Country: Greece, France, USA
Language: English, Greek
Director: Jules Dassin
based on the play HIPPOLYTUS of Euripides
Music: Mikis Theodorakis
Cinematography: Jacques Natteau
Made during Jules Dassin’s exile days, the follow-up of NEVER ON SUNDAY (1960), which catapulted his wife Ms. Mercouri into international stardom, PHAEDRA is a modern transposition of Euripides’ HIPPOLYTUS, a stigmatized love affair between a woman and her stepson.
Phaedra (Mercouri) is the second wife of Greek shipping tycoon Thanos (Vallone), her life couldn’t be more perfect, she is born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Thanos is swept off his feet by her and they have a young son, and their family business is in full swing. The film’s opening is a pageantry of baptizing a new vessel named after her, and she is extolled as a woman who can lay claim to whatever she wants, so it is quite surprising to find out that her downward spiral is entirely devoid of extraneous scheming, the green-eyed monster from the outside world has no say-so here, it is her wayward passion, becomes her own unmaking, because in the realm of dramaturgy, the equilibrium of perfection is destined to be violated, trampled and disintegrated to hit that high mark of pathos, which leads her to fall for Alexis (Perkins), Thanos’ adult son from his first marriage, a nail in the coffin of that damned perfect life.
Rotating between a virile Thanos and a swishy Alexis (a casting decision really make Phaedra’s choice a feeble one), Phaedra is defenseless when facing the latter’s childishness and impressionability, a maternal affinity soon shifts into a lust for carnality, Dassin’s visual tack makes sure their liaison is a clash between fire and water in its literal meanings, and after the knee-jerking defense mechanism of staying away from each other, it is Phaedra who throws in the towel to the gnawing temptation and calls Alexis to Greece, apparently at the earnest behest of the unsuspected Thanos, where the drama takes its biblical toll to the ill-fated pair.
The signs of tragedy are everywhere, from their first meeting in the British museum, to the arrival of the “coffin”-shaped present, till the tidings of the shipwreck of Phaedra’s namesake, and the central triumvirate does beaver away in the fashion of cothurnus. Mercouri, emblazoned by Dior’s haute couture, turns head with her mature appeal, pronounced confidence, simmering petulance and husky voice, a feisty defiance of the industry’s inveterate ageism (a fringe benefit of marrying a named film director), but it is her ardent expressions of jealousy, condemnation and self-destruction (with those oceanic eyes!) lingers longer in retrospect. Perkins, on the other hand, doesn’t strike gold in a role which should have been exuding with irresistible charm and sexual prowess, but his final ranting is pretty awesome to watch, when they are both embracing their quietus, the man crashes with blistering velocity and the woman withers in immobility. The Italian matinee star Raf Vallone, who is also in the pink with his affable if sometimes condescending mannerism as the two-timed Thanos, becomes most impressive when he receives his double-whammy in the climax, aggressively violent but also authentically heartbroken, that’s all catnips for drama addicts.
PHAEDRA, heavy on its dark and contentious mythos while light on the rationalism and finesse, is a gorgeous artifact made with ambition and tact, and bears witness to Dassin’s maturing into an adroit dramatist, riding high with a great Ancient Greek tragedy, ironically, the film didn’t fare well upon its initial release in USA, and 55 years later, its artistry beautifully holds sway to bewitch new spectators.