Director: Joseph Losey
Last week in a post on The Criminal I discussed David Thomson's idea that the early films of Joseph Losey combine the contrary qualities of hysteria and subtlety. None of his early work I've seen, though, contains such extremes of those two qualities as his 1962 film Eva (originally released in the US in a truncated version called Eve). Moreover, while in Losey's early work these two opposites tend to be fully synthesized, here they remain curiously separate, the element of hysteria pretty well confined to the movie's plot, the element of subtlety found largely in Losey's impressive direction. It's almost as though he realized that the events of the film were so outlandish that only a subdued presentation had any chance of putting them over successfully. The nearly schizophrenic result is one of Losey's most restrained jobs of directing in one of his most dramatically excessive pictures.
The film opens in Venice during the film festival there. A writer, Tyvian Jones (Stanley Baker), who has just had a big success with his first novel, is attending because the book has been adapted into a movie that is being exhibited at the festival. When his fiancée Francesca (Virna Lisi), a production assistant to the film's director, has to travel to Rome for a production conference, he returns to his house on Torcello to find that a mysterious woman, Eva Olivier (Jeanne Moreau), has broken into the house and is occupying his bed. The aloof Eva teases him, tempts him, rejects him, then finally seduces him. This is only the beginning of a relationship in which this pattern of heartless treatment by Eva continues with complete unpredictability, even after Tyvian and Francesca have married, until she has wrecked his marriage, his self-esteem, his mental equanimity, in short his entire life—all apparently just for the hell of it.
As played by Stanley Baker, Tyvian, a former Welsh coal miner, is a confident, ultra-masculine man, a working-class intellectual with a brutish streak who drinks too much and is not above pushing people around to get his way. He seems genuinely to love Francesca, but the arrival of Eva in his life creates a situation in which he finds himself pulled in opposing directions. On the one hand, the gentle Francesca inspires in him the striving toward a more noble and sensitive nature than, aside from Francesca, others perceive in him. On the other hand, the sudden presence of Eva in his life begins to strip away his self-control and his civilized veneer. Under her corrosive influence he becomes a self-centered, id-driven man blindly willing to destroy in order to satisfy urges he cannot withstand. Worse, she causes him to strip off the mask he presents to others and confront what he has successfully concealed from everyone else—that he is in truth an impostor, a fraud passing off the writing of someone else as his own.
Jeanne Moreau plays Eva with ferocious intensity, pulling out all the stops to portray the most wantonly predatory temptress seen on the screen since Dietrich's Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel. She acts like a dangerous drug on Tyvian—irresistible, addictive, and ultimately destructive. She manipulates him, lies to him, and humiliates him. Her one object seems to be to control him. Why she does this and why she focuses her toxic attention on Tyvian and not someone else is never explained. The most that can be said is that if she is his addiction, then her power over him is her own addiction.
The motivation of her actions may be enigmatic, but her dedication to purpose and the disastrous effect of those actions are plain. On the moral level, the film is a tale of the competition for a man's soul, with the benign influence of Francesca losing out to the corrupting influence of Eva. Once she has him under her control, she does not stop until she has razed his soul. Tyvian may appear too well-armored a personality to be vulnerable to Eva, but she senses the chinks in that armor and is able to get inside, to find his weaknesses and exploit them to cast him out of his Venetian Paradise. With her seductive poses and magnificent face—her huge eyes, swollen lips, and nearly immobile expression—Moreau makes an imposing presence, dominating the screen like a glacial goddess of destruction.
Losey almost seems to use the film as an opportunity to pay homage to the two men who were at the time the supreme masters of Italian cinema—Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. He combines the narrative histrionics and character eccentricities of Fellini with the cool, precise, deliberately paced visual style of Antonioni. He is aided in this by his cinematographer, Gianni di Venanzo, who photographed some of the greatest films of those two masters. (The camera operator is the soon-to-be renowned Pasqualino de Santis, and the great New Wave cinematographer Henri Decaë did uncredited additional photography, the film festival scenes early in the picture.) The film is a visual treat, each sequence planned in painstaking detail and executed with remarkable but unshowy artistry.
One sequence that especially stands out for me takes place near the end of the picture when Tyvian follows the drunken Eva home from the casino in Venice after she has ignored him there. He lurks outside her building and when she comes home watches her as she moves through her second-storey flat. Losey films this sequence from Tyvian's point of view, the camera in the street outside, level with the windows. As Eva enters the darkened flat, the camera follows her, tracking laterally and framing her in the windows as she progresses from one room to the next, turning on the lights in each room as she enters it. The effect is to transform her flat into the equivalent of a theater stage set. It's a masterful blend of lighting, movement, and voyeurism that ends with Tyvian climbing into the flat from the balcony and the outraged Eve pushing him through the window onto a heap of garbage in the street below.
David Thomson is hugely enthusiastic about Eva, calling it "one of the great lost films of all time." I wouldn't go that far myself. It is at times quite melodramatic, a touch too obvious in its Biblical parallels, and rather simplistic in its moral alternatives. But it certainly is something to behold, with such a virile presence as Baker so thoroughly unmanned by the malignant Moreau, whose Eva must be included among those signature performances of the late fifties and early sixties that form the basis of her cinema legacy.
You might also like:
• The Lovers (1958)
• Bay of Angels (1963)
• The Criminal (1960)
• These Are the Damned (1963)
Note: The copy of Eva I got from Netflix, released by Kino, contained both the theatrical release version and the longer director's version, which is the one I watched. Both the picture quality and the sound quality were only fair. The picture was on the fuzzy side and the outdoor scenes often appeared washed out. The DVD transfer was apparently made from a Swedish copy, because I could find no way to turn off the Swedish subtitles. This was a minor annoyance during the occasional brief conversation in Italian, which was translated into Swedish in the subtitles. The only help for Anglophones was that the subject of these conversations was sometimes alluded to in the English-language dialogue.