A strangely delightful feeling I’ve only gotten familiar with since I started working on Thousand Movie Project is the painful, ecstatic, Listerine-in-the-soul experience of watching a gruelingly sad movie, and feeling totally destroyed by it, but also living for a while thereafter in the glow of what you know right away to be a beautiful piece of art. Where the story is so sad it’s almost painful to watch but you want everybody to see it. This happened with The Phantom Carriage (though I’ll be the first to admit that the resonance there was a personal one rooted in my being aimless and sad and drinking too much) and with Make Way for Tomorrow, and it happened with Stella Dallas and to a lesser extent with Dodsworth and The Crowd, and it’s happened again here, too, with William Wyler’s Jezebel.
Starring a young Better Davis, Jezebel is another period romance – a genre in which I think the List is a little too bountifully supplied – so I went into it with the usual doubts, having not quite fallen for the genre with Camille or Peter Ibbetson or Queen Christina [editor’s note from the future: or The Many in Gray or Wuthering Heights], but after probably a half hour, after Julie (Davis) tries to embarrass her fiancé – a boyishly stiff-lipped 32-year-old Henry Fonda – by wearing a red dress to the most sacred of all the local galas where, being unmarried, she’s expected to wear virginal white, it was clear that Jezebel wasn’t gonna be a romance consumed with chastity and sultry looks and love triangles between barons and stable boys.
The scene at the ball is terrific. They get there and, to Julie’s spiteful delight, her fiancé is rigid, embarrassed, angry. People stare at her, judging, and in his anger at her and at himself and at the whole situation he confronts the onlookers, challenging them. In a subtle performance by Fonda, angry energy is used to punish his fiancé by turning obstinate and forcing her to see her awful prank out to the end. And, strangely, it triggered my sympathy for both of them. Julie was petty and vindictive to dress this way but now that she’s done so we see that she’s just a kid, hopelessly out of her depth, being held accountable for a fitful choice made on a stupid impulse.
Scandalized, nervous and remorseful, she begs her fiancé to take her home. He refuses, insisting they dance, and then practically drags her through a waltz (?) as the dancefloor clears around them. Mortified neighbors clearing the way. The band eventually refuses to play for them. And the camera, all along, allows the sweep of their tragic dance to fill the screen. It feels so vast, and they look so alone. Julie’s ruin, though self-made and totally deserved, is nonetheless pitiable. It’s the foible of a teenager.
It seems afterward like the movie has reached its dramatic peak, and we’ll be left with an hour of falling action. But it only gets darker.
Jesse, abandoned by her fiancé after that stunt with the red dress, lives a life of solitude and remorse at her parents’ house.
When her former fiancé, newly married, visits her family’s estate in the midst of a plague hitting the town, her good intentions, her longing for attention and forgiveness and love, lead her again, inevitably, toward similar antics. This time, however, she gets a man killed. People begin to see through her mannered façade.
I do think that, but for a redemptive gesture of self-sacrifice at the end, Jesse is a totally reprehensibly character – but she’s super fucking compelling. Davis play’s Jesse’s penance with such nuanced spite, resentment, entitlement. The process is slow and complicated but she presents a gorgeous and painfully convincing portrait of a self-destructive person (with a good heart) contending with her own awful impulses, and maturing.