I once asked my 92 year old grandmother what was the single most memorable event that had occurred during her long life. Was it the invention of the automobile? TV? A-bomb? Men on the moon? Her reply was that she couldn't speak to my question but one thing she knew for sure: human nature never changed.
Greek tragedies are studied in institutions of higher education because they resonate in the psyches of people today in much the same way they did before Christ was born, largely because human nature never changes. The story of Phaedra's tragic mis-alliance with her stepson plays out in this movie because there are elements within it that are simply timeless.
Phaedra, the pampered, adored but bored wife of a shipping tycoon, finds herself inexplicably and inexorably drawn into an affair with the tycoon's son from an earlier marriage. It's a glorious thing. He's young, attractive, sexually inexperienced and a breath of fresh air. She's older but still beautiful, a rose in full bloom, no longer a bud but still desirable in the catnip way older women appeal to younger men today. She's secure in herself and offers the promise of being an experienced lover.
When the stepson enters into business with his tycoon father, the impossibility of continuing the affair becomes apparent. Phaedra is now repelled by the tycoon's sexual attentions and jealous of his son's youthful companions. The stepson is young and trying to do the right thing, but can't deny he still has feelings for Phaedra. It's doomed.
The familiar story of Aristotle Onassis's life provided ample parallels with the backstory of this movie. Onassis's cut-throat competition with his father-in-law Livanos is touched upon with Phaedra's husband's crazy workaholic alliances both with and against his father-in-law. The death of the tycoon's only son presaged the death of Onassis's only son, Alex, ten years after this movie was made, as well as the suicide of Onassis's first wife, Tina Livanos Niarchos.
What really resonated with me was Phaedra's implacable will, a force of spirit that swept everything before it, a will so inflexible that all consequences be damned. I've known people like this. It's not pretty.
This movie was released in the early 60's and has some period details. The cast is perfect. Mercouri is stylish and sexy, Tony Perkins is a far cry from his legendary performance as Norman Bates, and Raf Vallone as Phaedra's husband is spot-on as the tycoon trying to juggle his many business ventures as well as his famly life. It's all the more effective that at the end of the movie he's only just beginning to learn of the wreckage his life has become, literally and metaphorically.
Good stuff here, folks, and worth viewing.