Tuesday, 29 May 2018

NOIR WATCH 2018: Ossessione (Luchino Visconti, 1943)

When drifter Gino (Massimo Girotti) arrives on the doorstep of innkeeper Giuseppe (Juan de Landa), he expects a drink and a meal. Instead, he meets Giovanna (Clara Calamai), Giuseppe's younger wife. Soon they are involved in a torrid affair and dreaming of running away together.
Desperate to be together, the lovers kill Giuseppe. But once he is out of the picture, the pair's romantic fantasies are soon undermined by their guilt and paranoia.

Regarded as a precursor to Italian neorealism, Ossessione (or Obsession) is the first unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Visconti's adaptation is pretty faithful to the broad strokes of the story and themes, with some interesting additions that expand on Cain's story in interesting ways.

There is Gino's friendship with a traveling salesman who acts as a reminder of his past life, offering him an alternative to his relationship with Giovanna. There is a hint of a homoerotic subtext to their rapport - at one point, Gino refuses to share a bed with the salesman - which adds another layer to his dissatisfaction with Giovanna. With this addition, it reframes his obsession with Giovanna - is his love based on shame at his own repressed desires? This is left unstated, but adds a nice air of ambiguity to the character that does not exist in any other version.

It is easy to take the movie's title for granted, but it underlies every creative choice in the movie. In Cain's version, the husband's murder is pre-planned. In Ossessione, Visconti plays the murder of Giuseppe as a crime of passion - catalysed by their sudden reunion, the pair decide to kill the drunk man while driving back home.

The actual murder is left off-screen, and followed by a sequence of Gino awkwardly walking through the crime scene while he explains the 'accident' to sceptical police. This narrative ellipsis foils expectations, and re-cnetres the viewers' focus on the impact the event has on the perpetrators - it feels like an approximation of death. One second, Giuseppe was alive, and the lovers were innocent; now he is dead, and they have been transformed into different people.

The filmmakers intensify the focus on the lovers' emotional disintegration by excising the court case which takes up the middle of the novel, with greater attention paid to the breakdown of the central couple's relationship. Without the (relative) reprieve of the court case, we watch as Gino drifts about in a daze. Haunted by what he has done, he wants nothing to do with a dead man's business, and is
eventually drawn to another woman, Anita, whose purity an honesty appeals to his guilty conscience.

Aesthetically, the movie is stripped down and lacks the overt stylings of traditional Hollywood noir. Though Visconti employs chiaroscuro, the sources feel naturalistic to the settings. The lack of Hollywood gloss works for the story - the MGM version has always left me cold because of the house style (the lighting especially is so high-key that it kills any attempt at atmosphere).

Unlike the novel, which is from the drifter's POV, Visconti maintains an objective view of his characters, focusing on showing the mundane reality of the characters' predicament, and that directorial distance helps to highlight their growing disenchantment (the scene of Giovanna wandering through the deserted bar, surrounded by empty bottles, is quite haunting).

The two leads deliver naturalistic performances. I was particularly impressed by Girotti. He gives the role a youthful cockiness that cast the drifter of the novel in a new light - he comes off as a young and impetuous. He is never on-board with killing Giuseppe, and seems to recognise that he can never go back, reacting violently like a caged animal. Calamai comes off as an old soul, used to having life hit her in the face. While Girotti's Gino is impetuous and virile, Calamai's Giovanna is more melancholy. Her love for Gino is an externalisation of her deeper desire to escape her life.

The one element that does not work is the score by Giuseppe Rosati. It is so melodramatic and on-the-nose in hitting the emotional undercurrents of scenes that it always feels like an intrusion. Thankfully, there is not a lot of it, and Visconti does not use the soundtrack as an emotional crutch, which (thankfully) lessens its impact.

A fascinating example of a familiar story made without the aesthetic or cultural context it is associated with, Ossessione is a terrific adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice that is far better than the official Hollywood version people are familiar with.


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