Trouble in Paradise
cenes is a new column here at Stylus, applying the idea behind the long-running Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop series to the world of cinema. In each piece, a writer will tackle a particular scene—or even a shot—much the same way Seconds attempts to dissect a significant moment within a song. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, talk about what it may mean to them personally, or take the concept in another direction entirely. Enjoy.
Ernst Lubitsch directed 1932’s Trouble in Paradise. It’s a fact worth remembering, for despite the lamentations of David Thomson and Peter Bogdanovich, there never was a golden age of filmic sophistication. With apologies to Howard Hawks, George Stevens, Preston Sturges, Mitchell Leisen, and Billy Wilder, it began and ended with this Austrian director, a sensibility as alien to cinema as Oscar Wilde’s to theater. What Wilde and Lubitsch brought to their respective mediums was an insouciance so rarified that it forced the audience to question their own relationship to the world; to grasp how we too can wring joy from the subtlest of inflections; to honor the pose for its own glorious sake as well as what it reveals about the state of our defenses.
Everyone’s on the make in Trouble in Paradise. The married jewel thieves played by Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins will sell each other for a gem or a quip, or perhaps for the Parisian Art Deco splendor in which Madame Colet (Kay Francis) reigns with such benign assurance. Gaston (Marshall), posing as a secretary so he can get closer to Madame Colet’s pearls, meets his match, a woman of silken charms and whose eyes glimmer as alluringly as sapphires, and, suddenly, he faces a decision most men can only dream of: to choose between Witty and Wittier.
Lubitsch conducts (there is no other word) the Gaston-Madame Colet seduction scene as if their voices—one consciously insistent, the other gaily undersexed—were a melody suitable for flute and piccolo. Gaston and Madame Colet pre-coital badinage to the realm of metaphysical play:
Gaston: I’m crazy about you.Like Jean Gabin’s Pepe le Moko—that other famous thief-of-hearts of 1930’s cinema—Marshall’s Gaston is such a hit with the ladies because he creates the impression that he’s yielding to their charms. Marshall, who lost a leg during the Great War, works his left profile so deftly that we’re conscious of the artifice; Gaston’s a man who wants to believe he’s in love, and is himself smitten with his efforts (Herbert Marshall: unsung ancestor of Bryan Ferry). But Francis’ way with a smile lets us know she’s on to him. “We have a long time ahead of us, Gaston,” Madame Colet, demurring, assures him. “Weeks. Months. Years,” with each word Lubitsch jump-cutting to the couple silhouetted before mirrors, until the last word, when their shadows are photographed upon a bed—as brazen as a Hollywood director got before the passage of the Production Code (which took place, lest we forget, a few months after Trouble in Paradise’s release).
Madame Colet: I know it.
Gaston: I love you.
Madame Colet: I believe you.
Gaston: Then why do you want to go?
Madame Colet: Because I want to make it tough for you.
It’s to Madame Colet’s credit that she not only understands the game—she had a hand in writing those rules—but is detached enough from her own behavior to infuse her farewell to Gaston with an incredible fuck-me-now kind of rue. “It could have been glorious,” she purrs, a kitten watching her saucer of milk walk out the door, swinging the pearl necklace he just swiped from her. Who needs love when you have foreplay? Who needs foreplay when you've got a pearl necklace?