The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"This is a Story of the Triumph of Good Over Evil. It is, of Course, A Fantasy."

As Filmstruck is shutting down, I am watching some of its buried treasures. Tonight, The Madwoman of Challot.

The Madwoman of Challot is a peculiar play, a poetic fantasia I first encountered in a 1984 adaptation by Dave Davis at Fordham Lincoln Center.

The play, first performed after the death of author Jean Giraudoux, is heavily stylized, taking place mostly in a Parisian tabac, with the denizens of the tabac as participants in the action, and, sometimes, as a Greek chorus. The play depicts the dream-and-romance addled Countess Aurelia, who, upon discovering that greed and selfishness are eliminating spontaneity, happiness, freedom. The Countess, once awakened, knowing the weaknesses that greed brings with it, takes radical action to protect her City, her friends, and her belief in Romance (definitely, the R is capitalized). Before she does, she and her friends have a trial for these malefactors of great wealth (Hmmm..."male factors"? Most of Aurelia's friends are women; all of the conspirators are men). The defendants are represented by the Ragpicker of Challot, Aurelia prosecutes, her friend Constance sits as Judge, and her friends Gabrielle and Josephine--watch. As do our Greek chorus.

The play was filmed in 1969, with Katharine Hepburn as Aurelia, Danny Kaye as the Ragpicker, Richard Chamberlain and Nanette Newman as the young lovers, and, stellar among a variety of great baddies, Yul Brynner and Donald Pleasance.

The film manages to maintain much of the atmosphere of the play, and, 24 years after the production, the joins to the contemporary world of 1969 are less seamless than in the original (though time has smoothed those joins a little). Hepburn is superb--at moments tragic, frail, and at other times slashingly contemptuous of the evil she has been forced to see. At one point, her smile and bearing were pure Jo March. It's a marvelous performance.

But so too is that of Danny Kaye. After charming the jury, wooing them, he shouts a brutally honest answer when Aurelia asks him what he'll do if given access to unlimited oil under lying Paris in this fable. Here's just a short clip, his furious finale as representative of the forces of heedless capital answering the question:

I've seen Kaye in a lot of films, but never this angry, never this powerful. It's a side of him that is astonishingly watchable.

The film abandons (probably wisely) the play's Greek Chorus ending, and instead ends as it begins, with another morning walk wit Aurelia. This time she discards her 1919 newspaper, signaling her readiness (after Chamberlain briefly assumes the role of her lost lover from her youth). It's a strange movie, and an extraordinary one. But it was a pleasure to watch this rendition of a parable, a story of the victory of good over evil. As the film's first title card reminds us, "It is, of course, a fantasy."

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