I was lucky enough to catch a restoration of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy at the Gene Siskel Center. As the film started I couldn’t remember what year it was made. I tried to piece it together with whatever clues I could find. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio meant that it was definitely pre-1953, or maybe thereabouts. I don’t know George Sanders, who plays Alec too well, but I’m very familiar with Ingrid Bergman and she certainly looked older than her Casablanca days. Smoother rear projection and some night-time Italian location shooting hinted the 1950s, but really ultimately did it was the third act of the narrative.
Bergman is Katherine, married to Alec. Together they take a trip to Italy to sell the property of a deceased uncle. What follows is a deliberate look at a crumbling marriage that felt not at all unlike many of the Antonioni’s early efforts. It’s that latter comparison that landed me on 1954, one year before Antonioni’s Le amiche.
The remarkable thing about Journey to Italy is where it falls in Rossellini’s filmography. It’s between his neo-realist war trilogy and the likes of Stromboli (which I haven’t seen), and later, more social-thriller based material like Escape by Night and Il Generale de Rovere. Rossellini retains a lot of his neo-realist attitude throughout this filmography, but Journey to Italy really feels like an anomaly to me. Its as meandering as Germany Year Zero and, though the director never really goes the true “bored bourgeoise” way of Antonioni and that director’s contemporaries, it feels quite fresh and prescient.
Bergman, for her part, is phenomenal, and probably the best I’ve ever seen her. There’s true pain in her face, and a sequence where she witnesses bodies buried by the lava of Mount Vesuvius being unearthed is really brilliant.
I also quite like how simple and quiet the film is. There isn’t much dialogue. Much is made of the environment – the beauty of Italy where Katherine and Alec are still able to find so much death and decay. Long, solitary scenes follow one-another and the climax might feel too casual and easy at first, but it’s really well-built to.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Bresson film. I count Pickpocket and A Man Escaped among my favorites of his. L’Argent is his last film, adapted from a Tolstoy short story, before he died 16 years later.
It’s odd watching a Bresson film again after so much time. It’s no secret that he liked to use non-professional actors and that the “style” he preferred was really a lack of one. Famously, many of Bresson’s actors exhibit little-to-no outward emotion and are sometimes wooden as the director sought to strip them of any actorly pretense. It’s no surprise that people like Akerman and Haneke would later cite him as an influence. The end of L’Argent feels like Haneke must have watched it on loop.
I really disliked the first 20 minutes of L’Argent, though it’s what I expected. You have to get accustomed to Bresson, I think. At least I need to warm up to him. Nevertheless, I ended up quite liking it.
If I’m teaching an editing class, will I ever use L’Argent as an example? And if so, will it be of what to do, or what not to do? Bresson leaves such a long head and tail at the end of each shot that sometimes I’m screaming for him to cut. The empty frames, the still movement, the mostly static – or simply moving – camera, the lack of set design – all of these point to a really ascetic aesthetic.
Here’s a good example of how some of the edits in L’Argent are pretty counter to the modern edit. Several prisoners are unloaded from a police van including, in the second frame here, Yvon (Christian Patey), the protagonist and accidental criminal of the narrative:
Once all prisoners are off and have collected their bag, the cops shut the door:
Bresson then cuts inside, with the prison gate in the foreground, as the prisoners continue their shepherded trek inside:
All of this makes sense. Here’s the rub. The inclination, in a modern film – even in a film made at the same time or before, for that matter – would be to cut away from exterior to interior on the sound and action of the police van door slamming. That sound would sort of “bring us inside.” That, coupled with the fact that we’d hear the sound of that door at the same time that we would see another door – the prison gate – of similar material, would make the edit all the more smooth and effective.
But not in Bresson’s world. He hangs on that third frame above for a full few seconds before cutting inside, well after the point of editing on the sound. It’s this deliberateness, this slowness that marks a lot of Bresson’s cuts in L’Argent and separates them from the constant movement of another film.
What’s the difference? The cut I describe would use the sound as near metaphor – one door closes just as another opens…which itself will close. A series of blocked openings. It would also make the men’s move a bit more dramatic as the metallic crash basically pushes them forward on their journey into the prison.
Bresson’s edit counts on the slowness of it all – the process – being just as unnerving. The empty frame takes its time, it emphasizes the length of their march, and it also points L’Argent away from the crime procedural and towards its (opposite) cousin, the introspective A Man Escaped.
Still, there are other edits that are gorgeously orchestrated, and still feel quite fresh. A scene of prisoners exchanging goods during a church service, rendered largely in close-ups of hands, is immediately reminiscent of the famous thieving scenes from Pickpocket.
My favorite moment – and edit – is towards the end of the film. The aimless Yvon has been taken in by an old woman in the country. The woman’s husband is unhappy with Yvon’s presence.
Somehow, this edit I want to talk about is magically already on YouTube! Here you go. The particular cut is at the 0:19 mark:
This exhibits so many Bresson qualities. The emphasis on the small acts and objects. A cut where the juxtaposed image – in this case the spilling coffee – tells the story in a better way than the alternative (actually showing the slap). To better exemplify why I like this, I’ve broken it into stills. The first two are really important. The woman pours a cup of coffee and walks out the door. Here is the beginning of Bresson’s silent emphasis on small acts of kindness that mean a lot:
Bresson cuts outside and we get the interaction scene in the clip above:
Note that he cuts to the profile of the woman just before the slap. It’s the only profile in a scene otherwise dominated by medium over the shoulder shots. It’s a foreshadowing, but also a way to make a graphic match. The shape and placement of the woman’s head is the equivalent of the coffee. Bresson equates them, simply, making her an innocent character, one who doesn’t put too much gravity in the act of bringing coffee despite its being one of the only kindnesses shown Yvon in the film:
This, for my money (pun intended), is one of the reasons why Bresson is so great. His cause and effect edits are packed with so much more meaning than just slap = spilling coffee.