With Happy Ever After (1974) I continue to delve into the mammoth Indicator boxed set Magic, Myth & Mutilation: The Micro-Budget Cinema Of Michael J. Murphy. Taking in all of the content of this landmark collection is a serious undertaking which prompted me to select Avalon (1989) as the first Michael J. Murphy film to watch operating under the assumption that my knowledge of Arthurian legends would make the film more accessible. However, beginning with mid-career Murphy is misleading. Avalon gives the impression that Murphy was just a more artful David A. Prior rather than the complex auteur that he very clearly was.
Happy Ever After is difficult to talk about as it is incomplete. The heroic restoration undertaken by Indicator supplements the surviving 16mm film with Murphy’s camcorder footage but large sections of Happy Ever After are still missing. Enough of Happy Ever After remains to give an impression of Murphy’s methods and philosophical concerns even though it is impossible to determine how successful the film is at bringing the two together coherently.
It was surprising to discover that Happy Ever After is a film akin to the works of Jean Rollin, Jacques Rivette and Walerian Borowczyk. The central conflict between public and private performance that leads to an identity crisis in Happy Ever After is markedly similar to Rivette’s more mature films of the seventies while Murphy’s visual style, born out of low budget ingenuity, possesses the same poetry as Rollin’s best works. The result is a disarmingly whimsical work about finding one’s identity in its reflection in others.
Happy Ever After is about an actress (Helena Zeffert) shooting a romantic drama in Greece. When the film wraps, she descends into a fairytale hallucination inspired by Beauty & The Beast wherein she comes to rectify her character in the film with her public and private personas. The scenes with the masked “beast” character draw on the avant garde framing techniques of Cocteau as well as the Gothic iconography of a Brothers Grimm fairytale resulting in a Rollin-esque tapestry of images.
As disjointed as the surviving version of Happy Ever After is, it remains entirely affecting and visually breathtaking. Helena Zeffert’s performance is both vulnerable and resilient; evoking the types of characters that Geraldine Chaplin played for Rivette. If ever there was a case for arguing that Michael J. Murphy is a serious artist and overlooked independent auteur then Happy Ever After is it.