17 June 1999 | matt-201
Forty-karat kitsch baroque
George Cukor's adaptation of Lawrence Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET forms the shape of a dial made of character traits from medieval mystery plays--Fanatic Patriotism, Sexual Cunning, Heartless Bargaining, Furtive Retreat. If Durrell sought to catalogue every human impulse, Cukor had another, lower agenda that serves the material beautifully: shifting these allegorical characters into ripe, lustrous kitsch icons who seem to have time-travelled from a Sternberg movie circa 1931.
The whole picture seems to have undergone a time-machine move from THE SHANGHAI GESTURE to swinging '69. It's Cukor's most vibrant movie visually, and each gorgeously staged and color-patterned shot finds a new way to layer an Islamic tapestry atop psychedelic poster art.
Cukor, brought in as a replacement, brings a vigor to the material you don't associate with him, and at 70, he still knew how to shape the beats of a scene like a Broadway pro. It is reported that he and the star, Anouk Aimee, loathed one another, and in honesty it's easy to see Cukor's frustration: she gives a dismally coy, incommunicative performance as the black widow whose web forms the story. She seems aberrantly at odds with the coolly dignified, taciturn style of the other performances: Dirk Bogarde, as the Graham Greene-ish diplomat with a lurid secret may never have been more creepily sympathetic than he is here. And John Vernon, an actor best known for playing pompous authoritarians in B movies, has such noble composure as Justine's long-suffering husband that he seems to turn into a folk-art engraving of a noble and besieged human soul.