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The Forgotten: Hotel Detective

Two Italian metaphysical thrillers blur reality and fantasy and waft around the edges of the giallo style.
La donna del lago

Hotels are cinematic. First of all, they are perfect microcosms, whether of a nation or of the world. Also, they work as a metaphor for cinema itself: a space where individuals, couples and families check in briefly, abandoning their regular life to be somewhere else. In La donna del lago (The Woman in the Lake, 1965) writer-directors Luigi Bazzoni and Franco Rossellini set their mystery in a hotel by a lake, where the writer protagonist soon finds himself lost in a narrative labyrinth, unable to tell fantasy from reality. Here, the hotel is like a projector (a dark box full of dreams) with the lake as its screen, upon which crazy lies and imaginings are projected.

In other words, this film is a prototype both for the whole giallo genre, and for Antonioni's Blow-Up and its descendants. Yet Rossellini, nephew of the more famous Roberto, and Bazzoni, brother of the less famous Camillo, are rarely discussed. The former never directed again, concentrating on line producing (Caligula, City of Women), but Bazzoni, while far from prolific, chalked up a couple of spaghetti westerns with interesting casts (Kinski, Palance, Tina Aumont), before checking into another spooky hotel at the end of his career...

It's worth noting that one of the film's co-writers is Giulio Questi, whose career charts similar outlying regions of weirdness to Bazzoni's, from the apocalypric mayhem of Django, Kill! to the downright unclassifiable insanity of Death Laid an Egg. I bet Luigi and Giulio had some fun together.

La donna del lago

Novelist Bernard moves into an old-fashioned hotel in a little town he has visited all his life, bearing unspecified emotional baggage, and outlining his next writing project—like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, although as he notes, "One never writes the novel one intended." Instead, he becomes trapped in a paranoid story triggered by the suicide of a chambermaid (Virna Lisi)...or was it murder? Brilliantly, the film doesn't supply any compelling reason to suppose foul play, it just lets the unravelling hero carom from one crackpot theory to the next, accepting tip-offs from dreams like Agent Dale Cooper, and reveling in over-exposed, high-contrast flashbacks pitched somewhere between Hitchcock and Marienbad.

The final revelation of madness and murder is almost disappointing, since it closes off at least some of the crazy suppositions, and seems to affirm that something really was going on outside of the hero's delusions. But the aimless, hallucinatory midsection of the film is an absorbing, woozy trip, continually offering up glittering, dreamlike visuals.

La donna del lago

Those who prefer their conundrums insoluble had best skip to Bazzoni's Le orme (Footsteps, 1975), an unclassifiable oddity which blends Antonioni anomie perfectly with the trappings of the psycho-thriller. Except there are no murders, no leather-gloved killer...the heroine is on the trail of lost time.

Translator Florinda Balkan reports for work only to discover that she's been missing for two days, having skipped out of a conference on environmental apocalypse. A torn postcard from the Hotel Garma (played by ethereal Turkish locations) and an unfamiliar yellow dress with a blood-stained hem are her only clues. Returning to the hotel triggers a complete switch from the film's steel-and-glass modernity to a stunning otherworldly, timeless Balkan is plagued by dreams of astronauts.

Le orme

If La donna del lago is too pat, its psychodrama neatly rounded out (despite a character's complaint that the author/hero's work suffers from his desire to understand everything), the full-on delirium of Le orme offers relief via total submersion in non-Cartesian mental chaos, where a certain inscrutable visual logic is the only way to make sense of anything. Photographed by Vittorio Storaro, it easily trumps Giornata nera per l'ariete (a.k.a. The Fifth Cord, 1971), another Bazzoni-Storaro giallo collaboration—in the skewed, free-association plotting of the Italian thriller, too little logic is probably better than too much, and a movie which simply piles mystery on mystery may be ultimately be more satisfying (because it's utterly unsatisfying) than one which pretends to wrap things up. Here, the viewer must act as detective-poet, finding the resonances in a stained-glass peacock, funereal organ music, a lunar landing craft, and Klaus Kinski in charge of ground control...

The wrap-up arguably imposes some kind of logic by way of a single superimposed title, but stare at the screen a minute and you'll start to wonder whether any questions have been answered at all. And then maybe just decide to ignore the title and invent your own answers. Or your own questions.

Le orme


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

Looks luscious. Virna Lisi was quite spectacular in her youth, especialyl in the Quine/Axelrod “How To Murder Your Wife.” But she didn’t get her greatest role until Patrice Chereau had the insight to cast her as Catherine de Medici in “Queen Margot” Franco Rosselini was a world c;lass sybarite who towards the last that he was suffereing from “just a touch of AIDS.” Among his other achivements, Patronit-Griffi’s “The Driver’s Seat” with Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol — a future “Forgotten” if there ever was one.
Is La donna del Lago on DVD anywhere?
Alas, no official DVD and no official subtitles exist for La Donna del Lago. Le Orme is available from Shameless Cinema in the UK in a restored edition — previously untranslated scenes are included in a lower picture quality, but most of it looks luscious and shows off Storaro’s photography to great advantage. The Driver’s Seat remains unavailable as anything other than VHS, alas… It’s quite a remarkable piece of work.
…apocalypric? Curious…. invented word? If so, nice.
Apocalypstick would be better.
Glad I stumbled across this. It sounds brilliant. Thank you. And yes, DO say something about The Driver’s Seat. It was based on a Muriel Spark novel and influential on Amis fil’s London Fields. Actually there seems to have been a great number of now forgotten adaptations of novels by British women. Iris Murdoch’s The Severed Head, starring Lee Remmick, Claire Bloom, Attenborough and Ian Holm. Margaret Drabble’s a Touch of Love, based on The Millstone. Beryl Bainbridge’s Sweet William (which I’ve actually seen). More well known is perhaps Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater, scripted by Harold Pinter.
The movie of The Pumpkin Eater might even be marginally better-known than the book. I haven’t seen the others, although A Severed Head has long intrigued. I’d forgotten entirely about Sweet William (Waterston & Agutter!) and never even heard of A Touch of Love…

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