The immortal Tom Lehrer once penned these lyrics — “Alma, Alma, please tell us. All modern women are jealous. You didn’t even use Pond’s. Yet you got Gustav and Walter and Franz.” This is the concept being explored in Bruce Beresford’s Bride of the Wind. Unfortunately, despite it being a sumptuously mounted, worthy attempt, the one thing it never successfully answers is just exactly what Alma Schindler had that drew not only composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and writer Franz Werfel, but painter Oskar Kokoschka (the only one she didn’t marry) to her. The central problem is simply that the screenplay bites off more than it can chew in trying to chart the romantic life of Alma Schindler. Successful biopics wisely tend to stick to a limited period — or a single event — in the lives of their subjects, rather than trying to cram a lifetime into roughly two hours. It becomes ever worse here, since the film has to catalogue Alma’s husbands and lovers — an idea that threatens to turn the film into some kind of scorecard. And it comes perilously close to doing just that. In Ken Russell’s film, Mahler, the composer tells Alma, “You always wanted fame. Well, it looks as if you’ll have to settle for notoriety,” and that, unfortunately is a little too near the truth of the approach to her as taken by Bride of the Wind. Here, after all, is a woman who served as muse to some pretty impressive forces of the 20th Century — and yet there’s very little to tell us why they were so drawn to her. The men themselves never even speak of this. The film instead merely chronicles the men she went through — and having spent the lion’s share of its time on Mahler (Jonathan Pryce), often gives the other relationships very short shrift indeed. Both Gropius and Werfel are very nearly reduced to footnotes. (The decision to minimize Gropius may, in part, be due to the fact that a shift to his founding of the Bauhaus School of architecture would have resulted in a jarring departure for the look of the film.) However, for these undeniable downsides, Beresford’s film deserves high marks for its sumptuous evocation of a time of artistic and social change. Taken on its own merits as a highly romantic view of the era and some of its major players, there is a good deal to recommend Bride of the Wind, from its gorgeous art nouveau production design by Herbert Pinter to its amazing costume design by Shuna Harwood to its dazzling cinematography by Peter James. Director Beresford does a spectacularly good job of pulling all this together to form a picture of a time, if not a very focused one of its characters. His most telling statement on Alma is the startling visual that opens the film: the black and white imagery we’ve been seeing is suddenly invaded by the red of Alma’s dress when a cloakroom attendant removes her cape. Beresford does his best with the material at hand, occasionally rising to remarkable results — usually when the words of newcomer Marilyn Levy’s script give way to music and imagery as in the Kindertotenleider (Songs on the Deaths of Children) segment. At moments like these — and there are enough to compensate for some of the film’s shortcomings — Bride of the Wind truly soars into the realm of great filmmaking. The script is where the fault lies, but even it has its points, since it does provide a cogent statement on Alma’s tendency to sacrifice her own creativity to that of the men in her life. In some ways, the film is the story of her search for a man who will not require that of her, but it’s a concept that is never allowed to be sufficiently central to the film to make it work as it should.
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