Conversations Real and Imagined: Am I Franz Kafka? Am I Anthony Perkins?

Le Proces (The Trial), 1962. Written and directed by Orson Welles. Starring Anthony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau, Romy Schneider, Elsa Martinelli, Madeleine Robinson, Anoldo Foa and Billy Kearns as the inspectors, Suzanne Flon, Carl Studer, the lovely character actor (and Welles stalwart) Akim Tamiroff, the madman William Chappell, and Orson Welles himself, as the magistrate.

Where did I find myself when I first saw The Trial? Frankly, I can’t remember, except to say that I was in some dilapidated movie house, and I think that there was even the sound of water dripping from behind the screen, it was that bad. Lots of steel beams and dust, I remember that much. You know I’m mad for Welles, how could I refuse? In fact, I barely remember who told me about this show, it seemed as if it was given to me in a whisper, in a cat-nap, by a young girl who frightened me.

But this was Orson Welles, a The Trial is a minor film of his, a disaster according to some. Dry and sexless and ‘classic’–it would, if all went well, move me like his films always do, intellectually, leaving me amazed at what he could do with a camera. I had difficulty finding the place, it was showing in the basement of some run down train station. I couldn’t find it now if I wanted to.

An attractive woman tore my ticket in half, at the same time pursing her lips as if that act was either quite pleasurable or a difficulty, I’m not sure. She was dressed in black and white and her hair was black, her skin a perfect white, so that she appears, in my memory, as if in monochrome. Her eyebrows were sharp curves over heavily made up eyes, eyes that were also gray, and she never smiled, but grinned as if in on a little secret. She escaped later to run the projector, and I could see her shadow in the glass of the projection booth. I swear she watched me the whole time.

Troublesome. The Trial is–was, no, still is–troublesome. Shot in wasted cities, no, shot in Paris, in an abandoned train station and in Turkey–I knew it’s story, it was the same as all the rest. Fat old Welles, barely able to get financing, all the etc. of any late project. I was ready for the menace of an impersonal government, the accused trying desperately to get to the bottom of his so-called crime. Kafkaesque, perhaps even a bit Orwellian. But as it is quickly revealed, the picture is mired in… what? It’s not Freudian, I think… No, The Trial is not so easily reduced into a horror show of the past, a damning look at a long-ago beaurocricy. That would be easy to digest. But it’s about women. It’s sexuality. You don’t know this right away, but slowly, slowly, the terror creeps up on you, as it does on Josef K.

In Josef’s apartment:

INSPECTOR 1: What’s this thing?
JOSEF: That’s my pornograph… er, my phonograph.
INSPECTOR 2: What’s this?
JOSEF: What’s what?
INSPECTOR 2: A circular line with four holes.
INSPECTOR 1: (Writing) Circular…
INSPECTOR 2: It’s not really circular, it’s more ovular.
JOSEF: Don’t write that down, for heaven’s sake!
INSPECTOR 1: Ovular. Why not?
JOSEF: (sarcastically) Ovular?
INSPECTOR 1: We can’t not write it down just because you say we shouldn’t.
JOSEF: Ovular isn’t even a word.
INSPECTOR 2: You deny there’s an ovular shape concealed under this rug?
INSPECTOR 1: He denies everything.

Ovular. Ovular. What was it about ‘ovular’ that kept after me as I watched The Trial? And when Jeanne Moreau walks in, smoking, tired from a night of servicing men, and she lounges on the bed and her garter belt peeks out at us, it slowly dawns on you that this movie is not about Josef K. fighting with the state. Josef K. is wrestling with is his own sexuality.

Nothing like that has any meaning in my life, I told myself, sinking down into my seat, which seemed more than willing to swallow me with a creaky groan. Turning, I saw there was no one in the cinema, just myself and the monochrome woman, staring out at me from her porthole, smoking, gesturning ever so slightly for me to turn and watch the film.

HILDA: Look at my stockings. I’ll come back soon and then I’ll go with you wherever you want and you can do with me whatever you want.

The Trial whispers its dialogue, whispers its allegations. Hilda shows off her stockings and then is carried away by a leather-clad thug who also works for the state. And while Hilda is a prize peach, while your heart thumps with anticipation, there is a palpable sense of dread. Josef cannot do anything other than barely kiss these women. I remind myself that Anthony Perkins was a gay man, that perhaps Welles found in Perkins the perfect actor to play this role, and all his films are somewhat autobiographical.

But I know this is not true. Someone is pointing an accusing finger at me.

Impotent men hide in shadows, fearful of Josef and the women who pursue him. Detectives who bothered him are later stripped to the waist, mouths taped, beaten and submissive. Why is it that the court archivist is the beautiful Paola Mori seen only briefly, enough to whet one’s appetite, but streaking your heart with fear?

LENI: Will you spend the night with me?
JOSEF: Your eggs are burning.

Her eggs are burning, indeed.

Dirty pictures spring out of the massive tomes in courtrooms, while Leni, the aide to the magistrate, with a sexy deformity of webbed fingers, tries to seduce our hero on a stack of legal documents. Josef is rarely pursued by the state, which seems fairly impotent in the face of these daunting females. Later, Josef tries to get assistance from William Chappell’s insane painter, and is pursued by a terrifying gaggle of young girls.

As The Trial arrives at its climax, the women have vanished, like all dream women do. I don’t recall leaving the theater, don’t recall coming home, but I do recall seeing the monochrome woman again, in the lobby, smoking her cigarette and grinning at me. I wanted to talk with her and I wanted to flee. I fled. Later, feverishly, I read Kafka’s Trial, hoping to find something of what I’d seen in the book. But it was not there. Not that I could see.