Sabrina (1954)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 53min

Sabrina may not have the reputation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Roman Holiday, and yet there is a good argument that Billy Wilder’s first collaboration with Audrey Hepburn features the actress at her most nuanced. Here, she combines two roles she would be commonly associated with – the fresh-faced innocent and the stylish fashion icon – and grows up before our eyes in a gorgeous transformation, confidently inhabiting a new look which turns heads that previously went unturned. Even before this takes place though, Hepburn is a screen presence to behold, with Wilder soaking her face through close-ups as she watches a young William Holden from afar. Though Sabrina carries great loneliness she is still evidently immature, as an ill-thought-out suicide attempt over her unrequited puppy love reveals a naïve belief that there is nothing else out there in the world for her.

Audrey Hepburn can play childlike innocence as well as the stylish leading lady.

The two years she spends in Paris changes that quite drastically though. To David, her then-crush and now-suitor, she is an entirely new woman, bearing no resemblance to the one who left. To her father, she is still the young girl with no wider understanding of the world. To her, the truth is more complicated. She is still carrying insecurities that haunted her before, as we are reminded in the instrumental motifs of ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ recalling that night she had her heart broken while watching David flirt with another woman. But now she has lived and experienced more, and she finally sees her own great potential.

“You’re still reaching for the moon.”

“No, Father. The moon is reaching for me.”

Elegant staging across layers of the frame painting out these characters and relationships.

Up against Hepburn, Holden is struggling in what is easily one of his lesser performances, hitting comedic beats that land quite clumsily in a film that is otherwise extraordinarily elegant. Faring better is Humphrey Bogart, playing David’s older brother, Linus, carrying a magnificently commanding presence even if he doesn’t run away with the movie like Hepburn. Both are the sons of a wealthy family of whom Sabrina’s father serves as a chauffeur, and yet as they develop romantic interests in her, the clearly defined class boundaries dividing them are challenged in complex ways, giving rise to a web of intricate relationships that Wilder relishes in his staging and luscious deep focus cinematography. Of all the romantic set pieces we witness here, by far the greatest is the indoor tennis court upon which the figures of all three leads stand out prominently, whether they are isolated in the wide, open space or caught in a moment of tender affection.

From being the one who lurked in the shadows and watched lovers on the tennis court in the first scene…
To being on the court itself, and the centre of attention. Wonderful form in the progression of this imagery.

As much as we are drawn to Sabrina’s journey of independence, the callous duplicity of Linus also forms the basis of a compelling character who apparently lives to serve his family. In his efforts to ensure David doesn’t get distracted from a potential marriage that would be good for their business, he charms Sabrina with the intent to eventually send her off on a boat alone, and yet in the process of enacting this cruel plan, he incidentally falls for her. Like the hard, durable plastic he has obsessed over in his corporate ventures, it looks like no one is going to break him. And yet, ultimately, someone does.

“The man who doesn’t burn, doesn’t scorch, doesn’t melt suddenly throws a $20 million deal out the window.”

Essentially, Linus is a romantic pretending to be a practical businessman pretending to be a romantic. As he stands in a meeting room committing to the future of his company, Sabrina’s ship sails away in the background behind him, its whistle blowing like a final reminder of what he is losing. Before the rom-com trope of a man chasing down his lover in the airport, we had Bogart sailing after Hepburn on his boat, culminating in a romantic meeting of two movie stars that gorgeously ties off two parallel arcs – a man finding himself in love, and a woman finding herself beyond infatuation, realising that she has the entire world in her hands.

Bogart’s face warped in this shot through the plastic hammock – a cunning, duplicitous man.
The ships in the background and the office in the foreground – a painful dilemma for Linus in these final minutes.

Sabrina is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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