We Live 1001 is a column from Audrey Fox, where she will be going through the Top 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in chronological order. Pull up a chair, and let’s delve into some cinematic history!
When Erich von Stroheim set out to make Foolish Wives in 1922, he had in mind a sprawling, epic masterpiece of social commentary that would rival his literary counterparts of the Lost Generation. Whether he actually accomplishes these lofty aspirations is another question entirely. Although he certainly captures the grandeur of his opulent settings, making you feel as though you’ve literally stepped into 1920s Monte Carlo, the narrative itself is muddled and unsatisfying. It suffers from a lack of momentum, with patently unlikable characters floating aimlessly through the production, so much so that it beggars belief that the original cut of this film was actually several hours longer than what we see here.
Erich von Stroheim, trademark monocle in tow, stars as Count Wladislaw Sergius Karamzin – or at least that’s who he says he is. At no point in the entire film does he come close to uttering the truth: He, along with the two “princesses” he travels with, is a con man whose only objective is to obtain money by dishonest means with little regard for the people he hurts along the way. Salacious for the time, Karamzin is romantically involved with three women at the same time (five, if you count the women posing as his princess cousins, who are strongly hinted at being sexually involved with him).
There’s the wealthy young wife of an American diplomat, Helen Hughes (Miss Dupont), whom he courts for access, status, and money. There’s also the maid who works at their hotel. She offers him her entire life savings, believing that he’ll marry her once he, who has sacrificed everything for his country (he says this a lot), has the money to restore himself to his former position. And perhaps most despicably of all, he pursues the childlike daughter of one of his associates, who is suggested to have intellectual disabilities that make her unable to consent to a relationship with him, even if he were on the level.
Karamzin is a bad guy, if that weren’t already clear. But he’s not even evil in an exciting way, and that’s the most damning element of Foolish Wives. There’s no nuance or complexity to his misdeeds: He is driven by greed and ambition and takes pleasure in hurting people, nothing more. This isn’t necessarily a problem, there are plenty of great films that feature objectively bad people. But the issue is that there’s no other character who really draws our interest. They’re all so thinly drawn as to make it exceedingly difficult to care much about the plight of any of them.
This, arguably, is where von Stroheim makes his misstep. He’s so focused on the details of his magnum opus, making the city of Monte Carlo come alive, that he overlooks one of the most basic tenets of storytelling: You need to have characters and a narrative that the audience can emotionally engage with. Both are in disappointingly short supply in Foolish Wives. Perhaps the only character of any interest is the husband of Helen Hughes, who bears her flirtations with Karamzin as magnanimously as he can. He is a man who seems dull at first until Helen begins to appreciate his loyalty and the depths of his feelings for her. She is young and is still learning what qualities in a partner make for a happy relationship. But even he falls into the stereotype of the noble, long-suffering husband. There’s an opportunity to delve into the love triangle aspect of their relationship with Karamzin and plenty of space to explore the complicated sexual dynamics between Karamzin and his two alleged cousins.
Von Stroheim shows little interest in any of this. His initial cut of Foolish Wives was famously several hours long – one has to wonder what was stripped from the film in giving it a more manageable runtime and if any of these concerns would have been addressed with a longer edit. Still, studio edits are hardly an excuse – it’s von Stroheim’s own fault if he couldn’t find an opportunity to put any character-building moments in the final version of the film. Maybe this is the point; perhaps he’s attempting to make a statement about the shallow, effortlessly cruel nature of high society in the 1920s. But regardless, the execution misses the mark, and as a result, Foolish Wives has aged perhaps more poorly than other films on this list.