There is some fascinating lighting work on display in Blonde Venus, a Marlene Dietrich star vehicle about a stage performer stifled by the patriarchy. The tedious home life of Dietrich’s Helen is all shadows and bursts of overexposed light, a harsh and jarring atmosphere that evaporates as she takes the stage. Characters move naturally about the set, sometimes going in and out of their light to the point of being completely obscured. This may be a distracting technique of examining the oppressive forces working against Helen’s hunger for the stage, but it also speaks to the path of the artist.
Of course, this effect only highlights Dietrich’s magnetism. If the lighting is a literal representation of the desire to create, then Helen is as much chasing the spotlight as the spotlight is chasing her.
But for every moment the blinding light is cast on future star Helen, there’s a shadowy man lurking outside her spotlight or a dark corner of a room waiting to close the walls around her. The ghastly quality cinematographer Bert Glennon gives these shots reflects the binaries thrust upon Helen: she can be either mother or tart, responsible or reckless, selfish or dutiful. For the time Venus is progressive, especially as it clearly portrays all of her setbacks as imposed upon her by men. The film sides with Helen even in craft by making this pull to the spotlight a physical representation.
The staging also embodies that overbearing relationship, with Dietrich’s face obscured and hidden in moments of her robbed agency. Perhaps this is a peek-a-boo to mask Dietrich’s acting limitations, but it’s impactful to have Helen face away from the audience or duck underneath a hat when she is not in control. But if you go to a Marlene Dietrich film, you go for that transfixing face. It’s like we’re being deprived our happiness as she’s deprived her own.
The film avoids drawing comparisons between the ebullient adoration of the audience and the unqualified love from her child as much as it can. As the film agrees with Helen that she can have both, their relationship is portrayed less visually complex when those outside forces aren’t in play. Just like when she takes the stage (especially in the final performance of the film, naturally decked in white as if she was the spotlight herself), the frame is much less fussy when Helen is in her element.
That performance is a near miss for Best Shot, but the two are narrative and stylistic parallels. In a long unbroken take, here we see her smooth performance the camera glides through to heartlifting climax. The Best Shot is more of a wade through hell.
Also one long tracking shot, filled with background detail and specificity, Helen hurtles toward punishment, literally caged in the frame. It’s a gloomy, shadowy shot that shows her as one of the masses thrust out on her luck by society’s limitations, the first time the film reaches for the larger implications of the gender limitations holding Helen down. The rock bottom crafted here is so palpable and wallowing that is makes the performance in the mirroring shot feel all the more triumphant.
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