Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Erich Von Stroheim, Owen Moore, Hedda Hopper
In one of Garbo’s strangest films, she plays amnesiac nightclub singer Zara, who only has a memory that goes ten years back. She lives with the controlling writer Carl Salter (Von Stroheim) in a twisted, sadistic relationship. Tony (Moore) comes along one night claiming that Zara is actually Maria Varelli, the vanished wife of his friend Bruno (Douglas). Zara goes with Tony, despite not really believing she’s Maria, to get away from Salter. Both Bruno and Tony completely believe that Zara is Maria. But Zara struggles between not really believing she is Maria and wanting to stay with Bruno.
The film is based on a play by Luigi Pirandello, and one has to wonder if the story was an inspiration on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The two stories share extremely similar plot points and themes. As the viewer, we’re torn between Zara’s inability to believe she really is Maria, and Bruno’s certainty that she is, never certain which we believe. It’s very possible that Bruno and Tony, who have been clinging to an almost non existant hope for over ten years, are simply seeing what they want to see in Zara. It’s fascinating to watch Zara make the transformation from drunken nightclub singer to Italian Countess, and you have to wonder if she’s simply becoming who she always really was, or making a forced transformation to try to be what Bruno wants her to be. The only source of information we have on what Maria was really like is second hand, through the people who knew her and an old diary, so it’s hard to even tell if Zara is truly becoming like Maria at all. Even in the end, it’s left open and we don’t know for sure. It’s a really fascinating examination of perception, identity, and even hope.
Beyond those parts of the story, As You Desire Me also explores a really destructive relationship between Zara and Salter. Not a lot of screentime is given to the pair (an extended scene early in the film and the finale), but Salter’s need to control Zara is one of the main conflicts of the film, and leads to the climax. It’s interesting to compare Zara’s relationship with Bruno to her relationship with Salter. It could be argued that both are equally destructive (up until the conclusion, at least). While Salter may be more controlling and sadistic, with Bruno being gentle and loving, both relationships are initially based on the man seeing what they want to see in Zara, not necessarilly what’s really there. They project their own ideas on to her, essentially making her become what the want her to be (Thus the title). It’s a really interesting exploration of relationships. I don’t think people expect a film this emotionally and psychologically complex to come from 1930s Hollywood.
After seeing nearly every film Garbo made (there are still one or two of her European films I haven’t seen), I’m comfortable with saying that this is her best performance. The character falls in between the troubled vamps from early in her career and the self sacrificing tarnished angels from later in her career. Zara is so often confused, desperate, and even frightened that it would be easy for an actress to portray her as scatterbrained, weak, and pathetic. But Garbo gives her strength. She’s a strong women who’s endured extreme hardship, and while he situation is complicated and she’s certainly not sure what to do about it, she still has the strength to go on. And Garbo mixes that strength with a gentle vulnerability of spirit. It’s that combination that makes her so incredibly convincing and sympathetic in the role.
Both of the lead men (Von Stroheim and Douglas) give interesting performances. Von Stroheim’s Salter is pretty fascinating to watch. His desire to control a woman he so clearly holds a great deal of contempt for could come off as ridiculous, but Von Stroheim simply has the personality to make it believable. Again, he doesn’t have much screen time, but he makes his mark with just a few scenes. Douglas is much better known for his comedies, so it’s a little strange to see him in such a melodramatic role. Of the main three cast members, he is the weakest (I don’t really want to say ‘weakest’, since it’s not at all a bad performance. It’s just not as fantastic as the other two). He really pulls off a sort of urgent desperation in his scenes with Garbo, both for Zara to really be Maria, and to make up for ten years of lost time with his wife.
As You Desire Me is a really unique film to come out of the 1930s. I think it’s one that people who are a little wary of older films will really enjoy. It explores some pretty emotionally and psychologically complex themes that I don’t think people expect from older films. This is definitely one of my all time favorites.
By Katie Richardson