Thursday, August 27, 2009

270) Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

270) Corridor of Mirrors (1948) Dir: Terence Young Date Released: July 1948 Date Seen: August 27, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Save for its appropriately convoluted finale, Terence Young's Corridor of Mirrors, an adaptation of a novel by Christopher Massie, is a thoroughly engrossing gothic noir. Young's film presents the seduction of Milfanwy (Edana Romney), an innocent young woman looking for thrills and soon to be femme fatale. She's picked up and swept off her feet by the beguiling Paul Mangin (Eric Portman), a gentleman obsessed with a lurid Victorian vision of British history that takes a lot from Renaissance Italy and also a lot from the Greeks as well. 

Mangin's decadent sensibility, which culminates in a house that is part carousel, part mausoleum, full of vaulted ceilings and mirrored armoires, is cobbled together from Italian and Greek elements. His old-fashioned decor and mannered deportment entrance Milfanwy immediately, probably more than his creepy fascination with dressing her up to resemble the woman he fantasizes about in a Venetian portrait from 1486. She's drawn to Magin by the gaudiness of the Brits' fetishized vision of Renaissance art and neo-classicism, a warped kind of nostalgia that dooms Mangin because he can't bear to leave it behind. 

Mangin's attachment is fatal, a damning critique of British contemporary culture as a history of stolen, aherm, borrowed elements. The hall of mirrors in Mangin's mansion refracts Milfanwy's unkind visage as she laughs at his pitiful sense of taste because it is already a fractured product of thinking that insists that cultural duplication begets greater appreciation of their own taste. Just as the Romans took bits of Greek culture to make their own, so have the Brits taken bits of the Romans', as represented in the gondola ride Mangin takes Milfanwy on past an eerily reverent recreation of a traditional commedia dell'arte stage comedy.* Mangin's taste is recreation without celebration, nostalgia without reverie.

Still, the film almost condones Mangin's obsession much in the same way Viconti elegiacally bid farewell to a corrupt past in The Leopard. Mangin's new vision of history is beautiful but it, like him, is dying because because it cannot adapt to lower class modernity.** It refuses to mingle with the present day and hence prefers to die on its own sword than branch out. The film uses Veronica (Barbra Mullen), a deranged guest in Mangin's mansion, as a McGuffin to not only show what life is like within such a hermetically sealed world but to also show, through the film's estranging climax, how Mangin's world is recreated by contemporary plebeians: as a house of wax.

*It's never occurred to me before but could one link the character types of commedia dell'arte to the Greek shadow puppet plays? I'm think specifically of how Harlequin reminds me of Karagiozis. Something to gnaw on, for all you culture/history buffs out there.

**Though Mangin finds Milfanwy in a nigh club, he disdains her smoking as a sign of his need to pick up only certain desired scraps from the low culture heap that is contemporary British youth culture.

***Or perhaps prisoner, depending on whether you believe her or Mangin.


  1. My trouble with the film was that I couldn't take it as a critique, because it never stepped outside that voluptuous fascination with Portman and his world. If there was an alternative to larger-than-life romanticized self-possession, the film certainly gave it short shrift.

  2. I agree, which is why I said that its like THE LEOPARD. There's so much nostalgia and worship for this stuff that it doesn't feel like it could or even should provide an alternative contemporary culture save for the night clubs that Milfanwy attends.