An Auteur’s Folly: Michael Powell's Honeymoon (1959)
This article was originally published as part of the accompanying booklet for Network on Air's release of Honeymoon, available here: Honeymoon / Network On Air
When Michael Powell was shooting Honeymoon in 1958 the word auteur was fresh in the minds of a new generation of young French critics and filmmakers, but still a relatively niche concept to most film enthusiasts. Three years later, the critic Pauline Kael would tear Andrew Sarris to shreds in response to his 1962 essay titled ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory’, a meditation on creativity that was directly inspired by Truffaut, Godard and the rest of the French Cahier du Cinema set. Kael rightly pointed out that Sarris’s theoretical framework was inconsistent, that his analysis prioritized rhetoric over content, and that, besides, film production simply didn’t work that way. Sarris’s analysis signalled quite a shift in direction for film appreciation and criticism in the United States, particularly given that in the Classic Hollywood Cinema, it was the studio, not the director, that was king. Undeterred, six years later Sarris would write The Great American Cinema, a tome that reconceptualised American history via the filmographies of directors who, he argued, had worked against the confines of the Hollywood system by infusing their works with their own artistic visions.
The concept of the ‘great director’ had existed in European cinema for some time, and Michael Powell was perhaps one such figure. By 1958, he was well regarded, alongside his partner Emeric Pressburger, as the creative force behind some of British cinema’s most notable films, including Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948). The UK Pressbook for Honeymoon, Powell’s Spanish remake of The Red Shoes, is certainly keen to foreground his credentials as an author-director, noting that: “Powell is a perfectionist who supervises every phase of the productions he is involved in. Working on HONEMOON, he wrote the story, produced, directed, gathered the talent…and, as usual, left his unmistakeable signature on the film’s lavish canvas.”
But as well as representing the achievement of a creative director with a clear authorial vision, film is a complex industrial product. What is a great director without his or her crew? They are no director at all, as Powell found out the hard way during the stressful and incoherent production of Honeymoon. In his autobiography, Powell writes:
On Honeymoon I was so convinced of my talents as a showman. I had been made so arrogant by the worldwide success of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Tales of Hoffmann, that I thought I had done it all myself, although I knew jolly well that I hadn’t.
He hadn’t, but he had believed his own hype. Honeymoon is part romance, part ballet fantasy and part travelogue. We follow married Australian farmer Kit (Anthony Steel) and his wife, the retired ballet dancer Anna (Ludmilla Tchérina) on their honeymoon tour through the vast, craggy landscapes and charming villages of the Spanish countryside. On their travels they meet the flamboyant and hot-tempered dancer Antonio (the famous Spanish dancer Antonio Ruiz Soler) who attempts to coax Anna out of retirement, much to Kit’s annoyance. Kit wants Anna to settle down with him on his farm, but Antonio encourages her to follow her passions. Anna is treated to Antonio’s fancy footwork and impressive peacocking on numerous occasions, first at a village tavern, then during a ballet performance, and finally in her dreams. She begins to fall for him, even though he is married to Rosita (Rosita Sergova) and this escalates into an intense love-quadrangle which is mirrored in Antonio and Rosita’s staged performance of the flamenco style ballet El Amor Brujo later in the film.
The ‘travelogue’ is something of a dead genre that we lack a shared framework for understanding in a society where international travel is open to many of us. Whether Honeymoon was intended to exist as a travelogue in its final form is another matter, but the significant issues faced by Powell during the production and editing stages of the film undoubtedly contributed to the end result, which is a confusing hybrid of travel promo and musical extravaganza. The film was cut and re-cut several times for UK release, with many of the dance sequences truncated in these re-edited versions. After its 1959 release at Cannes, the film disappeared and reappeared three years later in 1962, in its original Technirama form, but with 20 minutes missing. This version was apathetically reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin in January 1962, and by this point Powell had fallen out of favour with British film critics following the release of his ‘disgusting’ psychological horror film Peeping Tom in 1960. For this reviewer, Honeymoon was confirmation of Powell’s ‘recent decline’ as a director, even though Honeymoon had been released one year before Peeping Tom (and British critics would later apologise en-masse for their treatment of latter film, which was retrospectively hailed as a masterpiece). The MFB reviewer characterises Honeymoon as ‘an enormous travel poster of the most blatant kind’ and while the dancing and the musical score receive some praise, the writer was unimpressed by bad acting, a thin story and ‘awkward, fussy décor’. Another critic writing for Sight and Sound lamented the ‘mangled’ version of the film that British Lion distributed in the West End that year, and questioned the ‘lunacy’ of dismembering Powell’s ballet scenes and then advertising the film in cinemas using posters that included stills from the scenes that were cut!
For all of Honeymoon’s technical and artistic failings, the film does combine some beautiful choreography with Spanish cultural history and folkloric legend. The first (almost self-contained) ballet sequence in the film, El Amor Brujo (The Bewitched Lovers) is an adaptation of the ballet by Manuel de Falla (sometimes translated as ‘Wedded by Witchcraft’). The story follows a young woman, Candela, who is haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, who appears to her at night and engages her in a series of beautiful and macabre dances. But if Candela wants to pursue her true love, the young and handsome Carmelo, she must find a way to exorcise her husband’s ghost, and she does this by arranging a fatal meeting between the ghost and his ex-lover, Lucia. In the film, this sequence is by turns haunting, beautiful, ridiculous, and punctuated by awkward technical issues. The ballet is performed in the open air for Anna, Kit and a small audience of locals, who sit watching among the cavernous ruins of the Spanish landscape. The sequence is more of a fantasy than a performance, and this is emphasised by the fact the audience are offered no static point-of-view from which to watch this sequence unfold. We follow the dancers as they move from the communal stage through a series of small, cavernous rooms and, finally, to an impressive mountain range that spirals upward like a ragged staircase, set against an expressive painted backdrop of the night sky. Demons, ghosts and witches writhe to an atmospheric symphony as Candela and Carmelo pursue their doomed romance, and if this all sounds impressive, it is undermined by tacky costumes, cheap sets and (on occasion) unsteady camera movement.
Ludmilla Tcherina had played Irina Boronskaja in The Red Shoes as well as performing the title role in Powell and Pressburger’s Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955), but she was not the actor Powell originally had in mind when he embarked on the project. In fact, it was Moira Shearer, the star of The Red Shoes, but after reading the script Shearer turned down the part. In his autobiography, Powell wrote that he was not at all bitter about this rejection. However, he was bitter about various factors which never quite came together during the film’s planning and production stages. A few of these issues have been documented by Charles Doble, who writes that Powell’s creative practice did not gel with the priorities and working practices of his Spanish crew. Powell also believed that the only artist who could bring the pivotal ballet sequences in the film to life was Joan Miro, but Miro was apparently less convinced. Powell travelled to Mallorca and camped outside his Villa in an attempt to persuade him, but he was unsuccessful (in the end the design for these scenes were done by Catalan painter Durancamps).
Honeymoon wasn’t a total loss – the film won the Technical Grand Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, and Powell was nominated for the Golden Palm Award. The film was released in Technirama, a new process, and was one of the first films screened in England (and possibly the first) to be made for the ARC120 projection system. This involved projecting two film strips simultaneously and ensuring they met in the middle of a large, curved cinema screen (and according to Charles Doble, who restored the film from its original elements in the early 2000s, the adaptors and heavy lenses necessitated by this process caused picture shake, and this may account for some of the odd, unsteady shots we see in certain scenes).
Powell dedicates very little space to Honeymoon in his almost 700-page autobiography Million Dollar Movie (in fact, he writes only a few paragraphs about Honeymoon, as opposed to the several pages he includes about a love affair he enjoyed with a young Spanish woman while he was making the film on location). But the scant details he does offer provide the reader with a partial story of a doomed production that began as one of his most ambitious projects and ended up becoming one of his greatest disappointments. Powell’s final word on the film is this: “The elements were alright, but the organisation was raw, and the whole thing never quite came together. I should never have taken it on."
 Powell, Michael (1995) Million Dollar Movie, London: Random House, p. 418.  Luna Del Miel, Monthly Film Bulletin; Jan 1, 1962; 29  Film Clips, Sight and Sound; Winter 1962; 32, 1  These sequences were choreographed by Leonide Massine, who also plays the ghost of Candela’s dead husband. Leonide Massine was 60 at the time.  Tcherina deserves some credit here for introducing Powell to the legend of ‘The Lovers of Teruel’ (according to Charles Doble). She later incorporated the ‘Teruel’ ballet into some of her stage performances, and was also involved in the making of the 1962 film of the same name by Raymond Rouleau.  See The Powell and Pressburger Pages, http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/59_Honeymoon/Charles.html