The Constant Nymph (1943)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA, 1943. . Screenplay by , from the novel and play by , . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by .

Elegantly complex characters highlight an otherwise obscure plot that has more than its fair share of creepy overtones; you can say it’s because of the time it was made in, but it’s hard to believe that a romance between a grown man and a fourteen-year old girl didn’t also make people squirm in 1943.

It helps that the fourteen year-old is played by the quite obviously twenty-six year-old , who scrunches up her nose and turns in her feet to be more childlike but cannot really hide the fact that she is obviously an adult playing at youthfulness, though it should also be said that this does not make her performance any less enchanting. The much older lover is played by , as a composer who is so distraught by the reviews of his passionless, “mechanical” symphony that he leaves London and takes refuge at the Swiss mountaintop home of an old friend and mentor; old man Sanger () is the father of three exuberantly silly daughters, one of whom (Fontaine) has been nursing a girlhood crush on Boyer for as long as she can remember.

When their father passes away of old age, the girls find themselves penniless and alone until their elegant, moneyed English relatives come to the rescue, a kindly uncle () and their very glamorous older cousin (), who breaks Fontaine’s heart by sweeping Boyer off his feet. A few months later, the girls have been kicked out of their posh boarding school and come to live in Smith and Boyer’s marital home, where a friendship further deepens as Fontaine inspires Boyer to achieve more in his work thanks to her understanding his vocation for music, and Smith grows that much more jealous because she feels left out.

There are elements of the plot that feel gimmicky, Fontaine’s character having a weak heart is the stuff of cheap melodrama, and there’s really no telling what this film is really ABOUT (art, work, love, inspiration?), but director Edmund Goulding keeps it interesting by never letting any of the characters fall into a chasm of two-dimensionality: Smith may be the rival to our beloved heroine but her frustration is treated with sympathy, and Boyer may be the dashing hero but his selfish dismissal of everyone around him is not particularly admirable.

Fontaine, who earned a deserved Academy Award nomination for her performance, manages to convey deep reserves of preternatural intelligence and childish foolishness simultaneously, at least when she’s not focusing too much on her mannerisms. A strange film that can’t be called satisfying, it doesn’t have a happy ending but it does manage to keep up a bright and shiny energy throughout that is hard to resist.

Academy Award Nomination: Best Actress (Joan Fontaine)

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