I cannot tell you what goes on in Colette’s 1933 story “La chatte,” upon which it is based, but Camilla, the newly married woman in Roberto Rossellini’s “Envy,” has no rational basis for her antipathy for her husband Olivier’s adorable Saha. Although he could be more sensitive to the “period of adjustment” that Camilla is undergoing in their marriage, while his maintenance of his lifestyle can make him seem at times infuriatingly self-contained, it is certainly not the case that Olivier (in the story, Alain, and based on Colette’s own brother) loves his pet more than he does his wife. And even if this were the case, how does that accrue to the fault of the cat? Rather, I would say that Olivier loves Olivier best—a truth about Italian husbands long before Olivier even had a cat. For the record, Rossellini himself had married Ingrid Bergman less than two years earlier. The couple made films together in English because English, which originally belonged to neither of them, was a language that they both knew.
“Envy” is Rossellini’s contribution, one of two Italian entries, to the Franco-Italian anthology, or portmanteau film, Les sept péchés capitaux, which is most famous for Claude Autant-Lara’s “Pride” starring (as daughter and mother) Michèle Morgan and Françoise Rosay. Gérard Philipe’s appropriately, though unexpectedly, vulgar, animated carnival barker imposes a delightful semblance of continuity on the far-ranging material. Rossellini, who had a hand in the script of “Envy,” is the only “heavy hitter” in the comedy’s roster of directors.
Spectacular are the inserts of the snowy white cat upon which Camilla projects volition for the undermining of her marriage. What is wrong with Olivier? Why is he blind to Saha’s intent?
The inserts of the cat keyed to Camilla’s point of view—call them reaction shots—grease the film’s slide into subjectivity. Camilla pushes Saha over the ledge of the couple’s high-rise apartment, provoking Olivier’s attentive nursing; gently, he strokes Saha’s paws, condemning Camilla’s envy as an ever tighter closeup of Camilla’s hateful face further indicates herself as the actual source of this condemnation. From what we see, Camilla is a vampire vis-à-vis Saha, a sweet and innocent creature domesticated for comfort, companionship and humanity’s pleasure. Perhaps Camilla is terrified that her own role in her marriage is no different. Postwar, however, perhaps the difference is largely up to her. Perhaps Italian patriarchy, now shook up, can no longer be dependably blamed for every inequity under the sun—especially in a universe, like Rossellini’s, where the Church isn’t automatically invoked to shore it up.
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