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The Forgotten: The Film of Memory

A chambermaid in a run-down hotel becomes enchanted by an aging courtesan, lost in the past, and finds the key to her own future.
A Matter of Time

The Film of Memory is a much better title than "A Matter of Time", isn't it? Especially with those prissy quotation marks. The former is the title of the novel by Maurice Druon which became the latter, Vincente Minnelli's last film.

Samuel Z. Arkoff's American International Pictures is a long way down from the Freed Unit at MGM, and however you cut it, this is a movie you have to make allowances for. A film out of time, a film about nostalgia which is itself a product of that impulse: set in a supremely unconvincing 1949 (location shots of 70s Rome feature copious non-period extras and automobiles), its heroine harkens back to a pre-WWI, prelapsarian paradise, while Minnelli himself is harking back to, well, 1949 or thereabouts, the period of his cinematic heyday.

A Matter of Time

Minnelli populates his movie with one great 40s star, Ingrid Bergman (as senile countess recalling her glorious youth to forget her present) and the daughters of others—Liza Minnelli (his own child and Judy Garland's), Tina Aumont (child of Jean-Pierre Aumont and Maria Montez) and, fleetingly, Isabella Rossellini (Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman herself). His male actors are a mostly unprepossessing bunch, not helped by what remains of the script, though Fernando Rey gets one decent scene as does Charles Boyer in his final screen appearance (for a film that has such trouble getting started, it's full of endings).

Without knowing the production history, it's hard to figure out quite what happened here, but it's easy to see that much of it was not good. Minnelli disowned the film, apparently the victim of tampering from Arkoff and company (who had a habit of butchering their better films because they couldn't understand anything that wasn't dross). And according to Liza, her father's mind was starting to wander, so that some scenes seem sharply drawn while others flounder. In addition, much of the dialogue seems to refer back to things we never saw, while long minutes of screen time are eaten up with redundant subplots or framing devices, so that the story doesn't actually begin, with Liza meeting Ingrid, until 27 minutes in. 

With this in mind, the film is best approached as a series of fragments, like Welles' The Dreamers: dismiss the film's unconvincing impersonation of a completed work and search it for interesting nuggets. There are plenty.

The grotesque: Minnelli's grasping for contemporary relevance results in some ill-advised forays into Seventies permissiveness. One (unseen) tenant of the run-down hotel where Liza works is coyly characterized as a lesbian, "So watch out!" The "hero" is a screenwriter struggling with a rape scene who tried to unblock himself by springing it on Liza as a role-play.

A Matter of Time

The curious: as Liza listens to Ingrid's memories, she begins to imagine herself living them out, a genuinely interesting conceit which should form the heart of the film, but goes nowhere because we're never allowed to see any actual story unfold in the past. A Venetian masked ball, an elegant casino, a sizzling rendition of "Do It Again" (Gershwin/DeSylva), but nothing that leads to the personal realizations later announced by Liza.

The absurd: Bergman is BIG, rangy and aggressive and hitting every dramatic note hard on the nose. And it's a surprise to see her wearing leopard-print boots (no costume designer is credited, which is a shame because design is paramount here). Liza gets a passionately expressed speech about how hard it is for a woman to grow old because while men are respected for their achievements, women are just expected to be beautiful, and that can't last. This comes somewhat from left field, perhaps cued by those deleted scenes (the whole of Ingrid and Liza's burgeoning friendship seems to have been left on some cutting-room floor), and feels like a desperate reaching for feminist relevance, but since the speech takes it as read that such a state of affairs is an eternal and inevitable tragedy, rather than the result of attitudes which might actually be changed, it feels more old-fashioned than the gowns.

A Matter of Time

The beautiful: Liza's first view of Ingrid is like a baroque Whistler's mother. The Kander & Ebb songs are nice, but too few to qualify this as a musical, and they retard the protracted opening further. Whatever old age has done to Minnelli, it hasn't robbed his camera of exuberance, and Geoffrey Unsworth's soft-focus photography serves up plenty of old Hollywood-style glamor.

Minnelli himself had a decade left to live, but this is a product of a dying cinema, and the sense that whole sequences have been torn from the scenario just adds to the poignancy of its evanescence. 

A Matter of Time

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A Matter of Time screens at the BAMcinématek's complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective in New York on October 25, 2011.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

There should be a festival of late career missteps like this. They are fascinating. Skidoo is like this one for me, even though Preminger made about four other films after that one. I often wonder if people watching this thought that it was an “end” film, grasping for relevance and not comprehending its own demise.
I think anyone seeing this in ‘76 would have guessed it meant the end for Minnelli, just because it’s so manifestly incomplete. Whoever made the cutting decisions behind his back has committed no less than an act of vandalism — it’s not some alternative vision of the movie, but a complete lack of vision allied to an arrogant desire to impose that emptiness on the film. What some producers call “input”. Certainly there are some unpleasant moments of “modern realism,” but they’re decorative touches, slightly desperate stabs at relevance. The heart of the film is willfully irrelevant to “what’s happening,” and all the better for it.
No it was obviously the end — even if the film had been a success. The Hollywood that forged Minnelli was long gone and the “new” one had no use for anything so much as remotely connected with the Freed unit. The “Do It Again” scene is not only the best thing in the film it’s my candidate for Liza’s best number ever. Pauline Kael wrote a disarmingly sympathtic review of the film when it was released, loudly complaining about the cuts and longing to see the film Minnelli wanted to make rather than the hash of it that was served up instead. She was especially taken with the Bergman/Boyer scene, and Bergman’s character as a whole really got to her. What shocks me about the film most of all is the incredibly tacky title sequence — the world’s worst lettering over close-ups of cheezy art reproductions. It’s a slap in the face to a man who loved great painting and was constantly inspired by it (eg. “Meet Me in St. Louis” constantly references Renoir.)
Thanks David and David. I think I was trying to find some lines of thought that would allow me to see where the studio input may have given me a mistaken impression that this was simply a filmmaker out of his time, which tends to be the impression that one might get from a cursory review. The one example that I can think of where time was on the side of the director is Melville. When Le Cercle Rouge came out, some were predisposed to say that Melville was out of touch for making a heist film in the middle of a cultural revolution, but he never felt the need to “connect” with the current.
There were also filmmakers who weathered the seventies, or at any rate survived them, after which the need to be hip or whatever receded, like Huston. Nobody seemed to mind him making period movies and literary adaptations and largely ignoring the cultural ructions in America and Europe.

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