Spoilers: The film is discussed at length.
Frank Borzage’s 1930 adaptation of the Hungarian play Liliom is less notable than two other adaptations of the same material. The 1934 adaptation of Liliom was directed by Fritz Lang, one of the great German Expressionism directors who is more well known than Borzage. Liliom would later ba adapted into the stage musical Carousel by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which would be adapted into a feature film in 1956.
Borzage’s adaptation is a film with a seedy air. The titular Liliom (Charles Farrell) is a barker at a carousel in Budapest, attracting crowds, particularly of the female variety. He gets a bit hansy with these women as his devil-may-care attitude fascinates the women. Julie (Rose Hobart), a upstanding young lady who works at the brewery, becomes infatuated with him. They eventually become tangled in a relationship where Liliom uses and abuses the longsuffering Julie.
Initially, their interaction is rough. The lines feel as if they are spoken past each other and some musings come across as too naked for a pair that has just met. And yet, as the film progresses, the pair continue to see each other without full clarity. Liliom is blinded by his inadequacy as a man which he tries to cover with violence and Julie is so blinded by her love that she does not see the danger of their relationship.
It’s a story of characters that would probably be condemned for marginalizing women or romanticizing toxic masculinity for depicting such power dynamics without pouring out its entire wrath and judgement on the characters. The original play ended with a much more biting and cynical conclusion than the film. Borzage dreams bigger.
For those who have seen films like Lucky Star, 7th Heaven and Three Comrades, it’s clear that Borzage is interested in telling stories about love. Here is a couple that the world sees as an abusive man and a naive fool. It should be a love story of tragedy, and in many ways it is. Borzage doesn’t romanticize their romance, he bluntly shows how Julie is better off without Liliom, but instead explores how love transcends their conflict.
The third act tells a story that goes beyond life on earth and looks to the eternal. Liliom’s story does not end where he thinks it will, he has to face judgement, he has to be faced with what he does and what he becomes. He is given another chance, a moment to show the love and compassion he was shown in his life. And he fails.
Given the chance, he resorts back to his nature and is unable to control the rage and anger inside of him. It’s shown to him how Julie’s life without him is much better than it was when he was there. In spite of all this, in an amazing, cosmic twist, he is redeemed through the steadfast and unwavering love of Julie. His own love fails but the love of another redeems him.
Is love more powerful than the cycles of violence and abuse? Can its power overcome the continual physical and mental trauma inflicted upon it? Can abusive people be loved? Liliom dares to say yes. It’s also wise enough to show that abused people are better off out of the clutches of their abusers, but that the love for the unlovable is the highest form of love, a love so powerful it can upturn the heavens.
© James Blake Ewing 2017