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Locarno honours master of Hollywood musicals

Vincente Minnelli and his daughter Liza on the set of the film A Matter of Time

This year’s Locarno Film Festival is screening a comprehensive career retrospective on the late Oscar-winning American director Vincente Minnelli.

Following last year’s tribute to Ernst Lubitsch, one of Hollywood’s most sophisticated comedy directors, Locarno is now turning the spotlight on an artist who was renowned for “giving substance to the world of dreams”, as critics put it.

Born into a family of circus artists from Chicago in the early 20th century, Minnelli started out as a set and costume designer at a local theatre before moving to New York and working as a stage director on Broadway. A contract with the MGM production company bought him a ticket to Hollywood in 1940.

He made a name for himself with musical comedies including An American in Paris and The Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse dancing to the acclaimed song Dancing in the Dark.

Perhaps Minnelli’s contribution to the history of film-making was even bigger with his powerful melodramas, including Some Came Running and Undercurrent.

“He knew how to treat the cinema in a rounded, holistic way,” said Carlo Chatrian, who is responsible for the Locarno retrospective.

“He managed to embed the songs neatly in the plot. Music and dance became a part of the film structure without breaking up the narrative flow.”

Stylist

Minnelli’s films have become classics of the great Hollywood era but the stories told are still relevant for today’s audiences.

“The plots are about family, archetypal conflicts between father and son, the individual and the community and the search for a sexual identity,” added Chatrian.

What makes them stand out is the smart art direction and the ability to enter the mind of a character as in the film The Pirate with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. The art direction is superb but it is never an end in itself, according to Chatrian.

Minnelli had the talent to conjure up a better world with his films of America’s post-war era. A stylist, he knew how to play with light, colours and contrasts, translating his passion for painting into the language of films.

“But precisely because of their aesthetic qualities many critics have dismissed Minnelli’s films as of inferior quality and not as cinematographic art,” said Chatrian.

Oddly enough, Lubitsch was criticised for the same reasons although nobody dared question his mastery and reputation as a director, he says.

Colour

He adds that Minnelli was known as one of the few directors of his time who sought to use colours to express and amplify feelings.

“In Some Came Running he matched the colours of red and green. But in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever he used rich and loud dyes.”

In Lust for Life the colour even becomes a recurrent theme. The film - starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn – tells the story of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh and his friendship with post-Impressionist colleague Paul Gaugin.

Dream

Beyond the quest for style, beauty and formal sophistication there is always a plot and the ambition to tell a story in Minnelli’s films.

“The critical perception of a director who is only interested in style and art as a way to escape reality needs to be corrected,” explained Chatrian.

Minnelli’s films have a solid core - sometimes playful, sometimes tragic – which is linked to American life. He was looking for the relation between dreams and reality, between life and pretence.

“Few other directors could match him in this. It was as if he believed that real life could be found in a make-believe world,” said Chatrian.

The drama of Madame Bovary – a film based on Gustave Flaubert’s 19th century novel – fitted perfectly into the philosophy of Minnelli. It is the very same motive of escaping into an imaginary world and the search for beauty.

Emotions

Both cinephiles and those ready for new discoveries at the Locarno Film Festival can (re-)discover 34 works of Minnelli.

In a touching video message – broadcast to the public on the Piazza Grande square – Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas describes Minnelli as an “underrated director”.

“You know, every director is different. Vincente Minnelli was very different. He was a shy guy. He didn’t participate so much socially, but he was so talented. He could do musicals, comedy, pictures like Lust for Life… He was very emotional.”

Vincente Minnelli

Minnelli (1903-1986) is renowned for his musical comedies and his melodramatic films in Hollywood’s post-war era.

He directed more than 30 films during his career and worked with numerous stars of the screen, including Judy Garland (who became his first wife), Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor.

Minnelli won an Oscar for Best Film with Gigi in 1959.

Minnelli was married four times and had two daughters: Liza Minnelli, who became an actress and singer, and Christiane Minnelli.

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Festival facts

The Locarno Film Festival is Switzerland’s main annual film event. This year it is being held from August 3-13.

260 works are being shown: around 200 films and around 60 short films and including around 40 world premieres. 32 works are Swiss.

20 films are being shown on the Piazza Grande huge screen on Locarno’s main square.

20 films are in the International Competition, including 14 world premieres and three first works.

Lifetime awards: Claudia Cardinale, Claude Goretta and Bruno Ganz; Special awards: Leopard of Honour to Abel Ferrara, Excellence Award to Isabelle Huppert, Best Independent Producer Award (Premio Raimondo Rezzonico) to Mike Medavoy.

It’s the second festival for Frenchman Olivier Père. Before that he was managing director of the Directors’ Fortnight, a prestigious independent section of the Cannes Film Festival.

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(Translated from Italian by Urs Geiser), swissinfo.ch


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