Magnificent Obsession
Magnificent Obsession

“Daughter of Deceit” turns out to be unlike any other Buñuel film I’ve ever seen. Its melodramatic story of a man betrayed by his unfaithful wife who punishes her by giving away their baby, and then turning into a brutal nightclub owner who almost kills his unknown daughter’s husband -- before everything is briskly resolved happily and tied up with a bow -- is told with none of his trademark irony. I find myself wondering if I’d have the slightest inkling if it was by Buñuel, if somehow I’d seen it without any credits. Only two years before “El,” I think!  It’s entirely enjoyable in a trashy-movie way, with a comic-relief duo, scenes of shabby nightclub dancers and a singer dressed in tight satin with an amazing cantilevered bosom, and a committed performance by Fernando Soler as the brute. And it has the distinct advantage of being the first movie I’ve seen today with English subtitles.

Afterwards I slip into a screening of the hour-long “Sophie Calle, Untitled,” by Victoria Clay Mendoza, who seems to have been granted extraordinary access to the artist over a period of years.  I’ve long been intrigued by Calle’s work, as have many others: when I tell two English film critics earlier today that both Christopher Nolan (in “Following”) and Paul Auster (in “Leviathan” and “Double Game”) were influenced by her, one of them sputters, “but Christopher never told me that!”

But I find seeing her onscreen in this way, followed rather than following, oddly disquieting. I guess it’s that old saw about being better off not meeting your heroes, in order not to see their feet of clay.  I find Calle narcissistic (gee!  A conceptual artist who bases much of her work on herself is narcissistic!  Where have I been?), childish, petulant. Her obsession with death (the movie opens with her trying out a coffin and periodically visits cemeteries) unsettles me and doesn’t ring true. And yet I’m still enthralled with the work I glimpse during the film: the art seems deeper than the artist.

An unexpected pleasure follows: an impassioned and interesting introduction to “Magnificent Obsession,” by Lynda Myles, whose varied career has included stints as director of the Edinburgh Film Festival and the Pacific Film Archive, executive at Columbia Pictures and the BBC, and producer of films including “The Commitments” and “The Van.”  Currently Head of Fiction Directing at the National Film School in London, she’s on the Mexican feature film jury in Morelia.  She knew Danish-German (born in Germany to Danish parents) director Douglas Sirk well, as they worked together towards the end of his life on a unrealized Strindberg film project.

Her love for him and understanding of his gifts is communicated in her rapid-fire, thrilling evocation of his history, including a story that rang a faint bell with me, as though I’d heard it before but not quite so succinctly. After their divorce, Sirk’s first wife went to court to keep him away from their son, and became a member of the Nazi party. Their son became an actor, incarnating the Hitler-youth ideal, and at times they would be working side-by-side on UFA sets without Sirk being able to see him. Sirk’s second wife was Jewish, and after he fled Germany, he tried to pull strings to get his son out of Germany, without success. It was only after the war that he learned that his son had been conscripted and killed in battle.  

I’m joined in my row by Telluride Film Festival co-director Gary Meyer, who says, yes, he’s seen “Magnificent Obsession” before, but many years ago and who knows when he’ll get the chance to see it on the big screen again, and Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick, who is with the two young stars of “Beyond the Hills,” Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who shared the Best Actress prize in Cannes.  As often happens in the transition offscreen from gritty, deglamorized parts, it’s amazing what some lipstick, clean hair, and a pair of heels will do: Mr. DeMille, they’re ready for their closeup! I’m sitting next to Flutur, who wittily and mock-grandly tells me that she is “a citizen of the world” when we talk a little about Romania.

“Magnificent Obsession” is programmed as part of the somewhat-quixotic tribute to Universal Pictures on its 100th anniversary – quixotic because the program is composed of four iconic horror films (“Dracula” in its English and Spanish language versions, Frankenstein, and Edgar G. Ulmer’s “The Black Cat”) and “Magnificent Obsession.” But I’m not complaining: I love the movie, which transcends its weepy, improbable plot and slightly creepy religious undertones – playboy atones for helping to accidentally contribute to a man’s death and subsequently also accidentally blind his widow – by becoming a surgeon, miraculously restoring the woman’s sight, and then, yes, reader, he marries her! – with the help of Sirk’s style and aesthetics.