Tuesday Editor’s Pick: A Matter of Time (1976)

by on October 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Oct 25 at 6:50*, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]

*Q&A with Minnelli scholar Joe McElhaney


Premiere Vincente Minnelli champion Joe McElhaney (who wrote the Alt Screen feature on the Minnelli retrospective) will be on hand to discuss and explain the director’s much-maligned, misunderstood final film, which has been in hiding like some mutilated child ever since it was barely released in 1976.


The film suffered from a troubled shooting schedule and a disastrous re-editing at the hands of its producers, American- International Pictures. The print screening at BAM boasts an additional scene, not present in most release prints, of the Contessa (Ingrid Bergman) encountering her former maid.


With A Matter of Time, there are a lot of hurdles to jump to get to the beauty of the film. There is poor post-dubbing, some clumsy staging, and particularly catastrophic interpolations of sightseeing Roman stock footage at a key point in the story. The film has had plenty of detractors, but most of them were sympathetic to Minnelli’s position against his producers.


Pauline Kael wrote in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

The romantic story, taken from Maurice Druon’s novel Film of Memory, is about a peasant girl (Liza Minnelli) who gets a job as a maid in a Roman hotel. A contessa (Ingrid Bergman) who lives there was once a great demimondaine; she talks about her romantic adventures, and the maid visualizes herself living through the events. But the film has been mangled; the producers took it away from the director, Vincente Minnelli, shifted scenes around, cut others, and even added stock footage. The result exposes Liza Minnelli, in particular, to ridicule; however, though Ingrid Bergman’s performance has no rhythm left, Bergman herself is assured enough to do much of the role in statuesque repose, and she has a glamour beyond anything she’s had before on screen.



George Morris for Film Comment, November-December, 1976:

A Matter of Time, Vincente Minnelli’s first film in six years, has arrived at a moment in film history when it’s many virtues will probably pass unnoticed and its undeniable flaws be disproportionately emphasized. Minnelli’s film is unabashedly romantic, and I suppose it is also what some would call “old-fashioned,” but few contemporary films can summon up a tenth of its personal expression and intensity.


If nothing else, A Matter of Time emphatically vindicates auteur criticism, in that a real love and awareness of Minnelli’s oeuvre is essential to its enjoyment. Whether this familiarity with a director’s work should be necessary in order to evaluate an individual film is a point that can be argued endlessly. I happen to think that enough of A Matter of Time works to justify placing it in the context of its director’s remarkable career. The film is a meditation on many of the themes that have concerned Minnelli during his thirty-three years as a director; it’s a mood piece bathed in the serenity that reveals a mature artist in deepest touch with his innermost feelings.


Margarita Landazuri lays out the film’s production history for TCM:

A Matter of Time’s road to the screen was a long and torturous one. Minnelli had not made a film since On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), which did not have much success at the box office. At that time, some critics had declared Minnelli’s lavish style passé, and in an era of iconoclastic films, his interest in Druon’s old-fashioned story seemed to confirm that judgment. Minnelli’s contract with MGM had ended in 1966, and he had floundered in the new world of independent filmmaking. He also suffered from health problems. But after his daughter became a major star and won an Oscar for 1972’s Cabaret, a father-daughter project seemed feasible. Minnelli acquired the rights to the novel, and commissioned a screenplay by John Gay. After making the rounds of the major studios without finding any support for the film, Minnelli and his producers finally struck an unlikely deal in 1975 with American-International Pictures, a low-budget studio famous for such teenage drive-in fare as It Conquered the World (1956) and Beach Party (1963). AIP President Samuel Z. Arkoff was looking for a prestige project, and gave Minnelli a budget of five million dollars. That was a major commitment for AIP, but nowhere near what was usual for an “A” picture.


Minnelli’s contract did not give him final cut, and that should have alerted him to the fact that he was working under far different conditions than he had within the MGM cocoon. Minnelli and Arkoff clashed over the script, with Arkoff insisting that the maid’s rise to stardom provide a splashy finish to the story. To placate him, Minnelli agreed to shoot some scenes of Nina as a star, privately planning not to use them in the film. Although Minnelli could count on the talents of Liza’s Cabaret cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, the crew was mostly Italian, and there was a language barrier, compounded by Minnelli’s health problems and his unfortunate stammer. Because of Italian work strikes and lab problems, the 14-week shooting schedule ballooned to five months.


Arkoff found Minnelli’s first rough-cut of A Matter of Time too long and incoherent. Minnelli said he knew how to fix it, but Arkoff decided to take over the supervision of the editing. When both Minnelli and Liza protested, Arkoff agreed to give him another chance, but decreed that he could only use footage from his rough cut, and no other takes would be available to him. Then Arkoff went to work butchering the film. He used the Nina-as-star footage that Minnelli had planned to throw out as a hackneyed framing device for the story, and got rid of many of the Contessa’s flashbacks. He used stock footage tourist shots of Rome as awkward transitions to cover gaps. To make matters even worse, the performances of the Italian actors in the film were badly dubbed in English.



At his blog, Dennis Grunes provides some more background on the film, the original novel, and a short-lived stage adaptation of that novel with Vivien Leigh:

Many of us recall the scandal. Vincente Minnelli, who had such high hopes that A Matter of Time would be his masterpiece, repudiated the result after the studio re-edited his material, making nonsense of the plot, which became a string of loose beads revolving around an ornate hand mirror, which more or less became the film’s protagonist. Martin Scorsese, the year of Taxi Driver, took out a huge ad in Variety supporting Minnelli and condemning American-International. Of course, we would all prefer to have Minnelli’s cut; but A Matter of Time is a lovely thing even in its mutilated state. It is intermittently affecting and even moving (and gorgeously photographed by 2001’s and Cabaret’s Geoffrey Unsworth); and, as everyone agreed at the time, Ingrid Bergman gives a vivid performance as mad Countess Sanziani, whose memories of her fabulous life may or may not comport with reality.


Minnelli’s last film, set in 1949, is based on Maurice Druon’s 1955 novel La volupté d’être (The Voluptuousness of Being), which was published in the U.S. as Film of Memory. The Contessa shares her “memories” with Nina by replaying her mental film of them, the object being to infuse the scattered 19-year-old girl with her passion for life; Nina takes to this “film,” sometimes appearing in it (to our eyes) as a substitute for The Contessa, and to real films thereafter, becoming a popular movie star. Regrettably, The Contessa’s philosophy of life is cornball-Auntie Mame-ish, and one wonders whether Vivien Leigh transcended this element of the role in a 1960s stage adaptation. Bergman doesn’t quite.


Minnelli mines the same theme here as he does in Gigi (1958): old age’s generosity in yielding to youth. In Gigi, the baton is passed from uncle to nephew; here, spirit is passed between the two women, a figurative aunt and niece. Liza Minnelli, the director’s daughter, is the star of the film; her Nina—a role that twenty years earlier Bergman herself had wanted to play—is delicious and delightful; she is very nearly as good here as Bergman is, if a bit theatrical at times. (Or is it mock-theatrical?) Charles Boyer, in his one long scene as Count Sanziani, who has been estranged from his wife for forty years, is effortless. Isabella Rossellini, beauteous Bergman’s beauteous daughter, plays Sister Pia, who tends to The Contessa in her last hour. Scorsese would have an affair with Liza and would marry Isabella. Hm. Of Russian Jewish origin, Druon was the nephew of Joseph Kessel, with whom he wrote the lyrics of the song that the French Resistance embraced as its anthem: “Chant des Partisans.”



McElhaney brings out some of the film’s themes in his book, The Death of Classical Cinema: Hitchcock, Lang, Minnelli:

The subject of aging and death is central to this final film of Minnelli’s. Not seeing Bergman’s Contessa, a woman who is out of step with the contemporary world and somewhat detached from reality in general, as an extension of Minnelli himself in 1976, is difficult…Central to A Matter of Time, as with so much of Minnelli, we find this desire for characters to surround themselves with beautiful objects, to be absorbed by the décor of their own lives…A Matter of Time was not only Minnelli’s final film, it was also Boyer’s and it was Bergman’s penultimate theatrical one. But it is also a film that resists the very idea of the end and instead puts its faith in the notion of not only time, but also implicitly cinema itself existing as perpetual and evolving continuums, passing from one generation to another. It may very well have been the awareness, coming at the end of his career, that his body of work would “live on” through succeeding generations of filmmakers that allowed Minnelli to conceive of his final film in this way.


For the prosecution, Kathleen Carroll for Movies:

Once made it would have been kinder never to have released this hilariously inept, painfully old-fashioned movie.

Ethan Mordden in his book Movie Star:

But when (Liza) made a film with her father, a master of the MGM musical, it was a bald terror, A Matter of Time (1976). A Cinderella weepie in which faded “countess” Ingrid Bergman coaches chambermaid Minnelli in high living, A Matter of Time dribbled and dragged. Director Minnelli badly flubbed the central scene in which Bergman dresses Minnelli for her first night as a courtesan. As tradition requests, the Cinderella has her back to us so, when the transformation is completed, she will turn around and thrill us with the magic. “There, look at yourself!” Bergman cries, and we prepare—but father Minnelli shows us his daughter staring into a crooked mirror and she appears anything but dazzling. The film keeps on making such wrong choices. Old-time movie fans, the sole audience for this fare, were particularly offended by the botching of a genre that Hollywood used to turn out in its sleep. Films in Review, a buffs’ magazine usually highly composed in tone, called the picture “a turd.”



From Vincent Canby’s New York Times review of the film:

If you can imagine a feature-film equivalent to a Radio City Music Hall stage show, it might look very much like Vincente Minnelli’s “A Matter of Time,” which opened yesterday—appropriately—at Radio City Music Hall, where Mr. Minnelli began his career years ago as a designer and producer. It is full of glittery costumes and spectacular props. It is performed by talented, sophisticated people who adopt the faux-naif gestures of an earlier show-biz tradition, and though it is expensive, it sounds peculiarly tacky… The English dialogue of the European actors has apparently been post-synchronized, which contributes to the effect of overall hollowness of the movie. Because “A Matter of Time” has moments of real visual beauty, and because what the characters say to each other is mostly dumb, it may be a film to attend while wearing your earplugs.


Richard T. Jameson for Parallax View (originally published in Movietone News, October, 1976):

At last it’s here—A Matter of Time—and again Minnelli has been done in by the logistics of the nouveau cinema: the Italian locations obligatorily and tediously paused for, the Italian cast impossible to direct in any mode supportive to the stellar likes of Bergman, Boyer, and (for the sake of discussion) Liza Minnelli, the Movielab color a tawdry, enervating substitute for a man who dreams in richest Technicolor, the sets inadequately realized, the post-dubbed soundtrack deleterious to any evoking—let alone sustaining—of mood…. Whatever Louis B. Mayer might have been, he wasn’t Samuel Z. Arkoff, and if there be a prototype for co-exec-producer Giulio Sbarigia he’s that Italian who made Cinecittà hell on earth for “directors” Edward G. Robinson and Kirk Douglas in Minnelli’s now-prophetic Two Weeks in Another Town. Vincente Minnelli can swoop around corners with the utmost elegance, but he can’t cut them—and corner-cutting shows all over A Matter of Time.



David Cairns for Mubi:

Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures is a long way down from the Freed Unit at MGM, and however you cut it, this is a movie you have to make allowances for. A film out of time, a film about nostalgia which is itself a product of that impulse: set in a supremely unconvincing 1949 (location shots of 70s Rome feature copious non-period extras and automobiles), its heroine harkens back to a pre-WWI, prelapsarian paradise, while Minnelli himself is harking back to, well, 1949 or thereabouts, the period of his cinematic heyday.


Without knowing the production history, it’s hard to figure out quite what happened here, but it’s easy to see that much of it was not good. Minnelli disowned the film, apparently the victim of tampering from Arkoff and company (who had a habit of butchering their better films because they couldn’t understand anything that wasn’t dross). And according to Liza, her father’s mind was starting to wander, so that some scenes seem sharply drawn while others flounder. In addition, much of the dialogue seems to refer back to things we never saw, while long minutes of screen time are eaten up with redundant subplots or framing devices, so that the story doesn’t actually begin, with Liza meeting Ingrid, until 27 minutes in…Minnelli himself had a decade left to live, but this is a product of a dying cinema, and the sense that whole sequences have been torn from the scenario just adds to the poignancy of its evanescence.



I defend the film for The L Magazine:

An aged Charles Boyer makes his final movie bow as a former husband who comes to see the Contessa after a forty-year absence; he treats Bergman gingerly, as if he actually succeeded in driving her mad in Gaslight (1944), and she goes into her best Blanche DuBois “I live in my head!” attitudes. When he asks her why she is speaking about sex at her age, she stares out the window longingly and cries, “Because I’m alive… I’m alive!” In a moment like this, which could so easily be corny, Bergman locates the genuine emotion in an old woman’s clinging to what she knows and loves, and some of the depth must come from Minnelli’s handling, too, the way he frames her and lavishes attention on her posturing, and the way he identifies with her (he also was becoming a bit addled with age). Whatever else this is, A Matter of Time is an extremely gay movie while also being a classic “late film,” a family affair and a heartfelt attempt to repeat the past.


Here’s Bergman’s famous denunciation scene with Boyer at the end of Gaslight, which, I swear, informs their big scene together in A Matter of Time:


Liza Minnelli sings “Do It Again” in a jazzy style in the film’s Venetian scene. For context, here’s the much slower way her mother Judy Garland used to sing this song in her concerts:


Here’s Liza Minnelli talking to Robert Osborne on TCM for a Private Screenings interview. At 8:15 she talks briefly about A Matter of Time: “It was interesting. It was also difficult, because he was starting to get a form of dementia. So he couldn’t explain what he really wanted. So I did the best I could.” She also addresses the editing:


Here’s a very fine defense of the film, Bill Krohn’s post on it for Fred Camper and Peter Tonguette’s auteur site a_film_by:

Minnelli is probably the great example of a studio as co-auteur. But what about A Matter of Time? I know there were other non-MGMs at the end, but this one is deservedly notorious: bad looping of secondary characters, feel-good bookends he was forced to shoot, omission of a key flashback, moving to later the first scene of the Contessa selling her jewels, and God knows what else. AI in this respect was perfectly typecast as the anti-MGM.


And yet… I just watched it again, and it’s magnificent. First of all, Jack Skirball was one of the producers, even if Arkoff stuck his cigar in during post, and Skirball is the producer who let Hitchcock break free of Selznick with Saboteur and, above all, Shadow of a Doubt. In its own way A Matter of Time is as innovative as Shadow of a Doubt – in a way that can’t be hurt by the Poverty Row aesthetic that was imposed in post.


The only spectacular stuff is the flashbacks where the Liza-Ingrid mind meld lets Liza become the young Ingrid. These are quite fabulous, even if the most important one (the loss of her child w. Boyer) is missing because some idiot found it depressing. But the rest of the film is more like Persona than like any of the musicals or melodramas that precede it: a two-hander set in one rathersombre decor, the Contessa’s hotel room at twilight, with the starlings flying outside the window. The bareness and painfulness of these scenes (eg when the Contessa looks in her magic mirror and sees that she has grown old) are like the other Bergman, not just the plot.


There are outside scenes, and scenes between Liza and other guests, but nothing really spectacular – the hotel is a few rooms, a corridor, a lobby and a modest restaurant…the blinding audition scene is the opposite of movie magic: It shows what an ordeal all that lighting is for the actor.



Krohn continues:

There are other magnificent scenes: Boyer’s visit to Bergman is one of the cruelest things ever filmed, even if we’ve been deprived of the backstory explaining their separation, which was supposed to be the climax of the flashback series that had just come before. And what about that “rape” scene, and Liza’s tirade about what happens to women after 50 at the end of it? As the one who found the book and supervised the script, Minnelli is venturing into new and highly personal terrain here, and his skills as a metteur en scene haven’t deserted him – more like the opposite: Prospero has broken his wand and deep-sixed his book.


I don’t think the Contessa is Minnelli; she’s mad Judy Garland – as VM underlines with the amazing biographical touch of having Isabella Rossellini (as a nun) and Liza Minnelli together at the death bed of Mom (IR’s real mom; LM’s metaphorical one) at the end. I think Matter of Time, even ruined – and it was ruined – is one of the greatest of all Minnelli’s, and that shows just how little the MGM machinery counted in what makes him a great artist.


The ending of Some Came Running is magnificent, no doubt, but Matter of Time is profoundly, mysteriously moving throughout – the final fusion of Minnelli with one of his favorite authors, Proust. Just skip the hideous prologue and epilogue (someone should burn them), which were presumably (and ironically) called for to ADD “production values” to a very odd duck of a movie – and imagine Nina hesitating at the end about whether to stay with her manipulative future boyfriend, and meeting a mysterious stranger in the restaurant who may carry her away from her promised movie career altogether…


Contessa: Film? It’s something new, isn’t it? Probably invented by the Americans. They’re so clever!



-Compiled by Dan Callahan

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