Wednesday, March 04, 2015

PHAEDRA (1962)

Phaedra (Melina Mercouri) is the second wife of Greek shipping magnate Thanos (Raf Vallone); when we first see her, she is at the christening of a new ship named for her. Thanos is upset that Alexis (Anthony Perkins), his son from his first wife, is wasting his life in London trying to be a painter and he sends Phedra off to bring him back to Greece and get him into the family business. Phaedra's companion Anna predicts trouble, and sure enough, when Phaedra meets Alexis, there are sparks and soon the two of them are lovers. As part of a bribe to get Alexis home, Thanos promises to buy him an Aston-Martin sports car, so Alexis and Phaedra return to Greece where things begin to go wrong immediately as Thanos tries to marry Alexis off to the daughter of another shipping millionaire to forge a strong connection between the two companies. When the S.S. Phaedra goes down at sea with much loss of life, it seems to be a portent of things to come for the flesh-and-blood Phaedra.

If you know your Greek mythology, you will know from the beginning that this is going the way of all Greek tragedy: Phaedra, wife of Theseus, falls in love with her stepson Hippolytus and bad things happen. Because the narrative is overdetermined, you can sit back and enjoy the overheated soap opera machinations and the lovely black and white cinematography. Mercouri is gruff-voiced and striking looking, and is perfect for Greek tragedy. Some critics have said that Perkins is in over his head here, but I think he's fine as the sleek, callow, puppy-dog boy who doesn't really know what he wants. Their first lovemaking session is filmed in front of a fireplace through hazy glass with rain pouring over it, and though not explicit by today's standards, it gets the point across that these two in are in lust. Vallone is, surprisingly, a largely sympathetic figure and gives a strong performance. At two hours, this drags a bit near the end, especially since you know what's going to happen, but for fans of this kind of melodrama, it's worth seeing. [DVD]

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