Oppressive heat shrouds an Algerian beach. A Frenchman, Arthur Meursault (Marcello Mastroianni), pauses at the foot of the stairs of the house at which he’s a guest. He’s too exhausted to climb, overcome by the scalding sun and something unnamed that troubles him, “unable to face the smiling, chattering women above”. So he makes the seemingly innocuous choice that determines his destiny – returning to the beach. He walks. In a cove he comes across an Algerian man who he shoots and kills for no reason at all.
In a Luchino Visconti film, characters react to their surroundings. Whether realistically depicting the unadorned lives of Sicilian fishermen or the highly aestheticised world of aristocrats, Visconti excelled at crafting physical settings that echoed interior worlds. The Stranger is a patient adaptation of Albert Camus’ 1942 novel L’Étranger (often translated as The Outsider), and Visconti’s second collaboration with Mastroianni after Le Notti Bianche in 1957 (an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s short story ‘White Nights’). In The Stranger the relationship between interiors and exteriors is heightened through dissonance – between the overwhelming expanse of landscape and dry heat, and the cool inexpressiveness of the film’s protagonist.
Meursault moves through an enervating landscape, bored, detached from others and passively yielding to the world. As he shoots, we hear his retrospective voiceover: “I realised I had shot at the impassive stillness of the afternoon and the shimmering silence of the beach.” But Meursault has also taken aim at the equilibrium of a world with which he’s out of step. He doesn’t fit. Often framed by Visconti alone or in shadows, Meursault is a dark form without substance. The camera moves slowly, to match his movements. He’s dwarfed by the landscape, by the ocean, and frenetic towns, at risk of being swallowed whole by his calamity.
Our understanding that Meursault is in the world, yet not in the world, settles with an electric stillness in Mastroianni. With a screen presence that often communicates ennui, Visconti deploys Mastroianni intelligently here. His most iconic role, as gossip columnist Marcello Rubini in La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960), may be the cinematic embodiment of modern male ambivalence, and he’s similarly diffident in both dramas (La Notte, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962) and comedies (Divorce, Italian Style, Pietro Germi, 1962). But it’s incorrect to attribute his passivity to a lack of action, or non-acting. Any blankness is in service to character, carefully fashioned through expressions and gestures that ultimately grant his performances complexity and contradictions. His acting style, as evidenced in The Stranger, is a delicate interplay between surface and depth that renders Meursault, like so many Mastroianni men, as sympathetic even when behaving badly.
Mastroianni is the ideal canvas on which to paint Meursault, a man whose surface is impossible to read. Visconti’s characters often experience operatic emotions. They are people who feel too much. But Meursault feels nothing. When his mother dies he doesn’t cry, a fact that’s repeated throughout his murder trial as evidence of an “exceptionally callous” nature and of his guilt. It’s an inconvenience for him to travel to the nursing home, to see her body (he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t know why), and even to attend her funeral. His impassive stillness is contrasted with the reaction of an older mourner, so overcome by the loss, that he faints. But Meursault’s connection to her is so remote he doesn’t even know her age.
Certainly, grief manifests in different ways, but what’s most striking about Meursault’s particular display is that he’s not willing to pretend he feels anything he doesn’t in order to appear less socially abject. When his girlfriend, Marie (Anna Karina) asks him if he will marry her, he says he will if it’s what she wants. When she then asks if he loves her, he admits, without guile, that he doesn’t. Meursault rarely behaves as society expects him to. His absence of feeling is repeatedly juxtaposed with the profusion of feeling expressed by everyone else around him. Even during his trial, which reaches often-histrionic levels, he’s disinterested, his weariness with proceedings shifting only to bewilderment.
Camus’ novel exemplifies his philosophy of the absurd (regularly, and incorrectly confounded with Existentialism). Camus imagines a world without meaning, where we nevertheless seek but struggle to find it. Meursault’s murder of the Arab explores this puzzle. He cannot find a reason for killing him. Meursault also expresses no regret. He’s not sorry for what he did, he says, but “rather, a little annoyed”.
A master of contradictions, Mastroianni shows us that Meursault lives in a prison of his own making. He sleepwalks through life, with little purpose, enduring each day rather than living it. On the weekend after his mother’s death, he tells us, “I don’t like Sundays”, and is happy just to have made it through another one. He’s a man without ambition; when his manager suggests he move to Paris to work in the new office, he says, “One can never change his way of life; one life is as good as another. I might as well remain where I am.” Even in moments with Marie that seem joyous (laughing at the cinema, cavorting in the ocean, making love) we question his sincerity.
Visconti pushes at Meursault’s apathy by placing him in a landscape that demands a response – the energy of Algiers, the relentless sun. There’s an abundance of life here, but it also stifles like a prison. Characters are repeatedly shown wiping sweat from their brows and necks and fanning themselves. Meursault struggles with the elements. It’s the weather, after all, that he finally claims as a reason when asked by the judge why he shot the Arab man: “I think it was the sun.” The physical landscape forces his hand – a reaction where he had once been inert.
By the film’s end Meursault’s landscape reduces to a dark prison cell where he’s just a face crying out in the darkness. We want to explain how he arrived here, that the murder expressed a primal grief, because the opposite, that it expressed nothing, is too horrific. Meursault decides, fearful of what’s to come, that he’s happy to open himself to “the sweet indifference of the universe”. But Visconti gives us no joy, no acceptance, just a haunting close-up of Mastroianni’s face, entombed in the stillness, his impassivity shattered forever.
The Stranger (1967 Italy/France 104 min)
Prod Co: Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica, Raster Film, Marianne Productions, Casbah Film Prod: Dino de Laurentiis Dir: Luchino Visconti Scr: Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Georges Conchon, Emmanuel Roblès, Luchino Visconti Phot: Giueseppe Rotunno Ed: Ruggero Mastroianni Prod Des: Mario Garbuglia Mus: Piero Piccioni
Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Karina, Bernard Blier, Georges Wilson, Bruno Cremer, Pierre Bartin, Jacques Herlin, Marc Laurent, Georges Géret, Alfred Adam, Jean-Pierre Zola, Mimmo Palmara, Angela Luce