Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dostoevsky, Visconti (and Bhansali)

Sanjay Leela Bhansali's new film Saawariya is reportedly based on a story by Dostoevsky. I have nothing to say about the film and I am not very excited about its release either. Other than the usual complaints, it will no doubt add yet another episode in the long tradition of endogamy that has become a peculiar tradition of Bollywood. (Both the leads are sons and daughters of yesteryear's stars.)

Anyway a few words about the short story in question. It is one of his early works and would be quite obscure had it not been adapted by two of Europe's greatest film directors - Robert Bresson and Luchino Visconti. (That must surely be where Bhansali got his idea from too in the first place.) I haven't seen Bresson's film which is called Four Nights of a Dreamer but did see Visconti's La Notti Bianche (White Nights) with Marcello Mastroianni in the lead a while back. A few words about the film later.

Coming to the Dostoevsky's story, it is called White Nights with the subtitle informing what it is about - "A sentimental love story from the diary of a dreamer." White Nights of the title refers to the twilight nights in the summers of St. Petersberg. (I am not well informed on these astronomical matters so I will just point to the wikipedia article.) The story is told through the diary of the narrator and is set in these four consecutive nights. The narrator of the story, who remains unnamed throughout, is a character type who will be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky - a hyper self-conscious dreamer and a romantic who is also painfully aware of his own ridiculousness. (At one point in novel he thinks he is behaving like the hero of some two-penny "Russian society novel.") In this he is yet another example of superfluous man. On one of his routine lonely wanderings through the streets of St. Petersburg he runs into an equally lonely and desperate young girl. They soon strike up a tentative friendship based on mutual understanding. (There is a bravura monologue in the "second night" chapter where he explains why he is uncomfortable having any visitors - a fantastic portrait of an alienated soul.) The narrator naturally sees a glimmer of hope but the girl explains to him that she is actually waiting for her lover (played by the great Salman Khan in the Bhansali film) who left her a year ago promising to come back again if his business deal or something goes fine in Moscow. The day of meeting has already passed and he hasn't yet showed up. There is a suspense in the story - whether he will come back or not and some familiar cliches of love triangle - before it ends on a slightly lachrymose note. It is a subject that Dostoevsky returned back to later, in his more well-known masterpiece "Notes from Underground." It makes you a little uncomfortable once you realize that the nice young hero would turn into someone like the underground man with the passage of time.

Visconti's film is a faithful adaptation of the story, thought it enhances the dreaminess and romanticism of the story with the lighting and the way sets are designed. He also changes the setting to winter and adds a character of the prostitute (played by the great Rani Mukherjee in the Bhansali film I think, another evidence that it is not perhaps a direct adaptation but rather a copy). Mastrioanni and the actress who plays the girl are both very good. It is also an interesting film in Visconti's own career. He was one of the pioneers of Italian neo-realism and made his name by directing gritty and stark melodramas about working class people like Ossessione and La Terra Trema. This film also tries to capture the life of the working class people but the style here is radically different. One can't call it artificial though, only its approach to cinematic truth is different. Visconti later went on to make Senso (which Martin Scorsese likes very much) and The Leopard, none of which I have seen yet.

The film misses one vital element of the story - the alienating effect of the city life, specially the effect of such an "artificial city" as St. Petersburg (as the Underground Man calls it). In his writings Dostoevsky anticipated a lot of themes and subjects of modernist European literature - specially their treatment of city life and how romanticism and excessive self-consciousness turns so easily into psychosis in the modern industrial and post-industrial cities. This particular story is nowhere near Notes from Underground but it does point in the same direction. I was hoping the Visconti film would get into these subjects too but it is instead more concerned with the romantic drama of the two principals.

You can read the whole story in the translation by Constance Garnett here. It is also available in this collection by modern library. More information about La Notti Bianche here.

Two of my other favourite Italian films with Notte in the title - La Notte by Antonioni and Le Notti di Cabiria by Fellini.


puccinio said...

''White Nights'' is such a beautiful short story, isn't it? Especially the ending where he wishes that girl happiness even if she broke his heart.

That said, I was extremely dissapointed with what Visconti did with the film and of the films of his which I have seen it's the worst. And actually I was
surprised you called the film faithful since he changed rather betrayed the most important aspects of the short story.

The narrator of ''White Nights'' is a shy guy while the one in the film is this well in a sense he's a pervert and that incident with the prostitute made no sense. In fact he comes closest to the spirit of the short story in that dance scene where he embarasses himself - the only great scene in that film.

And I honestly didn't know what he was getting at with the whole fairy tale atmosphere. The short story wasn't exactly realist but it isn't a fairy tale either. And as great as Marcello Mastroianni is, he's miscast as that dude. Someone younger like that guy who left Rimini at the end of ''I Vitelloni'' would have been better.

The Bresson film I haven't seen though everyone tells me it's great especially those who dislike ''La Notti biance''. I have seen his other Dostoevsky adaptation -- Une Femme Douce-- adapted from his greatest short fiction -- A Gentle Creature-- and it is superb.

Alok said...

I thought Mastroianni portrayed him as a shy and awkward character too. It may be because of his iconic roles in Fellini and Antonioni films, the sophisticated and attractive high-society high-flier that I had trouble myself imagining him in this role. I agree there he is perhaps miscast in this film. A younger, more working class type of guy would have better suited the role.

About the fairy-tale treatment my guess is that he consciously wanted to move away from the neo-realism tropes which he (or perhaps Rossellini) said that it was becoming like a genre and all stories needed separate treatment and there is no one best way to do things. The film tries to capture the city life too but it remains in the background and it is not presented through the narrator's subjectivity as in the story.

I haven't seen Une Femme Douce. Bresson's masterpiece Pickpocket is also indebted to Crime and Punishment. It is not an adaptation but a kind-of parallel story.

puccinio said...

Well he was more successful with ''Senso'', I guess. I personally think he did this film for the money.

Mastroianni being a great actor and drop-dead-sexy(and I say that as a heterosexual male) is the complete opposite of that character. A better actor would be someone like Steve Buscemi or actually, odd as it sounds, Peter Lorre since he fits in as well.

As for ''Pickpocket'', Bresson himself denied that it was based on C&P and it's similarities are very superficial.

Substituting pickpocketing for murder negates the main thrust of the earlier film, it's more in the line of Bresson's view of Money and pursuit of it as a sign of the fallennness of the world, which he pursued less successfully in ''L'Argent''. And then that guy is clearly no Raskolnikov.

Space Bar said...

I saw the Saawariya promo yesterday. Not only does it steal the bridge shot you've talked about, it kitsches up Raj Kappoor's Barsaat shot, with a sign blinging *RK* in the background and Rani Mukherjee bending over backwards while it rains all over town. Also one fleeting shot that might have been Singing In The Rain, and the explanatory titles - gold on old green - that are as nauseating as they are ungrammatical.

Oh, and the flowers in the large, flat urn near the steps (that might be from Devdas)? They match the clothes. Did you soubt it?

When the time comes, this film will be India's nominee for the Oscars. I'm telling you.

(sorry. Lots of typos in the last one)

Alok said...

puccinio: yeah agree about Mastroianni but then if you think this film was released three years before he became the international star with La Dolce Vita (and La Notte which was not that successful but was released the same year). He has of course that natural handsomeness too... I agree it makes the ending less convincing. I thought may be it was some Italian thing - may be they prefer a more rough and tough, older virile masculine type :)

I haven't seen any of Visconti's other later post-neorealist films. Will check senso and the leopard soon.

Pickpocket has some Raskolnikovian voiceovers too in which he tries to explain why he steals in very Nietzschean terms. Also his relationship with his family, his alienation and the unforgettable final scene... they all have parallels in the novel. It is a very loose inspiration but it is still interesting to think of both together.

space bar: saw the promo on youtube. I don't necessarily have anything against gaudy colours or overdone sets but everything appears so dishonest and so false in his films. Every frame is artificially made up, designed to suppress any kind of even basic emotional engagement, with just the sole aim of eliciting some automated response from people who mistake too many colours for beauty. (Right about Oscars. And some critic in time magazine will praise the film for showing the "colourful indian frocks" to the whole world too.)

puccinio said...

Pickpocket has some Raskolnikovian voiceovers too in which he tries to explain why he steals in very Nietzschean terms.

You do know that Raskolnikov was Pre-Nietzche and his obsession with excercising power over his morality stemmed from his fixation with Napoleon? Of course, Nietzche admired Napoleon too so that's where he got it from as well. Amazing how Dostoevsky anticapated the philosophy before Nietzche put pen on paper.

In any case, having those voice-overs doesn't make him more of a Raskolnikov. The point of the film was pickpocketing as a metaphor for pursuit of material wealth and people being obsessed with money...consider Michel's first hit, at the races where people spurn hard earned money for more money.

Him using that pseudo-justification was basically bourgeois self-delusions. And Raskolnikov was anything but bourgeois.

Also his relationship with his family, his alienation and the unforgettable final scene... they all have parallels in the novel.

But again just parallels - superficial parallels. Bresson's inspiration for the film was actually a Sam Fuller film(also released by Criterion) called ''Pickup on South Street'' which was also about a pickpocket(but then there similarities end there since they're completely different).

The final scene of the film was the idea that the only thing that matters in a world gone to hell is Love which is what he means ''I had to take such a strange way to finally find you Jeanne'' - That he went through all that to finally come to terms with what's important.

...'course Bresson would get very pessimistic about that later on in his films especially --Une Femme Douce--. His final films seem to say that even Love is gone from a world obsessed with money and that we might as well all dress in our best suits for the Apocalypse.

It is a very loose inspiration but it is still interesting to think of both together.

Well yes but then you need to delineate the differences clearly to better understand the similarities. 19th Century Russia and Post World War France are two entirely different periods. The former characterized by Idealism, the latter defined by the complete lack of it with people just clogs in a assembly line (Bresson worshipped Chaplin and his ''Modern Times''), obsessed with time tables and schedules completely alienated from what's important.

While Dostoevsky considered senseless killing for the sake of ideology the lowest form of dehumanization, Bresson looks at Pickpocketing as the equivalent today. Heck even the fact that Pickpockets have guilds and unions shows how low the situation is.

''Taxi Driver'' influenced by ''Pickpocket''(partially at least) is more in line with C&P. Though it has touches of ''Notes From Underground'' as well. Travis is basically the American Raskolnikov or Raskolnikov if he were an American Taxi Driver in New York who served a tour of duty in Vietnam.

Alok said...

My understanding of Pickpocket then is a little different from yours. I don't remember the exact lines but Michel does say something like "some people are above the law" or "how do people know they are above the law? they ask themselves".. Bresson never mentions this explicitly in his film but Michel's rejection of law is actually a rejection of God and his "Grace" (in the theological sense). It is this moral law that binds us to fellow human beings and its rejection will only result in extreme alienation and profound loneliness, the same topic explored in great depth in Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and the existential thinkers who came later. In the end he comes to the self-realization and in that final scene bresson shows that love is a means of getting back to the state of Grace. (and I love that line, "what a strange way to find you...")

Bresson makes it more subtle because Pickpocket is not comparable to murder. (Even Dostoevsky almost convinces the reader of Raskolnikov's justification but still the doubt lingers.) Michel is stealing from the rich, and he himself is not too interested in money.. he is doing it to "prove" something to himself, his rejection of law and morality, reinforcing his sense of alienation. Any other "crime" would have worked as well too. He perhaps chose pickpocketing because it looks very "artistic."

Dostoevsky's political fears of radicalism and his religious conservatism are not what interests Bresson. He is interested only in theological questions and their relationship to the human life. Also his meticulous attention to detail and masterful editing in the pickpocketing sequences create a kind of contrapuntal effect and tension between the spiritual ideas and material life he is interested in capturing through the camera. Some critic somewhere praised the "sensuousness" of the film which I think is correct because he captures the surfaces in so much detail.

I have read about Paul Schrader's admiration of Pickpocket and influence of Dostoevsky on his Taxi Driver script. Certainly a lot of interesting parallels there too, all worth thinking about.

puccinio said...

Dostoevsky's political fears of radicalism and his religious conservatism are not what interests Bresson.

But I already said that Bresson denied any influence from C&P on ''Pickpocket''. He was asked about it and he explicitly said that that person was barking up the wrong tree. And Bresson was too controlled a film-maker not to appreciate his influences. He wouldn't allow himself to be influenced without knowing it.

And I am not sure about what you mean about Dostoevsky's religious conservatism, I am well aware that in personal life he was a Tsarist but that quality is absent from his novels. And in any case Raskolnikov isn't one of those political radicals either, he's completely apolitical because to Dostoevsky killing for any ideology was wrong.

In any case in terms of political matters Bresson could never be influenced by Dostoevsky because again they lived in two different periods and the kind of stand which Dostoevsky took(which might be more out of fear of being put back in jail than personal commitment) was not possible for him.

But actually your idea of ''Pickpocket'' isn't that far off and may be right.