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A QUIET PLACE in the Country opens in promisingly non-narrative fashion, throwing movie credits and Baroque paintings and Francis Bacon's meaty compositions together in a confusion of people, images, anguish, sex, written words, emotions-in a word, modern western culture. In part this opening credits sequence challenges (in a laughable sort of way) the truth of a film's assertions: "color by Technicolor" is followed by a picture certainly painted in FrancisBaconColor (here, of course, it is in Technicolor); "paintings by Jim Dine" precedes the work of an Italian several centuries dead. More importantly, the sequence creates a continuum of the manmade, the cultural, the imagistic, the signifying and thus sets a direction for the rest of the film.
The next sequence, though rather narrative and naturalistic, continues to mingle objects and images in such a way that every object demands to be read as if it were a statement. Elio Petri, the director, staged this scene in a studio furnished in modish plastic furniture and embellished with useless toys, so that the sequence builds very cleverly on the aesthetic presumptions of pop art: each object, even pieces of furniture, is a statement the way a painting is a statement: it has been designed and it signifies. Vanessa Redgrave, not quite fresh from her role as one of the objects in Blow-Up, enters this perfectly bourgeois room and crosses to her trussed-up lover, Franco Nero, here a non-figurative painter. She turns on a burnishing wheel that begins to polish Nero's foot and Petri cuts to another action expressing a corollary anguish, a shot of her pulling his hair. It's only Nero's dream, though.
Since the film concerns itself exclusively with the painter-hero's interpretation of reality, it remains quite incapable of any kind of social analysis. By constructing a script around his subjectivity, it risks second-rate sensationalism at every turn. Nevertheless, its way of cramming things and events one after another without analysis has a certain value. It presents cultural object after cultural object to the audience.
This pays off when the artist takes over an abandoned villa and begins redecorating it. The house's rooms and walls are the ultimate artifact, the residue of man, the set of objects to be read for their cultural significance. Spooky events begin to occur, but the film keeps its virtue for a while and refuses to name a specific thing as the cause of these malicious supernatural events; and thus the film avoids haunted-house cliches and goes, once again very perceptively, to the core of the haunted-house experience: that a house has human meanings built into it; that we, in touring a house (especially an old one rich in objects and detail), cannot avoid trying to read the significance of its design, cannot help looking for human messages in the house's forms and for human intentions in the creaking of a door. When Nero begins spray-painting the outlines of people's feet that walk across his canvasses-that is, begins making paintings that simply record or imprint human events-the point becomes still cleverer.
Despite some genuinely inventive work with a one-way mirror, the last half of the film is grade Z gothic explicitly and ludicrously prefaced by a shot of Nero reading Poe. The story defines a specific supernatural cause-a young nymphomaniac (Italian gothic being more open than the American kind) dead these thirty years-for the hero's obsessions and the events that keep animating the house. Instead of taking quantities of diverse experiences, and showing us the ways we process this material and the ways it obsesses us, the film turns its cultural matter to sensationalist ends, and obstructs an analysis of human thought instead of offering it directions.
Analysis, though, turns out to be a mixed blessing. After the end of this film and in the middle of Leo the Last. I began feeling very sick and at length had to leave the theater. I know exactly what caused it too, even without having felt it before: sitting in the dark and looking at each formal event, each cultural artifact being presented to me on the screen, as a piece of human design whose significance had to be read. Presumably closer and closer viewing and speculation would reveal a more basic design-some corner of the way things work or perhaps the way people's minds work (there's always a confusion in bourgeois philosophizing about which it is).
As I left the theater and began walking home down Mass Ave, I began to wish I could close my eyes so I could stop looking at specific things as though they held messages for me to read. And then I became aware that I didn't want to listen to anything either, especially sounds that I felt I had to interpret as though they held the same significance as speech. Then even smells began to get obnoxious. Everything before my conscious senses seemed to be a human artifact (which is exactly the pop-art sensibility) and an object of culture. It's against obsessive analysis that my senses revolted, imposing a total nausea on me. It's curious that, as Sartre noted, music didn't bother me at all.
JOHN BOORMAN'S Leo the Last also begins interestingly, if not well, with an overlaid rock song alluding to the action and some surreal flip-flopping between polite conversation and snide establishing narration, designed simultaneously to let the audience know the situation and to let it know it's being told deliberately. This low-level reflexiveness doesn't succeed in really challenging the naturalistic tradition.
Marcello Mastroianni plays an aristocratic weakling (Franco Nero having been an aristocratic obsessive, and both being typical heroes for narrative films) confined to his opulent family mansion at the end of a dead-end street, watches people on the street through a pocket telescope. This utterly point-of-view technique separates him from the film's dramatic action and makes him a moral observer, murmuring "do it" or "no, no" as the blacks who inhabit the rest of the street perform the actions.
While Mastrianni's family life is depicted surreally, the blacks' lives are shown in the simplest, most naturalistic of styles. Rather interestingly, this puts the audience in the hero's position-a position of aristocratic detachment from the action, the secure bourgeoisie watching a cinematic spectacle of real life. This is a really important notion: does the audience have aristocratic relation to the events of naturalistic films (and, presumably, a tutelary relation to didactic films?)
Unfortunately, the film instead of following this question further gives one the feeling of having seen it all before, namely in Rear Window -will the hero finally take action? Will we? I can't answer this question, since for reasons given above I left the theater in the middle of the film, but you can always read Deac Rossell in Boston After Dark and find out.
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