Road movies might seem like a home grown American film genre with such famous examples as Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) but there have also been plenty of influential representatives from abroad such as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953) and Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road (1976). The latter film, in particular, takes a much more introspective and observational approach to character and narrative and such is the case with Vittorio De Seta’s little seen and almost forgotten 1969 feature, L’Invitata (aka The Uninvited).
Set in a suburb outside of Paris, the movie opens as Anne (Joanne Shimkus) is awakened by her husband Laurent (Jacques Perrin), who has just returned from a business trip. He is affectionate and tender with his wife and then drops a bomb. He has brought someone home with him – Lorna (Lorna Heilbron), the daughter of a professor and an academic colleague. Anne can tell almost immediately that this mysterious, smiling visitor is much more than a casual work relationship.
Maybe French women react differently than American women to this dilemma but Anne goes on auto-pilot and serves the two lovers dinner. In a private moment with Laurent, she expresses her confusion and pain but his admission of having an affair leads to an even more bewildering confession: “I thought if something like this had happened to me, I wouldn’t want to see you again. I thought it would be over between us. No, not at all. On the contrary, when I came in and saw you, suddenly I saw you as a woman, not like my wife. Do you understand? I could feel that I love you.”
Anne’s response is to flee the house and spend the night at an office building where she works as a graphic designer. In the morning, she is discovered sleeping on a couch by Francois (Michel Piccoli), an architect. Although they don’t know each other well, he can tell she is in some kind of distress and avoids making her uncomfortable with personal questions. Anne clearly has no plan of action but she admits she is on her way to the Cote d’Azur to see friends (she and Laurent had planned their vacation weeks ago). Francois offers to give her a ride since he is headed in that direction for a few business meetings followed by a rendezvous with his wife at their beach house. Anne accepts and the journey begins.
The Uninvited presents a meditative, melancholy road trip where nothing earth-shaking or traumatic occurs. Yet the experience becomes a game changer for both passengers as their inner thoughts and emotions are revealed not so much through dialogue but via gestures, looks and interactions with other people along the way.
On a visual level, the film mirrors the emotional transitions of both Anne and Francois as they travel from the cold north through desolate and industrial landscapes to the warm, sunny south. At the beginning of the trip Anne is in a state of shock, which eventually gives way to grief and finally to an understanding that she needs to throw off the shackles of her mind. Encounters with a gregarious village baker (Jacques Rispal) who is happy in his work and Francois’s artist/sculptor friend (Paul Barge) help Anne realize that self-knowledge can be a path to inner happiness. (Barge’s fantastic quarry rock creations look like relics from Pompeii or some other lost civilization).
In contrast to Anne, Francois is self-assured and protective, demonstrating both an almost paternal concern mixed with compassion for his troubled passenger. As their time together draws shorter, he begins to display deeper feelings for her and possibly even question his own marriage. But if you’re expecting the film to turn into a glossy romance like Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966), think again. The couple’s arrival at their destination plays out in an ironic twist where Anne becomes “the other woman” after sleeping with Francois and then meeting his wife (Clotilde Joano).
The circular narrative structure of The Uninvited seems to suggest that all relationships are transitory, impermanent or illusory when it comes to marriage. Director De Seta never resorts to melodrama or sentimentality in his depiction of Anne and Francois. Instead he takes a more humanistic approach that is observational but also intimate and not detached. Other directors could have taken a much more plot driven, narrative approach and delivered a feminist revenge thriller or a romantic comedy or a soap opera but The Uninvited happily avoids easy classification in any genre. Interestingly enough, Francis Ford Coppola made a film the same year as De Seta’s film entitled The Rain People (1967) which shared some of the same thematic concerns, especially the premise of a married woman fleeing her husband in order to find herself. Unfortunately, Coppola’s film, which showed promise as a sensitive character study (with a great performance by Shirley Knight), morphed into an overwrought psychological drama with a climax bordering on the hysterical.
It also has to be said that The Uninvited succeeds so well in its balance of the realistic and the poetic is due to the cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. The visual depiction of Anne and Francois as two lonely souls traveling in a bubble (their car) through space and time is eloquently expressed through exterior shots looking inside the car from the windshield. Other times they are glimpsed inside the vehicle from the back seat point-of-view. This approach makes the road trip experience feel like it is happening in real time, especially for the viewer.
Last but not least, the ensemble cast is pitch perfect with Joanna Shimkus doing an admirable job of conveying an array of emotions and moods with minimum dialogue. Shimkus, who was born in Nova Scotia, began her career as a fashion model in Paris and made her film debut in Jean Aurel’s De L’amour (1964, aka All About Loving). She is particularly memorable in three films for director Robert Enrico – The Last Adventure (1967), Zita (1968) and Ho! (1968) and for her performance in The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970), opposite Franco Nero in an adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novella.
During her peak working years as an actress (1964-1972), Shimkus didn’t make many movies but her ethereal beauty and mercurial screen presence should have brought her more acting opportunities. Maybe it did and she simply chose to concentrate on being a wife and mother instead. In case you don’t know, Shimkus is married to Sidney Poitier. They met during the making of The Lost Man (1969) but didn’t marry until 1976. They raised two children together and are still married.
The Uninvited was De Seta’s third feature film and quite a departure from the film that first brought him international fame, Bandits of Orgosolo (1961), an austere, documentary-like account of a Sardinian shepherd using non-professional actors. That film won four prizes at the Venice Film Festival including Best Film and Best First Work. Prior to Bandits of Orgosolo, De Seta had specialized in short form documentaries and after The Uninvited he returned to that format making several documentaries for Italian television.
Unfortunately De Seta rarely returned to fictional narratives again and perhaps the failure of The Uninvited to generate much public or critical interest was responsible. Whatever the reason, the film is ripe for rediscovery along with Bandits of Orgosolo and his second dramatic feature, Un Uomo a Meta (1966), also starring Jacques Perrin. Currently none of De Seta’s work is available in the U.S. on DVD and Blu-Ray from an authorized distributor and unless the Criterion Collection or a similar company steps forward to change that situation, an analog release seems doubtful. Strangely enough, you can currently view the entire movie on YouTube (it could disappear at any time) and I was able to get hold of a decent DVD-R of The Uninvited from European Trash Cinema so happy hunting.
Other weblinks of interest: