Friday, August 17, 2012

The Night Porter (1974)

          Disturbing and provocative, the Italian film The Night Porter belongs to a small subgenre of movies exploring the sexual depravity of Third Reich officers. Yet instead of taking the obvious route by simplistically portraying black-hearted Nazis exploiting innocent victims, co-writer/director Lilina Cavini presents a more complicated vision in which predator and prey become symbiotic; accordingly, The Night Porter can be taken literally or as a cruel metaphor representing the human tendency to embrace humiliating entanglements that generate electrifying sensations.
          The story takes place in 1957 Vienna, where Max (Dirk Bogarde) works the night desk at a posh hotel. One evening, he spots a beautiful woman in the hotel’s lobby, and recognizes her immediately as Lucia (Charlotte Rampling). Over the course of several flashbacks, Cavini reveals the nature of the couple’s relationship during World War II. Max was part of a group of SS officers who transformed prisoners into sexual playthings, and while Max grew infatuated with Lucia (he refers to her as “my little girl”), she succumbed to his aristocratic handsomeness despite his sadism. Now, years after the war, Lucia is married to an American orchestra conductor, and Max is associated with a cabal of former Nazis who purge war records in order to shield themselves from war-crimes prosecution. Initially, Max worries that Lucia will expose him, but when he confronts her, their old psychosexual attraction rekindles—so Max hides Lucia from his fellow Nazis, creating a private world of pain and pleasure.
          The first movie that veteran Italian filmmaker Cavini made in English, The Night Porter is challenging and perverse, with the film’s glossy surfaces and classical-arts milieu (ballet recitals, orchestral performances) communicating the thorny concept of sophisticated savagery. For instance, Max is a fastidious gentleman with immaculate grooming and manners, but he also derives erotic glee from hurting Lucia. Similarly, Lucia is something other than a mere victim; she finds satisfaction in subjugation. Throughout the film, Cavini toys with traditional associations. In the picture’s most famous scene, Rampling serenades a group of Nazis while wearing an officer’s cap, black leather opera gloves, and men’s trousers tethered to her rail-thin body with suspenders; Rampling’s casual toplessness and Cavini’s brazen mixture of contradictory signifiers elevates the scene into a study of abnormal desire.
          Despite consistently graceful camerawork and editing, The Night Porter occasionally succumbs to excess—the pacing is precious and slow—and some viewers will find the central relationship impossible to accept. Plus, Bogarde and Rampling are so icy that we mostly observe their dynamic from the outside, rather than getting drawn into their passions. Yet while The Night Porter probably alienates as many viewers as it intrigues, it’s inarguably a bold film bursting with artistry, ideas, and integrity.
The Night Porter: GROOVY

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