quietly – and whaddya know, Engineer-Man picks up a flower and gently scoops up a nearby bumblebee and places it in the flower. A stark contrast to her bee-murdering ex-husband.
6. The two part. She goes back to her house. She lies in bed, dreaming and fantasizing. There is a windstorm. She can’t stand it anymore so she goes out in the middle of the night and goes to his small cottage. She opens the door. He is sitting there, reading, and shocked to see her there.
There is no dialogue. They embrace. He lies her down on the couch, and then descends from view (Huh. Where is he GOING, do you think?? I’m confused) – and the camera focuses on her face as she experiences ‘ecstasy’ for what is presumably the first time. Then she lights a cigarette. I mean, what else are you going to do in such a moment? He lies his head on her breast, and we fade out.
7. The next shot is the two of them parting – and it is daylight. She is wearing the same clothes as the day before (those scrumptious overalls). They are happy, giggly, giddy.
8. She comes home, only to find her ex-husband waiting there for her. Awful. Now that she’s had sex, and had an orgasm, she wants nothing to do with that nincompoop. She has seen the light! (Again: none of this is played with too much euphemism or tricks. It is what it is. The amazing thing is how little she is judged for wanting to be pleased, for wanting pleasure. It’s presented in a pretty straight-forward manner.) But her husband feels bereft and ashamed – that his wife has basically fled the scene. He is not portrayed as an evil man, or a bad man. Just unimaginative, a little bit OCD (the way he corrects how she puts the toothbrush in the cup on the side of the sink), and not passionate at all. She needs more.
9. There ends up being an encounter between Engineer-Man and Ex-Husband – although Engineer Man does not know who it is. There is a careening car ride that gets a little scary. Ex-Husband is starting to seem very unstable. Poor guy.
10. Engineer-Man (who is also a stud, with hard shapely forearms, who also reads books, who also saves hapless bumblebees, who not only gets in the elevator but he also goes down – I mean, what more does a woman want?) and our heroine are going to get married.
And after that, I will say no more … to avoid spoilers.
There’s an expressionistic feel to much of the film. Scenes take their time. There are long montage sequences where we see clouds moving in the sky, floating strands of grain, a tap dripping water into a well, the sun beating down … None of these things have a “point” in terms of plot, although they do serve important purposes: bringing about a certain mood, a certain dreamy quality. The film is told primarily from Eva’s point of view. She begins her marriage excited and eager. Once sex is denied to her, she begins to droop. The depression is acute, of course, and she feels left out of the joys of life (there’s a scene where she stares out of rain-streaked window at a couple embracing in a doorway, and there is such sadness in Eva’s face). But there’s another element of Eva’s psychology – and that, I think, is one of the things people found shocking back then. (Interesting thing: in the director’s commentary for Waking the Dead – my review here, the director said that some of the most hostile responses at previews were for the scene where she masturbates. She’s thinking of her boyfriend, it is a monogamous relationship, she is totally in love with him, and he is on duty – far across the country – and she aches for him. She masturbates. Wow. How DARE she? The responses were vehement. This is 2000? What the hell year are we in? She was called a “whore”, a “slut” – people didn’t like her, etc. etc. Are you kidding me? So I guess we haven’t come a long way, baby. I’m just saying.) In Ecstasy, the meandering montage sequences – of sunshine and grass and leaves and objects … begin to create a dreamy atmosphere, a non-literal energy … which adds to the feeling that she is now living almost completely in a fantasy life. She lies in bed, with bands of moonlight across her face, and she moves, just slightly … we get a small montage of the lit-up lace curtains, the shadows on the walls, the light through the slats in the window … and we begin to feel ourselves unhinge a bit, as she has. It is an erotic atmosphere, where sensations add up, piling, layering, until your entire being is ready for … whatever. Love, sex, climax, whatever – the great unknown to this character. She is on the verge. The scenes, which do not rush themselves, add to that sense of waiting, of being on the verge of something.
Kim writes, in her piece on the film:
Gustav Machaty’s Ecstasy explains some simultaneously simple and convoluted facts of life. Women get bored. Women daydream. They desire sex. They enjoy sex. And if they find it, they’ll have sex, even if they’re a little scared, or the man is over-eager, or they’re afraid of the resulting guilt (which seems worse today — in this Miley Cyrus/virgin/whore/Hester Prynne/fuck me now let me throw a rock at you society). No rocks for Hedy, Ecstasy is actually nice to its sexed up lass.
How nice the film is to her is one of its most shocking elements.
Hedy Lamarr was not a big star when Ecstasy came out, but it did get the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who hated the movie, but loved her in it. He put her under contract, and the rest is history. But for years, only the edited version of Ecstasy was available, and it never got large distribution due to the controversy. Regardless, it was condemned left and right – similar to Baby Doll, another controversial film that refused to judge its “sexed-up lass” … it was condemned by the Catholic Church, and … you know … if people were to see this film they would immediately descend into degenerate behavior … whatever.
What’s fascinating about seeing the unexpurgated Ecstasy … is how kind it is. How … well … sweet. Again, by just describing the plot elements it might sound salacious but that is only because of the world we live in now, which is even more unkind to its sexualized young things. Hedy Lamarr runs through the woods of Bohemia, naked, and somehow it does not come across as objectification. It is a woman’s body. It is certainly erotic, and those scenes are quite beautiful … but it doesn’t have a dirty mind behind it, if that makes sense. Quite a revelation.
Ecstasy drags in its second half, and I didn’t like the ending. I was also completely gobsmacked by the throngs of singing “workers” which suddenly made it seem like a propaganda film for Unionizing the world. What? Where did THAT come from? And where did she go?
Nevertheless, Ecstasy is obviously no longer “the most talked about picture in the world”, but once upon a time it was, and now, thank goodness, we all can have a look at it.
I mentioned in my earlier post that people are shown in fragments throughout the film. In the beginning, the fragmented shots – his hands, her feet, whatever – end up making you feel the dissociation she feels from the wedding-night experience.
There will be no sex had here, and so she splits off – becoming just her parts – and he, too, has split off into fragments – not a whole man at all. This fragmented filmmaking continues on throughout, even after she leaves him … but it takes on quite a different aspect with her lover (played by the wonderful Aribert Mog – who manages to inject humor, grace, sexiness, and manly concern – all into what could be an incredibly schmaltzy part) … we just see her knees, curled up on the couch. Or we see her hand, hanging over the edge of the couch. Or we see her face in acute close-up, we’re almost going up her nose, for God’s sake.
What is happening here is not an increase in objectification and dissociation – but just the opposite. We are moving into her psyche … we are no longer observing her, we are her. So her knees curled up on the couch become objects, yes, but objects that are not separate from the whole … but a part of her. What we can’t see is hidden, not missing.