Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Deception


If you love Bette Davis, and of course you must, you will have seen the wonderful Deception, in which she plays a pianist reunited with her great love (Paul Henreid, a cellist), who must also fend off the jealousies of her older mentor (Claude Rains), a wild-eyed and fabulously successful composer.

The movie is a different Bette Davis vehicle, in that it gives her something to do besides cry, die, or renounce things or people. Or be completely wicked. All three lead actors have good, meaty speaking parts, and really seem to be playing off each other as characters who, as is true in life, do not know what is going to happen next. When they play musical instruments, they really seem to play, Bette the Appassionata of all things. And there is a delightful dining scene, in which Claude Rains has the time of his life ordering and re-ordering an elaborate meal for the three of them, just before a performance of his own cello concerto by the hapless Henreid, who crumples into a tangle of nerves as the evening wears on.

Rains' character is famed and great, and they are in a French restaurant, so there is no question but that he can either order whatever he wants, or else that the chef is so superb anything he is doing in the kitchen tonight will be sublime. Or both. Rains inspects and snuffles a platter of freshly dead partridges to start with, and approves; then he decides that they must have a trout before the partridges, and the birds must not be served plain, a l'anglaise, but must be stuffed with a forcemeat of pork, pullet livers and truffles, moistened with a half glass of dry Madeira. He insists on pronouncing truffles "troofles," which is no doubt correct. And then the partridges could be served aux choux, but that would take too long. But before that, a canape? Or soup? What soup? Is there a parmentiere tonight, or a petite marmite?

And what of the wine? A Hermitage, or a soft Burgundy? Let it be a Hermitage '14 ... and a salad and a "kickshaw," something sweet, for Bette at the end if she wants it. But what if the Hermitage is not right with the partridges? ("I really am most uncertain.") Perhaps ... a woodcock. A woodcock! Then, they could all have a Vosne-Romanée, or even a Romanée Conti, and the woodcock could be served, why, à la Vatel, or à la Périgord. "The greater the pleasure, the more important to preface it with a good meal," he purrs in explanation, while Bette and Paul slug back martinis and wait.

We'll note that in this movie, all the wines are French, and not a mention of a varietal passes Claude Rains' lips. An "Hermitage '14" would be a wine from the Rhône valley, made, if red, primarily of the syrah grape, and if white, of marsanne and roussanne. They are, says Oz Clarke in The New Encyclopedia of French Wines, among the finest France can produce, the white Hermitages especially capable of the kind of aging that Rains' character is asking for (in 1945) when he wants a wine thirty years old. All the other wines he mentions -- a "soft Burgundy," a Vosne-Romanée, a Romanée Conti, are made from the pinot noir grape, indeed are all Burgundies. Vosne-Romanée is a village having no fewer than five grands crus vineyards around it, that is, vineyards legally classified as of topmost quality ("great growths"). Romanée-Conti is one of these. It makes the most fabulous and expensive wine in the world, "the cloud-capped pinnacle of Burgundy for many very wealthy Burgundy lovers," the only comparable bottle being perhaps a Château Pétrus -- this is a Bordeaux, made from the merlot grape. But Romanée Conti only produces 7000 bottles a year, 580 cases or so, from its four and a half acres of land. As Clarke notices, "there are sure to be at least 7000 well-heeled Burgundy fanatics desperate for a slurp at any price" in any year. We can only hope they don't slurp immediately because this wine, too, must be aged. Ten years, fifteen years, whatever it takes to bring its orgy of flavors and smells to satiny, brown sugar and earth -- and troofles -- maturity.

I'd like to know what the scriptwriters knew about wine when they wrote dialogue for a sophisticated character who is meant to have the world at his fingertips. An hour's research in a library would enable the most rank amateur to find and copy out the words "Romanée Conti." The wine has been fabled for a long time. In his book on the subject, Richard Olney wrote that the vineyard took on the added "Conti" in the late eighteenth century, when a prince of that name bought it up and reserved the entire production to himself. But the screenwriters do have Rains mention his Burgundies with roughly correct, greater and greater specificity, and then there's Hermitage, too, which would have been a little more obscure. And all those foods he knows -- marmite and parmentiere, and a "kickshaw." (Properly pronounced kickshaws, from the French quelque chose, literally a little "something.") Were Deception's screenwriters at ease with all this information to begin with, and did they expect the audience, in 1945, to sit back and relish it all, or were these references bookish things intended to float far over everyone's heads, and render Rains' character a hilarious dilettante?

Do rent a copy of Deception, and if you like, use the English language subtitles to help keep up with all the food references in the dining scene. Rest assured that in the end, Claude Rains gets his. And I think I will spoil nothing when I add that the final line in the movie -- " 'You must be the luckiest woman in the world!' " is understated perfection. A kickshaw.

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