Sunday, July 19, 2015

Neglected Gem #79: Loss of Innocence (1961)

Loss of Innocence is an almost unknown coming-of-age picture made in England in 1961, when American moviegoers were rushing to see the latest British releases because they were starved for intelligent films that didn’t infantilize them. But unlike some of the imports from that period that attracted the attention of critics and art-house audiences, such as Room at the Top and The Entertainer and A Taste of Honey, this one never caught on. The screenwriter was an American, Howard Koch, who was most famous for co-writing Casablanca but who sometimes displayed a surprising European sensibility: he did the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Letter for William Wyler in 1940, and in 1948 he collaborated with the Austrian émigré Max Ophüls on the delicate high comedy Letter from an Unknown Woman, with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. In Loss of Innocence Koch adapted a novel by Rumer Godden, The Greengage Summer (the movie was released in England under that subtler title), about a sixteen-year-old English girl who grows up when she and her three younger siblings travel to the French countryside for a summer vacation with their mother but have to go on to the hotel by themselves after their mother falls seriously ill on the train and is hospitalized.

In Lewis Gilbert’s film, the girl, Joss Grey, is played by the extraordinary young Susannah York, in her first starring role. She may never have had a better one. Frankie Addams, the twelve-year-old protagonist of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding is prodigious in perception and sensitivity, a burgeoning poet – she’s likely McCullers herself as she was on the brink of adolescence – but still a child in other ways; she’s pulled in two directions, impatient for adult experiences that she can’t yet understand yet longing for the comforts of childhood. (In the great 1952 Fred Zinnemann movie version, twenty-six-year-old Julie Harris leaps between childish tantrums and transcendent moments of lyrical consciousness – spooky ones, almost as if she were channeling an observer from another galaxy.) Four years older than Frankie, Joss, who is physically mature for her age and aware of her own beauty, has newly adult feelings but lacks the experience to evaluate them, and she retreats into childish behavior when she doesn’t know what to do with those feelings – or when the consequences frighten or upset her. She takes control of her siblings (Jane Asher, Richard Williams and Elizabeth Dear) easily, shepherding them to the hotel and acting proud and defiant when first the manager, Madame Corbet (Claude Nollier), and then the owner, Madame Zisi (Danielle Darrieux), refuse to honor their reservation without the presence of an adult to chaperone them. The Grey children are admitted when Zisi’s English lover, Eliot (Kenneth More), who is charmed by them, takes their part, but when Eliot treats her like a child, Joss’s behavior is sullen and contrary. But then Eliot begins to pay attention to her, and she flirts with him. Her way of being with him isn’t simply manipulative: she falls in love with him, but she’s too young to gauge her own responses to his obvious attraction to her.

Danielle Darrieux and Susannah York
The loss of innocence in the narrative is Joss’s tumble into a world of adult interaction that’s as deep as Alice’s rabbit hole. Zisi is aware that Eliot is mesmerized by the girl, whom she dislikes from the first and tries unsuccessfully to keep out of his way by segregating the Grey children, whom he enjoys taking out for meals and on excursions, from the adult patrons of the hotel restaurant. (There are no other guests of the hotel itself, at Eliot’s insistence, for reasons that become less mysterious as the plot unfolds.) Eliot’s presence enrages Madame Corbet, who lives with Zisi – the film handles their sexual relationship with a frankness and lack of melodrama that must have seemed astounding in 1961. And when Zisi is so unsettled by Joss’s presence that when Eliot insists on giving the children their first taste of champagne, and Joss offers some to Zisi, Zisi responds by throwing it in her face. Afterwards Joss overhears Eliot’s protestations to Zisi that she’s only a child, and she moves through a series of adolescent behaviors, first sulking and then getting drunk and flirtatious with Paul (David Saire), an untrustworthy twenty-something who works in the hotel kitchen. Her thirteen-year-old sister Hester, the next oldest, who has more finely tuned radar than Joss, tries and fails to intervene before things go disastrously awry. By the time they do, Joss has also taken another impulsive step to get back at Eliot.

The material is well worked out – perhaps a little too well: the characters are complex but the story itself lacks ambiguity. That’s Godden’s fault: Koch sticks to the plot as she laid it out. (He softens one crucial detail, and he eliminates one of the Grey kids, the narrator, Cecil, which has the effect of strengthening the focus on Joss’s coming of age.) Still it’s a terrific movie, beautifully shot by Freddie Young and admirably performed by More and Darrieux, brilliantly by York. Under Gilbert’s sensitive direction, York keeps us intimately engaged with the protagonist’s difficult and two-steps-forward-one-step-back arc into adulthood. When the worst occurs, a tearful Joss blurts out that the adults in this place are evil; what she’s just beginning to see but doesn’t yet want to admit to herself is that being grown-up means participating in and acknowledging the corruption of human existence. Joss is used to holding the reins, getting what she wants; then she suddenly finds herself in the deep end, where the results of her actions spin terrifyingly out of her control.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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