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