The swirling vortex of art, sex, psychology and dissolving taboos that defined fin de siecle Vienna has been rendered flat and flavorless in “Bride of the Wind,” a distinctly unimaginative account of the life and loves of Alma Mahler. An odd case of filmmaking with a crystal-clear subject but no guiding dramatic premise, pic sees tyro screenwriter Marilyn Levy and vet helmer Bruce Beresford jointly grasping at the personality, quirks, drives and disappointments of one of Vienna’s (and, much later, Hollywood’s) legendary figures but never getting their collective hands around the complex woman and the equally demanding artists she loved and married. Deadly dull when it should pulse with the realities of what was one of Europe’s most electric and fecund cultural periods, pic virtually defines the costume drama at its most starchy and will be lucky to attract even a fraction of the intended aud during an inopportune early summer release.
There’s no question about the level of research Levy brought to the task, but homework doesn’t make a movie, and while previous pics such as Ken Russell’s flamboyant “Mahler” may have played fast and loose with the facts, “Bride of the Wind” takes matters to the opposite extreme for disappointing results. For all the biographical particulars Levy drew from Alma’s copious diaries and pair of autobiographies, pic remains stubbornly vague about the woman’s many contradictions, not least of which was her open anti-Semitism and her marriage to two Jewish artists, first Gustav Mahler and later writer Franz Werfel.
Alma (Sarah Wynter) makes a promising intro, however, as she walks into a black-and-white party setting and reveals a crimson-red dress. Image is as starkly beautiful as anything in the remaining 90-plus minutes, and for a rare moment symbolically sums up her identity as a powerfully sexual woman to whom attention must be paid.
The Viennese shindig she attends is a Bacchanalian fest of lust, libations and liberal art that seems to anticipate the 20th century just about to arrive, with artist Gustav Klimt (August Schmolzer) holding center stage. Alma chats with Klimt — always surrounded here by nude and semi-clothed models — but soon gets involved with composer Mahler (Jonathan Pryce) after insulting him during a formal dinner.
Pic’s early phase would have done well to observe Alma’s own sprightly, impressionistic song compositions, highlighting her loss when she feels suffocated inside Mahler’s giant, all-consuming symphonic universe. Drawn to him physically and intellectually, Alma wants a marriage of equals in which each composes and creates, while Mahler, quite full of himself and 20 years her senior, clearly wants her to serve his interests. This primal conflict is reduced several levels by Levy’s dialogue, which makes the common biopic mistake of having characters utter information out loud that they already know. Even the death of young daughter Maria (Franziska Becker) doesn’t stoke the emotional flames.
These problems combine with the filmmakers’ tendency to not realize when scenes aren’t working, including those involving Alma’s stormy three-year affair with expressionist painter-sculptor Oskar Kokoschka (Vincent Perez). Perez seems especially felled by pic’s rather ridiculous approach to Kokoschka, whose unveiling of his painting (from which pic takes its title) feels anti-climactic and whose near-death during World War I reps one of the least credible depictions of battle and wartime survival in recent movies.
It was said that Alma went through lovers faster than many male counterparts, but by the time she reaches out to modernist architect Walter Gropius (Simon Verhoeven) and then, to Werfel (Gregor Seberg), the drama inadvertently allows us to wonder what makes Alma run, why she seems to collect major artists like others collect stamps and why she doesn’t simply take a breather to focus on her own art.
The film would have greatly benefited by opting for one of two strategies: Either focusing, as Russell did, on the Alma-Mahler marriage, or expanding running time to allow Alma’s post-Mahler life to develop and make dramatic sense. The halfway approach compromises everything, and it extends to poor casting decisions, which have Aussie Wynter, Brit Pryce and the Swiss Perez maintaining vaguely British accents, but surrounded by Austrian and German supporting thesps struggling through English text with thick mid-Euro accents.
Wynter works hard but doesn’t manage to bring the viewer inside Alma’s difficult world. Pryce’s phlegmatic tendencies win out here, in contrast, for example, to his moving Lytton Strachey portrayal in “Carrington.” Perez looks bewildered by the whole business, especially when he seems to return from the dead in pic’s most (accidentally) comic moment.
Editor Timothy Wellburn’s poky pacing allows the eye much time to take in Shuna Harwood’s sensual costumes and authentic Viennese locales lensed by Beresford’s longtime d.p. Peter James, but pic’s visual design lacks the wonderfully excessive luster and taste for the symbolic that distinguished the art of Alma’s time. Crucial music selections include a fair sampling of Mahler symphonies and songs, and Stephen Endelman’s underscore fails to seamlessly mesh with the period.