Review by Michael Nordine
Posted on 18 May 2011
Source 35mm print
Categories TCM Classic Film Festival 2011
Scarcely available for more than half a century due to rights disputes, The Constant Nymph exudes the air of unattainability. Blending the earthly with the ethereal, the spoken with the repressed, Edmund Goulding’s meditation on differing modes of externalizing the ineffable is hidden beneath the guise of a love triangle involving a musician, his wife, and the young woman who ultimately becomes his muse. The folly of normal speech is ever-present in the film; whether restrained by social mores or an innate inability to do so, few characters - and certainly neither of the two leads - simply say what they mean. For composer Lewis Dodd, this manifests itself in harsh, atonal pieces that alienate his melodically-inclined audience; Tessa Sanger, for whom his affections truly lie, has fainting spells. They exhibit different symptoms, but the underlying problem is the same.
Though older (and thus, one might imagine, wiser) than Tessa, Lewis is the more confused of the two. He’s prone to philosophizing with such barely-interested conversationalists as his doctor, constantly hinting at his ennui without fully understanding its cause. What he does know is that he’s stifled by the drudgery of his urban existence and seeks refuge in a pastoral life that isn’t his own. Toward that end, he goes to visit aging friend and fellow musician Albert Sanger on his country estate. There he finds the playful scheming and idle giggling of youthful sisters—one of whom, Tessa, happens to be in love with him—as well as much-needed peace and quiet, all of which reinvigorate his well-being and creativity. Lewis always has his head in his clouds, and it’s there that the spirited Tessa resides, but he doesn’t look at her the same way she looks at him. There is thus a sense of something being not quite right, as though the very presence of one from the city is harmful to the rural milieu. Indeed, the Sanger sisters’ ailing patriarch passes on early in the film and Lewis soon returns to Vienna with an interloper of a wife named Florence who, we’re made quite aware, doesn’t exhibit the same unearthly qualities that make Tessa such so sprightly a figure.
A study in contrasts, the two consistently fascinate as an example of the strange qualities that attract us to each other. The Constant Nymph is far from the first story to use language as a barrier between two lovers, but few others come to mind with two English-speakers as the objects of miscommunication. As Tessa is forbidden from being explicit about her feelings and Lewis is only half-aware of his, the two often resort to speaking in musical code. Tessa intimates a deeper understanding of Lewis than he may have of himself in reacting to one of his compositions by asking whether he’s “ashamed of melody;” she understands, even if he doesn’t, that much of his brooding is self-imposed. Her assessment of his musical articulation - and the stilted emotional core behind it - is that it’s in keeping with their shared problem expressing their true selves. “Anything that ever came to my mind was never quite of this earth,” Lewis says, somehow oblivious to the fact that he’s just described the woman standing right in front of him.
Florence, who seems to understand the feelings between her husband and Tessa better than they do, speaks the film’s most indispensable in saying that “there’s some sort of language between them that only they themselves can understand.” Rather than bemoan Lewis and Tessa’s inability to simply blurt out their inner desires, Goulding uses it as an opportunity to highlight the many nonverbal cues that make their attraction evident to everyone but each other. To know but not know is a shared condition that results from an absence of words between two people with reciprocal feelings for one another. Lewis is as lovesick as Tessa, even if he isn’t fully conscious of it.
Like these characters, the film itself is restrained despite its emotional intensity. Operatic in mood but quiet in action, The Constant Nymph’s most telling moments slip by rather than announce themselves. It’s more the aftereffects of these small happenings - smiles turn into swoons, swoons into tears - than the actions themselves that resonate throughout, but even this is achieved with subtlety. A lone exception to this understatement is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s sweeping score, tuned in as it is to the sturm und drang lurking beneath The Constant Nymph’s calm surface. Appropriately for a story about a frustrated musician, Korngold gives voice to the otherwise unspoken feelings that color Goulding’s film. It’s a needed counterbalance to Goulding’s restraint.
The film’s title is telling in that it points to Tessa’s status as one who satisfies Lewis’s fixation on the otherworldly. It’s also somewhat misleading. Nymphs, unlike other mythological creatures, are far from immortal; delicate beings inclined to song and dance, they become a constant presence not in body but in spirit. The Constant Nymph, unreachable as it sometimes is, is ultimately a reminder not to touch that which is too fragile for our grasp.
The Outlaw Josey Wales1976
A Place in the Sun1951
Went the Day Well?1942
Whistle Down the Wind1961
The Constant Nymph1943
The Third Man1949