August 23, 2007

Rossellini and the French New Wave

Roberto Rossellini & the French New Wave 

Roberto Rossellini


It is generally acknowledged by most critics that Roberto Rossellini was an enormous influence in the development of the French New Wave. Andre Bazin considered that Rossellini was hugely important in the development of a realist aesthetic within cinema and his viewpoint strongly influenced the young critics cum filmmakers especially Truffaut and Godard. McCabe in his recent biography of Godard emphasises the point:

It is impossible to overstate [the] Rossellini’s importance for both Godard and the Nouvelle Vague. Bazin’s theories are unthinkable outside of a continuous dialogue with Rossellini’s brilliant war trilogy, but he was also the director for the young critics in the fifties... Roberto was sans pareil. He was the man who had not only provided a totally new film-making practice for Europe in the postwar years but who had gone to Hollywood and won the most beautiful of Hitchock’s actresses, Ingrid Bergman. The series of films he made with her... For Cahiers were the very definition of modern cinema. (McCabe, 2004, p 161)

          McCabe argues that it was Voyage to Italy that was the most admired. McCabe notes that Le Mepris by Godard can be read as a remake of Voyage to Italy although of course the endings are radically different with Rossellini being immensely optimistic at the end whilst for Godard there is death. I argue elsewhere on this blog discussing Visconti's Bellissima that Godard's metacinematic approach to Le Mepris links his work to that of Visconti as well.  

Bergman and Sandrs in Voyage to Italy



          The connections between Truffaut and Rossellini are if anything even stronger as Ingrams and Holmes (1998) point out. Bazin had introduced Truffaut to Rossellini in 1954 and Truffaut worked with him ‘intermittently’ as an assistant director between 1955-1956. Rossellini didn’t make any films in these years but Truffaut gained experience of pre-production in the preparation of scenarios rather than the process of practical production.

Andre Bazin



          The recent re-release of Voyage to Italy from the BFI with a commentary option by Laura Mulvey opens up an opportunity to reassess Rossellini’s work and its influence upon the Nouvelle Vague Cahiers critics. For Rossellini location shooting was a pre-requisite of cinema and although he used the well established Hollywood lead actors Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders part of the reason that they were affordable was because they had already peaked in Hollywood. Mulvey notes that Rossellini gave Sanders a hard time during the shooting and that Rossellini was seeking to breakdown the Hollywood professionalism of Sanders and to get the real Sanders to come through. As for the rest of the cast it was a mixture of minor actors non-professionals and friends. The music was scored by Rossellini’s brother who had worked with him on many occasions. This then was a classic authorial approach to production. With regard to the realism of the shooting it is worth noting the many shots taken from the point of view of the car and in the car. There is a marked contrast between the way these are shot and the studio work of Clouzot’s car scenes in Les Diaboliques made two years later.

Ingrid Bergman in Voyage to Italy


          Apart from the actual conditions of film-making the film can be marked out as distinctively modernistic in terms of how it treated narrative. Mulvey emphasises this aspect of the film describing it as ‘the first modern film’. By this she means that the film is resistant to a modernity marked by its instrumentalism and its emphasis on driving forward narrative goals in a way which emulated the instrumentalist ethic of capitalism itself. By comparison Rossellini had chosen a short story by Joyce upon which to base the film. As such the film meanders, there are cinematic asides such as Mr. Joyce’s little adventure to find some wine during siesta time. Mulvey notes that this scene was cut by many distributors when the film was released. The narrative itself marks time and the content at this point highlights the northern Protestant impulse ‘to do’ marked against the different Neapolitan time. This attitude to time is something which Mulvey sees as an elemental theme throughout the film. The narrative structure itself still seems to fall within the schema suggested by Todorov who argues that stories have distinct phases in which the balance of equilibrium is upset, there is a recognition of this and eventually a balance is restored. In Voyage to Italy the equilibrium of the London life is upset by the dislocated space of holiday and the chance for self-reflection by the couple. The crisis develops is identified and then in this case somewhat miraculously the couple are brought back together again.

          Mulvey also emphasises that in Voyage to Italy it is Naples itself that is the star of the film seeing the film as largely an excuse for Rossellini to film in and around Naples. This is of enormous importance when one comes to think about the representations of Paris in the work of the New Wave for most of the early films of the Cahiers group were shot in and around Paris. In a bout de souffle Belmondo specifically enters into a verbal architectural discourse. The full length feature films of Truffaut also resonate with the sounds and the feel of Parisian streets.

Rossellini and Bergman



          It is in the representations of cityspace that a sceptical or nostalgic form of modernism is given reign. There is a certain nostalgia for the old which in Voyage to Italy becomes quite literally archaeological whilst the archaeology is more metaphorical in the Nouvelle Vague. It is the ambiguities of modernity that are also explored in Tati’s satirical cum slapstick films with Mon Oncle (1958) being a fine example of the juxtaposition of the modern Corbusian ‘machine for living’ set against Hulot’s labyrinthine pre-modern living space which is softer, more human and more in touch with nature itself where a song-bird sings when the sun shines on it whilst the fish fountain a modern vanity only comes to life when the visitors bell is pressed.

Bruno Atlas of Emotion


For more on notions of cityspace try the work of Guiliana Bruno 


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