At ten-thirty then, she arrived. They were waiting. The door at the far end opened and somewhat shyly, trying to see in the dimness if anyone was there, her long hair hanging like a schoolgirl’s, everyone watching, she slowly, almost reluctantly approached... Behind her came the young woman who was her secretary.
Great faces cannot be explained. She had a long nose, a mouth, a curious distance between the eyes. It was a face open and unknowable. It pronounced itself somehow indifferent to life.
When he was introduced to her, Guivi, the leading man, smiled. His teeth were large and there existed a space between the incisors. On his chin was a mole. These defects at that time were revered. He’d had only four or five roles, his discovery was sudden, the shot in which he appeared for the first time was often called one of the most memorable introductions in all of film. It was true. There is sometimes one image which outlasts everything, even the names are forgotten. He held her chair. She acknowledged the introductions faintly, one could hardly hear her voice.
The director leaned forward and began to talk. They would rehearse for ten days in this bare hall. Anna’s face was buried in her collar as he spoke. The director was new to her. He was a small man known as a hard worker. The saliva flew from his mouth as he talked. She had never rehearsed a film before, not for Fellini, not for Chabrol. She was trying to listen to what he said. She felt strongly the presence of others around her. Guivi sat calmly, smoking a cigarette. She glanced at him unseen.
They began to read, sitting at the table together. Make no attempt to find meaning, Iles told them, not so soon, this was only the first step. There were no windows. There was neither day nor night. Their words seemed to rise, to vanish like smoke above them. Guivi read his lines as if laying down cards of no particular importance. Bridge was his passion. He gave it all his nights. Halfway through, he touched her shoulder lightly as he was doing an intimate part. She seemed not to notice. She was like a lizard, only her throat was beating. The next time he touched her hair. That single gesture, so natural as to be almost unintended, made her quiet, stilled her fears. She was his. She fled afterwards. She went directly back to the Hotel de Ville. Her room was filled with objects. On the desk were books still wrapped in brown paper, magazines in various languages, letters hastily read. There was a small anteroom, not regularly shaped, and a bedroom beyond. The bed was large. In the manner of a sequence when the camera carefully, increasing our apprehension, moves from detail to detail, the bathroom door, half-open, revealed a vast array of bottles, of dark perfumes, medicines, things unknown. Far below on Via Sistina was the sound of traffic.
The next day she was better, she was like a woman ready to work. She brushed her hair back with her hand as she read.
She was attentive, once she even laughed.
They were brought small cups of coffee from across the courtyard.
“How does it sound to you?” she asked the writer.
“Well...” he hesitated.
He was a stupid man named Peter Lang, at one time Lengsner. He had seen her in all her sacred life, a figure of lights, he had read the article, the love letter written to her in Bazaar, It described her perfect modesty, her instinct, the shape of her behind. On the opposite page was the photograph he cut out and placed in his journal. This film he had written, this important work of the new and most worshiped of arts, already existed complete in his mind. Its power came from its chasteness, the discipline of its images. It was a film of indirection, the surface was calm with the calm of daily life. That was not to say still. Beneath the visible were emotions more potent for their concealment. Only occasionally, like the head of an iceberg ominously rising from nowhere and then dropping from sight did the terror come into view.
When she turned to him then, he was overwhelmed, he couldn’t think of what to say. It didn’t matter. Guivi gave an answer.
“I think we’re still a little afraid of some of the lines,” he said. “You know, you’ve written some difficult things.”
“Almost impossible. Don’t misunderstand, they’re good, except they have to be perfectly done.”
She had already turned away and was talking to the director.
“Shakespeare is filled with lines like this,” Guivi continued. He began to quote Othello.
It was now Iles’ turn, the time to expose his ideas. He plunged in. He was like a kind of crazy schoolmaster as he described the work, part Freud, part lovelorn columnist, tracing interior lines and motives deep as rivers. Members of the crew had sneaked in to stand near the door. Guivi jotted something in his script.
“Yes, notes, make notes,” Iles told him, “I am saying some brilliant things.”
A performance was built up in layers, like a painting, that was his method, to start with this, add this, then this, and so forth. It expanded, became rich, developed depths and undercurrents. Then in the end they would cut it back, reduce it to half its size. That was what he meant by good acting.
He confided to Lang,
I never tell them everything. I’ll give you an example: the scene in the clinic. I tell Guivi he’s going to pieces, he thinks he s going to scream, actually scream. He has to stuff a towel in his mouth to prevent it.
“Then, just before we shoot, I tell him: Do it without the towel. Do you see?”
His energy began to infect the performers. A mood of excitement, even fever came over them. He was thrilling them, it was their world he was describing and then taking to pieces to reveal its marvelous intricacies.
If he was a genius, he would be crowned in the end because, like Balzac, his work was so vast. He, too, was filling page after page, unending, crowded with the sublime and the ordinary, fantastic characters, insights, human frailty, trash. If I make two films a year for thirty years, he said... The project was his life.
At six the limousines were waiting. The sky still had light, the cold of autumn was in the air. They stood near the door and talked. They parted reluctantly. He had converted them, he was their master. They drove off separately with a little wave. Lang was left standing in the dusk.
There were dinners. Guivi sat with Anna beside him. It was the fourth day. She leaned her head against his shoulder. He was discussing the foolishness of women. They were not genuinely intelligent, he said, that was a myth of Western society.
“I’m going to surprise you,” Iles said, “do you know what I believe? I believe they’re not as intelligent as men. They are more intelligent.”
Anna shook her head very slightly.
“They’re not logical,” Guivi said. “It’s not their way. A woman’s whole essence is here.” He indicated down near his stomach.
“The womb,” he said. “Nowhere else. Do you realize there are no great women bridge players?”
It was as if she had submitted to all his ideas. She ate without speaking. She barely touched dessert. She was content to be what he admired in a woman. She was aware of her power, he knelt to it nightly, his mind wandering. He was already becoming indifferent to her. He fucked her as one plays a losing hand, he did the best he could with it. The sperm leapt out of him. She moaned.
“I am really a romantic and a classicist,” he said. “I have almost been in love twice.”
Her glance fell, he told her something in a whisper.
“But never really,” he went on, “never deeply. No, I long for that. I am ready for it,” he said.
Beneath the table her hand had discovered this. The waiters were brushing away the crumbs.
Lang was staying at the Inghilterra in a small room on the side. Long after the evening was over he still swam in thoughts of it. He washed his underwear distractedly. Somewhere in the shuttered city, the river black with fall, he knew they were together, he did not resent it. He lay in bed like a poor student —how little life changes from the first to the last—and fell asleep clutching his dreams. The windows were open. The cold air poured over him like sea on a blind sailor, drenching him, filing the room. He lay with his legs crossed at the ankle like a martyr, his face turned to God.
Iles was at the Grand in a suite with tall doors and floors that creaked. He could hear chambermaids pass in the hall. He had a cold and could not sleep. He called his wife in America, it was just evening there, and they talked for a long time. He was depressed: Guivi was no actor.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“Oh, he has nothing, no depth, no emotion.”
“Can’t you get someone else?”
“It’s too late.”
They would have to work around it, he said. He had the telephone propped on the pillow, his eyes were drifting aimlessly around the room. They would have to change the character somehow, make the falseness a part of it. Anna was all right. He was pleased with Anna. Well, they would do something, pump life into it somehow, make dead birds fly.
By the end of the week they were rehearsing on their feet. It was cold. They wore their coats as they moved from one place to another. Anna stood near Guivi. She took the cigarette from his fingers and smoked it. Sometimes they laughed.
Iles was alive with work. His hair fell in his face, he was explaining actions, details. He didn’t rely on their knowledge, he arranged it all. Often he tied a line to an action, that is to say the words were keyed by it: Guivi touched Anna’s elbow, without looking, she said.
Lang sat and watched. Sometimes they were working very close to him, just in front of where he was. He couldn’t really pay attention. She was speaking his lines, things he had invented. They were like shoes. She tried them on, they were nice, she never thought who had made them.
“Anna has a limited range,” Guivi confided.
Lang said yes. He wanted to learn more about acting, this secret world.
“But what a face,” Guivi said.
“There’s a little touch of the idiot in them, isn’t there?” Guivi said.
She could see them talking. Afterwards she sent someone to Lang. Whatever he had told Guivi, she wanted to know, too. Lang looked over at her. She was ignoring him.
He was confused, he did not know if it was serious. The minor actors with nothing to do were sitting on two old sofas. The floor was chalky, dust covered their shoes. Iles was following the scenes closely, nodding his approval, yes, yes, good, excellent. The script girl walked behind him, a stopwatch around her neck. She was forty-five, her legs ached at night. She went along noting everything, careful not to step on any of the half-driven nails.
“My love,” Iles turned to her, he had forgotten her name. “How long was it?”
They always took too much time. He had to hurry them, force them to be economical.
At the end, like school, there was the final test. They seemed to do it all perfectly, the gestures, the cadences he had devised. He was timing them like runners. Two hours and twenty minutes.
“Marvelous,” he told them.
That night Lang was drunk at the party the producer gave. It was in a small restaurant. The entry was filled with odors and displays of food, the cooks nodded from the kitchen. Fifty people were there, a hundred, crowded together and speaking different languages. Among them shone Anna like a queen. On her wrist was a new bracelet from Bulgari’s, she had coolly demanded a discount, the clerk hadn’t known what to say. She was in a slim gold suit that showed her breasts. Her strange, flat face seemed to float without expression among the others, sometimes she wore a faint, a drifting smile.
Lang felt depressed. He did not understand what they had been doing, the exaggerations dismayed him, he didn’t believe in Iles, his energies, his insight, he didn’t believe in any of it. He tried to calm himself. He saw them at the biggest table, the producer at Anna’s elbow. They were talking, why was she so animated ? They always come alive when the lights are on, someone said.
He watched Guivi. I am not interested in them, he thought. He could see Anna leaning across to speak, her long hair, her throat.
“It’s stupid to be making it in color,” he said to the man beside him.
“What?” He was a film company executive. He had a face like a fish, a bass, that had rotted. “What do you mean, not in color?”
“Black and white,” Lang told him.
“What are you talking about? You can’t sell a black and white film. Life is in color.”
“Color is real,” the man said. He was from New York. The ten greatest films of all time, the twenty greatest, were in color, he said.
“What about...” Lang tried to concentrate, his elbow slipped,” The Bicycle Thief?”
“I’m talking about modern films.”