"She was the closest I've come to a miracle"
"Because she wouldn't go to bed with you? You dirty little puritan!"
This is quite a daring film to say the least! I was a little ambivalent to it at first as it begins a bit like a less accomplished and freewheeling version of the introduction to the residents of the bedsit block of flats in The Pleasure Girls. We get introduced over the titles to a group of decadently jaded set of beatniks (an oxymoron?) who wander in a lazy haze in a group in their partywear through the deserted early morning streets of London, and seemingly across London Bridge where a sour faced policeman appraises them sternly as they pass (though he doesn't do anything when Oliver Reed's character of Moises flicks a cigar butt at him!). As an audience it seems obvious even at this early stage that we are being asked to take the point of view of the policeman in that scene, and see these beatnik characters as rather adolescent types! The film will do a lot more of that once the American fiancé Carson arrives to search out his girl, Melina, who is a part of the group.
Yet this opening sequence kind of plays out like the ultimate version of an early morning post-all night party wander! There's something about the deserted streets, the group ambling along and the beautiful evening dresses that all the women are wearing seeming slightly out of place in the early morning sun that really spoke to me! It suggests a kind of an Antonioni influence to the film (and I'll get more into that later too) but also made me think of the interstitial shots Bunuel does in the much later Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (or Fassbinder!)
, although the characters there are walking more purposefully, though similarly to an uncertain future!
Amusingly the fabulously chic dresses the women are wearing (or mostly the dress that Melina is wearing) actually turns into an important plot element later on too, so the filmmakers had set this opening sequence up really well to have gotten my attention on and fantasising about the women's dresses this early on!
The group splits off at a junction and we follow the smaller gang back to their bedsit and then we get into Pleasure Girls territory of getting introduced to the various pairings of characters, as Milena rebuffs the attentions of Phillip leaving him dejected outside her room, while Moises who has designs on Milena himself makes do with Libby, who isn't quite as good at pulling off the chic dress look off as one of the shoulder straps of her dress hanging down limply suggests! The hanging shoulder strap on a dress seems like the signifier that films of this era use to suggest a girl is a little bit promiscuous, childlike and not too in control of her life, and Libby's affection for Moises is one of the bigger subplots of the film, with Moises casually betraying her at every turn until he gets cowed into submission in the final scene, in a final shot that neatly ties up the film without dealing with any of their relationship issues (because of the bigger main plot issues that crop up) but which also suggests that Moises and Libby are arguably the most damaged characters, painfully needing to grow up at the end. (I guess Libby finding another girl in Moises's bed at least gives her material for the blues song that we see her performing!)
Also in the introductory scene we get introduced to Hector, the fey landlord of the bedsits, which was yet another thing that gave me flashbacks to Paddy in The Pleasure Girls. Apparently all London bedsits have to be run by effeminate landlords in this era!
The main action then starts with Milena's fiancé Carson calling from America to try and contact her, but Milena isn't taking any of his calls and seems to hate the prospect of getting married and giving up the single life. Eventually Carson travels to London to see Milena but with the support of all her beatnik friends they give him the runaround to try and get him to leave. Unfortunately Carson decides to call their bluff and rent a room in the bedsit himself until he can see Milena! This is perhaps the weakest section of the film, as its all about performing pranks and being rude to Carson (after a couple of pure beatnik scenes we move fully into Carson's point of view for the rest of the film once he enters), although its really setting up the section of the film that feels the most Antonioni-inspired.
While waiting Milena out and striking out at what proves to be the central party scene which Libby takes him to, Carson strikes up a friendship with Nina (who kind of 'seduces' him by asking him in for a late night cup of tea whilst wearing an amazing oriental style pair of pyjamas!), and while he is distracted we see 'someone' leave Milena's room with a pair of suitcases. Then the rest of the film becomes a kind of fascinating drama-mystery piece. Carson and Nina have a happy morning walk together, the disappearance of Milena entirely forgotten L'Avventura-style, but that is immediately shattered by Phillip committing suicide by throwing himself from the roof of the bedsit into the middle of the group of couples gathered below who had been partly seeming to jokingly egg him on into doing it! (An act that calls back to Moises carelessly flinging himself out of a window in the opening scene)
Why did he kill himself, and what has this to do with Milena's disappearance? Was Carson coming to take Milena away the cause? The party the night before is the key to everything and the film itself does a neat little trick of manipulating the details of what happened in the party to match up with the new information being provided by the characters. We initallly flash back to the debauched party and find out that Milena passed out early on and the other jealous girls in the gang decide as a joke to strip her of her clothes ("not so chic now!") and then parade her through the streets on the back of their 'flower van' in a mock burial ceremony before leaving her passed out body next to a building site! There's a wonderful (and tragic in light of later information) shot of Milena underneath her 'blanket shroud' turning and murmuring happily in her sleep.
Then it gets repeated to suggest that Phillip forced himself on the unconscious and naked Milena and that is why he felt suicidally guilty, when she ran off after waking up. All these revelations that re-situate all of the characters are interspersed with scenes of Carson and Nina falling more in love and Milena's father Ben turning up in London himself to search for her.
Milena's body is reported at the morgue. Did she die while wandering the streets after waking up? Its all leading up to a confrontation with Moises to find out, and he gives the 'real' account of what happened at the party - that Milena died of some kind of a drug overdose (hence why we got all of those motionless shots of her earlier in the party scene, in which she just looked stoned and decadently motionless with a cigarette in her hands, but was actually dead! There's a fine line I guess!) and was dead when the other girls took in into their heads to strip her! And Phillip did
take advantage of her, but the cold, dead, unwittingly necrophiliac, kiss was what destroyed him and led to his suicide the next morning! Meanwhile the mock burial unbeknownst to most of the gang actually was a real one! Moises and his buddy Tutzi (whose character already introduced the brutal undercurrent of death into the film with the element of having been crippled in the Second World War), shoo the others away and try to cover up Milena's death as an accident themselves. And it works, as it had fooled the authorities and Milena's father into thinking it was all just an accident.
That's all mind boggling enough, but then Carson has to contend with Nina's revelation that she also knew all about Milena's death and body being in the morgue all day, which was the big secret she had been working up the courage to tell him during their romantic walks through the park! And it also puts new light on her impulsive plan to just go with Carson to visit her parents in Gloucestershire as soon as possible - less love and more an attempt to escape the solution to the mystery that was looming over them! (And the initial seduction scene, to buy time for Libby to pack Milena's suitcases and leave with them) It says a lot that while Carson is suitably outraged by all of this, he gets over it pretty quickly, and that is probably because he never got to see Milena at all and started the relationship with Nina in the meantime! Moises even picks up on this during their standoff, nastily saying that if it had been Nina lying in the morgue that Carson wouldn't have been as relaxed about things! (Something that also implies that Moises had a more significant relationship with Milena than anyone, though Milena showed no interest in him in the early section of the film, and even rebuffed his advances) And while it is used as a weapon, there is a kernel of truth there too!
This is a fascinating film for the way that its taking something like the mystery-turned-romance of L'Avventura but actually giving it a solution rather than leaving the disappearance unclear! It seems to be taking a cue from an arthouse film then using it for a more youth-film genre piece, but it works really well here too. In the end Milena's death is (damningly) not the most important thing in the lives of these kids. Carson is not destroyed by the events in the way that group of beatniks are thown into brief disarray for their part in Milena's death. Although in a way Carson kicked these things off, and maybe prompted Milena's overdose by simply refusing to leave without seeing her. He certainly prompted her depression in the early scenes we see of her. Everyone's responsible!
We then get the magnificent final scene in the train station as Milena's father sadly watches her coffin get placed into the train and fills out the paperwork (the film seems to emphasise the amount of bureaucracy involved in death in these sections, with people thrusting clipboards with forms to sign towards the newly bereaved in order to return the clothes Milena was wearing (which is the revelation that Carson needs to go and confront Moises) or to sign to show that the coffin is on the train, and so on), while Carson pays his last respects but states he is going to stay in London for a while. Though he doesn't tell Milena's father that its because he met Nina!
Moises then surprisingly turns up and says that he's going to tell Milena's father the truth about what happened rather than let him live in ignorance. Carson tries to stop him but Nina says to let him go, as it is the only way that he will "grow up". We then see Moises confidently stride up to Milena's father but stops in his tracks when he sees the coffin and can only pay his respects before walking off with tears in his eyes. He ends up in the arms of Libby, who can only bleat like a sheep at the rest of the gang as the beatniks walk out of the station.
Its a fascinating film. It begins a little poorly with its overly comic and cliched scenes of beatnik life and prank-pulling, but then does this handbrake tonal swerve into really dark territory from the halfway point that is stunning to witness. There is a point during the intense scene of Moises relating Milena's fate at the party when one of the more comic relief characters (the Cuban drummer guy who threw the party) interjects with a comment and its so jarring that it just seems like its coming from an entirely different universe! Which seems to be the intention, in showing how all these adolescent kids ended up doing some really horrible things!
If I have one criticism of the film it is probably that its demonising beatniks a little too
much! This feels like a film condemning the 'irresponsible youths of today' than anything more nuanced! Though within that there are some really amazing performances that flesh out the characters a little. Oliver Reed is absolutely fantastic here, going from sneering and cockiness in the early scenes to an amazing self justification and twisting of arguments to suit his own agenda in the scene relating Milena's fate, to a wonderful scene of pitying tears as he is unexpectedly hit by emotion in the train station scene at the end (I agree with ellipsis7's comments that Reed's performance here certainly anticipates just how good a Bill Sykes he would make in Oliver!). Are they self pitying tears though? For a lost obsessive love of Milena? It is yet another thing that suggests Libby is dumb for being the shoulder for him to cry on though, and it makes those final scenes pleasingly ambiguous. Libby self-righteously bleats like a sheep at the other members of the gang, as if to suggest the whole situation was their fault (they all had a hand in it, but Moises was kind of the ringleader), but surely she's as much of a sheep as anyone else in this situation! Maybe its all just to affirm her head girl role in the gang now that any rivals have gone?
And are Carson and Nina really the 'only decent young people' in the film? The film privileges Carson's point of view and his romance with Nina, but they're left wonderfully ambivalent and inescapably tainted by this whole situation too. The only concrete thing is that a couple of youngsters are pointlessly dead at the end.
I was also amused to note, given that we briefly discussed her memorable acting role in Superman III a little while ago
, that Annie Ross sung the title song for this film "Time Waits For No Man". I'm really appreciating Annie Ross even more now that I'm encountering her popping up in all sorts of places beyond probably her biggest role as the blues club performer in Robert Altman's Short Cuts
. Time Waits For No Man was also written by John Barry, and there are a few, tiny but amusing, moments where it seems to quote a bit of the Bond theme!