Effervescent without being schizophrenic, smutty without being smug, deliciously nasty and provocative while also intimating a deceptive, lithe maturity about sex as a simple fact of existence rather than a puritanical capital-O Occurrence, Ernst Lubitsch’s Hollywood acme may be the most suave film in existence. Perilously intimating both the value of external pleasures of the world – which for Lubitsch includes the vices we imbibe in and the identities we wear – and the peril of self-satisfying excess, Trouble in Paradise is a smorgasbord of misconception and perspiration.
The misconceptions are the roles of Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins), swindlers and rapscallions inventing servant roles in Mme. Colet’s (Kay Francis) life so they can rob her. Or they’re the misconceptions of love when Gaston is snared not only between his bifurcated identity but Lily’s love and the swooning vexation of his employer. The perspiration? Navigating the existential crisis of fluid identity, coursing through the veins of self and society, and accepting the value of temporary selves, even if to simply lighten things up. Even if the thrill of the identity is demarcated by the understanding that it’ll all be thin air soon enough, life in Trouble in Paradise is the understanding that by adopting one identity you are both eliding others and constructing your true self.
There’s a devilish fade early on from the two false-domesticated thieves intoning their love for each other on a layabout sofa that corroborates exactly the film’s tension between the joy of the moment and its temporal habit of sliding away from you. The two tenants of the couch fade from memory in a clandestine, serpentine suggestion that, you know, they’ve reconsidered their location and erected themselves on the bed for the night. The intimation is delicious and occasionally twisted, but the fade also proposes the temporality of love and the flickering spark of connection defined primarily by the awareness that it can’t last forever. An earlier scene suggests with laser-like precision the sexual liberation the two feel when peeking at stowed-away objects they’ve stolen from each other as foreplay, as though the act of stealing – and more importantly, the verbal interplay of adopting their suave thief identities – is risibly making them hot under the collar. But, ultimately, this may be the temporary salve of sex and nothing more.
At some level, Trouble in Paradise isn’t really about love though; a fog of melancholy lingers under the sexual interplay like a wraith waiting to drag away the façade of caring they’ve all adopted. But much like Max Ophuls’ later The Earrings of Madame de … (the closest descendant of Lubitsch’s cinema), the acid is stirred with longing and reaching out for others, as though of all the identities the characters adopt, the one they can’t quite maintain is the long-term human connection.
Diaphonous objects abound, materialist representations of our identities that, for Lubitsch and writers Samson Raphaelson and Grover Jones, both corporealize inner desires and elide them, allowing us possibilities to reconstruct our identities (hair, makeup, costuming all figure directly) and failing to fully satiate ourselves in our desire for more than the material, for more than the immediate moment. Lubitsch isn’t reckless with the materials though, nor does he bugger off to new sights with the mania and avarice of a proto-screwball; this is a restive motion picture, but the rush from moment to moment is simmered down by the more placid nature of Lubitsch’s confident camera. When it moves, it’s with a graceful saunter rather than a transparent need to arrive at a new resting point. Fittingly, that semi-moving, semi-stagnant poise is a formal expression of the tension between the search for new identities, new desires, and the equally worthwhile pang of accepting one identity or experience in the moment without ever-prowling eyes looking for new facades to adopt. The suave impulse of the film is both a ruse and an essence, a way to cope with the need to fill out an identity and a legitimate way of fulfilling it in the moment, as though the temporary identities we adopt are not only ways we parasite or hide our true selves but ways that we construct our new selves as fluxional and ever-changing.
Dialogue corroborates this tension between never-changing, essential selves and ever-moving, fluxional selves throughout. When discussing himself with Colet, he remarks that he’d slap her (cheekily) if he was her father, to which she asks “What would you do if you were my secretary?”. His sly response: “The same thing”, a hint that a certain core resists surface-level transformation. However, a real wringer in “That’s the trouble with mothers. First you get to like them, and then they die” signals the lamentable finality of all joy, and pressurizes the way toward new objects of affection and new selfhoods that partially revoke stagnant, essential identities. This core, for Lubitsch, is usually the expressively human desire for a definition dueling with the fluxional definition of the moment, a pressure-cooker of present and future that refuses to thaw itself out. Neither wins out, so maybe the path forward is to accept both, to imbibe in momentary pleasures without closing the doors for others.
Similarly, a naughty montage of servants and underlings in various fashions responding in parsimonious, clipped, rehearsed lines, either “yes, madam” or “no, madam” with robotic self-control, suggests both the unending repetition of the master-servant relationship and the phonetic rigor-mortis of life defined by singular roles. On one hand, it’s an excoriating criticism of the social masters at play, their inability to shift their lives instead of accepting a mild-mannered slide in to the routine of wealth and stagnating themselves with the rules and rituals of the aristocratic lifestyle (the rituals of formal diction with servants being perhaps the most notable). Yet the repetition of the technique, with different servants replaced even as the formal constraint of the montage remains the same, is also another question mark about the simultaneous solidification and liquefaction of experience, the way life moves on and stays the same.
Watching the film is like an existential crisis, with characters who might kindle into the bon vivant playthings of Notorious/To Catch a Thief or the encased-in-artifice ghosts of Last Year at Marienbad, with the animating tension of which being singularly thrilling throughout a film that recognizes that it alone cannot tell the answer, or that they can never be one without the other. Enjoying the moment is also beset by the opportunity cost of other potential moments left by the wayside, and enjoying the company of others is always beleaguered by the existential question of whether we’ve chosen the right others to structure our lives around.
Trapped between the moment and the temporality of the moment – and Victor Milner’s cinematography, with its fades from moments and repetitions of moments affording the film a sort of thematic insurance if we didn’t buy the theme in the narrative – the film charts an out in simultaneity. We can hope for love, and take sex, and unlike most American films with their latent puritanical drive, Trouble does accept sex as a legitimate relief and a viable, if utilitarian, desire that exists less as an “instead” for love than as an “also”. If the film is debaucherous, it also dares to tread on the socially inquisitive thin ice of honoring debauchery in the moment while acknowledging the need for more.