‘Phaedra’: May/December (or at least September)

[16 September 2011]

By Michael Barrett

Thanos (Raf Vallone) is a loud, blunt, burly Greek tycoon and shipping magnate. You’re free to guess who he might be based on. Amid much ritual and festivity, he christens his latest ship after his wife Phaedra (Melina Mercouri), another prized possession. Then he dispatches her (the wife, not the ship) to persuade Alexis (Anthony Perkins), his son by a first marriage, to come join his father’s business instead of studying economics or art or whatever he’s doing in London. And so it begins.

In the early 1960s, right after going Psycho, Perkins starred in two lush romantic European soapers about May/December (or at least September) relationships with mature women: Goodbye Again with Ingrid Bergman, and this simmering, almost delirious blow-out.

Producer-director Jules Dassin (who co-wrote with Margarita Liberaki) must have thought he was making a lavish vehicle for wife Mercouri, whom he’d starred in Never on Sunday, and certainly she emotes with dripping eye-shadow and squared shoulders and Dior gowns all over Hydra, London and Paris. “I don’t care if the world burns down,” declares the imperious hussy as she advances on her glowering ramrod of a stepson. That line is so good they use it in the trailer, but don’t watch it in advance; they were still spoiling the endings 50 years ago.

Today the film is most likely to appeal to Perkins-watchers, and never was he presented as a more beauteous object. When he’s introduced from Melina’s point of view beside the statue of a Greek god, it’s an eyeful. “He’s delicious. I would eat him up,” declares a budding minx who’s out of her league.

Alexis and stepmama make love in a surprisingly abstract yet physical montage of fire and water from the early years of cinema’s ability to show discreetly framed juxtapositions of flesh on flesh, not yet a tired cliché. He’s even kissed and caressed tenderly by his papa. Everyone in this picture is constantly touching each other. There’s the virtually cross-dressed servant and “witch” who adores her mistress and gets to plant one right on her kisser. And alas, in a movie where every symbol is big and shiny, there’s no avoiding the foreshadowing around the Aston Marten automobile, which Alexis calls “my girl” amid many loving strokes and osculations to the paint job. It’s all going exactly where you think it is on that twisty little sunstruck island, especially if you know your Greek tragedies.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/146875-phaedra/