Thursday, January 15, 2009

In Brief: WOMAN TIMES SEVEN (1967)

It's no wonder that Shirley MacLaine came to believe that she'd lived past lives, given that she's played more roles than the number of movie's she made. Here, as you may have guessed, she plays seven different roles in individual episodes, all directed by Vittorio De Sica. By this point in his career, De Sica, one of the fathers of the neorealist school and the director of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. among other classics, was making slick, light, colorful comedies. This can easily be seen as selling out, but looking at the neorealist films myself, I saw signs that style counted for more than social-realist substance for the director. He has an aesthetic eye for architecture and there's a quality of art direction even in these chronicles of poverty and human desperation. So perhaps it was natural that he'd go in a more conventional direction once he got the social consciousness out of his system. But that doesn't excuse this film.

Woman Times Seven rises or falls on your receptivity of the premise that Shirley MacLaine is such an awesome actress that you want to see her display her versatility in a collection of vignettes, some of which are little more than blackouts. On the other hand, since she is not an unattractive woman, perhaps it'll do to see her in a variety of costumes and hairstyles. That choice takes you in strange directions. In the second episode, in which she tries to avenge herself on her cheating husband by becoming a prostitute, her frumpy hairstyle, her glasses and elements of her outfit reminded me somewhat of Velma from the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

Shirley MacLaine as Velma -- I mean, Maria Theresa in WOMAN TIMES SEVEN

In another episode, in which she is most often addressed as "Miss Interpreter," she comes as close to unclothed as current standards and her own star status will allow. However attractive she may be, her looks are marred by her obligation to act, on most occasions, like an insane person. This appears to be the point of the whole film, and it is made early and often. She is paired by a cast of actors ranging from a completely wasted Peter Sellers in the opening section to ex-Tarzan turned Euro action star Lex Barker as a novelist to Alan Arkin as a sullen partner in suicide to Michael Caine as a silent stalker. They are all just little planets circling Shirley's blazing gas giant, and as romantic partners, none of them are exactly Audrey Hepburn.

If you can endure the MacLaine onslaught, the movie is in some ways a pleasure. It has attractive views of '60s Paris and a lush score by Mondo maestro Riz Ortolani. Woman Times Seven is probably best appreciated, for people other than MacLaine fanatics, as a period piece. It is self-consciously daring at a moment in time when its daring would very shortly seem quaint. That fact lends the film a certain poignancy that makes me more indulgent toward it than I might be otherwise. That's how nostaliga works -- even for a time when I didn't really live.

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