Tuesday 10 August 2010

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

A story of fate, passion, jealousy, suicide, bullfighting and translation from 1950, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman takes place twenty years earlier in Esperanza, on the coast of Spain, but its story begins centuries before that. On trial for an appalling crime, Hendrick van der Zee blasphemes most dreadfully and is cursed by  God to wander the seas of the earth until judgment day. There's a way out: every seven years he gets to spend half a year among men, to find a woman who could redeem him, a woman willing to give up her life for him.

Pandora Reynolds understands unreasonable demands, since she makes them of others: she tells one suitor that she will not consider his advances unless he pushes his car off a cliff, but considers their deal broken when he recovers it from the ocean. She's a drama queen, a vicarious thrill seeker who, unfulfilled by her life, chooses "fury and destruction", as the Dutchman says. Meeting, they are overwhelmed by their mutual need, though knowing what must result he resists as long as he is able.

For a restored print, it's a bit scratchy, and the colour is very variable – traces perhaps of why it required restoration in the first place. Despite that, the beauty of the film shines through: each shot resembles a carefully composed oil painting, often with symbolic intent – when Pandora and Hendrick kiss for the first time, and in other crucial scenes, his ship is visible in the distance, hanging over them, predicting their doom. The narration is sometimes rather on the nose, with the actors appearing to act comically in response to the narration, but the performances are otherwise excellent, James Mason and Ava Gardner in particular being quite wonderful as the Dutchman and Pandora.

Though Pandora's depiction in the film is unflattering, a feminist reading is possible, by which she is frustrated by the limitations of her times, and forced to live through the men in her life. "Happiness lies in the simple things," says Stephen Cameron, her rather aged suitor, but given his determination to break the land speed record it's clear the maxim is for wives rather than husbands. Given the opportunity, Pandora might have found fulfilment and drama behind the wheel of her own racing car, rather than in the arms of a tragic ghost of times past.

It's a remarkable film, and one whose re-release is well-timed to appeal to fans of modern films of supernatural romance – though given its tragic conclusion, and the way that conclusion is presented as heroic, beautiful and inevitable, it's perhaps the last thing maudlin, love-struck teenagers should be watching!

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Albert Lewin (dir/wri), Park Circus, DVD/BluRay, 1hr58.

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