Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Vertigo - Sueurs froides

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Another translation from Cine-journal, Daney's second book. Thanks to Andy Rector / Kino Slang for his help with the translation.

Vertigo / Sueurs froides
All those years without Vertigo: how did we cope? Wasn’t it Alfred Hitchcock’s most sentimental film? Yes.
Truffaut: “I believe the film was neither a success nor a failure.”
Hitchcock: “It will break even.”
Truffaut: “So it’s a failure?”
Hitchcock: “I suppose.”
In 1958, US audiences snubbed Vertigo but the French quite liked Sueurs froides*. In 1984, both films are re-released: Sueurs froides for the philistines, Vertigo for the others. As it became cult, the film didn’t only earn its original English title (that would merely be snobbery) but also earned something like a secret and friendly nickname: “vertigo”, in Latin, – the type of name we give to beloved beings when they are gone (I do say “beings” even though I know it’s only a pile of printed film stock – only a film – but films don’t just age, they watch us age too). We’ve been missing Vertigo for too long. No rain gutters, red robes, sequoia trees, grey suits or San Francisco streets have ever really existed on screen since Vertigo. No film in fact resembles this one. 
Is this a dithyramb? Yes. But a strange one, like the film. For Vertigo, unlike Rear Window, is far from a perfect film. Not funny, like North by Northwest. Not terrifying, like Psycho. Not chilling, like Birds. It’s not even, to use Truffaut’s beautiful expression, a “grand film malade**” like Marnie. No, Vertigo is mostly a moving film.
One interest of this “return to Hitchcock” that – delighted and bemused – we are witnessing today on both sides of the Atlantic, is to make redundant the (sticky) label of “Master of suspense”. For two reasons. Firstly, Hitchcock is a Master, just a Master. Not a so-called money-grubber but the only one to have found the right distance (in a sort of interior exile) to know exactly what the grub was made of. And if the grub had to be American, the knowledge about the grub could be universal. Thanks to Hitchcock. Secondly, because “of” suspense means nothing. What suspense? Hitchcockian suspense is unique and like no other. There are no recipes because they are inimitable. Who will dare to do as he does? Endless “exposition” scenes where nothing seems to happen? Criminals whose identity is known straight away? Films divided in two symmetric parts, folded around a central axis, as is the case in Vertigo? No one.
We won’t tell the story of Vertigo. Let’s not spoil any of the pleasure. But let whomever is seeing the film for the first time know that the “key” to the enigma (a rather crude flash-back but that explains everything) is to be found soon after the first half of the film. Here’s a paradox of a fake ending right in the middle of the film. “Everybody around me”, Hitchcock tells Truffaut, “was hostile to this change, because they thought this revelation should only come at the end of the film”.
But this is precisely where the emotion comes from. It comes when the spectator – mystified until now, then put in the know and proud of his new knowledge – realises that the film is not finished! Suspense of a new suspense. The spectator (you, I hope) watches with compassion the cataleptic bodies of James Stewart and Kim Novak. The spectator didn’t know enough. He now knows too much. He is guessing that appearances will never give up their platonic dance, and that the actors are chained to a fiction that he cannot – in the moment – know what to make of. It doesn’t last but this suspense is deeply moving. Look at Judy when Scottie comes to find her: she slowly turns her head toward the camera, less to give us a look into the camera than to see herself joined by her destiny, with breakneck speed. 
It’s because the first part of Vertigo adopts the point of view of Scottie, the duped man, that such a scene, suddenly seen from the point of view of the woman, gains all its importance. Hitchcock often proceeds this way: in his stories of chained couples, he obscures along the way the character that seemed transparent and lightens the one that seemed opaque. Hence, many of his films are strangely constructed: in two parts, according to a pattern that Rohmer described as helicoidal. Except that the loop never closes back completely. The man/woman symmetry exists no more in the Hitchcockian universe than it does in the real world. The story of Vertigo is that of a man who moves from acrophobia to necrophilia, therefore of a “grand malade”. But the beauty of Vertigo is in the way a woman, despite everything, exists. 
Despite everything. To Truffaut who assures him that eventually Kim Novak was very good in this role designed for Vera Miles, Hitchcock replies nothing. There are many anecdotes telling of how little interest Hitchcock gave to this (still young) star. A limited actress, of vulgar and bland beauty, with ugly legs (Hitchcock insisted on that point) and terrified with stage fright. But this is precisely where the emotion comes from, because of this supplementary mirror effect. 
Kim Novak plays the role of a woman who, twice, is only an image, the materialisation of a man’s fantasy. She is “herself” only once, the day Scottie comes to find her, squeezed into her terrifying green dress. Otherwise, she lives in fear. The fear of betraying herself, the fear of not being up to the job. Kim Novak’s fear as well, as an actress, of not understanding what the “Master of suspense” wanted from her on set. So much so that Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s usual photographer, could not avoid recording this fright and disarray, the solitude of the Hitchcockian actor (or simply of actors in general) at the sound of the clapperboard. We are watching a series of screen tests: they follow each other feverishly, documentary-like, giving Vertigo, this Vertigo-with-Kim-Novak-and-despite-Alfred-Hitchcock, a real unease.
And then there is James Stewart, brilliant. He has been a better actor (in Ford’s Two Rode Together or in Preminger’s Autopsy of a Murder) but Scottie is his most beautiful role. Watching him move – attentively – in Vertigo, one understands what was unique in Hitchcock’s cinema. Unique in the sense that it could only happen once. Here is a man who never stopped denying the “direction” of actors, who said horrible things about them, who prided himself on never looking into the viewfinder and sketching all his shots in advance. He exaggerated of course, overdoing it a bit. Nevertheless, if Hitchcock’s posthumous return today works so well, isn’t it because he is, in the strongest possible sense, an experimental filmmaker, halfway between silent cinema (the art of mime) and television (and its babbling)? The master of all those who prefer to explore their tools than to deliver a message?
Experimental filmmakers generally do without actors or, since they can’t afford them, pretend to hate them. Hitchcock was the only one in the history of cinema who could hate them and afford them. Logically he has given them split character roles. Cruelly, he has directed them like body doubles. But a body double called Cary Grant or James Stewart will never simply be a double. There will always be something remaining of their mastery, aura, intuition and professional reflexes. And this is precisely where the emotion is born.
Look at Stewart in Vertigo: slightly robotic, zombie-like, holding on to reality only by his waking dream and to the set only by the markers of the mise en scène, like so many stitch points*** separated from one another by nothingness. One can laugh at this game, find it slightly obscene and dated. One could also say that Scottie is the last of Hitchcock’s alter egos. Or that the skinny James Stewart is the last actor that the fat Hitchcock still had the desire to identify with. Say what you want, cinema is a very human art.  
First published in Libération on 27 March 1984 with the title “Vertigo, enfin visible” [finally visible]. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinéma, 1986. Translated with the invaluable help of Andy Rector.

Translator’s notes:
* The French title of the film, literally: “cold sweat”.
** A sick or diseased film.
*** “points du suture” in French.

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