In modern terms, it’s tempting to call Alma Mahler a groupie of fin de siècle Vienna society. You could even draw parallels between the young socialite and the notorious camp followers of a more recent yesteryear—Pamela Des Barres, for example, still the queen mother of rock’n’roll groupies, a very intelligent woman who will nonetheless always be remembered not for her own accomplishments but for her escapades with famous men. Maybe it’s stretching it a bit (no pun intended) to compare Alma Mahler to Cynthia Plaster Caster, recovering groupie who since the ’60s has made a career of immortalizing the equipment of rock stars in tubes of dental alginate, but still: however grotesque it may seem to compare this Viennese patrician to someone whose sole claim to fame is three decades of plaster rock star penises, certain similarities still bear up.
Chief among them is the idea of a reciprocal relationship between groupie and artist, an uneasy assertion put forth by Des Barres in her tell-all memoir, I’m With the Band, and revisited last year in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. It’s important to remember that groupies like Kate Hudson’s character see themselves as more than mere girlfriends or toys for the amusement of rock stars. They see themselves as invaluable adjuncts to the creative process—muses, even—and why not? It’s a perfectly understandable human characteristic to want to be part of something marked for immortality, to feel deserving of a little credit, to want to be memorialized, to try and fold ourselves with as much grace as possible into the convoluted process of determinism that arrives at great art.
Some people just go at it with more vigor than others. We have groupies/muses at least indirectly to thank for a lot of what is generally considered great art, or at least whacking good entertainment, or at the very least a B-side single or two. Who can say to what extent Pamela Des Barres or Anita Pallenberg or Marianne Faithfull inspired the Rolling Stones? For proof of Cynthia Plaster Caster’s enduring cult appeal, see also the KISS song of the same name—now there’s a textbook example of how a groupie/rock star liaison can be a measure (sorry! sorry!) of success and prestige for both parties.
Back to Alma Mahler: for as influential as she was on the life and work of several of the most important men of last century—including composers Mahler and Alexander von Zemlinsky, Bauhaus founder and father of Functionalist architecture Walter Gropius, Expressionist painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, and writer Franz Werfel—it’s hard to muster much sympathy for her and any complaints she might have voiced about her own stifled creative impulses. She dabbled in composing, but mostly she was a self-assigned, professional erotic consort to genius in others. Raised in a wealthy patrician family with a benevolent outlook on the arts (except perhaps where Jews were involved), it was only natural that her family’s social standing would place the woman born Alma Schindler in the thick of the artistic ferment of prewar Vienna. It was only natural that she would develop a fascination with Gustav Mahler, some 20 years her senior, a frequent caller at the Schindler house.
In her pedigree and upbringing, Alma Schindler couldn’t have been any more different from her first husband. A tragic figure, Gustav Mahler endured a miserable childhood in rural Bohemia, witnessing parental violence, suicide, a brutal rape and the premature deaths of seven of his 11 brothers and sisters. Alma Mahler was a pampered emotional poodle, a sun-warmed splash pool compared to the inky depths of the tormented composer, who —love him or loathe him—wrote some of the world’s most powerful, emotional symphonic music. You have to feel for the man; he might not have been the most doting husband in the world, but who did she think she was marrying?
The complex relationship between Gustav and Alma Mahler is only one of many things that that the sluggish Bride of the Wind manages to make a complete fiasco of—and that’s as close as the film comes to succeeding at anything. With the exception of Vincent Perez (as the painter Kokoschka) and a squandered Jonathan Pryce in the role of Mahler, the actors spend most of their time competing for attention with the scenery and period dress—and generally losing. Director Bruce Beresford has no grasp at all on personalities and events in motion here, and the wilted lettuce leaf of a script (by first-time screenwriter Marilyn Levy) gives in to one cliché after another while ticking every encounter and quotation off a master checklist with all the passion of the week’s grocery items. Sarah Wynter is completely charmless as the titular “Bride of the Wind” (after a painting by Kokoschka, which, if we are to believe one of many conflated events recounted in the script, Alma Mahler essentially put the artist up to painting for her)—an unforgivable fault in a film that absolutely has to shed some light on the inscrutable charms that drew so many men to her. By the time Bride of the Wind dissolves into a garbled mess of overlapping lovers, it’s hard to wish Wynter’s Alma Mahler—or the film itself—anything but the worst.