Tag Archives: Jean Marais

White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche (Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1957)

Italian Poster
Italian Poster

Mario (Marcello Mastroianni), a young clerk, friendless and far from home, returns to Livorno from a trip to the country where he’s been warmed by feeling of home and family, even if the home and family are his boss’ and he himself has had to maintain the distance and deference required by the difference in their social status. As he leaves them and heads towards home, it’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.

It’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.
It’s as if the very lights of the city extinguish with each of his steps, externalising that loneliness and alienation he is feeling inside.

On a bridge, past the stray dogs, the homeless and the rubble, he meets a girl who he thinks a prostitute. Desperate for human contact and contrary to his norms of behaviour, he tries to pick her up. To the distress of both, he’s made a mistake. She’s Natalia (Maria Schell), daughter of formerly well-to-do carpet merchants, now fallen on hard times. She lives with her grandmother, blind and so anxious not to lose her that she keeps her literally pinned to her apron. They make a living by repairing carpets and taking in lodgers.

A portent of the struggle to come depicted via background poster
A portent of the struggle to come depicted via background poster that is nonetheless foregrounded by being given as much space as Matroianni/Mario

Natalia’s fallen deeply in love with one of them (Jean Marais). He’s courted her, included her grandmother and the rest of the household in the courtship, took them to the opera, pledged his love… but in the end had to leave, abruptly telling her he could not marry her right away but would meet her a year later, on this bridge. She’s been coming there faithfully every day at ten, waiting for he who does not arrive; which is where Natalia meets Mario. After several attempt to avoid him, they begin to talk, to feel less lonely, to connect. All the while she keeps waiting for the man who promised to return.

On the bridge between what is real and on offer (Mario) and the man of her dreams (the unnamed lodger) who might be but a dream and, in both dream and reality, a figure tinged with criminality and a hint of cruelty.
On the bridge between what is real and on offer (Mario) and the man of her dreams (the unnamed lodger) who might be but a dream and, in both dream and reality, a figure tinged with criminality and a hint of cruelty.

Mario falls in love with Natalia; is moved by her purity, her goodness, her faith. He courts her. She welcomes —  might even need —  the attention. But she remains faithful to her ideal. This faith in turn ignites one in Mario; in inspiring his love, she dissolves his sense of alienation even as Mario accepts that Natalia doesn’t love him and might, at best, come to love him later, after sufficient time has passed for her to forget he whom she truly loves now.

The couple seen through windows fogged up by the clash of cold and heat and only partially cleared
The couple seen through windows fogged up by the clash of cold and heat and only partially cleared

Is the stranger a figment of her imagination or someone real? Can such feelings and ideas live amongst the squalor and compromises of every day life? Is there something to believe in and should we have faith? Are we always doomed to be alone? Visconti and Giuseppe Rotuno show us this metaphorically; we see the couple through foggy windows. Natalia’s reality murked up by her dreams; Mario’s options often directly clarified through cleared up windows or the stark directness offered by those stepping out of the shadows. Only for a brief moment does snow purify all, at least before a shiny figure in black comes back into the picture, where Natalia is asked to make a choice, stay on one side, or cross the bridge to another.

A mere and fading reflection on a clear wish
A mere and fading reflection on a clear wish

White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is film that sets out to be poetry and succeeds. How you feel and experience the film might depend on how you feel about any film with such intentions. Here a bridge, snow, the contrast between rock and opera, the effects of fog on an image as seen from the outside, all act as metaphors that need decipherment. The film succeeds beautifully but are you up to the task?

As is usual with Visconti, Le Notti Bianche is the fruit of the crème-de-la-créme of cinematic collaborators. Suso Cecchi d’Amico worked with Visconti on the screen adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s story. Giuseppe Rotuno creates a world that is luminous, clearly artificial, but lit as if for a deeper truth, with some strikingly beautiful images. It has one of Nino Rota’s most beautiful scores; one of those where a few recurring bars played on different chords capture a range of feeling, and the changes that range undergoes throughout a film. The costumes are by Piero Tossi.

It’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.
It’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.

The actors have rarely been better. I sometimes find Maria Schell a bit tiresome but as Natalia she’s distraught, nervous, optimistic and polite but slightly hysterical; always focussed one her goal, smiling as if spiritually lit by a divine spirit. It’s a stylised, operatic performance, not unlike Alida Valli’s in Senso’s but here always played in a lower key and with a smile. Marais, already into middle-aged, playing a cipher with potentially a cruel streak, has never seemed to me more handsome or dashing than he is here. In some shots, it’s like the very length of his eyelashes are a trap with which to ensnare the innocent.

As to Mastroianni…one can only sigh with awe. Other women are after him in the film, and not only prostitutes. And unlike the Lodger with his fancy opera, he can only offer her Bill Haley and the Comets. And he can’t even dance! I bet the lodger can dance. But Mastrioanni can feel and weep and communicate all of it clearly with a masculine goofeyness that doesn’t mask that his muddling up the steps is a clear offer of his heart, that there’s a joy in his daring to dance without skill, a trust, and a confidence. That he’s the salt of the earth (and is perhaps why he must cry). To me, his dance, is one of the treasures of cinema.

Visconti’s virtuosic display of cinematic skills in White Nights/ Le Notti Bianche is truly dazzling. I’ll point you to one simple example, which you can see in the clip below. It’s the moment where Natalia has been telling Mario about the lodger and it’s the one moment in the film where we enter her head. She’s narrating the experience and we’re seeing it as she felt it. Note how seamlessly Visconti moves from the past to the present. See particularly the last ten seconds of the clip, the moment where Maria Schell says, ‘I’ll be yours, yours forever’ and note how seamlessly Visconti takes us from Natalia’s past and her imagination, as she recounts to us how she feels about what happened, to the present and Mario. When the camera cuts from Jean Marais to Maria Schell only to have her embrace Mastroianni. He’s made this move from past to present and a shift in point-of-view, without changing the tone and without even a cut. It’s dazzling.

French Poster
French Poster

In spite of being awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the film was not a success when it first came out. I find the posters for the various countries it was released in interesting in its display of different attractions for each culture. Maria Schell gets top billing in all of them but in the Italian poster, the lodger is a faceless figure in the background. The French poster gives second billing to Marais, gives the impression of a romance between Schell and Marais and turns the Mastroianni character into the faceless figure in the bridge. The Danish poster highlights Schell’s whiteness, places Marais and Schell in large size on the left of the poster but places the character on the bridge prominently on the top right of the poster. Each is selling a different thing.

A clear come-on.
A clear come-on.

What the film is selling are the concerns of sociology and history. How it feels like to see and what it might yet mean are ongoing concerns. The reason for viewing it now —  in spite of protestations from some critics that it’s not amongst the great works of Visconti —  is that it is still a great work of a great director, one that requires much of the audience but offers much in return, should the audience be willing to give to and receive from it that which a very great work of this kind requires.

José Arroyo

Danish poster
Danish poster

A thought on colour and medium in Elena et les hommes (Jean Renoir, France, 1956)

Elena_Y_Los_Hombres_(Edicion_Coleccionista)-Caratula

I saw Elena et les hommes last night but I couldn’t tell you what it was about, not really. It’s an elegant farce about a Polish Princess down to her last pearl who goes on a roundelay of possible husbands including Jean Marais and Mel Ferrer, all madly in love with her. She in turn is in love with making them live up to what she sees as their potential, helping to make them be the men she thinks they ought to be, which in the case of Jean Marais means becoming President of the Republic. It’s a charming film, funny, endearing; lots of people chase after each other in a small house whilst Ingrid Bergman, at her scattiest and blondest, looks impossibly beautiful in tight Belle Epoque corsets, figure-hugging skirts and hats large enough to hold a small meadow or a large aviary.

What prompted me to write a note here is that from the very beginning of the film one is dazzled by the beauty of the colour. The opening title seems encased in bright little bombons or be-ribboned jewels of glistening red, blue and yellow. Jean is Auguste Renoir’s son of course but the cinematographer here is the equally great Claude Renoir, newphew of the director, grandson of the painter. Uncle and newphew both knew something about colour, composition, perspective and this film is their evocation, their particular articulation of what they learned from Auguste.

I saw Elena et les hommes at the Cine Doré in what I thought was a 35 mm print and this is what I wrote when I returned to my hotel:

‘The only reason I’m writing a note on the film here is that from the first shot one is dazzled by the beauty of the colours. Claude Renoir did the cinematography. I saw it on a gorgeous 35 mm print where the brightness, density, luminosity, the texture, the fine grain of the celluloid brought out every delicate variation of light and texture in hats and feathers and gave one the impression of partaking in breathtaking beauty’.

I understand that this type of work with light and colour is now possible in digital, but if so, why don’t we see it? It saddens me that such beauty, simply in the hue, brightness and luminosity of the colours not to speak of their masterly arrangement as in this film may be lost to us.’

 

Needless to say, I’m an idiot, and upon looking at the program I realized that what I had in fact been seeing was not a 35mm print but a restored print digitally projected, one which hopefully will be with us for many generations to come.

The program also included a thought-provoking quote from Jean-Luc Godard: ‘If Elena et les hommes is ‘the’ French film par excellence, it’s because it’s the most intelligent film in the world: Art simultaneous with a theory of art; beauty simultaneously with the secret of beauty; Cinema simultaneous with an explanation of cinema’.

 

And here I was simply mourning, erroneoulsly, that future generations wouldn’t be able to see the glorious gradations of texture and colour in a hat.

 

José Arroyo