From its opening moment, the Ealing Studio comedy, Perfect Understanding (1933), lets its audience know that what lies in store is not your average romance. The opening scene finds Gloria Swanson’s Judy singing a love ballad to Laurence Olivier’s Nick even as he begs her to stop singing and ostensibly make love his way. And in that, the end is written into the beginning, as it were, for the film goes on from there to relate how the couple’s whirlwind marriage leads to immediate infidelity as Judy refuses to play obedient housewife. Granted, the “perfect understanding” to which the title refers is the couple’s open-ended marriage contract stipulating that they will forever remain “individuals”; given the film’s release during an era of relatively lax film censorship, the interpretation of that word most certainly does not preclude romantic trysts.
Regardless of the couple’s intentions with the contract, jealousy gets the best of them and threatens to destroy their marriage before it’s even begun. In this, the film abruptly transitions from a rather humorous romantic comedy about the battle of the sexes among men and women of leisure to a case study of the difficulties inherent in maintaining a relationship between two strong individuals. Although certainly far less funny in its latter half as a result, the film achieves an honesty in its approach to relationships, which are far more fickle and tenuous and in need of upkeep than cinema often portrays them. It’s fitting in that respect, I suppose, that the film’s “rediscovery” and Blu-ray debut from Cohen Media Group falls so close to the release of Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s similarly daring exploration of the difficulties in sustaining modern relationships. While Perfect Understanding and Before Midnight are two films far removed from one another, no closer modern-day correlative springs to mind than that. And given that Before Midnight is easily the greatest film about relationships I have ever seen, comparing Perfect Understanding to it is high praise indeed. Of course, I’d expect no less from a film penned by Black Narcissus/Red Shoes-director, Michael Powell!
The HD transfer of the film in Cohen Media’s Blu-ray release is stunningly free of damage and debris and reveals the film to have been shot on a richly grainy stock. And while the presentation lacks both the invaluable special features and liner notes characteristics of other classic Cohen releases, the distributor commendably compensates for this lack in a manner of which I am a strong supporter: they simply give you more films. To this end, the film comes packaged with a rather strong pair of Mack Sennett comedy shorts also from 1933, including “Husband’s Reunion” and “Dream Stuff.”