A little ignorance is useful in generating your own ideas. About thirty years ago I went to a VHS of Ernst Lubitsch’s “That Uncertain Feeling” (1941) to fill a gap in my view of his groundbreaking Hollywood sex comedies. Unaware that it was widely dismissed as one of his weakest films, I immediately became obsessed with it and still consider it his strongest, purest, and wildest masterpiece. That Uncertain Feeling is re-streamed on the Criterion Channel this month, and since it’s available now, I propose an illuminating cinematic challenge: compare this film, made under the Hays Code censorship regime in 1940, to each of them Lubitsch’s pre-code comedies and see where he gets away with more blatant erotic innuendos and outrageous claims of sexual freedom.
“That Uncertain Feeling” is the story of a young, rich and childless Park Avenue couple, Jill and Larry Baker (Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas). They are highlighted in a glossy magazine as “the happy bakers”, but their happiness turns out to be an empty facade. Jill has suffered from longstanding hiccups that her high society friends claim could only have been caused by the care of her circle’s psychoanalyst Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray), can be cured. Jill resists and claims to be “normal”. Aware of the propensity of analysis to drive married couples apart by the relentless force of her revelations, she is desperate for a cure and soon turns to him. But in his office she admits that she has difficulty reporting her symptoms to doctors because she says, “If I come, it will work and if I go, it will come”. (It’s amazing to see what the censors weren’t thinking.)
This medical confession, made just minutes after the film begins, sets the outrageous tone of sexual frustration that ricochets off throughout the film – and the thick layers of social grace and material comforts they hide. In ironic dialogues, Vengard elicits from Jill – who admits (or claims) to be twenty-four – that she also suffers from sleepless nights in bed alongside her husband, a busy thirty-five-year-old insurance manager who sleeps quietly at the same time. Armed with insight, Jill tries to wake him from his sleep (a clever and symbolic strategy involving the family dog). Here adultery comes to the rescue, in the person of another patient of Vengard, Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), an intellectually contentious and ridiculously misanthropic pianist-composer whose attention to Jill suddenly fills her days with both cultural sophistication and frenzy new romance. Larry’s discovery of their affair – in an amazing deal with a mix-up – leads him to get a quick and clean divorce in hopes of winning her back.
The frame of “That Uncertain Feeling” is based on a silent film from Lubitsch’s “Kiss Me Again” from 1925, which in turn is based on a French farce of the 19th century “Divorçons!”. (“Let’s divorce!”) (The earlier film, long thought to be lost, was well received at the time of its release, including in the Pages of the brand new New YorkerWorking with a screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart – and working as his own producer and directing the only film released by his own production company – it looks like Lubitsch was unleashing a series of inspired gags that he saved had on their own account. That Uncertain Feeling was shot on a relatively small budget compared to its studio films and is based on a small number of actors and locations. But within the sparsely decorated sets, Lubitsch performs exquisitely timed and maliciously alluding maneuvers of desire and power. This is all the more impressive in view of the relaxation of the film, its warm and humane rounding of the hard lines of its precise mechanisms – not least because of the lively expressivity of the actors, who are easily enthroned on the sharp edge of anger, pain, and conflict.
In glowing, astute close-ups, Lubitsch captures Oberon’s flickering glances, Douglas’s frozen smile of good-naturedness, Meredith’s feverish angularity. Even Larry’s breezy step into the Bakers’ living room while Jill is chatting with a friend there, or his similarly confident strides across the same room when he’s unaware of Sebastian’s grumpy presence there, evokes his absent-mindedness and underlying cause – that Shop. Rich and successful Larry, whom his lawyer Jones (Harry Davenport) calls the best salesman in the business, has insurance on his mind instead of romance. His most intense physical confrontation with Jill is playfully poking her in the waist and screeching “Keeks!”. (She has something to say after a session with Vengard.) Larry’s most energetic interaction with Jill involves planning a dinner at their home for some potential clients, furniture makers who happen to be from Hungary (and who happen to be the resonant names of Kafka and Janáček ). He trains her to utter the warm Hungarian invitation “Egészségedre” (“To your health”) and encourages her to do so with the cheeky emptiness of a wind-up doll, suggesting how impersonally he has attended her after only six years of marriage.
But Sebastian, the new love, is not the epitome of virtue or charm. His own neurosis, which he says affects the concert hall, is boastfully antisocial and deliberately unconventional. His own neurosis probably involves something more intimate, as suggested by the phallic implications of a slack, drooping curl that Jill in a surrealist portrait of. noticed him by an artist ex. As a picky esthete and shameless guest, Sebastian demands that a vase be removed from the table in the Baker house and hidden in a drawer. Hostile to the Hungarian instrumental record that Larry plays for his guests, he presumed to scratch it. Deterred by the appearance of a female guest at his piano, he orders her to be removed before performing. His nickname is “Phooey!” But for all the ancient hostility, Sebastian Jill at least gives the impression that he is paying her attention. (What happens when their affair turns into coexistence – another matter of terrifyingly brave comedy for the time – is a whole different story.)
Lubitsch stages scenes – such as Sebastian’s postprandial living room piano concerto for Larry’s Hungarian Perspectives – with an extraordinary theatrical gesture (panning shots of characters crossing the room, meaningfully complex changes of gaze) and a totemic sense of objects (a lock, cupboard, record, vase) . In doing so, he reveals that ordinary social activities have powerful psychological reverberations. Despite the comedic view of the patient-analyst relationship, “That Uncertain Feeling” is not a parody of psychoanalysis. Rather, Lubitsch’s symbolic representation of hidden desires, unspoken motifs and distracted attentions – the cold cinematic embodiment of indescribable, surging passions – plays like psychoanalysis in pictures. His view of the power of analysis extends to the most pressing current event – the analysis of power. Born as the son of a Jewish family in Berlin, Lubitsch began his career in Germany before moving to Hollywood in the early twenties, and in “That Uncertain Feeling” he also made allusions to the impending threat from Nazi Germany, including in a sequence with the Hitler salute, which indicates the sexual pathology that underlies his tyranny.
Because he shot “That Uncertain Feeling” on a small budget, Lubitsch didn’t rely on the opulence (or feel) of his earlier, acclaimed film duo “Ninotschka” and “The Shop Around the Corner” or the Eurocentric glamor of “Trouble In” Paradise ”or its four features with Maurice Chevalier. Rather, he reduced and melted much of his cinematic superstructure in order to reveal the mechanisms of his method and the underlying erotic ideas with an extraordinary, self-revealing clarity. Strangely, “That Uncertain Feeling”, published in April 1941, was in the Times on May 2nd, in a relatively short piece overshadowed by a lengthy review on the same page of another new release: “Citizen Kane”. Nobody doubts the cinematic modernity of Orson Welles’ extravagant, expressive debut film. But Lubitsch’s art of allusions and indirections is no less inspiring. In the work of modern filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, with their attention to the truths and illusions of exquisite subtleties, or in that of Abbas Kiarostami and Jia Zhangke, whose political circumstances are the symbolic expression of what cannot be openly addressed. In the current age of bold directness, Lubitsch’s sense of understatement and metaphor reflects the impossibility of self-knowledge and the inadequacy of self-expression. The dizzying craftsmanship of its aesthetic trembles against the unsettling uncertainties of the deepest reality.