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The Career of Louis Jourdan by Robin Wood.
The career of Louis Jourdan — among the most wasted stars of the Hollywood cinema — must be seen in the context of Hollywood's shifting but consistently uneasy flirtation with the specific forms of "otherness" represented by continental Europe. There have been many attempts to import European performers and build them into major stars. Most have been unsuccessful, their Hollywood careers short-lived, though women (Garbo, Dietrich, Bergman, Lamarr, and to an extent Alida Valli) have enjoyed more success than men (in the sound period, really only Charles Boyer).
With the important exception of the so-called woman's film (generally the domestic or romantic melodrama), Hollywood movies imply a male spectator. Laura Mulvey suggests in her seminal article "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (Screen, Autumn 1975), that the male protagonist carries the action forward; the woman, as "object of the gaze," actually impedes it, functioning as a necessary spectacle, the "to-be-looked-at." Woman, then, is intrinsically constructed as "other," and her otherness (woman-as-mystery, the "eternal feminine") is underlined, made even more exotic, by foreignness. The male protagonist is the main identification-figure, with whom we look at the woman. Herein lies the problematic otherness of male European stars: their exotic appeal is postulated on notions of sophistication, allure, beauty (rather than a ruggedly masculine handsomeness), and threatening overtones of decadence. They are to-be-looked-at, constructing the spectator as feminine and evoking, for the male, all the dangers of repressed homosexual desire. After World War II, Hollywood's restoration of women to their "rightful" place was inevitably accompanied by a new insistence on masculinity. Boyer became increasingly sinister (Gaslight), and was subsequently relegated to character roles. There was really no place for a Louis Jourdan.
Jourdan's definitive (though rarely recognized) performance is in one of the finest, and most atypical, films ever produced in Hollywood: Ophüls's Letter from an Unknown Woman. Joan Fontaine's inexhaustibly complex and moving assumption of the title role has been widely celebrated, but Jourdan's contribution is scarcely less remarkable. Without his sensitivity and vulnerability the entire project would become much simpler: a foolish woman infatuated with a callous, incorrigibly promiscuous concert pianist for whom she sacrifices all. Jourdan's intensity gives to the role a sense of enormous (if dissipated) potential which confers dignity and substance not only on Stefan but on Lisa's love for him.
Jourdan worked in only two other distinguished films in the 1940s, both quite central to their respective directors' work, and both underrated by most critics: Minnelli's Madame Bovary and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. The former inflects Jourdan's persona in the direction of aristocratic decadence, while retaining the sense of vulnerability. The latter, far more remarkably (especially in the 1950s), eliminates the decadence altogether yet defines the character, at least by implication, as gay. We are informed that Jourdan as the valet has no interest in women, has totally resisted the advances of Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli, no less), and has been completely dedicated to his master, Colonel Paradine. The valet's dedication is the moral center of this remarkable film, and is combined very disturbingly with Valli's erotic dedication to Jourdan — although Hitchcock later felt Jourdan's character should have been rougher and more "manly" to account for the frustrated Valli's fixation upon him.
Throughout the fifties, Jourdan languished in big-budget CinemaScope soap operas and musicals. Only one deserves notice: Minnelli's Gigi, in which Jourdan functions splendidly in a role that, like Stefan in Letter, could easily have been merely unpleasant. His meatiest recent role was the title one in a BBC television version of Dracula, the most faithful adaptation of Stoker's novel yet made, therefore the only one that does full justice to the novel's conception of Dracula as the embodiment of a dangerous sexuality that escapes the norms of the patriarchal order.
Appearances in the occasional major studio film such as Octopussy (as the less-than-agile villain opposite Roger Moore's equally long-in-the-tooth James Bond) and, more frequently, in exploitation pictures such as Swamp Thing and its lame sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, have kept Jourdan's aging continental looks before the cameras, but have added little luster to his long career.
Updated by John McCarty