I had never realised that Visconti’s first film, his adaptation of the James M Cain novel the Postman always rings Twice preceded Tay Garnett’s Hollywood version with Lana Turner and John Garfield by some 4 years. The manner in which the two protagonists eye each other for the first time highlights the ambition scope and styles of the two films. Ossessione – Luchino Visconti – 1942 – Italy : Clara Calamae; Massimo Girotti
Viewed Star and Shadow Jan 2007. Ticket price £3-50
I prefers the woman with a basket full of eggs to the woman with lipstick
I had never realised that Visconti’s first film, his adaptation of the James M Cain novel the Postman always rings Twice preceded Tay Garnett’s Hollywood version with Lana Turner and John Garfield by some 4 years.
The manner in which the two protagonists eye each other for the first time highlights the ambition scope and styles of the two films. Garnett introduces them using a cute gimmick: Lana Turner drops her lipstick case across the diner floor to where Garfield sits. The lipstick a snare like device catches in its traces both Garfield and the audience initiating a film of relationship intensities that are self referential, plot bound and plot driven. The audience is carried from the lipstick to the Chair subject to two judgmental systems: the internalised voice over delivered by Garfield and the externalised justice system that represents the accounting of the second half of the movie. In short the connections that Hollywood asks both the players and the audience to make are in the main mechanical linkages of the action – the plot.
In Ossessione the eyeball scene has the drifter sitting at the back of the empty bar look up – his eye catching a peripheral movement – and see the owner’s wife facing him from behind the bar holding before her an immense basket of eggs. She turns and goes into the kitchen.
The image is both natural in the sense the eggs are supplies for the kitchen and powerfully suggestive of multiple latent possibilities. The lipstick is a simple signifier, a mask of sexuality which can only point to what it is an intensifier of desire. The egg is primary and hence ambiguous – containing within its the form ideas of sex and fertility, and also within its form strongly implying the creation of new life. Eggs also suggest comfort ingestion and sensuality of texture and colour. They are fragile and can break easily. In short eggs are a world. And it is with the idea of self contained but open worlds that Visconti opens up the dynamics of Ossessione. Visconti, who had before the war been working with Renoir is about worlds and domains and the states of mind that they evince. Hollywood is about plot and stars.
Osessione not only contains within itself multiple worlds and domains but it is also in itself contained and held within the world of rural Italy. Garnett’s Postman takes place in a bubble (a bubble beside the road but the highway intrudes hardly at all). Ossessione is not just located in the countryside it is part of the countryside. The eggs, the food the country activities and the work of fields in which the workers are winnowing. Ossessione is located in the calendar and rhythm of the seasons of which it is both a part and an aberration like unseasonal weather.
Visconti’s drifter moves from world to world. The opening is a long tracking shot, the point of view of the drifter from the cab of a lorry, in which we see the road open out and then rush past us. The lorry stops at the first world – the bar – which contains the dissatisfied wife of its owner. The shots that comprise this first sequence, composed still images and tracks create a world of potential destinies: but not a world of overdeterminations. It seems to me it is a world that in the main is constituted out of the state of mind of the drifter who is both attracted and repelled by its inherent possibilities. In the course of the film the drifter explores at least two other worlds. The world of travelling entertainer whose invitation to accompany him is accepted. This world contains within itself a different sexual domain: homosexuality with its implied less onerous and lighter form of commitment – no eggs. The world is experienced as floating ever changing and without a centre. The world of the prostitute is encapsulated within her room which is an extraordinary assemblage of wallpaper and objects calling up mood identity and memory that overwhelms the emotions both of the drifter and the viewer. State of mind takes the drifter back to the bar and the world, now darker in which it is contained, though by now it become a multi faceted world each returning an altered reflection back to the viewer. The bar the kitchen the bedroom the wardrobe containing the murdered husband’s clothes all trigger a different understanding of what is happening.
Visconti closes his film by transposing the action to a world characterised by undifferentiated space, shots that are set in unreferenced locations. The drifter and the wife float in a world that is comprised of the consequences of the decisions that have been made. The woman is pregnant as they try to escape, one of her eggs has been fertilised. The final sequences in the scrub by the river and in the car squeeze the two lovers together, and in a way the little car is like an egg in which they are both contained. An egg that will crack. The final playing out of plot which always remains a background feature of the film has nothing to do with the judgemental system but everything to do with human fragility.