Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rodin's The Kiss Seen Through Alfred Hitchcock's Lens

In Alfred Hitchcock movies, kisses are like World War II bombs. You've got your V-1 "buzz bomb" kiss, which creates suspense, and then there's your V-2 kiss, which comes as a surprise. Naturally, the first one was Hitch's favorite.* When you watch his love scenes scenes over and over, alone in a darkened living room, one hand in a tub of popcorn and the other holding a notebook, further patterns begin to emerge. For instance, while Hollywood kisses often resolve a plot point (such as boy gets girl), Hitch's kisses almost always complicate the plot. As such, they closely resemble the staged smooches of one of his favorite artists, Auguste Rodin (1840-1917).

For Rodin, a kiss was not just a kiss. His most famous such work (you know the one) falls into that first category, the suspense kiss, in ways that implicate the viewer in its subject matter. The first thing most people think when seeing it in a museum is, "Oooh. That's sexy. How close can I get to its dirty parts?" The second thing people think is, “Is anybody watching me?” You can't help feeling like an anxious voyeur around this frankly erotic sculpture. Hitch would have understood. He probably would have glanced over his own shoulder.** His movies implicate the viewer in very much the same way.

How highly did Hitch regard Rodin? He once confessed to his friend Charlotte Chandler that if he'd gone into fine art instead of film, he would have "liked to be a sculptor, like Rodin" and that he especially admired The Kiss. (Keep in mind that their lives overlapped by 17 years.) He'd even gone to the trouble of purchasing one of the sculptor's drawings. These aren't idle statements from a man whose every decision was in service of the cinema. All artists distill their influences and synthesize them until they transubstantiate into something they can call their own. Interestingly, there's something of Rodin in many, if not most, of Hitch's love scenes. Let's take a look at two of Hitch's most well-known and Rodinesque kissing scenes, both from Notorious (1946), a movie about Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) who is sent by her boss and lover T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring and marry one of its leaders, Alexander Sebastien (Claude Rains).

As mentioned, Hitch and Rodin's love scenes entice you into voyeurism. Speaking of his Guinness record-setting 2½-minute kiss between Alicia and Devlin in Notorious (1946), Hitch often told reporters that he wanted the audience to enjoy “the great privilege of embracing Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman together. It was kind of a temporary ménage à trois." Hell, I'd be the meat in that sandwich.

Much has been made of Rodin's in-the-round design as well; viewers can walk around The Kiss, observing the lovers from all angles. That aspect of the work has been compared with Hitch's kissing scenes that likewise create intimacy by moving the camera around the actors in a 360-degree arc. Again, that snog-a-thon in Notorious comes to mind, with its camera cinched into the performers in a dry-humpingly tight close-up. You also get that same experience with the final love scene in Vertigo as well as other lengthy liplocks in I Confess, North by Northwest, Marnie, Topaz and many others in which the camera snakes around the characters like like an invisible third. When you stop and think about it, some of the steamiest love scenes to come out of Hollywood censor-repressed classic era were performed in front of the scopophilic gaze of Hitchcock's camera.

The first love scene in Notorious draws the audience in as voyeurs, ala The Kiss.

Rodin's Kiss offers up even more, with a story of its own that bears resemblance to Hitch's favorite themes. Based on a subject that was common in 19th century art, the sculpture was originally named Francesca da Rimini—after a character from Dante's Inferno who'd fallen in love with her husband's brother, Paolo—and it takes place in the moment right before her husband discovers the pair together and slaughters them in a jealous rage. (The piece was originally intended to be a part of Rodin's Gates of Hell.) Their lips haven't touched, and as their sculpted immobility suggests, they never will; their love will only be consummated in death. It's one of the world's great tragedies, and even though the names may have been forgotten, it shows up in stories and movies all the time, often mentioned in the same breath as the ill-fated lovers Tristan and Isolde. (Check out Bernard Herrmann's score for Vertigo, which invokes the Liebestod (Love-Death) movement of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.) What François Truffaut once observed about Hitch's cinema could also be said of Rodin: "To make love and to die are one and the same." Hitch explicitly revisited Dante's poem in 1966, with Torn Curtain: as Paul Newman and Julie Andrews duck into a crowded theater to escape the KGB, the ballet they pretend to watch is—get ready for it—Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini.

That story left other fingerprints on Notorious. The desperate romance of the second love scene between Alicia and Devlin takes place in the wine cellar while, as in Dante's story, her husband looks on from the shadows, his jealous suspicions confirmed. Like Francesca's husband, he resolves to kill her.

Risking exposure and death, Alicia Huberman first resists—then clings to—T. R. Devlin as Alex Sebastian looks on in silent anger.

The Tragic Love of Francesca da Rimini by Marie-Philippe Coupin de la Couperie (1812). A chaste peck on the cheek like this leads to murder? Rodin would have laughed. Still, this scene depicts the precariousness of their position, as her husband, Giovanni Malatesta, watches from a darkened corner. For Hitchcock, in film after film, the sensual moment of intimacy is often undercut by a sword-of-Damocles threat that reality will intrude to break the spell, destroying his characters' carefully crafted artifice of love.

The story of Paolo and Francesca had been a popular source of material in 19th century art. All too often, however, they presented an idealized, sentimental interpretation of Dante's story. Rodin would have none of that. His Kiss strips away all hypocritical manners and chastity. Francesca and Paolo are naked, not just nude. Unlike the passive Francescas of every other 19th century rendering, she's as impulsive, carnal and voracious as he is—maybe more so. The monumentality of the marble is commensurate with the fatefulness of the lovers' decision to succumb to their desire, while the "lost wax" method used to create other versions of the sculpture is a corollary to the sealing of the lovers' fate: the die was cast in a perfect synthesis of function and form. As such, Rodin's works don't merely portray a story, they are the story. You can see why Hitchcock identified so closely with him: he saw film exactly the same way, grasping that the medium was the message long before Marshall McLuhan came along to coin the phrase.

Hitchcock and Rodin were, in fact, very much kindred spirits. They both loved the sensuality of the human form—male and female included. They both had a healthy sense of the ambivalence of the human condition: that we are no better than animals, yet can approach the nobility of gods; that while happiness can be pursued, it cannot be attained; that when it comes to human passions, comedy and tragedy are one and the same. These themes recur in both of their works.

“Each time they kissed there was the thrill of love … the threat of murder!” Is there a love scene in a Hitchcock movie that doesn't evoke The Kiss?

In the final kissing scene in Vertigo, Hitch put James Stewart and Kim Novak on a small turntable and slowly rotated their smushed-together bodies in front of the camera, emulating the 360 degree aspect of The Kiss. Like Rodin's sculpture, this scene is haunted by sense of both eternal hope and inevitable doom.

Then again, as a fan of Edvard Munch, Hitch might also have had in mind the desperate fusing of two bodies in his Kyss (1902).  

Next up: When it came to depicting love scenes in the era of classic Hollywood, other directors employed euphemism and innuendo so much so that, as Nurse Stella says in Rear Window, you couldn't "tell the difference between a petting party and a civil service exam." Hitch, meanwhile, took the exact opposite approach, learning a trick or two from, you guessed it, Auguste Rodin. Stay tuned.

Update: I've now posted Part Two of this train of thought.

*The comparison between kissing and bombs is not gratuitous. Hitch used the same language to distinguish two kinds of fear: "terror, [which] is induced by surprise, and suspense, [in which there is first] a forewarning." To illustrate, he pointed to the above-mentioned buzz bomb and V-2, noting: "The moments between the time the [buzz bomb's] motor was first heard and the final explosion were moments of suspense. The V-2, on the other hand, was noiseless until its moment of explosion. Anyone who heard a V-2 explode, and lived, experienced terror."

**When Rodin loaned The Kiss to the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, it was such a scandalous piece that it was hidden away in a separate chamber, viewable only upon special application. 

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Bob Cumbow said...

Nice piece, Joel! Keep up the great (and insightful and informative) work!

Joel Gunz said...

With fellow Hitch fans like you around, I'll always try to do just that! Thanks much, kind sir.

Clara said...

Wow, that was a really interesting reading. I knew there was some connection between Hitch's movies and The Kiss, but it was never explained to me in such great way. Thanks.

Joel Gunz said...

Hi Clara - Thanks much. Just checked out your blog and have now submitted for membership to the Classic Movie Blog Association!

Simona Ardelean said...

Great post. I have been searching a movie on Rodin when I stumbled upon this page here.