A conversation about The Apartment
B: The first thing I want to say - and in part I want to start the conversation with this because this is actually an idea that I've never really pursued, it's just the glimpse of an idea really, not fully shaped - is that The Apartment feels modern to me. This probably says more about me and the kind of expectations I have of a film that came out almost 52 years ago, at a time when both of my parents were too young to see it, than it does about Billy Wilder, but again and again, whenever I choose to see this movie, I am struck by how incredibly contemporary it seems. I would dread an actual remake of the film, despite the fact that imagining current actors and actresses in these roles can be quite fun, but I can picture this film taking place in 2011 without any major changes, except that modern technology would be all over the place and you'd have to deal with the fact that elevator girls don't exist any more (Fran Kubelik would be an underpaid intern, but she'd still face the same amount of objectification and sexualisation by her co-workers). This is particularly odd when I think about Mad Men, which sometimes really feels like it portrays a different era - I don't know if that makes any sense, but the world of Mad Men feels much more different and removed from the one I know than Wilder's in The Apartment does, and both of these narratives are meant to take place in comparable social spheres, even though the advertising business is more avantgarde than insurance. If I had to pick one piece of narrative that comes close to this film, it's Pushing Daisies.
A: And at the same time, I sometimes imagine aspects of this movie translated into current films, say, something like Garden State or really any of those "sensitive young man meets manic pixie dream girl who changes his life" and it absolutely terrifies me. I can not imagine a context in which Baxter, as a character, would work for me - I would find his little quirks unnerving. I absolutely love his character in The Apartment though, and I can't put my finger on why this film works, basically. It really shouldn't, but it does. Who would you cast as Fran Kubelik now?
B: Michelle Williams? Which is ironic because she starred in a movie called The Baxter. Oh, and Fran Kubelik is no Manic Pixie Dream Girl. If anything, she subverts the trope years before it was even invented.
A: Yes. She is the antithesis of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She starts as the character that may "teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" - she basically serves as this juxtaposition to all the other people working in Baxter's building - the girl who is kind of magically saved from becoming part of the corporate world because her spelling is too bad for her to become a secretary - but this conception of her is then taking apart completely in the scene when Baxter realizes that she is one of the girls his boss took to his apartment (and this is one of my favourite scenes, actually: Baxter's face fragmented in her broken hand mirror, his expression turning from being delighted at being at the office party with her to the horrible realization that he knows absolutely nothing about her, and that she is just another one of "those girls" he's watched stumble out of his apartment in the middle of the night).
B: Right, and then it is deconstructed even more after her suicide attempt: on the surface, she's the sarcastic girl borrowing him a flower when he goes up for his big moment with the boss, but underneath, she's completely emotionally exhausted. I agree about Baxter being an unlikely character to like - and a lot of credit goes to Jack Lemmon's performance - but I think the reason why he works is because he isn't a victim. He makes these horrible choices in order to succeed, even if this is presented as more accidental than intentional in the movie. He knows that he is working his way up on the corporate ladder by providing this service to his superiors, and he only realizes that this makes him complicit in something gross when one of the people who suffer because of it is someone he cares for.
A: I think it would be wrong to argue that all the women that are taken to his apartment are victims, though. It's their choice too.
B: Yes, of course, but the moment that changes everything is when Sheldrake gives Fran money, and he doesn't even realize what he is doing - she is in love with him (which he knows, but doesn't care about), and he implies that he regards this whole thing as an exchange of goods for sex. Sheldrake uses people - he abuses his power. He asks Baxter to either continue this service that he feels uncomfortable with or lose his job. The great thing about the film is that Baxter isn't the victim in all of this because he has a choice - he can always go back to a less prestigious job in Cleveland, he wouldn't lose everything. There is a darker version of the film where Baxter makes a different decision and chooses his career over his morals.
There is also a really subtle moment early into the film when Sheldrake complains that the girls he takes out always expect him to divorce his wife - and Baxter says " No, sir, it's very unfair... Especially to your wife."
A: And the idea that there is an inherent conflict between morals and a career in a big corporation with a corrupt management definitely feels very contemporary - and this invasion of privacy, the way that the employee isn't just supposed to dedicate his work to the firm, but his entire being.
B: ...even though the way the big corporation is represented on screen is hilarious - one massive building and a room filled with people typing away in unison.
A: But the dream is still the same - corner office with windows, the view of the city.
B: I have to admit that I find Baxter impossible to dislike from the beginning of the movie, but one of the things that really gives his character depth is when he tells Fran about his suicide attempt after someone he loved left him - he bought a gun and accidentally shot himself in the knee - and it's such an understated moment because Fran thinks he is just telling her the story to make her feel better about her own botched suicide attempt...
A: Right, and a couple of scenes later, she finds the revolver, but this isn't some great reveal - no music swelling, it's not even mentioned - but WE know that this wasn't a story, that this actually happened.
B: This really changes the character for me, because in many ways, his humour, the way he reacts to everything in this nonchalant manner, is just a protective mechanism. They are both incredibly broken, but we see Baxter pretending he's not, while Fran is just so exhausted, so completely and utterly unhappy, that she can't pretend that she is okay any more.
A: This is another one of my favourite scenes. When Fran asks to take a shower in Baxter's apartment, he suddenly realizes all the dangerous things he has lying around in the apartment. I mean, a considerably part of this movie is spent fearing that she might try to commit suicide again. Wilder is a magician - by all means, this should be a horribly depressing drama, but it's not, and it doesn't feel any less serious.
B: The whole thing is mirrored nicely later on, when Fran runs into Baxter's building and thinks he has shot himself...
A: When he's actually opened a bottle of champagne. Exactly. They are both damaged goods. "Why do people have to love people anyway?"
B: On a completely different note, The Apartment also has some of the most amazing supporting characters.
A: Yes. The neighbours. The woman Baxter picks up at the bar. The pianist Fran likes so much.
B: I've used this movie to prove that I am not in fact a cynical, unemotional robot that despises love stories on principle. It's my favourite. And I don't say this lightly, because I have many movies that I like a lot and watch again and again, but this one is special.
A: Shut up and deal.
1960, directed by Billy Wilder, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Kack Kruschen, Naomi Stevens.