Houses in cinema: Dino Risi for Domus

Today’s Oscars award stories about houses – from Poor Things! to The Zone of Interest – and as early as eighty years ago, as Italy was reopening to the world, a future master of Italian cinema told Domus how “houses in cinema are to the characters as houses in life are to people”.

Architectures chorus the blossoming of Bella Baxter in Poor Things! by Lanthimos – but the Greek director’s career is punctuated by character-buildings, from the singles’ hotel in The Lobster to the timeless mansion in Dogtooth – or act as a chilling rhetorical substitute for the horror of Nazi concentration camps, like the house in The Zone of Interest; other architectures, this time as famous as Carlo Scarpa's Brion cemetery, are transfigured into symbolic places of a family relationship in the second episode of Dune.Less and less an element for set design, more and more an entity close to the characters, comprimarios if not protagonists, houses took crucial roles in modern cinema as the mode of storytelling broke away from classical stylistic features. In February 1946, as Italy was reopening to an international dimension after World War II, a young film critic destined to become a master of Italian comedy, Dino Risi, explored for Ernesto Nathan Rogers’ Domus – on issue 206 – this very world of character-homes, among René Clair’s bedrooms, Charlie Chaplin-Charlot’s huts, and Hitchcock’s environments.

Domus 206, February 1946

The house in the movies

In entrusting Dino Risi with the subject of this article we were sure that his sensibility would carry it out in a way that would be of great help to us. Indeed, our purpose was to enable an understanding of this subject: houses in cinema are to characters as that of life is to people. But how many instead live as if they were literary figures, (while so many filmmakers have not yet realized how far their world is from ours).

I will not make a technical argument. I will rather tell of the subtle relationships, of a sometimes psychological order, that the house establishes with the film. I will talk about what the house was and is for me in films. I will tell whether I have sometimes succeeded in inhabiting a film.

I have visited thousands and thousands of houses on the screen. I have visited the Usher house, Monsieur Beaucaire's palace, Alberto Collo's drawing rooms, Charlot's hut, the furnished room of the monster of Düsseldorf, Professor Unrath's attic, the apartment of Cupo tramonto (Dark sunset), the house of tolerance of Maria, a Hungarian legend, Mattia Pascal's boarding house, Countess Maritza's bathroom, the painters' studio in Il Milione, Citizen Kane's castle, the fisherman's house in Aran. With those, thousands and thousands of houses. I must say that I have rarely felt like I lived in those houses. In theater, the house is most often an accessory element.

The house is the first to show itself, and then it suddenly disappears. The word builds in front of it. In cinema, the house is always a necessary element, even if it does not seem to be. If it exists, it only owns a few moments of silence: when the characters approach the lens, zooming in. The house then recedes, lost in the blurred background. But soon after, the objects resume their function, re-entering the image from all sides, claiming their necessity. The character of such necessity is clear, in an art that commends itself first and foremost to the eyes: there, objects acquire a continuous counterpoint function and can sometimes even take on the value of a character. Around the actor, in the film, things live their continuous presence. Often indifferent, or one would say, they adjust themselves instead in such a way as to draw certain forms of indirect attention from the viewers, bringing an apparently incalculable weight in their final judgment. The direct attention in the meanwhile remains on people, and on the words as their volatile justification. 

Domus 206, February 1946

The function of objects is not only descriptive, but expressive. Just as a wrong object can disturb or interrupt a particular suggestion born from the film, similarly the right object can give voice to the film. Hence the importance in the film of furniture in particular, and set design in general. It is up to the set-designer to reduce small and large objects, a chair or a house, to such expressive function. The director must compose them in the framing, or exclude them, so that their presence, if necessary, is, as well as felt, efficient. The cameraman, touching with light and shadow the objects, giving life to the insensible overbearingness of things, will collaborate with the director to create that one possible way in which the poetic intention of the author is specified. I warn that we are talking here about art film: the work that aims to achieve poetic value. It is precisely here that the silent chorus of things is most difficult to direct. In other films the house has only a functional and decorative value.
The film is a collaborative work. Orchestrating the parts is the diffìcult art of directing. A successful film is an orchestrated film, a film in which all parts are harmoniously arranged on a perspective in which necessity brings them together. In this way the objects will put their voices alongside the more evident and definite voice that the words have. But such harmony is rarely produced. In general, the film, obeying all tested formulas, is the work of different (differing) collaboration. Objects most often act against the film – which is not to be deplored in the all too frequent cases where the set design is supposed to be a mute witness to horrors and attacks committed against art.

Can you see the house in the film? It is possible, but too often with that impression of a necessary thing, placed there because one cannot do without it. The house that is seen is the house that participates in the film, that acts as a counter-stage, that is sometimes a character and protagonist. The house in the film most often has a decorative, background function, sometimes a function that one might say of a sidekick, rarely a character function. This condition has many reasons besides the obvious one that a house can never be anything but a house. First, a technical reason, born from necessity. The house is the still scene in which the actors perform their dramatic fiction. It can only weakly comment on the action, agree with the action at best. This is the most frequent case. The stillness of the house, conditioned to a minor function, can in fortunate cases, for a contrasting reason, take on a definite meaning, as if the motionless presence of the objects accused the useless rush of facts.
But there is a more precise reason, all cinematographic, that very often prevents the lens from focusing on the house. The camera's eye has the power, by fixing them, almost to make the images grow. The lens amplifies, exaggerates, deforms. It can act on a face. The face does not have one way, the way that objects have, to respond to that gaze: it is an active response. The face responds with its weapons, with the necessity with which it is endowed; it looks instead rather than being looked at. The response of objects, if we cast the photographic eye on them, is unique but unpredictable. As if the lowest-ranked valet asked for the floor during a Regency Council. Giving objects the floor requires in the author an enormous intentional responsibility: think of Dreyer's Vampire House, of certain still lifes of objects by (Fritz) Lang.

How many directors have made the house speak? How many are there who have felt the dramatic presence of objects? Let us think for a moment about our home, how it has been and is close to us, let us think about certain revelations of home: the expectation that lays in a door, the freedom in a window, the infinite hints of certain objects, the memories, the living heart of a clock, the impassive menace of a portrait, the surprise of a moving curtain, the infinity of empty rooms, the countless presences and absences by which a home lives. Many have made themselves slaves to beautiful houses. Few have heard and told of the house that suffers, the house that loves. The blows of the axe against the trees in the cherry orchard fill Čechov's house with anguish. It is the pain of houses abandoned or destroyed all over the world.

Domus 206, February 1946

There is a genre of film in which the house reveals itself with definite intentions, in which the house manifests itself. It is the mystery film. Threat, fear inhabit the house. Doors, hallways, dark rooms, doorknobs, common objects transformed by the shadow, conscientiously play their part, do their best to manufacture the chill. But rarely they venture to attempt metaphysical fear, most of the time they only touch on the consummate horror clichés, according to the old recipes. And the viewer, rather than fear, experiences the memory of fear.  Few daring experimenters broke out of the formula, with obsessive rigor plunged into that climate, few stretched it to extremes (Pabst, Dreyer, Lang, Hitchcock, etc.).

In realist film, typically the French naturalist film, the house is a sounding board, a living fund of passions and violence. Here the house has an interpretive function; it is the visual translation of the characters' condition. A bed, a chair, an upholstery, are enough to arouse the irremediable, they warn us that there is no escape. Zola, Dabit, Simenon through Mac Orlan and Prévert, have provided the text to the so-called atmospheric film. (Renoir, Carné, and even to a certain extent Clair are the illustrious examples in France.) In the intimate, psychological film, the house responds in a more subtle way, and objects often suggest. The desperate and useless sound of the alarm clock in Alba tragica (Le jour se lève) becomes the lament of the rocking chair in Cupo tramonto  (Make Way for Tomorrow).

In expressionist films, which appeared in Germany in the immediate aftermath of the other war, the house took on an interpretive violence necessary to mediate the passions of people. It thus distorted itself, lost its own soul to take on their souls, with results that are widely debated, but useful for an enrichment of cinematographic language and syntax. In the so-called plot film, the house can be said not to exist. There is no time for home. Characters proceed with unnecessary haste, things have no possible life except as key-objects, useful pretexts for articulating action.

In the costume drama (period film), the house has a solemn function, it is worried by sich function, and it is felt. Costume almost establishes a physical communion between people and things; one can say that characters are walking furniture. In the adventure film, and in the comedy film, the function of the house is merely utilitarian (the usual exception will be made for Charlot). In the cabaret-film it is only decorative, and often decorative in that excessive way that Americans have popularized. Belonging to this excessive genre is the rich man's house (Enchantment), which has become the type-house of bourgeois happiness, and has been offered with few variations, in countless copies, to be viewed by the poor all over the world.

Domus 206, February 1946

A word must be said about the most unlikely and uninhabitable screen house. That of the erotic-passionate film that was fashionable in the golden age of silent movies. Those devastating passions have such a pathetic innocence, a beneficent sadness those love deaths among heavy brocades, carpets, sofas and pillows, Japanese vases, fern leaves and stained glass. The house lived in those films the limitless frenzy of the absurd, the happiness of bad taste. Never did the house in the film show itself so much (not even in Sternberg's films, where objects often enjoyed an arbitrary and unlimited life, but full of warmth).

This is the house, as I saw it, as I tried to tell it, in a few words. I have not named Warm, Meerson, Trauner, Gibbons, Toluboff, and so many others. I did not want, with this matter, to commit an abuse of confidence.

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