Monday, August 27, 2012

Film Review: 'Summertime' 1955 dir., David Lean

David Lean is my favourite director. He's such a visual storyteller and he has an almost poetic sensibility which allows his fleeting camera gaze to speak more volumes than the carefully chosen words of the screenplays he is imagining.

Consider the moment in Doctor Zhivago when Yuri Zhivago is trapped on a crowded train across the barren snow-swept lands and looks longingly up at the moon: he is still a poet; no matter time or circumstance.  Consider how the throngs of Lawrence of Arabia's rag-tag band of up-risers surround the carcass of a train as Lawrence parades atop it; swinging his long cape, watching his shadow, basking in the light.  Consider the look of extreme pathos when Captain Nicholson visually trails the exposed wire which will blow the painstaking work he and his POW regiment put into the Bride over the River Kwai.

Lean has a very perceptive grasp of humanity: of the nuances which feed our daily decisions and inform our life with inevitable vulnerability.  Thus, when he pits spinster Elementary school secretary, Jane Hudson (played by Katharine Hepburn---who will rip your heart out ) against the awed beauty of Venice in Summertime, you believe the alighting of her eyes when she feasts in the first glimpse of the famed canals, you hear, with her, the resounding romance of La Gazza ladra as she sips wine next to a dashing Italian shopkeeper.

You feel her heartbreak and experience those titillating moments of a love almost realized.   Lean can tell a story with his camera lens and he transports this device very early on to his spinster heroine.

When Jane Hudson arrives in Venice you see the wish fulfillment of a long-saved-for trip reflected in her brightened eyes.  She spans the landscape of the age-old city with a hunger that she strives to capture with her camera: always at the ready.  Travellers know that pictures captured on camera are but second best to the moment you first glimpse steeped and sloping cobblestones, or the majesty of a church spire; but Jane soaks it all in.

She settles into the Pensione Fiorini and we get the first glimpse of her well-reserved loneliness as she reluctantly pours a dram of liquor for herself when her companions, the head of the pensione and a few likewise American travellers, leave for their dinner plans.

Later, she strolls, solo, through the Piazza San Marco: her camera, her guidebook and maybe even her journal set next to her glass of wine.  She is watching, observing, listening.... she is especially in tune with pairs. She is one of those people who doesn't seem to notice she is alone until she sees couples strolling by.  Behind her, a refined gentleman sits languidly.  At first, he doesn't seem to notice her, until he settles upon the graceful upturn of her ankle as her leg protrudes from her dress and fits slenderly into a well-matched shoe. From there, he becomes fixated on her: watching her back as she strains and leans forward, as she fiddles with her camera, as she drinks in his city.

She catches him watching her, fumbles for her sunglasses and embarrassedly runs away.  Tell me you haven't done this before?  ---caught someone imposing harmlessly on a private moment and felt ashamed for your stark humanity....

The next day she encounters the same gentleman, Renato de Rossi (played by the oh-so-smouldering Rossano Brazzi ) again as she peeks through his antiques shop and settles on a beautiful goblet of Venetian glass.   He follows her  to her pensione and admits his attraction.  She is unaccustomed to being at the receiving end of love and passion: a spinster who doesn't belong, who appears fine and strong and happy as all of the turmoil of loneliness and pain ripples well beneath her well-manicured facade.   Renato persists.

David Lean will never craft us a fairytale.  He prefers love in the bittersweet, moving and exposed.  But, he offers hints of a fairytale: symbolized in small gestures and movements: a red shoe left behind evoking the myth of Cinderella and a woman taking flight at love's first blush; a gardenia linking a strong remembrance of a long-ago ball --- a tale from a spinster's more promising youth before everything passed her by; the almost-moment of rendezvous as a train chugs out of the station...

Isn't Rossano awesome? don't you love his terribly misguided; but wonderful casting as Prof. Bhaer in the 1949 'Little Women'?
Lean strings you along in a cruel and depraved way ( remember Brief Encounter? EGADS!) but there is such truth in his exposition.  This is not a tale of love everlasting, ignited and consummated in typical hollywood fashion: it is a brief and shining moment of optimism and hope in a woman who thought life had passed her by, who is so used to providing strength and entertainment that the slightest tear has her re-thinking her self-worth to public eye. A woman who suddenly has a reason to buy a scarf and get a manicure and go to the hairdressers.

Renato's place in her life isn't as the relationship that need exist forever ---- it's in her discovery that she is desirable, attractive, as worthy of a glance of a gentleman as the younger and prettier guests at the pensione .......

This movie will rip your heart out and eat it for breakfast --Now, Voyager style.

You'll hear the credit music roll and feel remarkably pained and somewhat unsatisfied; but then you'll go back to the begin and watch it unfurl again and feel the pang of loss and the ecstasy of hope quelling like the crescendo of the violins which lurk through the plaza and throughout the soundtrack and you'll become a slave to this almost-love.... and it's worth it; every minuscule second of it.


Unknown said...

This was an absolutely beautiful review, Rachel! Next time this is on TCM I am definitely watching it!

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