the barefoot contessa and the anecdotal audience

My essay on The Barefoot Contessa is scheduled to be posted late in the week on the Brattle Theatre Film Notes blog, but I thought I’d share a quick anatomy of a scene I particularly like in the meantime. (I’ll come back and add the link right here when the full essay is posted over there.)

Update: I wrote this post as a bit of a teaser for the Barefoot Contessa essay I wrote for the Brattle Film Notes blog, which is up now. Both are worth reading, though; you can take it from me, a completely objective opinion.

The movie begins with a burial scene in a rain-drenched cemetery, with Humphrey Bogart — as a director named Harry Dawes — doing a voiceover about the recently departed, the titular contessa, née Maria Vargas. Harry begins to recount the first time he saw Maria, which naturally takes us to a flashback. It begins in a club in Madrid where the music is striking up and Maria is beginning to dance, but instead of seeing her in all of her beauty, we are only allowed a brief glimpse of her hands:

a scene from barefoot contessa

And that’s all we see of her for the entire dance sequence. Even more strange, Harry and his party don’t arrive until after Maria has finished dancing (after all these screen shots I’m about to show you), so this isn’t his memory. Maybe this is why, instead of “remembering” Maria through Harry’s flashback, we see shots that reflect the audience’s interest in her:

13-10-01 contessa scene 1 establish interest

At this point, the scene could just be an effective way of demonstrating how dazzling Maria is without even showing her. Somewhat in line with this, after establishing the audience as a whole, the movie begins to show us individuals that are briefly characterized:

13-10-01 contessa scene 1 boy

13-10-01 contessa scene 1 moustache

13-10-01 contessa scene 1 glove

So far, so good, since each of these guys seems drawn into Maria’s allure. But then we’re shown some comically indifferent women:

scene from barefoot contessa

Is this a commentary on the gender gap in the audience reactions? We also see women interested in the performance and one couple that starts making out, so it’s not clear that this is a commentary on men vs. women. Finally, we get a shot of an older guy and a miserable twenty-something girl, who seem to be involved in some drama entirely separate from Maria:

scene from barefoot contessa

I mean, I’m flummoxed as to what this all means. We’re not just seeing how amazing Maria is. Instead, it’s as though the camera wants to point out just how varied the reactions to her are. Some people are drawn in, some people are shut off, and some people (maybe what you’d call an anecdotal audience) have their own little stories unfolding. The more obvious direction would have been to just establish clearly and firmly that Maria is a showstopper. Instead, this first scene — emphatically not starring Maria — shows how the public does or doesn’t engage with her presence, as though the concept of stars and entertainment are a kind of Rorschach test: We reveal more in our reactions than we actually learn about the people performing for us.

Anyway, more on the movie shortly.

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