Mismatched lovers will always have Paris

Spellbound ... Robert Capa, above, had an affair with Ingrid Bergman. Photo: Getty Images
Spellbound ... Robert Capa, above, had an affair with Ingrid Bergman. Photo: Getty Images

Chris Greenhalgh is a British poet and screenwriter whose first novel, Coco and Igor (2002), was made into a movie. His second, like the first, is a lush romantic fiction spun from a historical footnote, and it, too, feels destined for the big screen, if only because it's halfway there already.

This novelisation of the affair between Bergman and legendary war photographer Robert Capa is ripe with the atmospherics, arch dialogue and tremulous melodrama of an old silver-screen weepie.

This improbable true story begins in 1945, when the star of Casablanca visits Europe to entertain US troops. In Paris she meets Capa, a man with nothing but his combat helmet, cameras and a boyish charm.

They begin their reckless fling (Bergman is grimly married) and, for a while, it's hard to resist the nostalgic glamour of it all: giddy summer evenings in liberated Paris, a screen goddess falling all too humanly for a battle-weary chancer who's ''not used to having anything so luminous in the viewfinder'' - or in his bed.

In Capa's improvised darkroom, among ''long thin strips of film like flypaper'', there she is, ''her image haunting several of the negatives, transparent, vivid in her lipstick, sticky''.

If Capa is beguiled by Bergman's beauty (''it simply glows from her, blinding us, an inner incandescence spilled''), Greenhalgh is besotted. His perfervid prose moons over Bergman from the get-go.

Sadly, though, neither celebrity ever feels fully real, even when we're inside their heads.

Greenhalgh wants to convey the intensity of their passion - and the reader wants to feel it - but his showy style keeps getting in the way. Metaphors meant to evoke a visceral depth of feeling, for instance, sound distractingly like thoracic surgery. At one point, Capa feels love ''take a deep scoop out of my chest''; when Bergman thinks of Capa, ''it's as if a rib of hers cries out''; and then poor Capa's ''heart cracks open with the pressure''.

Greenhalgh's use of similes is so incontinent, you start to scan nervously ahead for ''like'' and ''as if''. ''Silence,'' one reads with puzzlement, ''spreads like a carpet between them.''

Some images even turn up twice: wine's perfume is ''a delicate ribbon of scent''; later, Bergman's perfume also trails ''like a ribbon''.

Still, there are some witty and vivid hits among the misses. When he follows Bergman to Hollywood (she's filming Hitchcock's Notorious), Capa attends a party and spies on a sofa ''a trio of expensively dressed young women, their legs crossed the same way as if someone has been practising knots''.

Capa is a nobody in LA, though. While this places him below the suspicious notice of Bergman's cuckolded hubby, it means he relies on her to pull strings to find him work. He retreats ''into numbness'', gambling lucklessly, cadging loans, boozing, brooding on nightmarish memories, and channelling Notorious-style dialogue. ''I'd drink before breakfast if I could get up early enough,'' he tells Bergman.

He knows the affair could destroy her career, but Bergman spells it out for him anyway: ''The studios sell dreams,'' she says, ''they don't deal in damaged goods.''

There's pathos here because, as history records, Bergman does eventually risk scandal and leave her husband - but for Roberto Rossellini, not Capa. So this affair was always doomed, but the stakes are never high enough to make us mind much.

In the final pages, Greenhalgh imagines Capa's death in a Vietnamese paddy field with feeling and restraint, but it's too late. Bergman's long gone by then, and so, I fear, will be plenty of readers who have decided to wait for the DVD.

Seducing Ingrid Bergman is published by Penguin Press, $19.99.

This story Mismatched lovers will always have Paris first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.