Isabella Rossellini: Illuminated
“[Isabella Rossellini] is sometimes an awestruck little girl, sometimes a regal serenity, sometimes a bawdy beauty with a hair-trigger laugh and a taste for Grand Guignol. She’s always frank and practical, vulnerable and perceptive, refreshingly morbid and jaw-droppingly surprising.”
—Director Guy Maddin
This year marks two significant milestones in Isabella Rossellini’s film career: the 20th anniversary of her breakout performance in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and her entry into the realm of filmmaker. In her collaboration with Guy Maddin on My Dad Is 100 Years Old, she writes and performs a cinematic love letter to her father, Italian neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. Each of these two events underscores the ways that her spirit permeates her filmography. She has a boundless capacity to surprise us, the unsuspecting audience, with her fresh, courageous performances in a range of films. The retrospective features nine diverse selections of her work.
Although Rossellini had already been making films for 10 years, it was Blue Velvet that catapulted her into the American consciousness. This devastating upending of middle America, described by Lynch as “the sickness beneath the surface of what appears to be a very beautiful world,” sparked a furor of controversy over Rossellini’s character, the battered and sexually abused Dorothy Vallens. In retrospect, the firestorm of opinion speaks to how completely Rossellini immersed herself in the psychology of the victim—which is by turns fascinating and repulsive to watch. In one dramatic example, the scene in which Vallens wanders the streets naked and in a daze (a scene rooted in an event from Lynch’s own childhood) is terrifying rather than titillating. For her performance, Rossellini referenced the famous Nick Ut photograph of a Vietnamese woman walking away from a napalm bomb. “That woman had to have lost everything,” she says. “She had to walk completely exposed. . . . I took the gesture from that photo and used it. I hope I conveyed the same sense of despair. I wanted to be like raw meat.” The effect was chilling. The fact that Isabella Rossellini was the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and the current face of Lancôme Cosmetics packed a particular wallop for audiences and critics in 1986.
In the end, Blue Velvet garnered Lynch a Best Director Oscar nomination and Rossellini an Independent Spirit Award and rankings on numerous “Best of the Century” lists. Writer David Thomson called it “a performance of great courage and psychic insight.” Blue Velvet showed that Rossellini had the guts to go against expectations and to delve deeply enough to portray this battered woman with uncommon honesty.
This honesty is nowhere more apparent than in My Dad Is 100 Years Old, Rossellini’s second collaboration with Canadian experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin. She wrote the script as a boldly frank mélange of anecdotes and personal memories about her father. The subject of the film is played by a giant belly, not only because in life the elder Rossellini had one, but also because it personifies his large, comforting presence in her life. All of the other characters are played by Rossellini: David O. Selznick, Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, and, most arrestingly, Ingrid Bergman. While this conceit was Maddin’s, the film is all Rossellini, infused with her spirit, questioning nature, love of family, humor, and bravado. This tour-de-force of emotion and ideas, film philosophy and familial memories truly captures this moment in Rossellini’s career as one of innovation and creativity.