Films that are set around Christmas holidays are generally uneventful and commercial affairs that lean shamelessly towards traditionalism and conventionality. Here, there is an understanding between spectator and film that any tension that will be created during the film will be resolved absolutely, unquestionably and, in most cases, happily, by the time that the film will be over.
The main perpetrator of the “happy ending” concept is, of course, the classic Hollywood film. In its purest state, the classic Hollywood film represents cinematic traditionalism par excellence. It has been argued that this is because cinema is at its most powerful when it succeeds as a commodity, i.e. when it earns lots of money at the box office (this is why, for instance, a film like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is hailed by many and even occasionally seen as an anti-war film while Les Carabiniers by Jean-Luc Godard is regarded as difficult and ignored, sometimes, even by fans of the French filmmaker.) Likewise, the powerful influence of the American film on international soil has been because America has never had any difficulty in seeing film as a commodity first, its prime goal being making profit, and as an artform second: something carrying a message, which more often than not promotes traditionalist views on the world at large and its structure according to the prevailing ideology of the film-viewed-as-a-commodity: capitalism.
It is surprising that Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) should be hailed as a masterpiece of the golden age of Hollywood and simultaneously be set during the Christmas and New Years Eve period. It is also widely accepted as a masterwork of the romantic comedy genre, which perhaps more than any other is the perfect vehicle of the film viewed as a commodity, because it is resolved in the vast majority of cases by a kiss, shared between the often rigidly heterosexual leading couple and by which the film can be categorized with certainty. But like most remarkable Wilder comedies, its timelessness and success is also the direct outcome of a film that subtly but absolutely plays with the superficiality of the narrative and ideology of the Hollywood film with subtletly and finesse.
Identifying these films and the features that make them so “rebellious” is not always easy; to some, it is still very surprising to think that the leading couple of The Apartment never shares a kiss during the entire duration of the movie. The ending of the film is especially precocious; the resolution leaves more questions unanswered than most realize. (spoilers!) It quite distinctively ends with Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter telling Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik that he loves her. He tells her twice. Her response? While shuffling a deck of cards, she finally turns towards him and with a witty and ignorant smile on her face and speaks the immortal lines: “shut up and deal.” In a heartbeat, the words “The End” fade in and the ideologically instructed viewer will be so familiar with the language of the Hollywood film that he will maintain in absolute certainty that Baxter and Kubelik will live happily every after. But there are reasons to believe that this may not at all be the case.
The very look that Lemmon and MacLaine share at the end of the film, before it fades to black, is more like a look shared between two great friends. In fact, seen in this way, it even predates by seven years that legendary conclusive shot of The Graduate by Mike Nichols, though only in its implication that there is a story that goes beyond the film’s fade to black, rather than a definitive conclusion.
But let’s turn our focus once again to the specific details of the ending of The Apartment. By popular vote, the ending is meant to finalize the romance between Baxter and Kubelik. Yet upon closer inspection, there is no reason to believe that their love affair is the embodiment of the heterosexual passionate romance that Hollywood preaches ever so often. Indeed, this romance is presumed only because of its structural familiarity, rather than die to its explicit implications in the movie’s continuity. Again we must point out that the two’s union is never sanctified by a kiss.
Undoubtedly, Baxter is in love with Kubelik. He even idolizes her, claiming he is perfect even while she candidly points out to him that she can’t spell. But Kubelik’s situation is far more complicated: she chronically loves Baxter’s superior, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) who is married and has no intention of leaving his wife for her. Kubelik returns to Baxter’s apartment in the final scene only after going on a date with Mr. Sheldrake and suddenly experiencing some type of spiritual awakening, the conclusion of which will lead her to running away, without warning, to Baxter’s house.
But why Baxter’s house? The traditionalist definition of Kubelik’s fugue to this apartment should imply that her realization is that she loves Baxter. However, when is this infatuation of Kubelik’s ever implied. As noted, Baxter is in love with Kubelik, but it is not at all obvious that Kubelik is capable of loving a man like Baxter. This is further testified by her list of previous lovers, which she admits to earlier, and her description of these men do not match Baxter at all. She admits to having a predilection for falling in love with the wrong guys; why, therefore, should she ever succumb to Baxter’s adoration for her?
It is equally doubtful that the film’s resolution should indeed have anything at all to do with its apparent pivotal romance. The real message of the film is more likely represented by Kubelik’s line “some people take, some people get took.” This also feels like an honest attack on the capitalist system that is at the very heart of The Apartment.
Let’s take it step by step. Baxter is a man who works in an insurance company. He is obsessed with getting a promotion, but we know very little about his work, because he sees the way to make it to the top as lending his apartment to his superiors for their extra-marital affairs. This is the juicy, inner core of the film: the capitalist system is sex. To put it in line with Kubelik’s words, the people “who take” are the people with the power, while the people who “get took” are those who do not have the power. Therefore, there are also people who want to eventually become those who “take” – a conclusion we can come to simply by accepting naturally that there is no other reason as to why anyone want a promotion if not to acquire more money, therefore more power and, naturally, obtaining more lustful sex. To do so, they must transition by using their current asset: an ability to “get took.” So, in a male-oriented capitalist system, while the girls who get took seek financial security as much as love and romance by sleeping with those with power, the men lend the apartment to the men with power who want to sleep with the girls (who seek financial security as much as love and romance by sleeping with those with power.)
Similar themes are dealt with in another great work of Wilder’s. In Some Like it Hot, the most drastic example comes from Jack Lemmon’s cross dressing in order to achieve financial security from a wealthy and ageing industrialist who lives in a yacht; his conviction is so strong that, absurdly, he begins to speak fondly of him, despite the fact that his heterosexuality had been affirmed in many of the earlier sequences, especially through his initial attraction to Marilyn Monroe’s Sugar.
In The Apartment, the fact that Baxter is alone in the world, with no family ties and only a bunch of disapproving neighbours seemingly aware of his existence, is not at all unimportant. This makes it easier for him to be exploited; even, one of his neighbours, a scientist, advices him to donate his body to science once he dies, which he will later half-humorously brag about, as something to be proud of. Once again, the idea of success and fulfilment for the man who “gets took” is unable to be rid of this idea of giving up something in the process, i.e. his apartment, his body. Everything is balanced in terms of monetary value, even when the monetary value is valued in terms of some sort of spiritual value, unless we are to presume that Bacter would be able to enjoy monetary wealth after death by donating his dead body to science.
Baxter’s apartment, which lends the title to the film, is more than an epicentral setting in which the film is set, and which makes a cleary distinction between the monotony of ordinary life in the capitalist society, rigidly split into two: work and home (Baxter’s workplace is the only other prominent setting of The Apartment). It is also a psychoanalytical treasure trove. What is a tennis racket doing in the kitchen? The spectator will more than likely stop at the comedic gag, which sees it used for draining pasta. But why was it bought in the first place? Was it perhaps because he imagined himself being invited to play tennis, a traditionally favorite sport of the executives and wealthy? It wouldn’t be so unlikely to come to this conclusion, given Baxter’s naivity. If so, the fact that it is now used as a pasta drainer means that he has sadly never been called for a game, but was caught up in a much more detrimental and complicated one involving his apartment.
Other items of fascination are a poster of Ella Fitzgerald billed as the “first lady of blues,” the package containing a fruitcake with a backstory, the object of Baxter’s concern and overprotectiveness – the record player, not to mention the deck of cards, and so on. This apartment therefore represents, by all means, the breakdown of a character’s personality and his innermost thoughts, so much so that it is easy to understand him and accept him once we become familiar with it. Just the same, the fact that he gives up the apartment so willingly and easily also implies that by doing so, he is willingly giving up on his personality and uniqueness to buy into the (capitalist) system.
In this context, love has been used as the starting point for an awakening for individuals because it is pure and unique. If, as noted, sex is the ultimate goal for capitalism, the love that is to be understood as shared between Baxter and Kubelik needs to stay as far away from sex as possible. This is an explanation for the absence of a kiss between the two. At the same time, humanity and psychoanalysis would prevent a natural assignation of the two to the role of conventional lovers, with the sexual implications of the term. When Kubelik holds up her cards at Baxter, ignoring his declaration of love, she is therefore not only avoiding the matter of having to declare hers for him, which she may not even necessarily feel, but she is also protecting the purity of the love that is suggested in the storyline. In the same way, she is also implying that if they were to take a chance at love, it would be a gamble, and that its payoff would not at all be guaranteed. This is primarily because it would threaten to end what was the focus of their existance as they knew it up to this point. Baxter has, for a long time, focused on his obsessive desire to advance his career. Kubelik has been obsessing over a man who is happy with maintaining her presence in his life as nothing more than a part-time lover, more likely to satisfy his sexual desires than anything else. Her role is very much defined by their exchanging Christmas gifts with one another: hers is romantic, a record of the pianist of the Chinese restaurant in which they meet and dine incognito; his is a 100 dollar bill, thoughtless and in clear narrative reference to prostitution. While both were underwheling, the longlasting rejection of these focal points might be acts of self-denial that could potentially lead to psychological disasters far greater than would be implied by a traditionalist Hollywood happy ending.
The Apartment could not have been set during a better timeframe. The Christmas holiday promotes, with excess, the joys of capitalism and consumerism at large. It is, by all means, a celebration of the capitalist ideology. Beyond the satirical power it adds to the film, Christmas also dramatically emphasizes the loneliness of the two leading characters, during a time that is perceived as the worse for being alone. Indeed, their being together at the end of the film could be read, in a very disenchanted and realistic viewpoint, as simply being the easiest way to avoid being alone on the first day of a new year. “The End” title car, suddenly appearing, saves the film from spoiling the illusion of happiness that the filmic images imply, in a traditional standard. But just the same, if Baxter and Kubelik really were to sleep together, their escapade might be nothing more than a one night stand. It’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which Kubelik, married to Baxter, may still think of Mr. Sheldrake and pick up her affair with him as soon as it began.
Like most romantic comedies, the nature of The Apartment forbids it from examining the possibilities of resentment arising from the union of the heterosexual couple in the end. But in The Apartment, these resentments are not ignored, in fact they are so well integrated in the narrative that they blend in perfectly, and become a part of the satirical play without overtaking the appeal of its charming story. The influence that The Apartment has exerted on cinema, and especially the genre, can be seen in the way in which its tradition was continued by filmmakers like Mike Nichols and Woody Allen in the Hollywood film. On the other hand, Nora Ephron, who practically only directed romantic comedies, continually filmed anti-Billy Wilder specimen of the genre, fully endorsing the traditioanlist and capitalist ideals of the Hollywood films. In You’ve Got Mail (1998), she presents her most explicit example. The tension of the love affair between a small book-store owner and a the capitalist head of a chain of bookstores is resolved only when the small bookstore owner understands and appreciates the power of the man with the big bucks. A similar thing happens in Stranger than Fiction (2006).
Most contemporary examples of romantic comedies will hardly have as much of a shot in being as immortal and fresh as Wilder’s The Apartment, and its key to success is precisely its exploitation of Hollywood’s traditionalism to tell a story that is far richer, sophisticated and superior than even many of its viewers will be able to understand.