While a British movie made towards the end of the 1960s acknowledges the trappings of fame, it also renders them quite meaningless in the eyes of its indifferent protagonist. Mark Fraser revisits a work dominated by ennui.
On one level Charlie Bubbles (1968) is as dry as a comedy can be, containing a number of humourous situations, but lacing them with such aloofness that even their ironic intent sometimes seem unnecessarily fatalistic.
The film – which is the only one ever directed by the recently deceased English actor Albert Finney – also partly comes across as a homage to European cinema of the era, incorporating ideas that wouldn’t look out of place in the works of auteurs like Frenchman Jacques Tati or Italians Michelangelo Antonioni and (to a lesser degree) Federico Fellini.
Beneath this surface is yet another layer, that being an almost conventional melodrama about the titular writer (Finney) who is unable to reconcile his current fame with his past – a situation which has not only seen him estranged from his ex-wife Lottie (Billie Whitelaw) and young son Jack (Timothy Garland), but somehow led to his isolation from anything resembling normalcy.
In addition, the film has something of a whimsical ending; a kind of deus ex machina that some viewers may regard as a cop out.
When all this is thrown together, what emerges is a landscape dominated by ennui, surrealism and absurdism. And, as one would expect in such a cinematic space, nothing is truly resolved by the time the end credits roll.
Thus, in a strange way, Charlie Bubbles ends up being almost the exact opposite of what it at first appears to be. Rather than becoming an eccentric character study of a man at the top of his game, it settles on being a sometimes bleak and detached look at a protagonist who, for whatever reasons, can never seem to fully enjoy himself.
One offshoot of this is the fact that while Bubbles is a highly successful writer, never once is he shown putting pen to paper (except when he signs one of his books for a hitchhiker), mulling over literary ideas with his peers, quoting anything he has read or soliloquising in private. On this note, even Edward Marshall’s set design lacks a decent bookcase or typewriter.
If anything, it seems the script (by Shelagh Delaney) makes a conscious effort to hide what Bubbles writes from the audience. While there are indications in the story he has penned a number of books – and a suggestion (possibly erroneous) that a few of them have been adapted for the screen – not once is there any effort to reveal what they are about.
Meanwhile, his relationship with pretty much every character in the film is just as enigmatic.
Early in the movie, for instance, when he runs into his old mate Smokey Pickles (Colin Blakely) in a fancy London restaurant, the two immediately get into a food fight before spending the rest of the day playing billiards and drinking.
At first this scene reeks of pure comic fantasy as the two men wastefully decimate a table of culinary delights while most of the other well-to-do patrons in the room choose to ignore their messy antics.
What appears to be an act of the imagination, though, turns out to be very real, with the surreal tone underpinning this moment continuing as the two men pay off the restaurant staff and leave the premises by foot to buy themselves another set of clothes.
Looking like a pair of slobs as they wander down the street covered in food, Bubbles and Pickles are quickly transformed when, after a brief (unseen) shopping spree, they rigidly pose as storefront mannequins while descending a department store escalator wearing their new threads.
When put in context with the remainder of the film, it’s arguable that Finney and Delaney were attempting to disorientate viewers – to get their audience to question whether it was watching literal action or moments of whimsy.
This kind of narrative logic is repeated later in the movie when Bubbles gets it off with his American secretary Miss Hayhoe (Liza Minnelli in her debut screen appearance)* while they are visiting his home town of Salford in England’s north.
In what must be one of the most awkward lovemaking scenes in the annuls of English cinema, the writer appears so bored with the ritual of seduction that once it is over – and the chirpy young woman leaves their hotel for some sightseeing and to visit relatives – one finds oneself asking: Did that really just happen?
As it turns out it is all for real, with Minnelli confirming it in an interview republished in the press material accompanying the Indicator Blu-ray issue of the movie.
And, in doing so, the actress succinctly sums up how this fits into Charlie Bubbles’ overall thematic stance: “It’s a completely sexless, passionless nude scene – just another in the series of boring events in a bored man’s life.”
Frustratingly, even when Bubbles eventually does visit his estranged family he is unable to break out of the ennui which has pestered him throughout the rest of the movie.
Although he takes the football-mad Jack to a local match, where the pair have their own viewing box, he is unable to get into the spirit of the moment – his apparent disinterest in the event rubbing off on the poor lad, who chooses (without asking his distracted father) to make his own way home after the game.
As for Lottie, whom Pickles earlier tells Bubbles “would have kept your feet on the ground”, she doesn’t even try to make sense of him anymore, even though it’s obvious – despite a few moments of annoyance – she can still tolerate him.
One of the ultimate ironies in the film can be found in its title, with the fantastically wealthy and highly successful Bubbles’ never once being particularly effervescent.
In her article “Get in Lane”, which is also included in the Indicator information package that comes with the Blu-ray, critic Thirza Wakefield suggests the titular character lives in a bubble, but not “as is implied in the commonest use of that expression, blithely, but with so grave an awareness of his difference that he can scarcely function”.
Moreover, she says, “he is in the world, but not of it, and like a bubble, terminally sealed, terminally other.”
Perhaps, but his surname is plural, not singular, thus making it arguable that it’s not so much his awareness of difference which separates him, but his total indifference to absolutely everything around him. Like a bottle of flat expensive champagne, Bubbles turns up for the right occasions, but is ultimately void of any fizz.
Given this, a just-as-apt title for Charlie Bubbles could easily have been The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
*Although Bubbles calls her Miss Hayhoe, she introduces herself as Elizabeth to Maudie Pickles (Diana Coupland) but is called Eliza in the film’s credits. The spelling for Hayhoe comes from Wakefield’s essay.
Words by Mark Fraser
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Charlie Bubbles was released on limited edition Blu-ray from Powerhouse Films on November 26, 2018.