USA (114 mi) 1964 d: Robert Rossen
Perhaps hoping to revisit something like the delicately blossoming romance of SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961), at least in the mind of lead actor Warren Beatty, but one thinks director Robert Rossen, in this his final film, had something altogether different in mind. Set almost entirely on the enormous, beautifully landscaped grounds of a high-priced mental sanitarium called Chestnut Lodge, a real-life mental institution in Rockville, Maryland about 15 miles northwest of Washington, D.C, this film remains something of an enigma even fifty years later, but is nonetheless a stylish if downright baffling film to see. Following on the footsteps of other similarly related films set on the grounds of mental institutions, Frank Perry’s DAVID AND LISA (1962) and John Cassavetes’ A Child Is Waiting (1963), those were more straightforward narratives that single out stories of sympathetic child characters. This one stars an adult Jean Seberg as the beautiful but emotionally alienated and distressed patient Lilith who suffers from schizophrenia, often unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy, implementing many of the 60’s mind-boggling shot dissolves using superb camera montage techniques from cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, often blending two or three shots into one screen image, showing the expansiveness of human thought with images overlapping into one another. In this manner, a complete 180 degree shift from Rossen’s prior ultra realism, it’s easy to get lost in the different worlds, often accentuated by the changing tempo of Kenyon Hopkins's jazzy score which seems to grow louder or accelerate much like a dizzying carousel ride. Even the opening credit sequence of hand-designed butterflies against a white backdrop suggests a more playful and fanciful theme. Unfortunately, there are various forces at odds against each other in this film that director Rossen could never pull together, leaving an unrealistic and overly sympathetic view of mental health care, perhaps only available to the super rich, which amounts to coddling patients like children, surrounding them with their own artworks, allowing them to do whatever they want, while also veering into horror elements to describe their clearly unbalanced state of mind.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is actor Warren Beatty as Vincent Bruce, who appears to be on a much different wavelength than everyone else in the film, especially his acting school style of method acting which never really fits in this picture, drawing too much attention to himself and his mannerisms at the expense of everything else happening onscreen, playing a wounded and tortured soul himself, a returning Korean war veteran who trains to become an occupational therapist in a private mental hospital that caters to the über rich. Simply walking in off the street, much like Judy Garland does in A Child Is Waiting, it feels more like volunteer work than an actual job, where Bruce brings no experience whatsoever into the position, yet the administrative staff allows him full access to all the patients. While Garland is scolded for spending so much time with one particular patient, as the others quite noticeably feel left out, where she seemingly favors one patient’s needs over another, but not Beatty, who spends almost all of his time exclusively with one patient, Lilith, which would have to have a detrimental effect on the other patients. Seberg’s enthralling performance on the other hand shows a full range of her somewhat twisted emotions, where she’s constantly conniving and thoroughly controlling, but Beatty blindly falls for all her traps, as she’s a highly intelligent patient with a thoroughly manipulative use of her temptress sensuality, which she lords over unsuspecting young boys, treating them with the relished fondness of a sick and detestable child molester. Seberg gets away with it because she’s supposedly sick, but the idea of allowing her such free access is one of the film’s faults, as it begs credulity, or perhaps is its intended goal, because allowing schizophrenics full and complete liberation, like the flower children of the 60’s, where they’re free to express themselves any way they choose, often leads to disastrous consequences, as mental patients require responsible guidance and care, as they have a inherent tendency for violent, out of control, or harmful behavior. If there’s an underlying statement about the permissiveness of the over-indulgent generation of the rebellious 60’s counterculture, it’s not one most viewers would accept, though the thought crosses one’s mind, but as one recalls the Beatles first came to American in 1964, the year this film was released, where Haight-Ashbury, the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and the Counterculture of the 1960s came afterwards.
Peter Fonda plays another overly repressed, extremely straight-laced patient who simply blurts out all his inner thoughts to everyone he meets, exhibiting no self-control, where his infatuation with Lilith is mostly all he ever talks about. But Lilith treats him like a pestering child while luring Bruce, seen as her handsome prince, more and more into her secret dream world of butterflies and free love, where she almost makes it her mission to spread her version of love, which accounts for her fond expression for children. Bruce is a bit mesmerized by all this, where her changeable moods might have alerted him or given him some sign, but she has an intoxicating effect on him, like Odysseus and the Sirens in Greek mythology. While Lilith is completely nondescriminate about who she loves, even having a chaperoned lesbian affair with one of the patients (Anne Meacham), all designed to arouse his jealous instincts, Bruce is something of a head case himself, as he never questions Lilith’s motives, or seems overly concerned with her behavior so long as she’s making him happy. The film does an excellent job of keeping the viewer in this seemingly innocent alternate world they live in, where Seberg thrives on her own changeable moods, always appearing happy and sexually desirous so long as she maintains her control over her intended victims, where these scenes are accompanied by tranquil walks by a lake, perhaps the most beautiful scene in the film, where Lilith wades into the water and hikes up her dress, kissing the mirror-like reflection of herself in the water, a sequence where Bruce eventually loses sight of her in the fog. When the two visit a Renaissance Faire, they literal return to medieval times where Bruce hops on a horse, grabs a lance and enters a jousting tournament, becoming her white knight while she plays the fair maiden. These idyllic moments, however, can be transfixing and are the unique strength and originality of the movie, a ponderous film, much of which plays out like trippy acid trip reflections, from the soaring heights of ecstasy to the nightmarish descent into abject despair, while the prevailing weakness is just how much is overlooked, not just by Bruce, but by the hospital administrative staff, Kim Hunter and James Patterson, who allow such an inexperienced novice to play Sir Galahad with one of their more disturbed patients who has already exhibited psychotic behavior in the hopes some miracle will happen. When Bruce falls head over heels in love with her, becoming obsessed with the delirious effect she has over him, disturbing trends ensue with a horrific descent into darkness and the abyss, becoming horribly downbeat, leaving the viewers shell-shocked and a bit bewildered by it all. Infused with a heavy-handed sense of futility, the caretakers hold out little hope that anyone in their care will actually get well, so the idea of providing “help,” the goal of Beatty’s character, is somehow lost in a social consciousness mirage.
On a personal note, this film has tragic overtones, especially considering the highly personal nature of the subject matter, where the director was diagnosed with cancer prior to the shooting of this film and died three years later, never to make another film. In short, Warren Beatty allegedly made such a nuisance of himself on the set that Robert Rossen eventually drank himself to death. After the unanimous acclaim of The Hustler (1961), Rossen was disturbed and disillusioned by the poor reception this film received, though the production was fraught with difficulties from the outset, most notably actor Warren Beatty who was seeking constant attention and guidance, much like director Elia Kazan had given him before every shot in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, but Rossen would have none of it. According to J.R. Salamanca, writer of the controversial 1961 novel Lilith, Rossen told the actor on the set “I hired you because I thought you knew how to act, for Christ’s sake. Don’t ask me how to play the part. You’re supposed to know how to play the part.” Rossen had enough troubles, as he was very ill and frequently passed out on the set. Beatty’s distant relationship to his own alcoholic father left him disillusioned in an enfant terrible stage, where according to Clifford Odets, “Warren Beatty’s need to bond with, and then lose respect for, an idealized father figure – teacher, the same way he had lost respect for his own ‘fallen father.’ Since Beatty, ever the ‘good son,’ witheld his contempt for his own father, he rebelled against his surrogate fathers, expressing his disillusionment with Ira Beatty through painful estrangements with Odets, Inge, and Rossen.” Perhaps most distressing is the arc of Jean Seberg’s life after what is arguably her greatest performance, where she was hounded by the FBI, in particular their COINTELPRO covert operations, targeting her for smear campaigns to discredit her for making sizable contributions to the Black Panther Party, as did many other liberals, by the way, including Leonard Bernstein, described in Thomas Wolfe’s 1970 essay Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. However the extent of the FBI’s discredit campaign led to public charges that she was pregnant by one of the Panthers. This caused sufficient personal distress that Seberg went into premature labor and lost the baby two days later, holding an open coffin funeral to prove the baby was white. Defamation lawsuits recovered some monetary awards, but she never recovered emotionally, where according to FBI files, they continued stalking her, breaking into her home, installing wiretaps, and even monitored her activities while traveling abroad. Seberg, a smalltown girl from Marshalltown, Iowa, eventually committed suicide at the age of 40, taking an overdose of barbiturates while lying in her car close to her Parisian apartment.