The Night Porter (1974)

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*. What a bizarre movie.
*. I don’t mean the concept is bizarre, or even particularly distasteful. But the way it’s presented . . .
*. First there are the two leads. Charlotte Rampling is an odd-looking woman who rarely seems to be having a good time. I guess you could call her sexy, but she’s not sexual (to adopt a distinction Paris Hilton once made). If you want a woman to look as though being objectified has damaged something inside her, permanently, then she’s well cast. But can we relate to her? She’s like an alien.
*. I guess it’s pretty widely accepted now that Dirk Bogarde was a closeted gay man. This by no means disqualifies him from playing a passionate heterosexual lead, but the thing is Liliani Cavani (who wanted Bogarde for the part from the beginning) injects ambiguity into his character of Max, suggesting some homosexual relationship with the ballet-dancing SS man Bert. Then his appearance, complete with noticeably rouged cheeks, recalls his ghoulish and grotesque appearance as the boy-worshipping Von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. And finally we have Cavani’s belief that “the SS was a homosexual cult.”
*. All of which makes us wonder just what the relation between Max and Lucia is. Does he want to fuck her, dominate her, or just take her picture? In the one scene of physical sex we see she is very much the initiator, riding him into the floor.
*. There’s nothing wrong with their relationship being ambiguous — people are like that in real life — but it does make this into a bizarre love story even beyond all the kinky games that are being played. In the conventional expression, Max and Lucia have no chemistry, and both seem clearly to be thinking of someone, or something, else when they’re together.

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*. Then there’s the muddle of what exactly is going on in the plot. Some information is so lightly glanced over it’s easy to miss. Cavani was upset that people didn’t get that Lucia wasn’t Jewish (she was rounded up for being the daughter of a Socialist), but it’s easy to miss where this is pointed out. Then the business of Max impersonating a doctor is just left hanging, as well as the question of whether he killed his “patients.”
*. A bizarre point that’s more central to the plot is the nature of these “trials” the ex-SS men are undergoing. Are they therapy? Revenge? Just a way of getting rid of witnesses? What?
*. If the SS club only want to kill Max and Lucia, could they not have found an easier way than blockading them in their apartment and starving them out? That’s bizarre too. I mean, especially as the result is that they end up gunning them down in public anyway.
*. Is this austerity Austria? The colouring defines the word “wan.” Everyone seems pale and anemic even before Max and Lucia start starving to death, and Lucia’s wardrobe in particular is a dozen different shades of off-white. This reinforces the sense of a perversely passionless affair. But who does austerity chic appeal to?
*. Compare, as I think you must, Daughters of Darkness (1971), another tale of alternative, decadent sexualities set in a luxurious and mostly empty European hotel. That film’s colours stabbed at your eyes and turned you on.

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*. Is it sexist? Lucia is on her knees or crawling around on the floor throughout most of the film. She is something feral, kept on a leash and eating jam from a broken jar with her fingers. She also doesn’t say very much, and out of all she does say only a few lines are of any significance. One of these is her assertion that she has chosen this fate, which I take it is a nod to feminism.
*. Overall, however, I think this is a movie that doesn’t like anyone very much. Are there any characters here, even the minor ones, that you could imagine staying in the same room with for more than a couple of minutes? That’s a bleak assessment of humanity.
*. So it’s a bizarre movie, but not in a good way. I find it dull, confused, and unemotional. I suspect Cavani wasn’t sure what she wanted to say and so went off in several different directions at once and never got anywhere.

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