At the end of Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987), Damiel (Bruno Ganz) – the guardian angel turned human – meets Marion (Solveig Dommartin), the woman he’s fallen in love with. The scene is built on a long monologue, delivered by her, that will be filmed, almost entirely, from a single camera set-up. Upon watching the recently restored version of the film in a cinema, I was struck by a detail of which I didn’t have the slightest recollection: the incredible force of a cut that, midway in the scene, introduces an astonishing close-up of Marion.
The scene starts with Marion entering a sumptuous foyer and walking towards the bar. Muffled on the soundtrack, coming from the neighbouring concert hall, we hear the end of the song performed by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Its title, “From Her to Eternity”, rings as a prophetic annunciation of what is about to come. Damiel sits on a stool; Marion stands next to him. The camera is positioned at the back of the characters, at a certain distance. The interactions between Damiel and Marion are drawn-out, and have the weight of a liturgy: he takes his hat off and turns toward her, offering her his glass of wine; she takes it with both hands, as if it were a holy chalice, and drinks from it. While all this happens, the camera has started tracking in slowly — framing the couple in a profile, medium shot.
When Damiel tries to advance towards Marion, she stops him: “I must finally become serious …”. Her halting also puts an end to the tracking movement. The camera’s stillness plays an important role in the scene, reinforcing our concentration on the monologue, emboldening the interplay of minimal gestures between the couple. The actors’ performances hinge here on two of the most difficult actions that cinema may venture to convey: she recites (which belongs to a different register than merely talking or speaking); he listens (and if you ever want to know how it feels to be truly heard, just look at Bruno Ganz in this scene). When, after three minutes of speech, Wenders cuts to a different shot, this move takes us off-guard.
The strength of this gesture owes a lot to its unexpectedness, but also to the particulars of the shot introduced. Wings of Desire makes little use of close-ups and no use at all of a close-up of this kind: so extreme that the face of the actress takes up the entire screen. The economy of restraint practiced by Wenders during the two previous hours pays off. With this shot, I felt that I was watching Marion’s face for the first time, as if it were born at that very moment. The dreamy, green eyes and the trembling lips; the golden waves of her hair, magically lit; every facial feature that, with this sudden change of scale, looks fresh, bright, new; the beautiful detail of her earring – an angel’s wing.
Marion’s close-up lasts 40 seconds and coincides with the following section of her monologue: “The whole world is taking part, right now, in our decision. We’re more than just the two of us, now. We embody something. We are sitting in the People’s Square and the whole place is full of people with the same dream as ours. We are defining the game for everybody. I’m ready. Now, it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. It’s now or never.” As she recites these lines, looking directly at the camera, something quite charged happens. Her words don’t seem anymore addressed only to Damiel, but also to each one of us.
This breaking of the fourth wall, this kind of direct address to the viewer is frequently associated with an effect of distanciation whose purpose would be to make us aware of the fiction as such. But how inadequate is the official language of cinema (and the ready-made significations lazily associated with it) to account for what happens here …
In fact, there’s not an effect of distanciation proper. It’s not a matter of wrecking our involvement, of exposing the fiction’s illusion – but of carrying us on its wings, right inside its centre. Neither the scene nor the recitation is interrupted; rather, this moment weaves a perfect continuity between film and world, dissolving any separation between inside and outside the screen. Instead of a direct address, I’d talk about a double address because, while we can consider ourselves recipients of Marion’s speech, that doesn’t mean she stops speaking to Damiel. Actually, Marion never turns her face towards the spectator. It is us who, by virtue of the new camera set-up, are positioned between the two characters – coming to occupy the spot that we’ve so often seen taken by the angels. We become invisible witnesses of alien conversations that, nonetheless, concern us.
More than something to be understood, all this is to be primordially felt – if only we are ready to let the gestures of cinema speak to us.
In Wings of Desire, Marion is not just an artist of the trapeze; her artistry lies also in the ways she poeticises her own life. Throughout the film, we’ve heard Marion’s inner thoughts in a number of scenes: when she practises her trapeze act, when the circus leaves, when she’s alone and when she’s in company, in the caravan and outdoors. Between these inner thoughts and her final speech, there’s a strong consistency: in the language, in the logic of style, in the images created and the preoccupations addressed …
Solveig Dommartin has pointed out that her monologue was one of the few passages expressly written for Wings of Desire by Peter Handke, while her other discourses included some lines written by Wenders and others improvised by her, but mostly they were “an amalgam of sentences” from Handke’s 1977 book The Weight of the World that she herself had handpicked.
In this late scene, she hails “the new moon of decision” that has the power of turning coincidence into necessity; she rejects fate as something merely pre-written, pre-determined, and embraces it as something that must be fulfilled. “At last, it’s becoming serious. So, I’ve grown older. Was I the only one who wasn’t serious? Is it our times that aren’t serious? I’ve never been lonely, whether alone or with someone else. But I would have liked to be lonesome. Lonesomeness means I’m whole at last. Now I can say it, for tonight I’m lonesome at last.”
This is not how Marion speaks to men. This is how her soul speaks – as we should know from her many previous soul soliloquies. And it is because her soul speaks that Damiel inclines his ear toward her, as if hearing from within her, since this is the gesture performed by angels when they listen to the soul.
“Now, it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. It’s now or never”. When Marion utters these words, it is clear what she’s asking of Damiel. But what is she asking of us? Certainly not to go home with the first stranger we meet in a bar …
Her call is, above all, for us to acknowledge our angel, to take him (or her) in. For everything, in this film, is a matter of gravity and grace. And it is not enough that the angel descends to earth; the soul must also lift up. This is what turns falling in love into a serious, heightened affair – launching the personal, private romance into the orbit of myth: not an event happening in time, but “time itself”.