Directed by Jules Dassin; produced by Dassin and Noel Howard; screenplay by Jules Dassin and Margarita Lymberaki, based on the play Hippolytus by Euripides; music by Mikis Theodorakis; cinematography by Jacques Natteau; edited by Roger Dwyre; starring Melina Mercouri, Anthony Perkins, and Raf Vallone. DVD, B&W, 115 min., 1962. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.
The classic Greek legend of Phaedra probes the tragic consequences that occur when a woman becomes sexually obsessed with her stepson. In Phaedra (1962) director Jules Dassin and scriptwriter Margarita Lymberaki present Phaedra as a woman overwhelmed by passions she cannot control. This follows the interpretation of Phaedra developed by Euripides, who broke with older versions in which Phaedra was an evil sensualist seeking to corrupt her innocent stepson.
The modern Phaedra (Melina Mercouri) is the forty-something, second wife of shipping magnate Thanos Kyrilis (Raf Vallone), who wishes to reconcile with his estranged son Alexis (Anthony Perkins), an art student living in London. The athletic and handsome Thanos is a cunning businessman involved in international commerce, but he is likable and adores his wife. He gives Phaedra expensive gifts and names his new prize ship in her honor. Phaedra, in short, is not ignored or abused by an unattractive or deceitful husband.
Dassin adds political punch to the film by exploring the luxurious lives enjoyed by elite shipping families. This is not done in a heavy-handed manner. The lavish villas, yachts, and fashionable attire of the super rich are simply allowed to speak for themselves without any editorial grumbling by Greek commoners. Dassin takes a further jab at the Greek shippers by setting up marital relationships between his characters that parallel real-life marriages involving the Onassis and Niarchos shipping clans.
The tragedy takes form when Thanos cajoles a reluctant Phaedra to deliver a message to Alexis in London that his father wants his twenty-four-year-old son to be at his side. From their first encounter, Phaedra and Alexis engage in a playful flirtation inappropriate to their relationship. Alexis invites Phaedra to meet his “girl,” which turns out to be a pricey sports car in a dealership window. Their empathy, however, leads to Alexis meeting with his father in Paris. When business needs require Thanos to leave for New York City, Phaedra, persuades Alexis to remain. The supposedly mounting passion between Mercouri and Perkins lacks chemistry. All the sexual energy comes from the sultry Phaedra and her attraction to the bland Alexis is inexplicable. Nor is Dassin’s camera effective in addressing this sexual void. The film’s big sex scene is an unimaginative sequence of blurred shots of the embracing couple punctuated by shots of a rain storm at the window, a blazing fireplace, and glowing candles.
After living together in Paris for more than a week, Alexis asks Phaedra to declare her love openly and return with him to London. Phaedra, however, feels compelled to rejoin her husband on the island of Hydra. Fearful of her lack of self control, she tells Alexis, “Don’t come.” Greece brings no respite to Phaedra’s emotions. Although still yearning for Alexis, she is tormented by her sense of shame and deceit. Her only confidant is Anna (Olympia Papoudaka), her aging personal maid, who is distraught by Phaedra’s anguish. Anna’s emotions have homoerotic aspects that feel far more genuine than the emotions Alexis has projected. The women take siestas together, but their sexual intimacy remains limited to the adoring Anna’s caresses.
Thanos informs Alexis that the car he so admires is waiting for him in Hydra. Alexis demands to know what Phaedra desires him to do. The increasingly unstable Phaedra reverses what she had said earlier and implores Alexis to come as soon as possible, but her plans go awry when Alexis hews ever closer to his father while becoming ever more wary of her. The sexual dynamics intensify when Ercy (Elizabeth Ercy), Alexis’s beautiful second cousin, a woman his own age, falls in love with him. Thanos and his circle are delighted at the prospect of a marriage that would further unite the shipping families. A now sullen and possessive Phaedra stands between Alexis and all that is “normal.” Alexis reacts by playing the role of a carefree party boy at the local seaside tavern. He goes off with the first available woman, an act designed to cool Ercy’s ardor and belittle Phaedra.
The film reaches its climax when the luxury ship named Phaedra, seen launched in the film’s opening scenes, sinks, killing most of its crew. Phaedra, obsessed by her own agenda, arrives at Thanos’s offices in the midst of the crisis. Ironically clad in white, she pushes her way through black-clad women anxious to know the fate of their men. Oblivious to the grief around her, Phaedra-in-white reveals her secret love to Thanos. An enraged Thanos manages to restrain himself from striking her, but beats Alexis viciously, ordering him, as he did Phaedra, to leave his sight forever.
The blood-soaked Alexis returns to the family villa for a last embrace of his “girl.” Phaedra appears at the garage door and tells him they can now live openly as lovers; he replies that he wishes Phaedra dead. The rejected Phaedra returns to the main house where she takes an overdose of sleeping pills while the now frenzied Alexis, listening to music by Bach, drives his “girl” over a cliff. The effect is less that of high tragedy than of grade-B melodrama.
Although he filmed in Paris, London, and Hydra, Dassin does not make memorable use of these distinctive locations. Throughout the film, he plays off black-and-white images, but the contrasts are effective only in the mourning scene. The film’s soundtrack, by Mikis Theodorakis, lacks the power of the music Theodorakis would create for Zorba the Greek (1964). The two songs sung by Mercouri were popular in Greece, but neither enjoyed the worldwide popularity of “The Boys of Piraeus,” Mercouri’s signature song in Never on Sunday (1960). What remains most memorable about Phaedra, a moderate success in Europe but a flop in the United States, is the depth of Mercouri’s performance. Michael Cacoyannis, who had directed Mercouri in her extraordinary film debut as the lead in Stella (1965), was among the many who judged Phaedra to be the mercurial Mercouri’s finest dramatic performance on stage or screen.
Dan Georgakas is author of My Detroit: Growing Up Greek and American in Motor City.