[Originally published in Movietone News 52, October 1976]
In his autobiography I Remember It Well, Vincente Minnelli registers a very pragmatic regret that his producer-partner Arthur Freed took such good care of him all those years at MGM. Left to dream his cinematic dreams, cast fragile spells with camera and decor, and build to the visual equivalent of crescendos through flamboyant mise-en-scène, he never had to learn how to deal with the front-office boys, the money men, the guys who had the power to say when and how and even whether he would get to make a film. With the passing of Freed and the extravagant studio armament of Metro, Minnelli was left defenseless in the New Hollywood, and the effect was startlingly apparent: gross conceptual misfires like Goodbye Charlie, the pointlessly transatlantic misadventure of The Sandpiper, several years’ wait for an expensive Barbra Streisand musical liked by neither Streisand fans nor musical aficionados, and then more years waiting for … nothing at all, it appeared, until a couple of seasons ago we began to hear about an adaptation of Marcel Druon’s Film of Memory.
At last it’s here—A Matter of Time—and again Minnelli has been done in by the logistics of the nouveau cinema: the Italian locations obligatorily and tediously paused for, the Italian cast impossible to direct in any mode supportive to the stellar likes of Bergman, Boyer, and (for the sake of discussion) Liza Minnelli, the Movielab color a tawdry, enervating substitute for a man who dreams in richest Technicolor, the sets inadequately realized, the post-dubbed soundtrack deleterious to any evoking—let alone sustaining—of mood…. Whatever Louis B. Mayer might have been, he wasn’t Samuel Z. Arkoff, and if there be a prototype for co-exec-producer Giulio Sbarigia he’s that Italian who made Cinecittà hell on earth for “directors” Edward G. Robinson and Kirk Douglas in Minnelli’s now-prophetic Two Weeks in Another Town. Vincente Minnelli can swoop around corners with the utmost elegance, but he can’t cut them—and corner-cutting shows all over A Matter of Time.
But sooner or later the reviewer exhausts the manifestations of sleazy international co-production and comes face to face with the director’s own effort. And here, sadly, the news is shamefully bad: A Matter of Time, Minnelli’s first film in six years, is just terrible. The early reports were tantalizing to the sympathetic auteurist. Minnelli directing his own daughter in a meditation on generations, on self-discovery, on imaginative journeys through fantasy-memory as, in inhabiting the performances of another woman in an earlier time, a young woman gets a purchase on her own identity and acquires a sense of personal style. What a perfect vehicle for one of those twilight-years testimonials the entire career of a master serves to prepare for, when all unessentials are stripped away and the shining truth—a sublime merger of subject and self-perfected style—becomes almost painfully beautiful to contemplate. Well, yes, when such a film comes along it’s very special indeed. But there’s another way such projects can go, and A Matter of Time demonstrates this all too vividly. Minnelli’s “ideas” are there rightly enough, declaimed and reiterated so blatantly and so often that the script begins to sound like a rote recitation for third-graders on how to grow up healthy, wealthy, and wise. One moment in the film suggests the kind of rarefied poetic condition in which such frontal declarations might achieve a kind of grandeur: the girl’s first view of the shabby fifth-floor hotelroom where a once-desired courtesan now lives, sunk in senility as far as the rest of the world is concerned: the most conspicuous feature of the shot is a window giving on a startlingly painted-looking vision of Roman rooftops and towers, with a late-afternoon cloud of starlings special-effected into the sky and whirling like a visible invocation of some Muse. All the other efforts to develop an evocative mise-en-scène go crashingly thump; more alarmingly still, there are scarcely any other efforts. Certainly we cannot count the boringly light-fogged occasion of Nina’s screen test for the movie people, where Unsworth’s cinematography is even more impenetrable than in the first half hour of Lucky Lady; and if the tacky, jerky tourist shots of Rome during Nina’s outings were intended to serve some expressive purpose in relation to her untutored, still-graceless sensibility, the interminability of such passages soon defeats the appreciation—indeed, the interest.
The scenario deals with a smalltown Italian girl who comes to the city for the rich and romantic life of a maid. Her mentor, The Contessa, mistakes her for her personal servant and confidante of years gone by and begins grooming her to go out and live the life she herself is now denied. The upshot of all this we already know: the film begins with a spectacular press conference for Nina, the most sought-after of film superstars, and as she is chauffeured to it with her current lover and this funky old gold mirror whose story she promises to tell someday, her producer explains to the press how he first met her. Again, the possibilities are tantalizing: Bergman’s own sainted-sinner background as a film star, her memorable romantic mismatch in Gaslight with Boyer (who appears briefly here as her long-estranged, still-wealthy husband, contributes the one dignified performance in the film, and departs, wisely asking to be kept in ignorance of whatever ensues), Liza Minnelli’s own mystique of the ugly duckling who remained an ugly duckling but brazened her way to stardom all the same, and of course the unannounced but unignorable shade of Judy, the mother who embodied everything charismatically right and everything destructively wrong about being a star—how to exorcise or come to terms with that shade? Far from taking flight, these implicit reverberations don’t even make it to the galvanic-twitch stage—the greatest obstacle to which is Father Minnelli’s inability to recognize that Daughter Minnelli, the most intransigently vulgar actress of the decade, can’t impersonate a Fifties-style Leslie Caron (to pluck one more association, this from the director’s own icon-making past—An American in Paris, Gigi), and so is playing to a convinced audience of, at most, one.
A MATTER OF TIME
Direction: Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay: John Gay, after the novel Film of Memory by Marcel Druon. Cinematography: Geoffrey Unsworth. Production design: Veniero Colasanti, John Moore. Editing: Peter Taylor. Music: Nino Oliviero; songs: “A Matter of Time” and “The Me I Haven’t Met Yet” by Fred Ebb and John Kander, “Do It Again” by George Gershwin and B.G. DeSylva. Production: Jack H. Skirball, J. Edmund Grainger; executive: Samuel Z. Arkoff, Giulio Sbarigia.
The players: Liza Minnelli, Ingrid Bergman, Spiros Andros, Gabriele Ferzetti, Tina Aumont, Charles Boyer, Fernando Rey.
© 1976 Richard T. Jameson