LEGONG: DANCE OF THE VIRGINS - DVD review

Like the dance itself, 'Legong' is both innocent and seductive, a rich portrait of a South Seas Hindu culture.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

"Legong: Dance of the Virgins," with it's TRUE…ACTUALLY FILMED IN BALI poster of a topless Balinese girl, might tempt a lot of folks to buy this for the nudity. But if you're looking for some South Seas-style titillation (ahem), you might be better off buying Mel Gibson's lavish production of "The Bounty."

Yes, there's natural bounty here too. The native girls in this 1935 docudrama are as lovely and innocently topless as if they were carrying their baskets of fruits and rice across the pages of National Geographic Magazines—the ones that gave many American boys their first glimpse of unashamed and unadulterated female flesh. But "Legong" is more of an anthropologist's dream than a wet one.

"Legong" is significant to film historians as well, because it's one of the last silent films to be commercially released, and one of the last to use a two-color (red and green) Technicolor process. That process gives the film a sepia look at times, while at other times the magic of two-color printing produces a much broader (but equally soft and matte-finish) spectrum of color which seems a perfect tone to document the Balinese lifestyle right before the Isle of the Gods lost its innocence to an ever-encroaching world.

By the time that Gloria Swanson's ex-husband, Marquis Henry de la Falaise de la Coudraye, went to Bali in 1933 with his current wife (and bankroller/producer), Constance Bennett, the island had already been beset by a number of film crews trying to take advantage of the island's native innocence under the guise of filming "documentaries." At least de la Falaise dispenses with that ruse and shoots a "re-enactment" of a Balinese love story based on facts and using an all-native cast. The result is a tragic tale on the order of "Romeo and Juliet" that provides a satisfying story as well as compelling footage of daily life in Bali near the end of a period of public fascination with travel and exploration.

Though Daniel DeFoe published his account of Robinson Crusoe in 1719, the American public's appetite for exotic travel narratives began with Herman Melville's "Typee," an account of the author's travels in the South Seas which was published in 1846, the same year that Congress established the Smithsonian Institution. The interest in narratives and photographs from exotic lands was still high when the National Geographic Society was formed in 1888 and began publishing a magazine shortly thereafter. On radio, and afterwards, television, Lowell Thomas gave eyewitness accounts of his travels to places on the map that seemed a million miles away from the American consciousness. In fact, the public was so starved for good travelogues that travelers who were not even explorers could make a good living by lecturing and showing their photographs, as Burton Holmes did from 1910-1930.

De la Falaise's film was one of the last to capitalize on the craze. As with the others, the filmmaker was certainly aware that his product offered sensational nudity in a marginally acceptable context—though, ironically, because it came on the heels of so many other "documentaries," censors cracked down. "Legong" was banned in many countries, while all of the frontal nudity close-ups were excised from the U.S. release. Even more ironic is that de la Falaise's film, as we watch it now, seems quietly powerful and artistically shot. The two-color Technicolor and silent format, combined with the innocence and raw acting of the natives, produces a fable that's every bit as striking as Shakespeare's tale of star-crossed young lovers.

The plot is simple, and the tragic nature of the fable is foreshadowed in a warning to Balinese women that appears on a scroll viewers see in the first tile: "Should love enter thine eyes and go to thy heart, beware. For should he whom thou choosest not return thy love, thy gods will frown and disgrace will befall thee!"

Poutou (Goesti Poetoe Aloes), one of the temple dancers, remembers this as she casts her eyes upon a young musician from northern Bali during the feast of Tampaksiring and falls in love. Enraptured by Njong (Njoman Njong Njong), she "chooses" him, and he in turn plans to go to her father (Goesti Bagus Mara) to follow up on her declaration. Unfortunately, on his way to the family house he comes upon Poutou's younger half-sister, Saplak (Njoman Saplak), as she's bathing (naked—what else?) in the river, and falls in love with her. When Njong tells the father about his intent, the old man becomes furious. The rest of this tragic triangle (quadrangle, if you count Dad) plays itself out against a backdrop of Balinese rituals and dances, including the most popular dance, the Legong, or dance of the virgins. There's also a fascinating cremation ritual, but I won't spoil things by telling whose ashes get scattered across the sea.

For this restored presentation, a new soundtrack was composed and directed by Richard Marriott and I Made Subandi and performed by members of the Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra. It's a wash of music that seeps over this sepia-like print and bathes the characters and townspeople with sounds and instruments that closely approximate ones from the period. In fact, the music is so dominant and the dancing so predominant that it's easy to forget you're watching a silent movie.

Video:
The UCLA Film & Television Archive did a marvelous job of restoring this milestone film, made available on DVD, appropriately, by Milestone (milestonefilms.com), a small independent operation specializing in silent films. The title is among the latest in Milestone's celebrated Age of Exploration series, and the 56-minute color film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Given the age of the film and the fact that it's a relic from the end of the silent era, the quality is superb, with not nearly the graininess that you'd expect. There's some, of course, but there are other moments when the light is just right and the graininess all but disappears. For this, I suspect that the two-color Technicolor is partly responsible, because its soft tones are very forgiving of flaws. There are, as you might expect from a silent film, scratches and imperfections in the negative that surface as flickers and occasional thin white, vertical lines. But again, the restoration, assisted with funding from the NEA, appears to have been done with great care.

Audio:
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, with an alternate soundtrack innovatively provided by the composers.

Extras:
The main bonus feature is actually ANOTHER feature, the 50-minute black-and-white version of "Kliou the Killer," shot in Vietnam in 1937 by the man who directed "Legong." Though the film is in rougher condition than "Legong" and in black and white, it's interesting for shots of a French colonial military outpost in Bsre and footage of animals and Moi tribesmen—descendents of Genghis Khan—on location in the jungles of Annan. As with "Legong," de la Falaise relied on a small native cast to tell the story of a killer tiger that terrorizes a village and the brave young hunter who tries to impress a girl by killing it. The frame for the tale happens to be two white officers talking about their assignment at the outpost. This film is interesting primarily because it was thought lost until this 16mm black-and-white print was found in the collection of Gerald Haber, by whose generosity it's included here. Having a second film to compare with de la Falaise's "Legong" allows viewers (and film students) to discuss the director's style of filming in an exotic location.

There's also a true 56-minute documentary included: "Gods of Bali," a black-and-white 1952 production that's narrated by John Rodney. Here, we learn that the finest dancers on the island are girls age five through eight, and that the older girls tend to be teachers. Dance and ritual scenes so closely mirror those from the earlier "fictional" account that it's nothing short of a corroboration. There's some strange stuff in this one that's not in "Legong," including a scene where dancers bite the heads off live chickens and swallow them in order to exorcise demons, and some painful filing of a boy's teeth that is part of the ritualistic passage into manhood. The documentary also provides additional footage of external dwellings and festivals.

In another extra, the composers are interviewed together and talk about how a westerner and an easterner collaborated on music through a give-and-take process. It's a bit tough to understand Subandi at first, but the fact of the matter is that neither composer says anything terribly astounding. Rounding out the extras: a DVD-ROM article (you'll need Adobe Acrobat Reader) on "Legong" by ethnomusicologist Katherine Hagedorn and film historian Peter Bloom, and a DVD-ROM press kit supplied by Milestone.

Bottom Line:
Throughout the film there is wonderful footage of daily life on the island, including scenes of the father with his fighting roosters, women at the marketplace, family gatherings (including five and six year olds smoking), and plenty of footage of the village buildings. What was exotic in 1933 is even more so now, because we're seeing all of this 70 years later. The dance costumes and routines are fabulous, but the daily activities seem just as poetic. Small things, such as notes written on a palm leaf, or a two-log bridge (one log for the feet, one for the hands) wonderfully chronicle life in a small Balinese village before World War II. Like the dance itself, "Legong" is both innocent and seductive, a rich portrait of a South Seas Hindu culture.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
8
Extras
8
Film Value
8