Foolish Wives is a tale of a con artist (Stroheim) posing as Russian nobility and his attempts to seduce an American diplomat’s wife (Miss Dupont). This is the vision of director Erich Von Stroheim whose career would become synonymous with extravagance. The greatest asset and limitation of the master was his unwavering eye for detail, an attribute which inflated the budget of Foolish Wives by a factor of four and increased the run time to eight hours. It became so lavish and ridiculous that Universal Pictures attempted to use it as publicity. The New York offices positioned a neon sign on Broadway which read ‘Erich Von Stroheim will spend XXXX to entertain you with Foolish Wives!’ and updated the numbers regularly. A farcical battle between art and business, the winner is yet to be determined.
The commencement of Foolish Wives is a shot of a mansion lounging idly by the ranging waters of Monte Carlo, it is instantly apparent how opulent a production this is. Throughout the piece, Stroheim produces sets larger than life but not in the sense of German expressionism, rather they are developed to replication. The exterior of Monte Carlo alone cost four hundred thousand dollars to create an exact double. The sets are as large as the lives of the aristocratic characters inhabiting them, and so sets are adorned with real crystal chandeliers, porcelain and tapestries, because otherwise the ‘camera would know’ as Stroheim protested. Whether this is true or not is hard to say, but one thing is certain, the shell of Foolish Wives is beautiful and stunning.
Interestingly, Stroheim’s camera breezes through these constructions. Rather than appealing to the larger picture, Stroheim brings us closer to intimacies. It is within the details that Stroheim succeeds. Monte Carlo bustle with life of thousands of extras draped in imported French evening gowns, banquets of caviar and champagne are served with nothing less, and characters are revealed in privacy. The aristocracy live with grandeur but are revealed in the minuscule of this existence, the small bedrooms, the hidden lodges and the private hotel rooms.
Stroheim’s obsession with detail extends further than mere stationary objects, actors are breathing mannequins for Stroheim to manipulate at will, which he does magnificently. Each actor is the example of nuance, the down trodden and increasingly jealous American diplomat never flies into jealous rage, his Wife never succumbs to wide-eyed horror in the midst of a fire and the Count simply steals the show. The immovable man, a model of nobility and a gentleman, but only on the exterior, the glimpses of his true nature as a disgusting and selfish creature shown in flashes. A refreshing drama without the melodramatics.
The only real downfall of Foolish Wives is the narrative itself. It is somewhat of a paradox, the film exudes a yearning for the original eight hour run time, but the story is simple and played out comfortably to conclusion, (although a rather abrupt and neat conclusion). After Foolish Wives was cut from eight hours to two, Stroheim stated all that remained was ‘the bones’. Does a film really need eight hours to establish such a simple narrative? It is impossible to tell. It is a gargantuan run time but perhaps nuances in scenes, sly looks, hints of love and jealousy, the minor details between characters in a large life were destroyed, the necessary components missing to fulfil a sense of emptiness to the picture.
A fascinating film, both in historical production and finished product, the first inclusion of a great master.
The heart of sweet and helpless maid Maruschka is caught in the talons of the Count. At breakfast, the Count engineers an innocent conversation to learn of Maruschka’s two thousand franc savings. A respectable and rigid man, the Count mentions his money problems but will absolute not accept charity. The Count hides his face and Maruschka notices tears staining the table cloth. Compelled to help, she donates her life’s savings. The genius of Stroheim is encapsulated here. The Count simply hid his face to sprinkle droplets of water from his fingertips to the cloth. A simple and manipulative trick, an outsider to the film could learn the entirety of the Count’s character in one simple scene. The devil is in the details.