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It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the last film Ernst Lubitsch completed, Cluny Brown (I didn’t “watch it last night”) and as far as I know, it is not available on video in the US.* I’m nonetheless moved to write about it because even though I respect Lubitsch’s work more than I enjoy it, his understated irony and invisible style continue to fascinate me as models. Cluny Brown, my favorite Lubitsch film, manages an irresistible, virtually perfect balance of character comedy, social satire and deft, feather-light story-telling from which any filmmaker can learn.

There isn’t so much a story as a situation made by a group of idiosyncratic characters. Charles Boyer plays Adam Belinski, a Czech refugee from the Nazis on the eve of World War II. At a social event in London, Belinski meets Cluny (Jennifer Jones, in one of her most winning performances), the daughter of a plumber. Several plot complications later, both end up at the country estate of Andrew Carmel (Peter Lawford), Belinski as a guest, Cluny as a parlor maid. As the story twists and turns to bridge the social gap between Cluny and Belinski, we’re treated to the interaction of a host of dotty characters, each in his or her way totally true to themselves and their stations, but wonderfully silly to the viewer.

It is in those deliciously funny social rituals and characters’ efforts to conform to them that Lubitsch demonstrates his mastery. To describe his famous “touch” as invisible is really to get at the heart of what makes his films so special. You are rarely aware of any manipulation of camera, editing or actors. Every moment seems pellucidly simple. Not because Lubitsch simply mines Naturalistic surfaces. Cluny Brown is very far from being “just like life.” Rather, it is a silky concoction in which every seam in the fabric is cunningly sewn to be hidden while feeling absolutely right. The camera is always exactly where you want it to be, lightly recording people’s eccentricities without ever commenting on them, then cutting at just the right moment to make a point without our being aware of it.

The difference between what Lubitsch did with romantic comedy and today’s examples lies in that understated cinematic sophistication. (It also results from Lubitsch being unable to show or discuss sex in a way that, for better or worse, contemporary audiences take as a given.) He is to the genre what Hitchcock is to the thriller, or Ford to the Western, the standard by which others have to be measured. If descriptions of his “touch” remain partial, that inadequacy is effectively the point: Lubitsch excelled in exploiting the fascination of the unseen, the unspoken, the ineffable. To describe his touch too closely would be as pointless as pinning the wings of a butterfly while it is still in flight. The only one who could be pleased would be the pedant who hates charms he can never possess.

*Cluny Brown is now available as a DVD-R at amazon (1/18).