“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.
Two-Faced Woman will only be interesting if we accept that it is strange from the start — so that the appearance of the double seems like an extension of its tone rather than a bizarre turn. Cukor disliked the picture in retrospect — it was a critical and commercial flop — yet both this film and Sylvia Scarlett have a peculiar radiance, in which a dramatic scene seems almost too bright, too defined to be taken in. The film literally starts at a peak — it begins with what is normally the climax of a ’40s comedy, in which the couple is sent to some far-off location, before the telegrams come in and everyone starts chasing them down. In this genre, the structure is normally designed so that the center moves out — the star couple draws energy from the city to the outpost, and all the dispatches flow one way. Larry (Melvyn Douglas), the millionaire publisher, isn’t at a ski lodge for long before his colleagues rush in from New York, wanting to bring him home. However, they arrive too late to stop him from making a rash decision: a shotgun wedding to Karin, an instructor he happened to meet on the snow — he liked the look of her from a distance, and didn’t mind her spirit either. In screwball, most of a film is generally spent racing up to this kind of peak — yet here we are at the summit, and it feels like the stage is already set for the conclusion. From here, the only way is down — a vertical plummet down the slopes — and the film takes this route immediately. Larry takes several falls during the film — in one, he looks like a shadow dangling from a wire — and while he’s a naturally distracted man, he also seems dazed by this particular atmosphere. The resort is an abstract landscape of black and white verticals, with large shapes moving across them — sports and action figures in silhouette — so that every move seems to take place in isolation: a free-fall amidst blindness. The other vertical image is that of Garbo, glimpsed through a window. At first, we think we know what mode she’s in: this appears to be the lanky, trousered Garbo, the icon to be brought down to earth. But when she speaks, we realize she’s already in a soft, languid phase — she doesn’t need any melting.
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.
When the playwright Griselda (Bennett) finds Katherine competing with her for Larry, she’s enraged, partly because this “effortlessly” seductive woman is using an approach that’s almost dated. Challenging Garbo is a new, modern, and American style of acting that will wipe the other out. Garbo’s stock-in-trade, Bennett tells us, is mystery. However, a new breed of actress is coming up that will bring in a cult of “frankness”: “We let the boys see the wheels go round … it seems to interest them.” That could be a line out of The Last Seduction (1994) or Femme Fatale (2002): it’s a very intriguing and unusual comment about women and the visibility of their thoughts. Bennett seems to be saying that games will become part of acting, and the effort that actors go through to locate their emotions will be something we look for in a performance. While Bennett is more of a fashion plate than the kind of tricky actor she’s talking about, it’s odd that the film should give her such a long and involved speech about performance. As with Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear (1952), or even Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give (2003), something strange happens when a film casts a woman as a playwright or theater director. This figure is generally sympathetic, but with an unusual amount of power: it’s as if she can reconstruct human situations within the text. When Bennett directs an actress to feel excitement onstage, she seems to be advocating a particular style of emotion — guiding the film’s events with her intuition. We get the sense of a fresh angle on familiar dramas; when an actor asks Bennett, “How can I play it when I don’t feel it?,” the writer draws from her own life to aid the scene. This interest in shaping a performance extends to the other stars. Garbo herself had a famously intuitive technique — she never watched dailies, claiming she had to keep her vision intact — yet in this film she is prepared to engage with her own image for the first time. The other actor who has an influence on the film’s direction is Ruth Gordon (above), who appears as a shrewd adviser figure: slightly crouched, with a pen in hand. As the person Garbo consults before bed, Gordon comes across as an on-call scriptwriter, available for midnight rewrites. When Karin comes to New York and fears being seen at the theater, Ruth hides her by pushing her through the curtains. Karin is hustled onto the stage, where she invents a double — just a second after Ruth explains she has a twin. Thus the doubling occurs at the hands of a female scenarist — Katherine is improvised as a response to a writer’s ingenuity.
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.
Karin tries to become the solution to Larry’s paradox — she reacts to his change of heart by becoming equally capricious. She moves from a fully rounded woman to someone who juggles multiple personalities. Most superheroes are born when they have trouble dealing with complexity: disillusionment forces them to create a new identity. In a similar way, Karin can’t be just a little cunning or pragmatic: she can only do outright deception. When Griselda asks, “What sort of a woman are you anyway?” she replies, “Honest.” This is a forthright person who must live each fragment totally, without compromise. However, Karin soon discovers one advantage of having another identity: the lack of responsibility. This double, created out of thin air, is freer and lighter than the original; it can accept the conventions of a world it doesn’t need to live with. Katherine is all-seeing, but basically amoral: her remarks reflect love’s evanescence (“Tomorrow night I’ll have forgotten you”), and she evades blame by denying she really exists (“I was invisible.”). Since this “fleeting flame” only has a short life, it has permission to do anything, so what we get is laughter and frivolity. It’s the Ninotchka persona — diamond clips and champagne — with a much more reckless sense of humor. Where the old Garbo would have been ready to sacrifice herself after pleasure, this one turns to a more ingenious solution. Yielding is now a form of flirtation. This Garbo desires to be alone only “because it means to be with you,” and expresses her interests in few words (“I like men.”). She is both sentimental and shameless. Visiting Larry in his room, she purposefully melds their cigarettes together, then falls back on a sofa with one word: “Come.” The passionate lover of Queen Christina (1933) has become a woman who sees erotic traces everywhere, and likes the idea of inhabiting someone else’s place: she murmurs, “So, Karin’s husband …” all too suggestively. When Katherine dances at a club, the camera develops an odd fixation with her painted toes and gypsy sandals. Their being “fabulous” seems to signal a point of transgression — the entry into a new and decadent realm. When she improvises a tap, the beat works itself into the drums, and word spreads of a new fusion dance (“La Chica-Choca”), which builds to a real fever. Soon the room is hotting up, and everyone appears to be in on the atmosphere change — their gazes become intent, as they are absorbed into the spiral dance. The film is full of these unstable and hysterical personalities, trying to divide themselves up. There are subtle allusions to doubling throughout: Katherine’s dance partner says he is “just improvising,” but always makes a point of circling to approach her from the other side. During a love scene, a palindrome plays on the radio, so that the whole sequence seems somehow reversed. After a magical evening, Katherine disappears through a revolving door as her three suitors look on, watching her flickering image.
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.
This film is about using two personae to pin down a man’s duality, but what starts off as an investigation ends in laughter, as the woman enjoys being made love to in another guise. The ending is virtually painless: the man agrees to accept his wife’s multiple personalities, as a form of polygamy. However, in Sylvia Scarlett, the transition to a new identity is even more seamless. When Sylvia (Hepburn) realizes that a woman’s body won’t cut it in the world, the next step is obvious: “Then I won’t be a girl … I won’t be weak and I won’t be silly.” And then: “I’ll be a boy and rough and hard … I won’t care what I do.” Like a child identifying with a dominant parent or a bully, she simply decides to take on a winning package of qualities. Whatever “works” is what she will do, and the decision to have a different personality is as simple as listing the features one wants. However, there is very little friction involved in this sex change: all Hepburn has to do is erase the name on the tag, “Sylvia Snow,” and replace it with “Sylvester Scarlett.” Since all of the identities in this film appear to be penciled in provisionally, this switch is as convincing as everything else. In becoming a boy, Hepburn seems merely to have exchanged Snow White for Rose Red: her new identity is just as dreamily untouched — a creation of pulp and romance novels. Sylvia decides to be a very specific kind of man, and the result is a child’s idea of chivalry. This is a belligerent lad who gets into scraps: anxious to defend a mate’s honor and ready to fly with a punch. As with so many transformation scenes in films, this one involves a mirror: examining one’s reflection seems to be a form of self-actualization, a way to negotiate a change in personality. Yet it’s a cliché that few films have pulled off — the exceptions would be Jean Seberg attacking and tearing at her own image in Bonjour Tristesse (1958), and Willem Dafoe’s magnificent confession of his own villainy in Spider-Man (2002). In Hepburn’s case, the difficulty is removed since Sylvia is not even a “real” woman to begin with. At the start, she is a pantomime figure of sorrow — she has long braids and a no-good father to weep over, and even makes resolutions to cook and clean (housework is always a fun, abstract concept with Hepburn.) This weepy woman decides to become a Cockney street urchin, as if selecting an identity from a pack of cards. The film’s other roles are similarly predetermined; during a sea voyage, Jimmy (Cary Grant) is discovered standing backlit in a corner, with a grim expression on his face, as if the film is introducing us to “The Cad” or “The Player.”
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.
All the characters — the cad, the cuckold, the boy scamp, and the Garbo-esque princess — resemble a stack of player cards ready to collapse and tumble onto one another. Even the mildly creepy ending, in which Grant kidnaps the sleeping princess because “he wanted her” — yet another person taking advantage of a dreamer — is free of pain. After pursuing their partners for a while, Hepburn and Aherne decide to pair off, so they jump out of the train and head into the darkness. When Grant sees them scurrying off together, he laughs like a prankster in a two-reeler — his stomach is barely able to contain the joke. In a last-minute trump, the princess is stranded with the jester, while the leading man runs off with the former boy. Hepburn has been strange and jittery throughout the film — she always seems ready to flip, as if waiting on the signal to change gender. As Sylvester, she shies away from women, like a pure youth who doesn’t dare to be touched. The film shows us that fiction is the easiest thing to inhabit — much more so than an identity one is fully committed to, since there’s a set code of gestures and feelings to perform. A character who is slow and moony as a girl may make an excellent young man, with a lad’s rough ways and desire to serve. In Two-Faced Woman, a woman of integrity is the best choice to play an irresponsible flirt, since she alone understands the pleasures of self-betrayal. However, only in screwball — and the shadowy worlds of these twin films — does playing a role have such delightful consequences. Here, having a perverse new persona doesn’t lead to the torment of Vertigo (1958), Klute (1971), or the brutal dark half of Ang Lee’s The Hulk (2003). In the end, these two films turn angst into the escapist thrill of transformation.