Year Released: 1935
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 56 minutes
Click to Expand Credits:
It is writ, O Maid of Bali! Should love enter thine eyes and go to thy heart, beware! For should he whom thou choosest not return thy love, the gods will frown and disgrace will befall thee.” – Opening text in “Legong – Dance of the Virgins”
Such is one of the societal mores that Poutou (Goesti Poetoe Aloes), a Balinese temple dancer, falls under. But there’s more to the story than just love felt and lost. There is Bali, an island untouched by earthly concerns. And then there is Henry de la Falaise, who married actress Constance Bennett in 1931, after divorcing Gloria Swanson that same year. A Frenchman, whose full name was Marquis Henry de la Falaise de la Coudroy, he had an eye in motion pictures, however brief, that followed that of Robert Flaherty, who began a mix of fact and fiction in such films as 1922’s “Nanook of the North”. “Legong” was fully financed by Bennett, and off went Falaise with a Technicolor crew to Bali, to converse with the natives and film a story that fully engaged all the culture and the rituals that the Balinese held dearly. And what rituals they are! Look at that Temple Feast at the beginning, those women carrying towers of food atop their heads, toward the site of celebration. And the market where all types of commerce operate is truly a marvel, made even more beautiful by the two-strip Technicolor that gives the film a near-golden glow.
The story about Poutou’s love for Nyong, “a carefree youth from Northern Bali” as the intertitles inform us, is made even more intriguing by the opening text presented to us. Will Poutou’s love be returned? How will the young man take it? Does the young man even notice the affections shooting from her eyes? That’s the funny part of the Balinese culture in this movie, how Poutou doesn’t attempt to talk to him further, but if that’s the way it worked then, so be it. Her father, Gousti Bagus, besides his love for his roosters, which he takes great pride in with the cockfights, also deeply loves his daughters, Poutou and Saplak. And when Poutou comes back late from the temple one day, he sees a major difference in her eyes and senses that it is her time to retire from her dances at the temple, especially the Legong, dance of the virgins which provides one of the most beautiful acts of the film. According to the documentary “Gods of Bali” by Robert Snyder, also included on this DVD, it takes years for young girls to learn the proper moves, to practice them and realize the meanings inherent in them, the importance in Balinese culture.
Henry de la Falaise’s careful and caring focus on this culture makes for an absorbing picture and his focus also shows in “Kliou (The Killer)”, another film on the DVD which focuses on the Mois, a tribe living in what was then Indo-China, what is now Vietnam. Trouble has always been on the horizon with Kliou, a dangerous tiger whose latest exploit caused the death of a tribeswoman and the Mois are incredibly fearful of this menace, so much so that they’ve created a new, stronger barrier to try to shield themselves from it. Bhat, the young star hunter of the tribe believes that in order to rid the Mois of this threat, they must hunt down Kliou and kill him themselves, rather than setting up the weak traps that Kliou “laughs at”. As in “Legong”, there is a love story here too between Bhat and Dhi, the daughter of Khan, who sees Bhat as a typical fool. Falaise’s focus on the inner workings of the tribe, from food preparation to governing, are truly remarkable for their historical value, though “Legong” leaves a lot unanswered. However, Falaise was likely more fascinated with the beauty of the Balinese culture and he is right for that because National Geographic and countless other books could take care of the rest. “Gods of Bali” does run into a few roadblocks mainly because of what it presents and leaves out in the dust.
From the title alone, the focus of “Gods of Bali” is obvious, but it is just as concerned with the ceremonies of Bali just as “Legong” was. Whereas “Legong” wrapped it all up in a story, “Gods of Bali” presents it straightforwardly. We see the Balinese people presenting gifts to their Gods, priests who walk stiffly, having assumed the personas of the Gods of Earth, water, and fire, as we are told. The gifts are accepted by the Gods, but it is never answered what happens if the Gods do not accept the offerings. This does seem to be a culture however, where the gifts are accepted all the time. Other thorny matters crop up in other ceremonies, boys being possessed by the good spirits of the culture, but some seemingly possessed by what the Balinese consider the devils. Breathlessly, the narrator states, “It has happened before, it can happen again,” in some of the boys being lost to the devils, failing to be rid of the evil spirits. When has this happened? What resulted? And in the Festival of the Dead, we learn that poorer Balinese put the bodies of their loved ones with the rich for the cremations because the rich people will usually field the majority of the cost. It is never answered as to how one becomes rich in a Balinese society, let alone jobs available there, though music performances probably make up some of those careers. But as mentioned before, it’s probably left up to National Geographic and other publications to answer those questions.
“Legong” also comes with a fresh score on an alternate audio track by Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra of San Francisco, along with an interview with composers Richard Marriott and I Made Subandi, who go over their feelings of collaboration, along with what it took to make the score happen. Plus, there’s a piece of footage from the recording session which took place on April 15, 2001. The music is one part of what makes “Legong” what it is and their new track gives the film a whole new meaning.
Milestone Film & Video really live up to their name in this release, a true milestone of discovery, which may have not been seen otherwise had it not been for their passion to see this through. They understand the excitement felt in finding new works to view, and seeing new parts of film history. Companies like Milestone, Kino, Criterion and others have the past well-covered, and “Legong: Dance of the Virgins” is a more-than-welcome addition to what’s already available.
Posted on February 2, 2005 in Reviews by Rory L. Aronsky
If you liked this article then you may also like the following Film Threat articles:
- COWBOYS IN PARADISE
- THE BOOTLEG FILES: TRANCE AND DANCE IN BALI
- RICE FOR SALE
- THE ROMANTIC
- “BRAVE NEW YORK” WITH RICHARD SANDLER
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