DVD Review: The Buttercup Chain (1970) -- Martini Movies: Wave 3

Part of Sony's Martini Movies* Collection

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My first Martini was a Cosmopolitan-- the making of which unfortunately happened to coincide with the infamous Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson Super Bowl Half-Time "wardrobe debacle." Needless to say, the bartender was preoccupied, the drink was way too strong, and that's about all I remember about that particular Sunday.

However, my memory of my first "Martini Movie" will no doubt be far more lucid. This is thanks to the butterscotch tinged cinematography of three time Oscar nominated lensman Douglas Slocumbe (Julia, Travels With My Aunt, Raiders of the Lost Ark) that made The Buttercup Chain as vibrant as its title. Unfortunately, despite its gorgeously bright and sensuous style, the film is largely forgettable.

Entered into the 1970 Cannes Film Festival's competition where it received a nomination for the Golden Palm Award, British helmer Robert Ellis Miller's work isn't as strong as it was two years earlier in his effective take on Carson McCullers' novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Yet much like Hunter's arresting photography from DP James Wong Howe, Buttercup illustrates his unique vision as a filmmaker to ensure that his movies (including Any Wednesday and the original Sweet November) were lushly photographed to both enhance the beauty yet accurately reflect the era in which they were filmed. Of course, Miller's work was augmented as well with his knack for putting together the right group of people in front of and behind the camera.

Of all five titles released in this third wave from Sony's Martini Movies collection (described in detail below in the footnote), The Buttercup Chain is the one that instantly feels like it's matching the studio's proposed theme of "over-the-top-trysts... garnished with a hint of camp" but even though its quartet of characters struggling in the free love era seem like swingers on the surface, the film is surprisingly tame much like Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice. Yet unlike Bob, this one is distinctly European and seemingly literary inspired a la D.H. Lawrence meets Thomas Hardy's Jude: The Obscure with its emphasis on two cousins-- Franz (Hywel Bennett) and Margaret (Jane Asher)-- who are a little too drawn to one another.

Separated when they were children and may have learned to work beyond those feelings of confused crushes and early hormones, when they reunite several years later, they decide to vacation together. Never fully admitting their attraction, Franz aims to remedy the situation by finding an appropriate lover for Margaret in the form of the Scandinavian Fred (Sven-Bertil Taube). And while Fred is instantly smitten, Margaret doesn't succumb quite as quickly as their newest travel companion, Manny (Leigh Taylor Young) who becomes involved with both Fred and Franz.

Although we're quick to realize that if the film had been made today, Manny would've easily been considered a pure slut yet in The Buttercup Chain, thanks largely to Leigh Taylor Young's talent and the screenwriting team of Peter Draper and Janice Elliott, she becomes the most fascinating character in the movie since she is oddly its questioning moral compass who looks past the facades and right into the true longings of every character.

Whether she hits Franz with the astutely observed line, "I don't know if you do things if you want to or because you want to see what will happen if you do them," or chiding Fred's inability to understand Margaret's hesitation to marry him with, "I do love you even though you're not very bright in the head," it's Manny that becomes the voice of the audience. Likewise, Manny is also the film's biggest enigma at the same time most notably when a hopelessly devoted older, wealthy lover George (Clive Revill) always sweeps in Breakfast at Tiffany's style to look after her and her friends.

While on the surface, it's fraught with taboos such as the two cousins who are unable to come-of-age and develop real relationships, the movie masquerades as scandalous but ultimately avoids it at all costs with an inevitably harsh wake-up call in the form of a cruel death as the four begin to conform to society in their own ways. Hence, they evolve from their travels as a foursome and meander halfheartedly towards more acceptable and conventional lifestyles in terms of marriage, education, and career.

With the luminous Asher not quite up to the task of moving from supermodel to actress especially in her underwritten and difficult role and Bennett's Franz suffering from a cool, calculated, unlikable characterization that baffles us as to what has driven him to such hedonism, ultimately The Buttercup Chain's remaining part of the group--Taube and Young-- are the ones who keep us watching.

Obviously since Franz and Margaret are our main characters, it should be the other way around but despite the flaw of an under-developed script and/or possibly the need to cut for ratings reasons since the original theatrical trailer on the disc includes snippets of scenes missing from the movie, above all The Buttercup Chain is noteworthy for its gorgeous photography and inventive cuts from editor Thelma Connell.

This is best appreciated in a party sequence as the group shares a slideshow of the photos that were taken throughout as an Earth-shattering revelation is revealed just as the camera flashes each and every time. After a few photos fill the screen in the darkened room of attendees, the main quartet soon populate the pictures as they move and speak, using a fantastic bit of post-production trickery to make the dull storyline fresh as we segue into the new photographed location. It's techniques like this that definitely make the film worth watching in its beautifully transferred print just from a technical standpoint alone since Miller's Buttercup has been absent from DVD until this Sony release.

*Note: Just what is a Martini Movie? Sony's statement: "No matter the decade, there's a place where icons, idols and the infamous flock for bottomless martinis and over-the-top trysts. One part top-shelf martini, two parts celluloid history and garnished with a hint of camp. Sit back and take in the scene with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's Martini Movies." All titles released so far in the collection have never been available previously in the DVD format.

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