'Ecstasy': what's neat, aside from Hedy, is its technical sophistication

August 10, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Ecstasy" is the film that liberated us all or the film that sent us on the road to hell, depending on your attitude toward erotic matters. It was so hot that the master of hot, Henry Miller, even wrote an essay on it!

A 1932 cause celebre, it made an international star out of its star, Hedy Keisler, once Hollywood changed her name to Hedy Lamarr. The sequence in question found Ms. Keisler-Lamarr, in the buff, doing the dog paddle in a Czechoslovakian pond. Certain parts of her never before seen on screen were enough to guarantee a career and a legend. The rest is history, of a sort.

Now the Orpheum, Fells Point's brave little rep house, has resurrected this curious film, on a double bill with Josef Von Sternberg's "Morocco" for a week, beginning today.

It's one of those items in which technique is far more important than story. The story, in fact, is rather threadbare. Lamarr is a young, sophisticated Czechoslovakian aristocrat who has a real ecstasy problem: She can't get any. Married to a somewhat dour older man, she pines away untouched and ardent on their wedding night as he sleeps on the couch. What's this guy's problem? The film seems to suggest ennui, spiritual crisis, self-doubt, chronic depression but it tells us nothing.

The marriage is annulled, leaving Lamarr to mope her way through lonely nights of discontent; in one scene, she exhales cigarette smoke while standing at a rainy window and the smoke gushes and gushes out of her for what feels like hours.

Then she goes for her nude swim; and one consequence is that she meets a young engineer, falls in love, and finally gets a shot of the title stuff. But when the old man finds out about it, he commits suicide. Distraught, she abandons the young man and goes off on a midnight train to. . . . well, I suppose, to Hollywood, and "Samson and Delilah," with Victor Mature.

But the astonishment of "Ecstasy" is that there's no technique of 1992 which wasn't widely known in 1932, even in the Czechoslovakian film industry. It is, in many ways, as visually and technically sophisticated as any movie of this year; it's certainly more advanced than "3 Ninjas."

Gustav Machaty's specialty is the mise-en-scene, a technique of manipulating images to suggest emotion or instinct. Thus the most powerful sensation in the film is Lamarr's bone-deep frustration: Machaty conveys this in a series of shots examining the muscular necks and flanks of some equine sculptures in her apartment, building a cutting rhythm and establishing a metaphorical relationship between her inner state and the plunging images of the animals. Steve Spielberg has never done anything half so nifty.

'Ecstasy'

Starring Hedy Lamarr and Jaromir Rogoz.

Directed by Gustav Machaty.

Unrated.

***

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