Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Private Life of Billy Wilder

There's a moment in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon I'm very fond of. Audrey Hepburn is the jeune fille whose father, Maurice Chevalier (who else in Wilder's Paris?), is a private eye specializing in trailing cheating wives. More often than not, they're cheating on their husbands with Gary Cooper's notorious American playboy, with whom Hepburn becomes infatuated after seeing his image in a surveillance photograph. After she overhears one of her father's clients plotting to shoot Cooper in the hotel where he meets the man's wife nightly, she decides to rescue him. Sneaking across a balcony, she arrives at the window outside Cooper's suite.

There's a close-up of her face. The expression is vaguely startled. The next shot is of Cooper and the wife, but the camera is not placed where Hepburn would be. Instead, it's startlingly close to the couple, who are dancing slowly to a hired Gypsy band. The shot is only a few second long, but it's the closest Wilder would get to any of his characters until The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Wilder, whose camera is always judging, is here completely without judgment. The lovers are covered by a warm shadow. The details of their skin and their clothing are tactile; exact, but not caricaturistic. It's not that Wilder is letting his guard down--it feels more like he realizes that here, it's useless. It's an inelegant moment. This is something wit and cynicism can't affect, and he lets the camera linger a little, before the next shot comes and the comedy resumes.

Wilder is portrayed too often as a cynic. He appears to be one on the surface; the joke, of course, is on the people who believe in surfaces. It's the sort of thinking that Wilder despised above all: people who see themselves and others as types. The romantic Wilder is not a "secret Wilder"-- it's a persona hidden in plain sight. It was Wilder who directed Avanti!, one of the greatest screen loves--one that negates all notions of what a romance should be or how it should develop.