The Assassination of Trotsky

(Joseph Losey, Italy/France/UK, 1972)


In the early 1970s in Melbourne, the independent distributor Filmways sought to create a market for movies that fitted into both arthouse and commercial niches. This not-always-easy process at times necessitated some rejigging – as in the English-dubbing of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samoura├»  (1967) and its retitling as The Godson! (Almost two decades after that release, by which time I was a sometimes-paid film reviewer, legendary Filmways boss Robert Ward personally shoved a grubby photocopy of a mugshot of Jean-Claude Brisseau into my hands before a disastrous press screening of the remarkable Noce blanche [1989]. My callow fellow reviewers burst out laughing at virtually its first line – a philosophy teacher asking his young teen students “what is the unconscious?” – but I was instantly hooked on Brisseau for life. Thanks, Bob!)


In that early 1970s period, I trundled off, as a young teenager, to see a typical Filmways release in one of their plush, suburban cinemas: Joseph Losey’s The Assassination of Trotsky. It was prime Filmways fare, but this was not merely a calculation on the distributor’s part: it was clearly produced in much the same spirit, as the type of project that later came to receive the demeaning label of “Euro-pudding”, financed from – and dragging in contractual contributions by – various nations. Films that so often seem all over the shop.


An exiled American director who had become famous in Europe throughout the 1960s; Richard Burton alongside Alain Delon and Romy Schneider (as well as Valentina Cortese, bound for Truffaut’s Day for Night  [1973], and Giorgio Albertazzi from Last Year in Marienbad [1961]); a smattering of languages, requiring various levels of dubbing; a script contribution by Nicholas Mosley, author of the novel of Losey’s triumphant Accident (1967); the mixture of solemn, arch theatricality with Alain Resnais-like memory flashes and almost Richard Lester-like, sudden freeze-frames; a gruesome planning-to-murder tale nestled inside some prime movements of 20th century political history: all this plays into the received wisdom that The Assassination of Trotsky is a Euro-pudding before its time. (It even received the ignominy of inclusion in a “Golden Turkeys”-type tome.)


Over 40 years later, I remembered only the gruesome scene of killing by ice pick; the quality of a rich colour palette; and a specific image which recurs, and is underlined by Trotsky’s commentary upon it: a lovely view out the window of the Great Man’s study. I recalled this image with some air of wistful melancholia – a feeling I often had sitting alone as a precocious cinephile at the movies in those early ‘70s days.


So: time to re-watch The Assassination of Trotsky, prompted by the reference in Enrique Vila-Matas’ 2003 discursive novel Never Any End to Paris to its author finding himself standing in that very same study, fastidiously preserved, where Trotsky had been murdered – and where Losey had been able to shoot his film. Vila-Matas, faced (as he riffs) with the “real thing”, couldn’t get the movie version out of his head. But he was able to believe he saw, on the floor, a remaining, recalcitrant, never-before noticed or cleaned-away bloodstain …


It turns out to be a strange film indeed, at the heart of this amazingly prolific period (9 features for the decade) in Losey’s trans-Europe career. I once mused that the twin themes of home and homelessness (an inevitable syndrome for the exile?) amounted to one of the few discernible signatures in this auteur’s total output (at least from his remake of M [1951] onwards), and The Assassination of Trotsky bears this intuition out: its titular hero even gets to deliver a speech about the paradoxes of feeling that he has built a new home in Mexico, even though (as he is convinced) people from his birth-homeland are being sent by Stalin to kill him.


It also has the split-focus narration characteristic of later Losey – sometimes a character separated from his own double, as in the great Mr Klein (1976), or from himself as he was in the dark, distant past, as in The Go-Between (1971) – and an especially chilling touch I recognise from several of his other films: a disquieting emphasis on what’s banally involved in the lead-up to a violent act (whether on an individual or larger, collective scale) – the setting-out, travelling and arriving at the place where that action is to occur – and the equally mundane clearing-out that follows it.


In fact, The Assassination of Trotsky is almost wholly built on these two characteristics combined: the constant, alternating back-and-forth between the trajectories of Trotsky (Burton) landlocked in exile, and his nemesis Jacques/Frank/Ramón Mercader (Delon); and the latter’s preparations, discussions and vacillations before the deed is finally done.


The film omits or only alludes to a lot of historical background – such as how Mercader initially worked his way into the affections of Gita (Schneider, playing the Sylvia Ageloff of reality), or the role of the political mural-art movement (the painter-militant David Siqueiros was part of the first assassination attempt by a gang in police uniforms – the event is shown, but his role in it is written out). This type of pervasive omission doubtless helps explain the feeling that it is a somewhat unresolved project, its various parts never tightly pulled or woven together (similar, to take a later, very different case in auteur cinema, to Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder [2012]).


It is striking here – and perhaps in his oeuvre generally – that there is very little trace of, feeling for or interest in everyday, normal life in Losey’s work. Realism of that particular sort (so important to some other filmmakers) hardly seems to attract him at all; he tends much more naturally to melodrama (recall The Sleeping Tiger [1954]!), even if his cinema is too rarely discussed within this generic ambit. When he does fall, by necessity, into the realm of the ordinary – as in his penultimate The Trout (1982) – it is so mannered and stylised as to be quite weird.


What replaces normality in Losey is an almost constant air of hysteria – of the characters, and of the film itself. Curiously, this is a facet that contributes to precisely dating The Assassination of Trotsky, in a viewer’s mind, as an early ‘70s artefact (just as The Trout has become a true ‘80s time-capsule) – as if (rightly or wrongly) such an off-the-air tone had been virtually guaranteed from the outset  by its Euro-pudding production circumstances. We can find a similar atmosphere in contemporaneous international co-productions by Jerzy Skolimowski and other, otherwise fine directors.


Even typically mundane occasions, such as dinner scenes, are registered in The Assassination of Trostsky in a grandiloquent style, and usually with some larger dramatic or symbolic purpose than to show characters humbly sharing a meal. (The type of early ‘60s critique of Losey’s manner, raised by Victor Perkins among others, that he sacrificed baseline credibility of situations to overwrought symbolic statements, could be wielded again here – with a bullfight scene heavily prefiguring the assassination.) Almost all dialogue scenes (and there are many, since almost everything, plot wise, falls into before-or-after the event) are rendered at the edge of hysteria: everybody suddenly shouts, falls into catatonic states, or engages in sudden, furious, frenetic movement (which is also sometimes made the grossly underlined object of those weird freeze-frames!).


This quality of theatricality, to be sure, forms part of a deliberated and structured pattern. Not only does Trotsky spend most of his time pacing about and declaiming the rhetoric of his political writings (Burton gives them a pretty persuasive reading); we actually hear even more of his voice (often repeating or formulating those same, live-spoken phrases) played back ceaselessly on Dictaphone recordings. This works in with the walled-fortress effect of the Mexican abode (Trotsky refers to it as a kind of loudspeaker, a signal broadcasting out to the whole world), a constellating ambience that Losey concentrates on far more than other, historical factors. (The Servant in 1963 had already given him the chance to display his mastery for insistently rearranging a setting for his cinematic and dramatic purposes.)


There is also the sense – again, often rising to the surface of later Losey – that all identity is a matter of rehearsed performances and adopted masks, covering a shaky self; Delon’s performance as Mercader is reminiscent, in its recurring pose-striking, of the edgy Jean-Louis Trintignant as Marcello in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) two years previously – right down to the character’s seemingly homophobic (hence: repressed homosexual) flinching at another male’s touch (a detail Losey repeats two or three times).


Romy Schneider, in an oddly unfocussed part, plays the female pawn-driven-hysterical by all this male hysteria of one sort or another. (Juliet Berto once commented wryly on the special and exclusive, more-or-less homoerotic current passing between Losey as director and Delon as star on the set of Mr Klein – with her as another cast member pretty much left unattended on the sidelines to observe this.) Oddly, in this ensemble, Valentina Cortese – so broadly histrionic in her performances for Fellini, Aldrich, Maximilian Schell and Truffaut – provides one of the only pockets of grounded normalcy and reflectiveness in her role as Trotsky’s wife, Natalia. The few silent close-ups granted her are very affecting.


Back to that window I remembered from my teenage viewing. A camera movement brings us around to the sunlit view framed by it, as Trotsky annotates the thought-interlude it prompts – a poetic ode to the normal, everyday life never delivered by Losey in any normal or everyday terms. Indeed, second time around, this vision gets a familiar, melodramatic twist: Delon suddenly enters the contemplative frame-within-a-frame, cueing us to the coming catastrophe. But, after the deed is done, that frame is back, a mute word, cinema’s witness to lost life.


It’s the kind of Proustian coup that Losey could sometimes pull off, alongside the greatest filmmakers.

© Adrian Martin 29 December 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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