ETRANGE 2011: THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) review

(Another retro screening from L'Etrange 2011. I'm aware some don't care for the film, think it's tasteless or lacks any real depth; I was absolutely blown away, so here's a review. Feel free to laugh at my wide-eyed enthusiasm.)

Liliana Cavani's 1974 classic The Night Porter is about a twisted, profoundly misguided love story between two broken, wounded people who can't envision ever being involved with anyone else. The thing is, twisted implies the appeal lies in some kind of vicarious gratification to be got out of seeing the couple in question doing things we barely dare imagine. The Night Porter is frequently deeply unsettling; it deals with very uncomfortable subjects, and their real-world context makes them still more unsettling even thirty years on. But a large part of the film's genius stems from the way it reveals that yes, these two damaged souls shouldn't be in love, but they are. Like the opulent hotel that serves as the backdrop for most of the movie the acting can feel stilted and overly mannered, and the story takes a while to get anywhere even when it's obvious where it's headed, but otherwise this is a superb piece of work anchored by two phenomenal performances from the leads, a film that deserves virtually every bit of acclaim it's received.

Dirk Bogarde plays Max, a quiet, reserved man living a solitary existence in 1950s Vienna. He works as the night porter at an opulent hotel, greeting wealthy guests at the desk with a benevolent smile and putting the wheels in motion to ensure their every desire gets catered for, if they're important enough to warrant discretion. He's all withering scorn if necessary in private, but the very model of propriety under the public eye. Yet Max is nursing a secret: back in World War II he was a minor SS officer at one of the Nazis' concentration camps. Though insignificant, he had connections, and he maintains relations with a cadre of survivors busy covering up all remaining evidence of their crimes.

Max's case looks like a shoo-in, given there are no living witnesses to deal with... then Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) walks into the lobby of the hotel, and our good little German realises a part of his past he thought was dead and buried is still very much alive. It turns out Max and Lucia had a relationship when he was an officer and she was a prisoner in the camps, and what began as a simple case of Max indulging his authority over a frightened young girl who caught his eye rapidly turned into a sadomasochistic bond between master and servant, Lucia fulfilled by being dominated, Max unable to believe someone wants him to dominate them. Back in the present Max thinks he has to silence Lucia by any means necessary, egged on by stark warnings from his National Socialist friends who're starting to doubt his commitment to the cause, but he realises not only is he still obsessed with her, she's still responding to him.

The Night Porter touches on the aftermath of the war, from survivor's guilt to victor's justice to there being no innocents, but it also deals with more primal issues, like the idea a woman can be openly attracted to a man who's abused, even brutalised her - something which still carries an enormous amount of dramatic weight and provokes controversy even today. Max is perpetually consumed by awareness of who he is and what he's responsible for, even more so given he's slowly realising while he wants to get rid of the evidence so he can start over again, his erstwhile friends just want to carry on throwing Sieg Heil without anyone breathing down their necks.

Max loathes his past - yet at the same time he wishes he could have parts of it back, where he was powerful, influential and didn't have to put up with anyone belittling him. But though Lucia's response to seeing Max again is partly down to simple animal instincts, we discover what started as rolling over for someone who could snuff her out without thinking became a desire to cling to, then a growing dependence on the person who gave her existence in the camp some kind of meaning. While she remained with Max he kept her safe, protected her from harm and in his own way, genuinely cared that nothing should happen to her.

Bogarde is excellent as Max, his hangdog features easily suggesting a long history of mingled regret and remorse suffocating under years of banality and routine. Cavani takes a while to get the film started, and the overly theatrical edge to the dialogue takes an effort to get past, but once Charlotte Rampling makes her entrance Bogarde visibly comes to life, the veteran star effortlessly embodying self-recrimination and half-forgotten obsessions all surging to the fore. Rampling was in her 20s at the time, but looks painfully young in the flashback sequences and little older in 1950s Vienna. When Bogarde calls her 'my little girl', it makes their liaison seem all the more queasily erotic. Their chemistry is an awful, terrible thing, commendably believable despite the age difference but like watching someone run head-first into a wall.

Yet it's obvious each of them feels something for the other. Lucia knows she could leave, but even when she's confronted with the full extent of her obsession she can't explain why she doesn't drop everything and go. Max can see where their relationship is headed, and understands the quickest way to have everything wrapped up would be to just turn Lucia over to his friends - the trenchcoat mafia waiting in the wings - and be done with it. But what began as a simple case of a greedy, self-important dictator indulging his basest appetites has somehow become a broken man struggling to hold on to what he thinks (rightly or wrongly) is his last chance at redemption. Max and Lucia plainly don't appreciate the full import of what they're doing, whether in the camps or the ancient hotel, but Bogarde and Rampling make their need and horrible, selfless devotion pitiably empathetic, like a film of one of Josephine Hart's novels long before she started writing.

Cavani's direction isn't quite as accomplished as her screenplay - there are moments of ghoulish theatre, like prisoners in the dormitories watching a couple screw at the end of the row, or wry visual gags like Bogarde's face as Max gets his Nazi confidantes to reveal more of their motivations than they'd planned. And again, there are moments when the acting reverts to stock types: the minor recurring roles in particular come across as fairly flat on several occasions. But you're not watching for the visuals  or the supporting cast - they get their moments, but ultimately this is the story of two people who need each other so much they're willing to destroy themselves rather than do without.

The Night Porter is not without its flaws, but by and large that central dynamic between the leads makes up for them all. This is an utterly riveting movie, complex and multi-layered, all of it held together by two world-class performances - it's not hard to understand why Lucia proved to be Charlotte Rampling's breakout role. It's a nuanced, thoughtful look at multiple social, psychological or political issues, and a deeply disturbing exploration of some powerful taboos, but what makes all that so affecting is it's also a grand, almost baroque romance so tragically warped as to be absolutely heartbreaking. That humanity is what finally lifts Liliana Cavani's film into all-time classic status - The Night Porter is about as good as high drama gets, and any self-respecting cinephile should be making plans to see this if they haven't already.

(The Night Porter was screened as part of the 17th L'Etrange Film Festival, run from 2nd-11th September 2011 at the Forum Des Images in Paris. The Night Porter was shown in the festival's Carte Blanche program, where special guests selected films they thought deserved to be shown to a wider audience. The Night Porter was selected by the film's director, Liliana Cavani.)
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