June 9, 2016
Darling – UK, 1965
Everything about John Schlesinger’s Oscar-winning Darling screams, “Look at me! Look me what I can do! Look at what I can show! And it must be said, the film does indeed show a lot – sex parties in which attendees strip and then put on another person’s clothing, infidelity for infidelity’s sake, hints at bisexuality and the sharing of sex partners. Even abortion makes a brief appearance. All of this in a film from 1965, a fact that by itself is likely to pique many people’s curiosity and have more than one of them proclaiming the film a masterpiece. If only that were so. Instead, we get a dated and distasteful film about repugnant people living during times that were so intriguing that they should have produced a much more involving and complicated story.
The film tells the story of a young woman named Diana Scott, played by Julie Christie, who won Best Actress for her work in the film. Diana is a free spirit caught up in the early days of the sexual revolution, and she radiates the kind of energy and spirit that suggests a love of adventure and non-conformity. She is married, yet unhappy, her husband a bore who spends his time learning Italian from audio tapes. We can tell she married him because that was what she thought she was supposed to do at her age and at that time. I have no doubt that many young women made similar decisions, only to realize too late that being the safe choice did not necessarily mean being Mr. Right.
In an odd move, the film allows us to hear Diana narrate her own story through an interview with an unnamed, unomnipotent voice. There I am, she tells us. Aren’t I adorable in the latest fashions? She then cheerfully weaves a tale of such hurt and betrayal that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone willingly giving up such details. Then just as the mind is trying to figure out what it all means, the device is dropped, as if screenwriter Frederic Rafael suddenly realized he had no idea where to go with it. Interestingly, Rafael was given an Oscar for his screenplay.
Throughout the first part of the film, we watch as Diana meets, woos, and is wooed by a news reporter/writer named Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde), whom she eventually leaves for the sleazy underworld of modeling, commercials, and all of the unscrupulous personalities that often go along with those professions. Her journey is somewhat realistic, as the bright lights of fame have lured many women into situations that they had not expected. Here, though, Diana seems practically comfortable with the uncomfortable, and even after moments of surprise soon finds herself laughing and taking part in the revelry. What does it all mean? We’re never told. Throughout too many of these scenes, the dialogue is pretentious and self-aware, as if every scene were designed to titillate and push the boundaries of decency ever more slightly. I rolled my eyes more than once. Eventually, Diana finds herself at a party where people sleep with whomever they want – sometimes out of interest and other times out of sheer boredom. In one scene, she and an industry insider named Miles Brand (Laurence Harvey) are about to get into bed together when she tells him that she still loves Robert. Miles’s response: “Why not?” and then they sleep together. How clever.
In the film’s sole interesting subplot, we learn that Diana has never enjoyed sex. In fact, the way she winces during particular moments of intended intimacy is enough to send chills down one’s spine. This hints at either tragedy or a pursuit that is going in all the wrong directions. However, the film never truly explores either possibility, instead mistaking Diana’s string of sexual escapades for both entertainment and a metaphor for liberation. By the end of the film, Diana’s behavior is no closer to being explained than it was in the beginning. In fact, the only thing we’re left with at the end is a vague notion that revenge has been taken and that happiness is elusive for all involved. Quite a somber note to end on.
Despite all this, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my interest in the film initially. I was particularly engrossed in Robert and Diana’s budding attraction and their early attempts at normalcy. Yet as the film progressed I found myself more frustrated than intrigued, and the film became more standoffish than involving. It morphs into a mixture of intentionally odd characters whose eccentricity does not serve a purpose other than to shock – and it doesn’t even succeed at that. Too many motivations remain unclear, and as the film progresses, the weirdness is heighted to such a level as to either induce laughter or sighs of incredulity. Most often, I found myself doing the latter.
In the end, the film is a train wreck, and train wrecks are rarely fun to watch. Admittedly, they can be meaningful cinematically, yet here it’s all wreck and no purpose, with jolts and rawness that neither shock nor have anything of importance to say. Like Diana’s actions themselves, the film has no purpose and no aim, and so it gets to a place few films want to – to one of unearned complacency, a dubious distinction to say the least. (on Blu-ray and DVD)
*Director John Schlesinger went on to make – and win Best Director for - the similarly-themed Midnight Cowboy.