By Dom Cioffi
Margreet Zelle knew how to get attention.
Born into an affluent family in the Netherlands in the latter 1800s, Margreet was accustomed to the finer things that wealth and privilege had to offer. However, when her father’s oil investments busted, young Margreet felt the immediate sting of poverty.
With her mother dying soon after, Margreet was sent to live with her godfather, where she planned to study to be a kindergarten teacher. However, in what grew to be a recurring theme throughout her life, Margreet was jettisoned from the school for improper dalliances with the much-older headmaster.
With few prospects, Margreet took the calculated risk of answering a newspaper ad placed by an older Dutch Colonial army captain who was looking for a wife. She soon found herself far away in Indonesia, back in the upper class where she so badly wanted to be, but also in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic.
Depressed over her isolation in a foreign country, Margreet began to study the native dances and traditions, eventually going so far as to join a local dance troupe. She was captivated by the art form and also enamored by the freedom of expression that it allowed her.
With the sickness and eventual death of one child and an ugly divorce and custody battle for her remaining child, Margreet soon found herself back in Europe, where she settled in Paris alone. Struggling to make a living, she took work as a circus horse rider and artist’s model.
At the time, Parisian society was becoming increasingly interested in Asian and Egyptian themes, especially in the world of dance interpretation. Margreet seized on this infatuation by creating a fictitious backstory about her life that positioned her as a Hindu princess who had been immersed in the art of sacred Indian dance since childhood.
And with this romantic life story came the equally exotic stage name of Mata Hari – a name that would eventually become known throughout the world.
Mata Hari quickly became the most popular dancer in France, and only added to her growing fame when she agreed to pose nude in photographs. Her carefree attitude about sexuality extended to her stage show where she single-handedly elevated the status of exotic dancing to a respectable level.
Mata Hari’s fame and fortune allowed her to reenter the high society circles she so desperately wanted to be a part of. It also enabled her to have access to a bevy of wealthy men who found her personality and demonstrative nature intoxicating.
Unfortunately, with her body aging and a slew of up-and-coming imitators stealing her limelight, Mata Hari soon found herself out of favor. She did, however, continue to financially support herself as a high-society courtesan.
With World War I fast approaching, Mata Hari roamed freely throughout Europe in the company of numerous military leaders (her neutral citizenship from the Netherlands giving her unrestricted passage). It was during this period that she was requested to obtain undercover intelligence for the French authorities.
However, her constant liaisons proved her undoing when Allied authorities suspected that she was working as a double agent. Once it became known that she accepted monetary gifts from a German officer, Mata Hari was immediately labeled a traitor.
It took a military tribunal only 45 minutes to deliberate before finding Mata Hari guilty of espionage. She was sentenced to die by firing squad and in classic Mata Hari form, showed up at her execution in a finely tailored outfit with long white gloves and, before accepting her fate, blew a kiss to the soldiers who would shoot her.
Historians still deliberate how much of a spy Mata Hari really was with many scholars believing she was merely a scapegoat for Allied leaders who were failing to beat back German advances at the time.
Whatever the case, Mata Hari remains an intriguing historical personality who used her allure as cultural icon to move society in ways we may never clearly understand.
This week’s feature, “Spy,” starring Melissa McCarthy, also features a secret agent or two, but these undercover spies are more bumbling than sexy.
The ratings for this film are through the roof so my expectations were extremely high. Unfortunately, I must not have been seeing the same movie as everyone else.
As much as I can appreciate the unique humor and comedic brilliance of Melissa McCarthy, “Spy” bored me. There was simply no coherent storyline that allowed the scenes to flow together. Instead, the entire picture relied on scene-specific gags that, while admittedly funny on many occasions, still fell flat when strung into one piece.
If you’re in the mood for a lighthearted comedy that does little to tweak your intelligence, then maybe this film will tickle you. However, if you’re interested in a genuine comedy, look elsewhere for your laughs.
A clandestine “C+” for “Spy.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]