Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935)

This review is part of our Auteurs Gone Wild series. The movie will screen at Anthology Film Archives on 3/21 and 3/25.

One cries, another looks on, starts to cry herself. A child invents empathy anew.

“We begin with gin bitters and barmaids and end up with an aching head,” Peter Ibbetson says, describing what it’s like to go out after work. Peter, “a strange child, so sensitive,” grows into “a very impertinent young man” (played by Gary Cooper), a man of principle who can’t do anything he doesn’t like, so destabilized by an event from his childhood that he tries to quit his job for no reason and, failing that, goes on holiday only to resist (in a feat of preternatural abstention) the come-ons of a teenage Ida Lupino.

Peter Ibbetson, the film, the story of a love between children, half-remembered and unknowingly re-enacted by adults, is weird at every turn. These childs’ lives are ruined, their growth stunted, when they’re ripped apart at an early age; their love, born across fence posts and a fight over boards, makes no sense except as l’amour fou, crazy love that transcends everything, which must be what made it a favorite of surrealists Andre Breton and Paul Eluard, who, like a great explorer, reportedly ‘discovered’ it by following a pretty lady into a movie theater.

The picture resolves behind prison bars in a chiaroscuro-drenched fever dream that pays no mind to reality or other people. Hollywood, how normal everyone thinks you are, how strange you’ve always been.

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