Portrait of Madame Yuki (Kenji Mizoguchi / Japan, 1950):
(Yuki Fujin Ezu)

The title echoes Portrait of Madame X, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s socialite is as detailed, evocative and mysterious as John Singer Sargent’s. The troubled beauty is an affluent heiress (Michiyo Kogure) first seen at her father’s wake, tending to the sloshed husband (Eijiro Yanagi) flaunting the striped boxers under his white robes. Not just vulgar but proudly hoggish, he squanders their fortune until the family home must be converted into a sake inn to be run by his gold-digging mistress (Yuriko Hamada). (A half-lit, slightly high-angled shot -- spent revelers sprawled on a littered tatami -- gives a cogent summary of the debauchery.) "There are limits to submission," but, try as she may to run off with an earnest professor (Ken Uehara), the heroine remains helplessly drawn to the brute’s carnal force. "Against my feelings, my body accepts him," she confesses. "A demon lives in it." All of this is witnessed by the new maid (Yoshiko Kuga), who’s beckoned into the bedroom by Yanagi and ordered to fold his kimono while the couple is still going at it just out of the frame. (More piercing Mizoguchian allusiveness: As the husband’s gross silhouette looms over the servant and the humiliated wife squirms under the sheets, the camera cuts to butterflies circling a stone lamp outside and to Buddha’s beaming visage on a discarded brooch.) Not the literal flames of revolt of My Love Has Been Burning for Madame Yuki, but rather the lavish bathtubs of aloof, undulating acquiescence. Her aristocratic pavilion is a stifling maze of manicured gardens, winding trails and doors opening unto doors opening unto doors. (Sirk a few years later imagines just such a domestic mausoleum in All I Desire.) The stunning dénouement points to Ugetsu’s spectral realms: The dazed Yuki ambles into the wilderness until she stops at a café, the camera cranes down to follow the waiter as he gets her tea and then up again to find her chair now vacant. Mist creeps in, and it's as if Murnau had never died. With Hayura Kato, Kumero Urabe, and Shizue Natsukawa. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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