By Joe McElhaney.
I. Fabric and Fog
For Visconti, though, the white nights are those of winter, with the electric lights of the film’s urban setting creating one manifestation of white….”
Dostoevsky’s white nights are those of a summer, when the sky of Petersburg “was so bright and starry.”(1) The arrival of spring causes Petersburg to become comparable to a female body as she “reveals herself in all her might and glory” and as “she blossoms out, dresses up, decks herself out with flowers.” (2) For the narrator, this happy atmosphere gives him the sensation of having “suddenly found myself in Italy.” (3) For Visconti, though, the white nights are those of winter, with the electric lights of the film’s urban setting creating one manifestation of white, as do the final moments of the film when snow falls.
But there is another layer of white central to the film: fog. This was created not from mechanically controlled condensed vapors pumped onto the set but out of tulle hung from rafters. Rotunno explains: “These veils, invisible when unlit, became visible as fog when my lights, which I positioned where I could . . . were powered up by a control panel.” (4) We are seeing here a variation on a technique with its origins in silent cinema, in which the placing of gauze over the lens becomes a form of diffusion, or in which a softening of the background of a shot occurs through fine netting being placed on the set, often behind the camera subject. (5) Fog becomes fabric, but fog itself is capable of evoking fabric’s enveloping capacities. Unlike Dostoevsky, Visconti offers a twilight world of the demimonde in which sexual desires emerge and recede from the fog, hiding in darkened alleyways and doorways, the town itself veiled. As Mario walks about in the opening sequence, he comes across a shadowed passageway where a man is standing. He and Mario exchange greetings but without our ever seeing the man’s face. Who is this man who stands in passageways at night? Is he looking for a sexual pickup? If so, with a man or a woman? He is another of the recurring male figures in Visconti creating a strong image for being on the edges of an environment, in shadow, leaning against the décor, convincing young men to journey off with them to greater adventures. These men, bundled up in trench coats or (like Spagnolo in Ossessione, 1943) with their clothing in tatters, give a muted voice to partially articulated desires.
As in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), the weather in White Nights is cold, with the coat again becoming a crucial item of both covering and exchange, not white coats now but dark ones serving as a visual contrast with the possibilities of white that are elsewhere. Throughout the film, a character not in the Dostoevsky, a prostitute (Clara Calamai), prowls the streets hoping Mario will eventually succumb to her. She wears the blackest of coats, its deep black also made prominent by the white scarf tucked in at the collar. The coat, combined with her black hair, becomes one limit point of options for sexual desire, the other being the man in the passageway. Mario, though, is able to resist both figures, not even remotely tempted by what is being offered. He is attracted to something more pure, something that implies, however provisionally, a relationship to light: Natalia.
In Dostoevsky, Nastenka is first spotted by the narrator “engrossed in looking at the muddy water of the canal” and wearing “a most enchanting yellow hat and a very charming black cloak.” (6) Two Lovers reverses genders and protagonists for this same moment. In the opening sequence, the dark-haired and Jewish Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix), effectively assuming the role of Nastenka, will plunge into a bay, making explicit the atmosphere of suicide surrounding this moment in Dostoevsky. Just prior to this, as Leonard walks toward the water, we see in a low-level, slow-motion image various dry-cleaned shirts covered in plastic and paper that he will abandon, dropping them to the ground. We soon discover that Leonard works with his father in a dry-cleaning business, one of several evocations in the film of Rocco and His Brothers. The dry-cleaning business becomes the source of conformity, as one shirt after another rolls along the assembly belt. All of this is nevertheless tied to the kind of organic world, via family and culture, that Dostoevsky and Visconti avoid. Leonard’s options are embodied in two women, the blonde, gentile Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the dark-haired, Jewish Sandra (Vinessa Shaw). It is Sandra’s father who has plans to purchase the dry-cleaning business from Leonard’s father, the marriage between Sandra and Leonard becoming the continuation of Leonard’s preexistent social situation. When Michelle walks into Leonard’s apartment for the first time, she notices the smell of mothballs, reminding her of her grandmother’s home, as Leonard ironically tells her the mothballs are due to his parents trying to protect all their designer clothes. The image (and odor) of mothballs, aging, and deadness through clothing becomes a crucial site of stagnation, with Leonard seeing in the non-Jewish Michelle an avenue of escape. In White Nights, Mario’s desire is focused solely on Natalia and it is she who is torn between two lovers, although this is handled in a very different register from the Gray film.
Nastenka is described by Dostoevsky as having dark features. But Visconti cast the pale, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed Swiss Austrian Maria Schell, and with Mastroianni beside her they form another white/black, dark/light contrast. Although Schell speaks Italian in the film, her national origins are not specified and her accent adds another layer of otherness to her character. Visconti had served as the head of the jury of the Venice Film Festival in 1956 where the Best Actress prize was given to Schell for her performance in the title role of the laundress in René Clément’s Gervaise (1956), an adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877). As in much of Clément’s work, Gervaise builds its image structures around water and fabric, frequently linking the two phenomena. A year after White Nights, Schell would go to Hollywood and appear as Grushenka in Richard Brooks’s adaptation of The Brothers Karamazov (1958). In her first important shot in the Brooks film, she is sitting in the back of a carriage, a white lace veil covering her head, and the beatific lighting she is given serves as an ironic contrast to the character she is portraying. Schell’s blondness led to her frequently being cast in roles in which she is either an innocent who is destroyed by the cruelty of the world around her, as in Alexandre Astruc’s Maupassant adaptation Une Vie (1958), or whose innocence is itself relative, unstable, hiding other potentials. (7)
If in “White Nights” both our protagonists are dreamers, this status has a somewhat different emphasis than in the Visconti. In Dostoevsky, the male protagonist’s status as a dreamer is also tied to him being an avid reader of literature who is often placing the events around him in relation to works of fiction, someone who transforms the reality in front of him into aesthetic matter. The dreamer protagonist as artist is literalized in Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971), where Bresson gives this character (named Jacques) the profession of painter. In Two Lovers, the aesthetic dreamer is an amateur still photographer and a cinephile. Visconti dispenses with such possibilities. Neither Mario nor Natalia have any interest in the arts, and instead the film emphasizes their isolation as a simple form of romantic pathos.
In our first close view of Mario, he is standing in front of a film poster. Tucking his scarf into his coat, he looks off, not noticing the poster itself. The film being advertised is Vestire gli ignudi/Clothing the Naked (Marcello Pagliero, 1953), an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s 1922 play of the same title. The implications of that title are tied to Pirandello’s concern with symbolically clothing oneself in order to hold on to one’s illusions. The heroine Ersilia’s monologue at the end of the play, spoken as she is dying, engages in shifts between clothing as material item and clothing as metaphor. She speaks of only wanting to “make myself a decent dress to die in” and also of a wedding dress she once dreamed of but which has since been metaphorically torn off of her. (8) Visconti never staged a Pirandello play, but White Nights distantly contains a Pirandellian idea of characters caught “in the act of creating themselves in the other’s eyes.” (9) This is also found in the Dostoevsky, where the narrator declares of Natalia, “Can it be that he has only seen her in ravishing visions, and that his passion has been nothing but an illusion?” (10) Nevertheless, the modernist play with masks, surfaces, and appearances in Pirandello is not a primary concern of Visconti’s and he remains attached to a certain literary conception of the detail charged with potential meanings and a world in which the dream, even if exposed as a form of self-deception, is rendered in its full imaginative capacity. (11)
While waiting for Mario, Natalia stands in front of a shop window, staring at a white gown laid out on a long pedestal, the pedestal draped in dark fabric. Mario walks up behind her, his reflection caught in the glass as he eats a candy cane. She spots him through the reflection and happily turns around but he is gone. Mario briefly becomes something he otherwise fails at being for Natalia, a romantic vision appearing and disappearing at will. It is as though the gown in the window briefly creates an atmosphere for Natalia’s desires. Mario walks away while also looking back, as though hoping to reverse a defining feature of their relationship. He stands in front of a café window, the glass covered with steam generated by the heat inside. Several women inside walk over to the window as Mario stands on the other side, the women smoking and adjusting their makeup. One woman spots Mario and, clearly attracted to him, writes “ciao!” backward on the glass, her hands covered in gloves. The woman is attractive and well dressed, a coat draped over her shoulders. Mario distantly returns her smile but he remains connected to Natalia and walks away. These two windows are central to the film’s conception of sexual and romantic desire (and have no counterpart in the Dostoevsky.) We are in a world in which desires are placed in the midst of not simply cold but fog and mist, windows covered in steam, objects of desire just out of reach.
II. Tied Together
The protagonists of The Stranger are comparatively ‘adult’ but no less adrift or innocent in their social world. Whereas White Nights is dominated by cold, The Stranger is dominated by intense heat.”
A central idea White Nights retains from Dostoevsky is of Natalia being tied to her grandmother by a safety pin, this pin evoking both an umbilical cord and a diaper. In Dostoevsky, Nastenka explains that, due to an indiscretion when she was fifteen, her grandmother pinned Nastenka to her, and it is here where she spends much of her time, as the grandmother knits. In the story, Nastenka is seventeen, the narrator twenty-two. Schell was thirty when she played Natalia, Mastroianni thirty-three, and neither character’s age is specified in the film. The romantic, youthful behavior of the protagonists in Dostoevsky becomes in Visconti a delayed passage into adult sexuality. The reason given for the safety pin in the film is that Natalia’s parents ran off when she was very young and her grandmother has pinned Natalia to her for fear that she, too, will run away.
The protagonists of The Stranger (1967) are comparatively “adult” but no less adrift or innocent in their social world. Whereas White Nights is dominated by cold, The Stranger is dominated by intense heat. Also unlike White Nights, and consistent with its source novel, much of The Stranger takes place in bright daylight. As with Ossessione, The Stranger opens (following a fast-paced prologue of Meursault’s arrest for murder) with a sweating man arriving at a new, disorienting location. But, unlike Gino, Meursault is fundamentally bourgeois, thus setting him apart from the protagonists who otherwise dominate Visconti’s cinema who are either aristocrats or of the proletariat, the approach to clothing likewise deriving its force from the stark differences between these worlds. Meursault is tied to white-collar labor and to family, albeit a family that is, via his mother, literally dead. At his mother’s funeral, Meursault states, “It was hot in my dark clothes.” (12) Visconti substitutes the dark suit for a light gray one, perhaps all the better to establish the whiteness of things, the pale colors also making sweat more visible. (Meursault will wear this suit again, at his murder trial.) Also unlike Gino, this atmosphere of overheated bodies does not translate into Meursault becoming a naturalist object of desire, either for the camera or for any of the male and female protagonists within the film itself. In terms of the former, it is entirely possible to imagine a film in which such a strategy could have occurred, and had Delon assumed the role the emphases might have been very different. But Visconti films Mastroianni in a straightforward manner. The opposite of Livia, Mastroianni’s Meursault is indifferent to giving a performance.
In a sequence set in his apartment, his girlfriend, Marie (Anna Karina), is happily wearing his pajamas, laughing, the morning after they have had sex. This detail of the pajamas is from the novel. But in Camus, her laughter arouses Meursault and they again have sex. In the film, they have sex again as well but there is no implication that the sex arises from Meursault’s response to her laughter. Instead, he walks over to where she is standing, unbuttons the top of the pajamas, and pulls them down to her shoulders as they then move to a double bed. The state of arousal implicitly occurs through her being dressed like him. While such gender reversals through sleepwear are virtually a convention of romantic comedy, thus barely constituting a radical gesture, this does indicate a slight (even queer) deviation from the function of the pajamas in Camus.
By contrast, in White Nights the bed in which Mario sleeps is a twin bed with not a hint that sexual activity could ever occur on it. At one point he wakes up sneezing, a long scarf comically functioning as a nightcap and absurdly placed atop his head, a desexualized image. Unlike the male protagonist of the Dostoevsky, Mario is given an exhausted demeanor, thus anticipating Meursault. But his sleepiness is tied to his activity as a romantic dreamer. The major bed of the film belongs not to Mario or to Natalia but to the boarder (Jean Marais). For her first visit to his room, Natalia ascends the stairs to his room, the design of the stairs exaggerated in its height and length, as though to indicate that she is moving into an enchanted realm. Dressed in a dark shirt and blouse, she is holding a large white rag as a pretense for an intention to clean his room. Once in the room, she is first shown sniffing his hair gel. The sequence evokes Gino’s exploration of Anita’s room in Ossessione but with crucial differences. In both sequences, fabric and other items of décor become an extension of the desired body. As already noted in relation to Ossessione, the desire is also one for an entire world represented by Anita, contrasting with the world of Giovanna. What we have in White Nights is an inversion of this in which the boarder represents not, as with Anita, domestic stability but an escape from this, a breaking of the safety pin in order to attach oneself to a wandering male figure. Whereas Anita has personalized her room, the boarder makes little attempt to engage in a similar strategy, and fabric items are minor, such as lace coverings over tables or dressers, hanging towels or washcloths, all of this preceding him staying there.
Four Nights of a Dreamer offers a more intense experience of fabric in relation to the same moment. The first impression Marthe (Isabelle Weingarten) has of the new tenant as she enters his room is of his open suitcase on the bed, with his shirts on top, the shirts and other displayed contents becoming the substitute for the body of the man she has not yet seen. Throughout the film, Bresson’s camera will move closely to the texture of a woman’s sweater, to the way a dress clings to a woman’s body as she walks, or to the brown corduroy jacket and pants on Jacques (Guillaume des Forêts), even calling attention to the sounds the corduroy makes as he moves. Fabric takes on a directly erotic charge, as seen in the astonishing close-up of Jacques’s crotch on the bus so we see the thickness and protrusions of the corduroy. White Nights, a film of erotic frustrations, keeps such strategies in check. Like Mario, the boarder sleeps on a small twin bed. When he tells Natalia he is going away, she throws herself on this bed, illustrating Dostoevsky’s prose: “Shame, love, pride seemed to speak in me all at once, and I fell on the bed almost in convulsions.” (13) In a striking shot with no correspondence in Dostoevsky, she is facedown, one pillow neatly piled on top of another, with a white washrag visible at the top right of the frame. In The Stranger, on the morning after Meursault’s first sexual encounter with Marie, he sniffs the white pillow where she has slept and, as Camus writes, tries “to find the salty smell Marie’s hair had left on the pillow.” (14) Natalia has no such option, and these stacked pillows in their clean, white cases on this small bed that can barely hold two people at once (he will soon join her on the bed as they embrace) represent the body to be taken from her.
A significant addition to the film is the occupation given to Natalia and her grandmother: they repair rugs. In the first section of the story she narrates to Mario, Natalia is sitting amidst the ruins of a building. She describes her first encounter with the new boarder, a foreigner. This reference to him as a foreigner engenders a literal movement by the camera into the past, panning and then reverse tracking, revealing the room in which Natalia and her grandmother repair rugs. This movement is handled without a cut, the space clearly one large set. The effect is at once theatrical, as though the lights have gone up on a previously obscured stage set, and cinematic in the surprising reveal, in a single camera movement, of the two distinct parts of the set. What is revealed are rugs everywhere: on the floor, rolled up against the wall, hanging on the wall, and covering the table for repairs, along with rolls of yarn. Once this movement is completed, the new boarder, dressed in a tweed coat and hat, enters the room. A reverse angle shows what would have been, in the studio set from the previous shot, the ruins in which Natalia had been sitting but which now is the other side of the room with Natalia. In this new angle, the grandmother is knitting (as she does in Dostoevsky), an embroidered blanket covering her chair as Natalia works on a rug. Surrounding these women are still more rugs, great piles of them, hanging or rolled up behind them. As the grandmother, responding to the new boarder’s request, tells Natalia to get the rent ledger, Natalia excitedly jumps up but with a safety pin still attached and, in a forward tracking shot as she attempts to pull away, the grandmother’s needlepoint is visible in her lap as we also see yarn draped around her arm. Knitting women have been central to other Visconti films addressed so far. But White Nights takes this to another level. This space where Natalia and her grandmother knit is one of abundance due to the rugs. But such abundance remains tied to not only labor but the declining social status of the women since Natalia’s grandfather had been a rug merchant, with Natalia and the grandmother now reduced to repairing rugs for others. Moreover, the implications of Natalia being tied to her grandmother as she is otherwise surrounded, if not engulfed, by rugs and other old women working with her implies a space of both ruin and sexual potential, even the possibility of being transported out of this world, the rugs becoming, with the entrance of the new boarder, a magic carpet.
Reprinted from LUCHINO VISCONTI AND THE FABRIC OF CINEMA by Joe McElhaney (2021) with the permission of the publisher, Wayne State University Press.
1) Fyodor Dostoevsky, “White Nights,” in The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky, trans. David Macgarshack (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), 1.
2) Ibid., 6.
4) Interview with Giuseppe Rotunno, White Nights (Criterion DVD, 2005), 11:42–12:40.
5) See Barry Salt, Film Style and Technology, 2nd ed. (London: Starword, 1983), 161–62.
6) Dostoevsky, “White Nights,” 7.
7) In a review of Une Vie, Godard would declare that the “real beauty” of the film is in the “shimming” yellow dress worn by Pascale Petit (Godard on Godard, 95). “Astruc is very different here from Visconti [in White Nights] with whom it would be silly to compare him” (Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, ed. and trans. Tom Milne [New York: Da Capo Press, 1972], 98).
8) Luigi Pirandello, Naked, trans. Nina Davinci Nichols (Buffalo: Guernica, 2004), 87.
9) Ibid., 10.
10) Dostoevsky, “White Nights,” 27.
11) In the early 1970s, Visconti was interested in directing several films for English and American television, one of them an adaptation of Pirandello’s Tonight We Improvise (1930). See Monica Stirling, A Screen of Time: A Study of Luchino Visconti (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 263. Possibly because of his declining health, none of the television efforts came to pass.
12) Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Matthew Ward (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 15.
13) Dostoevsky, “White Nights,” 41.
14) Camus, The Stranger, 21.
Joe McElhaney is professor of film studies at Hunter College/City University of New York. His books include The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli, Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment (Wayne State University Press, 2009), Albert Maysles, and A Companion to Fritz Lang. He has published numerous essays on European, Asian, and American cinema.