This coming Sunday I will introduce a screening of Jack Conway’s “Lady of the Tropics” at the Zeughauskino in Berlin. The film, in which Hedy Lamarr plays the role of Manon DeVargnes (a young woman of mixed race who dreams of leaving Saigon for a new, happier life in the Western world), is loosely based on Abbé Prévost’s “L’histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut” and bears interesting connections to Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”.
Like her literary and operatic predecessors, Manon is a fascinating, enigmatic, and ambivalent character. Although her love for Bill is sincere, she also lies and manipulates. Her goal, at least in the beginning, is clear: to get a passport and leave Saigon for good. What, however, strikes me the most in Manon, beyond the opposition between truth and lie, faithfulness and betrayal, or opportunism and truthfulness, is that she is a complex, evolving character. This is what her dedicated or vengeful lovers (and perhaps some spectators) fail to grasp – hence her triumph and her defeat in the end. Manon’s “metamorphosis”, which is the crux of her enigma, comes to the fore even more strikingly in Conway’s film than in Prévost’s novel or Puccini’s opera (which, however, is neither to diminish Prévost’s or Puccini’s geniuses nor to praise Conway’s skills beyond acknowledging his competence). It is as if, as Cavell would put it, cinema – the medium of film – contained the conditions for “the new creation of the woman, the creation of the new woman, the new creation of the human” (Contesting Tears, 5). To complicate matters a bit further, the film includes a scene at the opera house, where Manon and her previous lover, Pierre Delaroche, attend a performance Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut”. The experience impacts Manon deeply. The night at the opera, it turns out, was part of a trap that Delaroche set up to precipitate the separation of Manon and Bill, yet the impact that the performance has on her also provides Manon with an idea to escape that trap. This escapade, however, has a price. The end of "Lady of the Tropics" (the protagonist’s suicide) is typically operatic, yet its substance and means are fully cinematic. In retrospect, it is as if the film sheds light on the operatic myth of Manon.
Notes & Sketches
This is a bunch of brief, often most personal, and not rarely idiosyncratic notes, which I plan to publish here and elsewhere. They are exercises in thinking and writing—fragments, digressions, sketches for a future book dedicated to opera and film