An obvious crux for analyzing European cinema during its proliferation in the 1950s and 1960s is to tether analysis to European cinema’s expression of post-war dislocation and trauma. A critique that is not only fair but unavoidable. I have tended to avoid it in this Cannes series because writing about WWII for every review would get a touch redundant after the first few. Not only that, but context is sometimes a crutch and a shackle in reviewing cinema. Surely, a film like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita or Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel arguably couldn’t have existed without the fallout of the increasingly small world after a steamrolling German blitzkrieg swept across the continent. The war brought disruption to the oppressive order of the old world by forcing the European nations to realize the self-immolating limits of their quest to always expand and rule the world, and such disruption seems instrumental to the trauma essayed in many European films from the time period.
Yet, La Dolce Vita need not function merely as an expression of collective weariness and anomie in a post-war world. It may have required the death pang of old Europe to exist (not that old Europe really ever went away – it simply went into hibernation and remolded itself to control the world in new, more insidious ways). But it doesn’t live or die by its relation to WWII; it might just as easily be a more universal allegory for the perils of glamour, celebrity, and human identity in a world where people would rather search for new identities than cherish the ones they have. The same more fable-like demeanor might apply to The Third Man, the great British treatment of both mundane and otherworldly post-WWII European decimation, or The Cranes are Flying, the greatest Soviet requiem for the death (and ode to the rebirth of) Soviet communalism during the 1940s. These films are piercingly specific and intimate portrayals of their times, but they also breathe out to the world and speak to more elemental pangs of despondency and destabilizing gloom.
Few people have ever heard of The Long Absence, or Henri Colpi, but his film is one of these rare works that functions in the dueling registers of intimacy and generalizability. The human story portrays Therese (Alida Valli) and her gnawing obsession over a wandering loner who arrives in her town (played by Georges Wilson, and not afforded a proper name). The man suffers from amnesia, but she believes he happens to have been her husband before he went away. Why did he leave? Nominally, it isn’t important, and the elemental unknown quality of his disappearance itself calls back to the great unknown of the many humans who were whisked away for war. Humans, both those who stayed and those who went away, largely had no idea what was going on. Sure, macro-level political conflict was at stake, but for many, their lived experience was simply the sudden emptiness of life in their villages, with people having left for far away lands, and who came back different people, unable to return to their previous pre-war identities despite their physical return to their prior abodes.
Colpi wisely avoids the mystery angle; the loss of memory speaks for itself, and we do not need to know why. We can read between the lines, and any savvy viewer of European cinema will spot the implicit connections to the war (indeed, the fact that the film cannot explicitly state the presence of WWII is itself a reminder of how traumatic it was, so much so that people had to avoid open recognition of it to preserve their own sanity). The film isn’t really about “why” the stranger went away; it is about his return, and about a person who loves him dearly. If it is him, that is. It is a love story, of sorts, but a love story suffused with a subfuscous provocation and tentativeness. Is it love for her husband, or for the idea of her husband that Therese feels? Or perhaps the abstract idea of love, or the need for human contact? Is this man really her husband, or is she impressing the idea of her husband onto this man who has no other identity to live? In the end, if the act of these two connecting improves both their lives, does the truth of whether the man was truly her husband before-hand really matter?
What emerges, then, is a spellbinding text on the idea of identity and disruption, both as a result of the thunderstorm of war and as a more general consequence of human living, which is why the film doesn’t need the context of war to function. It thrives as a fable of human companionship. Different filmmakers had their attitudes toward this companionship and the ensuing alienation. Fellini adopted a mixture of scabrous mockery and disarmingly innocent curiosity, Buñuel was as deliciously nasty as could be, and Kalamatozov unearthed an almost spiritual, gliding humanism. Colpi is a more naturalistic director, and a much warmer one. With other filmmakers, we find a conscious drive to propel a thesis; with Colpi, we just bathe in the questions and ponder.
As a pure human story, The Long Absence thrives, bearing influences the tether together social realism and something decidedly more whimsical. As a work of craft, Absence isn’t quite as forthrightly volcanic and tempestuous as the many European works that share its time period (compared to the wonderfully caustic tone poem to human incapability and failure that is Buñuel’s Viridiana, the film that shared Palme d’Or honors with our current subject, it is much less openly combative in its understanding of film vocabulary). Perhaps this is why Colpi doesn’t share the household name status (among the arthouse crowd at least). His film is wonderful, but its wonder is just slightly more straightforward compared to the bigger names surrounding him. The craft is impeccable, but it is more nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship than genuine improvisational genius that seems to have been brought into the world on a whim from the gods.
Still, it is hard to disagree with the film when Colpi is encasing himself in the geometry of the buildings around our two protagonists, photographing them with labyrinthine depth-of-field as an externalization of the internal contours of the mind Therese must walk through to find the theoretical remnants of her husband. The visual economy of the film is impossibly capable of exploring the separation between the two humans, framing them at different heights and on different planes even they are near each other to draw them together whilst keeping them apart. Meanwhile, the lengthy sequences where Therese simply follows the man across town manage to inextricably triangulate the whimsical comedy of Chaplin (the tramp being a key comparison point), the noirish shadings of Italian cinema (which would turn into outright Grand Guignol giallo soon enough), and the neo-realist stylings of the heyday of Cannes.
Wide shots throughout dwarf the characters and, without mocking them, lament the small places these characters occupy in the world. However, nothing tops the scorching repetition of shots where Valli is standing up next to Wilson, who resides to a life of sitting, both of them with the most masterfully dejected, longing facial expressions imaginable. Here, Colpi gives us all we need to know about the power relations inherent to their relationship, and inherent even to the idea of love. Near the end of the film, when Wilson finally learns to stand, and Valli is freed enough to be able to sit with him, and they equal out in shots that depict them harmoniously rather than at odds with one another, the film gives us some of the most quietly heartwarming moments in all of cinema. The Long Absence moves from a heartbreaking study in what it means to know another person to a luminous expression of what it means to accept another person, and to be around another person without feeling like you have to know the depths of their heart.
When the stranger leaves once more, and Therese resigns herself to the knowledge that someday, someone shall return for her, it is an unspeakably complex moment of human frailty, undercut by the necessity of desire and companionship and hope for the survival of the human condition, undercut again by the knowledge that her hope is an end in itself. The memories of love keep her alive, and whoever returns for her, it won’t be her husband as she knew him, and she will again have to accept a new love, she will have to come to terms with replacing old memories with new ones rather than trying to impress old memories on new situations. Hope for the past becomes both a blessing and a curse.
If we follow the wisdom of Hitchcock’s seminal comment that a good film should be understood with the sound off, The Long Absence is most surely a great film. A great many world cinema heavyweights basked in Cannes glory in its early days, from Fellini to Buñuel to Welles to De Sica, but film is not always fair. In 191, of course, Cannes was fair; awarding The Long Absence a Palme d’Or along with Viridiana was a great gesture of good faith to Colpi’s importance, but he has largely disappeared from mention today. Sure, The Long Absence doesn’t hint at the death-marked genius of a Fellini or a Buñuel (the sense is that Colpi is more willing to work within film norms than to actively reject them). But if the end result is not necessarily a game-changing work of cinema, it is nothing less than a shame that The Long Absence has been lost in the marshes of film history for over a half century.