With the 80th anniversary of its first release, I'm dipping into my archives to look at that hot and Hedy enchantress called Ecstasy.
Hedy. Just looking at the woman, it's easy to repeat her name after exhaling a delicious deep breath -- Hhheeeddeeey. Her name respires like the title of one of her most famous, and infamous films, Ecstasy. Though some consider the picture a novelty, a ye olden cinematic curio of Hollywood losing its nut over a Czech import, or simply a great place to watch Hedy Lamarr cavort around completely naked, Ecstasy (released in Prague in 1933) is a much richer, liberating, dreamily beautiful experience than all that.
An intense, enchanting, and, at the time, extremely taboo, study of a young woman's sexuality, the picture actually gets things right, either via magnificent, naturalistic, erotic imagery, or moments of blunt explanation. Without demonizing its subject , without overly squishy emotionality, without outright exploitation and yet, without embarrassing, soft-core erotica sensibilities (that kind of movie didn't really exist yet) and without words (mostly), Gustav Machaty's silent-to-talkies transition Ecstasy gets to the heart of some simultaneously simple and convoluted facts of life: Women desire sex. They enjoy sex. And if they find that attraction, they'll have sex, even if they're a little scared, and even if they're afraid of the resulting guilt. Given that we currently live in an often morally confused society, and specifically, confused about women (the Virgin/Whore dynamic has compounded with Hester Prynne/Fuck me/Stone Me complications), Ecstasy, though willing to explore the sadness, jealousy and tragedy sex can create, is a lot more honest about its confusion. But no stones for Hedy -- Ecstasy is actually fond of its sexed up lass.
Lamarr (then Hedy Kiesler -- her real name was Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler) stars as Eva, a young bride who marries an older man (Emil Jerman) only to discover on her wedding night that he's uninterested in love-making. With extreme D.H. Lawrence ennui and yearnings (the movie later ventures into Thomas Hardy territory), Eva can't endure this sexless union. Watching and sighing over the presence of blissful, satiated couples, she's filled with depression over her unexplored needs. Fittingly, and, some may think, perversely, she leaves the old man and runs home to her horse-breeder father, who embraces his sad little girl while huffing that he'll never understand women. Well, some understand. Or at least, attempt to try. And so comes the famous sequence.
Eva enjoys a nude swim while her horse stands in wait. Intrigued by the advances of another horse in the distance , the steed dashes off, taking Eva's clothes with him. Eva pursues this enormous figuration of coitus, until a young, handsome worker also helps and then, (happily) happens upon the naked nymph.
What beauty unfolds. The mesmeric scene is filmed like foreplay, as the water, sky, sweaty laborers, and fondling horses are continually referenced while Eva runs through the woods -- a once happy swimmer, now a frustrated, frightened, and soon-to-be thrilled woman. Looking at this obviously -- as a representation of her desires -- she, of course, collides into the most fetching man she's ever seen, aptly named Adam (the fantastic Aribert Mog, who sadly died before ever reaching the age of 40). But even after the smiling, flirtatious Adam shows he can place a bee in a flower (how could one resist?), the film wisely holds out -- at first.
Come nighttime, Eva's bedroom pacing is too much -- she must make her way to Adam's shed. And again, what beauty. The consummated act is shot lovingly and boldly, holding onto Lamarr's fervent face. Lamarr claims the director pricked her with a pin to induce her rapturous reactions. It worked.
Explained as such it may sound coarse, but Ecstasy paces its sexual awakening so perfectly and with such palpable chemistry between its two leads that its spell is almost overwhelmingly bewitching. Mingling mammals, insects, nature, weather and bodies with the mysterious ions charging a swooning man and woman, the nudity, voyeurism and sensuality feel natural, beneficial and so combustible that the sad ending makes perfect sense.
Naturally the movie was banned. No one was going to convince Joseph Breen that a movie containing nudity and an on-screen orgasm wasn't porn. He called the film "highly, even dangerously indecent." No matter the picture is not classic exploitation, nor does it appear to have been made for mere shock value, but tell that to the judge. It was also one of the earliest films to be banned in the United States by the National Legion of Decency.
Though hailed a masterpiece when it opened in Prague, the film was long censored and much sought after in the states, particularly when its lead became Miss Hedy Lamarr, MGM movie star. Though the gorgeous Lamarr wasn't given enough interesting parts, she was endlessly fascinating and intelligent. And in real life too: her early exploits before fleeing Austria, her invention of the "Secret Communication System" (which basically invented wi-fi, incredible) her later shoplifting. She was quite a creature -- especially opposite Charles Boyer in 1938's Algiers, and as the exotic Tondelayo in 1942's White Cargo, and of course, as a young, non-starlet, natural in Ecstasy.
I love watching Hedy Lamarr -- even in her lesser pictures (and she made some dull ones), which taps into another reason why Ecstasy remains so intriguing. Like the movie itself (and Machaty) you want to look at her, but not just, as stated earlier, because she'll eventually find herself in the raw -- but because you'll find yourself in her. Raw. Her curiosity and desire is primal and innate -- a simultaneous capitulation and freedom -- and yet, wistful, as if Eva is conjuring these events from a special memory.
Ecstasy is for female desire, but it's also for male desire, and it well understands impotence, jealousy and guilt, not through words, but through cinema, making it all the more mythical. Here, the aftermath of the act is human -- strong, but also delicate, perilous and hurtful. And it always hurts someone. No wonder Machaty was prodding his butterfly with pins.