Hobbits romp, avengers avenge, and the special effects we’ve come to endure do their busy best to awe us. But no computer trick is as glorious as the thaw that melts icy Greta Garbo into fire. She arrives in Paris, this somber Soviet emissary called Ninotchka, to the tongue-wagging surprise of her comrades (“Don’t make an issue of my womanhood,” she announces). She endures the amorous attention of Melvyn Douglas, a count who runs at the mouth (“You are very talkative” is her stern observation). But then, there she is, privately bewitched by a ridiculous hat—the cornucopia, a style that Garbo would come to popularize—and we see a hint of vulnerability, a playful affection for silly, wonderful things.
That’s as close a definition of the vaunted “Lubitsch touch” we can muster, and if you haven’t seen any of the German expat’s exquisite Hollywood output, start here. Ninotchka is delicate flirtation and political satire made into a perfect whole, and a reminder of skills that studio writers have largely lost. In their moment, the film’s Stalin jokes got bigger yuks than they do now, but sublimely, the sense of romantic dislocation has lost none of its swirl or heat. Famously, Garbo opened that clenched mouth of hers and laughed like a loon; the feelings you’ll have will go deeper.
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