By Tara Judah
Beneath the dirt and amidst the scratches of a tired 35mm print is a shade of yellow I have never seen onscreen, so far as I am aware. When the golden title sequence comes to an end I think I will see Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor’s skin tones as I have seen them before, but I am wrong. John Huston, determined to give his screen adaptation of Carson McCullers’ short novel a hue that would reflect the psychological and emotional complexity of its characters, worked with the Italian Technicolor lab to achieve the truly beautiful, heated, yet melancholy golden effect that marks Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).
The entire film is awash with what Huston calls ‘a diffuse amber color’. It is close in execution to a field in high summer and drought; dry, dehydrated, radiating heat. The characters are an extension of the colour, and story and theme a true invocation of the film’s aesthetic.
Situated on a military post somewhere in the American South, Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor), fight, entertain, betray and ignore one another while their friends and neighbours watch, judge and occasionally participate. A story about sexual tensions, socially coded perversions and the cruel judgments of what our eyes are capable of perceiving, Reflections in a Golden Eye is an exquisite study of human behaviour.
It’s not enough to say that it is about repressed sexuality, however. The relationships between the men, their wives, their lovers, desired lovers, friends and others at the military base are all laced with an emotionally golden hue. A sublime feeling that is like standing on the precipice of erotic danger marks each of these complicated relationships, including one of a mentally ill woman (Alison Langdon played by Julie Harris), childlike in love with her ‘houseboy’ (the occasionally French-speaking Filipino Anacleto played by Zorro David) and extending to Leonora’s metaphorically controlled yet free love affair with her stallion, Firebird.
The sexual intentions and repressions of each of the characters may be clearer in the book- as Miguel Marias indicates, “the novel is much more explicit about the characters and the motives behind their somewhat strange actions,” but it is wonderfully complicated in the film. There are no black and white relationships, there is no one repressed sexuality – each character desires and is disgusted by more than one person, gender, or act of intimacy.
Perhaps more than any other film I have ever seen, Reflections in a Golden Eye refuses to be categorised or confined. It may, for some, be as horrifically entertaining as Mommie Dearest (1981), where Faye Dunaway gives an incredible and terrifying performance of a cruel, deranged Joan Crawford, or Boom! (1968), also starring a fiery Elizabeth Taylor, here presenting the onscreen dissolution of her relationship with Richard Burton. But Reflections is also a staggering work of art, and one that somehow manages to mute and accentuate the intensity of Elizabeth Taylor’s performance with its strange aesthetic.
Playing opposite an almost incomprehensible Marlon Brando (anecdotally, Taylor called Brando ‘Mumbles’ on set and told him it would be ‘lovely’ if he were to audibly utter his lines), Taylor sizzles as if Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) met Cleopatra (1963) and, under some intoxicating spell, decided to exact psychological revenge on her lover through horseback riding. It is every bit as insane as that sounds. The intensity of her angry stripping or maniacal laughter at a sort of BDSM inspired public humiliation and domestic violence outburst, while sober, have to be seen to be believed.
Huston’s aesthetic is the most sexual, unnerving and remarkable I have ever laid eyes on – a truly queer aesthetic for a wonderfully queer film. The joy of which I owe in part to the Cinémathèque Suisse whose Vintage 35mm Technicolor ‘Golden’ print screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Huston fought hard against the studio (Warner Brothers) to have the film distributed on prints made in the colour process he intended. Some compromise was required, however, and straight Technicolor prints were also distributed. Huston considers Reflections one of his best pictures, and, viewed under a haze of diffuse amber, I can’t imagine that anyone in love with big aesthetics could disagree.