After the gargantuan, epoch-defining success of The Kid, Charlie Chaplin’s superstar status obviously moved him to illustrate his adventurousness and not rest on his laurels. His follow-up film, 1923’s A Woman of Paris, was rewarded with commercial confusion, owing primarily to Chaplin’s temporary rejection of his on-screen persona (he appears only in a Hitchcockian cameo). Advancing his tenure as a behind-the-scenes artist, Chaplin was perhaps tormented by the belief that audiences only appreciated him for the cane, the mustache, and the bowler hat and not for his visual wit or mastery of cinematic form (but of course, the accouterments of Chaplin’s Tramp character were among the defining features of his mastery of the cinematic form none the less). Indeed, in A Woman of Paris, Chaplin allows himself, temporarily, the sin of the title card (which he usually disdained) to explicitly remind the audience that he does not appear in corporeal form in the film, and that we should not request that he do so in order to value his art.
Truth be told, the wonderful, if more wistful than usual, A Woman of Paris is not per-se another vision of Chaplin as a director, but merely another leaf on the same branch. His buoyancy is lowered to a simmer but not curtailed, and the humanism that is so viscous and present-tense throughout Chaplin’s filmography (even his scabrous, acid-drenched sound films) is never far in this example of cinema-by-starlight. Certainly, Chaplin recalibrates his jubilance and emotional romanticism toward drama rather than comedy, but the central questions of his filmography – the dialectics of material object, physical body, and mental possibility – are the focus of this film as well. Chaplin’s emphasis on human physicality as our portal to understanding the world remains. The film’s physical gestures are of a lighter touch, no doubt, but this only shines new light on Chaplin’s near-singular gift for inscribing the smallest of movements with the wellspring of worldly exuberance.
What Chaplin brings to A Woman of Paris is an almost baroque theatricality to the production design that feels like the corollary to the deceptively careful mise-en-scene of The Kid, where the city seemed to both open up for and close-down on the Tramp who had to turn the physical world into his livelihood to survive. In A Woman of Paris, Marie (Edna Purviance) and Jean Millet (Carl Miller) are lovers about to abscond to Paris when Jean’s father suddenly passes away and she – abandoned by her own father for her love affair – is left to make the journey on her own. A year later, she is a companion to a vastly wealthier man, Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou), although her life – now essentially handed to her – is more stilted than the constantly rebirthing Tramp’s ever was.
In contrast to the Tramp, who seemed to pry open a new kind of sense out of a world rapidly circumscribing itself around him, Marie’s life is stillness and stagnancy, with the film devilishly counterpoising Marie’s now ossified demeanor with Chaplin’s usual breathless rush of movement, here reserved for the bevy of servants. Scenes begin and conclude with her in harmony with the furniture around her, never disclosing a need to move with or interpret a world that rushes by her. Many moments prefigure the divine ending to the following year’s The Last Laugh, subtracting the meta-textual edge and that film’s delectable courage to puncture its own subjectivity. Chaplin’s inspection of decadence is more humane, if less revolutionary or provocative, although it is also not lacking for its own version of Murnau’s wry bitterness. Although that film boasted the great intertitle in film history, one in Chaplin’s film piques our interest by doubly commenting on the film like an outside viewer glimpsing an aquarium of human revelry and informing us that truffles, the delight of the human elite, is a similar delicacy for pigs.
A Woman of Paris is less singular than any of Chaplin’s other films, not only because he doesn’t grace the film with his presence but because of its more restrained style. It is the only one that feels like it could have been directed by another (an early shot of a Orlok-ian shadow ascending a staircase like a fell wraith even suggests Murnau, with Chaplin ever the cinema fanatic and cosmopolitan). This may be why the film has largely been resigned to a state of existence outside the cinematic canon (much like Chaplin’s final feature, the disaffected, astringent Limelight). But this sequestering, rather than streamlining the film, only allows it to elude us all the more so, suggesting Chaplin’s omnivorous desire to challenge his identity rather than remain acquiescent to it. The film remains the great mystery of his career.
And grace notes abound, with the set-pieces more ingrained in the narrative than restlessly deconstructing it as in The Kid. Character bits are so subtle, so gossamer, they almost disappear into thin air, such as when Jean, upon the now wealthy Marie returning to him to have her portrait commissioned (he’s a painter), struggles to find a napkin for her to place on her knee underneath her tea. Each potential cloth he tries out is already warped by burns that signal his relative poverty and incompleteness. Chaplin’s unmatched concoction of bald melodrama and invisible, meditative subtlety is always present, even if the film isn’t as revolutionary as any of the productions he heralded throughout the two decades after this production. His gift for exploring fundamental facets of the human consciousness in everyday objects (the napkins, for instance, or the dress upon which the most luminous moment in the narrative rests) is as affectively charged and polyvalent as it ever was.