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USA. 1927. Silent. B&W. 113 min.

Dir: Clarence Brown

Cast: John Gilbert, Lars Hanson, Greta Garbo

Script: Benjamin F. Glazer, from the novel The Undying Past by Hermann Sudermann

This is a story about two men who love each other, and about their indestructible bond, which may possibly survive even after the devil herself comes between them. The ‘devil’, played with relish by Greta Garbo, is a hypnotic and ruthless woman, all fire, all flesh. But two men committed to each other can surely transcend that... or can they? When off-duty, Garbo herself preferred women, but sometimes slept with men; in the nineteen twenties flexibility was the order of the day, and tight labels had not yet come into fashion. In Flesh and the Devil, however, the ghost of bisexuality is an unwelcome intrusion in a supposedly more pure love among comrades. Don’t assume that the men’s love for each other is platonic: there are lusty looks and constant hugging, and above all, the woman is a point of physical contact between the men, who can access each other by proxy. John Gilbert was considered to be the sexiest man alive (the closeted god-like Valentino had unexpectedly died the previous year), and a good match for Garbo, but we think that Gilbert and Hanson make a far nicer couple.

There are many endearing things about this forgotten classic. For example, in early films all male actors wore make up, but in Flesh and the Devil the make-up department had a field day with the boys. The movie is beautifully shot and thoughtfully planned: a row of horse backsides for a private moment between the friends, a river-crossing barge for the first suspicion of a change of heart, a wild garden for the blooming of ‘natural’ lusts... and so on. Greta Garbo believed that Clarence Brown was the director who got from her the best performances of her career; critics tend to disagree, but there is plenty of proof here of her amazing talent, her magnetism, and her ability to make the craziest scenes credible and exciting. Flesh and the Devil is a drama, but it is full of humour too, and still as funny as it must have been back in 1927 (in fact more, because we have developed a taste for supremely camp moments).

But in Flesh and the Devil, there is something particularly resonant with our time: the first ever gay commitment ceremony on film. It doesn’t happen at the end, as in traditional rom-coms, but at the beginning of the story, when our protagonists are young boys. The extraordinary ceremony –incidentally, officiated by a girl- takes place in an abandoned Greek temple in the ‘Isle of Friendship’. It is nicely counterpointed by a later church scene, with a sermon raging against the biblical David (a gay-favourite whose love for Jonathan “surpassed the love of women”) for having an affair with a married woman. The twist here is, of course, that the true sin in Flesh and the Devil is not adultery, but heterosexuality. A bad day for bisexuality, then - but cheer up, you can still look forward to this scene, where Garbo manages the impossible: to make Holy Mass sexy!

 Film Qlub


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