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Bride of the Wind

Director: Bruce Beresford
Cast: Sarah Wynter, Jonathan Pryce, Vincent Perez, Gregor Seberg, Simon Verhoeven

(Paramount Classics; 2001)

Much Too Much

Turn-of-the-century Vienna is probably best remembered for the fact that Sigmund Freud was living there at the time, cooking up his theories of sexuality, repression, and dreams. But he was hardly the only genius in town. The place was bustling with creativity and passion, talented people producing all sorts of “modern” music, art, and architecture. According to Bride of the Wind, one of the most determined and original of these many ambitious personages was Alma Mahler (1895-1920). As embodied by Sarah Wynter, Alma is initially a vivacious and rather impetuous socialite, a composer in her own right, and an independent spirit, who gave up her own career aspirations to marry the moody Gustav Mahler (played with melodramatic angst by Jonathan Pryce). The film is the story of her efforts to know herself, and to act on that evolving knowledge, all of which lead her to become considerably less vivacious.


The problem is that Alma’s fireball personality is at odds with her surroundings. Despite Vienna’s celebration of the strange and new ideas coming from men, women were apparently supposed to behave as they had always done — attending to the needs of their men and children. When Alma meets the already-famous Gustav at a dinner arranged in his honor, she’s actually snotty to him, calling out his compositions as “thematically disorganized” and possessing too many “foreign influences” (which may or may not be Jewish — she has “issues” with his Jewishness, later revealed during an argument). With no small amount of prescience, she begins her verbal rampage by comparing Mahler’s head to that of a Socrates bust — “large and imposing.” When one of Alma’s friends warns her to hush, the poor girl suddenly gets a clue, and scampers from the room, embarrassed to tears that she’s been so horrifyingly forward (that his head [i.e., his ego] is large or his music might be disorganized is beside the point, of course — you just don’t say such things out loud). But being so insulted by the lovely Alma apparently agrees with Gustav, who proceeds to flirt with his bride-to-be by telling her that he’s “surprised that such a beautiful girl is so outspoken.”


Welcome to Alma’s world, a place where speaking up makes her “surprising,” especially since she is “beautiful” (that this situation doesn’t sound so different from today’s world is hardly a coincidence). Her friends have misgivings about the man — he’s “notorious” as a womanizer, a difficult personality, and well-looked after by his doting sister. There doesn’t seem to be much good to say about him at all: as Alma’s well-intentioned buddy Gustav Klimt (August Schmolzer) observes, by way of what may or may not be a compliment, “I think his music is much better than it sounds.” Just about this time, Alma discovers something else — the guy’s actually not so deft in bed as his reputation allows. After failing to perform during their first tryst, he wails, “I’m not a great lover after all!” Alma, being a good girl, takes him to her bosom and they go at it again, as the scene fades out and the music builds.


Presumably, this second attempt turns out all right, for immediately afterwards, Alma is smitten, walking in quaint marketplaces with her man, gazing adoringly into his eyes, watching him at rehearsals where he browbeats his musicians. She agrees to marry him even when he demands that she give up her own piddly composing and adopt his music as “our music.” This suggests he’s a jealous, possessive, and petty fellow, but that is for us to surmise and for her to deal with in later scenes. Which she does, again and again. They have a couple of daughters, his career takes off, she tends to the domestic stuff. She begins to feel stifled, but sticks with her commitment until one of the girls dies from one of those diseases that makes movie characters wheeze and sweat and waste away while wrapped up in white bedclothes, all in a matter of minutes (actually, a matter of seconds, in this child’s case), while the relatives look on with pained expressions.


This trauma is the last straw for Alma, and the point where Bride of the Wind appears to take a different direction, away from the faithful-but-very-resentful wife narrative. In this, the film poses as a proto-feminist adventure, perhaps inspired by the surprise-hitness of director Bruce Beresford’s previous film, the scorned-wife-revenge flick Double Jeopardy (1999). Unlike Ashley Judd, however, Alma doesn’t get to blow her burdensome and selfish husband away, she heads off to a spa where she meets the young, very pretty architect Walter Gropius (Simon Verhoeven). Their affair really bothers Mahler, who insists that she make a choice — she chooses Mahler, because, she tells her distraught lover, he “needs” her. Mad and self-righteous as she is, Alma is still a dutiful, noble, long-suffering Victorian femme.


And yet, the film makes him pay dearly for her choice. That is, he dies, a sad, drawn-out, wasting death. While this might appear to be the part of the film where Alma is freed from the oppressive constraints of her marriage. In fact, she remains “Alma Mahler” for life, ever living with his ghost, tending to his legacy, and fairly yapping about her duty to preserve the collective memory of his greatness. This commitment only makes the rest of her life more scandalous, because each subsequent lover competes with Mahler. Indeed, she has a series of lovers — this increasingly modern woman turns into something of a scandal about town, developing a reputation of her own, for liking sex but eschewing emotional entanglements. This while she is seeking that perfect mate, the man (and he must be a man) who will support her as well as worship and lust after her. (This “seeking the proper mate” part is important; otherwise Alma wouldn’t be the ideal heroine, by today’s anxiety-prone moral standards; things haven’t changed so much.)


And so Alma also pays a price, for being ahead of her time. In her Vienna, sophisticated people only speak of Freud’s theories because they count as trendy party-talk, not because they believe them (at least not in public). Her free-loving attitudes get her into trouble with the gossipy upper-crusters, and therein lies the supposed drama and conflict of Marilyn Levy’s script. I say “supposed,” because in fact, the movie features very little sensation or upset, except in one scene, when Gropius’s mother complains that Alma knows more about music than design. Apparently, mom’s disapproval is too much to bear, and so Alma leaves Gropius for the even younger expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka (Vincent Perez), whose portrait of her, entitled “Bride of the Wind,” represents her untamed sensuality and refusal to settle down.


Though Kokoschka has his own reputation for wild behavior, eventually Alma’s resistance to his possessiveness (men! they are all alike!) is too much to bear, and so he joins the military. He goes so far as to ride his horse through town, while Alma just happens to be seated at an outdoor cafe table with her friend, to whom she can then confide that she’s glad her lover is leaving for World War I. This little bit of information leads directly to the next scene, one of the very few that does not include Alma, as Kokoschka is shot in the head and then, for good measure, bayoneted by a soldier he watches walk toward him. As if in a fit of overstatement, the camera takes Kokoschka’s sideways view, literally turned on its side, to show how he imagines his oncoming attacker to be Alma approaching him (again, sideways) in a diaphanous white gown.


In another movie, this might suggest that she is somehow incriminated in his tragedy, but no. In this movie, it’s just another incoherent bit of business. Back home in Vienna, meanwhile, Alma takes up with another fellow, the playwright Franz Werfel (Gregor Seberg), the first partner who correctly appreciates her skills as a composer as well as her skills as a lover. This would be the end, sort of — but there are unresolved issues and returning lovers and even an abortion, but all that is so much movie-of-the-weekness. Bride of the Wind is a biopic in that most superficial sense, portraying events in a slew of historical figures’ lives. As Gustav Mahler’s music fills the soundtrack, it also seems to haunt Alma and provide her with an identity and sense of purpose: she must stay with him to his and even her own end, because, as she says repeatedly, “He is Gustav Mahler!” This hardly seems reason enough.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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31 Dec 1994
There's something satisfying about watching a beleaguered woman get revenge on a lowdown-scumsucker of a husband. True, there's also something satisfying about substantive characters and plots without whopping big holes in them. But you can't have everything.
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