Tuesday, November 8, 2011

No Way of Knowing: Maria's Lovers (1984)

Despite the fact that by the mid-eighties Nastassja Kinski was one of the most iconic and recognizable stars on the planet she could still come unglued in the presence of one of favorite actors. Such was the case when Kinski met legendary Robert Mitchum in the days before the two would begin sharing the screen together in the eloquent and haunting Maria's Lovers. Kinski later recalled that the ultra-cool Mitchum was, "Ah! Awesome! You know? He's one of those people who you think you will never meet-certain stars, certain actors. You just don't think they're real!" She would go on to admit that Mitchum had, "always haunted" her and that she had dreamed of working with him since she was a child watching his films. Working with Mitchum proved to be one of the great experiences of Nastassja Kinski's career and she admitted that, "everything just dissolved until there was nothing but those eyes!" during their scenes together.

It wasn't just the pairing of two great stars like Kinski and Mitchum that made Maria's Lovers one of the most memorable films of the eighties. As shot by Russian filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky, Maria's Lovers remains a startling and moving work that is as ripe for rediscovery as any American language work from the period. With its intelligent and poetic script from the pen of frequent Polanski collaborator Gerard Brach and the stunning photography of Spanish born cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia guiding it, Maria's Lovers is an extraordinary work that still hasn't found the audience it has so long deserved.

Born in the late summer of 1937, Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky began his career in cinema in his early twenties. A massively important Russian director who was, among other things, a friend and collaborator with the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky, Konchalovsky had been fascinated with the arts since he was a child and it would be that interest that would lead him to a life in film. Maria's Lovers is notable not only in that it marks Konchalovsky’s English language film debut but it also marks one of the first English language films ever to be shot by a Russian director.

Focusing on a small American town, just after World War Two, that has been spiritually and emotionally ripped apart, Maria's Lovers centers on Ivan, a damaged soldier returning home from the war to his drunken father and his lost love Maria. Ivan, played with a beautifully scarred intensity by John Savage, is struggling with a loss of not just a couple of years of his life but also his soul. The memory of Kinski’s Maria is the one thing that got him through the horrors of war he witnessed, but when he returns he finds that she has taken up with another soldier named Al, played well by Vincent Spano. It seems that everyone is obsessed by the luminous Maria, including Ivan’s father, characterized wonderfully by the iconic Robert Mitchum, and a travelling guitar playing stranger but Maria really only loves Ivan, who unfortunately becomes impotent around her even after they are finally married.

Maria's Lovers is marked by the remarkably sensitive direction of Konchalovsky, the searing performance of Kinski and the picture perfect photography of DP Juan Ruiz Anchia. It is a tender and moving portrait of personal alienation and stands as one of the best films that Nastassja Kinski ever had the chance to appear in. The film works best in its scenes between Kinski and Savage, as their relationship slips further and further down a hole of doubt, frustration and sexual tension. Savage is remarkable in the film and the internal strife he is experiencing is palatable. The film also soars in the moments Kinski shares with Mitchum, who stare at her with a kind of desire and longing that is extremely rare in modern English language cinema.

It is questionable whether or not the travelling musician, played by Keith Carradine, was really necessary, as it does take away from the main storyline, but his inclusion does give Kinski’s Maria an outlet for the blossoming sexuality that is overtaking her.

It is this repressed sexuality that gives the film its most remarkable scene, involving a tour de force moment with Kinski alone in her bedroom. It is one of the most heartbreakingly erotic and beautifully performed scenes in film history and Konchalovsky’s direction of it is splendidly tasteful without feeling compromised. It is one of Kinski’s great moments where she is confronted just by the camera and her own internal solitude, a solitude that she was able to portray as well as an actor that has ever been filmed.

The film also does a remarkable job at presenting America at one of its most pivotal moments. The fact that it took a Russian director, a French Screenwriter, a Spanish photographer and a German actress to do it makes it all the more incredible. Maria's Lovers is one of the eighties great lost films, and the relatively muted reception that greeted it frankly astounds me to this day. Shot on a relatively low budget in less than two months on location in Pennsylvania and produced by Cannon, Maria's Lovers is one of those films that has never been granted the attention it has so deserved but hopefully its day will come eventually.

The film would open across Europe in late 1984 to some acclaim but it was greeted by mostly-mixed reviews and poor box office when it opened in the States in January of 85. Among the critics who responded to the film were Janet Maslin who would write, "Kinski is radiant...she brings an immense vibrancy to the role of a small-town girl with many suitors, including one who becomes her father-in-law, in a rambling and populous story that is eventually less than the sum of its parts. However, as photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchia, Miss Kinski is even able to make a great deal out of a sequence in which she wears a damp, diaphanous housedress and scrubs the floor...Mr. Konchalovsky, who is capable of anything from sweeping emotional overstatement to attention-getting symbolism (a chair representing the Maria-Ivan union sits on that hilltop throughout most of the film) to Altmanesque clutter, has quite an eye for eccentric talent." Kevin Thomas also celebrated the film with, ""An impeccable piece of vintage Americana...special and rewarding...disquieting authentic...Kinski is undeniably sensual...a fresh, liberating perspective and universality to a quintessentially American experience." Too many critics missed how great the film was but almost everyone rightly celebrated Kinski, who was honored with the coveted Silver Ribbon award from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Konchalovsky was nominated for best foreign film director at the 1985 Cesar awards but otherwise Maria's Lovers failed to gather much momentum. The Silver Ribbon was a big deal for Kinski though as it would mark one of the only times that the critical establishment finally recognized her as the wonderfully effective actress she was.

Maria's Lovers is a really special film and it is absolutely essential for fans of Nastassja Kinski. It is currently available on Region 1 DVD in a fairly good widescreen presentation that unfortunately only includes the trailer as an extra. Konchalovsky would thankfully be given more attention for his directing skills with his next movie, the very exciting and well made Runaway Train (1985).

Maria's Lovers would mark the end to Nastassja Kinski's golden period as a star in America. After shooting Harem, she would film Revolution which would prove disastrous and she would work almost exclusively in European films for the next decade. When thinking of this I can only agree with Nastassja’s quote concerning her friend Roman Polanski’s exile from the States…”It’s America’s loss.” and Maria's Lovers is as great a testament as any to Kinski's truly distinctive and otherwordly talent.


night person said...

A terrific window into this work, Jeremy....

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much. I really appreciate that!