Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Camus and Carné Transformed: Bergman's "The Silence" vs. Antonioni's "The Passenger"

Film International, issue: 27

The Silence (Tystnaden) (1962) and The Passenger (1974) are two of the great modernist films of their period, and two of the most enduring. From the standpoint of a new century neither is dated and both are richly rewarded by DVD rewatching. Yet their genesis lies in a previous era to their own, that of French classical cinema and the rise of existentialism in philosophy and writing. The former produced one of France’s great film directors, Marcel Carné, and the latter one of its great modern writers, Albert Camus. This is all the more remarkable since neither France nor French culture is conspicuously present in either picture we have mentioned. The Silence is an intimate chamber drama set in a fictitious eastern European country and The Passenger takes place in two continents, Europe and Africa, and four named countries – Chad, England, Germany and Spain. While both are films about journeys to foreign countries, the methods of filming are utterly different. In essence Bergman delivered a tight interior shoot at Råsunda studios while Antonioni’s film for MGM was a logistically complex location feature that added one extra (non-diegetic) country, Algeria, in its shoot for the desert sequences.

The French connection

If there is a tilting towards Carné’s romantic fatalism in Bergman’s early films like It Rains on our Love (Det regnar på vår kärlek) (1946) we could argue that The Silence, which is much more abstract, echoes the fatalism with little trace of the romance. Like Quai des brûmes (Port of Shadows) (1938), the latter is also a brilliant dissection of jealousy en famille with a subtextual prehistory. Carné’s jealous guardian Michel Simon is horrified by his young ward’s attraction to Jean Gabin because, we guess, it exacerbates a forbidden desire for the teenage girl in his charge (and may echo transgressions already committed). Bergman achieves the same with Ingrid Thulin as Ester, a jealous older sister, humiliated by Anna (Gunnel Lindblom), and her sibling’s desire for a complete stranger in a foreign city. If we take the interior look of Bergman’s picture, we can see that Carné’s legacy, complete with hotel mise-en-scène permeates its dream-like hotel atmospherics (at which the Frenchman specialized) and its sense of an enclosed, designed world full of sharp, off-kilter detail. In both its look and its feel The Silence also references Hôtel du Nord (1938) and Le Jour se lève (1939).

If, on the other hand there is a tilting to Camus in The Passenger it is because the North African crisis of its Anglo-American protagonist echoes those in Camus’s famous novel L’Étranger (The Outsider) (1937) and his desert stories of L’Exil et le royaume (Exile and the Kingdom) (1957). Yet we can easily switch things around. Antonioni started his film career as an assistant director for Carné during the war on Les Visiteurs du soir (1942), and as a post-war critic in Italy was to acclaim several of Carné’s films in a period when the Frenchman’s reputation was already on the slide (Turk 1989: 197, 296). Bergman, meanwhile, directed Camus’s existential power-drama Caligula early in his stage career and towards the end of the 1950s was in negotiation with the independent Hecht-Lancaster company and with Camus himself to direct an adaptation of La Chute (The Fall) for the big screen, a project aborted by the Frenchman’s fatal car crash in 1960 (Bergman 1973: 26–27).

It is a fascinating crossover. After the Second World War the young Bergman proclaimed Carné’s poetic realism as the way forward for cinema, while as late as 1994 at the Göteborg Film Festival the veteran Bergman still named Quai des brûmes in his eleven all-time favourite films (Bergman 1994). Likewise, Bergman has also expressed his dislike of the films of Jean Renoir, Carné’s close rival, who openly denounced Quai des brûmes as ‘fascist’ on its release in pre-war France (Andrew 1995: 267–68). In his 1968 interviews with Swedish critics for Bergman on Bergman the Swedish director acknowledged the impact of existentialism on his work and claimed Camus’s version of that fashionable but elusive philosophy to be more ‘refined’ than Sartre’s (Bergman 1973: 12–13). With Antonioni we can explore a different configuration. What he shares in common with Carné is the designed architectural look of his images. While Carné’s studio films are usually an atmospheric studio abstraction from city locations – a Le Havre, for example, that is half real and half imagined – Antonioni is master of the location shoot that renders strange the actual physiognomy of a living city – Milan in La Notte (1961), Rome in L’Eclisse (1962) and London in Blow-Up (1966). While Antonioni fuses Carné with the architectural look of neo-realism, The Silence, on the other hand, crosses Carné with the Kammerspiel effect of the Scandinavian masters – Ibsen, Strindberg and Dreyer. Yet both modernist directors then go on to transcend their sources. They move away from the staged melodrama of classical film into a world of oblique signs where plotlines are never clear and strangeness overpowers the familiar, a world that is existential and uncanny at the same time.

The Camus paradigm

Here the literary writing of Camus offers a bridge between the classical and the modern in the culture of the last century because at its best it explores the abiding centrality of strangeness in modernity, and does it on a terrain that is deceptively familiar. Camus specializes in defamiliarizing the natural object or the natural condition, rendering it strange with a calm and blinding lucidity. In L’Étranger Mersault leads a humdrum life in Algiers, yet fails to grieve over his mother’s death and commits murder for no clear reason, as an acte gratuite. There is a chilling edge to Mersault’s banal existence ending in that murder, which has a universal resonance.

Both in his fiction and stage plays, Camus’s existential view of the human condition is not humanistic – as many believe and he himself claimed – but thoroughly Nietzschean in its agonistic vision of the operation of power. It was Sartre who reassured us in his acclaimed post-war essay that existentialism was a ‘humanism’ (Sartre 1946). Camus goes in the opposite direction. Plays like Caligula, Le Malentendu (Cross Purpose) and Les Posédés (The Possessed) take the spectator to the very abyss of nothingness, through a calculated strategy of probing the limits of nihilism. His fiction, meanwhile, cues us into its deadly obsessions through its titling – strangeness and The Outsider, the doomed kingdom of North African exile in Exile and the Kingdom, the sardonic, existential fallenness of La Chute (The Fall). In all of these texts the dynamics of power are Nietzschean, menacing and fatal.

Antonioni and Bergman focus on different spheres of the Camus paradigm. Bergman explores the power dynamics of troubled intimacy that affects sisters in a forbidding hotel in a foreign land. He moulds his narrative, obliquely, as a Cold War fable. The existential strangeness of a hostile country on the brink of war is a measure for the outwardly assured but inwardly troubled Bergman of the time, of God’s ‘silence’ in a world without transcendent values. If Bergman’s film has a vaguely northern European feel to it, the Mark Peploe screenplay for Antonioni looks south in its take on the complex power relations in the new Africa of the 1970s. Thus the estranged colonial subject of Camus’s North African fiction, firmly pied noir, has been replaced a generation later by the ‘impartial’ anglophone reporter on roughly the same terrain. While Camus’s poor French colonials cling to landscapes that fascinate and alienate in equal measure, the postcolonial case is different. Antonioni’s reporter is upended by his logos of BBC neutrality, the new British quest for ‘objectivity’ that is meant to signify the absolute end of colonial power and a new enlightened positioning, but is febrile to say the least. For Locke (Jack Nicholson) follows the pattern of Mersault’s double exile, estranged from North Africa but also from his homeland (in this case England not France), his deranged desert epiphany mirrors the trauma of Camus’s French evangelical missionary in ‘Le Renégat ou un esprit confus’ – ‘The Renegade or a Confused Mind’ – kidnapped by fetishists in a desert town of salt; but it also echoes the salesman’s ‘unfaithful’ wife in ‘La Femme adultère’, who escapes at the dead of night from their hotel in a remote fortress town, to experience orgasmic communion with the desert and the stars. A common thread runs through these contrasting situations. Oblique power games are intimately connected with a breakdown of language: equivalence of foreign land and foreign tongue, dislocation in voice and image. The first hotel sequence of The Silence, the first desert sequence in The Passenger make it clear that not only are the voices foreign, but also the culture’s visual signs. In both, the foreigners use sign language to communicate with locals but do so uncertainly and with little success.

Hotel passions: Carné and Bergman

These modernist departures are compelling because they retain Carné’s trope of hotel destiny while utterly transforming the sensibility. While the hotel room remains the key site of fate for Bergman it is no longer the site of romantic doom. In Carné we are transfixed in the hotel room that is the last haven of desperate lovers Jean (Jean Gabin) and Nelly (Michèle Morgan) before the fugitive Gabin perishes or by the daily dramas of the Hôtel du Nord, where Arletty is finally shot to death in her room. No contrast is greater between Bergman and Carné than this: the morning-after scene between Jean and Nelly in Quai des brûmes, their poignant leave-taking before he boards ship for Venezuela, and the steamy, oppressive pick-up sequence in The Silence where in defiance of Ester, her dying sister, Anna picks up a predatory waiter (Birger Malmsten) and later makes love to him in a room down the hotel corridor. In Carné’s film, Gabin is the rock-like male subject, tough fugitive and army deserter on the run whose fate we hypnotically follow. In Bergman’s film, Malmsten as the opportunistic cafe waiter, who had played ersatz Gabin roles in earlier films like It Rains on our Love and Three Strange Loves (Törst) (1949), gives his best performance for Bergman a decade later when he transforms Gabin into pure object, when he objectifies the icon as a voiceless object of female desire, a blank predator. In the realm of God’s silence this bleak film inhabits, the echo of human perfidy is to be found in those tactical silences of calculated lust, which Malmsten calibrates to perfection. Bergman thus replaces Carné’s doomed romanticism with a tight claustrophobic power play. The quartet of two warring sisters, bemused son and his mother’s silent lover in proximate hotel rooms is a veritable antechamber of hell, Bergman’s Huis Clos. Here Bergman uses narrow recessional shots, both in the long hotel corridors but also in the sisters’ adjoining rooms where he often shoots in deep-focus from Ester’s bed through the open partition door to the far mirror over Anna’s dressing table. The mise-en-scène is so totally interior (and studio-bound) there is not one exterior shot of the hotel in which the two sisters and young boy are caged. In this drastic economy of scale any homage to Alexandre Trauner, Carné’s great set designer of street exteriors, is conspicuous by its absence. We should also note the poetic harshness of Sven Nykvist’s high-contrast photography, in complete contrast to the soft oneiric diffusions of light in Carné’s Le Havre of mist and shadow. Bergman’s monochrome extremity is pitiless and takes no prisoners.

Gabin and Nicholson: the fugitive kind

If The Silence is indebted to Carné’s atmospherics and hotel-room destiny, theme-wise The Passenger owes Carné an even greater debt (though how conscious this is, we do not know). In Quai des brumes Gabin, the army deserter, plans to escape France by sailing to Venezuela by taking another man’s identity through doctoring the passport of a painter (Robert Le Vigan) he has met in the port and who subsequently drowns in a freak accident. Near the start of The Passenger Locke (Jack Nicholson), after his breakdown epiphany when searching for desert rebels he fails to find, decides to become a fugitive by doctoring the passport of a look-alike Englishman, Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill) who has died suddenly in their remote Chad hotel. He then abdicates his identity as reporter and assumes, as he later finds out, the dead man’s identity as gunrunner and its grave risks. In both cases, we see an attraction of opposites in the transfer: fugitive soldier/modern artist, television reporter/arms dealer. In Carné’s film the subterfuge briefly works to move on the plot: but in Antonioni’s existential travelogue it slowly and agonizingly hives apart and becomes the subject of the film. Everyone – friends, police, secret agents, ex-wife and current lover – is after Locke in the famous long take at the Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna. The slow forward shot out of his barred hotel window which quickens as it turns 180 degrees to film the window from the outside, shows Locke’s past catching up with him, as the burnt-out reporter who has sought freedom in subterfuge is finally trapped by what he dearly wished to escape, the baggage and ballast of his former life. Released from the failed identity he has shed, he is kidnapped by its clear residues and killed by the fatal risks of the one he has taken in its place.

If Bergman’s nameless waiter objectifies the figure of Gabin, Antonioni’s reporter retains a subjective, Gabin-like iconography in Nicholson’s brilliant acting but the film also objectifies him by reinventing him and at the same time dissecting his past profession with a clinical, documentary eye. This is mirrored precisely in the archive film clip watched by his estranged wife, Rachel and closest friend, Ian Hendry: in it, Locke’s interview-subject, an African witch doctor, suddenly turns the camera round on Locke himself in the middle of the reporter’s interview. With the reinvented Locke the paradox becomes foundational: the narrative forges a persona who is truly existential but only by being someone other, by creating for himself a virtual non-self. While Gabin’s Jean is quick in a crisis to react, to raise his voice or use his fists, he is solidly knowable. Nicholson’s reinvented Locke (now Robertson) is cool, affable, seemingly at peace with ‘himself’. As a non-person his crisis appears to be over.

His change of identity is a change to calmness after his reporter’s rage-epiphany in the desert, or the flashback-cued book-burning in the garden of his London home, that signifies self-destruction and the end of his marriage. Perhaps calmness is the last thing we would expect from someone facing the dangers of his adopted profession – trading in guns to African rebels. Yet danger gives him an inner peace where professional ‘objectivity’ has unhinged him and as he comes, ironically, face to face with the political subjects who had eluded him in his former life. There is a fleeting likeness in the ending of the two pictures that should also be noted: the choosing of fate. The fugitive Jean seals his by returning impulsively from the portside ship bound for Venezuela to say goodbye to Nelly one last time. On his return we see him shot in the street by his love-rival, gangster Pierre Brasseur. Bound for the ferry that will take him to Morocco and thence perhaps, to his point of origin in the Chad desert, Locke seals his fate by electing to go en route via the Hotel de la Gloria, marked as the last assignment in Robertson’s diary. He keeps his alter ego’s appointment when he has no need to, and dies. The shot that kills him (if indeed there is one) is heard offscreen when he too is offscreen in the middle of the penultimate take. It is a bold double absence. In Quai des brûmes we witness a full-on melodramatic climax: in The Passenger the camera is pointing in the other direction.

How uncanny is Freud’s ‘Uncanny’?

So much has been written about Freud’s version of the uncanny there seems little point in adding to it. But let us consider this. The key illustration his essay gives the reader from his own life is highly scenic, highly visual: it evokes a landscape we might associate with De Chirico or later with Antonioni. Walking one hot summer afternoon in the deserted streets of a southern Italian town, Freud had lost his sense of direction and returned (involuntarily?) three times to the same labyrinthine part of town where the streets were narrow and ‘nothing but women with painted faces were to be seen at the window’. ‘I found myself in a quarter,’ he comments tortuously, ‘of whose character I could not remain long in doubt’ (Freud 1985: 359). This uncanny repetition of the same not only conceals unspoken desire (amusing here where the joke is on Freud) but also evokes in his failure to escape the labyrinth ‘the sense of helplessness experienced in some dream states’ (Freud 1985: 359). His presence now conspicuous in the quarter of disrepute, eventually he does escape, making his way back to the town piazza with great relief. But the point is made. In the off-kilter perspectives of De Chirico’s paintings, their ‘making strange’ of classical design that Antonioni often injects into his cinematic staging of Italian townscapes, is a sense of the familiar made unfamiliar – the classical, transparent and reassuring now angular, threatening, asymmetrical and yet still a version of the same, of what we think we know. And it is dream-like: it does convey helplessness because it does concern the return of the same. It is, in a word, uncanny.

Here, Bergman is not far off, yet his uncanny is very interior. In The Silence Anna’s disconcerting venture into the bowels of the city looks in his mise-en-scène like a Freudian nightmare the jealous Ester might have had in the confines of her airless hotel room, fearing her sister’s desire but helpless to prevent it. And Bergman’s version of the uncanny, of the familiar as strange or vice versa? The troupe of performing dwarfs which son, mother and sister all see separately in different contexts, a precise tripartite formation. They are collectively the key link between the hotel and the city. In performance they are unsettling, but otherwise they are ordinary – apart of course from their size. While Anna sees them onstage and Johan in their hotel room, Ester sees them at the end of the long jealous encounter with Anna which leaves her shattered. In yet another deep-focus shot of the hotel corridor, they are seen ambling back towards her from their cabaret gig, their costumes in disarray, intent on nothing more sinister than a good night’s sleep. The return of the repressed? Yes, with a bittersweet bathos. They pass the disconsolate Ester in the corridor and politely bid her goodnight. As the sisters’ intimacy moves from bearable to unbearable, the dwarfs offset the stretched emotions of the chamber drama by heading in the opposite direction, from the strange to the familiar.

Antonioni’s uncanny

For Antonioni the uncanny matches exterior to interior. It is an architectural trope that resonates through his Italian trilogy L’Avventura (1960), La Notte and L’Eclisse. Here in The Passenger it is less central, except at key moments. One is Locke’s double sighting of the twice-seated Girl (Maria Schneider) who claims to be an architecture student, first near a brutalist 1970s apartment block in Bloomsbury, then in the grand Modernista lobby of Gaudi’s Palais Guell in Barcelona. Another uncanny moment is Locke and Robertson as lookalike anglophone professionals in the same remote hotel in Saharan Africa. But the main, less obvious moment of the uncanny is the actual doubling of Locke’s fateful hotels (among the many hotels of his long journey), the run-down hotel full of flies in the Chad oasis where the reporter swaps identities with the deceased gunrunner (how in fact did he die?), matched with the Hotel de la Gloria where Locke meets his end, and thus repeats the fate of his double. Since these occur right at the start and finish of the picture, they create an unusual and unexpected circular effect. The film may lack the visceral circularity of Vertigo (1958) or Lost Highway (1997) but its circular effect creeps up on the spectator unawares, creating an uncannily delayed reaction.

Before we return to the matching of hotels, let’s backtrack a little. By shedding his unwanted skin, Locke hoped to embrace an open world where any destination, Dubrovnik or Barcelona, is as good as any other. But by getting under the skin of his new persona he is drawn back inexorably to the world he has abandoned. If any film has nailed the puzzle of free will and determinism that afflicts us all at some point in our lives, then this is it. Locke thus appears to inhabit the open terrain of Europe, crossing frontiers at will, only for his past to catch up with him and box him into a corner. He is both a free spirit imitating a bird in flight on the cable car above the harbour in Barcelona and a captive spirit caged like one of the birds we see in the market stalls on the Ramblas. At the same time it is his choice, with the apparent surety of the girl at his side – perfidious romance indeed – to take a second chance on Africa. In other words, if he escapes Osuna then the open desert awaits but then, because his cover is already blown there is no escape, no real either/or, no sanctuary. The cage is invisible but it is still there.

One of the clues to circularity lies in a specific sign of the ‘uncanny’, a crucial detail, the identical look and design of the door panelling in the two hotel interiors. Ingeniously, art director Piero Poletto makes the doors and corridors of the Chad and Osuna hotels facsimiles even though their interior colours differ. Indeed the hotels mainly contrast. Like Bergman’s hotel in The Silence, the Chad hotel has no real exterior look. Conversely the Osuna hotel defines itself through a truly uncanny exterior. And here, like Trauner’s unnerving pencil-thin apartment block for Le Jour se lève, the Poletto design gives us something both naturalistic and surreal at the same time. We think memorably of the fugitive Gabin holed out in his top-floor apartment of Trauner’s studio edifice. But Antonioni’s white stucco facade is basically single storey with an attic room and looks more like the frontage of a tiny Andalucian town house on a dusty piazza (which it probably was before the director commandeered it for his movie since, in its favour, it was opposite the stadium of a disused bullring). It is in fact a strange, made-over hotel on a deserted piazza not in Osuna but in Almeria, the arid region further east where Antonioni shot most – if not all – of his Andalucian sequences and many of his African sequences too. Indeed the first question the spectator asks on seeing the compact exterior is ‘Where are all the rooms?’ There only seem to be two bedrooms, the adjoining rooms in which Locke and the Girl are staying. Thus the hotel has a truncated look, too squat and small, just as Trauner’s ‘tenement’ in Le jour se lève is too thin and tall. It is that minor deviation from the norm that plants a seed of doubt in our minds about the reality of what we see.

to read full article, please click: Film International, issue: 27

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