“Because I’m Alive”: Minnelli’s A Matter of Time

05/26/2010 8:47 AM |


Vincente Minnelli disowned his last movie, A Matter of Time (1976), when it was taken away from him by its producers, American International Pictures, and after its initial release it pretty much disappeared from view. Tonight, BAM is showing this nearly lost film as part of Elliott Stein’s Cinechat series, and at the 6:50pm screening Stein will be joined by Minnelli scholar Joe McElhaney for a discussion about what happened to this troubled picture. I recorded it off late-night television when I was in high school, and my faded, jerky copy runs 87 minutes, as does the copy showing at BAM, though IMDB lists the running time as 97 minutes. Big bursts of primary colors periodically slash the film’s pale, golden images, and in the best sequences there’s a rich, sophisticated air of fantasy being pursued and then captured, like a fluttering yellow and brown butterfly restrained by a pin. It’s a very flawed movie, mainly due to producer interference, but it cries out for restoration of some kind, if only so that we can see Minnelli’s last dreams more clearly.

A Matter of Time starts with some wordy titles about coming to the big city and fairy tales and how some fairy tales come true. In a framing story, we see chambermaid-turned-movie-star Nina (Vincente’s daughter Liza, at the height of her stardom) riding in a glam 70s-style limo and watch footage of Nina’s latest film, where Liza is decked out in Cecil Beaton-style finery, a la Streisand in Minnelli’s On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970). There seems to be some confusion over who shot this awkward, choppy framing story. When I asked McElhaney, he said that some of it was shot by Liza’s second husband Jack Haley, Jr., but Mark Griffin writes in his new Minnelli biography that the director himself shot most of it but wasn’t planning on using it; whoever shot it, it’s a mistake, and it takes a while to get your bearings after it’s over. We flash back to Nina’s stint as a maid in a rundown Roman hotel (she seems to be wearing a horse’s tail down her back), and there are some elegant camera movements and compositions before Ingrid Bergman makes her big entrance, playing a faded Contessa. Bergman and Minnelli have worked out a striking look for this woman: marcelled white hair, a hooded, animal print coat redolent of the 1940s, and the sort of raccoon/kohl eyes usually sported by silent screen vamps. Near penniless, the Contessa goes to sell a necklace; when the buyer says he’ll take anything else she has, she growls, “Finished, there’s nothing more.” There’s a gravity to everything Bergman says in this movie, and she has a grandeur that seems to come naturally, a statuesque hauteur.

An aged Charles Boyer makes his final movie bow as a former husband who comes to see the Contessa after a forty-year absence; he treats Bergman gingerly, as if he actually succeeded in driving her mad in Gaslight (1944), and she goes into her best Blanche DuBois “I live in my head!” attitudes. When he asks her why she is speaking about sex at her age, she stares out the window longingly and cries, “Because I’m alive… I’m alive!” In a moment like this, which could so easily be corny, Bergman locates the genuine emotion in an old woman’s clinging to what she knows and loves, and some of the depth must come from Minnelli’s handling, too, the way he frames her and lavishes attention on her posturing, and the way he identifies with her (he also was becoming a bit addled with age). Whatever else this is, A Matter of Time is an extremely gay movie while also being a classic “late film,” a family affair and a heartfelt attempt to repeat the past.

Liza’s Nina opens a window in her servant’s quarters and we see a flock of black birds churning round and round in the sky (a truly lovely shot). “Take everything you can from life,” says the Contessa to Nina, in the first of her lessons, “it never gives anything back.” Again, in situations that could be stale, this Auntie Mame “live live live” stuff takes on a weight because of the passion with which Bergman delivers her lines. The Contessa pulls out a red sari from an Indian lover, and Nina says that it looks like a sunset; everything in this picture is the last of something, the end of the sun, one final look at color. When Nina has her day off, there’s a disastrously abrupt cut in Minnelli’s vision and then interpolated, shoddy stock footage of Rome that seems to go on and on, a drastic disrespect to the mood the director is trying to build, but Bergman soon steadies things again, flashing us back to the moment when she realized she had grown old. Minnelli cuts back to the Contessa in her room as she remembers that a fortune teller told her something bad would happen when she was 72 years old. “I am 72!” she shouts, staring into a mirror, thunderstruck, and then she starts to throw herself around the room violently; the scene teeters on the verge of being silly, but Bergman’s leonine commitment to what she’s doing makes it nearly harrowing. She creates this woman as a three dimensional person, not a cliché; Bergman is especially believable when she gets bored by the specifics of Nina’s life, and when she flirts with the idea of being reasonable.

Liza does her best in these scenes to make her tricky role work, and she gets her own sequence to shine, a red and gold Venetian fantasy where she sings a vampy “Do It Again,” very different from mother Judy Garland’s more plaintive rendition of that song in her 60s concerts. When she finishes it, she traipses into a bedroom so flamingly red, even in my wretched video copy, that it made me gasp, and I was happy to see that Fernando Rey was waiting for her in bed, playing her wealthy lover. The Contessa’s flight from her hotel and Nina’s screen-test feel rushed, so that there seems to be footage missing, but the film has one more trick up its tattered leopard-print sleeve; I gasped again when I saw Ingrid’s daughter Isabella Rossellini, in her first film, playing a nun watching over the Contessa as she dies in her hospital bed (amusingly, she’s named Sister Pia, the name of the daughter Bergman deserted when she married Roberto Rossellini). “Are you a relative?” asks Isabella of Liza, because everyone is related to everyone else in this movie, in some fashion. The gorgeous Isabella hovers over her real-life mother, who wears no make-up and looks older than old for these final moments, when the Contessa’s magic has finally deserted her, and that magic deserts the film again when the framing story kicks in for the last scenes, but surely there is enough of interest in A Matter of Time to merit at least a partial restoration. Scorsese? Liza? Can it be done?