The Oyster Princess (1919)
⭐⭐⭐½ (3½ stars out of 5)
The Oyster Princess (1919) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Tenuous in narrative but effervescent in style. The Oyster Princess is straightforwardly a grotesque comedy, conservatively referenced in theatrical terms of the period. Director Ernst Lubitsch’s rich and dynamic silent period seems an alternate universe to the tumultuous and enraged socio-political situation of the Weimar Republic, at least that is what his eccentric, reality-distorting comedies make us think.
Convincingly expressionistic in its disfiguring atmosphere of reality but still delicately bourgeois in the geometrically ordered scenarios; Lubitsch is not considered the ultimate exponent of German expressionism or the “haunted screen”, yet his exalted comic farces are dense in expressionistic ethos that should be reevaluated as such. This rhapsodic, hectic 1919 film is a wonderful mess, an absurdist comedy that parodies modern life and social differences with a joyous, symphonic emphasis. On purely narrative levels it becomes clear that Lubitsch is still learning to play with his suggestive vivacity that in American cinema would make him a master of quintessential Hollywood comedy, he is one of Germany’s many influential exports to American cinema. Still, even if the misaligned narrative is less than ideal for the histrionic revolutions of the performances and editing, the film sustains its gleeful dancing spirit with masterful evenness.
The Oyster Princess is fast-paced and itinerant from its over-excited first act, and the next few acts are just as effusive in infectious happiness; indeed the romantic idealism, the subjective values of love over materialism are the aspects that stand out in its abundance of laughter and festivity. I would say it is the only but effective storytelling tool it has, constructively speaking.
The plot, structured in four rambunctious acts, concerns an irritating, bubbly and conceited princess who petulantly asks her bumbling, stout father to get a prince for her. The deliberately implausible events amalgamate with infectious energy into the animated style of the sets, bringing to life a plot where nothing makes sense in the logical world but in Lubitsch’s universe is fundamentally rational.
The light-hearted plot takes force with the mesmerizing premeditation of the chaos that takes place in its splendorous scenery, a luxurious staging that just thinking about its choreographic preparation gives me a headache, for it is certainly the best of the film’s anarchic and showiest spectacle. Absolute chaos, in a mise-en-scène that orchestrates rhythmic displacements of people and dizzying confusion, a stupendous predecessor to the homogeneous madness of Jacques Tati’s modernist worlds that would be seen many decades later. Romance, sizzling sensuality and pure nonsense working in unison in the hands of a singular comedy artist, Ernst Lubitsch.