On the Edge of the Volcano: Isabella Rossellini on Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Stromboli (1950)

stromboli_posterIt all started with a letter. In 1948, Ingrid Bergman (at the height of her Hollywood career) wrote to Roberto Rossellini (triumphant director of Rome, Open City and Paisà) to express her admiration for his films. She hoped to act for him in the future.

Her letter not only set into motion one of the most notorious celebrity scandals of the 20th century, but also sparked one of the most fruitful director-muse collaborations in cinema history.

At the Cinémathèque Française this summer, Isabella Rossellini, one of Bergman and Rossellini’s three children, shared memories of her parents and reflected on their legacy. Her interview in French* with Serge Toubiana, following a screening of Stromboli, was the highlight of the Cinémathèque’s retrospective to celebrate the centenary of Ingrid Bergman’s birth.

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Isabella Rossellini in conversation with Serge Toubiana on the stage of the Cinémathèque Française’s Salle Henri Langlois (my photo).

Rossellini explained that her mother’s letter was by no means an unusual gesture for her. “Mama wrote many letters to directors whose films she liked. Sometimes she’d say, ‘If you have a character that you think would be right for me, I’d really like to work with you.’”

Unwilling to let studios dictate role after role for her, Bergman actively sought out cinema’s innovators. In her daughter’s words, “She wasn’t vain at all, not the way people think beautiful actors are. She was a great actress and a great artist who had an enormous curiosity about working with many directors with different styles.”

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In this case, however, the proposed partnership seemed an unlikely one. What could a neorealist director, who favored working with non-actors, do with a talented top movie star who, by her own confession, could say only “ti amo” in Italian?

Rossellini found his inspiration one day while driving past a refugee camp, where women from northern European countries lined up along a barbed wire fence. The director stopped to observe and the guard motioned him away—but not before a Latvian woman, with a look of “mute intense despair” seized his arm. When Rossellini returned to the camp with a pass, he discovered that the mysterious woman had married a soldier and left to live in the Lipari islands.

As he replied in a letter to Bergman, “I tried to imagine the life of the Latvian girl, so tall, so fair, in this island of fire and ashes, amidst the fishermen, small and swarthy, amongst the women with the glowing eyes.” His vision for Stromboli, the first of 5 films he’d make with Bergman, was born out of this chance encounter.

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Shortly after Bergman travelled to Italy, Rossellini and his then-married star became lovers. Bergman’s resulting divorce from Petter Lindström and her pregnancy outside of marriage ignited gossip columns and outraged the American public.

The affair destroyed Bergman’s image of ethereal, on-a-pedestal purity and stirred up prejudices still rankling from WWII. As Isabella Rossellini noted, “The idea that she fell in love with an Italian, from a country that 5 years before had been America’s enemy, that shocked people.”

Bergman’s Swedish nationality made her an easy target, according to her daughter: “She was already a foreigner and Americans tend to distrust foreigners…. The Senate took a position against my mother, saying that foreigners who came to live and work in America, since Hollywood could have such a phenomenal effect on someone’s success, needed to be under moral control.”

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While the American press gloated over the fall of an angelic icon, Bergman had more pressing challenges. Like the character she plays in Stromboli—Karen, an urbane Lithuanian bound to a primitive culture by a marriage of desperation—Bergman was ill-prepared for tribulations of life on a rugged Mediterranean island.

Bergman “was used to sets with very specialized crews, hundreds of people, but they made Stromboli with about 15 people who all carried the equipment,” Rossellini says.

Fascinating behind-the-scenes footage of the arduous production exists, thanks to one of Bergman’s hobbies: “She made little home movies for herself, and we see that everyone carried these heavy burdens, for example, to the top of the volcano.” (You can watch snippets shot by Bergman’s camera on YouTube courtesy of the Criterion Collection.)

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The actress also had to adapt her technique to a cinematic style—and cast—very different to what she was accustomed to. As her daughter said, “Mama found herself without Cary Grant, without Spencer Tracy, with a fisherman that Papa picked!”

“If Papa needed a fisherman, he got a fisherman,” Rossellini explained. “A real fisherman will have the gestures, the sunburned face, the authenticity you’d never get with an actor.”

In the starkly sensual Stromboli, Bergman’s conflicted, expertly communicated emotions set her apart from the borderline awkward naturalism of the other cast members. This contrast, far from a drawback, contributes beautifully to the film, since Karen rebels against, and is largely rejected by, the island’s benighted world.

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To achieve the improvisational feel he sought, Rossellini had to work around his non-actors’ unease. As his daughter told her audience at the Cinémathèque, “Italian films are often dubbed, so you don’t have to know your lines. My father would direct by saying, ‘There’s a scene where you come in for lunch and people are sitting down, so act like you would in real life. Say “Hello, goodbye, how are you, and so on.”’

“That was difficult for an actor [Bergman] who was used to learning a text, to having everything written beforehand…. A bigger challenge was that the non-actors were extremely intimidated by the camera and wouldn’t speak. Instead of saying, ‘Hello. How are you? Have a seat,” they’d stand there frozen with terror.

“So, Papa would say, ‘Listen, it doesn’t matter what you say, because I’m going to dub it afterwards.’ So, Mama would come in and say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and the non-actor would go ‘One-two-three-four-five-six.’”

Describing such odd “dialogue,” Isabella Rossellini laughed, “Rossellini’s realism was just on the screen, because if you visited the set, it was surrealism!” (To be fair, though, I think most of us would freeze up in the radiant presence of Ingrid Bergman.)

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Though lauded as a epiphanic neorealist masterwork today, Stromboli flopped at the box office in 1950—despite all of the inflammatory free publicity. However, “the French recognized that a film that didn’t work at the box office, that didn’t sell a lot of tickets, could be an important film.”

Cinémathèque founder Henri Langlois in particular saw the genius in Rossellini’s work and was a good friend of the director’s family. Isabella shared an amusing personal reminiscence of Henri Langlois and his wife as somewhat, ahem, fragrant and unwashed bohemians: “My mother and father would say, ‘Isabella, you mustn’t say that they smell bad. Shush!’”

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the cinephiles bred by the Cinémathèque would latch onto Stromboli and the other Bergman-Rossellini collaborations as examples of the kind of personal, documentary-style cinema they respected. “My father was more of a director who’d influenced other directors than a box office success,” Rossellini recalled. “It was Cahiers du Cinéma that rediscovered my parents’ movies.”

Roberto Rossellini returned the favor by becoming a mentor to the future Nouvelle Vague directors: “When I saw Godard three or four years ago, he told me, ‘Your father was kind of a like an uncle to me. He said, “Why be a critic? Why not make your own movies?”’ So my father also encouraged Truffaut and Godard—when they were movie critics—to make films.”

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When her father passed away in 1977, Rossellini’s family received a touching tribute from Godard: “the most moving telegram I’ve ever gotten. He wrote, ‘We are alone in the woods.’ Because my father was such a patriarch. He was my dad, but he was also the Taviani brothers’ and Godard’s father in a way.”

The Taviani brothers paid tribute to Roberto Rossellini somewhat differently: by offering Isabella her first significant film role, in Il Prato (1979). Remembering Rossellini’s objections to movie careers for his children, “I thought, ‘Dad’s going to turn over in his grave. He would be furious. He gave the Tavianis a prize and now they want me to act for them.’”

But Ingrid Bergman urged her daughter to accept the offer. “My mom came in and said, ‘No, you have to take advantage of this. It’s an adventure. You can’t turn up this chance to try to be an actress. And, in any case, they work in your father’s style, with non-actors, so you’re not going to be an actress…. You’ll have an experience with great artists.’”

The diverging opinions on Isabella’s acting career were typical of Bergman and Rossellini, a striking case of “opposites attract.” She was introverted and methodical. He was outgoing and unpredictable.

“My father was infinitely disorganized,” Rossellini said. “He was Italian, so we don’t have very many of his things left. My mother was Swedish—and infinitely organized. She saved every letter, every photo, every film poster.”

At one of the most poignant moments of her interview, Isabella Rossellini revealed the insight that motivated her mother’s methodical collecting. “I remember when my mother was sick, she had cancer, there was a big room where she was storing all these things. Mama was very humble, very simple, and extremely shy. I said, ‘Why did you keep all this? You were born in Sweden, you went to America, then you went to Italy, then you went to live in France… why did you drag all of these photos, all of these letters, all of these newspaper clippings with you?’

“She gave me a response that totally shocked me. She said, ‘Because I’ve always known that my life as an artist was very important.’

“I was scandalized by this pretension! But she said, “You know, I think that we’re part of the most influential art of the last century. When we were young, we all watched movies as much as we read the great classics. We read the classics in school because we have to, we go to museums from time to time, but everyone goes to the movies and loves the cinema.’”

It’s reassuring to know that Ingrid Bergman recognized her place and significance in cinema history—from Intermezzo to Autumn Sonata, from Casablanca to Stromboli, from Gaslight to Elena and Her Men.

100 years after her birth, Bergman’s versatility, her spontaneity, and her fearless defiance of convention remain as modern as ever. Will we ever quite catch up to this goddess of incandescent contradictions? I doubt it.

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*Please note that all quotations of Isabella Rossellini in this article are my translations.

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Eight Films in Eight Days: Cinematic Adventures in Paris

cinemaThe French take classic movies, like all forms of sophisticated pleasure, rather seriously.

For instance, if I want to go see a great movie at the Forum des Images, I must do so without so much as a macaron to sustain myself through the screening. Meanwhile, a few meters away, a huge multiplex sells the latest forgettable films on the market—with a full concession stand wafting good smells. I can hear its siren call, “Come over to the dark side… we have popcorn.”

But no, true bliss demands discipline before it bestows its favors. As much as the rigor and intensity of French audiences intimidate me, I also admire their deep respect and love for the fascinating films of yesterday. It warms the cockles of my heart to witness such a wide range of ages attending screenings, from a school group of tweens at the Cinémathèque to dowagers in Chanel suits frequenting the legendary theaters of the Latin Quarter.

In Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, the narrator of the first story concludes, “Le bonheur n’est pas gai.” That is, “Happiness is not joyful.” So you’d be wrong to think that solemn spectators in Paris movie theaters were absorbing the films like some kind of bitter medicine. In fact, they’re about as happy as you can get for €7.50.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a pretty representative sample of what you can see in huit jours (the French often talk about “eight days” when they mean a week) in cinema’s hometown. Lucky for me, I also happened to be visiting Paris during La Fête du Cinéma, a yearly event that reduces ticket prices to €3.50 for a few days.

ritaCover Girl (Charles Vidor and Gene Kelly, 1944)

The Venue: Sadly, the Cinémathèque Française doesn’t live where it used to back in the days when Langlois hand-picked the movies, Musidora helped work the box office, and the likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette hogged the front-row seats. But, hey, look on the bright side: there’s a gift shop. And you can still see a wide variety of classics, from the obvious to the obscure, projected from the archive’s own collection of prints.

The Movie: This inventive, flamboyantly-colored backstage musical, about a hoofer who wins a modeling contest, gave Rita Hayworth’s rising star a major boost.

Why I Went to See It: Whereas the Cinémathèque’s founder put together wildly eclectic programs of movies each day, the establishment now heavily favors retrospectives and coherent series. When I go see a movie at the Cinémathèque, I look for movies that belong to the Histoire Pérmanente du Cinéma series, which tends to feature a wider assortment of films, including some real rarities as well as Hollywood classics.

The Print: A 35mm version with French subtitles from the Cinémathèque’s vaults. The well-loved reels started to crackle and break up at their beginnings and ends—resulting in one jump cut so startling that I swear I thought the Nouvelle Vague boys got ahold of the print!

My Highlight: Rita Hayworth, wearing a somewhat plain navy suit with red piping, in a waiting room full of models decked out in chic pastels. The lily needs no gilding.

Bottom Line: Technicolor is a damn good storyteller. 

otherThe Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)

The Venue: Crammed into an underground mall amongst numerous fast food joints and chain stores, the Forum des Images does not overwhelm you at first sight.

However, since the Forum opened in 2008, its exciting programs and decidedly hip ambiance have won over cinephiles from all walks of life.

With both purple fluorescent lights and a changing collection of real vintage posters hanging up in the lobby, the space revels in an oh-so-French blend of old and new. Did I mention the cinema library, where individual browsers can partake of thousands of films and books about films?

The Movie: A horror film? A coming-of-age story? A psychological thriller? However you categorize The Other, it’s much more than another good-twin-bad-twin movie.

Why I Went to See It: In my humble opinion, The Other also ranks as one of the unheralded masterpieces of the 1970s.

The Print: I neglected to notice that the Forum planned on screening a 35mm print in version française, borrowed from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. That is, with dubbing from the original French release. Listening to all of the characters speaking approximations of their lines in French—and having to provide some whispered translations for my mother—oddly enough gave me the pleasant sensation of watching the film as if for the first time.

My Highlight: The way milkweed silk catches the sunlight as one of the twins carries pods of the fluffy stuff across a bucolic field.

Bottom Line: My respect for this film grew even more after seeing it on a big screen. 

loveLove in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) 

The Venue: Fortified by some steak au poivre, I returned to the Forum des Images for the second screening of the day.

The Movie: A barely legal cellist tames a notorious roué by regaling him with false tales of her amorous escapades… lifted from the files of her private eye father. I can only describe this silly, tender trifle as an operetta without singing.

Why I Went to See It: Billy Wilder + Paris + Tango Music = Where Do I Buy My Ticket?

The Print: A well-preserved 35mm version.

My Highlight: Back-to-back close-ups of weathered Gary Cooper and weathered Maurice Chevalier in their confrontation scene. I’d weather that weather!

Bottom Line: It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to go kiss the first person you meet in the street. Fortunately I knew better than to ruin my lipstick. 

champo1A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

The Venue: Rue Champollion is the epicenter of Paris cinephilia, lined with art house theaters of which La Filmothèque is my favorite so far. Sure, you might have to elbow someone out of the way to get your tickets, but it’s totally worth your trouble to burrow into a comfy plush chair in a screening room with golden floral sconces.

And, sure, some crazy filmgoer might bawl you out for fidgeting during the movie when you were just reaching for your lip balm, but that’s all part of the thrill. Next time, I think I’ll shush someone who isn’t talking, just for the hell of it.

The Movie: A typical love story set in crumbling WWII Germany, elevated by Sirk’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes gritty, but always arresting use of CinemaScope.

Why I Went to See It: When I was in college, I read young Godard’s review of A Time to letempsLove and it’s a real hoot, ending with something along the lines of, “You don’t know beauty ‘til you’ve seen it.” Well, I’d never seen it… And if I ever meet Godard, now I’ll at least have something to talk about while politely avoiding the topic of the migraine that Weekend gave me.

The Print: A gorgeous 35mm version, recopied from the original negative, with French subtitles.

My Highlight: A platinum blonde chanteuse keeping calm and carrying on signing in a swanky wine cave turned bomb shelter while perched on an enormous wooden keg.

Bottom Line: No, I’m not crying. I just got some irony in my eye…

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

The Venue: La Filmothèque again. Shorter lines, no crazy lady barking at me—such a disappointment.

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The Movie: A society lady falls for her gardener and his proto-hippie ethos of self-reliance à la Walden, and almost everyone she knows tries to crush her happiness.

Why I Went to See It: The world seems tragically drab after watching a Sirk film. I needed my next fix.

The Print: Another 35mm version in Technicolor with French subtitles. Some days I really like my life…

My Highlight: Jane Wyman standing in blue light, wearing a red dress, gazing at a yellow tree branch in a vase—the primary color triangle, almost phantasmagorically saturated—left me agape.

Bottom Line: I love happy endings, especially when they come with an alarmingly friendly stag that serves as the auteur’s eye-roll to his audience. 

ticketsL’Arlésienne (André Antoine, 1922)

The Venue: The Cinémathèque Française—and I should warn you that the establishment screens its silents without music. This tradition stems from the days when Henri Langlois couldn’t afford an accompanist and thus decided to argue that truly silent silents offer the viewer greater advantages. It’s so quiet you can hear the metallic whine of the projector behind the wall.

Look, I’m up for the occasional surreal film event kind of thing, but I do believe that silent movies, to be properly enjoyed, appreciated, and, yes, even studied, require music. When those films first hit theaters, they had live music and they still cry out for that treatment.

I have this nightmare where someone who’s never seen a silent film walks into the Cinémathèque and emerges with the impression that silent movies are austere, remote relics—when nothing could be further from the truth. So, you’re hearing it from me: if silent movies are as yet undiscovered territory for you, please seek out a screening with live music or at least some music.

The Movie: Frédéri, a farm heir obsessed with a vampy townswoman from Arles, agrees to marry a peasant girl who loves him. Brace yourself for tragedy.

Why I Went to See It: I’d never even heard of this film and, chances are, I’ll never get to see it again.

The Print: This 35mm version, restored in 1990 with support from the Musée d’Orsay, sparkled with sunlight and shadows. The original intertitles—written in that soothing, graceful Art Nouveau font that one often sees on early 20th century French posters—offered an unforeseen treat to the eyes.

My Highlight: An ominous silhouette shot of the woman from Arles watching Frédéri hover in front of her lace-curtained window, like a shadow puppet. But there were so many stunning countryside shots of sheep ambling and villagers dancing that I lost track of my favorites.

Bottom Line: A fascinating and sensual document of rural France in the 1920s weighed down by a waffling, melodramatic plot. Maybe music would’ve helped.

champo2Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

The Venue: Le Champo opened its doors in 1938 and has been delighting cinephiles ever since. The movie theater now specializes in retrospectives—as I write, there are series showcasing Ford, Renoir, and Varda. The screening room where I saw Cléo featured a charming canopy of tiny lights, sparkling from the ceiling like distant stars.

Why I Went to See It: A few days before, I got my taste of Paris, Paramount-style with Love in the Afternoon. Just as one craves salty after sweet, I wanted a taste of the real Paris, in all its 1960s chaos and glory, as it appeared to the street-roving cameras of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.

The Print: Actually it was a 2K digital projection; the restoration and digitization was overseen by Varda herself. I tend to be a skeptic where digital is concerned, but the eloquent crispness of the images proved quite persuasive.

My Highlight: Cléo’s grey kitten swatting at the train of her angelic negligee. Although the switch from color to black-and-white in the opening scene also took my breath away.

The Bottom Line: This movie is heaven for the eyes, but hell on mascara.

spiteSpite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1929)

The Venue: Forum des Images again. This time, before my screening, I tried out the stylish, yet comfy café on the second floor, which I totally recommend. A pot of green tea before a movie does so much to focus one’s powers of concentration, n’est-ce pas?

Why I Went to See It: Buster and his biceps on a big screen. Well, that’s a big part of it, but I also wanted to observe how a French audience would react to a Keaton movie. In his memoir, Buster wrote with pride that the French referred to him as “Malec,” a word that has no direct translation, but which means roughly “the hole in the doughnut” or “a blank piece of paper.” Um… does that mean he represents some kind of cosmic emptiness? And can you laugh at a cosmic emptiness?

The Print: A surprisingly unblemished 35mm version, on loan from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. I only realized afterwards that this marked the first time I ever saw Buster on 35mm.

My Highlight: Tough to pin down, but I think the prize goes to Buster’s fierce frowny face, hissing the villain from the play in which his lady love plays the lead.

Bottom Line: A doughnut hole-in-one. You could probably hear the laughter for blocks. Apparently happiness can be joyful…