I have taken to looking away from a movie’s titles--at least the non-dialogue ones. I remain interested in what the characters say to one another (recalling the vague promise of Edison’s Kintetophone [in 1895]), but am more than distracted by the lead-us-by-the-nose “moral philosophizing” that intrude with exasperating regularity. It is, if I can use the term without sounding like a snob, a vaudevillian trope that has its charm when it appears a bit off to the left of the stage, the title-card displayed by a pretty girl, a little something to put the performance in easy perspective. But in the cinema everything is obliterated so that we may be told, in gigantic letters, exactly how we should approach the coming scene. I’m one of those who even avoid descriptive chapter-headings in novels--I’d rather discover, and figure it out, for myself.
And perhaps it’s my imagination, but DeMille’s pictures seem to apply such moralizing with a trowel. All right: Maybe we movie-goers are a thick-headed lot, but we’re just going to get thicker if you keep telling us what to think. I’d much rather simply see. And the strange thing is, DeMille understands that primary cinematic desire. Mirrors are scattered throughout The Affairs of Anatol like mysterious lights, trickster-windows that do not allow us to look out, but instead look back at us:
Gloria Swanson’s baby-talking Vivian hides behind her dressing-screen--but the mirror behind her reveals all to her husband (and lucky us)--and then reveals her to herself as she dresses, a rounded bonbon spiced with vanity.
And when Anatol desires to save the young girl from her sugar daddy, Gordon Bronson--the “Man of Iron”--or “Dough,” depending on whom you ask (okeh, I do peek at the descriptive titles once in a while)--his wife’s refusal is read in her reflection as she looks into her compact mirror.
And when the “bob-headed ‘Jazz Girl,’” Emilie, wavers in her resolve to allow herself to be saved, and dreams of a fairyland in which Bronson swings her in perfumed and be-jeweled splendor, we see her rise and fall in a mirror--as we do the moment in which she decides to return to her sugar daddy.
And as Anatol in his rage at Emilie’s back-sliding wrecks the apartment-nest of culture--art, music, literature abounding--he has shaped for her, he shatters a mirror in which he sees his own mad vanity, duped as much by his own half-admitted desires as he is by the Jazz girl.
And when the ruined country girl, who has stolen from the church fund to buy herself a frock and hat, awakens from her unsuccessful attempt to drown herself, she sees her haggard, wet face in a mirror.
And in the inner sanctum (or is that maleficum?) of “Satan Synne”--the star of the tableau vivant in which we find out that “the devil is a woman”--as the absinthe drips onto the sugar-cubes and the leopard in her bedroom glares, a large mirror stands, showing us not only the seductress but Anatol--in whose glass he becomes a skeleton.
Perhaps the titles are not DeMille’s doing--but I am not concerned with anyone’s intentions, only the effects. And so I turn from the titles, and look into the surface of the movie screen, where the mirrors look back at me, so that I can see that everyone is seeing, including the flat figures on the screen, as intrigued or appalled by their reflections as I am.