The Actress and the Poet (1935)

Author: Miles Imhoff
July 19, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers


... where should I even begin? First, let me preface by saying that I consider myself a feminist. To those of you who just dropped your cigars and cried, "Good heavens! That stuff's just for the dames!", allow me to explain that a feminist is essentially someone of either gender who believes in the equality of both...

Usually I give a pass (perhaps unfairly) to mildly misogynistic overtones in cinema from the distant past, seeing as how it may just be a reflection of a less enlightened time. The Actress and the Poet (1935) fails miserably even in the context of its own period; it's practically a love letter to violent patriarchal dominance. I've seen quite a few Naruse films that have come close to crossing the line, but this one can't even see the line in its rearview mirror.

The plot essentially surrounds the actress' husband, who is (appropriately enough) the poet. Geppu Futatsugi is his name, a self-consciousness writer living in the shadow of his wife Chieko's success. One day, she requests his assistance to rehearse a dramatic scene for an upcoming play, specifically one of marital discontent that leads to domestic violence. When a situation soon arises in real life with eerily similar shades to the rehearsed battle, a confusing blend of fact and fiction proves to be a one way trip to chaos.

Comedy is certainly what they're trying to go for here, but scattered snickers become dead silence come the climax. The real argument essentially arises out of the pushiness of Geppu's friend (Nose) who is diligently seeking a new place to crash following his shirking of six months rent at a previous flat. The shortsightedness of Geppu's hasty granting of Nose's request/power play/demand only serves to exacerbate the problem. Every aspect of this sordid affair is chock-full of fail right from the get-go.

When the fight with Chieko begins, it's played for laughs because of the coincidental similarities to the scene they had earlier rehearsed; however, physical violence soon erupts, and this time, it's for real. Geppu dominates this aspect of their interaction, and even has the audacity to highlight Chieko's meek physical response without acknowledging his own countless abuses. If this weren't bad enough, Chieko ultimately becomes subdued, allows Geppu and Nose's poorly thought out plan to come to fruition, and ultimately becomes depressingly submissive for the rest of the film. It's a movie that seems to say that you too can have yourself an ol' fashioned milquetoast wife, all you gotta do is beat the spunk out of her. Chieko's Painful Journey from Self-Worth to Stockholm Syndrome would perhaps be a far more accurate title (or at least, whatever they called Stockholm syndrome prior to the Norrmalmstorg robbery).

The reason this film receives any points at all is because it's technically competent in other ways (which is kind of unfortunate, because it would be an interesting novelty to write the first 0-star review for this site). At least four characters are adequately developed, although the majority of the cast (save pre-transformation Chieko) are an unlikable assortment of ne'er-do-wells. Nose is the shameless opportunist who momentarily redeems himself when he tries to break up the rehearsal (mistaking it for a knock-down, drag-out brawl). Ohama is the interloping, manipulating neighbor always eager to fix even the most minute of socioeconomic imbalances that don't quite favour her. Geppu sports that ever famous lugubrious expression that cries "starving artist", which is compounded by a latent, crippling jealousy of his wife's enviable success. Finally, Chieko is the strong-willed career woman who is tacitly demonised by the narrative. She's splendidly competent and a wonderfully strong female character, but apparently the film thinks she needs to be knocked down a peg.

As for the remaining cast... meh. Ohama's husband is presented rather in broad strokes, likeable when sober but rather insufferable otherwise. The unnamed couple feel like the lynchpins of the story, but their subplot only turns out to have a rather tenuous affect on the overall narrative.

Though the characterisation as a whole is adequate, the acting is... also adequate. There's nothing groundbreaking here, but perhaps it's the writing that really leaves something to be desired. Geppu's character, for example, is made to hammer out basic exposition like a clumsy blacksmith early on, and we as the audience are (sadly) the anvil. Again, there's just not much to write home about.

With a message so questionable that it would be considered too over the top in any context except perhaps the most outmoded, The Actress and the Poet (1935) is an extremely lackluster Naruse film. A jaunty little Our Gang-esque soundtrack plays sporadically as we endure blunt, physical comedy that ultimately becomes an alarming, painful-to-watch attempt at violently physical comedy. This is the first Naruse flick I've seen that has actually repulsed me; not recommended.