Why is it always the goldfish who suffer?
John Schlesinger
Julie Christie, Dirk Bogarde, Laurence Harvey, Jose Luis de Villalonga
The Setup: 
Total narcissist woman has a string of affairs with powerful men.

I just love narcissists! In movies—not in real life. In real life they tend to divert attention from where it really belongs—on ME. So when a reliable reader recommended this, a little perusal put it right on my list, as it sounded completely amusing. And I turned out to like it even more than I had hoped to.

This came out in 1965, and it’s directed by John Schlesinger, who went on to do Midnight Cowboy and The Day of the Locust, so Important Social Messages are to be expected—and arrive right on time. The first images of the movie show images of starving Africans being papered over by a glamour poster of Julie Christie as Diana Scott, advertising her revealing new interview in Ideal Woman magazine. We then hear her interview in voice-over, and the entire movie takes the form of a flashback as she sums up her life for the interview. She is walking down the street one day when she is stopped and interviewed as a representative of the young generation in swingin’ London, and the interviewer asks about her hairstyle, comments how she’s dressed at “the height of fashion” and asks her is she feels that she rebels against society’s strictures, which she says she does. So the film to follow also serves as a sort of critique of this new, youthful generation, of which Diana is a representative.

So Diana’s interview is seen by Robert Gold, TV personality, and he soon calls and asks her out. At that time she is married to this guy Tony, but she’s bored by him and considers him immature. She goes with Robert to interview a famous writer, saying that she can’t believe that she’s in the same room with this famous writer, but “I don’t remember a word that they said. That wasn’t the thing. The thing was that they accepted ME.” Soon she and Robert are making excuses to their respective spouses to spend a night together. At one point we see Diana spying on Robert with his wife and two young children. Next thing you know, Robert is walking out on his wife and kids to be with Diana. They move in together and spent what seems like about a year. Then they go to a party, a fund-raiser for starving African children, which features young black boy servants dressed in courtier costumes and wearing white wigs! I told you this thing had some social messages to deliver.

So I believe it’s at this party that Diana meets Miles Brand, who is richer than Robert, with a bookcase that swings open to become a bar, and a long boardroom table that Diana gets up an walks on. She doesn’t specifically mean to leave Robert, she just wants to do what she wants and if she doesn’t feel like being with him, well he has no right to get upset. There’s a certain point at which she’s in bed, telling Robert that she won’t be with him for a while, and he says he’ll be staying in their flat. “Don’t forget to feed the fishes,” she says, then starts to weep: “Poor little things!” A few scenes later, she’s bored, so she stabs at the goldfish absently with a pencil.

We see her steal a parking space someone else was waiting for, and bounce off with a cheerful “Sorry!” She goes to a wild party with a lesbian sculptor where they play this game where they all remove clothing and throw it in the middle. They put each other’s clothes on, and move in a circle. When the music stops, whoever is in the light does a cruel, vicious imitation of whoever’s clothes they got, and you can guess who is first. She is mocked as a vapid bimbo, and is quite hurt, but is told it’s just the way the game is. That’s life is the fast lane, baby! Later in the game she gets to dish out to someone else, and goes for it with gusto. She goes to Paris with Miles, returning carrying a bag with a little “Paris Kit:” a baguette, a bottle of wine, and an issue of Paris Match. She calls Robert to tell him she’s dumping him, then delivers one of my favorite of her oblivious lines: “The important thing is that no one got hurt.” Meaning, of course, that SHE didn’t get hurt.

Soon she meets this gay photographer who I believe was named Malcolm, and soon they are shoplifting for the fun of it. Diana is becoming colloquially known as the “Happiness Girl,” because of the sunny smile she can project while modeling. We see a marketing agency ponder whether she’s becoming overexposed. They go home and get drunk, with Malcolm absently tossing hors d’oeuvres into the fishbowl, and finally emptying his drink into it. We see the fish floating dead a few minutes later. You know, why is it the goldfish who must always suffer? I guess we should be happy Diana didn’t have children. She has a few more adventures in Italy with Malcolm—including sleeping with the waiter he slept with—and also meeting an older Prince who lives in a gorgeous villa. He soon proposes to her, but she refuses.

She returns to Miles, but is no longer happy with him. He has a big party at her apartment, where we hear a song yearning for “someone to talk to.” She decides to leave—and next thing we know, she has impulsively married the Italian Prince! This, of course, makes her “Princess Diana.” And she gets an instant family of seven children! Good thing she isn’t responsible to take care of any of them. Soon the Prince must go off on business and we see Diana wandering aimlessly around the villa, servants serving her food that she absently picks at, or opening doors for her wherever she wanders. She gets upstairs and cries, ripping off her expensive clothes, obviously feeling bored and trapped, and next thing you know, she’s back in London, and sleeping with Robert.

She’s in bed with Robert, and starts saying “Isn’t it a miracle? We’re still a couple. It’s never too late.” She is met with a rather chilly “It was for old time’s sake,” and he promptly insists that there is nothing left between them, and she should high-tail it back to Italy. She is shocked, and can’t believe he could do this to her, and how absolutely unfair and awful he is. You kind of want him to say “Um, do you have any recollection of dumping me?” but he doesn’t, he just steadily keeps her at a distance. She goes back to Italy… and this is where we leave her. She continues her interview, and we see a woman buy a copy of the magazine, whose title, “Ideal Woman” we view a little more ironically. The camera settles on a beggar woman singing “Santa Lucia” in the town square… and that’s where we leave it.

As I said, many people from the IMDb to the Wikipedia interpret this movie as being about a woman who sleeps her way to the top. That’s one way to look at it, but it seems to me an uninteresting, and somewhat misogynistic, way. It seems to me this is just the tale of a complete narcissist. She’s always gotten a lot of attention because of her looks, and was never really forced to care about anyone else or even develop a real sense that they have any feelings of their own. And the movie just sets about illustrating that—while using it to throw scorn on how she represents an entire youth generation in the Britain of the 60s. The reason I don’t think she is purposely trading up to greater wealth and fame is that the movie never shows her calculating or pursuing anything for greater money or fame. Instead we just see her pursuing the next new thing, whatever seems fun and different at the time, because she is of course bored with whatever, or whoever, she has been with. She doesn’t think she has any obligation to anyone because… why shouldn’t she be allowed to do what she wants to do? But of course when things don’t go her way or the person she once hurt now refuses her, she is outraged at the injustice.

The movie certainly has many messages right on the surface, but I didn’t mind them or feel like the whole thing was too preachy. Rather, it just comes off as carefully made. It’s hard to miss the statement when we open with fashion posters covering pictures of hungry Africans, but some more subtle things are woven through, like Diana’s comment about the goldfish, followed by the two incidents in which we see how deep her feelings for her fish really go. And the movie is filled with highly ironic little lines like when she says that “no one got hurt” after she dumped one of her boyfriends, when we know this is obviously not true. All that said, the movie doesn’t bash you over the head with its major messages… most notably that we don’t see Diana receive a serious comeuppance at the end. There are just a few scenes in which the limitations of her lifestyle become more apparent to her, and one scene where she is left alone and miserable, and we are left to put the pieces together of where her life is headed. The movie makes clear that things for Diana and her ilk will probably just continue as they are for some time, and feels no need to hit anyone over the head.

All the performances are fine. Julie Christie doesn’t have to do much except enjoy herself and throw occasional fits, so it doesn’t seem like she was really being stretched by this role. Everyone else is good. The real star is Schlesinger, who is able to use his visuals to make pointed little asides and comment on the story, and frame most of his shots to keep them interesting and vital. I was expecting to see that this movie followed Alfie, as a kind of female version, but was surprised to see it actually came out the year before. It also has a cousin in Shampoo, also starring Christie, and also about a narcissist. If you like the swingin’ 60s or thoughtful movies critical of the self-involved, this is a good one for you.

Should you watch it: 

Sure! Especially if you’re into the British 60s or love movies abut narcissists.