It has a thrilling opening! It’s carnival in a Spanish town and everything is a riot of balloons, streamers and dancing confetti. Through all this Concha Perez (Marlene Dietrich) glides, dazzling all around her. One who is dazzled is Antonio Garvan, a dashing young republican. He follows Concha through the celebrations, his heart bursting like an explosion of coloured silks. Looks like we’re in for a delightful treat!
Unfortunately the treat that is ‘The Devil is a Woman’ (1935) contains a particularly bitter and hollow center. The problems are twofold; one being a repetitive and predictable structure, the second is the fact that nobody in this film is that likeable. Once Antonio has fallen for Concha he seeks guidance from his older friend Captain Don Pasqual Costelar, who warns Antonio that Concha is an evil temptress and she must be avoided at all costs. How does he know? Because he, Don Pasqual, once loved her, too.
And so follows a series of flashbacks showing Don Pasqual falling for Concha only to be twisted and exploited by her and her cackling mother. Concha leads Pasqual on, teases him, fleeces him for money then immediately drops him for the next hunk that comes her way. Poor Pasqual.
Or, at least, we would think so if it wasn’t for the fact that this series of flashbacks (and there are plenty of them) goes on for almost half the movie with Don Pasqual being used and rejected by Concha numerous times. By the time he’s gone back to her for a fourth time or so I wanted to slap him silly, which is, unfortunately, what Don Pasqual starts doing to Concha (and worse!) when he finally snaps. It’s repetitive, abusive and irritating. Not only that but Sternberg doesn’t do subtlety meaning we can see Concha’s deceptions coming a mile off, making Pasqual out to be a total moronic idiot who keeps coming back for more.
Once Don Pasqual has finished his tale(s) and convinced young Antonio to swear he’ll never pursue Concha, Antonio goes and immediately does exactly the opposite, too curious not to see the fact that drives men mad with desire. The only question now becomes will Concha destroy Antonio too? And, more importantly, will we care either way?
So the story has structural issues and a vein of bitterness a mile deep running through it. Plus everything is flagged up in capital letters, WRIT LARGE, with no room for nuance or subtext — this is the explicit humiliation of the male sex seen through an ecstatic aesthetic, but it is this aesthetic that is the cold heart of this movie and it is this that commands our attention.
Dietrich’s costumes alone would qualify this film as “sumptuous” in the extreme but combined with the set design, decor and visual information on the screen the effect is overwhelming. The scene when Concha runs through the remains of the carnival, every inch of space overflowing with detail, baffles the eyes as we attempt to take it all in. You get the feeling Sternberg doesn’t know when to stop chucking stuff in front of the camera (the scene isn’t stimulating enough? Throw a duck in there!) or that he lives in a world where the word “excess” doesn’t exist.
This means that ‘The Devil Is a Woman’ often falls into the realms of the ridiculous, but good grief, will you just look at it! It’s not just the lavish visuals or even the way Sternberg shoots Dietrich like a jealous lover but also the way the camera moves through all the noise, precise and careful sound design helping the movie feel much bigger than it is (there are a couple of off-screen parties).
Dietrich’s wardrobe is out of control, her dresses so insane they’re almost crying out to be sectioned. Each one tops the last and considering they start out at the upper ends of extravagant that’s really saying something. Although the most interesting wardrobe choice might belong to Cesar Romero (most famous for playing the Joker) who, at one point, is wearing a mask that looks suspiciously like a bat.
‘The Devil Is a Woman’ is a crazy, gorgeous, ludicrous movie. It is truly beautiful but the beauty is so cold it could burn the skin at the touch. It is cynical in the extreme but then again, this is a film about a woman ruining the lives of men, although it was neither Antonio nor Don Pasqual whom Dietrich ultimately destroyed. It was Sternberg himself.