Archive for Luchino Visconti

Forbidden Divas RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2020 by dcairns

Lucia Bosè’s death earlier this year wasn’t much publicised in the UK — David Melville Wingrove discovered it months later, and wrote this beautiful piece. Some more months later, I’m finally publishing it, with apologies.

Imitations of Lives

“There are many ways to commit suicide and still go on living.”

~ Lucia Bosè, Of Love and Other Solitudes

There are stars whose off-screen life is a thing entirely apart from their on-screen image. Then there are stars whose lives on and off the screen seem to intersect in uncannily intimate ways. The Italian (and later Spanish) actress Lucia Bosè was emphatically a star of the second type. In 1967, the whole of Spain was agog at the break-up of her marriage to Luis Miguel Dominguín, the country’s most illustrious matador. Two years later Bosè starred in Of Love and Other Solitudes (1969) – a bleak and anguished drama of marital dysfunction and break-up. This was not so much a case of Art Imitates Life as one of Life or Art, What’s The Difference?

For most of the 50s and 60s, Bosè and Dominguín had been the premier glamour couple of Franco’s Spain. They lived in a palatial villa, had three gorgeous children and their inner circle included Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and, more ominously, the dictator General Franco himself. “I can’t say anything bad about Franco,” Bosè remarked years later. “To me he was just a normal man. But my husband was more franquista than Franco, in any case.” It is comments like that which reveal the marriage was not a happy one. There can be no doubt that Bosè married her bullfighter for love. But as the years wore on, she felt increasing dismay at his right-wing politics, his compulsive womanising and his stubborn refusal to allow his wife to work. It did not help that she hated bullfighting and nothing would induce her to attend a corrida.

Anyone could see the couple came from radically different worlds. Lucia Bosè had been born in great poverty on a farm outside Milan. She had little if any formal education and had to work from the age of twelve. As a teenage girl, she survived the Allied bombing and saw the corpses of Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, hanging upside down in the main city’s square. “I learned that horrible things happen every day,” she said. “All you can do is pull yourself together and keep going.” By the age of sixteen, she landed a job behind the counter at Galli, the city’s most elegant patisserie. One day a dashing older man walked in, took one look at the girl and declared she ought to be in movies. The name of this man was Luchino Visconti. It appears he had no ulterior motives; he was gay and had eyes at the time for his young and handsome assistant, Franco Zeffirelli. But he took Bosè under his wing and groomed her systematically into a star.

At first, Visconti had plans to star her opposite Gérard Philipe in a film called A Tale of Poor Lovers. But the funding fell apart so he introduced his protégée instead to Michelangelo Antonioni. She became that director’s first muse and starred for him in Chronicle of a Love (1950) and The Lady without Camellias (1953). She went on to work for other European auteurs, notably Juan Antonio Bardem in Death of a Cyclist (1955) and Luis Buñuel in Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore (1956). This was the career she gave up in 1955 in order to marry Dominguín and lead, essentially, the life of an upper-class Spanish housewife. At the time, she assured the world’s press that her marriage was worth every sacrifice. (One can assume Dominguín was phenomenally good at something apart from killing bulls!) But after twelve years, Bosè decided enough was enough and made her break for freedom. She demanded – and won – sole custody of her children and became the first woman in Spain since the Civil War to be legally granted a divorce.

The events in Of Love and Other Solitudes are in no way as dramatic as these. María and her husband Alejandro (Carlos Estrada) are a well-heeled couple who live in a villa on the outskirts of Madrid. He is an economist and university professor; she is an artist who works in stained glass. Her job, of course, is symbolic. (Be warned this is one of those movies where literally everything is symbolic of something.)  The art of stained glass is not primarily the art of creating anything new or even of reshaping objects in a new way. It consists almost entirely of altering the light in which things appear, of making them look new when in fact they are not. The couple have a son and daughter and a sizable domestic staff. But their house, with its long wood-panelled corridors and walls of clear glass, looks more like an expensive hotel than a family home.

The most annoying thing about Alejandro is that he does not do any of the things that bad husbands in movies traditionally do. There is no reason to believe he is cheating on his wife. Apart from one feeble effort to chat up a girl at his office, he seems to lack the imagination or the energy an affair would require. This is not so much a bad marriage as one that has gone stale. The husband and the wife have simply run out of things to say to one another, assuming they said much in the first place. María consults a psychologist who tells her: “Everyone who gets married is convinced their marriage will be different from the others – and then it isn’t.” What is interesting in this film is not the drama (there is virtually none) but the arid bourgeois lifestyle it evokes. Alejandro and María lead superficially modern lives, but in a country where social and religious attitudes have changed hardly at all since the Middle Ages.

María is the one character who seems in any way aware of this disjunction. Her family background is that of the pro-Franco upper class. A full-size portrait of Franco hangs just inside the front door of her parents’ house. In the next room, in a glass display case, are her father’s medals from the Civil War. She has an obscure sense this is not the world she belongs in – and expresses it in odd and somewhat childish ways. On one wall in her studio hangs a poster of Theda Bara in Cleopatra. In World War I this star was Middle America’s image of the Vamp, the Temptress, the morally and sexually transgressive Apostle of Sin. But it now takes a great deal of naïveté to see Theda Bara as threatening or subversive in any way. She entirely lacks the sophistication and sexual autonomy of the silent Italian divas – most notably, that of Francesca Bertini whom Bosè oddly resembles.

With her vast and haunted dark eyes, her ivory skin and her lustrous torrent of black hair, Lucia Bosè has all the allure of the silent divas and then some. There are stray moments in Of Love and Other Solitudes where she suggests Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa – who has casually stepped out of her frame and deigned to wander about among mere mortals. There are other moments where we notice her chunky and ungainly hands, her way of walking that is at once elegant and strangely awkward. Details like this do not destroy the illusion; they only make us like her more. This film proved a succès d’estime for Bosè and her writer-director Basilio Martin Patino. She followed it with a string of increasingly odd movies. In Arcana (1972) she plays a witch who spits live toads out of her mouth. In La Messe Dorée (1975) she is a socialite who hosts an orgy based on the Roman Catholic mass and winds up giving a blow-job to her son. Was it entirely an accident that her ex-husband’s friend General Franco dropped dead not long after?

She survived into old age as a truly glorious eccentric. At eighty she sported bright blue hair and a designer punk wardrobe and said she had every intention of living to 105. She appeared occasionally in movies but her true passion was a museum she opened to display her art collection, which was made up entirely of images of angels. Her closest companion was her son Miguel Bosé, Spain’s first out gay pop star and the transvestite Femme Letal in the Pedro Almodóvar film High Heels (1991). One almost wishes Almodóvar had starred his mother in a flashy, trashy remake of Travels with My Aunt or Auntie Mame. She could have played either or both roles to perfection and would, in fact, have barely needed to act.

Lucia Bosè passed away in March, 2020 due to complications arising from Covid-19. She was the first famous person in any country to fall ill and die in what would become a global pandemic. Her life was spent knowing that terrible things happen every day and the one choice we all have is to pull ourselves together and keep going. In the world as it is today, that stands as a legacy in itself.

IN MEMORIAM LUCIA BOSÈ (MILAN 1931-SEGOVIA 2020)

David Melville

Lucia Bosé dies at 89 from pneumonia | Spain's News

Forbidden Divas: “…And the Film is Pretty Long Too”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by dcairns

A new piece by David Melville Wingrove is always a cause for celebration at the Shadowplayhouse. I perhaps am more to be credited/blamed for this one than usual, because it was I suggested Charles Vidor’s final filmmaking attempt as a suitable subject, having an inkling that the Dirk Bogarde/Capucine friendship would be of interest… But which one’s the diva?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

…And the Film Is Pretty Long Too

“God will not fail you, madam. I shall.”

          ~ Dirk Bogarde, Song without End

 A lavish 1960 biopic of Franz Liszt, Song without End throws up a number of fascinating questions in its 2-hour-and-10-minute length. From how many different angles is it possible to photograph one man playing a piano? In the mob of expensively costumed extras at a concert, which one has the whitest and most immaculately pressed kid gloves? And whose job was it to ensure that the innumerable candles in those ever-blazing candelabra were all of precisely the same length? Critics may complain that Lisztomania – the 1975 Ken Russell film with Roger Daltrey playing Liszt as a rock star and a line of chorines high-kicking on the composer’s enormous plaster cock – was one long and unpardonable lapse of taste. But that film at least was never dull. Song without End, alas, is seldom anything else.

Surely it need not have been this way? Song without End was the last film directed by Charles Vidor, a well-upholstered Hollywood hack who made his name with A Song to Remember (1945) – a luxuriantly cheesy biopic of Frédéric Chopin with Cornel Wilde looking soulful while Merle Oberon (as his mistress George Sand) looked dashing in a man’s suit. Vidor went on to make Gilda (1946) – one of the definitive films noirs – and The Loves of Carmen (1948) – a vividly vulgar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy passion. (Both those films starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as sure an antidote to dullness as Columbia Pictures could find.) Ironically, Chopin and George Sand appear briefly at the start of Song without End. But even they are boring in this movie. Vidor died some time before shooting was complete and the more prestigious George Cukor was drafted in to finish the job. Sadly, the lavish but lifeless staging suggests that rigor mortis set in while Vidor was still at work behind the camera.

Not that the film lacks other claims to distinction. Song without End marked not only the beginning, but also the end, of Dirk Bogarde’s career as a Hollywood leading man. He portrays Liszt as a lusty piano virtuoso who longs to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. He also has inexplicable leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. He toys with the idea of taking holy orders and declares himself to be “part gypsy, part priest.” In most respects, Bogarde’s performance is a tour de force of tortured genius and charismatic egomania. Embarking on a concert tour of Russia, Liszt is warned by his manager that even Napoleon Bonaparte failed to conquer that vast country. Liszt answers, with a self-confident smirk: “Napoleon couldn’t play the piano.” In addition, Bogarde is one of the few leading actors whose physique looks well in tightly-tailored breeches and wasp-waisted frock coats. In that frightfully genteel sub-genre known as ‘Dirk Bogarde Porn,’ Song without End must rank very highly indeed.

The drawback is that Dirk Bogarde never seems gayer than on those (understandably) rare occasions when he is cast as a voracious heterosexual. At the start of the film, the script comes right out and asks us to believe that Franz Liszt has fathered a brace of children in an adulterous affair with a married French noblewoman, the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Geneviève Page). The action is set in the 1840s and we do know that artificial insemination was not widely practiced until at least a century later. Hence we are left wondering if these children are, in fact, a delusion. Could that be why they never appear on camera? The career of Franz Liszt appears to have been a lifelong orgy of sex and celebrity, in which he seduced ever so many women. But the only other one we see here is a glamorous but unhappily married Russian princess, Carolyne Wittgenstein, with whom he forms an obsessive and well-nigh mystical liaison. She is played by another Hollywood debutante, the statuesque French model Capucine. A lady of distinctly androgynous beauty, she was rumoured at various points in her career to be a bisexual, a lesbian and a man.

Of her performance in Song without End, the kindest thing to be said is that she wears an array of Jean Louis gowns more than adequately. Nor does she embarrass herself or anybody else by overacting. Driven by an insurmountable passion, Princess Carolyne signs away half of Ukraine to her ghastly husband (Ivan Desny) all in an effort to secure a divorce and become Liszt’s lawfully wedded wife. She is very devout and hence plagued by doubts of a largely – although, perhaps, not entirely – religious nature. When she and the countess come face to face, Carolyne feels compelled to quiz her rival on the minutiae of her conjugal relations with the Great Man. “Did he drive you there?” she asks her rival. “To paradise?” The dialogue is atrocious but the subtext, even so, is clear enough. The countess gives a wry smile and says: “He doesn’t know the road.” Song without End must be the one Hollywood film in which two love-crazed women pass the time by impugning the hero’s sexual prowess. All this might matter a lot less if we did not suspect they were right.

Ironically, Bogarde and Capucine became close friends while filming Song without End. This suggests, at the very least, that they enjoyed working together far more than audiences enjoyed watching the result. Unlike many of the people around him, Capucine encouraged Bogarde to accept his pioneering role as an embattled gay lawyer in Victim (1961). He did his best to return the favour, trying to persuade Luchino Visconti to cast Capucine as the aristocratic mother in Death in Venice (1971). Prompted perhaps by his Italian backers, Visconti refused and cast Silvana Mangano instead. (Dirk and Cap, who thought her vulgar and plebeian, referred to her privately as ‘Madame Mango.’) Later on in the 70s, Bogarde retired to the South of France to write novels, while Capucine sank into chronic depression and full-scale career meltdown. In 1982, she made the soft-porn film Aphrodite in which she was the only actor not to remove her clothes. She committed suicide in Switzerland in 1990 and Bogarde wrote a touching tribute on her death.

On the plus side, Song without End is quite magnificently photographed by James Wong Howe. In one scene, a dark-robed Capucine kneels in prayer on the far right of the Cinemascope screen. She is racked by guilt at her adulterous affair and tormented by her love for Franz Liszt. In the background on the far left, Bogarde hovers just out of focus like some beautiful ghostly mirage. The shot is a triumph of colour, lighting, composition and sheer visual finesse. But beautiful photos of nothing are still…well, not very much at all. Even the music – which includes Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi and Wagner, as well as Liszt – winds up sounding bland and identical, as if it had all been written under pseudonyms by Max Steiner. The saddest thing is that Song without End is not even convincingly bad, apart from one scene where Liszt rashly makes a return to his native Hungarian village. A mob of torch-wielding peasants show up and dance a riotous czardas on the doorstep. They even drag his piano out of doors, so he can play along merrily with their roistering.

Moments like this are like some nightmare vision from the worst 1920s operetta ever written. They are, alas, too rare to make Song without End into the egregious camp classic it has the potential to become. Instead, they serve to remind us of just how boring the rest of it actually is.

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: All the Way to the Bank

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 14, 2018 by dcairns

Met up with David Melville Wingrove at Filmhouse yesterday — it was like one of those spy movie handovers of documents — and thus am able to bring you another of his marvelous works ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All the Way to the Bank

 

“I don’t worry about the news. I am the news!”

–          Romy Schneider, La Banquière

A late friend who worked in films in the 60s used to grow misty-eyed whenever he spoke of Romy Schneider. “Ah, poor dear Romy,” he would sigh and gaze wistfully into the middle distance. “She was a lesbian, you know.” He made the word sound dangerously exotic and glamorous. He also gave the impression of not being entirely sure what the word meant. My friend is long gone and I have no idea where his story came from. Quite apart from her 25 years of screen stardom, Romy Schneider was famous in the European press for her colourful and rather tortured love life – which may well have included women as well as men. She had a very public affair in the early 60s with Alain Delon and they appeared together (notoriously) as incestuous lovers in Luchino Visconti’s stage production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in Paris in 1961. Her death from suicide in 1982 (following the death of her eldest son) sparked an outburst of public mourning comparable with that of Princess Diana or Eva Perón.

Even in her earliest youth, it was difficult to separate the life of Romy Schneider from the fantasy of her life as it was seen by her adoring fans. From 1954 to 1957, the teenage Austria actress became famous worldwide with a series of four films based on the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (better known as ‘Sissi’) who was, essentially, the Princess Diana of the 19th century. The films are hideous – stodgy and interminable operettas, minus the songs – but the young Romy gives them a zest that Ernst Marischka’s direction entirely lacks. She became, from that moment, the uncrowned ‘little princess’ of Europe and recreated her role as Sissi in the Luchino Visconti film Ludwig (1972). Her public throughout her life was largely European. Despite – or perhaps because of – her roles in What’s New, Pussycat? (1965) and Bloodline (1979) audiences in Britain and the United States never took to her at all.

From the late 60s, Romy Schneider was based primarily in France. She won the César for Best Actress twice – for Andrzej Zulawski’s L’important c’est d’aimer (1975) and Claude Sautet’s Une histoire simple (1978) – and was easily the most famous Austrian to become an honorary Frenchwoman since Marie Antoinette. It goes without saying that Romy was vastly more popular, yet what a lavish and sensational biopic that might have made! The Francis Girod film La Banquière (1980) is not exactly a biopic. It was based loosely on the life of a real-life businesswoman, Marthe Hanau, but the name and most of the details have been fictionalised. It is in no way comparable, on an artistic level, with the work of Zulawski or Sautet. But it is arguably the one film (post-Sissi) that best sums up Romy’s iconic star presence.

Her character in La Banquière is not simply a banker. She is a working-class Jewish left-wing bisexual woman banker. A difficult enough role to pull off at the best of times, but against the politically charged backdrop of France in the 1920s and 30s, even the attempt would seem little short of heroic. Emma Eckhert (as her character is renamed) starts off as a delivery girl at her parents’ hat shop in the years before World War I. She goes to prison at a young age for ‘moral turpitude’ – after she is caught in bed with an aristocratic lady client. Shot in black-and-white, this prologue serves to establish two vitally important facts. Firstly, that this lady has an eye for other ladies. Secondly, that she has a keen and far more discriminating eye for hats. Not since Silvana Mangano in Death in Venice (1971) has any star sported such a dazzling array of headgear as Romy Schneider does here. They are designed by Jean Barthet, who was best known for the Technicolor cartwheels worn by the Deneuve-Dorléac sisters in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). The advantage of his designs for La Banquière is that one may wear them without posing a danger to low-flying aircraft.

Once out of prison (and shot now in radiant colour) Emma wastes no time in getting married to an aristocratic mari complaisant. We assume he must be gay, partly because he seems unfazed by her affairs with other women and partly because he is played by Jean-Claude Brialy, one of the few ‘out’ French actors to survive the unpleasantly macho climate of the New Wave. (With films by Marcel Carné, Jean Cocteau, Marcel L’Herbier and Marc Allégret, among others, the much-ridiculed cinéma de papa of the 40s and 50s was artistically less adventurous, perhaps, but also a good deal gayer!) Emma pours most of her energy into building up a banking empire based on a new and revolutionary concept. At a time when large and established banks dole out a measly 1% in interest, the Eckhert Bank pays investors a whopping 8% on their savings. This involves, inevitably, some reckless high-stakes speculation and some insider trading of frankly dubious legality. Yet its central tenet is that ordinary folk should get a share in the profits of the banks. This was as strange and subversive an idea in 1930 as it is today.

Before long, Emma becomes a heroine to the lower middle classes of provincial France, known and adored universally as ‘Madame 8%’. Refreshingly uninhibited by paltry notions of good taste, she decorates her Christmas tree with giant gilded baubles carved in the figure of 8%. We may take this as a sign that she has, by and large, left her Jewish identity behind her. The ethical issues around casting Schneider as a Jewish woman are multiple and complex. Her mother, the actress Magda Schneider, was an ardent Nazi supporter who took her little girl to play-dates with the children of Doctor Josef Goebbels. Romy – who suffered a degree of guilt over this later in life – worked hard both on-screen and off to distance herself from her mother’s political views. In the last decade of her career, she repeatedly played a woman who suffered due to Nazi atrocities. In Le Train (1972) and La Passante du Sans-Souci (1982) she would play a Jewish refugee. In Le Vieux Fusil (1975) her character is savagely raped and killed by Nazi troops.

Taking on any or all of these roles demanded a moral courage that would make Jane Fonda turn pale. They make doubly distasteful the comments of Dirk Bogarde, who turned down Romy Schneider as his co-star in The Night Porter (1974) on the grounds that: “She would have to play the Nazi and I would have to play the victim.” Her character in La Banquière does not survive to see the Second World War and the role of the French authorities in the Nazi holocaust. An affair with a young left-wing journalist (Daniel Mesguich) leads Madame Eckhert further and further into the progressive and anti-Establishment politics of France in the 1930s. It leads also – in a twist that could only happen in a French film – to an enduring if Platonic friendship with his wife (Marie-France Pisier). Yet it also earns her the enmity of the Big Bad Bankers, led by a malevolently glowering Jean-Louis Trintignant and his bland but insidious boy-toy (Daniel Auteuil) who goes so far as to wear lipstick in his very first scene. These men decide to put a stop to Madame Eckhert and her anarchic business practices. It is a measure of how grim our world is that we never have any serious doubt they will succeed.

The director Francis Girod was and is a sort of Stanley Kramer á la française. His speciality is stolid but star-studded dramas on vaguely controversial themes. La Banquière is not appreciably better or worse than The Infernal Trio (1974) which stars Schneider and Michel Piccoli or René la Canne (1977) which stars Piccoli, Gérard Depardieu and Sylvia Kristel. Yet it is produced with truly eye-watering opulence and who can dislike any film that boasts a full transvestite ladies’ orchestra, kitted out in 18th century frock coats and powdered wigs? Such a film requires an overpowering star presence to sustain it and that is something Romy Schneider has in spades. She is by turns seductive, capricious, ruthless, generous, headstrong, courageous and doomed. You are left wondering why French people do not cut to the chase and appoint Madame Eckhert as President of the Republic for life. Most countries in the 30s could have done a lot worse. In fact, most countries still do.

David Melville