Friday, October 10, 2008

These Foolish Things

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘Despair’ (1978) was almost Dirk Bogarde’s last film, an experience that soured his already sceptical feelings about film-making. Fassbinder re-edited the film drastically, despite his star’s preference of the original cut. “He fucked up my performance” was Bogarde's blunt assessment during the BBC interview ‘By Myself’ which aired shortly after he received his knighthood in 1992.

He withdrew to Clermont, his house in France (referred to in the autobiographies as Le Pigeonnier) and concentrated his efforts on his writing, only taking the occasional bit of television work out of financial necessity. Directors continued to offer him scripts; Bogarde inevitably politely declined.

Fortunately for cineastes, Bertrand Tavernier tempted him out of retirement in 1990, a full twelve years since he had last appeared before a movie camera, with the lead role in the intimate family drama ‘These Foolish Things’ (or ‘Daddy Nostalgie’ to use the indigenous title).
‘These Foolish Things’ is the better title. ‘Daddy Nostalgie’ hints at a certain sentimentality. Nothing could be further from Tavernier’s aesthetic. There is not a trace of false emotion here.
Tony* (Bogarde) is a well-travelled Englishman living out his retirement in seaside villa in France which he shares with his humourless and emotionally inexpressive French wife Miche (Odette Laure). Following an operation, Tony finds himself almost housebound. As he supposed recuperation progresses, it becomes apparent that the surgery might not have been successful.
The couple’s all-but-estranged daughter Caroline (Jane Birkin) returns to the villa to stay with them and help nurse her ailing father. For the first time in their respective lives, father and daughter get to know each other. The poignancy of their relationship has its counterpoint in Tony and Miche’s fractious marriage.

With its deceptively slight narrative and numerous scenes of marital disharmony, ‘These Foolish Things’ could easily have been tedious, talky and decidedly uncinematic. Three things redeem it: the beautiful widescreen cinematography, effortlessly establishing location and mood; Tavernier’s intelligent handling of a fine, literate screenplay by Colo Tavernier O’Hagan; and Dirk Bogarde, giving his finest performance since ‘Death in Venice’. Waspish, sarcastic and yet, at heart, utterly vulnerable, Bogarde’s characterisation of Tony is multi-layered and completely real.

‘These Foolish Things’ is about a man in the twilight of his years. It is illuminated by one of Bogarde’s most desperately moving performances (kudos to Laure and Birkin, too; the film is, after all, a chamber piece) and stands as a fitting swansong to a great actor.

*And how bittersweet must it have been for Bogarde to play a character with the same first name as his then-deceased partner of fifty years, Anthony Forwood?

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