John Schlesinger's Darling is a film of excessive and self-defeating brilliance. Schlesinger is intelligent, but his approach is one-dimensional. His characters are fashionable types, his symbols are too often gimmicks; and Darling becomes a dangerously facile film.
Much of the film turns on the major symbol of glass. Darling is full of fine crockery and cruel glass walls, which jolt the light until it dazzles and blinds. At the beginning of the film when they are initiating their affair, Diana (Julie Christie) and Robert (Dirk Bogarde) look through broken windows into a deserted house that can be remodeled. Later the windows will be closed. In one scene Diana stands behind a window in the apartment she shares with Robert. He is typing, and she scratches at the window in pathetic pain and boredom. The window motif is carried further when Robert comes back one night after having left Diana. He looks up at the one window with a light in it, behind which Diana is entertaining Miles (Laurence Harvey). Robert goes upstairs to try to re-establish his relationship with Diana; but Miles comes out of the bedroom and Robert flees.
The window is but one glass symbol; there are others. When Diana watches Robert's family cleaning up their yard, she watches through a spyglass. When she has taken Robert from his family and is living with him, she writes messages to him on the mirror. All communication is like that lipstick on glass, It leaves a smear as she furiously tries to erase it when he has left her. Diana is trapped in a glass world. Even the organization for which she works is named Glass.
The paramount use of glass as a symbol is the goldfish bowl. It is central to much of the action; Schlesinger even takes camera shots through it, The fish -- you guessed it -- represent Diana and Robert. (To emphasize the parallel, Robert's surname is Gold.) After Robert leaves her, Diana returns to the apartment with Malcolm, an effeminate photographer (Ronald Curram). They drink and eat huge amounts of garish delicacies, and they pollute the fish bowl with them. The scene ends with the goldfish floating lifelessly on the surface of the fouled water.
There are several telling scenes using food in this symbolic way: the woman picking the meat out of a sandwich and leaving the bread; Diana dangling the shrimp as she talks to the Italian prince (Jose Luis de Villallonga) who wants to marry her; the lonely meal at the long table in her husband's palace. The characters eat, but they do not get substance.
Diana has lived an empty dream. She has been selected the "Happiness Girl", and subsequently has married an Italian prince, and she is the stepmother of seven children. But at the end of the film, she is totally alone. It is not clear how we are to take her; the film's ironies are both too neat and too uncertain. But at least the ending does not play upon sentimentality. Instead of an emotional parting between Robert and Diana, the film focuses on an old woman, with a half-belligerent, half-vacant stare, singing "Santa Lucia" in Piccadilly Circus. It is typical of Schlesinger's fondness for the social cameo; it has a detached, brittle effect, rather than a maudlin one, and it is effective.
There are many good things in Darling, even some brilliant moments. The scene where Diana is sunbathing with several men, and the timer buzzes, and they all turn over leaving her alone on her back, is a comment on several levels. Also, the stop-action modeling sequence is a stunning one.
But although it is cleverly conceived, the danger of Schlesinger's approach is that everything is so contrived that the film becomes essentially a tour de force. The characters become types. Everyone in the party scenes and street scenes is bizarre; and it all becomes incredible. The viewer begins to stop caring. There is witty line after witty line, clever shift after clever shift. Every bitter line draws a guffaw; yet the laughter is unwholesome, because it is excessive. Such wit, Darling proves, can become tiresome.