BluRay/DVD Reviews


By • Apr 17th, 2012 •

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TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is such a perfect match of subject and director, not to mention style and sensibility, that after basking in the film’s delicate afterglow, it’s easy to place George Cukor among the greatest directors of the American Cinema. All one need do is glance at the technical credits to realize this film was made by people at the top of their form, with such legends as cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, John Box, who was responsible for designing LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, and costume designer Anthony Powell, whose innumerable Tonys and Oscars could fill a small warehouse. The irony is that Mr. Cukor’s most perfectly crafted Hollywood film was created after Hollywood, or at least MGM, as a studio and a style, had ceased to exist, so that the film’s form and subject merge into a perfect reflection – that is, 109 minutes of expressive color and sublime camera movements to delineate not a slice of life, but rather a state of being.

Based on a novel by Graham Greene, the film presents Henry Pulling (Alec McCowen), a somewhat straight-laced bank clerk, who meets his elderly, eccentric Aunt Agatha (Maggie Smith) for the first time at his mother’s funeral. Aunt Agatha quickly disrupts Henry’s well-ordered existence by first hijacking his mother’s ashes and then him, managing to talk Henry into traveling with her to Europe, and then into a life of joyful crime as she attempts to rescue her lover, Mr. Visconti (Robert Stephens) from pirates. In the process, Aunt Agatha relives her youth, and Henry discovers what it is to actually live, from one moment to the next, without preconceptions.

In the many scenes that recount Aunt Agatha’s youthful indiscretions, Mr. Cukor is able to create a vivid, not to mention phantasmagorical, reconstruction of turn of the century Paris, with gilded ceilings, mirrored halls, velvet walls and dazzling chandeliers, the camera swirling among exquisitely costumed performers. Yet this Belle Epoch is no idealized fantasy world, for Aunt Agatha is a woman with no illusions, except perhaps her steadfast insistence on refusing to grow up.

Instead of Marcel Proust’s madeleines poised to reveal a vision of the past, Mr. Cukor uses the craft as well as the example of the classical Hollywood film. In particular, he references the luxurious, high key production style of MGM, where he was a contract director starting in the 1930’s, directing such classics as CAMILLE (with Greta Garbo’s greatest performance), THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (which rejuvenated Katharine Hepburn’s career), and GASLIGHT (bringing Ingrid Bergman an Oscar).

Mr. Cukor obtained extraordinary performances from four generations of Hollywood actresses by celebrating the visual and physical manifestations of both the dreamer and the dream. In other words, Mr. Cukor’s primary focus as a force for his cinematic imagination was the human form, through which he articulated an universe of subtle emotion transformed into light and shadow. Though often dismissed as a “woman’s director,” Mr. Cukor continually expanded both the breadth and expanse of American filmmaking through his formal innovations, such as his impressionistic use of CinemaScope and color to reflect the subjective experiences of his characters in A STAR IS BORN, as well as adapting the techniques of Italian neo-realism by shooting in working class households and on the streets of New York for THE MARRYING KIND.

TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is a film that takes its time, slowly accumulating details, like a leisurely afternoon spent on a Mediterranean beach where one discovers for the first time how the colors of the ocean form a dance with the ever-changing light, and that by simply breathing in and out, one can perceive the most delightful aromas, no matter how briny. Because of this, TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is a moving reverie rich in association through the marvelous mediation of Maggie Smith’s performance as Aunt Agatha, intermingling Mr. Cukor’s own expressive visual journey through forty years of filmmaking with that of the characters from Graham Greene’s novel.

One might even say that TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT is George Cukor’s version, or perhaps an anticipation, of Jean-Luc Godard’s free-form exploration of both film history and his own life, HISTORIE(S) DU CINEMA. In TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, one not only sees the history of cinema compressed into a vision saturated with red, gold and orange, extending one’s eye into infinity that bridges the development of sound film from DINNER AT EIGHT to MY FAIR LADY, but thanks to Mr. Cukor’s direction of Ms. Smith and Mr. McCowell, one also is given a model for living.

By the way, did I mention that this film is a comedy?

Highly Recommended. Rating: Film: ***** Transfer: ****

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2 Responses »

  1. Mark

    this is without a doubt the best review I have ever read on this film! You capture the perfect tone and style to sing it’s many virtues….I look forward to more insightful pieces like this one.

  2. Great review! In fact all your reviews are so meticulously well-written that I will see how much you love and understand film. Adding to my list the one’s I haven’t yet seen.

    holly 🙂

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