When Paula’s Cinema Club disses a movie, we pay attention.
Here’s the basic premise: Charles Boyer plays a narcissistic Swiss musician who marries Alexis Smith, the wealthy niece of a long-time friend and mentor. However, Smith’s 14 year-old cousin (Joan Fontaine), is also in love with Boyer. When Boyer’s marriage to Smith starts to derail, he realizes he may be in love with Fontaine after all.
Yes, he thinks he may be in love with a 14 year-old girl.
Now, Fontaine was 26 years old when she made this movie, and maybe filmmakers counted on audiences being cognizant of Fontaine’s real age. But that doesn’t eliminate the Creep Factor.
As an aside, we don’t mind Fontaine as a fresh-faced 14 year-old. Sometimes her youthfulness feels a bit forced, but she’s not without charm. The film also has Tony Gaudio‘s gorgeous cinematography and a terrific supporting cast, including May Whitty and Peter Lorre.
But we (as in, yours truly) have two issues with this story: (1) The wife, who did nothing wrong, is cast as the villain; and (2) The Boyer-Fontaine relationship.
The movie reflects the novel’s bohemian philosophy. Fontaine’s aging father lives with his daughters, most of whom do not have the same mother. The woman he lives with at the start of the film is disliked by the daughters and, after the father dies, the companion flees with a younger man.
Meanwhile, Boyer and the wealthy Smith conduct a fast romance, and they move to her family’s home in London. It is Smith’s father (Charles Coburn) who has assumed financial responsibility for Fontaine and her younger sister.
But when Fontaine runs away from school and shows up, unannounced, at Smith’s London home, there’s Trouble.
Smith, aware of Fontaine’s devotion to Boyer, becomes a coiled serpent, scrutinizing interactions between Boyer and Fontaine. “There’s some kind of language between them that only they understand,” she says. “I feel like a stranger in my own house.”
She’s become the Bad Guy in this, even though Boyer said he loved her and willingly married her. Not only that, it’s her family bankrolling his lifestyle – and Fontaine’s, too.
As for Boyer, he wearies of Smith’s promptings to get off his backside and resume performing. (Fontaine’s character never makes such demands.) This further alienates Smith who, for whatever reason, is still in love with Boyer.
She and Boyer argue about Fontaine, and Smith obliquely refers to the, uh, uncomfortable relationship: “I felt, no matter what she was, you – you, at least, were decent.”
Smith’s character knows, deep down, she never had a chance.
Of course Boyer’s character was going to fall for Fontaine.
For one thing, he’s stroppy. When he reads a review that compares him to a mechanic, he throws away his compositions in a fit of temper.
He frequently digs for compliments because his favourite topic of conversation is himself. Not only that, he has to be coddled and coaxed into performing – never pushed – and he’s proud of his sophisticated music. (It’s “very modern,” as Fontaine puts it.)
Fontaine’s character thinks Boyer is a Genius. She Understands his music and motivation, and she reflects these to back him as though she’s just discovered his brilliance.
Because her character doesn’t have a towering intellect, or much life experience, Fontaine becomes a mirror of Boyer himself.
So what’s a narcissist to do? It’s impossible for him not to fall in love with himself.
We cannot recommend you see The Constant Nymph. In fact, please regard this review as us standing in the middle of the road, waving at you to turn around and go back.
The Constant Nymph: starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Brenda Marshall. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Written by Kathryn Scola. Warner Bros.-First National Pictures Inc., 1943, B&W, 112 mins.