. "Bride of the Wind"

For a movie about Alma Mahler, wife of the illustrious Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler, one has to wonder what director Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy", "Breaker Morant") meant to imply with this title. That she was married to a composer who was "in the wind" of immortality? That she was "in the wind" in terms of remarrying several times at the turn of the century in Vienna when polite society considered such activities scandalous? We can't figure it out so if anyone talks to Mr. Beresford, please ask him to let us know.

In any case, this is historical melodrama better fit for the small screen. HBO should have picked it up before it became too serious as a movie project.

Alma Schindler was born in Vienna in 1879, the daughter of landscape artist Emil Schindler. She was a jaw-dropping beauty who moved in the highest circles of Viennese society, here classily portrayed by Sarah Wynter in a fine display of beauty and breeding. She studied musical composition with Alexander Zemlinsky -- probably her first lover -- and was romantically linked to the great German painter Gustav Klimt (August Schmolzer), for whom she posed before setting her sights on the great Mahler (Jonathan Pryce), a man twice her age and with half her vitality (according to this portrayal), and marrying him in 1902.

Give her credit. She was willing to abandon her own talents as a composer in order to support her husband on his way to a greatness that some think is equal to Beethoven and Strauss. But, according to this scenario, she doesn't much like his musical composition, finding it untraditional and not capable of embracing it as a new direction for symphonic expression. Her own composition is published and performed occasionally today, but does not stand out.

After Mahler dies, she marries another suitor-lover, architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius (Simon Verhoeven), had an affair with Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka (Vincent Perez) and then married Austrian writer Franz Werfel (Grefor Seberg). Not shown in the movie were links also to composer Arnold Schoenberg, tenor Enrico Caruso and writer Gerhart Hauptmann.

The principal point of the movie is that the lady had a healthy appetite (we won't define for what) and couldn't bear living alone. But, giving expression to it was daring, indeed, for her time. She collected accomplished men like a drawing room Mae West and, perhaps, drew great comfort from the adoration of an ever-widening flock of exes.

Director Beresford, among our finest filmmakers, gets the ball rolling in an opening scene with black-and-white archival footage of Vienna which then flows into a shot of Alma in a red dress marching triumphantly from a black-and-white drawing room into a ballroom of mostly muted color, in which red makes her a singular presence -- establishing from the get-go the liberated quality of the woman whose life we are about to study.

As in most film biographies, we suffer from lack of understanding of the motivating forces behind the events of the person's life. When did Alma decide to devote her life to the sexual and emotional support of famous artists? That she can pull it off so unerringly is made totally plausible with the exquisite beauty and bearing of Sarah Wynter, who acquired a Viennese accent to play Alma. But even so talented a filmmaker and storyteller as Beresford couldn't bring this story to dramatic life as it presents characters out of art and music history who are mere cardboard cutouts.

To have been such a creative force as Mahler was there had to be passion and dynamism in the man. Jonathan Pryce and screenwriter Marilyn Levy did nothing to convey this in the character. Perhaps the real Alma had good reason to love the man beyond the fact that he was an important and leading figure in her society. It's all right to give the masses the generalities, but biography should include a moment or two for students of the art.

Peter James' cinematography, Shuna Harwood's costumes and Herbert Pinter's design are all exemplary. And, while this film has been compared disfavorably with Merchant Ivory films, we think this is based on the mistaken notion that one period piece may be appropriately compared to another. Merchant Ivory costume dramas are not usually biographies of actual famous and accomplished people.

Alma Mahler was a woman of her times and a woman ahead of her times. Somewhere in the history is a great, perhaps wild story. This one begs for a dose of Viagra.

Rated W, for Windy.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
I saw the movie and it made me rethink the power of intelligent women beyond the male-female attraction. The reviewer gives the movie a moral connotation that I did not see so evident.
                                                      ~~  Santiesteban

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