Some conceptions backfire so spectacularly that they achieve a goofy semblance of grandeur. The latest example is Jules Dassin's preposterous but diverting "A Dream of Passion," now at the Inner Circle and White Flint.
The film had its genesis in a murder trial in Italy that fascinated Dassin a generation ago. The defendant, a woman who had killed her children by an unfaithful lover, held Dassin and the Italian screenwriter Sergio Amidei in thrall. They hoped to use the case as the basis for a movie starring Anna Magnani, but the project never panned out.
In "A Dream of Passion" Ellen Burstyn evokes a powerful mixture of terror and pity in the role of an American housewife living in Greece, who has taken crazed revenge on her unfaithful husband by murdering their children. But while her acting seems to throw open a window on authentic emotional torment, the surrounding edifice turns out to be a kitschy shambles.
Dassin unfortunately contructs his movie not around Burstyn but around Melina Mercouri, who functions as a one-woman histrionic wrecking crew. Cast as a renowned Greek actress preparing to star in a theatrical production of "Medea," Mercouri indulges herself as vaingloriously as Jeanne Moreau in 'Lumiere" or Barbra Streisand in "A Star Is Born."
The plot is designed to bring the actress, preoccupied with the role of Medea, and the murderer, whose crime recalls Medea's, into contact. The actress' agent engineers a despicable publicity stunt in which her client and the murderer meet in the Prison visiting room, surrounded by members of the sensational press. This mob scene proves to be a disastrous icebreaker, but the actress persists in striking up an acquaintance. Dassin imagines that an intuitive understanding develops between the artist struggling to impersonate a wrathful woman a real-life vessel of wrath.
But that fusion doesn't take place on the screen. On the contrary, Burstyn is so astonishing and Mercouri so absurd that the conception gets blown sky-high. It's sheer vanity on the part of this particular actress to believe that she can appreciate the misery felt by her research subject.
(It might have been more interesting to show the actress being sobered up and humbled rather than inspired, shocked into a recognition of the fact that there is a considerable difference between make-believe pain and real pain.)
It becomes an esthetic pain observing Mercouri presume to act up a storm. Brooding and glowring over her New Feminist Perception of Medea (an affectation that inspires understandable impatience in her director), basking in glamorous reveries of melancholy and self-pity or tearing a passion to tatters, Mercouri ia a flagrant camp spectacle, a hilarious self parody.
Modulating from Mercouri to Burstyn, the movie leaps from the excruciating to the brilliant. Boldly inventive and shockingly convincing, Burstyn gives a performance that makes your nerve ends shiver. Apparently meek and demure, she conceals a fury that erupts without warning in crazed, vicious, self-righteous tirades.
The meetings between the women repeatedly illustrate the gulf between art and lif that Dassin fecklessly attempts to obscure. At once flattered and offended by the attentions of the accress, the murderer switches moods with lightning speed. Moments after sweetly purring, "It was mice of you to come; I sure never thought I'd get a chance to meet a movie star," Burstyn is likely to lash out with something like, "God will punish you!" or "Come back tomorrow and I'll tell you how I did it! I'll tell you about the knife!" You seem to be witnessing the manifestations of amind genuinely out of control.
A sensitive person would run for cover after a single audience with anyone as demonstrably schizy as Bursytn's character. The determination of Mercouri's character to cultivate the friendship of this seething woman and pick her distressed brain for the Greater Glory of Art looks either unforgivably cruel or unforgivably stupid. Even if one could go along wit the pretense that Mercouri's Medea was destined to be a triumph, it would be a morbidly compromised and tarnished triumph.
The conception degenrates in the closing stages, when Dassin suddenly allows himself an inexcusiable descent into Grand Guignol, with reenactments of the murders themselves. These graphic flashbacks are an insult to urstyn, whose performance has implied quite enough about the horror ather killing spree. They also lack a justifiable point-of-view. Dassin hasn't made it clear whether the horror scenes originate in Mercouris imagination or Burstyn's memory. As a result, they seem to oringinate in his inexplicable need for shock effects.
Nonetheless, the movie never ceases to be entertaining at some level. Being habitually fond of backstage temperamental and artistic conflicts, I got a kick out of the clashes between Mercouri and her infuriated director, played by Andreas Voutsinas. Dassin has thought of a nice touch to exacarbate the conflicts: the presence of an obtrusive film crew preparing a sigment of a toney cultural TV show called "The Creative Process." Ironically, Dassin has also incorporated scenes of homage to "Persona" and "Last Tango in Paris" that make him look more pretentious and presumptuous than the producers of "The Creative Process."
Two other cast members are especially memorable.Dimitris Papamichael, the actor cast as Jason opposite Mercouri's Medea, has a wonderfully strong presence when he's speaking in his native language. When he's compelled to articulate in English, the effort costs him substantial dramatic power.
The beautiful face of one unidentified young actress jumps out of the chorus during the rehearsal scenes: a curly-haired brunet with large, dark eyes that attract the camera like a magnet. Medea, schmedea. Who's the kid in the chorus?