A Great Actress Enters the Animal Kingdom

Article excerpt

In her new film, Isabella Rossellini dresses up as a rodent - it's all part of her interest in maternity, she tells Geoffrey Macnab

A snowy morning in Berlin and Isabella Rossellini is sitting on the top floor of a high-rise apartment, discussing the domestic arrangements of hamsters, wasps and cuckoos. Dressed in black, Rossellini, now 60, still cuts a glamorous figure. She looks remarkably like her mother Ingrid Bergman, star of Casablanca. She has the same big eyes, high cheek bones and melancholy demeanour. It's easy to make the comparison because there is a big pile of booklets promoting a new photo book about her mum on the table in front of her: Ingrid Bergman: A Life In Pictures (which will be published later in the year.)

The reason Rossellini is discussing hamsters is that she has just made Mamas, a series of short films exploring the maternal instincts of animals. This is a follow up to her earlier Green Porno (in which the subject was mating.) The point about hamsters is that they sometimes eat their babies - although they are very good mothers otherwise. "I take classes at the university about animal behaviour and biology. I came across a book by a woman biologist called Marlene Zuk," says Rossellini, explaining her inspiration for the project.

We all assume we know what maternal instinct is. Rossellini makes the point that there is "much diversity and variety" in maternal behaviour in nature as there is in courtship strategy and lovemaking. "It's comical. I find animal behaviour to be humorous."

Mamas is indeed a funny and eccentric endeavour. To illustrate her points, Rossellini dresses up as the animals she is describing. We therefore get to see her in her hamster outfit, munching on her little ones.

"Before Darwin, our world was very religious. People saw altruism as something given by God for us to be good so that we could go to Paradise. Darwin was looking at the biological origins of altruism, which would contradict (the idea of) natural selection," Rossellini ruminates, beginning to sound more like a university lecturer than a model and actress.

Her film picks up on research from women biologists such as Zuk into self-sacrifice in the animal world. This research underlines the part that "incredible managerial skills" play in being a mother in nature. It's not all about altruism: "The example I always give is a hamster. If a hamster has too many babies she knows she cannot carry, she not only abandons them but she eats them. That means she doesn't have to go out and hunt for food for herself."

When I ask about her own mother, Rossellini seems a little startled. "Well, you know, it's hard to jump from a hamster to Ingrid Bergman." The leap from the maternal behaviour of rodents to that of one of the most glamorous stars in Hollywood history doesn't impress her. Nonetheless, she answers.

"She (Bergman) was rather an exception because she had a huge career in the Forties and Fifties when, of course, there were other actresses but it wasn't common for women to work," Rossellini reflects. "My mother acted because she wanted to act. She never saw that as a job. She always said, 'I am surprised that people wanted to pay me. I would pay them!'"

When Bergman appeared in Casablanca, she wasn't on close terms with her co-stars. "She had that funny line," her daughter recalls. "She said Humphrey Bogart didn't socialise much. He would retire to his trailer. 'I kissed him but I don't know him very well,'" Rossellini recalls Bergman saying. …