The playboy/thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) meets the expert pickpocket Lily (Miriam Hopkins) on the Riviera, and they, of course, fall in love. Initially, they try to steal from each other—a kind of foreplay among secretary to the wealthy heiress to a perfume company, Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), hiring Lily as maid, so they can rob her blind. Unfortunately, while cleaning up the corruption on her company’s board, and settling into a comfortable lifestyle, he also falls in love with her, and must decide between two women, one who offers excitement, the other, stability.
Ernst Lubitsch had become a master of the marital comedy in the silent era with films like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and So This is Paris (1926), and no director was better at exposing the false morality of the bourgeoisie when pursuing sexual desire. Here, Lubitsch sets up a faux marriage, then turns the relationship into a ménage à trois, which he provocatively suggests may be the best way to keep a sexual relationship interesting and stable, because it has been liberated from the strictures of middle class morality. Lubitsch’s direction of actors is almost Pirandellian, with the actors speaking their emotional lines in a virtual monotone, thus creating parodies of romantic love, demonstrated by actors who play themselves, playing a character in a film. The film’s inherent naturalism is thus continually called into question by artifice, as in the opening scene when a Venetian gondolier is heard singing a romantic song in the moonlight, while the ensuing image reveals that he is a garbage collector loading refuse into his gondola. Lubitsch is a director of surfaces that continually reveal themselves to be illusions, and thus pointing to the absurdity of human existence. —Jan-Christopher Horak