Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Herbert Ross | Nijinsky

by Douglas Messerli

Hugh Wheeler (screenplay, based on the memoirs of Romola Nijinsky), Herbert Ross (director) Nijinsky / 1980 

Done up with gloriously authentic décor by Don Blezard and handsomely dressed in costumes by Alan Barrett, and with music by the likes of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Claude Debussy, Alexander Borodin, and Igor Stravinksy, you’d think Herbert Ross’ 1980 biopic Nijinsky—particularly given its darkly romantic sexual embattlements of a time long before the general public acceptance of homosexuality—would be an unforgettable cinematic treat. The original Time Out reviewer, for example, described the film as “the best gay weepie since Death in Venice…,” as well as pointing out that this work, written by later Sondheim collaborator, Hugh Wheeler, was “the first major studio film to centre on a male homosexual relationship…without being moralistic.” Best of all, the reviewer adds, “they never show ballet for its own sake, and have the courage to keep emotional dynamics in the forefront throughout.” 

     I wish I might be able to agree with the reactions and evaluations of the above-mentioned review, but, alas, not a tear dripped from these always ready-to-well-up eyes. And I might have wished the filmmakers had spent a little bit more time actually showing the ballets for their own sake, for then the film possibly could have lit up with the fireworks of the remarkable dances it sketchily depicts. The one notable exception, the film’s longer depiction of the Nijinsky-choreographed “Prelude à l’Après-midi d’un faune,” allows us, at least, to glimpse pretty-boy actor George de la Peña simulate masturbation (the accompanying picture above is a photograph of the “real” Nijinsky with the fetishized scarf). Even the melodramatic situations that some have found in this tepid movie, seemed to be missing from the DVD version I watched on my home screen the other afternoon.

    Alas, I couldn’t for a moment actually believe in the sexual relationship the movie cooked up between Sergei Diaghilev (Alan Bates) and the young Nijinsky. Seemingly intentionally underplaying a role that demands near-perpetual bombast, Bates often mumbles his lines and, although, he tells us, he dotes on his young Pygmalion (in fact, Nijinsky had long been dancing with his sister Nijinsky since the age of nine before Diaghilev “discovered” him), he can hardly bring himself to touch his lover, let alone give him a decent smooch—made even more complex by Diaghilev’s real-life phobia of germs, forcing him to kiss the young Adonis through the prophylactic of a handkerchief. Any languor that Bates is able to project is devoted to his imitation of Dirk Bogarde’s unrepently languishing stares at the young boys playing on the Venice Lido of Visconti’s far-better “gay-centered” flick of 1971, Death in Venice. Despite the fact that Visconti’s character never acted on his desire Bogarde was a far more sexy gay man than Bates’ brooding bruiser.


And then there is the inherent problem with the relationship itself, in which Diaghilev so clearly abuses the young dancer, not so much sexually as psychologically, that any possibility of true love cowering at the core of his obsessions seems beside the point. Diaghilev, the script argues, loves a good show over good sex any day, and will destroy everyone around him if it is necessary for that show to go on. It’s hard to get riled up, accordingly, about his and Nijinsky’s naughty dalliances when what matters most is the genius of the boy as a dancer and a choreographer, the two realities at which the movie mostly winks. Even the great triumph of The Rite of Spring, a work from which our own time is still roiling and assimilating, is presented in this film as a utter failure—forgetting, evidently, that as many attendees came to the theater to love the piece as to hate it (soon after the original premiere, nearly everyone in Paris declared they were in attendance for the first of its five performances). In truth, Diaghilev was delighted by the brouhaha, as opposed to what the movie implies, displaying only the  impresario’s dejection. Indeed, according to Stravinsky, he, along with Nijinsky and Diaghilev celebrated after the performance at a late-night dinner, the composer declaring that the work was “incomparable: with the exception of a few places, everything was as I wanted it.”

     Ross and Wheeler, contrarily suggest that, out of his depth, Nijinsky suffered throughout both the rehearsals and performance madly counting out the complex rhythms—which the dancers were actually forced to do, with Nijinsky’s help, since they could no longer hear the music over the voices of the work’s detractors—and, that the ballet, perceived by all its creators as a critical disaster, contributed to his later insanity. In short, the filmmakers cannot even give the boy his deservèd due.

    Part of the film’s problem also lays in its series of askew focuses, constantly zeroing in on ancillary issues instead of attending to the substance of the central, abstractly presented love affairs between its leads. The several piques of choreographer Mikhail Fokine (Jeremy Irons), particularly as Diaghilev begins to find his works a bit passé, are often dramatically effective, particularly given the young Irons’—playing in his first film role—sputtering Britishisms; but do we really need three such scenes to convince us that he has grown so outraged that his later suite against the Ballets Russes would contribute to the breakup of Diaghilev and his young lover?

     The gossipy, over the top gay pronunciamentos of Baron de Gunzburg are great fun (surely this supporter of, not only the Ballets Russes, but of the filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer—given his later roles as editor at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, as well as the fact that his sister married Isiah Berlin—should be awarded his own cinematic biopic), but do we really need such a large collection of his bon mots in the scant hour and a half devoted to Nijinsky?

      Finally, one might even ask if simply too much energy is given over to—despite being based, so declares its film credits, on her own memoirs—the film’s insistence that the connivances of Romola de Pulsky to stalk down, capture, and embrace the great dancer in marital bliss, were at the heart of Diaghilev’s rejection and Nijinsky’s later madness. If Diaghilev is a grand bastard, she is a far superior bitch in this film’s depiction of events. Despite the fact that she seemingly overwhelms to the poor dancer, at the very nadir of his existence, in promising kisses and hugs, we never do discover just what allures and charms she has truly offered him. There is some evidence, in both the historical records and in Ross’ reading of events, that the Ukrainian-born dancer of Polish ancestry was somewhat uncomfortable in being singularly perceived as a homosexual, but we never do come to comprehend just what attracts him to the well-dressed but devious would-be diva (it didn’t seem to matter to Romola if she were to become a great singer or a great dancer, despite the fact that she was neither, and later had little sympathy with Nijinsky’s balletic obsessions) or what he ever found in her increasingly dowdy exterior except for what he (mis)perceived as kindness. The moviemakers, clearly not interested in fully exploring these issues, spend great effort, however, on her transparent machinations, with the danger of almost making her the hero of the story instead of the title figure. Yet the question remains at the role of the final credits, was Romola truly a monster or simply a wrong-headed would-be savior and protector of a man clearly in need of both saving and protecting? The fact that she could provide neither is apparent; but certainly any serious investigation into the complex relationships of the inevitable ménage-a-trois between her, Diaghilev and Nijinsky, needs to look into these issues. For even if, as the movie makes clear, Diaghilev cruelly and perhaps unjustifiably cut off Nijinsky from his own love and the dancer’s ability of engage in his art, Nijinsky, particularly in his madness, never truly abandoned the metaphorical embrace of his much beloved and much hated impresario.

      The fact that the movie closes with the apparently heartless representation of Diaghilev, reveals, I suggest, the film’s own lack of heart in its presentation of the various lovers it features. It would have been interesting, for example, if the film had attempted to explore the actual events of 1914, a year later, when Diaghilev negotiated for Nijinsky’s release from house arrest (by this time, living in Vienna, the dancer was perceived as an enemy Russian living in German territory) and, at great cost, arranged a tour for the dancer in New York. Perhaps Diaghilev’s heart was still beating, if only a little, for his former protégé, even if such actions did little to help the mentally unstable Nijinsky, who would be institutionalized for much of the rest of his life.

     Most importantly, Nijinsky fails to suggest what becomes obviously to anyone with knowledge of the history of the Ballets Russes, the fact that, despite that company’s survival until the death of Diaghilev in 1929, the originality and greatness it had once represented also ended with Nijinsky’s departure. Nijinsky’s “replacement,” if certainly a major artist, could not accomplish in works such as Parade (music by Satie) and The Three-Cornered Hat (Manuel de Falla) the revolutionary changes to his art that Nijinsky had achieved in just three pieces.

Los Angeles, October 21, 2014


  1. The US tour was not a Diaghlev's favor to Nijinsky. The impresario needed him because people would just accept the Ballets Russes with its major star. That's why he worked hard to release Nijinsky from his imprisonment in Hungary. I agree with the rest of your comments though.

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