White Nights (of a Dreamer)

“It is the hour when practically all business, office hours and duties are at an end, and everyone is hurrying home to dinner, to lie down, to have a rest, and as they walk along they think of other pleasant ways of spending the evening, the night, and the rest of their leisure time. . . . and so at that hour our hero, who has not been wasting his time, either, is walking along with the others. But a strange expression of pleasure plays on his pale and slightly crumpled-looking face. It is not with indifference that he looks at the sunset which is slowly fading on the cold Petersburg sky. When I say he looks, I’m telling a lie: he does not look at it, but is contemplating it without, as it were, being aware of himself, as though he were tired or preoccupied at the same time with some other more interesting subject, being able to spare only a passing and almost unintentional glance at what is taking place around him. He is glad to have finished until next day with all tiresome business. He is happy as a schoolboy who has been let out of the classroom and is free to devote all his time to his favorite games and forbidden pastimes.”
–from White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevky

As enjoyable as the life of a cinephile is, it can have its drawbacks, particularly in the age of video and the Internet. I love the fact that I can write to people all over the world, order DVDs from around the globe, read English sites and struggle through French ones–not to mention blog about my notable discoveries from week to week. But let’s face it, such endeavors prescribe a certain degree of isolation; in order to engage the world, a contemporary film buff must virtually lock himself at home in order to watch videos or surf the Net, devoting herself to a cinephile’s “favorite games and forbidden pastimes.”

I’ve already written fondly of my recent social experience in Toronto, but as Los Angelenos begin spending more time indoors than out (our first rain since April patters against my window as I write this), it’s easy to fall into introverted habits; particularly someone like me who has always savored solitary, creative endeavors like drawing, reading, writing, or random contemplation. As the awkward joys of relationships and concerns like the upcoming, alarmingly crucial presidential election and its myriad implications prove, it’s important to step away from the keyboard and stack of DVDs every now and then.

These thoughts occurred to me this past weekend when the UCLA Film & Television Archive continued its Luchino Visconti retrospective on Sunday by screening the filmmaker’s White Nights (1957), his adaptation of Dostoevsky’s 1848 confessional short story about an impromptu romance initiated on the streets of Petersburg. Dostoevky’s narrator is a shy “dreamer,” a marginally successful businessman who spends the majority of his free time isolated in his apartment, lost in the narratives of his reading (“his imagination is once more ready for action, excited, and in a flash a new world, a new fascinating life, once more opens up enchanting new vistas before him”) so that his eventual return to reality seems like a letdown; something to be avoided. Thanks to the extended “white night” dusks of Petersburg, however, the narrator ventures outside his home and encounters Nastenka, a lively and attractive young woman who seeks advice for her troubled relationship with another man who hasn’t returned from an extended business trip. The story recounts their conversations over the course of several nights and is renowned for its evocative portrait of the protagonist’s emotional turbulence; in fact, it’s often seen as a precursor to the seminal Notes from the Underground, which Dostoevsky wrote seventeen years later.

I was already familiar with the story through Robert Bresson’s 1971 adaptation, Four Nights of a Dreamer, a film that can only be seen on atrociously grainy bootleg videos at the moment. Nevertheless, it’s a very charming film, one of Bresson’s most whimsical and even humorous works despite its tragic denouement. So at my friend Girish’s prompting, I resolved to read the original text and watch Visconti’s adaptation, and briefly allude to their similarities and differences here.

Both film versions adhere closely to the original narrative, although they stylistically diverge like equal halves of Dostoevsky’s romantic story–Visconti’s lush melodrama and Bresson’s deeply-felt, impenetrable introversion. Both films are overlooked works in their filmmakers’ respective oeuvres (much like Dostoevsky’s short story itself), full of unique and compelling touches.

Although Visconti was a contributor to classic neorealism with films like Obssessione (1943) and La Terra Trema (1948), he became increasingly known for his aristocratic refinement and visual polish and White Nights was a key transitionary work. Filmed completely inside the studio, the film recreates the foggy canal-lined streets of Livorno and the rabble-rousing social outcasts who frequent its shadows. The two lovers (Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell) meet on a picturesque, arched bridge and their romantic musings promise salvation. Giuseppe Rotunno’s chiaroscuro cinematography and Nino Rota’s passionate score embellish the moody ambience and underline every emotional point of the narrative.

By way of contrast, Bresson’s film is a paradoxical and understated depiction of modern Parisian youth. Bresson makes his protagonist an amateur painter named Jacques who seems to perpetually work on his paintings in fits and spurts, more ritual than vocation. He’s played, of course, by a non-professional actor who models his character’s behaviors and embodies a hidden soul forging existence through the tangible elements of his surroundings. (Bresson’s characters are much more physical and sexual than Dostoevky’s or Visconti’s.) As Lindley Hanlon describes the protagonist in Fragments: Bresson’s Film Style:

“Throughout the film, Jacques’ straight face, his bizarre daily activities and his slightly reticent posture conveys his character . . . certain repeated gestures and rhythms mark his handling of these objects: lying back on his bed and listening to the tape recording of his own voice, pivoting back and forth between paint cans and canvas, which he dabs, tossing a rag away, piling up dishes in the sink, reaching surreptitiously into his jacket to turn on the tape recorder, and systematically turning his canvases to the wall, the supreme act of self-effacement.”

Both films have standout set pieces. Visconti stages a rousing dance sequence in a small cafÈ that embodies Mastroianni’s feelings of inadequacy and yearning for romance with every move. Bresson humorously provides a faux action film seen in a theatre that plays like a ludicrous conflation of movie conventions and his own minimalist sensibilities: a roaring gunfight occurs; a man stoically knees another man and turns around, only to be machine-gunned at close range; dramatically falling to his kness, he then slowly crawls toward a gun lying next to a pool of blood on the floor, but his assailant mercilessly shoots him at the last suspenseful moment; as he lays dying, the music swells and the man silently pulls a photo of a young woman out of his pocket and kisses it. It’s a hilarious conglomeration of Bressonian faux pas: onscreen violence, melodramatic deaths, obvious suspense techniques, nondiegetic music, and sentimental clichÈ. “We have fallen into a trap,” a young spectator whispers to her mother, “Let’s go.”

In the final analysis, I find myself valuing Bresson’s quirky, perplexing piece over Visconti’s emotional wave; Four Nights of a Dreamer is a film that will continue to reveal nuances whereas I feel Visconti’s film has breathed its last wonderful sigh to me. But that may simply betray my deep love of Bresson’s style. Both films are solid conceptions that work well on their own terms, and both deserve extended review as serious interpretations of Dostoevsky’s classic text, a provocative critique of the cozy, secluded comfort of illusions.

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