Friday, January 31, 2020

A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTRY 1968

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of movie marketing knows that any film calling itself A Quiet Place in the Country is certain to be set in a country locale that’s anything but. And by the same token, anyone remotely familiar with the works of Elio Petri—the Italian director/screenwriter of that Haute futuristic fantasm The Tenth Victim (1965) and the 1970 Best Foreign Film Oscar-winner winner for Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion—knows that any movie made by this unsung post-neorealist auteur is bound to be a barbed political allegory distinguished, in no small part, by a strikingly idiosyncratic visual style and a dynamic musical score.
Both presuppositions are realized to mind-blowing effect in A Quiet Place in the Country, an offbeat, exhilarating puzzle of a film that has a lot to say about man, muses, money, and madness. And it does so while oozing irresistible ‘60s-era inscrutability from every artfully-composed frame.
In this sequence, one of several punctuated by imagery alluding to contemporary and classic works of art, a faded beauty in a decaying villa (top r.) assumes a pose reminiscent of Jean-Louis David's 1800 Neoclassical portrait Madame Recamier (top l.). As the figure draws closer, the woman transforms into Rene Magritte's 1951 surreal parody, Perspective: Madame Recamier by David (bottom l.)


A Quiet Place in the Country is a giallo-hued psychological thriller about the artist as outsider. A study in the creative alienation that charts one man's slow descent into madness as he wages war with inner demons and suppressed obsessions. In fashioning his subjectively fractured, paranoid vision of the world of art, Elio Petri takes simultaneous aim at consumerist culture and the moral decay that lies at its core. Specifically, the dehumanizing effects of the market-mandated practice of harnessing and harvesting creativity and artistic expression for the sake of profit.
A film that intriguingly combines diverse elements of style and genre, the tone of A Quiet Place in the Country shifts eerily--and joltingly--from dreamlike to nightmarish in service of a narrative that’s part murder mystery, part obsessive love story, and part horror film.
Vanessa Redgrave as Flavia
Franco Nero as Leonardo Ferri
Franco Nero is Leonardo Ferri, an abstract expressionist artist living in Milan. An artist whose success is both a source of guilt (he's the one who sets the exorbitant prices charged for his paintings), and resentment (he runs himself ragged filling arbitrary gallery quotas that only feed his belief that success has turned his art into merchandise--just another collectible consumer commodity). Stricken with an acute case of creative stasis and trapped within a kind of existential inertia, he fears that his methods of creation--a spontaneous, gestural, “action painting” technique---are becoming obsolete in the high-volume Pop Art world of mixed media and mechanical reproduction.
A modern artist pitted against modernism, everything about his work has grown too “too” for the contemporary marketplace: his prices too high, his methods too slow, his canvases too large, and his art too impenetrable.
Normative Dualism
The mental and physical in the creative process

With his two-month creative dry spell threatening to turn into three, stress and isolation take an ever-increasing toll on Leonardo's mind and psyche. Most provocatively, in serving to escalate his already conflicted feelings for Flavia (Vanessa Redgrave), his married lover who also just happens to be his agent.
The cool pragmatist to Leonardo’s exposed-nerve fantasist, Flavia—who has him on an allowance, keeps tabs on his work output, and is forever scribbling down figures in ledgers—loves him, but is shrewdly accepting of his paranoid distrust and need to cast her as the villain in their relationship. Flavia: (catching sight of him eyeing a weighty object d’art in his apartment): "Darling, Leonardo…you can’t kill me with that, it’s just a big paper clip.”
The ambiguity of perception figures significantly in how A Quiet Place in the Country builds suspense and consistently keeps the viewer on unsteady ground. Early in the film, Leonardo is depicted as the bound, passive, sex-object exploited both physically and creatively by the materialistic Flavia. The ready assumption is that we're seeing Leonardo's perception of the dynamics of their relationship. Later in the film, this scene is mirrored in a way that casts it in an entirely different light.


Owing at least part of his artist’s block to the challenge of trying to create meaningful work in the face of society’s capitalism-fed, art-as-consumer-goods ethos (he’s seen reading Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction), Leonardo seizes upon the reasoned notion that the only way to get his inspiration mojo working again is to move away from the distractions of the city to a place of isolation and quiet where he can be at one with his thoughts.

Fate seems to oblige all too readily by placing in his path a remote, deteriorating villa that fairly beckons to him from the road. Although its condition is rundown and locals whisper about it being haunted by the ghost of a beautiful Countess who died there 40 years ago; the villa is nevertheless a secluded, bucolic spot offering Leonardo everything he’s looking for. And quite a bit more of what he'll forever wish he'd never found.


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
A Quiet Place in the Country is a sociopolitical, psychosexual haunted house movie that always feels a hairsbreadth away from submerging itself in its own late- ‘60s stylization. A thinking-person’s Giallo incorporating all the familiar tropes of the genre (murder mystery, amateur sleuthing, graphic violence, eroticism, red herrings, etc.), its chief deviation from tradition—and key determiner as to whether or not this film will be your cup of tea—is its commitment to preserving the twitchy schizophrenic perspective of its abstract artist protagonist. Something achieved by presenting its rather straightforward story in as arty, willfully cryptic a manner as it can get away with without having to identify itself as avant-garde experimental cinema. It’s not that A Quiet Place in the Country doesn’t have a beginning, middle and an end, it’s just they’re all in a different order. 
Fragmented Fantasy
A Quiet Place in the Country is a reworking of Oliver Onions' 1911 masterwork of supernatural fiction. The Beckoning Fair One.  The story of a man consumed by his obsession with a seductive, potentially malevolent ghost.

But for me, the style IS the story of A Quiet Place in the Country, a modern gothic tasking the viewer with determining whether a chain of increasingly bizarre events befalling a brooding hero is rooted in the psychological or the paranormal. As obscure and enigmatic as Petri’s images may be (pretentious...sure, heavy-handed...yes, fascinating...always), they credibly convey Leonardo's mental disintegration and heighten identification with the character. Petri's intimate style also poignantly underscore themes in the film interpreting the creative impulse--the need to express oneself and be understood by others--as an outer-directed primal compulsion compensating for the inner-inaccessibility of the unknowable self.

Visual Artist
Estranged from his feelings, Leonardo tries to invoke anything resembling a human reaction as he flips through slide images of eroticism and violence. Leonardo's unreliable perceptions are dramatized in the film's motif of windows (often barred), kaleidoscopes (distortions), mirrors (fractured and two-sided), peepholes (limited), and camera lenses (at a remove).


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Given my fondness for the hyper-stylized charms of Gialli, it surprises me to think just how late-to-the-party I was in getting around to seeing my first Italian Giallo film as recently as 2016. The film was Lucio Fulci’s extraordinary Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), and it so knocked my socks off that I went from 100% unfamiliarity with the genre to having since added some 40 Giallo titles to my film library.
I’m not sure that I’ve yet reconciled myself to the violence (making me thankful for that fake-looking, poster-paint-red blood they used back in the day), but I never cease to be impressed by how accommodating the genre is to such a broad scope of narrative concepts. There’s room for everything from gumshoes to ghosts under the Gaillo banner.
Idée Fixe 
 Flavia, the realist, and ever the consumer, is preoccupied with wealth. Leonardo, a resuscitated sensualist since moving to the country, is fetishistically bewitched by a yonic scrap of clothing once worn by the woman he thinks is haunting the villa.


As an example of the “arthouse horror” style of Giallo, A Quiet Place in the Country is low on sensationalism, surpassingly high on atmospheric mystery, and takes a cue from its title by trading the gaudy colorfulness I usually associate with the genre, for a kind of baroque naturalism. The very effective result is that supernatural terrors take place in the brightness of day, and hallucinations and spectral visions are all made the more disturbing by being indistinguishable from reality.
Terrified at the prospect of spending the night alone after witnessing a particularly hair-raising
display of ghostly pyrotechnics, Leonardo imposes himself upon his maid and her "brother." 


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
It’s been my experience that it’s very rare for a really intriguing horror film or mystery to have a payoff that lives up to its setup. The more disturbing the journey, the greater the chance the Big Reveal will prove anticlimactic. Against all odds, A Quiet Place in the Country ranks as one of those rarities. For me, it was an effectively compelling chiller with a doozy of a surprise ending worthy and fitting of all the with-it weirdness that came before it. 
By large measure, credit is owed to Oliver Onions’ impeccably-structured source novel; longtime Gialli cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller (Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, Antonioni’s L’Avventura, and Andy Warhol’s two 3-D horror titles, Dracula / Frankenstein); and a rattle-your-bones improvisational music score by Ennio Morricone and Nuova Consonanza.
Autoerotic
Leonardo Becomes His Own Sex Object

But as a huge fan of the exquisitely elephantine Camelot (1967) I'd be lying if I said that any part of this remarkable film impressed me more than the reteaming of Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero... MY Lady Guenevere and Sir Lancelot (the 2nd of some five films they would come to make together). Playing emotionally enigmatic lovers, both actors inhabit their roles with charismatic ease (Nero's the best I've ever seen him), their real-life sensual chemistry breathing life into the film's hyperventilating eroticism.
What Do The Simple Folk Do?
Though Redgrave appears nude in several scenes, fans of Nero have to content themselves with discreet angles and loincloths. As we now know, he was saving full-frontal for when he turned 75 (The Time of their Lives - 2017)


A Quiet Place in the Country is genre-faithful as murder mystery, Giallo thriller, and supernatural horror film, but its presentation is perhaps too iconoclast and its appeal too niche for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Personally, I was absolutely enthralled by the film from the first frame to the last, finding much in what Elio Petri had to say about art and alienation still relevant and echoed in contemporary films like Nocturnal Animals (2016) and Velvet Buzzsaw (2019).
There's a thin membrane separating impulse, instinct, and inspiration. A Quiet Place in the Country suggests the wall distinguishing between passion, obsession, and compulsion is perhaps nonexistent.


BONUS MATERIAL:
A reader (thanks!) brought it to my attention that the source material for A Quiet Place in the Country, Oliver Onions' novella The Fair Beckoning One, was also made into a (stultifyingly pedestrian) episode of the Hammer anthology TV series Journey to the Unknown. Starring Robert Lansing and Gabrielle Drake, the episode was broadcast in December of 1968. Although A Quiet Place in the Country was also made in 1968, it wasn't released in the US until 1970.
TV version of The Fair Beckoning One available for now on YouTube 


That Redgrave and Nero were considered quite the scandalous pair in their day, now seems rather quaint. The two met in 1966 while making Camelot, lived in sin (gasp!) and had a baby out of wedlock before separating in 1971.  Shocking stuff, that.
What makes their story the stuff of fairy tales is their reuniting after several decades apart, and getting married in 2006. A story made all the more romantic due to countless interviews given by the never-married Nero over the years claiming he would never marry and that Redgrave had been the love of his life. In 2017 the couple danced together on the Italian TV show Strictly Come Dancing (below).
1968                                                        2017

Copyright © Ken Anderson

11 comments:

  1. I was not familiar with this film but when I saw that it was somewhat based on the story "The Beckoning Fair One" I recalled watching an episode of "Journey to the Unknown" (Thanks Amazon Prime!) with that title. I checked it out on IMDB and that particular episode aired December of 1968. Which is interesting given that this film came out in 1968. Must have been something in the air that year. I found the TV episode to be an effective (though traditional) ghost story and I wonder if its tragic conclusion is at all mirrored in this film which (based on your review) seems to take the story in some interesting directions. I'll have to check it out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ron - I wasn't at all aware that Onions' novella (which is really a very creepy bit of work) was adapted for an episode of that anthology program I well remember from my youth (The credit sequence gave me nightmares). I rushed to watch it on YouTube and was surprised by how traditional (I'll use your word, since mine would have been ruder) the result was. Watching the TV film and Petri's back to back would make for an excellent film class study in what a difference a director with a point of view can make.
      Whether you wind up enjoying the Elio Petri film or not, having seen the TV program, you owe it to yourself to check out the movie. I think you'll find the differences and similarities fascinating to note.
      Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I’ve included a link to the program in the body of my post.

      Delete
  2. I had never heard of this film and having read this blog - it seems like a must see. Thank you, Ken, for opening my eyes to these little-known gems. My video collection has taken a turn for the better since discovering your blog.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks very much, Chris! I'm always happy if my coverage of an obscure film or oddity sparks a reader's interest in at least checking it out. As much as I like Vanessa Redgrave, it's rather surprising to me that I went so many years never even knowing this film existed.
      Your words are very kind and I hope, if you do give this one a look, you find it to be as intriguing a film as I did. Good to hear from you, and thanks for reading!

      Delete
    2. Ditto, I have never heard of this film or this filmmaker, but it sounds right up my alley, I certainly enjoyed reading about it and love that Vanessa and Franco had a happily ever after in real life (sigh). And I know what you mean about the red corn syrup doubling as blood, it was the same for Visconti's the Damned, it kind of killed the moment.

      Delete
    3. If you've never seen any of the films of Emili Petri, I think you'd find "The 10th Victim" a real visual treaty. Those "Casino Royale" (1966)and those Austin Powers movies were significantly inspired by it.
      "A Quiet Place in the Country" is a new, unexpected favorite. I hope you give it a look. It's certainly a kick seeing Guenevere and Lancelot in far sexier roles.
      And yes, the fake-looking blood of old was plenty scary enough for me when I was a kid, but when I see it in movies now, it can actually mar a scene (Your reference to "The Damned" is perfect).
      Thank you for reading this and commenting!

      Delete
  3. About 10-15 years ago I saw this as the second half of a double feature with Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES OF GREY VELVET, and I remember just finding it totally exhausting and being annoyed at its sympathy with a narcissistic male artist. Now, I know that this is probably NOT a film you want to see as a second feature, and I also have somewhat more sympathy for the struggles of male artists...so I wonder if I'd like it more... I feel like you've almost definitely seen and possibly even written about Robert Altman's IMAGES, but on the off chance that you haven't, they'd make an interesting double feature.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Ben
      As FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET is one of the films Giallos in my collection (big fan of Mimsy Farmer), what you describe sounds to me like a terrific double-feature!

      But I understand the challenge presented by what I too find to be a tiresome narrative trope: the struggling/tormented male artist. Elio Petri's film sort of flew in the face of my resistance. At every turn I thought I was going to reject the film because I couldn't imagine myself sitting through another "inner struggle of an artist" movie, but for me, Petri's socio-political vision applied to A QUIET PLACE IN THE COUNTY altered it's narrow narrative scope. It became less about a man and more about the exploitation and the elusive creative impulse.
      It's funny you mention Robert Altman's IMAGES, for it is one of my favorites and one of the few films about a tortured artist as a woman. I just happened to have rewatched it recently after writing this post. I wrote bout it back in 2013: https://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2013/09/images-1972.html
      And you're right, IMAGES would make a great double feature paired with this film. Thanks very much for reading this post and commenting, Ben.

      Delete
  4. You’re showing much more restraint than I ever could with this: every other cap would be of Nero’s ‘diaper’ get-up if I had been in charge of putting this together...

    How extraordinary that Petri knew how to film male (quasi) nudity so well. This with Citizen’s exploitation of Volonté’s smoldering looks are seared into my memory.

    /Mangrove’s adolescent turmoils out/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! I’m not sure restraint had anything to do with it. I actually had about 4 screencaps of Nero to chose from---all of him in that diaper thing tied to that chair—but the obviousness of my motives made me laugh at myself.

      Not to say I'm not above posting gratuitous beefcake.
      I'm only a recent admirer of Gian Maria Volonté, but Franco Nero has been a crush since adolescence. I only wish I knew of this film back then.

      Delete
  5. Starting with the credit sequence which reminds me of the opening of Bergman's Persona(1965), the film quickly becomes tiresome, pretentious, frustrating and pointless. It jumps around so much that it fails to really involve the viewer and leaves one with eye strain and a headache.

    ReplyDelete