It has the patina of class: a historic-romantic setting, a rising young star, elegant delivery and collaterally "importance." But it's a perfect bait-and-switch, sizzle standing in for steak, for Tales of Red Vienna by David Grimm is at base not much more than a chicklit romance with some rather old fashioned ideas to sell you.
It starts in Vienna in 1920. Newly widowed Heléna Altman (Nina Arianda) comes home from the funeral service from her military, missing-in-action-presumed-dead husband. (We don’t know this quite yet, the details will be filled in later; right now we see a woman in mourning black enter her darkened house in silence.) She has a man with her. Later we’ll learn his name is Béla Hoyos (Michael Esper). For the moment, though, he has no name. He is, for lack of a better word, a client. She lets him fuck her, cruelly, quickly and without undressing, on the heavy living room table. Disgusted with herself, with the act, she pulls away from his touch thereafter. But she accepts the money, which she clearly needs badly, that he puts on the table before he leaves in silence, before she breaks down and cries, feeling humiliated and broken.
In the next scenes, after quite some time has passed, we see her more normal life, with the maternal servant Edda (Kathleen Chalfant) who tends to her; and currying the favor of her snobbish friend Mutzi (Tina Benko) who is both solicitous and threatening, a well-placed society woman who would all too easily ruin Heléna’s reputation if motivated. And we soon discover that Tina has herself been currying the favor of a young man she fancies: Béla. At first Heléna fervently hopes that Béla will not recognize her. But of course he does (secretly). Though in time he reveals that he does, and reveals as well that he is smitten with her. That he wants to have a real relationship with her.
The creep-out factor is given enough lip service for decency, but oh guess what? Béla is witty and glib and charming. And sincerely romantic. And Heléna begins to fall for him. And Mutzi begins to wonder why he has become so distant to her. And then ... well do I really have to tell you who shows up to well and truly turn an already turbulent existence into a collision of mixed agendas (and feelings)?
As directed by Kate Whoriskey and acted by its more than capable cast,Tales of Red Vienna is compellingly trivial, like the sensationalistic and dispopsable Lifetime movie it so clearly ought to be (with a large and sadly all-too-recognizeable dollop of A Doll's House thrown into the mix at the denouement). And you watch it with the same kind of well-there's-nothing-else-on fascination (or resignation).
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