It was an autumn evening, and I may have been twelve or thirteen years old. I went up the stairs and popped up in my parents’ office room, on the second floor of our home. My mother and brother were standing there, with their backs to me. Glued to each other, they giggled at something they were watching through the window. I must have walked very stealthily, because they remained unaware of my presence. “Hey, what are you doing?”, I asked. They both shuddered and turned towards me. What I remember most is their looks of astonishment. As happens in the movies after a character has seen a ghost, they were awestruck and could barely speak. “We … thought … you were there”, mumbled my brother signalling the window. He invited me to come closer so that I could see it for myself.
On the other side of the glass, in a nearby park, there was a girl playing with a little kid. I looked at her for a long time: in an ordinary black jacket, she bent down and stood up, adjusted her gloves, walked behind the child; finally, she sat on top of a swing. I could not understand the confusion. In fact, I found this girl a bit irritating, as she had a strange way of moving. She did not move like me! But, what bothered me most was the fact that she was too far away: at that distance, one could not perceive any clear features that justified this supposedly unequivocal likeness that had struck my mother and brother. Or, at least, that’s what I thought then.
A few years after this incident, when I was in secondary school, I saw Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique (1991). For a long time, I loved this film above all others. It showed me what cinema can do with the moving image: the power of colour, light, texture, timing, suspension. It taught me about beauty, and mystery, and the force of intuition. Irène Jacob plays two girls, born on the same day, at the same hour, in two different cities – they are identical except for what I’d define as a slight variation of tone: this is a very musical film. These two girls never meet but, in the most amazing sequence of the film, they coincide in a square of Kraków during a political demonstration.
Polish Weronika sees French Véronique jumping onto a touristic bus and taking photographs of the riot. The bus starts moving and Weronika begins to walk laterally – tracing a curve with her steps, trying to keep Véronique in sight. There’s some intercutting that infuses the scene with a vertiginous sense of movement and expectation: the driver’s manoeuvring, Weronika’s circular walk accompanied by the camera’s rushed dolly movement, the hassle of masses that congregate, run, and disintegrate in the background.
When the bus finally departs, we can see a last glimpse of Véronique inside the vehicle: I relish these ten seconds of cinema. The bus swirls in front of us like a ballerina in a music box before advancing toward the camera. Véronique stands next to her seat – her figure darkened, her gesture frozen. Suddenly, she’s bathed by light, her features become visible again, and something quite subtle happens: she turns her gaze in the other’s direction. The next cut to Weronika comes so fast that you can easily miss Véronique’s gesture. But, I did not miss it, and have remained touched by it ever since. Touched by this fleetingness that lingers – like the afterimage of something that has already flown away.
What is it, today, that I like so much about this moment, about this split-second of film? What it registers does not confirm or deny anything objective (we can’t be certain if Véronique has or has not glimpsed Weronika); rather, it renders, by the means of cinema, something that belongs entirely to the psychic sphere: a hunch, an inkling, the pulsation of a presence felt.
At home, we were always way behind every technological revolution. Our TV had only three channels when everybody else’s had six; it took me ages to convince my parents to buy a VHS; and we never owned a video camera. So, I had never seen moving pictures of myself until a friend recorded a brief video of some crazy birthday party with her phone (this may have been at the start of the 2000s). Afterwards, I watched myself on that little screen; or, to put it better, I watched a series of poses, expressions and movements that I had trouble recognising as my own. Being confronted with this body that was evidently mine, but looked so completely alien to me, was a disturbing experience.
My arms hung stiff, swaying like the dead branches of a tree. My torso and my limbs didn’t appear to belong to the same body. My steps and turns were brusque, while my lengthier gestures were slow, stretching forever. It was like watching a dancer trapped in a toy’s body, lacking enough flexing points. In the midst of all this anguish, I remembered that girl in the park. And I understood. I understood – because I was watching it in front of me – why my mother and brother were so certain that it was me who they were seeing through the window that day. It was all in the weight and motion of the lines traced by the body in the air. Everything that had seemed to me so irritating in that girl, now I was reliving it – repeated, doubled – as I gazed at myself.
I remembered the scene in which Véronique finds in her bag the forgotten negatives of the pictures she took during her trip to Poland – and, in front of those miniatures of a woman that looks like her, that looks at her, she’s only capable of muttering: “This is not me. This is not my coat”.
What you’ve just read is an expanded version of something I wrote in 2011 as part of a collective dossier around Alain Bergala’s wonderful book, The Cinema Hypothesis (2002). In it, Bergala writes about the formative experience in which a child or teenager discovers a film that will be forever an essential part of his or her life. He calls this type of experience an “intimate revelation”.
But what is a revelation, really? The word has a strong religious connotation that seems confirmed by Bergala’s own autobiographical case: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) and, particularly, the scene of the parting of the Red Sea (a miracle, no less). But, elsewhere, he has clarified that, for him, the shock experienced with this scene was not associated with the power of religion, but with “the marvelous”: “I didn’t have a religious education […] My family did not go to mass, and all that. But, suddenly, the shock of the miracle of CinemaScope, of colour, burst forth. What happened there had something to do with the sacred – even if, at that time, I could not conceptualise what the sacred was. But, because of this scene, the sacred suddenly had to do with cinema.”
I have this image of a revelation: as the veil falls, the thing revealed rises up and stands out, while everything else washes away. However, as much as I like this image, it obscures something crucial: a revelation doesn’t stand alone, pure and isolated, in a vacuum. A revelation, like everything else, is always in relation with something else. Bergala, for instance, sees a link between the early shock experienced with The Ten Commandments and his later interest in the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Roberto Rossellini (films that are sometimes described as revelatory). I, too, see the link between The Double Life of Véronique, my own inner/outer experiences of sameness/otherness, and spectatorship. That’s why I wrote about the revelation in the way I did, in stages; it’s no whim!
So, we may call a revelation this experience of sudden illumination where something hitherto hidden manifests itself. But this direct and instantaneous understanding, of which we are the mere recipients, happens only by making contact with something other than the revelation and its own time. It matters little – well, it does matter, but not for my discussion – if this experience is regarded as some sort of annunciation as in the case of Bergala (who was a child when it happened), or if it is seen as playing an intermediate role as in my case (which took place in adolescence). The thing is: whatever may be revealed (which, moreover, we tend to find difficult to name or describe, so we end up circling around it for pages and pages) draws from its pasts and futures in order to forge paths. A revelation is only truly grasped in a backward-forward movement, for it is always enmeshed in a continuous process of sense-making where different pieces find (or don’t find) a place in relation to each other. The other name for that process, by the way, is living.