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at Harvard Film Studies (Carpenter Center) tonight

By Mike Prokosch

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE'S Rappaccini's Daughter, from which Rappaccini was adapted, pushes the American black romance to its limits. A young man entering college takes a room opening onto a courtyard garden. One day he sees an extraordinarily beautiful girl walking among the exotic flowers, and approaches her. Despite her extreme shyness and the warnings of a family friend (a professional rival of the brilliant Dr. Rappaccini), Giovanni wins the love of Beatrice Rappaccini. The garden's flowers are, however, poisonous; Beatrice, having grown up in the garden, lives on them. When Giovanni discovers this he gives her an antidote, only to kill her and (in Hawthorne's version) to discover that he now needs poison to live--as planned by the diabolical Dr. Rappaccini.

Robert Edelstein is better able than anyone to make this bizarre fantasy into a film. His three previous films (one, Sally's Hounds, shown this fall in the New York City Film Festival's experimental series) were built on the same themes: the frightening distance between people in love, the ideal appearance of loved figures, and above all the mental experience of people in love. Edelstein takes this mental experience and objectifies it in every shot. The Boys and Their Girls, for example, has a sequence in a swimming pool. Cutting up girls' bodies and swimming motions and intercutting the play of light on the water, Edelstein takes off from the immediate action to create a light-blasted wasteland of sexuality--a world in which the freely swimming girls are unapproachable. The sequence completely explains his male characters' inability to act decisively: in such a world, the world of their objectified emotions, action is hopeless.

But this imprisoning world also contains their actions. Edelstein plays down his actors' facial expressions and impetuous gestures, orchestrating every body motion into the rhythm of the film. Changes in his characters' positions directly express the progress of the plot and establish a system of relations between his characters which you see unfold before you eyes.

The visual style of Rappaccini thus synthesizes personal emotions, personal development, plot, and thematic development into a single drama. It's the perfect way to put Hawthorne's romance into film. This type of romance, designed to describe personal development through emotional (above all, love) experience, requires its characters' sentiments to seem real and strong so that their actions will feel sufficiently motivated. Edelstein establishes the objectivity, indeed the rule, of his characters' emotional experience. Their actions are completely determined by their emotions, and since these emotions form the world of his film, the entire drama proceeds with a chilling inevitability. The actors' motions and positions of objects--everything in the film moves to a single end, one which we feel absolutely necessary.

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