As “Madame Sousatzka,” Shirley MacLaine makes her big move into the grande dame territory of Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Playing an imperious London piano teacher, feared as much as admired, she is a spinster of seedy theatricality in her dated, vaguely Gypsy finery, with her hair in unruly ringlets and wearing too much rouge and lipstick.
She is also, however, an individual of talent and character whose withering repartee hides a solitary woman hungry for love.
Under John Schlesinger’s controlled direction, MacLaine goes right to the edge but never quite falls off in Madame Sousatzka’s frequent displays of temperament. In the most radical departure of her career, MacLaine reveals the very soul of this difficult woman and, in doing so, steals your heart.
No question about it, MacLaine triumphs as Sousatzka.
Adapted from the Bernice Rubens novel by Schlesinger and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the longtime scenarist for director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, “Madame Sousatzka” premieres tonight at the Beverly Center Cineplex as the opening attraction in the Women in Film Festival. (It begins a regular run Friday at selected theaters.)
The film is in the literate Merchant-Ivory tradition. It is also in the venerable star-vehicle tradition--more in keeping with the stage than the screen--that says that when an exalted actress of a certain age is playing even a mild eccentric, you’ve got to drum up the laughs.
The film is overly cute around the edges but substantial enough at the core to sustain this needless sentimentalizing effect. Sousatzka takes herself so seriously that she is often unintentionally hilarious, giving inherent comic relief to what is essentially a portrait of loneliness and frustration.
For about 30 years Madame Sousatzka has lived in a spacious, dusty, tchotchke-filled second-floor flat in a crumbling Italianate Victorian townhouse that stands in an elegant period neighborhood undergoing gentrification at a furious pace. Above her is the good-hearted Jenny (Twiggy), a model and aspiring pop singer of minor talent. Below her is Cordle (Geoffrey Bayldon), a kindly osteopath in his 60s. On the damp ground floor lives the building’s elderly, calmly realistic owner, Lady Emily (Peggy Ashcroft), who was born in the house. We soon get to know and care about these people as much as we do Madame S.
The latest youth to climb the stairs to Madame’s door is 15-year-old Manek Sen (Navin Chowdhry, in a splendid screen debut), the London-born son of a silly but loving, impoverished Delhi aristocrat (Shabana Azmi). Typically, Madame S. comes on like a curmudgeon, but the well-behaved Manek is smart enough to appreciate that she’s a truly gifted teacher who has his best interests at heart.
But has she really? For in time she comes to love him as she did his immediate predecessor (Sam Howard).
Where the film rings truest is in its quality of ambiguity in regard to human nature; we’re never able to determine the degree to which this repressed woman’s feelings are maternal or sexual in regard to her pupil(s), and we’re also never quite sure where her sensible insistence that her talented pupil not concertize until he’s ready ends and where her possessiveness and fears take over. (That she would even have fears comes as a surprise.)
The more we learn about Madame S., however, the more she seems admirable in her indomitability--in her determination to pursue her calling single-mindedly in defiance of potential heartbreak, the passing of time and inevitable change.
For all the richness of MacLaine’s portrayal, the film is more than a star vehicle since, in their less showy ways, all the other actors are memorable, especially Azmi, the beautiful star of so many Shyam Benegal films; the adorable Twiggy, and Leigh Lawson as her smooth but shallow agent-lover.
There’s great delicacy in the depiction of the friendship between Cordle and the handsome Manek, who knows Cordle is gay and accepts it with equanimity.
“Madame Sousatzka” (rated PG-13 for adult situations and themes) is very much in the spirit of George Cukor, who so wanted to direct MacLaine and once nearly did. He would have loved this film.