Monday 17 October 2016

Movie Review: Ninotchka (1939)

A romantic comedy with political ornaments, Ninotchka is an appealing story of love and laughter blossoming across cultural barriers.

The cash-strapped Soviet government dispatches three officials named Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski to Paris to sell a precious set of jewels previously belonging to the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). The three men struggle to reconcile their communist ideals with all the luxuries that Paris has to offer, but eventually succumb and install themselves in a lavish hotel suite. Swana calls on her suave agent and potential lover Count Leon d'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to quickly impose a court order freezing the sale or transfer of the jewels. Leon also proceeds to fully corrupt the three Soviet officials with parties, booze and women.

Nina Ivanovna "Ninotchka" Yakushova (Greta Garbo) is the next Soviet envoy to arrive, in an attempt to resolve the thorny situation. All business and fully committed to the communist cause, Ninotchka appears incorruptible. But Leon is persistent, and gradually she capitulates and falls in love with both the Count and the benefits of capitalism. With Ninotchka overwhelmed with love, Swana moves in to try and seize the initiative, claim her jewelry and reassert her hold on Leon.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by a team of four writers including Billy Wilder, Ninotchka showcases Greta Garbo at her best in a role designed to tease out her talent for dry comedy and sweet romance. The film is also a prescient early salvo in the war between ideologies. And in stubbornly concluding that the charms of luxury that come with capitalism are irresistible, the story manages to look ahead 50 years to the ultimate Achilles' heel of the communist ideal.

The first two thirds of Ninotchka are sharper and more enjoyable. The stage is set in the misadventures of Iranoff, Buljanoff, and Kopalski as they wrestle between their conscience and Paris' decadence. The battle is decisively won as soon as Leon brings out the weapons of mass seduction in the form of endless supplies of food, drinks, music, tobacco and attractive servers delivered straight to the extravagant hotel suite. But this is all an intro to Garbo's arrival as Ninotchka to straighten matters out. The witty script reaches a peak in the battle of wills between her intractable, factual adherence to soulless discourse while Leon tries all he knows to touch her heart.

Once love blossoms and Ninotchka surrenders to an entranced state the film slows into a mild overdose of sentimentality, and the edge is lost. Swana swoops in to create a standard love triangle and the film becomes more of a routine struggle between two women hoping to win the heart of the same man according to their moral compass.

In her penultimate film role Garbo is as entrancing as ever, and particularly effective in her deadpan delivery of communist beliefs, dutifully stripped of any semblance of individual humanity. Melvyn Douglas provides a strong counterpart as the elegant lover with a metaphorical blowtorch patiently intent on melting the ice around her heart. Bela Lugosi makes a late appearance as Commissar Razinin, Ninotchka's fearsome boss back in Russia.

Cleverly weaving romance, politics and humour, Ninotchka is as elegant as its Parisian setting.

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