In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Falling in love with a movie can be as irrational and impulsive as falling in love with a person. People usually can’t really reach “in love” that quickly—it’s a deep, abiding feeling that takes months or years to grow in a relationship. In a film’s case, a lousy ending can instantly obliterate the affection. But often, a moment of intense infatuation early on carries people through some rough spots, and that moment doesn’t necessarily lend itself to logical analysis. Some combination of elements just sneaks in and pulverizes people. When I think back on old girlfriends, in most cases, I can vividly recall the exact instant I knew I was a goner: Heather handed me a full cup of something in her apartment and said “Mind the carpet” (she was English), with a particular tilt of her head; Mary suddenly pushed me over with one finger when we were both crouched off-balance, looking for something on a low bookshelf. And the cases of total surrender while watching a film—maybe not even a great film—are just as intense and mysterious.
So now that I’ve admitted such experiences can’t be analyzed, I’m gonna try to analyze one anyway. A few months ago, I watched Avanti! for the first time, and it pretty much wiped the floor with me, though it’s far, far down the list of most people’s favorite Billy Wilder films. (Though it does tend to be one of just a couple of Wilder’s films—The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes is the other—admired by cinephiles who generally dislike his work, finding him too cynical and insufficiently humanist. These people are insane, but that’s another essay.) Jack Lemmon plays an uptight businessman who arrives on the Italian island of Ischia to collect his late father’s body, only to discover that the old man had been having an affair with an Englishwoman for many years, and that the two died together in a car accident. The woman’s daughter (Juliet Mills) is also on hand, and when they both head for the morgue, located in a 17th-century church, to identify the bodies and sign some paperwork, Avanti! stole my heart once and for all.
Even if this clip represents your entire knowledge of the movie, you can probably guess where it’s headed. Stories about high-strung Americans (or Brits, for that matter) in Western Europe invariably find them gradually succumbing to the region’s languid beauty, learning how to relax for the first time. And no points for predicting that Lemmon and Mills end up just as smitten with each other as their parents were. But the journey is everything, especially when the destination is so obvious. Wilder and his frequent co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond (together, they adapted Avanti! from a failed stage play, though they reportedly discarded everything save for the basic premise), begin this scene by symbolically marrying their protagonists, having them each swear “I do” as part of the identification process. At the same time, though, they’re each seeing a beloved parent’s corpse, so it’s an unusually somber, poignant kickoff to the standard “comedy of remarriage” that animates screwball (which is what Avanti! essentially is, albeit much-warped). The union begins in mutual sorrow, accompanied by a plaintive refrain, courtesy of Italian composer Carlo Rustichelli.
Wilder being Wilder, the scene then shifts to comedy—but it’s still an atypically doleful sort of comedy, oddly touching in its absurdity. The coroner’s routine has been choreographed to the point where it almost looks as if he’s about to do some table magic rather than complete a series of death certificates. But while it’s amusing to watch for its own sake, and provides Lemmon’s exec with an opportunity to remind us he’s an impatient asshole who desperately needs to get out of his own head, this series of precise, repetitive actions also momentarily gets us out of the bereaved’s heads. For a couple of minutes, we’re encouraged to identify, on some level, with a functionary for whom death is a regular occurrence that requires practical action. Entire narratives (most notably Six Feet Under) have been built around that idea, but shifting focus in the middle of a slow-burning romance is another matter entirely. There’s a weird sense in which the coroner’s presence and routine acknowledge that almost every relationship is built from the ashes of something else that died, and that there’s a comforting regularity to the cycle. Or at least, that’s my best shot at explaining why I got all choked up watching this goofy man do his thing.
Throughout the scene, Wilder maintains a careful balance of empathy and cruelty, preventing viewers from getting their emotional bearings. Toward the end, when Mills suggests they bury the couple together in Ischia rather than go to the laborious trouble of shipping the respective bodies home, Lemmon blows up in typical Lemmon fashion, treating her as if she’s beneath contempt. (“May I make a suggestion?” “No.” “I have a super idea, I think.” “Save it.”) But this works, in large part, because of how sincerely Lemmon thanks Mills a few minutes earlier for splitting the bunch of flowers she brought into equal halves and placing them on his father’s body as well as on her mother’s. He isn’t a one-dimensional jerk who will later be transformed into a one-dimensional mensch; he’s a decent but flawed individual who can swing from one extreme to the other at the slightest provocation. That dynamic is present throughout the entire film, but it’s concentrated here, reinforced by the other notes of duality: marriage/death, comedy/tragedy. What happens in moments of infatuation, I think, is that you suddenly sense an actual person behind whatever mask is facilitating the dance you’re both engaged in, and this scene was the moment in Avanti! when I sensed the complex film underneath the conventional narrative.
Then the final dialogue exchange sealed the deal. It isn’t obvious from looking at her, but Mills gained about 25 pounds for this role, as she still isn’t even close to being fat by any sane standard. All the same, her character is meant to be kind of a porker—it’s brought up again and again, and the climactic kiss actually takes place while she’s standing on a scale. And because ludicrous notions of female beauty are so rarely even acknowledged, much less questioned, by Hollywood movies, Lemmon’s casually whispered “Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride,” and Mills’ perfectly measured reply indicating that she heard him, just tore my guts out. I’ve ended the clip immediately after this moment because it’s already running a bit long, but Wilder holds for some time on that long shot of her standing beside the bodies, letting the pain sink in. It’s such an unexpected, jarring note on which to end a scene that already provokes so many conflicting emotions. I think I gasped aloud. “Ask fat-ass if she wants a ride.” That was it. I was in love.
Consequently, I forgave the one little bit from this scene I didn’t like at all: The coroner’s exit gag, in which he suddenly stops, wiggles his right leg, then wrings the water out of his sponge. Way too cute for my taste. Wilder’s trying too hard there. But as when your new paramour mispronounces a word or makes a stupid joke, you just ignore it, at least for right now. You’re too damn happy.