Sabrina (1954)

Directed by Billy Wilder


Alright, so as I see it a melodrama buys into its characters hopes and fears, and a comedy calls its characters on their bulls*t.  Sabrina alternately does both.  This is a film about a love triangle, inherently a melodramatic situation, and it begins as a sort of cultural satire, undermining David’s and Sabrina’s goals and their possible romance, but by the end it celebrates and buys into the romance, this time between Sabrina and Linus.

David (William Holds) and Linus (Humphrey Bogart) are the sons of a wealthy family, one as financially bloated as the Rockefellers or as connected as the Kennedys.  Linus, the older brother, runs the family and business affairs while Davis is the younger, more reckless one.  David has run through a series of marriages, always sure that a particular woman is ‘the one’ before getting tired and moving on.  He’s a Kennedy, in other words.

We’re introduced to this family by a narrator, but soon our perspective becomes that of young doe-eyed Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn), the daughter of the family’s chauffeur.  She has had her eyes set on David from a young age as her father and the rest of the family’s employees are well aware.

Sabrina is sent off to Paris to go to a two year culinary program which her father hopes will set her up well for life but mostly get her to stop thinking about David.  When she returns two years later with shorter hair, David doesn’t recognize her and is suddenly head over heels for her.

This creates a problem because Linus has arranged for David to marry the daughter of another influential family, hoping to seal a business deal not unlike a political alliance in Game of Thrones.  Linus is controlling, but he remains very calm while David, much more hot-headed, challenges him.  Because David doesn’t have the best track record romantically, he doesn’t have much in the way of a defense as he tries to fight back against his brother’s orders.

Sabrina is well-loved within the family and their employees, but they look at her as only ‘the help.’  David insists he’s in love with her, but when he suffers an accident that results in shards of glass in his ass (literally), the duty falls on Linus to deal with young Sabrina.  With the family’s best interests in mind, Linus hopes to pay her off and send her away, but he soon finds himself charmed by the young girl.

What follows is a relationship that is both heart-warming and creepy.  Linus, somewhere in his mid-fifties, begins to fall for the twenty-something year old girl.  He knows he mustn’t, but he does regardless, and she begins to fall for him too.

David, of course, is still infatuated with her, and once recovered from his injury (which is mined for several different jokes including a plastic hammock with a hole in the middle for his swollen butt), he finds out about his brother’s courtship with Sabrina, and they get into a fight.

So it’s just two spoiled adult brothers who are used to having things go their way but suddenly find themselves not getting what they want.  We’re meant to scoff at Linus and David to some degree, but soon the film sides with both of them.  The story ends with Linus giving Sabrina to David before David realizes that Linus loves her and gives Sabrina back to Linus.  Linus hurries off to meet Sabrina on a boat leaving for Paris, and they live happily ever after, or something like that.

The ending is fine, and I again admit that I find something endearing about the relationship between Linus and Sabrina, but it’s still quite creepy.  The actors play it well, but this is a story about two wealthy men who use their influence to attract a young girl.  We’re never meant to believe that Sabrina truly loves David if only because she loves him too easily and quickly.  Her love for the younger brother is made clear at the start, setting up that it’s ill-advised, particularly because she’s willing to drop everything for him and even attempts to kill herself.  Yeah, I forgot to mention that part, but she tries to commit suicide in the first ten minutes of the film.

So we know they can’t end up together because, well the movie has just set up that they won’t.  Linus then comes in as the much calmer, more empathetic of the two brothers, and boom, he’s the guy she’s meant to love.  That’s fine, at least as a broad stroke.  I mean, this is a romantic comedy after all, so you kind of expect certain things like that to happen.  Still, Linus isn’t much better than his brother.  He’s a curious fellow with an ‘adorkable’ interest in gadgets, plastic and business, but he’s very calculating and privileged.  I suppose I shouldn’t use his wealth against him, but he comes at Sabrina from a position of power.  When he first approaches her and when he first kisses her, the camera lingers on Sabrina’s look of disinterest and certainly of surprise.  She just goes with it because he’s David’s brother and a member of the very powerful family for which her father works.  She has no choice.

So, from Linus’ end he has genuine feelings for a young woman, and he acts on them, but from Sabrina’s end, she’s in love with this man’s brother, unclear as to why he’s the one approaching her alone on the tennis court, and she feels pressured to do as he says.

Somewhere in there, Sabrina develops genuine feelings for Linus, but… you know, I don’t know, it feels strange.  It’s one of those romances that works in movies but is destined to fail otherwise.  Linus’ whole life is built on his family’s business, and now he’s suddenly ready to throw it all away.  Then you have the fact that only shortly before he was giving her to his brother like a possession, and then his brother does the same.

I don’t know, this is a fairly harmless movie, but it feels problematic.  As a comedy, I think it’s all okay because these characters are pretty silly, and the movie mostly calls them on their flaws.  Wilder makes it clear to us that the film understands how flawed each of these characters are, but by the end we’re meant to identify with them.  They’re just hard to identify with, I suppose.

Billy Wilder is amazing, though.  He had an incredible range as a director, making movies like Double Indemnity and something as bleak as The Lost Weekend while also making the Marilyn Monroe comedies The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.  Beyond that he made the Oscar-winning The Apartment and the world-famous Sunset Boulevard.  In these films and others he demonstrates an ability to walk the fine line between comedy and tragedy.  He has narratives framed by a dead man’s voice over, reflecting on where his life went wrong, and he has comedies that include attempted suicides but doesn’t miss a beat, tonally speaking.  He even made a pretty awesome drama taking down the American Dream in 1951’s Ace in the Hole, a dark, pessimistic take on post-war America that wasn’t very well-received at the time.

Billy Wilder was born to a Jewish family in Poland in 1906.  His mother, stepfather and grandmother were all killed in the Holocaust at a time when Wilder had already become an established Hollywood director.  His first film, 1942’s The Major and the Minor (starring Ginger Rogers) was made the year before they were killed.  Can you imagine that?  This guy was already established, a working director in America while his family is in the concentration camps.

Now, I can’t imagine the effect that had on him, but he is one of those directors from this time, alongside men like Otto Preminger and Ernst Lubitsch, who came from foreign countries to find success in Hollywood.  They surely have a different perspective on America as outsiders, and oftentimes Wilder’s comedies seem to have a certain bite that American-born directors didn’t have.

With all this in mind, the beginning of Sabrina makes more sense.  Sabrina herself, through narration, introduces us to this wealthy family:

“It never rained on the night of the Larrabee party. The Larrabees wouldn’t have stood for it. There were four Larrabees in all – father, mother, and two sons. Maude and Oliver Larrabee were married in nineteen hundred and six, and among their many wedding presents was the town house in New York and this estate for weekends. The town house has since been converted into Saks Fifth Avenue. Linus Larrabee, the elder son, graduated from Yale, where his classmates voted him The Man Most Likely To Leave His Alma Mater Fifty Million Dollars. His brother, David, went through several of the best eastern colleges for short periods of time, and through several marriages for even shorter periods of time. He is now a successful six-goal polo player and is listed on Linus’s tax return as a six hundred dollar deduction.”

This beginning mocks the wealthy family and feels like something you might find in The Onion, but maybe it’s just because Sabrina idolizes them so much that the movie soon does too.  The comedy becomes a melodrama as we are slowly and surely pushed into Sabrina’s worldview.  We may not love the brothers, but because she does the film begins to frame them as something like heroes.

So, Sabrina is a story about a foolish wealthy family, played for comedy, but the audience starts to glimpse them through the eyes of the doe-eyed Sabrina.  Because she loves them, we do too, even if her love with them is misguided.

Up Next: The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Faces Places (2017)

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