“The Constant Nymph” (1943) recently premiered on TCM. It would be interesting to get TV ratings data for that night. A film so long tangled up in legal limbo, it’s a rare gem for classic film buffs, probably all of whom with access to TCM were watching or recording it or both.
“Legal limbo” has an otherworldly sound to it. It’s not really a place. It’s an imaginary existence -- or lack of one -- that suggests a challenge yet to be resolved. Those of us on the outside of this struggle, with little understanding of it, merely accept that there is such a plane of existence.
Accepting without understanding can be a kind of safety valve. At other times, it can be a gift we give to those whose feelings or actions are beyond our comprehension. “The Constant Nymph” shows us a musically creative family who need a great deal of understanding, but whose peculiar “insanity” is “of the most enchanting kind.”
This, according to Charles Boyer, friend of the family and not a little insane himself.
The art of illusion plays a big role in this film, gently directed by Edmund Goulding. The dilapidated chalet in the Swiss alps, whose foothills hover just on the back cyclorama, are straight out of “Heidi”. A storybook illusion. The mosses and ferns, and disparate branches and grasses on the furry mounds just beyond the house wave in the light breeze created by the unseen wind machine, and lift the errant strands of hair escaping from Joan Fontaine’s tight, untidy braids.
The way Boyer rustles his hand through her hair roughly and puts a gentle hammerlock on her, tucking her head under his arm. He doesn’t quite get that she’s in love with him, but the film avoids the sexual escapades of the book by putting her love and his misunderstanding of it on a higher plane.
Like legal limbo, I suppose.
Joan took a dive when she heard that Boyer has suddenly proposed marriage to Alexis Smith. Afterward, whenever Smith and Boyer are around, Joyce Reynolds keeps a close watch on her sensitive sister. On another occasion we see her dark eyes dart from the happy couple to Joan, helpless to prevent the cold slap of reality that she’s just a kid and Boyer is a grown man with a grown man’s appetites.
But soon, it’s Alexis Smith who needs comforting. She has perceived no warning from Joyce Reynold’s alert glances. Miss Smith begins to sense, on her own, a bond between Boyer and Fontaine. She’s almost sick with jealousy. It’s a very good performance, and even at her most harsh and shrill we have to sympathize with an insecure woman who knows she’s losing her handsome husband to a skinny little poor orphan with fainting spells.
I was a bit thrown by “Danny Boy” being played in the background. Not something I would expect in an upper class British ballroom.
It is the reality of his new everyday existence that perhaps irks Boyer most, with the girls sent to boarding school and Alexis so in love with him she shows him off to all and sundry, when she is not sending him to his studio to work. He needs a little illusion, or at least some self delusion, to buffer against the responsibilities of the everyday.
Her height and elegance conveys that she’s the grown up and Fontaine is the kid. Fontaine’s school uniform helps, and the delightfully floppy way she carries herself completes the picture.
The film has a leisurely feel to it, and lightness, and gentleness that compliments the ethereal nature of the story. It takes a different tone from the book -- and has to, to pass muster of the Code, but this is part of the movie’s charm. It could be such a heavy soap opera, and it’s not. Think of other films like “All This and Heaven, Too” (1940) or “Now, Voyager” (1942), which hammer us with the illicitness of the love story. This fable, like Joan Fontaine’s character, is beautifully natural and tenderly developed.
The tension builds with Alexis Smith’s devotion to honesty, which is even stronger than her devotion to Boyer. The truth may set us free, but honesty is often the most callous and brutal road to freedom. Both Smith and Fontaine suffer this, and courageously face honest self appraisals of their shared reality. The two characters change the most, almost in tandem, through the film.
Smith is not part of Fontaine’s dream sequence; we do not get to see her epiphany. We only see the ironic twist that Fontaine is roused from her reverie by the fear of death in the reprise of lines she earlier recited with an innocent lack of understanding of what they meant.
I like movies that give me something to think about after they end. What if we had been allowed inside Alexis Smith’s head when she changed her mind about the love between Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer? Her astonishing turnabout, her offer to release him is done without self-pity or bitterness, but with a heart full of love, a sense of excitement in accepting a situation that exists without understanding it. What went on in that theater box for her to do a 180 on wanting to boot Fontaine out of her house?
What if the ending was different? (I’m going to avoid a spoiler here, but you several million who watched the TCM premiere know what I’m talking about.) Would there still be a romantic triangle tinged with the rumor of pedophilia? Would Boyer ever find his muse without losing it first?
What happens if he is without both his muse and his wife? Is he still going to compose, the new darling of the moneyed set, or just find some other storybook soundstage to lose himself -- that other elusive plane of existence that enchants and entangles, and inevitably leads to sorrow?
Like legal limbo.