Credit: AIP/Variety Distribution
by Fran Kursztejn Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

A Matter of Time — Vincente Minnelli

June 19, 2024

A Matter of Time stands strong among Vincente Minnelli’s lauded oeuvre as the least talked about of all. Against established canonical pieces like An American in Paris, the reappraised Brigadoon and Some Came Running, and the oddball curiosities like Yolanda and the Thief, his twilight picture is rarely given much attention, if any at all. The only collaboration between the director and his daughter; the first performance of Isabella Rossellini, playing opposite her mother, Ingrid Bergman; the last film of Charles Boyer — just reading the film’s Wikipedia highlights should excite even the most skeptical critics. Instead, its reputation holds it as Minnelli’s hackneyed bastard-child, an obtuse “greatest hits” mix, helmed by an artist with rapidly developing Alzheimer’s and mutilated by producer Sam Arkoff in its final stages. 

Liza Minnelli stars as Nina, a hotel maid turned superstar actress, reflecting on the years before her rise to fame. She recounts her troubled yet transformative relationship with Bergman’s Contessa Sanziani, a washed-up socialite aging none too gracefully. Nina meets the Contessa during her employment at a creaky, puke-tinted hotel (promised to have once been a “real spot”), where they strike up an odd, parasitic friendship. The Contessa tells Nina of her youth, her time as a muse, a gambler’s lover, a high-class staple, desired by royalty and geniuses alike. She assures the young maid she’ll lead a similar life, one of desiring and being desired, as a full-fledged “modern woman.” The transformation occurs nigh instantly, Minnelli blossoming from meek servant waif to superstar Cinderella, while her mentor’s psychological state descends into cruel insanity.

“I see age hasn’t changed you,” the Contessa’s ex-husband laments. She dawdles against her window, swaying against the memories of a high society long dead. In stories such as this, of older women forcing their proteges into independence, there is always a melancholy, both the reflective freedom that comes with age and the inevitable mourning attached. Bergman’s character, along with the totality of Minnelli’s film, rises above the bittersweet, above even tragedy, into sheer terror. The Contessa is unable to look in mirrors. She suffers from hallucinations, mostly of deceased companions and past homes. She sees, in her memories, a truer self, unattached to the one she currently occupies. She imagines her skin tearing off her face, as if shedding into some terrible new form. 

Age gives her no reflection. She has trapped herself in a stubborn circle of pretend wealth. As if Ophuls’ Madame de… were given a sequel 30 years later, the Contessa lives far beyond her means, going to comic lengths in order to keep her nostalgic oasis of luxury intact. The very state of her hotel room, a ragged, cluttered thing, does not express the broken figure of an old woman, but the impossible tenacity of a pack rat, holding onto various items that, she is sure, will keep her alive. 

Down to its bones, A Matter of Time is engulfed in a noxious sentimentality; one can imagine cobwebs and dust mites ingrained in the celluloid. Yet none of its ventures into the past are made lightly. As Nina explores the crevices of her mentor’s regal life, she finds nothing but thinly veiled tales of misery, betrayal, and morbid bargains. She sees the life that shall be hers, dives headfirst into its glitzy maw, yet still finds it inadequate. The high-class world of Rome, even from the position of a promising new talent, is portrayed, first and foremost, as predatory and self-immolating. Nina walks into her first screen test, where terrible lights attack her like great balls of fire. Her fear, her visceral reaction to the attack, is deemed a rousing success. 

It’s difficult to avoid the touch of auto-fiction in Matter of Time, as morbid as the interpretation is. Slowly but surely, the director loses control over the film. It is primarily an issue of language — he finds difficulty forming directions on set. He cannot communicate with his actors, and at a broader level, with his daughter. As the present seems to crowd and infect the mind of the Contessa, so too is Minnelli forced out of his own work, with the image of L. Minnelli rushing head-first into the tortured business he’s about to leave. It’s difficult not to find a horrific rhyme between the narrative and the film’s production. It’s difficult to peer into the Contessa’s hotel room, washed out in dark beiges and damp stains, crowds of crows and vultures outside the veranda, paid for in old favors and trips to the pawn shop, and not think of the mind behind the camera, growing listless with age. 

All of the criticisms one might have read of the film ring true. It is obsolete, antique by nature, covered in an aged muck. Every movement of the camera is sticky with old grime. It would not take too much editing prowess to transform it into a convincing silent film. Aside from Liza and Bergman, the impressive cast of players are at their career worst, resembling wooden dolls blessed with opposable joints. Boyer, Rossellini, Tina Aumont (Modesty Blaise), Fernando Rey (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) are all given characters in search of motivation, direction, anything at all, their already obtuse performances ripped to shreds in the editing room. The whole film has the smell of an attic to it, muted tones and rustic palettes a far ways away from the Minnelli of An American in Paris. For a story about the modern, independent woman, it’s sluggish, barely of its own century. Very little of the ecstasy found in The Pirate, the buoyancy of Meet Me in St. Louis, or the cosmic optimism of Brigadoon can be found in its haunted caverns. In its place: fear, regret, and hatred run rampant. Melancholy saps the energy from its brittle bones. 

So yes, A Matter of Time is deeply flawed and near irreparably broken, even before Arkoff’s meddling, and yet there’s also nothing else in Minnelli’s filmography as rapturous and captivating. The film’s stubborn indignation leaves little for the world’s dreamers, for the world is a cruel place, and our dreams, once fulfilled, often leave it crueler. However, there is a scarlet joy to this inevitability. As we see Nina rise to stardom, met with the hulking abyss that is the neophyte film industry, doomed to her mentor’s fate, there is a morbid appreciation for the descent. 

“Take everything you can from life, it never gives anything back,” observes the Contessa with quiet, deep suffering. It’s not an order, but a fact. We must take all we can have, become gluttons for life. To reach upward, toward the laughing stars above, is to be burned, to be left only with scar tissue. The resulting burn — represented by everlasting melancholy, deluded dreams of past lives, ghosts of the not-yet-dead — lasts longer, yields more constancy, than any other substance in the film, more than love or hate or sadness. 

The film plays it close, then, between two roles. As a warning to the curious, it’s a deafening, pessimistic plea; “beware ye who enter here.” But the warning is useless. You have already entered, or it has already been prophesied. Just like Nina, you required little coaxing, only a push. Instead, the film sways closer to a military execution. All the pomp and fanfare is as much a celebration of life as it is a preparation for death. Old and new friends, old and new sights, old and new terrors, composed in a gruesome but complete tapestry of a life “well-lived.” To understand the film from the Contessa’s point of view is to feel the idle sway of the guillotine above your neck. To understand it from Nina’s is to see your predecessor beheaded while holding an enormous, horrific smile. For Minnelli himself, it’s a flaming note to those who would follow him: it’s a terrible world we enter, and you must soak up every part of it.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon