On his way to Hollywood after fleeing the rise of the Nazis, legendary expressionist filmmaker and cynic Fritz Lang dallied in 1933 Paris long enough to make Liliom, the third adaptation of the popular play by Ferenc Molnar that eventually became the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel. Shooting this bizarre Hungarian fantasy as if it were a prequel to M, Lang one-upped the early-talkie Hollywood version by Frank Borzage (1930), and, presumably, a 1919 version left unfinished by another soon-to-be émigré, Michael Curtiz. The tale itself hasn't aged superbly: a womanizing carnival barker (Charles Boyer, before he emigrated) loses his job, shacks up with a starry-eyed maiden (Madeleine Ozeray), and loafs and slaps her around, eventually joining in on a botched robbery to net some cash after he learns his girlfriend is pregnant. After committing suicide, Liliom pleads his thin case before a heavenly court, but is sentenced to purgatory regardless. After 16 years, he's allowed to redeem himself by doing a single good deed on Earth -- but after becoming frustrated trying to convince his teenage daughter that her absentee father was a louse, he ends up belting her, too. Only after both his daughter and his aging girlfriend persist in professing unconditional love for Liliom does he find peace in the next world. Cheesily tragic and full of the effervescent otherworldliness so typical of French films of the early '30s (as in Vigo, Clair, Buñuel, Cocteau, and Renoir), Liliom has the dusty charm of a cluttered granny attic, and Boyer is aggressively engaging. But it's difficult to get around the fact that the film comes across today as something of an apologia for spousal abuse, to the extent that spiritual/moral redemption can be had if the victims refuse to emotionally prosecute. Given the long legacy of Molnar's play in 20th-century culture (it was first performed in 1909, and Carousel saw a major revival in the 1990s, culminating with Time labeling it the "Best Musical of the Century"), it's an impossible movie to dismiss, although the PC-minded will try.
by Michael Atkinson review