The Constant Nymph plays like the antecedent to 1946’s Humoresque telling the story of a tormented musician plagued by stress and insecurity hindering their creative juices, and the wrong woman who encourages and enables. Unfortunately, The Constant Nymph is constant in making one’s head hurt with a romance that, on paper, probably plays as realistic but upon execution is anything but.
Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is a teenage girl hopelessly enamored with tortured pianist Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer). When Lewis marries Tessa’s sophisticated cousin, Florence (Alexis Smith), the young girl fears separation from the man who doesn’t know she exists.
The part I feared would give me pause was a then 26-year-old Fontaine playing the 14-year-old Tessa. Director Edmund Goulding wasn’t happy with any of the actresses he auditioned for the part, with Joan Leslie the frontrunner. When he saw Fontaine in pigtails with her husband, he failed to recognize her as the famous actress! Fontaine, in a role garnering her an Oscar nomination, pulls off the character’s exuberance and naiveté. When she runs into the frame, wet hair flying, arms and legs akimbo, I, too, was struck by how youthful Fontaine was. I was suckered into believing she was a teenage girl.
Unfortunately, the façade isn’t sustained throughout the rest of the feature. Tessa’s return from school, in a matronly black school uniform, never keeps the image intact. You can put her in pigtails but something vital is removed. Maybe taking Tessa way from the wildness of the setting and the emphasis on her schoolgirl crush with Lewis is the problem. Upon entering the sterile Dodd home and becoming Florence’s main competitor there isn’t a need to keep the mask of innocence on Fontaine; she’s a woman competing with another woman and that’s all there is to it.
The female competition theme is the prevalent conflict within The Constant Nymph. The nymph, Fontaine, is constant in her devotion to Lewis, but really is that enough to propel their love? The script thinks so. Honestly, both Tessa and Florence get the short end of the stick from Lewis who actually comes off as rather villainous amidst all his supposed mental anguish. However, everyone is stuck in black and white roles because all the characters are thin as gruel. Tessa is devout to Lewis because….he’s special? Her lines are laid on as thick as molasses; she was practically born to love him, just born a few years too late (this is where her obvious age becomes laughable). She’s the angel in the house, plagued with a heart condition and literally dying of love scorned. When Lewis finally realizes his love for her, too late (again!), he’s practically a murderer! Why feel sympathy for a man who can’t make up his mind. (When Florence asks him why he married her he can’t come up with a reason. That, or the script didn’t.)
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Florence. (Alexis Smith and Fontaine are great, far better than this movie deserves.) Smith is beautiful and her quick introduction sets her apart from Tessa and her equally sincere sister, Paula (Joyce Reynolds); she enters in a bathrobe, smoking a cigarette and asking the girl, eyebrow arched, if they’re sharing “secrets.” How I wish Florence was a femme fatale because she’s magnetic. The script, again, doesn’t know any of this, turning her into a shrew who wants to push Lewis towards composing which is a bad thing. Wait, what? Sure, she’s obsessed with throwing parties and being the sophisticated woman of the house, but she’s also trying to get Lewis out of his funk. Lewis ignores her, openly flirts with Tessa (he ignored her for 14 years and now that she lives in his house he’s all atwitter), and can’t even figure out one nice thing to say about why he married his wife?! He’s so inconsiderate Tessa buys Florence flowers under the guise they’re from Lewis.
WHAT IS THIS MAN’S APPEAL?! Boyer tries but the script gives no pretext for liking Lewis other than he’s a composer of, allegedly, beautiful music. The rest of the time he’s banging on the piano keys and flirting with one woman or another. I keep harping on Kathryn Scola’s script because it just plays so underdeveloped and weak. There’s nothing, no moment or relationship, that doesn’t feel as if it worked out better in someone’s head. The individual lines of dialogue are one thing, but none of the relationships feel genuine; Florence and Lewis meet once, boom they’re married and they hate each other. The same goes for Tessa and Lewis. Lewis has ignored Tessa all her life and then, for reasons known only to him, he loves her.
The Constant Nymph is overrated and dated. I won’t say this is a male fantasy film, but the words I’ve already written speak to it as one. Joan Fontaine and Alexis Smith are great, and I’d watch another movie they made together (if there is one).
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