Desperate Characters (1971)

desperate characters

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: A marriage without love.

Sophie and Otto (Shirley MacLaine, Kenneth Mars) are stuck in a marriage that has fallen into a real rut. They no longer are able to communicate. Sure they ‘speak’ to each other, but neither one listens or seems to even care. Sophie has had a past affair, which Otto became aware of, but forgiven. The two now try to march on like nothing has happened, but the cracks clearly show even when they both deny it. Sophie looks for some answers from her friends, but finds that their marriages aren’t any better and that there may not be any solution other than just sticking with it.

The film to a degree has a provocative flair and seems almost cutting edge for its day. There is no music and the background sound is made up of the ambience of everyday, big city life. The opening shot consists of the camera slowly zooming into the couple’s New York loft with only the distant sound of children playing, which not only helps the viewer feel very integrated to the city that the characters live, but their quiet isolation as well.

The film also has very little action. The only real moment where things happen is when Otto chases a stray cat through their apartment in order to box it up and take to a vet to test for rabies after its bitten Sophie, which for what it is worth is quite interesting. The rest of the film deals with dialogue, but handled in a more sophisticated way than most as it has a consistent conversational tone that not only makes it more genuine, but something that the viewer must ‘read into’ in order to understand. Frank D. Gilroy’s script, which is based on a novel by Paula Fox, never once ‘tells’ the viewer what to think or feel. Instead we are shown regular people with everyday issues discussing the same things that real people do and it’s all left up to the viewer to interpret what it means, which in many ways I found highly refreshing.

Mars gives an outstanding performance in what was apparently his personal favorite and quite atypical from his other body or work, which mainly consisted of over-the-top comic characterizations. Even more surprisingly is that he gets featured in a nude scene from the back. MacLaine is also exceptional in what many fans consider her best work. She is usually effective with strong characters, but here she’s quietly vulnerable while being featured in a rare nude scene for her as well and her case from the front.

The film’s greatest weakness is that it comes off as rather cold and distant. It would’ve been more revealing had it shown even in flashback when the couple was happy and when or what seemed to happen to turn things for the worse. The film also has the philosophy that there is no alternative to their situation and that being in a ‘bad’ or unhappy marriage is better than being alone as it doesn’t even bother to ever touch upon the benefits of single life or an alternative lifestyle, which in the end makes this film seem old fashioned and dated despite its otherwise Avant-garde approach.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Rated R

Director: Frank D. Gilroy

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

One response to “Desperate Characters (1971)

  1. Deadly dull, dry drama.

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