Thursday, 30 December 2010

Marriage - European Style

Recently, when both of us had been reading the Ingrid Bergman biography Notorious by Donald Spoto, I thought my father and I would benefit from sitting down to a few of the legendary Swedish leading lady's films during this end of year holiday. I've seen most of her more well-known Hollywood ventures; all her collaborations with Hitchcock (including the great character study from which the Spoto book takes its title) and of course countless viewings of that immortal tale of sacrificed love, Casablanca. So for this Christmas's mini-Bergman season, I set myself the task of collecting some of the films which she made outside Hollywood. So far we've watched one of her very early Swedish films, which Spoto and my father heaped praised upon; Juninatten, but which left me feeling cold and perplexed in that while it was ostensibly a proto-feminist morality tale, it lacked any discernible moral centre. I can't see it having the potential to gain favour with even the least militant of modern feminists. Last night we turned to a thoughtful and interesting film which I found myself far more able to enjoy, by the man whom Bergman married in the midst of scandal - Roberto Rossellini. 

Viaggio in Italia starred Bergman and that British actor with the most reliable of steady, baritone, voices; George Sanders. The two play a couple who are visiting Naples and Capri to sell a property which has been left to Sanders's character by an uncle. Early on in the film, they realize how little they know one another, despite eight years of marriage. This type of abrupt revelation is one of the weaknesses of the film, in that most of the dialogue is loaded with heavy-handed directness. Perhaps it is due to Rossellini working outside his native tongue? As, conversely, naturalism is a lauded quality of the neo-realism movement. I wanted to write something about how such naturalism may be found in other films of the movement by Rossellini and the likes of Vittorio DeSica, but stopped when it occurred to me that I had watched all of these other movies with their original Italian dubs. 
Yet, dialogue aside, there is a stark modernity displayed in the camerawork, as guided by Rossellini. It relies on a minimal number of cuts, and some short, steady, tracking shots to ease the story along. There is almost no soundtrack either, with all the noticeable music occurring naturally in the background.

What is most modern about the film is the story itself - the isolation felt by an attractive, upper middle-class European couple. No matter hard they try, they simply cannot communicate with one another in  a meaningful fashion. Looking at a story that was made in 1954 at the end of 2010 - with rather liberal eyes - I'm not entirely sure that it has become easier to make assumptions about the real affliction that had beset the on-screen marriage. Bergman's character seems to be pained by unfulfilled promise in her personal pursuit of knowledge; she has vivid memories of a male poet friend she once knew, and her evocations of him cause her husband to have small eruptions of petty jealousy, which is perhaps Bergman's intention, though she is clearly displeased with the result when it comes. Sanders's character, on the other hand, is handicapped by repressed male emotions, especially in the scenes where he wanders about Capri without Bergman. It's obvious that despite his pathetic attempts at philandering, he would be much happier if only he could sit down with his wife and tell her how he feels. Not even necessarily toward her, but maybe just about his apparent inability to feel happy when he is occupied by anything other than his important job back in London.

This is where Sanders's character rings a little truer than Bergman's. Right until the last few forced lines of dialogue (which I'm guessing were foisted on Rossellini by a financier), there is no point during the film where he is able to let go of his notions of propriety, and Bergman never manages to become privy to his feelings of inadequacy in the same way that we, the viewers, are. Not just by the lines he is unable to utter, but by the strangulated expressions of frustration he displays in almost every scene.


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