Posts Tagged ‘Vertigo’

Grand Tour #10 – Austria. Magdalena the Sinner / Lilian Faschinger

May 12, 2017

For Austria, I had in mind Joseph Roth’s classic The Radetzky March, which I’ve been intending to read for some years; only I foresee quite a lot of grimness ahead once I reach Eastern Europe (it’s what publishers seem to think we want to read), and, all things considered, prefer not reading about social unrest to the alternative. Call me an ostrich if you will.

Not that the book I settled on, Lilian Faschinger’s 1995 novel Magdalena the Sinner (Magdalena Sünderin), translated by Shaun Whiteside, sounds light-hearted exactly. Magdalena abducts a Catholic priest at gunpoint during a Mass for Whitsun, drives him off into the countryside in her motorbike and sidecar, ties him to a tree and gags him, and proceeds to confess to the murders of seven ex-lovers.

Although ostensibly narrated by the priest, who comments periodically on his reactions to Magdalena’s confession, the novel’s real voice is that of Magdalena, who talks uninterrupted for the best part of 300 pages. At times it resembles another novel in the form of an extended monologue, Philip Roth’s filthy masterpiece Portnoy’s Complaint, although Magdalena rants less than Portnoy, and rarely if ever reaches his pitch of self-righteous anger. Perhaps ranting is the prerogative of men; certainly one recurring theme is the unrealistic demands men make of women.

Magdalena’s irreverent tone is established early on, as she compliments the priest for his response to being kidnapped, while critiquing the performances of the panicked server and organist. She proceeds to tell the story of her life, and there is a pleasingly absurd strain running through her recollections – a food-related dream in which Magdalena’s family house is surrounded by a moat containing a series of sauces; her sisters protesting Magdalena’s attempts to emancipate herself with entreaties to ‘declare your aunthood!’; a delightful description of her escape from the stifling pretensions of middle-class existence …

You must try this recipe that we found in southern Burundi, the cosmopolitan academics cried; you must listen to these songs performed only in a little mountain village in the interior of Sardinia during Easter week by three ninety-year-old women, which have thankfully been made accessible to us by the tireless efforts of a Viennese ethno-musicologist; you must try on this mask carved from the wood of a two-hundred-year-old sequoia by a Shawnee tribesman directly descended from Chief Tecumseh.

Magdalena’s relationships with her seven lovers overlap, so that often one will provide a refuge from her present relationship before becoming a problem himself. They’re a motley bunch, each from a different country, each with his own particular flaw (self-absorption, violence, philandering, vampirism, etc.), each dispatched in a different way, often pleasingly. Highlights? You have to go some way to beat a Transylvanian Jehovah’s Witness, I think, but the Bluebeardesque Baron Otto is an engaging character, as is the swimming instructor Karl Danzinger, who spends most of the duration of his relationship with the preternaturally patient Magdalena observing the various ways in which his three ex-wives are her superiors. Magdalena brokers peace between the wives, but there comes a point when Karl has to go the same way as the rest.

You come to love Magdalena. The reason she has gagged the priest is that she needs her story to be listened to in its entirety, something no man has ever been able to do. There’s a certain element of danger involved: I can’t be the only reader who has wondered if the nasty twist at the end, and this is exactly the kind of book that would have a nasty twist, will be that the priest is victim number seven. You see, like all of her victims, he loves Magdalena, a love that evolves slowly but surely during their brief time together. His pious sister Maria aside (the saint Maria and the sinner Magdalena – you see the hints at religious allegory; it’s pleasing but unsurprising when the priest’s name is eventually revealed to be Christian), he has never really spent time alone with a woman before, and has led an altogether sheltered life. At first shocked by Magdalena’s crimes, he comes to feel compassion for her, taking her part against her victims, and even begins to desire her. He compares her beauty favourably with a number of artistic depictions of her namesake Mary Magdalene, and, as the end of her narrative approaches, appears to be on the verge of throwing over the priesthood to run away with her.

Twenty-four hours ago I had been feverishly wondering how I could free myself from the power of my abductor, but in the meantime our relationship had changed so drastically that I was already yearning for her return. I realized that it was a scandal, and not only from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, for a consecrated Catholic priest, a man respected and popular both in his parish and beyond its borders, to be on the point of entering a frankly erotic relationship with a woman leading an extremely indecent life in comparison to the overwhelming majority of her sex, who had abducted him at gunpoint, but that it also, from the perspective of so-called common sense, revealed a rashness bordering on insanity, which could lead to my excommunication. But I simply swept such considerations aside.

It is the tension of this relationship, I think, that makes the book special, and the way Faschinger resolves it is simple but undeniably right-feeling.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. To finish with another detail that pleased me, early on Magdalena recalls having fallen in love with Cary Grant and James Stewart at a Hitchcock film festival (we’ve all been there, I thought); later, Hitchcock returns, with this moment, surely intentionally, combining elements of Vertigo and Psycho.

Michael looked at me speechlessly for a minute, and then said quietly, with emotion in his voice, that it was astonishing how closely I resembled his departed mother wearing those clothes. Couldn’t I put my hair up in a bun before we set off? he asked.

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Artistic licence

January 10, 2012

I see that Kim Novak has expressed her upset at the use of music from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in the Oscar-tipped film The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, and in the strongest terms. ‘I want to report a rape,’ she writes.

Her outrage, melodramatic though it may seem, is at least comprehensible. If you don’t think Vertigo is one of the greatest films ever made, then presumably you haven’t seen it. Its score may be the finest of Bernard Herrmann’s dazzling career, and that is not a claim that can be made lightly when one looks at his credits (all those other Hitchcocks, Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and so on – and also Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs Muir, a film somewhat neglected nowadays containing a Herrmann score that is one of my personal favourites, and was one of his own, I believe).

The score of The Artist consists almost entirely of original material. I noticed two obvious exceptions when I saw it last Friday: the song ‘Pennies from Heaven’, which is sung around the mid-point of the film; and, towards the end, the music from the ‘Scène d’Amour’ in Vertigo, which is stated in its entirety over the course of one of the later sequences.

I think the idea of some kind of rape is easily dismissed. If it’s legal for Hazanavicius to use Herrmann’s music, then it’s fair game. It’s not the first time the music of Vertigo has been used elsewhere, and it won’t be the last. And it’s not as if either a) the use of this music in The Artist devalues Vertigo at all (that wouldn’t apply even if The Artist were a bad film, which it isn’t) or b) the music is used at all insensitively in The Artist, let alone violently abused (as Wagner’s Tristan prelude was in Lars von Trier’s recent offering Melancholia, which I have avoided primarily for that reason, convinced that it would render the film intolerable for me – read Alex Ross on the subject). On the contrary, the music complements the visual aspect pleasingly, and the combination of the two creates a mood of great tension that is resolved brilliantly.

But in spite of the moral validity of using Herrmann’s music, there may still be a problem; and if there is a problem, then it is this: that anyone who is familiar with Vertigo will already associate the music with that film. When the music started in The Artist, I identified it in a split second, from the very first note. It sent a shiver of excitement running through my body. What a masterstroke it may turn out to be, I thought, after all of the original music that has gone before, suddenly to invoke Vertigo. Then, after a few moments, I began to have doubts. For while I was watching the faces of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo (and Uggie the dog) on the screen, there were two other faces in my mind, namely those of James Stewart and Kim Novak. Try as I might, I was unable to divorce the film I was watching from the film already in my head, the one I have seen so many times before. As the emotion heightened on screen and that final exciting crescendo began to well, I was thinking in spite of myself of that climactic scene in the bell tower, where Stewart forces Novak up the steps to meet her fate.

At some level, then, the use of the music from Vertigo in The Artist must be considered a failure. I find it hard to imagine that it was chosen simply for its musical quality (though that would have been reason enough); presumably its inclusion was meant to suggest some connection between the two films, though exactly what I can’t say. But ultimately, to those who know Vertigo well enough, the music will inevitably be a distraction. Vertigo is a film of uncommon power, and for The Artist to succeed in breaking the bond between Herrmann’s music and its original application is too much to ask.

The Artist is a film of sufficient quality that the intrusion of Vertigo does not detract too much from its overall impact. The charisma of its stars, Uggie included, is great, and the charm of the film as a snapshot of a vanished golden age considerable. Ludovic Bource, the composer of the rest of the soundtrack, should be mentioned. His music is catchy and memorable (I’m still humming it now) and he is sure to win many awards for it.