I got the Greta Garbo signature collection for Christmas this year as my mum was astounded that none of us had ever seen a Garbo film. So I've watched all but two in the collection and loved them all (Ninotchka was hilarious!) but the one that really struck me aesthetically as well as intellectually was the exotic pre-code, Mata Hari. Starring Greta in the title role and Ramon Novarro as her lover (with a jealous and treasonous Lionel Barrymore thrown in for good measure) directed by George Fitzmaurice, this film is credited with popularizing the legend of Mata Hari - the famed exotic dancer who was executed by firing squad in WWI for espionage. This story tells of a mission she was sent on to retrieve information from a pilot (played by Ramon Novarro, who looks about twelve in this movie) by seducing him and stealing it from him to hand over to the german government. Lionel Barrymore's character is Mata's French General on-off lover who has been tempted into treason by Mata Hari's charms.
I thought that visually, this was the most beautiful pre-code film that I've ever seen. I generally like the early thirties as a time period for films as there were no real set genres or "ways of doing things". The lighting in this is dramatic and abstract. At the beginning of the movie, Mata Hari's jewelled costumes are accentuated by the lighting that seems to make her lit from within. It sets up a very striking protrait of the kind of woman we are lead to believe Mata Hari is. I need all these costumes now.
Greta Garbo also often wears an asymmetric cap that is close to being tight enough for a swimming cap. One part of me wants to wish that she has a funny ear that she wants to hide (a la moi) but it's probably just for fashion's sake. Damn! She and Ramon Novarro (doesn't that just want to make you say it in an extreme russian accent?) look stunning together, and he gave a better performance than I was expecting after the first ten minutes. He seemed a bit wimpy to me and compared to Garbo's seductive and grown-up look he seemed to be much too young for her but in the end his innocence played a part in why I thought the film worked so well.
Greta Garbo is one of the most talented actresses I've ever seen. My list of favourite actresses covers a wide area but only sometimes are there people that are really something rare and special (the likes of Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis and both Hepburns) and Greta Garbo is one of them. She's totally magnetic without being only herself. From all the hype around her I was concerned she would just act herself in every film but she doesn't. Each portrayal is different and brilliant. HER PERFECTION I CAN'T EVEN...
My favourite scenes were in the death cells after she has been sentenced to death (I recently went on a trip to see the WWI battlefields and saw some of the real death cells) and she is wearing a simple black outfit and her hair is slicked back into non-existence. Ramon Novarro has been blinded in an accident and he is made to believe that he is visiting Mata Hari in a sanitarium where she is recovering from a breakdown and is about to go into surgery. It's totally heartbreaking.
Lionel Barrymore is great as always. I've seen him in so many films recently! This happens to me when I start watching a certain type of film from a certain type of era. How did you make that many films guys? Are you omnipresent?
My verdict on this film is that it's a beautiful and thought provoking film from a very intriguing era. You are constantly left to ponder about Mata's intentions and it is very upsetting at times. Even if you just watched the film for the clothes you wouldn't be disappointed. It has some of the most interesting and strikingly ethereal outfits I've seen in a movie. And of course Greta Garbo is magnificent.