We publish a letter to Bernardo Bertolucci by Lotte Eisner, immense writer and film critic, written fifty years ago, exactly on June 4, 1971. In the letter Eisner asks Bernardo for a preface to the English edition of his Murnau, having put the book in a scene from Partner in the hands of Pierre Clémenti.
The preface has never been written, but the letter remains, to which the director himself mentions in the beautiful interview about Partner made in 1969 by Adriano Aprà, Maurizio Ponzi and Piero Spila, whom we thank.
BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI: PARTNER
by Adriano Aprà, Maurizio Ponzi and Pietro Spila
BB: The behaviours of the spectator of Partner should be that of the ideal spectator, i.e., a very passive spectator who succeeds in finding in the one hour and forty-five minutes of the screening enough time to sleep at least ten minutes and during these ten minutes to dream, thus overcoming his own passivity. I think that should be every spectator’s normal behaviour in the cinema.
At a certain moment of the film doesn’t Clementi address the film’s spectator and invite him to look around, claiming that in the movie theater he’s in, everyone can find his own double two rows in front of him or two rows in back of him?
Yes, but if you think about it for a moment, which audience is Clémenti addressing? He’s addressing an audience that doesn’t interest us. In reality, Clémenti here is creating a fiction: he’s playing at being an actor who is addressing the audience. Also, not only does Clémenti address an audience who hasn’t understood him, but the things he says are lies; he’s pretending that the problem of the film is that of doubling, that “you should also find your double”, etc. All of that is supposed to be very unrealistic because it is voluntary reductive. However that may be, I’d like to add something about his sequence. The speech you hear from Clémenti was added during the Italian dubbing. In the original French version, it is quite different: when I was shooting the film, Clémenti was doing his mad discourse on ways of opposing American imperialism. Let’s see if I can remember it. He said something like, “The number one enemy in the world today is American imperialism. If the fishermen in the Gulf of Naples blew up an American aircraft carrier, if the whores in Genoa spread syphilis every night to twenty U.S. Marines, if everyone behaved like this, then maybe we could do something positive and have a permanent spectacle”. When I was editing the film, this speech seemed too moralistic, so in the Italian version, I dubbed in a completely different text.
When you made Before the Revolution, did you pose the same problems for yourself as you did in Partner, or did the passage of the four years in between change your relationship to the audience? We ask this because when we look at Partner we see that you still love Before the Revolution, and you can understand this very well when you look at certain scenes…
I think that the two films are very close. As close as the “me” who made Partner is to that other “me” who made Before the Revolution. After that film four years passed during which I did almost nothing. It’s as if after four years you were seeing me for the first time today. It’s the same as then, but it’s four years later. It’s the same for my life; it’s the same as then, but four years have passed. I didn’t do any special preparation for the spectator, unlike, for example, Godard who makes three films a year and so you aren’t aware of the changes he might undergo between My Life to Live and Made in U.S.A. although in reality there are enormous changes. There is this enormous problem concerning the private relationship, the personal relationship with one’s films. In my case, now, I know for example, that I should make another film immediately, that I should make films more and more often because you can’t just make films every four years. You completely lose the easy relationship you have to filming, you start attributing too much importance to every little thing. At times, I’ve found myself agonising over every scene I’ve shot as if my life depended on it. That’s not right. And then, during all those years when I wasn’t filming, I did almost nothing but think about film, about cinematic style, I don’t know, about the fact that some shots are completely autonomous and that every shot is a film. Now all that weighed me as I was making Partner. I tried as often as possible to do shots that would be autonomous. Another idea in this vein is that I was obsessed for two of three years by the idea that it’s during the editing that every film loses its stylistic violence, the moment when, cutting the stylistic “misfits”, the whole film becomes leveled out. I think editing is the moment which stopped the history of the evolution of the cinema. Because shooting, even though you have to see things through the lens and tripod, the cameramen, etc., is a gestural and instinctive act which produces moments of authentic stylistic liberty. Editing was invented by the auteurs and instrumentalized by the production studios precisely to eliminate this freedom, to level everything. The American studios, in fact, retained by contract the right to modify the editing of their films. They even invented a term to designate this process: the final cut. At a certain point, I found myself almost paralysed by these ideas: my uncut scene or death! etc. And in my films you can sense my desire to abolish editing, reducing it, when there is any editing at all, to its most elementary form. For example, in the scene of the party, I used editing but it’s a very primary kind of editing, a Chaplinesque editing.
In the scene of the party, indeed, you do use a very simple form of editing. In the establishing shot, the camera doesn’t favour Stefania Sandrelli: she’s placed in the shadows, under a staircase her back to the camera, despite the fact that she’s the most important character in the scene. But immediately you insert an isolated closeup which is sufficiently long to eliminate this strange effect and then you come back to the view of the whole room.
Yes. This is very elementary editing. In only two of three scenes does the montage have an expressive function: at the party, in the scene in Jacob’s room when the two exchange clothes, etc.
The typical scene of this desire to overcome montage is the scene when the two met in the public urinal and at a certain moment when they’re talking about nature and you use a dolly shot to capture the cityscape and then you come back to a frame of the urinal.
Yes, but in fact the thing I’ve never understood is why at a certain moment you have to cut. When? Why?
The ideal would be an infinite scene. On the other hand, Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame de doesn’t give the impression of having been edited. Or else you’d have to make a whole bunch of little films and run them one after the other.
That’s it! During all these years of inactivity I’ve probably thought too much about such things. That’s why I was saying that I’d felt a loss of my natural approach to things. I think Partner is not a very natural film.
Let’s just say that reflection is all well and good, but that it’s better to make your reflections while making a film.
That’s the criticism I make of myself, but it’s a criticism not of the film but of my personal situation.
The people who ask questions about the vitality and the autonomy of a single frame have an enormous problem cutting: why? where? how? You, for example, why do you cut sequences that could just as well have been made in a single shot? To interrupt a scene, if it isn’t crazy, always has some significance.
Often I am tempted to cut my scenes. In Partner there are some very long shots interrupted by an insert, for example. In those cases, the insert becomes microscopic. Often I cut precisely to deny the continuity of the scene. Ultimately, I don’t do this critically. I do the shot and then I cut it because I feel in general that we ought to work against what we have done. You do something, then contradict it, the contradict the contradiction and so on. Vitality is precisely due to the ability to contradict oneself constantly, to deny oneself and eventually you discover that you haven’t contradicted yourself but rather followed your very own truth.
In Weekend, Godard cut a very long tracking shot of the line of cars. He cuts a perfect tracking shot where all the actors are in place, where all the cars are moving in just the right way, where everything is perfect. I think that he made this cut just to destroy something that was working too well. It’s as if someone came to Siena, or on the Grand Canal in Venice, and realizes that everything is too well preserved and throws a bomb and blows up some of the buildings.
The film’s titles are in a perfectly continuous sequence, though.
It’s true. In Partner I did the titles very simply.
Did you use Nicholas Ray’s colors?
The colors of Viet Nam. The Vietnamese flag is a recurring motif in the film and the number of flags is always increasing, until the Vietnamese flag becomes a decorative element, the Molotov cocktail which explodes only once in five tries.
Our impression is that in Partner you accumulated all the films you weren’t able to do during those four years. Every shot of the film seems to be the result of ten other shots together, it seems to us that you meant to do this. When you could have chosen to eliminate all that you left behind, you didn’t, and instead of burning it inside you, you burned it by exteriorizing it in your film. Indeed, in this sense, Partner doesn’t even seem to be a film but rather a kind of bonfire, an accumulation of material.
That’s all due do the fact that by nature I work by addition rather than subtraction.
In Before the Revolution we could recognize ourselves in every aspect of the film, characters, story, the savour of the city. In Partner, on the other hand, it’s the opposite, one is only moved if one thinks about the cinematic of it. And yet, at the same time, we refuse to define Partner as an intellectualist film.
In Before the Revolution the point of departure was life, but in addition there was the cinema, and more specifically the mythological idea of cinema. Here the inspiration is partly life and partly cinema. When I’m asked what the film means, I always answer, “Nothing: the film means the film and that’s all”.
Which is true of all films.
Certainly. But we have to begin to say this.
It’s strange that the film comes down ultimately to a very simple nucleus; it speaks elementary truths which already belong to us. The most characteristic thing about this film is its simplicity, despite the fact that everything seems to indicate the opposite. For example, the part on the revolution which shots. It’s at this moment that the entire film gets its meaning, and since these images are so powerful that they can hold the whole thing up, it means the film is a success. It’s the point of maximum risk.
The revolution is seen from a very particular point of view, of course. There is the student movement represented by a kind of will of the wisp that runs up a staircase with torches of different colors. The spectacle is only a baby carriage with a bomb inside rolling down a staircase, but there’s no bomb in the carriage, there’s no baby, there would only be one if there were a film school that had its primer, starting with the sequence on the staircase from Potemkin. The simplicity of it is evident: a – airplane, a – ambulance, etc.
Ideally, your film could be a film about the theater, but in fact it’s a film about life, about the present (Viet Nam, advertising, television, etc.) All of life’s a stage is the cliché your hear often enough, but in your film, life is against theater, prevents theater, your film could be the story of a failed attempt to do theater.
I agree, Partner is a film about the present. That is to say that all films are about the present. Even when you do a flashback, you are only filming the present of the past.
There are also utopic films, films which burn all the bridges behind them.
I, on the other hand, try to see things amid the total confusion that we find ourselves in. The most important thing is to remain true to oneself. It’s also the most important thing in politics. Straub told me a very interesting thing in this respect. He told me that he’d seen documentaries on the events in France of May 1968, and within two or three minutes of seeing these films the police had lost their credibility, whereas this idea of repression was better rendered in forty seconds of shots of police in my film than in the French documentaries.
It’s the power of imagination. Fiction has an indestructible power. What Straub said confirms one of the most important limitations of documentary films, i.e., the fact of never sufficiently accounting for the power of the images that are being filmed, images that are wiped out in a matter of seconds.
The image is a shadow, you have to catch it.
And there is nothing more dangerous than shadows that resemble reality. Illusion is a terrible thing and includes practically eighty percent of all so-called political films.
There is a huge risk that the cops on the Boulevard St. Germain in Paris might not communicate the idea of repression. Because while the author of those documentaries was shooting with his 16mm camera, he probably wasn’t thinking about making a film about repression, but only wanted a simple document about what was happening.
Can you say something about the different interpretation of your film.
The film is full of keys, of quotations, of references. While the double, for example, is telling about his criminal record, he mentions one of his convictions for corruption of “miners” at Marcinelle (a mining town in Belgium where practically all the workers were killed in 1956), and the camera shows a painting on the wall by Paul Delvaux, a Belgian surrealist with the same family name as André Delvaux, in which we see a night train, hence the title: “One night a train”. But it’s a quotation that I alone appreciate, and it’s strange that a cultivated reader of books will always get all the cultural references right away whereas the film spectator never seems quite able to get the same kind of allusions.
Maybe the most characteristic thing about your style is the way you move the camera.
But in Partner the camera doesn’t move very much, and it doesn’t move the way Arriflex usually moves but rather more like a Mitchell does, and it’s a very different kind of mobility.
In any case, one feels that you’re always thinking behind the camera. It could just as well be a single frame or a tracking shot. Which is a negation of the frame, of the painting, from a privileged point of view.
There is always a reason for each shot, though. In the example I gave a moment ago, when the double is talking about his prison record, the movement of the camera is like a stage direction.
Yes, but when you see it on the screen, a movement of this type is much bigger. Often it takes on too much importance.
The space of the film is always extremely tight. The camera moves only to follow a sort of musical movement. The musicality is perhaps the most important aspect of Partner.
In the film the way you film Rome is very beautiful. Whether it’s the Rome of the ruins and the ancient monuments, or even a completely unrecognizable Rome, in any case it’s always a Rome we’ve never seen in film before.
I didn’t want you to recognize Rome. I only wanted to communicate the presence of a city the way certain surrealist paintings do, or like the way Cocteau or Breton do…
A question about magic realism in the cinema and the way it goes beyond realism. Your film is violently anti-naturalistic. Aside from the fact that the cinema should be realistic by definition because it’s based on photography and recorded sound, there’s more and more a desire to make films that are increasingly oneiric where the masters would no longer be Griffith, or Lumière, or Rossellini, or Flaherty, but Sternberg, Murnau, Lang, Ophüls, Cocteau. Why this need to reevaluate the oneiric power of the cinema?
First of all because there has been a surfeit of naturalistic cinema.
All of the Italian neorealism, with the exception of Rossellini, the entire French cinema with the exception of Bresson. Naturalism goes from the grand naturalism of Kazan or the petit-bourgeois naturalism of Truffaut to that of Forman. Now the curious thing is that the American cinema I was thinking about when I made Partner is in fact a cinema I don’t really know. I haven’t referenced Sternberg or Murnau so much as the idea that I got of their work just from seeing Murnau’s The Last Man or very few of Sternberg’s films. For example, the scene of the pianist at the beginning of Partner is very Sternbergian. The scene has no meaning; it’s really nonsense, a sort of musical prologue, a homage to Sternberg, or rather to the idea I have of his films: a search for atmosphere through the use of shadow and light. In fact, Lotte Eisner, who witnessed this period of the cinema, wrote me that she liked the film a lot with “its beautiful undulating shadows”.
There was the German Expressionist school of cinema with all of its American followers, and then the cinema that came as a reaction to oneiric films. This is already the third phase. We could say that Godard and a great part of the new cinema have made a new point of departure. So now we seem to be returning to a new surrealism. Already Weekend is a surrealist film, for we have to see it as a kind of extended dream.
Oneirism ought not be only in the things we film. It should come especially from the way we use the camera. For example, in the film The Visionaries, oneirism can be found in the way you get to the dissolves. The scene in which Jean-Marc Bory leaves the theater and begins to walk is filmed from the rear, which is clearly derived from a naturalistic style, but little by little the street becomes something else. The walls of the houses seem as if they were constructed in a studio. Bory himself changes. What happens is that the continuity of the sequence lifts it right out of its naturalism and makes into something different.
We’re sure that many critics will discuss the “distancing” in your film. For example the love scene between Clémenti and Sandrelli in the car, with Sergio Tofano in the front seat pretending to drive, would be considered very Brechtian. It seems to us, however, that it’s only in theory that the scene would be “distanced” but in the universe of the film, the scene would only seem so if it hadn’t been shot in that way, because it would have seemed too realistic.
If I’d wanted to do distancing of the type Godad does, it would have been impossible with Clémenti, with all I allowed him to do. His involvement in the film is entirely against Brecht, it’s very classical. And this may confuse many of the critics, that is, that the film refers constantly to classical models and then directly contradicts them.
To come back to the discussion of quotations in your film, especially in the character of Tina Aumont, there are two quotes: the detergents/Godard, the eyes/Cocteau; to which we could add Aumont’s memorization of a section of Barthes’s Mythologies. All this accumulation of quotes is countered by Tina’s voice, which, at least in the French version, is terribly pathetic. Her performance practically wipes out all these other elements to get to a level of truth which is what your film is really all about.
When you get behind the camera, you establish a relationship which can wipe out everything that you thought or wrote beforehand. I had thought about the role of Tina Aumont as a kind of robot-woman characterized by the mechanical gestures of a marionette. When I was shooting the film, however, I ended up contradicting these ideas. I had Tina walk on literally hidden by the packages of detergent she was carrying and which at a certain moment inexplicably caused her to start a spinning movement and forced her to collapse on a chair as if she had just fainted. At this moment Aumont became a representation of humanity. There is a contradiction between her humanity and the “eyes” painted on her eyelids which makes her into a kind of prophet of the world of advertising and consumerism. It’s only when she opens her eyes, that her real eyes appear. There is also an obvious sort of doubling here – none of the characters in this film enjoys any credibility.
This is true not only for the characters but also for the decors in which you filmed them, for the situations, and indeed the whole world of the film. We’re thinking of the scene in which Clémenti kills Sandrelli in the bus which seems to us so eloquent.
It was precisely about this scene that Jean Narboni told me that it reminded him of the scene in Murnau’s Sunrise, when the husband and wife come to the town in the streetcar. I’ve never seen Sunrise, but my father has been telling me about it for years, saying that it was a film that literally gave him the chills. He told me about the extraordinary presence of this streetcar. So I thought that Jacob should kill Clara in a streetcar. But then for logistic reasons I had to settle for a double-decker bus. In any case, I conceived and filmed all that thinking about Sunrise, a film I’d never seen, and the amazing thing is that somebody actually recognized this.
The only difference between the two scenes is that in Sunrise the streetcar sequence begins in the woods and ends in the city. In your film the whole thing takes place in the city.
But they’re still very similar. The bus in Partner like the streetcar in Sunrise was a lyrical and poetic place where in the background the facades change constantly as if they where slides, but in fact they are real. And in this setting the characters don’t behave as if they were at home, but with circumspection as if they were in a magic place. In this sense the streetcar becomes a veritable magic carpet. The magic carpet of Murnau’s Faust.
You made Before the Revolution, which is perhaps an idealistic film given the age you were when you made it. Then you went through the huge disillusionment of not being able to make a film for such a long time. Finally you find yourself making films which could be called “films on demand”: The Oil Route (La via del petrolio) for TV and also Agony. How did you get to Partner through these other films?
The Oil Route was certainly a commercial film and had all the limitations of such a film. You could even say it had greater limitations that are normal because you constantly feel all the effects I created to go against the grain of a commercial film. It was a big mistake because a commercial film ought to be just that, a commercial film. Pasolini would say that I did an amphibiological film, neither fish nor fowl.
Partner, on the other hand, is the direct consequence of having made The Barren Fig Tree (Agony). The relationship I managed to attain with Clémenti was directly inspired by my formative experience with the Living Theatre. Whether it’s with The Living Theatre or with Clémenti, we were able to get on the same wave lengths. The Living Theatre gave me a sense of the sacredness of theater and of theatrical recitation that I rediscovered a bit in Clémenti. The scene where Clémenti is hidden behind a wall of books and begins his monologue, cries, sings the Marseillaise, etc. is a scene based on my position as voyeur, the camera with Clémenti in front as a reality where something happens. Even the instrument by which we managed to capture such intensity is the instrument typical of all the rites of the Living Theatre. In this rite, Clémenti is the Priest and the incense is provided by drugs. That is the zero degree we took off from to make this scene.
In what way did The Living Theatre and Clémenti rebel against your film?
They were never opposed to the film because the film exists only as an idea not a story. They accept the idea though they may not accept the structure or some other aspect of it. Then you have to follow them. In this sense my film is very close to a form of “cinema verité”. Like Straub’s film on Bach.
Did you omit any scenes from the film?
I took out a very important scene where Clémenti is on his way to the school for the first time and finds the classroom completely deserted. Refusing to admit that his students have deserted him, he gives his lecture to the empty seats and reads a passage from Lautréamont.
I also cut a ten-minute scene where Jacob was spying on two of his students, Jean-Robert Marquis and Sibyl Sedat, who were making another film on the great white staircase of the Valle Giulia, taken from a short story by Norman Mailer entitled Black Notes. And I cut a scene which completely demystified the cinematic illusion, showing that the film is merely an object made with a camera and film. It’s the thing that annoys the audience the most; they’ll accept anything except to be awakened from the dream they’re having in the movie theater. Within this dream you can make them swallow anything, but if you tell them that the dream they’re experiencing has a speed of 24 frames a second and that it comes out of an acid bath and the Technicolor labs of the Via Tiburtina, then they get angry and won’t go along with it.
Does the film have its own construction? Because given the fact that it resembles a series of isolated scenes, the relation of one scene to another doesn’t seem to exist.
You’re right. At the first editing, the film was completely different; it was another film altogether. Then I redid the editing because the film was about to be released and needed a more conventional architecture. I shot the film with a maximum of freedom, without any concerns for the screenplay, and I only discovered its architecture during the editing a bit to please the producer and also for myself. I think that the various scenes of the film are completely autonomous, isolated one from the next, and in any case it makes no difference to me what order they’re shown in.
To pursue an earlier discussion, it seems to us that your method of cutting the images, of breaking the continuity of the scenes, is a kind of violence inflicted on yourself with great sangfroid.
This is what makes me hated by everyone who otherwise might love me for someone I’m not. The need for rigor that I didn’t feel when I was making Before the Revolution has grown immensely over these last few years and may soon disappear.
Now I cut constantly to kill any possibility of the kind of passionate relationship between spectator and film you find in Before the Revolution, from which I developed a huge guilt complex. Now I believe that in making that film I let myself go too much. This naturally had consequences, for example, in the screenplay for Natura contro natura, which was a film with three characters – a poet, a politician and a homosexual – and was divided into three parts. In the first part entitled “Problems”, the problem of the poet is to get his poems read by Pasolini, the poet laureate whose verses he carries under his shirt next to his heart. He’s unable to meet Pasolini because he’s too shy and he doesn’t want to run the risk of being disappointed. His problem gets resolved by the homosexual, who says, “Let’s wait for the first windy night, go to Pasolini’s house, and I’ll help you climb over the garden wall, and then you can let the wind carry your pages throughout the garden. Lots will be lost, but many will be caught in the branches of the trees and in the grass and among the roses. In the morning Pasolini will read your poems. If I’d thought of this scene while filming Before the Revolution, I would have eventually tried to visualize it with flash forwards because it could only be a scene with a spectacular effect. But if I were to film Natura contro Natura today, none of that would be visualized, only the idea would remain recounted by the homosexual. I realized at some point that rather than showing things you have to show the idea of things. To show things is ultimately a way of making us not see them, a way of losing their reality, because often to visualize means merely to furnish a quantity of sensations which distance us from the idea which is the most important aesthetic sensation.
Why do you think of recent Italian cinema?
The only Italian films I like are not Italian. One is Brazilian, The Tropics by Gianni Amico; and another is Danish, The Visionaries by Maurizio Ponzi; and a Martian film, The Harem by Marco Ferreri. In any case the most Italian films of the last few years are those of Milos Forman!
[from Cinema&Film, n. 7-8, Rome, Spring 1969; translated by Fabien Gerard and T. Jefferson Kline, in Bernardo Bertolucci: Interviews, edited by Fabien S. Gerard, T. Jefferson Kline, University Press of Mississippi 2000]