Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Film review: JEZEBEL (William Wyler, 1938)

Julie Morrison (Bette Davis), a headstrong young woman from New Orleans enjoys toying with the cloistering conventions of the time and is used to getting her way. So when he fiancĂ©e Pres (Henry Fonda) rainchecks a date because he’s held up at work, she decides to teach him a lesson.

Unfortunately, her MO, of wearing a scandalously red dress to her coming out ball, in an era when unmarried women should only be seen in virginal white, backfires, and drives Pres away. He goes north for work, and Julie is too obstinate to show the contrition that would win him back. By the time she’s realised how much he means to her, he’s married a girl from New York.

Released a year prior to Gone with the Wind, the similarities between the two films are inescapable. Both movies are about haughty Southern Belles who take a man’s love for them for granted – until they’ve lost it. But, whereas GWTW was set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, the imminent threat in Jezebel is instead that of yellow fever.

One of the main motifs of Jezebel is the importance of honouring the Southern customs, something which, in her naive impertinence at the start, Julie flagrantly disregards. In her casual game-playing, Julie indirectly pits Brent (a seasoned duellist who is jealous of the attention she gives Pres) against Pres' maverick younger brother, with tragic consequences. 

It is refreshing that cinema presents a white woman, archetypically the last person to suffer the consequences of her unthinking actions, facing the full effects of her Machiavellian ways, even if the collateral damage is somebody else.

William Wyler, who would go on to win three Best Director Oscars over the course of his glittering career, as well as directing Roman Holiday, a film that is in my personal top 25 canon, deftly weaves all of these themes into the film's 104 running time. All the performances benefit from his intelligence, with the star of the film, being, unsurprisingly, the titular character.

Stage-trained actress Bette Davis, never one to shy away from playing a less-than-savoury woman, has a tight grip on Julie's character arc. Certainly a flawed character, she importantly learns from her mistakes and exhibits growth, making her someone the audience can ultimately sympathise with. The contrast between the phlegmatic manner she struts late to her own party in riding gear, to the earnest  humility and contrition she displays at the end, when her love's life is on the line, is quite a progression. 

In a lesser actresses' hands, the modulation between brat to caring friend would seem contrived, but Davis' distinctive forward facing eyes convey so much emotion in just one glance, and there is gravitas behind every line she delivers. The scene where Pres announces he's married to another woman and Julie juggles between embarrassment, disappointment, shock and decorum, all in one go, is a particularly impressive feat.

The dictionary definition of a ‘Jezebel’ is 'an impudent young woman', and, for the first 2/3rds of Jezebel, Julie is certainly that. But thanks to Bette Davis' shrewd performance, showing that even the most entitled of women are capable of change, it is a delightful watch, featuring a poignant message about the sacrificial nature of love.



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