L’Etranger (Lo straniero, 1967) – Review by Margaret Tarratt

Whilst L’Etranger is unlikely to hold a major position in Visconti’s oeuvre, it is in several ways remarkable. It is perhaps too easy to underestimate Visconti’s superb ability to render an authentic sense of period (a quality virtually unique to him amongst Western film directors).

by Margaret Tarratt

The adaptation to the screen of a widely known novel by an eminent film director must stimulate controversy as to the function of transposing a work from one medium to another. Opinions on this subject diverge sharply. At one end of the scale we find the view expressed by Ingmar Bergman that ‘film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict’ and we should ‘avoid making films out of books’. As a literary critic, Leslie Fiedler looks for the director’s ability to strike ‘analogous attitudes’ and to find ‘analogous rhetorical techniques’. Bluestone’s view falls somewhere between these two extremes. He regards the filmed novel as a kind of paraphrase in which the source novel is virtual raw material out of which characters and incidents are extracted as mythic figures. A fourth and probably more popular view is that put forward by Alain Robbe-Grillet who has commented on the cinema as ‘heir to the psychological and naturalistic tradition’ attempting to transpose a story into pictures with the frequent unlooked for result that the ‘filmed story drags us out of our comfortable state of mind and into the world it shows us, and with a violence we would look for in vain in the corresponding written text whether novel or scenario’. Like many people, he sees (albeit with mixed feelings) the potential power of the cinema to invest its subject with a more remarkable degree of realistic illusion than can be conveyed by the written word.

Each of these approaches has some relevance to a view of Visconti’s film of Camus’s L’Etranger. Such a conjunction seems incongruous. Visconti must generally be associated with a style rich in sensuous observation of detail, the lingering scrutiny of groups of people and an unfashionable inclination towards the exploration of moments of high drama. He is (without pejorative overtones) a kind of nineteenth-century novelist of the cinema. L’Etranger, on the other hand, is a terse first person narrative veering towards the roman à thèse. Until the final chapters its dominant rhetorical mode is one of understatement. The novel is concerned primarily with establishing and describing attitudes rather than people. Indeed, Algiers itself in which most of the action takes place is a more dominant protagonist than any human figure in the work.

It is presumably this last element which stirred Visconti’s imagination in the same way that Lampedusa’s image of Sicily was crucial to Visconti’s Il Gattopardo. Even so, L’Etranger as a novel still appears in many ways alien to Visconti’s stylistic leanings. The central character is a solitary figure whose connections with any social group are tenuous. Secondary figures emerge with something of the one-sided function of characters in a morality play and the success or failure of their depiction owes little to the author’s sense of ‘felt life’. For most of the novel’s duration there is no sense of an inevitable end. Meursault’s belief in the impossibility of taking up a moral position over human behaviour is presented as the position of an isolated man. The process Visconti’s film charts is Meursault’s inevitable movement from an illusory position of isolated observer towards the ultimate passionate rhetoric of defiance against the society which annihilates him. It is at this point that his own attitude becomes a moral principle and he asserts his membership of society by longing for ‘howls of execration’ to greet his execution.

Bearing in mind these factors it is remarkable to find the screenplay of Georges Conchon, Emmanuel Robles and (Visconti’s most constant collaborator) Suso Cecchi D’Amico so close to the original novel. The degree to which Camus’s work has been consulted means that any disparity is rendered particularly significant. Whereas Camus begins ‘at the beginning’ with the words ‘Mother died today’, Visconti plunges us straight into the moments leading up to the court scene and the accusation of Meursault, concluding with the ingenuous reply that his story should speak for itself it is so ‘simple’. The film then flashes back to the Camus opening and the narrative unfolds in the light of Meursault’s eventual trial in which the audience is now involved as judge. In this way Visconti endows his film with dramatic suspense and a sense of fate alien to the novel. Such suspense is increased by several methods of emphasis. The sequence over which the credits roll shows Meursault (Marcello Mastroianni) travelling to his mother’s funeral. His clothes are soaked with sweat and a rapid physical disintegration appears to set in. Curiously, he alone of the travellers on the bus perspires so freely. Sweat is a motif constantly repeated in the imagery of the film where the streets are said to be sweating and where finally the priest observes the walls of the prison ‘sweating’ with the sufferings of former prisoners. Present in the novel, this idea is visually emphatic in the film.

The film’s insistent music increases in foreboding as it progresses and is later contrasted with the thin expressionless piping of the Arab in the-scene prior to the shooting. The piping is both alien and mesmerizing. It is repeated when Meursault is in the communal cell with the Arabs and becomes a reflection of the neutral attitude with which he is regarded by his fellow prisoners when he confesses to having killed an Arab. A sharp distinction appears to be drawn between the attitude of the French colonials and those of the Arabs. The surging music is an expression of the habitual Western response to a situation which society insists should be played out in conformity.with its own conventions. A chance killing becomes a premeditated ‘murder’. The murder becomes an excuse for a ritual social catharsis. Meursault’s accurate evidence can never be accepted as ‘true’ by society because his language is not that of society. The sun as a factor explaining his action is inadmissible as evidence. Like the Ancient Mariner, Meursault is caught up in a sin and expiation syndrome which ignores the motivation of the initial act.

Visconti’s interpretation of the scenes played out between Meursault and the examining magistrate differs only slightly from the Camus original but this variation is an important one of tone. Having failed to break Meursault’s defences at the sight of a brandished crucifix, the magistrate in Camus’s novel withdraws into a somewhat cynical bantering with Meursault in which he calls him ‘M. L’Antichrist’. In Vis­conti’s film this name is uttered in operatic tones of exaggerated loathing. If it is comedy it is comedy on a very different plane.

Clearly Visconti is concerned with transposing Camus’s novel to the screen in some sense. It is not mere raw material; on the other hand he does not seem concerned with finding an analogous mode of rhetoric for all the film’s linguistic closeness to the detail of the original. Visconti does not attempt to delude us into thinking that we have Camus’s novel in another medium. On the contrary, the closeness to the text of Camus brings out more clearly the idea that Vis­conti is offering us his interpretation. The story of the outsider becomes in his terms the history of Meursault’s ‘passion’ — the ordeal leading to inevitable martyrdom. The film dealing with such subject matter and held together by a spoken first person narrative has Bressonian echoes although its hero’s ultimate defiance of his ordeal is a reversal of the Bressonian hero’s position. The sweating Meursault has something of a Christ-like aura around him (an aspect Camus himself perceived) but he is far from submissive to his tormentor, bourgeois society.

For Visconti, the significance of Meursault’s stand is that it is a form of social protest. The camera picks out the squalid surroundings and contrasts them with the brilliance of light and water. It lingers on objects such as the dirty pan out of which Meursault eats or the twisted black frazzle on the plates during the supper with Raymond. The camera’s survey of the group of old people gathered round Mme. Meursault’s coffin reflects not only the speculations of Camus’s hero as to the degree of humanity to be attributed to them but also suggests the strangeness of their position in society. Grouped together round a coffin, they too are outsiders.

The element Visconti omits from his film is Camus’s notion of the absurd which in some sense elucidates the whole novel. The protest of Camus’s hero is in the first instance, derived from a philosophical position which motivates his actions. Visconti’s interpretation excludes the ‘absurd’ from its vocabulary. Mastroianni’s Meursault responds directly to the social hypocrisy by which he is surrounded. The growth of a sense of comradeship with the pimp Raymond has an emphasis in the film which is certainly absent from the novel. Significantly, the incident in the prison cell where Meursault discovers the newspaper story of the accidental murder of a son by his mother and sister through a case of mistaken identity (later used by Camus as the basis for a play) is not included in Visconti’s film. It would have been an irrelevance were it to have been included since Visconti’s hero is a social victim, the honesty of whose responses isolates him from his environment rather than the Camusian hero detached from society by his intellectual stance.

Whilst L’Etranger is unlikely to hold a major position in Visconti’s oeuvre, it is in several ways remarkable. It is perhaps too easy to underestimate Visconti’s superb ability to render an authentic sense of period (a quality virtually unique to him amongst Western film directors). This achievement is considerable when we observe his handling of Marcello Mastroianni and Anna Karina, both actors identified closely with a stereotype image of the sixties. Karina (Marie) with curling hair and the striped cotton dress mentioned in the novel is transformed almost beyond recognition whilst Mastroianni manages to shed his impassive elegance for a withdrawn slightly dazed shabbiness. The atmosphere of the film has a poetic dimension — even a slightly mystical quality present in moments such as Mastroi­anni’s confrontation with the piping Arab or the shot of a solitary bird against the intense blue sky.

Yet there is a certain thematic exiguousness in Visconti’s interpretation which prevents the film from reaching the heights of his other more ambitious adaptation in colour—Il Gattopardo. The film is perhaps for all its sense of inevitability, too leisurely. The Alice in Wonderland court scene provides an unsatisfactory peak to the story where the emphasis is placed on Meursault’s victimization rather than on society’s panic stricken revenge on the propagator of the notion of the absurd. It is difficult to know just how much interest the film would bear were its source unknown. Ultimately, its most interesting aspect lies in the tension between the meticulously close adaptation of the screenplay and the freedom of interpretation which Visconti’s style allows.

Margaret Tarratt is on the Lecture Panel of the British Film Institute and has lectured in English Literature at Reading University.

Published in Screen, Vol 10 # 1, January/February 1969


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