All of King Vidor’s films deal with artists (people who transmute the materials furnished by life into something far more personal than life, properly speaking, ever is), but La Boheme is the first one to be set in the artistic milieu–and the director doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Oh there’s plenty of charming bonhomie and aestheticized “suffering for art” on display–but Vidor pulls out all of the stops to show us exactly what this “boy’s own adventure” into “poverty” is founded upon–i.e. genuine (and inevitable) female pain. Implicit in all of this is a potent critique of the Artist/Muse trope.
We begin with a familiar scene from “Bohemia”–artists sketching a model–interrupted by a visit from the landlord:
The film sticks to this whimsical tone whenever it deals with the never-too-serious plight of its core brothers-in-arts (led by John Gilbert–and featuring Anagramsci fave Edward Everett Horton in a fairly early role). I mean, really, how serious can life get for these guys?
Lady Bountiful is Musette (art bro Marcel’s girlfriend), played by Big Parade alum Renee Adoree. We’ll get back to her–and the source of her bounty–later.
Poverty is quite a different thing for seamstress Mimi–both more exhausting:
She enters the art-boys’ world in pretty standard melodrama fashion–they extend the dubious benefits of their “protection” to the hard-up woman of virtue (who steadfastly refuses to pay the landlord with her body). Unfortunately for Mimi, she looks so fetching as she warms herself at the heater that she is pretty much doomed to become muse-fuel for playwright John Gilbert’s fire:
However, the interesting thing–as I have been stressing in this series of posts–is the way Vidor finds a route to modern psychology and radical social critique within this rather old-fashioned narrative framework. From the moment Mimi (Gish) confesses her love to Rodolphe (Gilbert)–and their powerful romantic scene IS fueled by her confession of love, rather than by his inevitable attraction to her–the film shifts drastically in tone, becoming a scathing analysis of what it really means to be (in the hackneyed terminology of yesteryear) the “great woman behind the great man”.
Yes, when Gish kisses Gilbert (becoming his muse), she accepts full responsibility for making a “great artist” of him. “So what?” you might ask. Isn’t that a passive, reactionary position for a female subject? Well, I would answer–“yes and no”. Reactionary? Definitely. Passive. Anything but. It’s hard to remain muse-ical. In fact, as Vidor’s film shows us, Mimi works much harder–and produces a far more powerful dramatic construct (although only we and possibly one other person are privy to this fact)–than the nominal “artist” of the piece.
How does Gilbert reach his apotheosis? He sits around, jots down notes, takes money (which he thinks he is earning) and looks up (or through the window) at Mimi, whenever he loses his fix on “beauty”.
Meanwhile, Gish fights a war on more fronts than you can shake a phallus at.
She must remain “pure” (i.e. available–in body and mind–only to Gilbert).
She must remain “beautiful” (i.e. well-rested, well-nourished, well-dressed).
She must resist every offer of “assistance” that patriarchal society makes (and she gets quite a few–especially from that damned landlord and this syphilitic count):
In the end, Gish finds it impossible to satisfy all of these imperatives. [Vidor’s greatest films generally give us protagonists–particularly female protagonists–who find imaginative (and by that, I mean aesthetic) solutions to “no-win” situations]. She discovers, very early in the relationship, that Gilbert’s sinecure at a Dog and Cat Fancier’s magazine has dissolved (due entirely to his negligence)–and she elects to fill the financial void herself (by seamstressing herself to the breaking point, working round the clock to earn the money Gilbert thinks he is getting for the little pet articles he tosses off, whenever he can tear himself away from his supposedly magnificent play). By eschewing sleep, Gish courts disaster in a number of ways. For one thing, she contracts tuberculosis. Worse (in her mind), she’s looking more haggard than a “muse” ought to (a female friend lays this out for us–“if you lose your looks, he’ll stop loving you). Things get so bad that she clutches wildly for a shortcut to the success she desires for her artist–agreeing to go on a double date with the Count (who says he “knows a producer”), Musette, and some other rich guy (presumably the one who pays for the banquets she lays out, beneath that hole in the garret floor). When she returns, all hell breaks loose–as Gilbert has discovered that he’s been unemployed for five weeks, and assumes that she’s been playing hooker on him.
What follows is a monstrous scene of masculine egotism unleashed. We are forced to watch our likable small fry artist transform into a dick of unparalleled dimensions–berating Mimi for finding a way to keep him in food while he “creates”, and assuming that she’s done it by allowing others to ravish her body, rather than by submitting that very same frail form to the ravages of insane overwork. Only the long-overdue realization of her consumptive condition puts an end to his petulant (and physically abusive) tirade–at which point the repentant Gilbert puts Gish to bed and runs off to summon a doctor.
Of course, in order to remain true to her muse-conception, Gish must take her tortured body and run, thus saving Gilbert from wasting his chi powers on a lot of unplaywrightlike nursemaiding. In the bargain (the intertitles tell us), Gilbert’s remorse over his insane treatment of this extraordinary woman actually inspires him to create a “producible” drama! Vidor doesn’t waste much time telling that story. His camera makes a beeline for the true passion narrative of La Boheme–Mimi’s sufferings as muse-in-exile. Gish and Vidor go all-out in these sequences, and here I have to allow the film to speak for itself:
It’s a litany of martyrdom with a radical message–the reverse of Gibsonian torture porn. Vidor traces the development of a gendered idea of muse-as-martyr in Gish’s mind, and then follows through as she makes all of her nightmarish dreams come true. A world that offers women nothing but this vast wasteland of stations of the cross needs a whole new slate of channels in a hurry. I would argue that you could interpret much of the director’s subsequent oeuvre as a series of pilots for a new model of female subjectivity…
Finally, Gilbert’s play (who knows or cares what it’s about?) opens–and what a triumph it is! (Actually, it is–but Vidor’s camera says otherwise)
And, as luck (and ill-health) will have it, Gish finds her way back to her lover, just in time to congratulate him (the film, of course, congratulates her) on his success–and die, knowing that the tableau in his mind, at the climactic moment of the narrative, is not his worldly success, but HER declaration of love for him, at the midpoint of the film (and here we get another Vidor flashback–every Vidor silent seems to have ’em!–to the sun-drenched kiss scene). The overall effect of Vidor’s subjective reorchestration (which stresses the fatal demands of the muse/artist structure over the traditionally aestheticized function of the “tragic muse”) punctures Puccini’s platitudes and weaponizes the weepiness of the finale.
We fade out on this brilliant sequence with Adoree and Gish (who else but Musette could understand the true nature–and terrible necessity–of Mimi’s trajectory?)