When I once expressed admiration for The Romantic Englishwoman to a film studies professor, he smiled and said “Yeah, it’s fun to see Losey trying to do comedy.” Even at the time I thought that comment was a little unfair. While Losey’s films usually are humorless, he was not so solemn that the very effort to be funny was noteworthy. In addition to the blatant camp excesses of Modesty Blaise, there are moments in several of his films, especially those he made with Pinter, that demonstrate a wry take on human interaction.
In Englishwoman, Losey is working with another famous playwright, Tom Stoppard, where the humor derives from the story’s Chinese box construction. Pulp writer Lewis Fielding (Michael Caine) suspects his wife Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson) of having had a brief affair with gigolo/drug runner Thomas Hersa (Helmut Berger). Working on a screenplay about “the new woman,” Lewis effectively pushes Elizabeth and Thomas into each others’ arms, just so he can figure out what should happen in his script. Elizabeth can see what is happening, and Thomas doesn’t seem to care one way or another, so Lewis ends up getting much more than he bargained for.
In Stoppard’s hands, the “writer writing” cliché is turned on its head* into an elaborately complicated situation in which the boundary between fantasy and reality is not so much blurred as irrelevant. Some scenes are obviously part of Lewis’s script (such as the moment in the image above) or one of his fantasies. The clever twist is to use the writer’s suspicions as the source of the reality, rather than the fantasy, embellished with verbal flourishes. There is more than one misunderstanding resulting from Elizabeth going to Baden, for example. Lewis’s German producer friend Herman (Reinhard Kolldehoff) takes that to mean she having a bath, while Lewis himself stumbles over the name to call it “Baden-Baden-Baden-Baden” before nearly collapsing in a drunken mess. Then there are the high camp lines like Elizabeth’s “Lovable children are the worst” or Thomas’s “boss” (Michel Lonsdale) saying of him that “He’s a nice boy. I met him through my wife,” or Elizabeth’s friend Isabel (Kate Nelligan) sighing and saying “People make too much of sex. It shouldn’t be anything you leave home for,” after Elizabeth flees with Thomas.
Losey knows how to handle that dialog, while staging it with the sexy sheen that was his specialty. With his usual moralizing in check, we can shamelessly enjoy the images of Jackson floating around Baden-Baden in her diaphanous white evening dress, or the sunlight sparkling off the Mediterranean in Biarritz. Losey seems to be enjoying these airy flights almost as much as he relishes the actors’ sport with Stoppard’s dialog. It is thus unfortunate that The Romantic Englishwoman, even with its big name attractions, is not better known. For anyone attuned to its combination of absurdist humor, baroque narrative and sophisticated visual style, it is just about irresistible.
* This conceit originates in the novel by Thomas Wiseman which was the source for the film.