The following year, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni mined similar territory with Blow-up, his first and only British film. A deliberately meandering portrayal of a burned out photographer desperate to solve a crime, its protagonist was played capably by British actor David Hemmings.
In this film, fellow Briton Julie Christie rightfully won an Oscar for Best Actress in a motion pictures that is often too clever by half. For all of its inventiveness, director John Schlesinger’s occasionally brilliant cinematography comes off at times like parlor tricks. If Darling could overcome a script that renders each character more or less one-dimensional, it might have appeared robust and substantial. Instead, it plays like broad melodrama, a device that casts aside realism in a time period where authenticity was sacrosanct.
Scandalous at the time of release, the film includes frank depictions of abortion, homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity. However, it also resorts one of the oldest film tropes in existence, that of the amoral, sexually dangerous temptress. There is plenty of blame to go around, certainly, but most of it belongs to her. Diana Scott's (Julie Christie) mendacity serves as the central focus of the picture, itself an effective depiction of the colossal boredom and ennui of a blonde, beautiful fashion model.
The Diana Scott character lacks sufficient depth, coming across instead as a deceptive, selfish, fickle social climber. Unafraid to use her looks to get her way, she is a home wrecker with a particular skill for duplicitous behavior. It is a testament to Christie’s talents as an actress that she makes a combination of often overblown witty repartee and histrionics seem actually plausible. Though ably graced by an talented supporting cast, a lesser actress could not have carried the picture by herself, as Julie Christie does here.
A few scattered moments are visually stunning or creative. A cinematic sequence of photographer and model mimics exactly the look and energy of a photo shoot. While sunbathing in Italy, Diana is surrounded on both sides by fit young men. When a specially set egg timer goes off, each of the men flip over on their stomachs, intent on tanning themselves evenly as possible. This leaves Scott alone on her back, by her self. The symbolism in this sequence works on multiple levels. Schlesinger clearly spent much time painstakingly preparing each of these creative setups; one wishes he’d have devoted the same care to the rest of the film.
A satire meant to take aim at prominent movers and shakers in the entertainment industry, Darling shows the growth and prominence of permissive societal attitudes, which continued to build over the next several years. Diana is invited without her knowledge to a bizarre orgy while on a trip to Paris. At first, she is uncomfortable with her surroundings, but eventually she takes a fancy to the eccentric setting.
This chameleon-like attitude will serve her well in the future. Intent on sleeping her way to the top, she manages to fake charm and kindness. This front obscures her coldly calculating ability to stray from one partner to the other without reservations, provided she has something to gain from it.
Though it shares a kind of jaundiced cynicism with its kitchen sink predecessors, Darling holds few sympathies for its privileged characters, instead showing their lives as unstable and vacuous. Earlier films had some regard for the working class rebels they showcased, believing the behavior to be a sort of noble means of sticking it to the man. Here, only one character has a moral core, that of television news reporter Robert Gold (Dirk Bogarde).
And even he engages in an affair with Diana, early in the picture, leaving behind a wife and two children in the process. Feeling vindictive, by the end of the movie Gold tricks Diana into one final sexual encounter, intending it as a form of vindictiveness to even the score.
Perfidy and infidelity is the common denominator inherent with every major character. Ethics and loyalty are nowhere to be found. It is this point that the filmmaker hopes that we will retain after the curtain rises and the lights come on again. In fairness, it would be difficult to miss this rather blatant intended lesson, unless one was utterly oblivious. Darling is an uneven work, a surprise popular success that was mostly intended to be a cheap little art film.
Had the movie tanked, Julie Christie would have been forgiven for choosing the part. This was director Schlesinger’s third film, made at a time when he was still largely an unknown quantity. He would eventually produce the critical and commercial successes of Midnight Cowboy and Sunday Bloody Sunday. With its flaws, Darling still entertains, even as it occasionally underperforms.