Tuesday 15 April 2014


(Sydney Pollack, 1977)

Bobby Deerfield - critically reviled and commercially disastrous upon its release in 1977 - is ripe for a remaking as a Nicholas Sparks-style youth weepie, starring Zac Efron and layered with pop music, aimed at teenage girls.
Bobby Deerfield was made in 1977, when they still made movies for grown-ups. It is based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, was directed by the consistently classy Sydney Pollack, and stars Al Pacino, arguably the great actor of his generation,  and Marthe Keller, a Swiss actress whose onscreen presence is complex and adult. It's an interesting film. A romantic melodrama with only three real characters, it sluggishly meanders along for the first two acts before the drama kicks in in the last 40 minutes and it becomes an accomplished tragedy.
Pacino is the titular Deerfield, an American F1 driver in 1970s Europe. He lives with his adoring girlfriend (Anny Duperey), but seems uninterested and untouched by more or less everything around him; yes men, mechanics, advertising executives. He wears sunglasses perpetually to avoid being 'mobbed". Indeed, an early scene finds him embarrassed and nonplussed by the arrival of his brother, seeking to arrange some inheritance issues. He seems determined to avoid any kind of emotional scene. This may be to do with the way his work brings him face to face with death, though he claims not to think about it.
The first race sequence is shot by Pollack documentary style - immersive and expansive, giving the audience a feeling for the atmosphere at a massive F1 meet. Pollack undercuts this almost instantly by cutting tight in on Pacino's eyes as he waits to start and eliminating the sound. This is a movie about this enigmatic, guarded man, not about racing, it seems to say.
Another racer crashes and dies in that race, and while Deerfield obsesses over the cause of the crash he visits an injured survivor in a Swiss clinic. There he meets Lillian (Keller), the very definition of the manic pixie dreamgirl before the term was ever coined. Impulsive, poetic, maddeningly unpredictable, she tags along South into Italy and over the course of their long drive he finds himself fascinated by her.
Eventually - after some routine bumps - they fall in love, and he discovers that she is dying, setting up that climax.
Pollack's direction is terrific - he makes Europe and its vistas look spectacular, while generally isolating Pacino in his big widescreen frames, underlining his solitude. There are long dialogue scenes here, filled with eccentric anecdotes and kooky attitudes, and Keller is somewhat miscast. Her cold beauty aside, it seems unbelievable that Deerfield would fall for her, when her behaviour is so irritating and baffling. But this is an ambitiously romantic story, full of grand gestures - balloon rides and picnics in the Tuscan countryside - and once Pollack gets his couple together, the story gathers its own emotional power.
Pacino is good with what he has been given, but both characters remain sad mysteries to us, a suggestion that they are perhaps underwritten. That is part of what makes Bobby Deerfield such a flawed, confounding film.

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