Thursday, July 06, 2006

THE NIGHT PORTER - a reconsideration

In my recent review of HARD CANDY, I called the film trash. I accused it of exploiting themes of paedophilia in order to juice up a rather conventional revenge thriller. I compared it to Liliana Cavani's movie THE NIGHT PORTER, which was also famously accused of exploiting the Holocaust to "beef up" a rather sordid erotic thriller. In doing so, I realised that this might be a little rash. After all, I had only seen THE NIGHT PORTER once before - when I was fifteen - and hardly able to judge its moral, historical, cinematic or sexual content. I managed to track down a copy on battered VHS and so now can give a rather more considered judgement. Naturally, this will involve plot spoilers.

To those blissfully unaware of the brouhaha surrounding this film, THE NIGHT PORTER was released in 1974. It is a movie made by the Italian director, Liliana Cavani, perhaps best known to modern audiences as the director of RIPLEY'S GAME. The movie is set in post-war Vienna. It is in the 1950s and an ex-SS officer called Max (Dirk Bogarde) is working as a night porter is a swanky hotel. He lives a sordid life, procuring whores for rich guests, and even more sinister, injecting another guest with a tranquiliser or a stronge narcotic? The scene has under-tones of sexual abuse, made the more disturbing by the fact that the apparent victim is clearly paying for this "service." In flashbacks, we see that Max used to be one of a string of brutish, morally repulsive concentration camp guards, and that this hotel guest once danced ballet for them, practically nude. We also see SS officers raping the camp inmates.

The thematic material of the piece is thus established. We are to exist in a world where death is eroticised and sexual relations are abusive - where victims can appear to be oppressors. Fascinating, dangerous material. The odds are increased with the introduction of Lucia (
Charlotte Rampling.) Lucia is a beautiful young guest at the hotel, who recognises Max from the concentration camp. Her flashbacks show her as an emaciated, yet still stunningly beautiful, shockingly young girl, with cropped ginger hair - shocking colour in a morbidly grayscale flashback. What was their relationship?

Max is being investigated by a group of elderly Nazis. They gather up evidence and provide some - what is the word? - peace of mind - for other Nazis. Better to be accused and perhaps acquitted by a friendly, discreet panel, than exposed before the world. Best of all, the devil's advocate (in this case, the *prosecution*) will destroy all the evidence - killing any witnesses if necessary. Now, Max nervously asks the panel, having seen Lucia, if it is not possible to let the witnesses live? A bizarre act of mercy, until we find that Max and Lucia were in fact lovers in the camp. Lucia seeks out Max in the hotel and they have a reunion that is violent, passionate and finally a relief. Lucia laughs in joy. The lovers are reunited. As one of Max's Nazi guests responds - "What a beautiful romance!"

And so, we see their relationship unfurl - both as it is now and as it was then. The scenes are cut to melt between now and then. In one typical scene, Max feeds Lucia a spoon full of soup. He brushes some soup from her lip. She sucks on his finger and then moves to fellate him. The scene melts into Lucia fellating Max in the camp. But the most notorious scene is where Lucia, dressed in a soldier's trousers, braces, long leather gloves and officer's cap, sings a German song for the officers in the camp.
Finally, in order to save Lucia from the Nazi panel, Max and Lucia hole up in an apartment and literally starve to death, all the while continuing with their bizarre relationship.

How is the viewer supposed to react to such scenes -and such imagery? On the one hand, I rather like the idea of reflecting this period in history - when morality was inverted and events were at the limit of evil - with a story of a relationship which is also at the limits. However, there is something very slippery in the way in which the scenes are shot, cut and scored. Think of the rape scene in IRREVERSIBLE. Here, the rape scene does not show the woman as a sexual object or porn star - using close ups of her flesh. The camera is unrelentingly fixed with no cuts and no score. The experience is properly brutal.

By contrast, in your typical rape scene, the victim is fetishised by the camera, with largely the same shooting style used for a rape as for a love scene. And that is exactly what happens in THE NIGHT PORTER. Lucia is made into a sexual object. She claims that she is with Max, literally chained to the flat, of her own free will. And if this were genuinely so then perhaps Liliana Cavani's artistic choices would have some merit. If this were genuinely a plea for understanding on behalf of a sado-masochistic couple perhaps it would be okay. However, this is not a relationship freely entered into, even if Lucia thinks it is. After all, it is a relationship begun under extreme duress by a man who holds life and death in his hands with a young girl who is one move away from the gas chamber.

I suppose that what I am getting at is that I just don't buy Cavani's claim that this is simply a love story - one played out against a unique and taboo background - but a love story between two adults nonetheless. For me, this is simply a tale of a sick man who has brutalised a young girl. He has exploited her, and by filming her in an erotic manner, Cavani makes voyeurs and exploiters of us all. For that reason, I feel justified in calling this movie trash - no matter how good the acting. However, in one respect it is a superior product to a movie like HARD CANDY. For Cavani aimed high with this movie - judging from interviews her intentions evidently were to push the boundaries of art and understanding. By contrast, I fear that the makers of HARD CANDY were looking for an easy way to shock without any artistic pretensions. If the NIGHT PORTER is a noble failure, HARD CANDY is just re-casting the bunny-boiler.

Apparently, THE NIGHT PORTER is available on DVD in the US.

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