“She is both sentimental and shameless.”
What would cause a woman to split into two? In a film, a woman might have any number of reasons to invent a double: to pursue a man, to cover up an affair, or to provide an alibi for murder. In cinema, making up a twin, a doppelganger, or an alter ego is almost a conventional thing to do: as common a ploy as the forging of love letters. But there is another reason why a character might choose to divide: honesty. Being too sincere can be a problem. One doesn’t want to be coy or cunning, but how else is a person to get ahead? There are a couple of ways to deal with a conflicted personality: one is to straighten it out, and the other is to develop two sides. In Two-Faced Woman (1941), Karin (Greta Garbo) disguises herself as a twin named Katherine; this Katherine is prepared to be flirtatious and manipulative in ways that Karin wouldn’t. However, Katherine remains true to Karin’s principles of behavior. She is never “fascinating” without being conscious of acting — she’s surprised and even dismayed by her own success. Creating a double is a mark of integrity, in a sense: a way of performing a role while keeping one’s “core” intact. But is it any fun? What happens to people who put on a veneer? Can they enjoy playing the game — or do they always end up exposing themselves?
There are only a handful of comedies that have explored doubling as an emotional issue, despite the fact that farce is ideally suited to this theme. In George Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Katharine Hepburn reacts to the world’s notion of women by becoming her idea of a man: an impulsive, stout-hearted lad — in other words, a “type.” However, when the time comes for her to revert, her version of “woman” is now sappy, weak, and virtually useless: all the sass has gone. Six years later, Cukor’s radical Two-Faced Woman also looked at an identity that divides under pressure. Both films are about a woman who doesn’t want to resort to scheming, but views it as the only way of dealing with the contradictions of society. As the films see it, becoming two people may be a reasonable response to a world of double standards. Rather than being slightly devious, the character goes for an all-or-nothing approach: instead of a compromise, there must be two identities, each with its own set of passionate convictions. However, before long, each woman finds herself dissolving into her own performance. In Two-Faced Woman, Garbo is not the duplicitous or hooded figure suggested by the title, but she is just as mysterious as a noir woman, and the whole film has a strange undercurrent of fear. It plays like a comedy but photographs like a mystery, with scenes of daylight and snow leading us — and almost lulling us — into the night, where role-playing, glamour, and masquerade take over. None of the female characters are what they seem — from the hysterical playwright (Constance Bennett) who advises actresses on love scenes, to the secretary Ruth (Ruth Gordon) given to writerly expressions (“You are very clever to have guessed it.”) In their style, dialogue, and occupations, these women are all slightly unreal: at times, they seem almost purely conceptual. They depict strong theatrical emotions, but maintain a very thin sense of identity; in some way, every character is as elusive as Garbo’s twin.
This goddess has casually been picked up in the snow — not only does the film pass over this fact, but she’s an even more unusual creature than we thought. Her face is stern, yet her body looks boneless and almost floppy. Karin is the Garbo of common sense and efficiency, with a strict diet and morning swims, but she’s completely unguarded. This is a Ninotchka who’s already been broken in — there’s nothing to liberate or enlighten. Though she wants a simple life, she’s already a knowingly cryptic woman, whose humor and sexuality are totally integrated. She’s dry and concise in speech, but has an instinctively mischievous body: within minutes of meeting, she and Larry are performing acrobatics and falling on each other in the living room. Being athletic simply means that she is ready to play: she uses Larry as a lever, leaps over twin beds, and takes childlike steps up the rungs of a ladder. The joke is that this emotionally integrated Garbo is already a wonder — something we’ve never seen before — yet she’s too much for Larry. He wants someone with fewer dimensions, at any given time. In order to succeed, Karin must untangle her strands, and become less complex. The multifaceted woman has to split into two simpler organisms: the rigid Karin and that worthless, man-stealing tramp Katherine.
As a concept as well as a performer, Garbo embodies both of these identities. In these twins, the film explores the two sides of the Garbo mystique: they are complex, and not merely direct opposites. Karin is the Northern woman in sweaters and slacks, known to us from stills and publicity: capable of tragedy, but with a rather absurd sense of humor. Her double, Katherine, is purely a creature of film, who remembers as much (or as little) of the world as a screen character might be expected to. Like Karin, she is extremely thoughtful, but lives only for emotional highs and moments of intense sensation. The film boldly approaches Garbo’s acting style as a cliché, which can be referred to in any kind of dramatic scene. As Katherine, Garbo is constantly quoting little bits of the “helpless” charm she had in Camille (1936) — inhaling a bouquet, and murmuring remarks like “Isn’t it strange?” She frequently shrugs and throws up her hands — as if to say, “Who knows?,” as well as alluding to her own image. The film often references this “Garbo in love” persona, with all the regret it entails (“Twenty minutes in the realm of passion … an eternity”), as well as her role in film culture (“a few more burning flame-like years and then the end … in this harsh new world there is no place for me any more.”). It’s clear that Garbo’s acting is becoming a convention, and the script has others comment explicitly on her technique.
However, the woman who emerges is truly a new facet of Garbo — she strides offstage with the confidence of Hepburn or Lombard. After observing her closely, Ruth tells her what she is — she correctly identifies her as a cinematic type: the “vamp.” It is this aspect of the film that is the most mystifying: the script is constantly informing us that a new persona has come into play, amongst the familiar characters we see. The actors often come across as ghostly outlines of people, particularly in the dance sequences, where it appears that identities are being melded and swapped. The film’s most significant turning points are never seen — the decision to fall in love and marry takes place offscreen, while the double is concocted behind a veil, and from then on inhabited with total assurance. However, even though these actions are invisible, they all spring from a firm emotional basis. The stage is set early on for Karin’s doubling, when Larry reveals his own alter ego. Having romanced Karin and given her the impression of being a free spirit, he soon decides that the holiday is over and they should go back to their real selves: workaholics with the odd moment of fun. When Karin objects, Larry starts muttering things like, “You mustn’t always go by what I say,” or “Will you please stop quoting what I said to you before yesterday?” Karin is still able to speak directly at this stage (“I don’t like half truths”), before Larry drops the bomb: “My whole life’s a half truth, a compromise.” Larry is a two-faced man, but his duplicity is more of the everyday kind: thoughts are shoved into reasonable compartments. Karin responds to all this in an understandable manner — passionately and expressively at first, before turning sullen. She keeps repeating the phrase, “I see,” until we finally discover what she really does perceive: “I see … there are two of you.”
As everyone knows, saying “I see” in an argument is a way to mask one’s hurt with stiffness — and perhaps a way to try and cut, using the pretence of objectivity. However, in this case, Karin has come to a real epiphany. What she is basically saying is: there are two of you, so I must divide. That could be the statement of a Shakespearean villain, or a superhero — whether it’s Iago, Hamlet, or Michelle Pfeiffer’s poignant Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992). What all of these characters have in common is the conviction that if you can’t live with yourself — or what’s happening to you — you should create another who can. For instance, in X-Men (2000), Ian McKellen’s Magneto resolves to become a dictator because there is “no land of tolerance” — he has no option but to become the mechanism he despises, and inhabit it fully. For Magneto, the decision leads to a genuine loss of self, with glimpses of the old identity occasionally flashing through. Karin’s response to Larry’s duality is to mimic it: to internalize his contradictions, rather than trying to live with them. This is an identity that divides whenever it perceives duplicity in others. It is unable to reconcile people’s compromises: the only way it can process a “half-truth” is to brood on it and replicate what it sees. It claims to condone actions it is secretly offended by; it deals with being hurt by taking the other’s side.
On the one hand, Katherine is as upfront as Shakespeare’s Rosalind: she speaks the “plain” truth, and is fond of saying things that are not technically lies (“We come from the same father, the same mother.”). Like Rosalind, she offers to turn two into one, on certain conditions. The dialogue constantly refers to lovers sensing yet not knowing each other: “You’re far and you’re near,” “You’re dreams and you’re reality.” Garbo plays Katherine as a totally consistent character; she’s so drugged and dreamy that she often appears to be remembering rather than inventing her back-story. “I was born old,” she recites, as if repeating a transmission. Later, she reveals that she has “known many men in every capital of the world,” and digresses, in a Hepburn-like manner, about “an Englishman in Singapore.” However, the problem with acting is that when you go back to yourself, there is the tendency to overplay your own character. When Karin returns to her former identity, she is almost too austere (“up the slope, down the slope”), and she takes on a forbidding voice, especially when discussing her twin. On a psychological level, Karin seems to want to draw a line between her two roles — she distances herself from “that cheap, vulgar, obvious Katherine.”
Throughout the film, Garbo is treated as a stoic object that gets pushed around and trifled with — it gets plied with champagne and has flimsy ornaments tacked to its head. Casting a great shadow by the window, she appears to be a figure of epic sadness — as well as a spectacularly unlikely presence. The result almost seems like a parody of Vanessa Redgrave’s performance as Isadora Duncan: a thick-set body trying to recast itself as a mercurial spirit. It’s the contrast that makes her exciting: more so than, say, a wispy comedienne like Myrna Loy. With Garbo, there are simply more layers of resistance to cut through — in her voice, expression and movements. Garbo is not a snappy talker like Stanwyck, and it’s fascinating to hear that drawling, too-slow voice forced into the quick rhythms of dialogue. Her luxurious slowness becomes a form of comedy: the heavy spirit lifting itself to flirtation and joy. This is the first time we’ve seen her with darting, resourceful eyes. When puzzled, she gracelessly sticks her tongue in cheek — the iconic profile is distorted by a jab. The flowing gestures are punctuated by big winks — but even these are strained, since the lid takes some time to haul itself up and down. When Katherine visits Larry, she makes an “unforgettable” entrance by floating sideways across the entire length of the room while holding a formal goddess pose. She then stands rapt in front of a statue, before pushing off and holding up a gossamer scarf in the air. This is a Garbo who has to create her own aura, without the help of editing — she brings her own props and has to negotiate the transition from one stance to another. Yet Garbo stands up to the exposure. Despite her reputation for close-ups, we see that this actress can be framed at any distance — in medium or long shot — as long as it’s for comedy. Katherine is supposed to be a gawky woman’s idea of mystique, and moving from pose to pose, with strange lapses in between, Garbo makes the concept work.
The other reason why Sylvia Scarlett is so mysterious is that its scenes keep fading into one another. When the characters decide to dress in costume, Maudie (Dennie Moore) prepares herself in front of a mirror, then walks to the door to see what Sylvia’s father Henry (Edmund Gwenn) is up to. However, before she can get there, the image fades out and then in again. It feels as if some kind of slippage has taken place — as if we’ve momentarily lost consciousness, then been jolted awake. The result is that when the door opens, the image seems sharpened and almost surreally clear. It feels as if Maudie is pulling back a veil — and what we see is the tiny, smiling image of Henry, dressed as a duke. This bright miniature image seems oddly knowing, as if ushering us into a new sequence. As it turns out, this scene is indeed a segue into the next stage of the film, where the characters will officially become performers. With its many wipes and dissolves, the film constantly gives us this feeling of curtains parting, to reveal an arranged figure or sequence. When a scene fades out, somewhat woozily, it creates a momentary shut-eye: we feel as though we’ve fallen asleep, then reawakened to a subtly changed consciousness. It’s a technique that recalls Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1930) — a film with so many ellipses that we always imagine we’ve dozed off, while the point of view changes each time we open our eyes.
Sylvia Scarlett stops and starts in a way that mimics the eye movements of a sleeper — it confuses us into thinking we’ve missed something. So the entire film consists of this “waking” state, in which we attribute lapses to our own distraction — all of a sudden, it seems a character has switched sex, or taken on a role in a pantomime. The film keeps drawing us into these spells — the transitions between scenes are very soft. Danger may be sensed — in the form of the police, or a cartoon villain — but the film soon lulls us into sleep and forgetfulness, with its night trains and sea voyages. Our perspective is gently distorted by blur — the murky scenes on the ship, and the letters that weave in and out of focus in a newspaper. Between the characters, money changes hands very lightly — as if it’s weightless, no more than a magician’s prop. Thundering storms are calmed when a fresh image slides into the frame, before the first scene has been resolved. Even footage of a girl walking down a path is broken up by three successive wipes — as if a new element has been introduced in the skipped moments. The wipe creates a feeling of pursuit, although it also means there is no direct route to a desired object. Figures vanish, then reappear behind clumps of bushes. Most of the film is made up of these “phases” — short, glancing scenes that reflect the characters’ attention span, and the dazed state from which performances emerge.
For me, the treatment of performance in this film is even more intriguing than in, say, Rivette’s Va Savoir (2001) or Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). This is an amazingly avant-garde film, in which the repeated sequences involving props and playing house seem like rehearsals or explorations of behavior, although they are played with total conviction. Tension threatens to break out during a squabble in a mansion, but in the next scene, all appears to be forgotten as the film calmly elides into a cabaret performance, with a painted backdrop of the sea, and all players grinning as they serenade by the piano. This sequence has the same effect as the mirrored image of the duke: it’s both serene and disquieting — like a smiling face of the subconscious. Later, the backdrop materializes as a coastal town, when the characters decide to become traveling entertainers. They become “professional” players inserted into life, who wander into other people’s scenarios and add to their theatrical content. As a stock company of clowns and pierrots, they walk around and slowly meld themselves into pastoral scenes. All of these acting scenes are uncanny, in that it appears that the characters and their moods can shape themselves around whatever fiction demands. When there is talk of needing a girl for a particular set-up, Hepburn can magically bend to that purpose. Michael (Brian Aherne) is introduced as the film’s masculine principle, perhaps to offset the rather childlike atmosphere. He’s a cosmopolitan figure in a white dressing-gown — a contemporary of Errol Flynn, or maybe Grant himself. He shaves and appears to have an actual, physical body, although he too has his lyrical aspect — he lies dreaming on his side, and is in love with a woman of mystery. There’s a surprising chemistry between this curly-haired prince and Hepburn’s boy waif — when Sylvia falls for Michael, she comes courting with cap in hand. In turn, he teaches her how to be feminine in a way that’s she’s forgotten — she keeps displacing her impulses, and putting her hands into nonexistent pockets.
The other character who has trouble remembering her role is the Princess Lily (Natalie Paley.) This is a woman who “lives for one sensation after another.” Like a character from Alice in Wonderland, she only has one emotional card to play — romantic regret — but when she does, the soundtrack swells and everyone is helplessly affected. In other words, she’s like Katherine in Two-Faced Woman, although her character is even slighter than Garbo’s. In her outline, and even in the shape of her head, she resembles a cut-out figure, and her presence seems to crown events — for instance, a banquet in the forest. It’s no wonder that people feel confused waking up next to her. While wandering in the woods, Henry falls asleep in his pierrot costume. Later, a long table arranges itself around the sleeping figure and, as if by chance, he ends up lying at the princess’ feet. The dreaming man is incidental — he’s lost in another world, but he happens to be placed at the corner of someone else’s tableau. Henry starts murmuring to himself; he reveals his fears of losing Maudie to another man. Lily is a storytelling princess, whose consciousness alights on this or that — and she decides to play a trick on Henry, by talking to him in his sleep and confirming his worst nightmares. Henry wakes to interpret the scene as planned — he sees Maudie gingerly stepping out of the woods and also the princess at the head of table. All these figures seem to be engaged in a conspiracy — therefore he must be a cuckold. This is a misread glimpse of the world — like most of the scenes in this film. If a character is woken at the wrong time, he takes his cues from the costume he’s wearing — whether male or female — and tries to construct some sort of relation between the figures he sees.
These are the consequences of interfering with another’s dreams — and people in this film seem to be fascinated by sleep above all. Much is made of the characters’ drowsiness — they tend to murmur regretfully in their sleep, and pour themselves out to the one person who can’t help them. A person who is asleep immediately becomes an object of enchantment: everybody wants to abduct or compromise them in some way. Anyone who gets hold of a sleeper can’t resist the attempt to mold their consciousness, by inserting comments and suggestions into their dreams. Therefore people who doze off in the forest are filled with convictions of love or hate upon waking — yet those feelings can be accidentally transferred to others. When the princess receives a slap from Sylvester, she’s initially startled — but we soon see her transferring that sensation to someone else. Instead of going after Sylvester, she fingers the burn somewhat erotically, while staring at another man. As in dreams, emotional reactions keep getting misplaced and attributed to new people, or even objects. When Henry says that events seem “as real to me as that rat there,” the camera moves benignly towards a bare patch of ground — there’s no rat, yet the film doesn’t seem to try and disprove what he’s seeing. The “empty” space is being scanned as if it contained something of interest — an evocative object made out of air.