Cinema Invents Smoking: BARRIER

In detonations and flashes of light, a brazier – or better still, its shadow – discharges an explosive poetry. The off-screen fire, burning in the midst of a deserted landscape, is projected onto and fuelled by the hero. In his face, we can guess tales: of the orphaned rascal, of the tired voyager, of wars and bombs.

His bowed head and her pair of white boots stumble upon each other. A dog – sniffing the ground, shaking the water off his hair – meets the stranger who will, perhaps, feed him: love at first sight. In this sequence, “for the first time, Skolimowski betrays his intense romanticism”, writes Michael Walker. Romanticism, yes. But a romanticism of scarcity: lack of cigarettes, lack of matches, a lack that heats up inventiveness. Romanticism of the pantomime act: faces that crumple, stretch and blink; surfaces that contract or straighten, becoming a grimace or a smile. With finesse, the actors use their fingers, muscles, props, limbs – dancing a perfect choreography with both the camera and Krzysztof Komeda’s musical theme. Every move takes its time, rejoicing in its own unfolding. A spectacle for our eyes, this theatre of gestures where the encounter is played out …

And cinema invents smoking. The sensuality of its exchanges and relays. The warmth of the shared experience, with its foreplay and its afterglow. Dare games, poor children’s games, where nothing is known, and all is to be probed: temperatures, mixtures, elements, states of matter … Can you light a fire without burning yourself? Can we keep the flame alive? Can I re-kindle the blaze from its ashes? She holds the secret of controlled combustion, he juggles with swords and live coals. They play with ice and embers; they experiment with melting and igniting.

She stretches one arm toward him, a cigarette between her fingers. With her help, he lights his own smoke. In a marvellous cut, we pass from his close-up to a profile shot of the couple. They remain on the ground, throwing clouds of smoke at each other, their hands still intertwined. But the camera moves and, in this reverse tracking shot, cinema invents the drag. An inhale/exhale breath where the intensity of the couple’s gazing and the camera’s hypnotic movement of detachment are locked in. The man and the woman start shrinking and the world around them is reprocessed. The cars begin to appear in the image – their headlights twinkling, getting bigger and smaller.

Preceding the couple’s departure, a last, surreal touch. Electricity comes back by surprise. All the little points of light that adorned the background turn into a crowd with candles. And the musical theme that has been playing for three minutes is substituted by a thunderous “Alleluia”, sung a capella.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, February 2019

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The Expert’s Speech, the Director’s Gesture: HOLE IN THE SOUL

“If you ask a connoisseur for his opinion, you’ll get what you deserve” – these words introduce a scene from Dušan Makavejev’s Hole in the Soul (1994): the director’s meeting with Dennis Jakob. Hole in the Soul is an autobiographical documentary but, as I discuss in a previous text, it’s not always clear (and this is part of the movie’s charm) what has been staged and what has been captured, what kind of arrangements and agreements have been made behind the scenes. Is Jakob’s speech, in this scene, one of his own, free making? Or is he, to some extent, performing a part? These are intriguing questions to which, despite my intuitions, I don’t have a definite answer. Therefore, I’ll be writing here about Jakob and Makavejev as characters, dramatised characters. Jakob is the film Expert, Makavejev the lost Director in search of advice.

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I think, however, that part of the tension aroused by this scene has to do with the relations we can establish between these two characters and whatever we may know about the real people. With this in mind, I’d like to give some information about Dennis Jakob. When I watched Hole in the Soul I didn’t know who he was, though his name rang a bell and his speech was painfully familiar. I looked him up. Here’s some of the data I found: he worked as an editor on several Roger Corman films, he has been a creative consultant for Francis Ford Coppola, he’s written a couple of screenplays, he’s the author of a memoir and of several novels – including Summer with Morrison about the UCLA years he shared with Jim Morrison, who was his friend and roommate. He has helped or been praised by directors such as Errol Morris, Guy Maddin and Mark Cousins. In bios and fan pages, he’s referred to as an historian, a provocateur and a genius.

***

In the scene, we see and hear Jakob but, most of the time, sound and image are un-synched. Exterior shots of the city’s streets and buildings are interspersed with a few interior shots taken in a dark office. Jacob, hat and sunglasses on, sits behind a desk. He looks through the closed blinds, turns in his chair, inspects books with a flashlight and, with Makavejev’s help, lights a row of candles. His speech is delivered in voice-over:

1960 is the big day, you know, that motion pictures changed. Because, essentially, this is the year after Breathless. With Godard, with Truffaut, with Chabrol, you have what corresponds to what Nietzsche called the great slave revolt. That was the slave revolt against all noble values. This affected motion pictures everywhere. What it was, was: anything goes, anything will do. Make the most disgraceful cuts, the most lousy compositions … and you were not different than anybody else. You were part of that generation. That generation of yours worshipped Howard Hawks, who has no more visual sense than a cockroach. Whereas I worshipped John Ford. He made pictures. And now, now I hear from your wife that they even have festivals and things in your honour in Russia. While, when you abandoned Russia, once you were something. You were a threat to somebody.

How well this diatribe encapsulates the dominant forms of cultural commentary: the pompous exhibition of knowledge, the total lack of uncertainty, the dogmatisation of personal taste, the authoritarianism of opinion, the satisfaction in crafting humiliations and ad hominem attacks … And all this is passed on as lucid dissection, sharp criticism, even history lesson. When I hear people speaking like this, using language like this, it makes me ill. But people speak like this, more and more. This is the kind of speech that proliferates and reproduces itself, popping up like poisonous mushrooms, creeping in everywhere. It has created schools, followers, disciples and hooligans. And you’ve got to keep yourself in check constantly, because it’s not easy to remain immune to it.

There’s a bit of generational shaming and a lot of uncontained narcissism (when talking about Makavejev, Jakob refers to a generation, but when talking about himself, he resorts to an emphatic “I”). There is, above all, the dispensation of flowery insults and offensive remarks elaborated on the basis of taste-superiority (“Howard Hawks has no more visual sense than a cockroach” versus “John Ford made pictures”). This is the kind of speech that, in the name of truth-telling, reveals a true blindness for singularity, reducing all modern cinema to “disgraceful cuts and lousy compositions”. For the Expert, it’s all clear-cut and it’s all the same: he can’t make distinctions between quite dissimilar filmmakers, nor can he tell the difference between Russia and (the former) Yugoslavia. “Anything goes”, says Jakob, neatly summarising the slave revolt of modern cinema. And, listening to his speech, it seems that, for him, anything indeed goes.

Meanwhile, not much is said about Makavejev’s films, whether their strengths or flaws. Guilt is proven, however, by this fact: now, they hold festivals in his honour. While it’s not in our power to decide if our work will, one day, be assimilated by the establishment, it’s still possible to refuse becoming its servant by echoing its rhetoric. Jakob’s cap-off is a low and easy accusation to throw at a filmmaker who was once hailed as a revolutionary, but whose reputation had diminished considerably by the ‘90s: “Now, Dušan, you are now like Flaubert: a bourgeois living the bourgeois life. And you are trying to be an artist.”

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One cut, and we are in Belgrade. The colours and textures are different: softer, gentler. Dishes with biscuits and apples rest on a window sill. Two women (Milena Dravic and Eva Ras, who acted in the early films by Makavejev, those made when he was “a threat to somebody”) appear at the other side of the window. They are carrying some presents, smiling and waving at the camera. A zoom-out reveals two older women inside the house. As they move toward the entrance to receive their visitors, the camera follows them. This vignette – which Jakob would surely decry as the ultimate give-away of bourgeois taste – is accompanied by Makavejev’s voice-over: “If I had to choose between Nietzsche and Flaubert, I always thought the Frenchman was a better option”.

This declaration – which may have been as unfashionable in 1994 as it is today – acquires sense via the gesture that accompanies it: filming a meal between family and friends as the most precious and delicate thing. Makavejev appears on-screen for a moment, asking Eva about her present. “Wine from Mostar. Mostar is no more, but the wine is still there”, says the woman. “Tell that to Mum”, he urges. He takes the women’s coats and disappears, coming back with a bowl of soup.

The tenderness for all these small-scale gestures, for the bodies’ slow movements, for the embraces and kisses with which the women greet each other; the pleasure taken in this meal enjoyed in good company … This is Makavejev’s response to Jakob’s accusations. But this tenderness was never absent from his earlier films. The gestures may have been fiercer, the statements louder and the movements faster. But the enemy was never family, domesticity, not even coziness. The enemy was power, stupidity, and the repressive forces that annihilate life’s joy.

***

We move, once more, to the Expert’s office for his final verdict: “I hate to say this, but all the stuff that used to work, no longer works. Dušan, you are no longer funny.” The lost Director asks eagerly: “What shall I do?” With the aid of Sergei Eisenstein, the Expert serves him, on a platter, the key for success, the prescription according to which audiences will flock to see his films again: “We’ve separated the boot from the creak; the dialogue from the picture. That’s what you’ve got to do”.

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What does it mean to wish to reconnect with the audience? One doesn’t touch spectators by giving them what they (openly or secretly) demand, by obeying the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the market, by yielding (in opportunistic follow-up or clever anticipation) to the fashion of the day. In an era where every new gimmick is hailed as the cutting edge of innovation for the next five minutes – before rapidly fading away and stepping aside for some new, fancy gadget – originality has become a recipe with a tight expiry date. But spectators and customers are not the same thing.

That’s why the Expert always has the answer, and the Director can never be satisfied with it. He remains lost, because his crisis is not only personal, but also concerns his relation to the world. He’s sad enough to keep wandering and asking for the miraculous cure, but funny enough to turn the Expert’s advice into the main joke around which the segment is built. He’s fool enough to dare to be unfashionable, to stick to his own project, to honour what fills his heart – with the hope of producing that spark which crosses the screen, touching the world a little, changing the world a little.

I guess that if I have to choose between the certainty of the Expert and the despair of the lost Director, I’ll always choose the second option.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, February 2019

Motion, Propagation, Transmission: DEVIL IN THE FLESH

Marco Bellocchio’s Devil in the Flesh (1986) starts with a shot of several, interconnected buildings: a high-angle view encompassing the three areas where the action of the eight-minute opening sequence will take place.

There is a classroom, situated on the highest floor of one structure; an ample, deserted terrace, located in front of this classroom; and the roof of a third building, adjacent to both. An unnamed black woman (Doris Jean Foster) appears on the top of this roof: barefoot, wearing only a white nightgown, she walks and talks to herself, bowing and gesturing.

The camera now moves inside the classroom, where Andrea (Federico Pitzalis) is the only student who has noticed this woman on the roof. A loud scream disrupts the lesson, and all the pupils run to the windows. The third key space is now brought into play: on the terrace, a man who will soon identify himself as a Catholic priest tries to dissuade the woman from jumping.

Bellocchio draws a precise diagram of the struggle at the centre of the film: madness, besieged on all sides by two institutions – church and school (a third, psychiatry, will make an appearance later) – that are both seduced and horrified by its manifestation. The only way these institutions can deal with such madness is by subordinating it to their doctrines and powers. The teacher – who, a moment ago, was delivering a perfectly packaged lecture about the school’s taming of Giovanni Pascoli’s poetry – panics and warns his students not to lean out the window. The priest preaches anxiously, forbidding the woman to take her own life. She points at him and laughs hysterically – covering her ears and rejecting the discourse forced onto her.

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A later shot of the sequence takes us inside a semi-dark room. The racket has awoken Giulia (Maruschka Detmers), who goes out on the terrace. When her eyes get accustomed to the light, she sees the black woman in front of her. The soundscape changes. The screaming ceases abruptly. Some words float and reverberate in the air. Cut to the other woman who, in a childish pose, scared and paranoid, looks around as if searching for the source of this phantasmatic voice. Suddenly, she turns to Giulia – who stands at the terrace’s rail, several steps away from her mother and the priest. A theremin-like sound breaks the dead silence, giving the scene an outer-space quality. The noise made by the tiles, as the woman tries to stand up, is amplified.

A shot taken from within the patio that connects the three buildings shows several people on their balconies: they look over their heads in order to catch a glimpse of the suicidal woman poised at the roof’s edge. This shot enforces the full-blown, dramatic expectation of the sequence, since it hinges on a decisive plot question (will she jump or not?). But the suspense generated by this question is swiftly overshadowed by a different kind of suspension. That is the paradoxical effect of the surreal image with which Bellocchio is already taking us somewhere else, pushing the scene in another direction, opening up a hole right at the core of this unresolved life-and-death situation.

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An intricate itinerary of the gaze is staged across several shots. Captivated by the sight of the suicidal woman, a female student rests her arms on Andrea’s shoulders at the very moment that he notices Giulia for the first time. Meanwhile, Giulia and the black woman stare at each other. Something happens between them. Something that is far deeper and more mysterious than any conventional process of communication or identification. These two women know nothing about each other, just as we know nothing about either of them. It all hinges on one single, striking, figural resemblance: dragged from their sleep, still in nightgowns that are ill-fitting and hastily put on, they don’t seem to belong to this world – a world properly dressed and in motion, a world already immersed in its daily rituals.

A tear runs down the black woman’s cheek, then another tear, and yet another. Behind her, the sky and the landscape resemble a thickly painted, white and green background that makes the universe fade away. She looks at Giulia – at the camera, at us – with solicitous eyes, uttering the same foreign words, over and over again. The tears keep wetting her face, but calmly. Her body remains still, constrained, almost petrified. It’s Giulia who now, in turn, sighs, sobs and quivers uncontrollably.

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As if suddenly awoken from a trance, the woman realises where she is and cries for help. Once she is rescued, routine creeps back in. Normality is abruptly re-established: Giulia, already dressed, combs her hair on the terrace; the interrupted class proceeds … But something remains. Like an after-image glimpsed in the window of a nocturnal train. Two tracking shots with different speeds and directions – one across Giulia walking on the terrace, the other across Andrea looking at her from his desk – carry the echo of the recent commotion. A moment later, Andrea will abandon the class, exiting through the window, in order to follow Giulia in the streets.

***

Writing about this scene, Alain Philippon remarked that what happens between Giulia and Andrea “is staged in a literal way”, with the unknown woman functioning as “the conductor of desire: for it is by looking at her that Andrea will discover Giulia”.1

This notion of a third party working as a transmitter or enabler extends to the very making of the film itself. It is embodied in the figure of Massimo Fagioli (1931-2017) – Bellocchio’s psychoanalyst and frequent collaborator, to whom he dedicates Devil in the Flesh. Bellocchio has defined the film as a “three-way dialogue” between Detmers, Fagioli and himself, adding elsewhere: “The strange, unique, powerful performance of Detmers owes a lot to Fagioli”.2 While we don’t know the exact details of this “three-way dialogue”, the results are there for us to see on screen.

The opening sequence encapsulates and lays bare what’s so haunting in Detmers’ acting. For if, in Devil in the Flesh, she can cry like a river or burst into a laugh that is like a summer storm, it’s because nothing resembling will is inscribed in Giulia’s character. She shivers, freezes and sweats, shaken by passions bigger than herself, overflowed by streams she can’t contain. Her face, rather than expressing, becomes a landscape caressed by the sun or suddenly obscured by dark clouds. It’s all a matter of motion, propagation, transmission; of turning the body and the gaze into vessels and openings for the circulation of violent, uncontrollable affects.

 

1. Alain Philippon, “La subversion du monde par l’amour” (1986), in Le blanc des origines (Yellow Now, 2002), pp. 294-295.

2. Quoted in Dominique Bax & Cyril Béghin (eds), Marco Bellocchio / Carmelo Bene (Théâtres au cinéma, Tome 20, Magic Cinéma, 2009), p. 68.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, April 2017

FANNY AND ALEXANDER: Isak’s Tale

The sequence is part of the fifth chapter – titled “Demons” – of the TV version of Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman, 1982). When it takes place, we have already been immersed in the misfortunes of the Ekdahl family for more than four hours.

Isak Jakobi (Erland Josephson) has managed to rescue Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) from their wicked stepfather, Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö), whose abuses have become intolerable. Isak shelters the siblings at his labyrinthine residence, shows them the room where they will sleep and proceeds to read them a story.

What is Isak’s true role in Fanny and Alexander? Uncle Isak is not, in actual fact, the siblings’ uncle. A Jewish antiques dealer, loyal friend of the Ekdahl family, intimate companion of grandmother Helena, Isak liberates the children from their stepfather’s yoke. By doing this, he accomplishes their late father’s will. But he is not a father to Fanny and Alexander. Nor is he trying to become, like Vergérus, a pale substitute for it. Isak’s figure is far more remarkable. Freed from the mundane ties of paternity, he is what children (especially orphan children) wish for, sometimes intimately and silently: a mentor, a facilitator, or – to use the term coined by Serge Daney – a passeur.

There’s a lovely detail in this sequence that reveals to us how seriously Isak takes his job. He holds in his hands a little book, written in Hebrew, made of “stories, thoughts, words of wisdom and prayers”. He’s about to read something to the children, but warns them beforehand: “Maybe it’s a bit choppy, since I have to translate as I read”. However, after the first few lines, Isak lifts his gaze and doesn’t look at the book again until he pronounces the final sentence. Obviously, he knows this text by heart, or maybe he’s inventing it on the spot. Like a magician, he’s aware that a trick’s success lies in its execution and that, for his audience, a story printed with ink, in the pages of an old book, holds a greater truth than the art of forging a tale.

In Isak’s story, a young man “journeys down an endless road in the company of many others”. Under the burning sun and the dusty wind, he walks through an inhospitable landscape. Tormented by his thirst and his anxiety, the youth despairs. His hopes diminish, his senses are weakened, and he forgets “why he ever set out on his journey”. Isak’s tale is modelled on the myth of the hero’s journey and, as he recounts it, the camera moves closer to his face, very slowly. The words flow from his mouth as if everything he narrates was happening at that very moment, before his eyes – or as if it had happened long, long ago, and told many times since. Bergman doesn’t introduce a single reverse shot of the children: this is a significant gesture through which we come to occupy their place – the place of the absent reverse shot. Fused with the siblings’ gazing and listening, we are made direct recipients of this story through which Isak speaks to us.

At one point, however, Isak’s tale splits into images – in the entire six minutes that his narration lasts, this happens only once. Isak relates how, one night, the youth heard an old man telling other children about the forests and springs. The youth remembers then that he himself had visited these forests and springs once, but his memories are faint and indistinct, like “a dream”. Then, in a remarkable, single shot – itself like a mirage, or a dream – we see Alexander lying in the open, clutching his Teddy next to a fire. Suddenly, matching the action in Isak’s story, Alexander sits up and turns. The camera ascends with him and, at the same time, tracks out. This discreet gesture serves to open up the image and radically reframe it: now, Alexander is among a group of kids, facing Isak who sits on a pile of cushions. From this slightly elevated position, the man tells tales to the children who, spellbound, listen to him with their gazes lifted.

The diagonal line traced by the figures’ heads seals the pact between teller and listener, between old age and youth. The magnetic movement of the camera, the hypnotic march of the flames dancing in the background around the main characters, magnify the effect of incantation portrayed and produced by this primal, iconic vignette. This shot is the juncture where the film’s narrative and the tale’s narrative interlock, signalling the exact point at which the oral narration casts its spell and relaunches the hero’s faith in the journey. The mise en abîme generated in this shot emphasises, precisely, the magical powers of storytelling. The powers by which Isak and Alexander become, respectively, the old and the young man in the tale; the powers by which the film becomes their pilgrimage, full of suffering, in search of a promised land – a land of rivers, streams and springs, where “you can quench your thirst, wash your badly burnt face, cool your blistered feet”.

After having compellingly chanted the attributes of this paradise, the old man confesses to the youth that this destination – lost and longed for, remembered or half glimpsed – may not exist. In The Cinema Hypothesis, Alain Bergala describes the passeur as “someone who gives of himself, who accompanies his passengers in the boat or up the mountain, who takes the same risks as those temporarily in his charge”. When Isak is about to reach the tale’s end, he directs his gaze to the book one last time, and concludes with these words: “The next morning the youth set out with the old man, to seek the mountain, the cloud, the forests and the rippling springs”.

A brief pause follows. Schumann’s “Piano Quintet in E-flat Major” starts playing on the soundtrack at the very moment in which Isak raises his eyelids, finding our gaze. Then, and only then, Bergman introduces one of the most beautiful reverse shots in film history.

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Between this close-up of Alexander’s face and the later, extreme close-up of his eyes, we are taken again into the imaginary space of Isak’s tale. Crowds of people advance, as in the Biblical Exodus, passing the boy who looks around, astonished. Several characters from the film reappear as figures imbued with religious and symbolic associations. The family saga is abstracted, enlarged, connected to its mythical roots. Across these ten shots –a theatrical embodiment of suffering and joy, of madness and relief – Bergman creates a choreography of dance, movement and gesture: Alexander’s traumatic experiences, his memories and longings, are condensed, reworked and transformed as in a dream.

If, as Bergala notes, “cinema, the greatest cinema, has ontologically a lot to do with the subject of transmission”, this sequence captures the intensity of such an experience, bursting with the electrified emotion of that transference.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, March 2012/December 2018

PHOENIX: Back with a Vengeance?

As a writer-director, Christian Petzold has a special knack for punchy, surprising endings, superbly constructed and emotionally breathtaking. The extremely powerful, final minutes of Phoenix (2014) are a great proof of this. However, I must say that, when I saw the film for the first time, its ending left me with a strange feeling. In a way, it provided a perfectly coherent closure. But, paradoxically, as the protagonist morphed into a blur and exited the frame, I also felt as if the movie had yet to begin. This first impression vanished completely with subsequent viewings, but I want to stay with it for a moment – because I think it says a lot about how our expectations can condition what we see and hear on screen.

When Phoenix opened in cinemas, many synopses and reviews labelled it a revenge film. Several commentators referred to it as a tale about a woman – Nelly (Nina Hoss), a Holocaust survivor in immediate post-war Germany – seeking revenge against her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Some elements of the story – such as the disfigured Nelly coming back from the dead – establish quick links with other films that have a similar premise and are, indeed, revenge melodramas. This central character’s behaviour seems easier to understand – at least in the context of a Holocaust narrative – if we tie it to a desire for vengeance. There are even those who think that Petzold offers us here a clean, measured, respectable version of the same historical ‘revenge fantasy’ at the centre of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). I don’t believe there’s really any evidence in the film to support this interpretation; but I suspect that, when I saw it for the first time, I was also expecting, somehow, a revenge story – and that’s why the ending disconcerted me.

Rather than being about revenge, Phoenix is about denial: from its surreal premise (a man who cannot recognise his own wife), through its poignant unfolding (a woman who cannot admit the truth about her husband’s motivation), to its disturbing denouement (a world that masks the horror of the camps with the idealised image of a returned survivor). It’s not the film but the characters who live immersed in fantasies. Phoenix is simply the space where all these fantasies intertwine.

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Johnny’s obsession with transforming a living woman into a dead one – without realising that she’s the same person – has sparked comparisons between Phoenix and Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1958). But what matters here is the twist: while, in Vertigo, Scottie (James Stewart) acts out of love, and Judy (Kim Novak) finds his requests alienating to the point of being unbearable, here Johnny wants Nelly’s inheritance – and she, moreover, embraces her own transformation at his hands. If she enters into Johnny’s game, however, it is not with revenge in mind, but because she is deluded, stubborn, and madly in love with him. In the course of the story, her fantasy will be undermined by suspicions – but she suppresses them as soon as they arise. When her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), suggests that Johnny is only interested in her money, Nelly looks at her with disbelief – she seems to have blocked the fact that Johnny himself previously admitted this. And when an offhand revelation points toward Johnny’s possible betrayal, she engineers an explanation and serves it up to him as a scenario to exonerate him of guilt. Not even after having survived the camps will Nelly let her Jewishness stand as the sign of her identity; rather, in her mind, it’s her love for Johnny and the musical partnership they built together that defines her. By demonstrating to him that she can become the woman she once was, she hopes to regain his love.

There’s only one thing that can overturn the delusion that Nelly has built: a single, simple piece of archival evidence. (The importance of archives was a crucial theme in the work of Phoenix’s co-writer, the late Harun Farocki.) If the ending of Phoenix is so overwhelming, it is precisely because two apparently irreconcilable signs that have been placed at cross-purposes throughout the entire film – a physical indication of Nelly’s horrific experience of the camps, and her vocal performance of Kurt Weill’s popular standard “Speak Low” – finally converge, in the most painful consummation of both their fantasies. But, as Nelly sings: “It’s too late”.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, July 2015

Missing, Misunderstanding, Noticing: LE CERCLE ROUGE

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about one shot from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970). The first thing I must confess about this shot is that I had never really seen it before – at least, not properly. It belongs to this scene happening 35 minutes into the film.

The scene is the culmination of a particular idea: using intercutting to bridge the gap between Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) – two characters that have never met, but whose destinies are, thanks to a magnetic parallel montage, intertwined from the very beginning. At this point, the distance between the two characters has been effectively abolished: not just suggestively but also physically. For the first time, Corey and Vogel share the same shot. The last shot of the scene. The shot I happened to miss.

Let’s put aside, for a moment, all the knowledge that comes from foreshadowing and retrospection (in a later scene, for instance, Corey confesses to Vogel that he saw him hiding in the car’s boot). And let’s concentrate solely on this shot. Once you’ve seen it, it seems impossible to have missed it. Melville’s choices appear to be unmistakably designed to pinpoint, precisely, the action going on in the background: first, Corey’s fast glance through the window; second, the camera movement that opens up the space outside the restaurant; third, the loud noise of the car’s boot closing. How, then, could I have missed all that? Well, maybe I didn’t …

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In this shot, what matters is the choreography that Melville engineers to put the different layers of the image into relation. In the previous shot, we’ve already seen Vogel opening Corey’s car in order to enter it. So, what is at stake here is not so much our direct apprehension of the action happening in the background, but whether we grasp Corey’s awareness of it. In this sense, the most crucial gesture is Corey’s brief glimpse across the window. This glimpse may seem unequivocal, but it is so only if we notice the car’s open boot. If we assume, as I did, that Vogel is already locked inside the car, it’s less likely that we notice the open boot. And if we don’t notice the open boot, Corey’s glimpse, by itself, will tell us nothing.

Alain Delon’s performance deserves special mention here. His much commented underplaying is key to Melville’s cinema, but not just for the restraint and inexpressiveness it brings to the characters, but for how it supplies a very limited set of gestures (such as opening a door or throwing a fast glance) that are played again and again, with the same cadence and de-dramatisation, under very different circumstances. Early on in the scene, Corey walks into the restaurant, chooses carefully the best spot to sit, and gives a quick look to his vehicle. It’s the same dispassionate, mechanical, checking glance that he performs in this last shot. Inconclusive and misleading, this glance is a sign that increases the span of possible significations associated with it, to the point of becoming devoid of any clear meaning.

Then, there’s the camera movement. It’s a beautiful track and pan, lasting about five seconds, that makes the most of its brief motion. It advances laterally, tracing a line in front of Corey’s body, while panning intermittently and more widely at the end, opening up the space at the other side of the window. It’s an elegant but unostentatious reveal – that is, of course, if you happen to see what is revealed. If you don’t see the reveal, you may experience this camera movement differently: as one that relishes in Delon’s performance, while preparing us for his subsequent standing and exiting from the frame. The magnetism between the camera and Delon is such that it can obliterate anything else, throwing us into the contemplation of his concentrated attitude as he savours his coffee and holds the cup suspended in the air.

Finally, there’s the sound made by the car’s boot when Vogel closes it. A sound that is quite prominent in volume, only a bit below the music and noise coming from inside the restaurant where the camera is located. The fact that this sound is unrealistically enhanced contributes to making it noticeable – but also obfuscates its point of origin. If we haven’t noticed the action in the background, we can easily assume that the sound comes from somewhere inside the restaurant. Only if we’ve seen the open boot does the sound ring out meaningfully. Detached from its visual counterpart, this sound is as inconclusive as Corey’s glance.

***

I’ve watched Le cercle rouge many times, but it was only recently, while I was working on an audiovisual essay with Adrian Martin, that I re-discovered this shot. Of course, it’s not that I had missed the shot altogether (I’m not that bad!), but I had never noticed the action in the background. To miss what happens in the background, however, is also to misunderstand (at least partially) what goes on in the foreground. Our grasp of this shot depends on us following the relation between the string of choices made by Melville: it’s the whole interplay that counts.

This interplay is structured in successive stages, each one marked by a delay in relation to the next. When Corey looks across the window, the camera has already begun moving, but the architecture and décor of the place (first) and Delon’s own body (later) block our vision. Only when the camera movement reaches its final stage, does the open boot become visible for barely one second; at this point, however, Corey’s attention has shifted, drawing our own attention toward his body. Then, we hear the sound of the boot but, by then, this boot is already closed – there’s nothing for us to see in the background anymore.

The three choices discussed here present breaks, deferrals, mismatches: between signal and designation, between movement and stasis, between an opening up and a shutting in, between seeing and hearing. The suture that connects them, threading the action’s progress, linking the different planes of the image, is also a gap that blurs their correlation. The very act of emphasising, of pointing out, conspires against itself, carrying within itself the gesture of hiding and masking.

My fascination with this shot very much summarises my fascination with Melville’s cinema as a whole. What keeps marvelling me about these films is that, even after you’ve disclosed their twists, secrets and withholdings, you can still feel the vibration of the different tensions at work – you can still sense these tensions colliding and collapsing into each other. For me, this shot embodies the uncertainty, ambiguity and unbalance that lurk in Melville’s cinema. This is not the same as saying that my adventures in missing, misunderstanding and noticing – my attempt at reconstructing backwards my experience of this shot – reflects, in any way, Melville’s own, pre-planned intentions. But I think it does reflect certain effects that his cinema produces, makes palpable and keeps very alive.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, December 2018

Teenage Daydream: LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES

History tells us that the collaboration between Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau was neither easy nor sweet. “Before, we were brothers; during the shooting, we couldn’t stand each other”, said the director. Unlike in his debut feature Le Silence de la mer (1949), where he adapted Vercors’ novel with great fidelity but also in total independence and freedom, the more collaborative nature of this project (the screenplay was written by Cocteau himself from his own novel) prompted many discussions. Some of these discussions concerned contractual obligations (such as the imposition, against Melville’s will, of Cocteau’s protégé Édouard Dermithe to play the protagonist, Paul). Several compromises or concessions from both sides were reached in order to achieve a result that was acceptable for all involved. However, if Les Enfants terribles (1950) is today such a fascinating film, full of impossible contrasts and gifted with a sumptuous eccentricity, it’s also thanks to these artistic disagreements.

It was Cocteau who, after having watched Le Silence de la mer, approached Melville and asked him to direct a film adaptation of the novel. It is not difficult to see why the project caught the director’s attention: the story of these two teenage siblings who barely abandon their rooms fits perfectly with the extremely self-enclosed universes typical of Melville’s noirs and Resistance films – microcosms folded onto themselves, with their own rules, that repel any contact with the exterior. In Les Enfants terribles, this world is shaped within the walls of a shared bedroom: the quintessential teenage space. It is a sanctuary packed with absurd objects that the protagonists collect, re-appropriate and venerate, like natural born surrealists. In this room, Paul and Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane) build an island governed by perverse games and rituals.

Melville shoots the interiors of his film by fully dramatising the qualities and powers of the architecture. When the characters visit a new house, the camera reveals to us the magnificent, empty spaces of an abandoned palace that we discover alongside the group that marches through endless stairs, corridors and chambers. He also engineers remarkable solutions for filming the protagonists’ bedrooms. His pans and overhead shots, for instance, are never merely descriptive: introduced at the least expected moment, they always enhance the emotional and dramatic dimension of a charged space. Long before the blooming of the teen movie as a genre, Melville already instinctively grasped the cinematic potential of this intimate location of the bedroom.

Les Enfants terribles 1

Les enfants terribles 2

The hyper-expressive gestural work of the actors, the declamatory delivery of the dialogues, and the passages of voice-over narration (read by Cocteau himself) seem to be at the antipodes to the hieratic, minimal underplaying for which Melville is best known today. He was, however, never entirely foreign to this extremely theatrical and literary effect: he fully explored it in his even more radical chamber piece Le Silence de la mer, and used it, more sparingly, in several of his later films. Some fans of the golden period of Melville’s filmography tend to be bothered by the highly exaggerated, histrionic performances in Les Enfants terribles, but this interpretive style has enormous coherence in a film where characters are always immersed in their own theatre, literalising their emotions in a permanent competition, enacting and exteriorising feelings through the roles they have invented for themselves.

Melville takes advantage of all this hyperbolic pathos in order to conceive an extraordinary sound design. The fighting between Paul and Elisabeth is often expressed through their voices, through highly dramatic intonations punctuated by brusque pauses of silence – like waves that grow and explode in an abiding, violent flow. Cocteau’s poetic work with rhythm, repeated words and chains of enumerations becomes especially hypnotic when mixed with other sounds and voices, echo effects, and the classical music featured in the film. The extensive use made of different parts and arrangements of two pieces by Bach and Vivaldi is, quite simply, superb: the music not only interacts with the dialogue and narration, but also with the mise en scène and editing, thus forming a magnificent choreography of movement, action and emotion. This harmonic polyphony, always reaching a crescendo, absorbs spectators and carries them, effortlessly, right inside the world of the film.

Of course, this trance of hypnotic incantation has extreme importance in a movie that, like most of Melville’s works, is all about personal magnetism and power games. In this sense, Les Enfants terribles spells out what the rest of his filmography tries to keep as a generative but hidden force: the relationships between the heroes and other characters (male partners and female lovers alike) is always sustained by the exercise of control and calculation. Here, Nicole Stéphane plays a deformed variant of the hyper-cerebral killers and thieves incarnated later by Alain Delon or Jean-Paul Belmondo. She also builds a seductive shield of rehearsed detachment and, like them, she’s given an operatic, grand finale that is the equal of those featured in Le Doulos (1962) or Le Samouraï (1967).

The confrontation between Dargelos (Renée Cosima) and Paul at the start of Les Enfants terribles is the kind of fateful encounter that usually sets Melville’s films in motion. Here, however, the encounter between these two schoolboys is charged with a Cocteauesque, poetic and symbolic homoeroticism much less ambiguous than in other Melville films: Dargelos throws a snowball that hits Paul’s chest and, immediately, the latter faints as if Cupid’s arrow had pierced his heart. This act of violence marks the birth of an amorous obsession and, from that moment on, Les Enfants terribles operates entirely through this type of displacement, substitution or superimposition: Dargelos’ face finds its mirror in Agathe (both characters played by Cosima); Paul’s intense, queer crush collides with the latent, incestuous relationship experienced with her sister; and the original room shared by the siblings is eternally reconstituted in other places – such as the house that the group of characters inhabit like modern squatters, living all together in a chamber until they’re tired of it, deciding to move on to another room …

Les enfants terribles 3

Les enfants terribles 4

Both highly domestic and magically devilish, the primal bedroom built and rebuilt by these two siblings attracts other characters, but never truly belongs to anybody else: it’s the space of a teenage daydream that Paul and Elisabeth occupy, dressed in their bathrobes, lying in messy beds, where the smells of death and sickness mix with those of an unconsummated sexuality. Finally, anyone else is just an insignificant puppet in a fantasy created by the enfants. A fantasy woven with suffocated, feverish desires that are always masked, disguised and dramatised as in a Greek tragedy.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, February 2015