The Buttercup Chain

by Michael Barrett

17 September 2009

With locations in England's green and pleasant land, in sunny Spain and finally by a Swedish lake, this is a grand vacation movie thanks to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe.
cover art

The Buttercup Chain

Director: Robert Ellis Miller
Cast: Hywel Bennett, Jane Asher, Sven-Bertil Taube, Leigh Taylor-Young

US DVD: 8 Sep 2009

France and Margaret are cousins, the children of twin mothers in England. The opening through-the-years montage shows them as tots, taking refuge in their tree and staring sullenly down at their grown-ups like the kids in Village of the Damned.

When they grow up, they become Hywel Bennett and Jane Asher, equally weird of vibe. The psychological undercurrents we’re asked to believe, especially when it’s spelled out for us, is that they secretly and repressedly lust for each other (which isn’t very illegal in some places), but that they must enact this through other lovers. These other lovers then gravitate to each other and have the life the cousins cannot have.

Said others are Fred (Sven-Bertil Taube), a tall blond Swedish student of architecture, and kooky American free spirit Manny (Leigh Taylor-Young), who sees what’s going on. If the drinking game for this movie were to take a shot every time Taube gets naked, one would be under the table by the halfway mark, which mightn’t be a bad place.

Anyway, with locations in England’s green and pleasant land, in sunny Spain and finally by a Swedish lake, this is a grand vacation movie thanks to cinematographer Douglas Slocombe and a slightly misty, sun-dappled softness of image.

Clive Revill is also around as one of those convenient kind-hearted millionaires who drop from the sky into films like this, a deux-ex-Rolls-Royce. For example, there was a movie called Joanna where his role was played by Donald Sutherland, who rather stole the show.

In order for characters not to have to worry about working and paying for anything, money must be taken care of somehow, so there’s a line about France’s trust fund. This casual irresponsibility, of course, is something they’ll all have to pay for. (The box calls his character Franz, which makes more sense, but it’s France.)

With these pretty locales, pretty actors, and pretty music by Richard Rodney Bennett, the viewers are invited to a semi-softcore vacation from conventional morality. As with so many movies of this type and era, however, it lures us in only to waggle a punishing finger at its characters by the end of the story. Everyone ends up sadder but sadder as the cousins take an elevator down to earth and the camera rises godlike above them.

At the end, Manny pronounces the valuable lesson we’ve all learned: “You never can love everyone, can you, even if you think you can. All it means is that nobody gets enough. You have to work at it. You really work have to work at it.” So much for the socialist sex plan. However, the tragedy that befalls her wouldn’t necessarily have been avoided if everyone hadn’t loved everyone; it could have happened just as well if she’d stuck to one. Indeed, one could argue that their circumstances show a failure not to transgress far enough against convention.

This title is presented in the third wave of Sony’s Martini Movies line, and this time all are rare circa-1970 titles about restless youth finding themselves and dealing with the establishment, man. The only other title I’ve seen is Jacques Demy’s brief trip to Hollywood, Model Shop, which finds Gary Lockwood after 2001: A Space Odyssey still adrift.

Restless and apprehensive, he spends the entire movie driving around Los Angeles looking out the windshield and thinking how beautiful it all is. We can assume he’s echoing Demy’s thoughts as a visitor fascinated, as was Antonioni, by all the sky and billboards and power lines. In fact, this movie has more than a passing affinity with Zabriskie Point. Eventually Gary hooks up with Anouk Aimée, reprising her role from Demy’s French Lola. We are caught up with what happened to the characters in that film, and it’s all rather sad.

The other Martinis are Alan J. Pakula’s Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing with Timothy Bottoms and Maggie Smith, Anthony Newley’s Summertree with Michael Douglas (a film produced by his father Kirk), and Robert Mullligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness with Michael Sarrazin and Barbara Hershey. I have no idea what any of this has to do with martinis or the pursuit of hipness, but I’ll take any marketing gimmick to get obscurities like these released to the light of DVD. Even if they don’t turn out to be lost classics, they are evidence of the quieter, uncertain mood of their times as Hollywood attempted to catch it.

The Buttercup Chain


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