In a dark, featureless frame, a woman sprints toward an incoming train and hurls herself in front of it, pausing briefly only to disregard a spine-tingling “Fedora!” shouted from off screen. That’s the remarkably curt, brutal opening scene of Billy Wilder’s Fedora, which concludes with the image paralyzed in shock. When the freeze frame fades out, the first image to fade up is a shot of a newscaster intoning, “Fedora is dead.”
Death-haunted work often grips the twilight stages of great artist’s careers, and this one is no exception: Wilder’s penultimate effort disperses the funereal gloom of its opening scenes across its runtime all while disentangling, flashback by flashback, the events leading up to the titular diva’s horrifying suicide. A companion piece to Sunset Boulevard that exceeds the earlier film’s aura of despair, Fedora finds a conspicuously aged William Holden, as out-of-touch film producer Barry “Dutch” Detweiler, venturing to the tucked-away estate of a retired, reclusive Hollywood starlet (the eponymous beauty, embodied by Marthe Keller) to gauge her interest in a comeback script. Located on the Greek island of Corfu, Fedora’s Mediterranean hideout is every bit the palatial coffin that Norma Desmond’s was, realized by Wilder in frozen deep space and as menacing with its use of flamboyantly decorated, sunlit interiors as Sunset Boulevard was with its chiaroscuro.
From a shadowy corner at Fedora’s high-profile wake, a showcase for Alexandre Trauner’s floral, candlelit production design, Detweiler recalls his previous two weeks: He went to Corfu with an allegedly bankable Tolstoy adaptation (this being Wilder-penned, one snarky response to the source material is “And so you’ve mutilated it I assume?”), but even the intellectual pedigree of the project failed to shake the protective vice grip of Fedora’s suspiciously intense caretakers. At the center of the conspiracy is property owner Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), a handicapped old witch who appears to have made her life’s mission the censoring of Fedora’s interactions with the outside world. Over the course of the film’s off-kilter first half, already lent a wispy air through Wilder’s use of lengthy dissolves at flashback scene transitions, the countess emanates the quality of a phantom, her voice often noticeably dubbed and her face turned away from the camera in long shot. Suspicious as to the exact nature of her identity as well as her connection to Fedora, Detweiler pesters his way into the mansion and uncovers the kind of shocking truth that other films would save for a surprise finish. Here, an hour remains, and the already porous treatment of time will only grow looser.
Unveiling the nature of this twist would spoil the secret at the heart of Fedora, but it’s fair to say Wilder’s interests lie less in narrative trickery than in extending an inquiry into the perverse reality of youth-fixated stardom, a delusion that filmmaking only amplifies. If Sunset Boulevard was an elegy for Tinseltown’s silent era, a grotesque inflation of its out-of-vogue sense of glamour, Fedora ruminates anxiously on Wilder’s own golden age in lieu of the “kids with beards” overrunning New Hollywood. But while Wilder’s intermittent crutch as an artist was the bitter cynicism he held toward the fate of own industry, Fedora’s offhand jabs at the dissolution of orthodox craftsmanship in 1970s cinema are overwhelmed by a deeper core of autocritique played out in the film’s downward trajectory, in which all attempts to preserve the past and conceal the present lead to the self-ruin hinted at violently in the opening minute.