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Key Films #28

La notte [Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961]:

In an early scene, the audience is introduced to the protagonists - the married couple Lidia and Giovanni Pontano - as they tend the hospital bedside of a dying friend.  The significance of this scene is immediately clear, and the level of detail and information that Antonioni and his co-writers place within these seemingly perfunctory conversations and the awkward small talk establish a dynamic between characters that will be explored and examined as the narrative unfolds.  This sequence - as with the opening sequence of the subsequent L'eclisse (1962) - is also essential to understanding the tone of the film; the emptiness of the hospital, the distance between the protagonists (both physical and emotional) and the occurrence of a surreal and disarming sequence in which Giovanni is confronted by a disturbed and uninhibited young woman who attempts to seduce him, create a stark, clinical and at times often distinctly morose feeling that seems to place the viewer within the same emotional and psychological mindset as the characters on-screen.  It also suggests a blatant (if generic) interpretation, in which the notions of sex and death become figuratively entwined.  This creates a somewhat interesting psychological parallel to the protagonist in Antonioni's later film, The Red Desert (1964), where the character Guiliana's own time in a psychiatric hospital led to a no less humiliating seduction and extramarital affair.

Giovanni's own revelation, that he was tempted by the sick woman's advances, will eventually act as a similar catalyst for the subsequent events.  Again, like Guiliana, the psychological and sociological implications of the confession throw Lidia's once-comfortable existence into a spiral of self-doubt, jealousy and sexual-anxiety that leads this character on an expedition into the ruins of the past.  Approaching the film, in this sense, as a kind of journey into "the self", or as an episodic, sexually motivated act of psychoanalysis, the similarities to Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Stanley Kubrick become immediately clear.  La notte could almost be described as a kind of spiritual precursor to the Kubrick film, albeit, with the roles reversed.  In Eyes Wide Shut, it was the husband Bill who was plunged into a freefall of confusion and sexual jealousy after his wife Alice confessed to an infatuation with a fantasy male archetype.  In Antonioni's film, the emphasis is on Lidia, who instead of finding liberation through separation, or a sense of closure in the exploration of these places significant to her youth, is almost haunted by Giovanni, unable to escape his influence or even his control.  In the presence of her husband, she is simply "the wife", or more specifically "Giovanni's wife", confined to the shadow of her spouse as the dependable shoulder of support.  As such, she sees herself - even in absence - as not exciting enough nor attractive enough to break out of the conventional and subservient role that the culture expects her to play.

The style of the film, with its black and white cinematography and its emphasis on the dehumanising presence of cold, concrete architecture - which dwarfs and suffocates the characters in almost every frame - confronts the viewer with a world seemingly devoid of life.  Like the final moments of L'eclisse, the overall tone of the film following the wife's crisis of faith is one marked by an icy claustrophobia, uncertainty and an almost fragrant sent of apocalyptic dread.  As Lidia wanders a disintegrating landscape of old buildings, empty streets and dilapidated relics desperately in search of the past, she finds only unfathomable ciphers engaging in either violence or triviality as a last gasp attempt to reclaim a certain joy from the natural languor of everyday living.  Unlike the gang of men brutally cheering on a fist fight, or the crowd of gawping onlookers who observe a toy rocket launched from a desolate field, Lidia is again distant and disconnected, unable to comprehend or even glean any sense of the most simple pleasure from these moments, moving and still.  Throughout the film, Antonioni typically has his characters framed through empty windows, their reflections trapped or isolated by the shot composition and its relation to the overall design.  This continues the theme of examination, as the audience is compelled to see the characters not just as specimens, but as an illustration of our own emptiness, banality and emotional discontent.

Sisters [Brian De Palma, 1973]:

Without question, a transitional work; a film that closes the (rear) window to one facet of De Palma's career, while at the same time leaving the shade open for something new.  The film exists on the fault line between the director's earlier, more experimental, counter-culture efforts of the late 1960s - in which his continual interest in voyeurism and the manipulation of the moving image was combined with socio-political discussions on race, sexual politics and the war in Vietnam - and the ensuing supernatural and psychological thrillers that the filmmaker would intermittently devote himself to during the subsequent years.  On paper, the central narrative of Sisters - at least as it develops through the combination of murder mystery and psychosexual horror - gestures towards the baroque modern melodrama of consecutive works, such as Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie and Obsession (both 1976), where the tortured psychology of characters forces the drama to fracture into a series of exhilarating, edge of the seat set-pieces that become, through the course of the narrative, like a projection of the protagonist's own fragile emotional state.  However, the sub-text of the film and the presentation of its central characters is still rooted in the post-1960s, pop-art mindset of radical politics, genre deconstruction and ironic, self-reflexive lampoon.

While many will no doubt see the film and take from it the obvious lifts from Hitchcock - especially in the way the murder is staged against a fittingly 'retro' Bernard Herrmann score - the undertones are far more sensitive to the cultural concerns of the time.  Through the film's first act of violence, De Palma is referencing the still topical murder of Kitty Genovese (in the way the initial crime is ignored and brushed aside as a lover's quarrel, despite the presence of an actual witness) while the eventual police response to the disappearance of the victim (a young black male) suggests a notable thread of institutional racism ("these people..." the detective slurs).  Likewise, De Palma's heroine, played here by Jennifer Salt, is introduced as both a leftwing feminist and possibly bi-sexual (her lifestyle and lack of a steady boyfriend is a cause for concern for her conservative-leaning mother, who in turn becomes the butt of the joke).  These personal idiosyncrasies are there to enrich the more generic Hitchcockian elements of the narrative, through which the story of medical malpractice seems intended to tap into a genuine fear on behalf of the culture of unstable doctor's playing God, and where the director's signature use of the split-screen effect is intended to visualise, cinematically, the fragmented personality of his central character(s); the film itself becoming the expression of a divided mind.

Notorious [Alfred Hitchcock, 1946]:

"This is a very strange love affair" purrs the vulnerable Ingrid Bergman to the roguish Cary Grant, and in many ways she's right, it is!  It's also a very strange film, even within the context of Hitchcock's remarkable and often provocative career, where the sense of unreality and the almost abstract stylisations of the staging and the cinematography evoke the later, more explicitly "conceptual" trilogy of psychological dramas, Vertigo (1958), Psycho (1960) and Marnie (1964).  Throughout Notorious - its title a reference to the less than perfect reputation of the Bergman character; the gadabout daughter of a convicted Nazi spy - Hitchcock and his collaborators chip away at the respectable gloss of the standard '40s melodrama, infusing the film instead with a sensation of intense, almost dreamlike ambiguity; an air of slightly off-kilter "strangeness" that borders on the overwhelming.  The illusory atmosphere - in which the entire narrative feels as if it is being dreamt-up by the central character as a sort of fevered reverie - is suggested, in part, by the director's less conventional stylisations (which frequently attempt to place the audience, subjectively, into the psychology of the central character) but also through the stilted, unnatural dialogue, the perverse character developments and the frequent sense of unnerving suspicion; as the susceptible protagonist is thrown into the deep-end of a dangerous and tortured affair.

Lurching, staggering even, from seduction to betrayal, from boozy late-night drives across a rear-projected backdrop of Miami, Florida, to the hotbed of intrigue and mystery found in its studio-recreated Rio de Janeiro setting, the film traverses genres; moving, drifting, from film noir to thriller, espionage to full-blown romance, and even ending on a sustained note of inescapable terror.  The narrative and the development of the protagonist is strong enough to support these deliberately artificial stylisations, as the film engages through the natural workings of its story - the intrigues and manipulations - and through the relationship(s) between the central characters.  As a clear consequence of the personal betrayals of the men in her life (first her father and eventually her conflicted lovers) Bergman's character, Alicia, finds herself cast in this role and forced to play along; to adopt a "persona" and to assimilate herself into this environment in an effort to infiltrate the allies of her since-incapacitated dad.  This presentation of the character as unwitting 'agent provocateur' becomes a kind of self-aware acknowledgement of the role of the actress in a traditional drama; where the entire demeanour of Alicia is ultimately an affected "performance"; a smokescreen intended to mask the fear and uncertainty that drives her into such peril.

Her desire to please this new lover - this mentor who becomes both a replacement for the father, dispensing wisdom and advise, and a surrogate for the director, instructing the actress how to behave, how to move through this world of darkness and danger - gives Alicia the strength to take on the impossible as her mission forces her to betray her own feelings - her own personality - by having to flirt between the sensitive heroine and the more cold-hearted femme fatale.  More daringly, Hitchcock and his writers subvert the characteristics of their respective opponents; Grant's protagonist T.R. Devlin and the film's antagonist, Alexander Sebastian, played by Claude Rains.  While Devlin clearly has feelings for Alicia, his emotions, jealousies and fragile ego cause him to inadvertently lead the object of his affection into disaster.  His attitude throughout is punctuated by conceit and arrogance, as he breaks away from the caring and considerate mentor-figure to instead become a wounded bully led by bitterness and resentment.  While the leading man is cold and occasionally unpleasant, Sebastian is, by contrast, hugely sympathetic.  He loves Alicia, and it's only through the inevitable betrayal that the character turns against her.  While Hitchcock keeps the narrative moving with his fantastical tricks, thrilling set-pieces and fragmented, almost trancelike tone, it is the richness of these characters and their complex personal emotions that makes the film so endlessly compelling.


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