Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Monica Vitti - an appreciation.

My 2009 Appreciation on Monica Vitti, from IMDB : After doing a Sophia Loren appreciation last year, here is one on Monica Vitti – the other great female Italian star of the 60s, [following in the footsteps of Silvana Mangano and Gina Lollobrigida who had began in the 50s, to be followed by Claudia Cardinale!]. No-one did international like Loren, but Vitti carved out her own niche and in fact had 2 distinct eras of stardom. 

First she was the art-house goddess of those early 60s Antonioni films but it turned out she was really a comedienne at heart and spent the rest of the 60s and 70s in a series of comedy roles, most of which did not make it overseas. It is an enduring pleasure now though seeing Vitti in those 60s comedy thrillers wearing those 60s fashions and looking utterly fabulous in throw-away comic situations after seeing her for years as the serious muse of Michaelangelo Antonioni.
One could say Mangano and Vitti represented the serious side of Italian film-making while Lollobrigida and Loren were the more popular peoples’ favourites. As Vitti herself says [in an interview in 1977]: “When I began to make films I was physically very different from the ideal Italian beauty. Loren and Lollobrigida were much more acceptable. But something happened with Michelangelo and myself. Together we invented some stories, using little bits of autobiography, a soupcon in L’AVVENTURA, some in LA NOTTE. I was living material”. So perhaps she wasn’t just the blank actress acting out the director’s vision. 
Vitti was always remarkable from the start, with the blonde hair and that unique face with those wide eyes, nose and mouth. It’s a look I have always found endlessly fascinating, as is her husky voice. 

She met Antonioni in 1957 when as a young actress she was dubbing films. In Antonioni’s films she seemed able to express the boredoms and tensions of modern women. You felt she was caged and longed to escape, vulnerable, trapped, brought to the brink by her environment. As she says (again in 1977): “Antonioni was the only Italian director who told the woman’s story. The only creative man to take their problems seriously. After me, he didn’t make stories about women.” They lived together for 7 years and then had adjoining apartments. They both later married others.

“When we parted I had to change. I wanted to do comedy, but it was difficult to get the audience to accept me, they were waiting for this tortured, neurotic woman”.

The Antonioni films of course have been endlessly written about and analysed since the 60s, so I am only mentioning them in relation to Vitti's roles. L’AVVENTURA set the pace in 1960 and was of course the sensation of the Cannes Film Festival and together with Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA and Visconti’s ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS ushered in the new age of Italian and then international cinema. One could almost say modern cinema began in 1960 with both Hitchcock and Antonioni making films about a woman who vanishes and the people looking for her. We find out what happens to her in the Hitchcock, but we don’t in Antonioni’s vision of the indolent rich at play as they sail around Southern Italy ending at that bleak dawn (often where Antonioni films end, as in LA NOTTE and BLOW-UP) at the hotel in Taormina where her Claudia accepts the limitations of love. 

LA NOTTE in 1961 is really Mastroianni and Moreau’s film as the married couple visiting a dying friend in Milan and whose marriage is failing, with another less-optimistic dawn reconciliation after an all night party. Vitti is featured as Valentina, the daughter of the host of the party, who flirts with Mastroianni, but realises it is not going anywhere as they surrender to the boredom of modern life. 
L’ECLISSE in 1962, seen as the final part of this trilogy, sees Vitti at her peak as Vittoria and the film is all about her and her reactions to the people and events around her. Her solitude, ending with one lover, the Rome financial markets as her mother gambles on the stock exchange, how she follows a man who has lost huge amounts, her pleasure in the air flight among the clouds, and getting involved with the brash young stockbroker, Alain Delon, who has no problems at all, apart from the drunk driving his car into the river. Individual sequences like where she and neighbours play at being in Africa and that well-known final sequence as the camera turns up at the lovers’ meeting place but they do not as life goes on and we study inanimate things like street lights, are endlessly fascinating. There is a sense of dread, as this is the early 60s and the nuclear age. There is so much in these films that one can’t really gloss over them, but Monica is marvellous here and is really the epitome of early 60s chic. It’s a timeless look and the film is an enduring classic. As ever Antonioni’s use of space and landscape and how characters move and fit in it repays several viewings. Sound plays an important part too – the wind rattling the railings here is as evocative as the wind sighing among the leaves of the park in BLOW-UP
A 1963 film CHATEAU EN SUEDE surfaced only here in the UK on BBC television but it was an interesting oddity by Roger Vadim with Vitti leading an interesting cast which also included young pop singer Francoise Hardy in this Francoise Sagan story set in – yes – a castle in Sweden. 

After several more movies came her fourth Antonioni – IL DESERTO ROSSO, or THE RED DESERT, and it’s a pleasure to see it newly released on dvd. Vitti looks wonderful here with red hair as she grapples with a very bored Richard Harris (who did not get on with Antonioni at all and in fact he walked off the picture). Vitti is Guiliana who may be driven to a breakdown by the industrial nightmare of Ravenna with its factories spouting pollution and her indifferent husband, hence her fling with Harris, all loving photographed in Antonioni’s first color feature, with locations and objects painted (as they would in BLOW-UP) to reflect the heroine’s mood: the red room, and grey fruit on a market stall. 

Her delicious deadpan sense of comedy then surfaced in two of those Italian compendium titles which were popular in the 60s, each containing 4 segments with 4 different stars. LE BAMBOLE (THE DOLLS or FOUR KINDS OF LOVE), now on dvd, was a popular hit in 1965, featuring Gina Lollobrigida, Elke Sommer, Virna Lisi and Monica whose sequence is a hilarious tale of a working class woman trying to get rid of her slob of a husband.
LE FATE (THE QUEENS) in 1966 features Monica in a gaudy dress picking up various men in sports cars and driving them mad with her incessant chatter which is very funny and she looks adorable. Capucine, Claudia Cardinale and Raquel Welch also featured in this one.

I still have this poster, which was on my bedroom wall for years ...
It was now the Swinging 60s and Antonioni and Vitti both had projects lined up in London: BLOW-UP for Carlo Ponti and MGM, and Losey’s MODESTY BLAISE where Monica is the spy of the title in this satire on the James Bond style movies of the time. It’s a misunderstood movie that did not do that well at the time but its an endearing and enduring mid-60s time capsule caper now, with Vitti ideal (despite her bad English) as the quick-changing spy and Terence Stamp as her sidekick Willie Garvin. Dirk Bogarde is the camp, silver-haired archvillain agonising over blowing up airplanes and which lobster to choose for dinner: “decisions, decisions” and crying out for champagne as he is staked out in the desert sun. Losey’s baroque style suits it all perfectly. Vitti and Stamp are two of the 60s beautiful people and even sing a duet as they fight the villains on that wonderful op art Mediterranean island. 

GIRL WITH A PISTOL in 1968 never surfaced here either but I got to see it recently. Monica plays a Sicilian peasant woman (in a comic black wig) who has been dishonoured by her man, so she gets a gun and follows him to the UK – it shows a different non-swinging view of working-class London as Vitti gets entangled with Stanley Baker and also Corin Redgrave and Tony Booth (from the “Till Death Us Do Part” tv series). At one stage Baker takes her into the famous gay Salisbury pub (the pub used in VICTIM). They then move to Brighton so it was interesting seeing locations there I know. It’s an odd film directed by Mario Monicelli, not quite sure if it’s a comedy or not.   
Below: Eve Arnold's photo of Vitti & Stamp recording MODESTY BLAISE
THE CHASTITY BELT or ON MY WAY TO THE CRUSADES I MET A GIRL WHO… was a totally forgettable bit of nonsense, one of Tony Curtis’s films made in Europe – it played the bottom part of a double feature as I recall.
THE SCARLET LADY from 1969 is a treat though, set in Paris with Vitti in Dior clothes with Maurice Ronet in a stylish comedy drama using Paris locations well, including dinner atop the Eiffel tower. Claude Chabrol even pops up as the tower lift attendant !
JEALOUSY ITALIAN STYLE (or THE PIZZA TRIANGLE) was a surprise hit in 1970 from director Ettore Scola – Pauline Kael was one of the rave reviewers – with Monica as the flower shop girl involved in a comic destructive triangle with brick-layer Marcello Mastroianni and pizza cook Giancarlo Giannini, with all three performers on top form. Its still a treat today. She made 2 throwaway comedies with Claudia Cardinale too. ...
LA PACIFISTA was a serious one from Miklos Jancso where Vitti is a tv reporter becoming involved with revolutionary Pierre Clementi in this political drama, typical of Jancso’s work of the time, very Film Festival fare [which is where I saw it]. 
Her filmography contains lots of other titles from the 70s which never made it to London, one that did was THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY, a Luis Bunuel film from 1974 with various satirical segments, where Vitti and Jean Claude Brialy do a funny sketch as a couple getting turned on by what the audience imagines to be obscene photographs. It is all very Bunuel who was having a late renaissance at the time. 
AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR in 1979 was a welcome return to English cinema and is an enduring delight from director Michael Ritchie concerning film folk arriving in Cannes for the film festival. Keith Carradine is the young independent film maker and Vitti is married to wealthy producer Raf Vallone. An inevitable romance follows with Carradine and Vitti looking good together. There are interesting comments on its making on its imdb board.
THE OBERWALD MYSTERY in 1981 is a return to filming with Antonioni, in his experiment done in video before being transferred to 35mm, presumably at a time when he wanted to dabble with the then emerging video technology. It was only ever shown once on television here in the UK and is, interestingly, Antonioni’s only foray into period costume drama, based on Cocteau’s play. The actual staging is rather dull with Vitti as the queen falling for the assassin sent to kill her in this Ruritarian setting. An interesting oddity certainly but hardly compulsive.
Now over 80 she is now one imagines in retirement, but there are a lot of interesting clips on YouTube of  her other films including a coffee commercial from 1993 and a hilarious Italian pop video which features her pushing a shopping trolley around a supermarket, highlighting her infectious sense of fun. She had listed Carole Lombard and Kay Kendall as her favourite comediennes. 
Above: 1993 BBC interview for "Hollywood UK" series. (Vitti label)

The Antonioni films will continue to fascinate and remain quite timeless. No wonder a retrospective of the Antonioni and Vitti films was titled “The Moderns”, and her comedies are delightful seeing this fascinating, beautiful woman being amusing and amused. Not as over-familiar to us as Loren or Lollobrigida she remains an eminent Italian icon it is always a pleasure to see or re-discover in something new. 

Postscript: Reading the posts on the Monica Vitti imdb page has led me to some Italian newspaper articles on the possibility that she may have Alzheimer’s disease, hence her absence in recent years, not even at Antonioni's funeral last year.
Edit: The poster for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival is a lovely tribute to L'AVVENTURA suggesting the mysterious power of this Antonioni film. Lots more on Monica at label ...

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