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.”
Today was sunny. He was writing in brief, disconsolate phrases. Yesterday it rained, it was dark until late afternoon, the day before was the same. The corridors of the Inghilterra were vaulted like a convent, the doors set deep in the walls. Still, he thought, it was comfortable. He gave his shirts to the maid in the morning, they were back the next day. She did them at home. He had seen her bending over to take linen from a cabinet. The tops of her stockings showed—it was classic Bunuel—the mysterious white of her leg.
The girl from publicity called. They needed information for his biography.
“We’ll send a car for you,” she said.
It never came. He went the next day by taxi and waited thirty minutes in her office, she was in seeing the producer. Finally she returned, a thin girl with damp spots under the arms of her dress.
“You called me?” Lang said.
She did not know who he was.
“You were going to send a car for me.”
“Mr. Lang,” she suddenly cried. “Oh, I’m sorry.”
The desk was covered with photos, the chairs with newspapers and magazines. She was an assistant, she had worked on Cleopatra, The Bible, The Longest Day. There was money to be earned in American films.
“They’ve put me in this little room,” she apologized.
Her name was Eva. She lived at home. Her family ate without speaking, four of them in the sadness of bourgeois surroundings, the radio which didn’t work, thin rugs on the floor. When he was finished, her father cleared his throat. The meat was better the last time, he said. The last time, her mother asked.
“Yes, it was better,” he said.
“The last time it was tasteless.”
“Ah, well, two times ago,” he said.
They fell into silence again. There was only the sound of forks, an occasional glass. Suddenly her brother rose from the table and left the room. No one looked up.
He was crazy, this brother, well, perhaps not crazy but enough to make them weep. He would remain for days in his room, the door locked. He was a writer. There was one difficulty, everything worthwhile had already been written. He had gone through a period when he devoured books, three and four a day, and could quote vast sections of them afterwards, but the fever had passed. He lay on his bed now and looked at the ceiling.
Eva was nervous, people said. Of course, she was nervous. She had black hair, small teeth, and a life in which she had already given up hope. She was thirty. They had nothing for his biography, she told Lang. They had to have a biography for everybody. She suggested finally he write it himself Yes, of course, he imagined it would be something like that.
Her closest friend, like all Italians she was alert to friends and enemies, her most useful friend was an hysterical woman named Mirella Ricci who had a large apartment and aristocratic longings. She also had the fears and illnesses of all women who live alone. Her friends were homosexuals and women who were separated. She had dinner with them in the evening, she telephoned them several times a day. She was a woman with large nostrils and white skin, white as paper, but she was still able to see white spots on it. Her doctor said they were a circulatory condition.
She was working on the film, like Eva. They talked of everyone. Iles: he knew actors, Mirella said. Whichever ones were brought in, he chose the best, well, he had made one or two mistakes. They were eating at Otello’s, tortoises crawled on the floor. The script was interesting, Mirella said, but she didn’t like the writer, he was cold. He was also a frocio, she knew the signs. As for the producer... she made a disgusted sound. He dyed his hair, she said. He looked thirty-nine but he was really fifty.
He had already tried to seduce her.
“When?” Eva said.
They knew everything. They were like nurses whose tenderness was dead. It was they who ran the sickhouse. They knew how much money everyone was getting, who was not to be trusted.
The producer: first of all he was impotent, Mirella said.
When he wasn’t impotent, he was unwilling, the rest of the time he didn’t know how to go about it and when he did, it was unsatisfactory. On top of that, he was a man who was always without a girl.
Her nostrils had darkness in them. She expected waiters to treat her well.
“How is your brother ?” she said.
“Oh, the same.”
“He still isn’t working ?”
“He has a job in a record shop but he won’t be there long. They’ll fire him.”
“What is wrong with men?“she said.
“I’m exhausted,” Eva sighed. She was haggard from late hours. She had to type letters for the producer because one of his secretaries was sick.
“He tried to make love to me, too,” she admitted.
“Tell me,” Mirella said.
“At his hotel...”
“I brought him some letters. He insisted I stay and talk. He wanted to give me a drink. Finally he tried to kiss me. He fell on his knees—I was cowering on the divan—and said, Eva, you smell so sweet. I tried to pretend it was all a joke.”
The joys of rectitude. They drove around in little Fiats. They paid great attention to their clothes.
The film was going well, a day ahead of schedule. Iles was working with a kind of vast assurance. He roamed around the great, black Mitchell in tennis shoes, he ate no lunch. The rushes were said to be extraordinary. Guivi never went to see them. Anna asked Lang about them, what did he think? He tried to decide. She was beautiful in them, he told her—it was true—there was a quality in her face which illuminated the entire film... he never finished. As usual, she was disinterested. She had already turned to someone else, the cameraman,
“Did you see them?" she said.
Iles wore an old sweater, the hair hung in his face. Two films a year, he repeated... that was the keystone of all his belief. Eisenstein only made six altogether, but he didn’t work under the American system. Anyway, Iles had no confidence when he was at rest.
Whatever his weaknesses, his act of grandeur was in concealing the knowledge that the film was already wreckage: Guivi was simply not good enough, he worked without thinking, he worked as one eats a meal. Iles knew actors.
Farewell, Guivi. It was the announcement of death. He was already beginning to enter the past. He signed autographs, the space showing between his teeth. He charmed journalists. The perfect victim, he suspected nothing. The glory of his life had blinded him. He dined at the best tables, a bottle of fine Bordeaux before him. He mimicked the foolishness of Iles.
“Guivi, my love,” he imitated, “the trouble is you are Russian, you are moody and violent. He’s telling me what it is to be Russian. Next he’ll start describing life under communism.”
Anna was eating with very slow bites.
“Do you know something?” she said calmly.
“I’ve never been so happy.”
“Not in my whole life,” she said.
He smiled. His smile was opera.
“With you I am the woman everyone believes I am,” she said.
He looked at her long and deeply. His eyes were dark, the pupils invisible. Love scenes during the day, he thought, love scenes at night. People were watching them from all around the room. When they rose to go, the waiters crowded near the door.
Within three years his career would be over. He would see himself in the flickering television as if it were some curious dream. He invested in apartment houses, he owned land in Spain. He would become like a woman, jealous, unforgiving, and perhaps one day in a restaurant even see Iles with a young actor, explaining with the heat of a fanatic some very ordinary idea. Guivi was thirty-seven. He had a moment on the screen that would never be forgotten. Tinted posters of him would peel from the sides of buildings more and more remote, the resemblance fading, his name becoming stale. He would smile across alleys, into the sour darkness. Far-off dogs were barking. The streets smelled of the poor.
There was a party for Anna’s birthday at a restaurant in the outskirts, the restaurant in which Farouk, falling backwards from the table, had died. Not everyone was invited. It was meant to be a surprise.
She arrived with Guivi. She was not a woman, she was a minor deity, she was some beautiful animal innocent of its grace. It was February, the night was cold. The chauffeurs waited inside the cars. Later they gathered quietly in the cloakroom.
“My love,” Iles said to her, “you are going to be very, very happy.”
He put his arm around her without replying, he nodded. The shooting was almost over. The rushes, he said, were the best he had ever seen. Ever.
“As for this fellow...” he said, reaching for Guivi.
The producer joined them.
“I want you for my next picture, both of you,” he announced. He was wearing a suit a size too small, a velvet suit bought on via Borgognona.
“Where did you get it?” Guivi said. “It’s fantastic. Who is supposed to be the star here anyway?”
Posener looked down at himself. He smiled like a guilty boy.
“Do you like it ?” he said. “Really ?”
“No, where did you get it?”
“I’ll send you one tomorrow.”
No, no... .
“Guivi, please,” he begged, “I want to.”
He was filled with affection, the worst was past. The actors had not run away or refused to work, he was overcome with love for them, as for a bad child who unexpectedly does something good. He felt he must do something in return.
“Waiter!” he cried. He looked around, his gestures always seemed wasted, vanished in empty air.
“Waiter,” he called, “champagne!”
There were twenty or so people in the room, other actors, the American wife of a count. At the table Guivi told stories. He drank like a Georgian prince, he had plans for Geneva, Gstaad. There was the Italian producer, he said, who had an actress under contract, she was a second Sophia Loren. He had made a fortune with her. Her films were only shown in Italy, but everyone went to them, the money was pouring in. He always kept the journalist away, he never let them talk to her alone.
“Sellerio,” someone said.
“Yes,” said Guivi, “that’s right. Do you know the rest of the story?”
“He sold her.”
But half the contract only, Guivi said. Her popularity was fading, he wanted to get everything he could. There was a big ceremony, they invited all the press. She was going to sign. She picked up the pen and leaned forward a little for the photographers, you know, she had these enormous, eh... well, anyway, on the paper she wrote: with his finger Guivi made a large X. The newsmen all looked at each other. Then Sellerio took the pen and very grandly, just below her name: here Guivi made one X and next to it, carefully, another. Illiterate. That’s the truth. They asked him, look, what is that second X for? You know what he told them? Dottore.
They laughed. He told them about shooting in Naples with a producer so cheap they threw a cable across the trolley wires to steal power. He was clever, Guivi, he was a storyteller in the tradition of the east, he could speak three languages. Later, when she finally understood what had happened, Anna remembered how happy he seemed this night.
“Shall we go on to the Hostaria?” the producer said.
“What?” Guivi asked.
“The Hostaria...” As with the waiters, it seemed no one heard him. “The Blue Bar,” he said.
“Come on, we’re going to the Blue Bar,” he announced.
Outside the Botanical Gardens, parked in the cold, the small windows of the car frosted, Lengsner sat. His clothing was open. His flesh was pale in the refracted light. He had eaten dinner with Eva. She had talked for hours in a low, uncertain voice, it was a night for stories, she had told him everything, about Coleman the head of publicity, Mirella, her brother, Sicily, life. On the road to the mountains which overlooked Palermo there were cars parked at five in the afternoon. In each one was a man, a handkerchief spread in his lap.
“I am so lonely,” she said suddenly.
She had only three friends, she saw them all the time. They went to the theater together, the ballet. One was an actress. One was married. She was silent, she seemed to wait. The cold was everywhere, it covered the glass. Her breath was in crystals, visible in the dark.
“Can I kiss it?” she said.
She began to moan then, as if it were holy. She touched it with her forehead. She was murmuring. The nape of her neck was bare.
She called the next morning. It was eight o’clock.
“I want to read something to you,” she said.
He was half-asleep, the racket was already drifting up from the street. The room was chill and unlighted. Within it, distant as an old record, her voice was playing. It entered his body, it commanded his blood.
“I found this,” she said. “Are you there?”
“I thought you would like it.”
She read from an article, her voice was plain.
In the February of 1868, in Milan, Prince Umberto had given a splendid ball. In a room which blazed with light the young bride who was one day to be Queen of Italy was introduced. It was the event of the year, crowded and gay, and while the world of fashion amused itself thus, at the same hour and in the same city a lone astronomer was discovering a new planet, the ninety-seventh on Chacornac’s...
In his mind, still warmed by the pillow, it seemed a holy calm had descended. He lay like a saint. He was naked, his ankles, his hipbones, his throat.
He heard her call his name. He said nothing. He lay there becoming small, smaller, vanishing. The room became a window, a facade, a group of buildings, squares and sections, in the end all of Rome. His ecstasy was beyond knowing. The roofs of the great cathedrals shined in the winter air.