A romantic drama with that sure-fire device, the love triangle. Charles Boyer is musician Lewis Dodd, who marries Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith) but is adored by Florence’s teenage cousin Tessa Sanger (Joan Fontaine). Lewis is friends with Tessa’s father, Albert (Montagu Love); Charles Coburn plays Florence’s father, Charles Creighton. Paula and Toni (Joyce Reynolds and Brenda Marshall) are Tessa’s sisters, while Lina and Kate (Joan Blair and Jean Muir), are, respectively, Albert’s current and ex-wives.
Starting in Brussels, Georges (Marcel Dallo) is called to Lewis’s house, where he and his doctor are going on “It is my opinion that you are much more than slightly mad” in doc’s professional opinion. “Brandy will not calm you” adds Marie (Janine Crispin). On a positive note, he gets an invitation from his Swiss friend, Albert. Just like that, at the Swiss chalet, we’re with the Sanger’s. Tessa is hopping around with the news of Lewis’s arrival. She rouses Paula, they’re both jazzed. Strangely, both moms–nice Kate and meanie Lina–live with the family.
Tessa and her dad discuss Lewis’s music. Then, here’s Lewis, with Fritz Bercovy (Peter Lorre). The sisters gossip about Lewis and love “will you keep house for him?” Paula teasingly asks Tessa. Kind of cart-before-horse thinking. Tessa has a slight attack; Toni arrives. Actually, Kate’s not too keen on Toni. But Toni’s preoccupied by apparently being jilted by Fritz “No man is worth a single one of your tears” Lewis says, consolingly.
Finally Lewis gets to talk to Albert. The old guy claims his epitaph should include “…a dirty old man.” They talk about Charles’s threat against Albert–undoubtedly because of Florence. Anyway, Tessa and Lewis get together to play a sentimental tune Lewis concocted. Tessa’s singing is beautiful. She’s spooked suddenly, running out of the house to a sirt of sanctuary. There she tells Lewis a melancholy verse. They talk of her future. She tells him not to get married (hmm). They’re interrupted by screams from the house. Albert’s dead. Ironically, he’s left a note on a music sheet, entitled “Tomorrow.”
Fritz comes back. Roberto fills him in on Albert. Paula and Tessa tell him that Kate has left, and Toni plans to. Uncle Charles is on hand, though, with a hunting rifle, no less. Tessa’s had another attack. Florence shows up with Lewis. She plans to scoop the girls up and take them to school in England. In a flowery, poetic, metaphoric way, he proposes to her “And they live happily ever after?” she sums up his spiel. His apt response “You know, they could.”
When Tessa interrupts them, Lewis lets on about the engagement; Tessa’s taken aback. “Do I sense competition here?” Florence accurately figures. Another attack hits Tessa. Now we follow along to London. Lady Longborough (May Whitty) chats with Charles about Florence and Louis. Things are getting much less than idyllic for Lewis, as settling into marriage with Florence is something he has to work at. She says she “wants to show him off” by having him perform at their parties, but he feels used.
More significantly, she’s kind of haughtly towards the girls, whom they’ve plunked in a boarding school. He reads a letter from Paula, who relates that Tessa wonders if he’s “happy being married”–that sounds a little off. Then, they get a telegram that they’re missing from the school. He wants desperately to find them, but Florence’s more interested in their scheduled dinner party.
It’s funny how Charles isn’t into cultural stuff: speaking of the singer who’s entertaining “Any woman’s voice singing gives me a toothache.” Florence is still fuming about Paula and Tessa when Fritz shows up–he and Toni (having gotten things straightened out) are having a baby. Ok, that’s the cue for the girls to pop in; Tessa just about jumps onto Lewis. Now he’s going to play the piano. He just plays junk; Tessa moans “Lewis is gone from us”.
She bugs him a little too much–but she has good suggestions about his music. Now she’s playing something. There’s a charming scene in a florist’s where she gets Fritz to conspire about sending some flowers to Florence, driving the shopkeeper nuts with her requests. At home, she talks to Charles about Lewis. Florence mocks her as she looks for Lewis “She’ll get Louis?! She’s got Lewis!”
This brings on Charles/Florence conference, part II. “Stop moaning about like a woman in a novel!” She thinks that the girls “are like a drug to him.” A bit later, when Tessa tells Fritz that the music has been changed to have more “heart” to it, Florence jumps back with “You’re familiar with Lewis’s heart?!” Tessa is all twisted up. Lewis finally realizes that she’s in love with him. He admits that he doesn’t know why he married Florence. They hint around about going away together; surprisingly, she backs off.
It’s Florence who wants to go away with him. Interestingly, he concedes, in effect, that he’s not good enough for her (implicitly that means he’s just right for Tessa). “You don’t want me anymore” she figures. He wants her to be good friends with Tessa. Huh? He admits he’s always loved the girl. He tells Florence that Tessa has backed away. Now the long-awaited showdown between the two women. The upshot is that Tessa confesses that she knows “all about” loving Lewis; enraged, Florence shakes her, Tessa has another bad spell.
Tessa recovers, but she’s getting worse. She tells Lewis that she’s going to “get away from our situation.” They fall into talking about just that. She has “wisdom about things.” He says that he’s always been unhappy, what he values “is not of this earth.” Clearly, Tessa embodies and realizes that desire. The concert begins: we hear the music as Tessa prepares to leave the house, bag packed.
There’s a flashback (or a dream, as she lays on the couch in front of the radio) to Switzerland: it’s wonderful. But Tessa and Lewis hear the song of death from back then. She tells him she was waiting for him, even before she was born. He “must have waiting for her” when he was younger. At the climax of the music, she collapses, dead. Florence has had a sea-change (she couldn’t have known Tessa’s fate, however, so presumably it’s sincere) basically saying that it’s all good. “I just happen to exist outside of you and Tessa.”
This is incredibly romantic; a very honest, yet haunting story of love. Definitely a star-crossed love, but what love doesn’t have flaws, weaknesses? Not to this extent usually, but Lewis’s situation, as in most good stories, is exaggerated for its impact. It shows that fiction can be more powerful than a ‘true story;’ because it fits many stories, many people, not just particular ones.
The script is very intelligent, the performances are even and balanced between young/old, garrulous/coy, sophisticated/colloquial, kind-hearted/mean-spirited. Smith’s is probably the most interesting role: she’s put upon and off-putting at the same time. There’s a definite split between the rustic Swiss setting and the urbanity of London. Tha paralleled by Smith’s elegance and Fontaine’s simplicity. They’re actually both so attractive, that, if they switched clothes and hairstyles, they could switch roles too.
It’s a little hard to believe that Boyet’s character isn’t savvy to Fontaine’s feelings earlier. He might well have been, but it is easy to see how her affection could be mistaken for something more innocent. When he tells her that he doesn’t know why he married Smith’s character, it sounds like a slip of the tongue, but it does make sense. In a way, as Lewis, he’s as impulsive as Tessa, who can be excused for the most part for being less mature.
This is a fairly long, talky movie, but it never drags. I want to hear what they’re thinking; body language comes across well too. Coburn’s character is just enough comic relief to keep this out of snob heaven. Ironically, it’s his (Charles’s) wealth that engenders that lifestyle. This isn’t a great role for Peter Lorre; his Fritz is kind of a misfit, like Charles, but he doesn’t have enough to do. Generally, though, the supporting cast adds plenty to the main plot; although I wonder why Paula disappeared well before the end. The slapdash ‘Swiss’ sets don’t bother me; they almost seem fitting, as I feel like I’m watching a well-acted play.
Tessa’s death is sad; the way that Roberto sort of doesn’t draw attention to it oddly makes the scene even more poignant. On the other hand, this is really the only sort of ending that ‘fixes’ everything, without seeming contrived. The Constant Nymph does more than entertain, it makes you think and feel.
Farmermouse was skittish about Charles and that huge rifle, but he’s happy with Roberto’s cooking, as that worthy lad left out a little plate for Mouse. Ten peasant carts here. 10/10.