You know something? Sometimes all you need in life is Yves Montand singing from the top of the Pan Am building. Or a reincarnated Barbra Streisand. Or Jack Nicholson playing a sitar. Or Bob Newhart as a smarmy Executive. Together. In one movie.
Life, if you take the Albert Camus point of view, is nothing if not absurd and it takes a film like Vincente Minnelli’s magical mystery musical melee On A Clear Day You Can See Forever to remind us of how truly absurd the absurd can be … and why it’s often so darn difficult not to enjoy it.
On A Clear Day is a film adaptation of the popular Alan Jay Lerner musical of the same name (currently enjoying a highly successful revival in the West End) and is the story of a chain-smoking clairvoyant collegiate Daisy Gamble (Barbra Streisand) who, desperate to kick her smoking habit, seeks the help of respected French psychiatrist Marc Chabot (Yves Montand) who is teaching a class on campus. His practice of hypnotism to treat his patients is chortled at by students (the board is none too pleased either) but Gamble is under strict instructions to quit the habit because her disapproving boyfriend, a sort of nervous and bespectacled version of William F. Buckley, wants her to appear as normal as possible to his highly respectable, conservative, very normal family.
The problem with Daisy is that there’s nothing remotely normal about her. She can hear the phone before it rings. Has a remarkable gift for gardening due to her ability to ‘talk’ to her plants. And, oh yeah, she’s a reincarnated 18th century Englishwoman. ESP and reincarnation don’t exactly fit on her boyfriend’s checklist. But the lovably quirky Daisy (a Manic Pixie Dream Girl if there ever was one) hasn’t a clue of any of this (as she is quite pleasantly clueless) until Chabot puts her under hypnosis. At first highly skeptical of Daisy’s outburst during their sessions, he comes to slowly not only believe she truly has been reincarnated, but he falls very much in love with the Daisy’s past incarnation as the salacious, scintillating temptress Melinda Twelvetrees.
It’s not exactly a story you’d think would lend itself to musical staging, but Minnelli, who pretty much invented the structure of narrative musical storytelling with Meet Me In St Louis, has not lost his touch even in this, his penultimate film, as the numbers seamlessly ingratiate themselves into the plot. The film is often awkward and jarring, if nothing short of ridiculous, (and MY GOD, the “period” costumes! Shame on you, 1970!) but the musical interludes, gaudy as they are, feel remarkably fluid and organic to the story. It’s the stumbling, perfunctory set pieces in between that are so intent on breaking up the magic. I hesitate to point the finger at Minnelli, but rather at the source material itself which is inherently…well…ridiculous. It is a testament indeed to Minnelli’s mastery of the musical that the film works best when the music, and Streisand’s once-in-a-generation voice, soars. (The title song has become essential Streisand.)
Streisand is, of course, first-rate as she always is, but the fact that she and Montand have absolutely no onscreen chemistry of any sort, doesn’t infuse this fantastical story with the kind of tangible honesty it really needs. The best fantasies, after all, feel somehow real–which is why we want so much to believe in them. And yes, the story is at heart about two lonely people thrown together by fate (yawn, what else is new?) but I don’t believe for a moment that Montand is really in love with Streisand’s character–except maybe for when he sings from the top of the Pan Am building over New York–and therefore when the film isn’t singing its little heart out, it feels faraway and frivolous. (The only tangible spark of any kind, as a matter of fact, is between Daisy and her step-brother, played by Jack Nicholson. Now that’s a movie I would have love to see…)
On A Clear Day is strange, muddled, and absurd … but hey, so is life.
Therein lies the film’s charm, and I’d wager you are likely to revisit it more than you’d care to admit.
Embrace the cray.
Available on DVD On Demand from The Warner Archive, On A Clear Day You Can See Forever enjoys no bonus features of any kind, but is a recommended investment if for no other reason than to watch Babs be Babs at the height of her powers.
And this guy: