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Pirandello at the Movies: L’Herbier, Chenal, and the Late Mattia Pascal Alan Williams J ACQUES RIVETTE’S L ’Amourfou (1968) is one of the few major modern European films to fall under the influence of Luigi Piran­ dello. In an interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Rivette recalled that in conceiving its central dramatic situation (an apparently sane theatre director with a “ mad” wife) he had been inspired by the life of the Italian dramatist. The original scenario, in fact, began with a liminary quotation from Pirandello: “ I have thought about it, and we are all mad.” 1 Indeed, if one considers merely L ’Amour fo u ’s main subject matter (madness) and formal concerns (a continuing discourse on theat­ rical practice, embedded in a reflexive, film-within-a-film structure), one might be tempted to classify the film as a “ pirandellian” work. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Though initially inspired by Pirandello, Rivette’s film provides an exemplary demonstration of the huge, almost unbridgeable cultural distance which separates serious con­ temporary filmmakers from the early Italian modernist. Consider the (archetypally Pirandellian) theme of madness. The dramatist’s numerous madmen and madwomen almost inevitably resem­ ble the title character in Enrico IV (1922): their insanity manifests itself in a logical, rigorous, and consistent adherence to a fictional role. They are like theatrical characters who forget they are created, arbitrary con­ structs; their mad logic exposes the situation of “ normal” people—that life must be lived as a series of roles, or masks. On occasion, as happens with the man who takes himself to be “ Henry IV,” Pirandello’s mad characters suddenly understand their madness, but continue to live their parts. (What else can they do? These roles have given meaning to their lives.) Other characters can have madness thrust upon them; a definition of their behavior as “ insane” makes an impossible social situation livable. (Thus the jealous wife in II Berretto a Sonagli [Cap and Bells, 1917] is sent to an insane asylum, even though everyone knows she has acted foolishly, but rationally.) Pirandello’s notion of madness is profoundly social and linked to his understanding of ordinary life, seen as role playing. In L ’Amourfou, on the other hand, madness is impenetrable, nonlinguistic, and irrational, 14 Su m m er 1990 W illiams the ultimate limit on (and not the parody, or the explication of) human understanding. Rivette seems to have misread (probably deliberately) the Pirandellian sense in which “ we are all mad.” The space of madness in L ’ Amour fou is the couple’s apartment, where in an excruciating scene offolie a deux they mutilate themselves with a razor; the space of theatre —which in a Pirandellian world would provide suggestive parallels of “ mad” behavior—represents the domain of the symbolic, the logical, ordered world from which husband and wife grow ever more distant. How could one make a more authentically Pirandellian film in our era? One would have to forget so much: the Italian dramatist’s understanding of psychology was almost completely pre-Freudian, and his notions of the range and origins of human destructiveness (provoked in most of his works by jealousy and having social discord or, in the most extreme cases, murder as a consequence) were formed before two World Wars had taught their awful lessons. Even during his lifetime, Pirandello had little impact on world cinema, despite a strong, if ambivalent interest in the medium. (His sixth novel, Si gira [Shoot, 1916], is narrated by a cinema cameraman, and examines many familiar Pirandellian themes in the context of the early Italian film industry.) The most often cited adaptation of one of his plays remains the MGM As You Desire Me (1932, directed by George Fitzmaurice and starring Greta Garbo and Eric von Stroheim). But Holly­ wood in the studio era had a voracious appetite for theatrical material, and the surprising thing is not that the American film industry produced such an adaptation, but that it was such an isolated, almost unique occurrence. The French film industry, which relied almost as heavily on theatrical adaptations, paid even less attention to the writer’s plays. But whereas Hollywood only produced one notable...


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