(For an explanation of the Forgotten Films project, go here.)
Forgive me for a second if this gets a bit personal. (Don’t worry -- not that personal.)
The other day, while suffering from a rather grotesque bout of food-poisoning, I found myself thinking back to the last time I’d been similarly laid low. And, amazingly, I could remember the exact date: I'm pretty sure it was November 27, 1997. Newly returned from nearly a year in Russia, I had just cooked myself a surprisingly delicious Thanksgiving meal of Georgian chakhokhbili and was now suffering from the even-more-surprising and previously unbeknownst-to-me fact that the chicken had been thawed and refrozen before I’d gotten to it. Worse: The following day MoMA was having a very rare screening of Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger, a film I’d been trying desperately to see since the age of thirteen, and the reason I'd chosen to remain in New York during Thanksgiving in the first place.
I thought about going, but the fact that I couldn’t even sit still without wrapping a blanket tightly around myself to keep away the chills seemed to dictate against that. When suddenly, I realized: This is MoMA we’re talking about! Their movie theater is full of crazy people with blankets and bags! I’ll blend right in. So I gathered my blanket, tried (and probably failed) to make myself presentable, and dutifully, miserably trudged out to MoMA to finally catch what had been, for many years, the Holy Grail of cinema for me. I was proud that afternoon to be an inmate in that particular asylum. I’m not going to pretend I was a particularly attentive viewer, shivering and hovering in feverish uncertainty between this life and the next, but it was kind of a perfect way to see The Stranger. And perhaps the fact that I love it so much is inextricably tied to the lengths I went to see it. But I’ve since re-watched it, and it still seems to me a truly great film.
So, anyway: More people should know about the existence of an adaptation of Camus’s The Stranger starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina, and directed by Visconti at the height of his career. That such a film has gone largely unseen for so many years boggles the mind. I’ve never understood why it’s so impossible to find on video – crap bootlegs do show up now and then – but I can only assume there is some kind of catastrophic rights dispute preventing its release.
Visconti, in many senses, would not seem like the ideal person to adapt The Stranger. Although his debut feature, 1943’s Ossessione, had helped bring about the Italian Neorealist movement, in the 1950s and 60s this scion of one of Italy’s oldest and richest families (he was also, as luck would have it, a communist and a homosexual) moved towards a more aestheticized realm, staging immaculately reconstructed, operatic period pieces such as Senso and The Leopard. Actually, Visconti’s flair for elaborate historic recreations was really just an offshoot of the same impulses that led to his first kitchen-sink films: To take the surfaces of the known world and put heightened versions of them onscreen, utilizing setting and mood to achieve a kind of acute psychological realism. Many Visconti films have been criticized for being all texture; but in a Visconti film, texture is the inroads to understanding character.
So where does that leave The Stranger? Camus’s slim novel of existential despair seems miles away from the historic, epic tomes Visconti liked to adapt (he preferred expansive writers like Thomas Mann and Giovanni Verga). Indeed, the melodrama that is often the central focus of other Visconti films is here reduced to an object of distant observation: Camus’s central character, Meursault (Mastroianni) is a Frenchman living in occupied Algiers, profoundly alienated from the world around him. Unable to feel anything, he goes through the motions of his life. He feels nothing at his mother’s funeral, he feels nothing at the sight of a man viciously abusing his girlfriend, and, most notably, he feels nothing as he kills an Arab on a sandy beach, in the blistering heat and blinding glare of the North African sun. In the trial that ensues, he is condemned not so much for his crime but for his cool, seemingly uncaring demeanor. Which makes him about as un-Viscontiesque a character as one can imagine.
Somewhat surprisingly, The Stranger is an extremely faithful adaptation, at least on its surface. But in translating Camus to the screen, the director and his screenwriters (among them his longtime collaborator Suso Cecchi D’Amico) bring an earthiness to the story that gives it a strange new kind of life. From the opening images of Meursault sweating away on a bus, through his days in the sweltering heat, his free-spirited dalliances at the beach and in the sea with the lovely Marie (Karina, sigh), this is a film that is very much about the physical reality of a character whose mind seems to constantly be elsewhere. The heat is certainly also a part of Camus’s novel, but the extent of its presence in the film -- with sweat constantly seeping through Meursault’s shirt, fans everywhere blasting away helplessly, and nearly every character existing in a strange netherworld of fierce passion and frustrated exhaustion – is striking.
This tension –- between the deeply-felt, impeccably-filmed textures of the physical world, and the distant, alienated nature of Meursault’s inner life -- makes The Stranger a profoundly disquieting film. This is where Visconti truly broke out of his comfort zone: If before surface and mood had been an inroads to character, here they become a dead-end. To Visconti, the tragedy of Meursault is the fact that we can’t quite know him, or access him. The more Visconti tries, the more opaque Meursault becomes. Or rather, the more blurry he gets, like a phantom rising out of the North African heat.
I suspect that much of the world wasn’t ready for this film at the time –- at least, not from Visconti. The director was roundly castigated for making the film a period piece (it’s set in the time frame of the novel). It fit in with many critics’ view of him as a director who was only at home in the past, the kind of charge they’d level at Merchant-Ivory many years later. (How odd it is to learn that Visconti actually wanted to make the film set in contemporary times, but was forced to turn it into a period piece at the insistence of Camus’s widow.)
Furthermore, Mastroianni is considered by many to be a bit too good-looking and cool to play Meursault. But part of Mastroianni’s charm was his very affability. Even though by the 60s he had become an international symbol of Euro-cool, there was always an Everyman quality at the root of his appeal; remember, in the film that made him an icon, 1960’s La Dolce Vita, he was the journalist lusting after the movie star, not the other way around. Indeed, by casting such a likable, good-looking actor as Meursault, Visconti adds to the tension between his character’s inner and outer worlds.
The Stranger is rare, but it isn’t impossible to see. As I noted above, it tends to show up in retrospectives of the director’s works. I’m always encouraged by the enthusiastic response the film gets from viewers at these screenings. That not only suggests that there is interest in it (which bodes well for a release, some day) but that audiences are finally able to see it for the remarkably haunting work it is. It deserves to be seen by more people. I hope one day it will.