Sunday, 10 May 2009

Bleak Moments

The title, Bleak Moments (1971), is as accurate a two-word description of the general feeling and tone of the finished film that one could ever hope to find; expressing, at its most basic, the feelings of hopelessness and desperation that accumulate throughout the course of the film as these characters simply pass the time in their cramped, domestic living-spaces, looking out at a world in the hope of finding the warmth and colour of everyday life, only to find instead the sad rejection and emptiness of their own situations reflected back at them. It is the endless spiral of social anxiety presented at its most unforgiving, as each attempt to break out of this kind of self-imposed purgatory and confront the boundaries of life head-on leads only to more embarrassment and failure; where the only respite is those brief moments when the characters find the time to take their minds off the gruelling responsibilities or anticipations of life and just think.

Described on its initial release by Roger Ebert as a "new kind of movie", one that "considers, with almost frightening perceptiveness, the ways people really behave towards each other", Bleak Moments would mark the arrival of the now-highly acclaimed director Mike Leigh, who developed the film - his first film for cinema - from his earlier stage-production of the same name. Although one could argue that as a complete picture this debut film lacks much of Leigh's later creative subtly and that sense of the sweetness of life to undercut the more uncomfortable feelings of quiet desperation so central to the lives of his characters and the various situations that they have been placed in, we can at least recognise the typical Leigh aesthetic in the mining of everyday life to create the parameters of engaging drama, or perhaps in the entirely convincing performances of his actors, who embody these roles, largely because they were able to develop them alongside the director, living these lives and drawing on their own experiences to make the actions of the characters and the pain that they feel all the more believable.

In keeping with the greater emphasis on character interaction the plot is incredibly straightforward. Essentially a brief snapshot into the life of Sylvia (Anne Raitt), a lonely secretary who shares her suburban home with a disabled sister, Hilda (Sarah Stephenson), who she is expected to offer round the clock supervision to, often at the expense of her own happiness or social satisfaction. Her downtime, if any, is spent entertaining her ditzy friend and co-worker Pat (Joolia Cappleman) or, if possible, attempting to forge a relationship with the shy grammar school teacher Peter (Eric Allen), who drifts in and out of her life. There is also the character of the lodger, Norman (Mike Bradwell), a shy young man, head-down, hair covering his face and further muffling his already softly-spoken northern accent, who lives in a makeshift bedsit in the character's garage where he alternates between printing fliers for his bosses at work or strumming out yearning folk songs on his battered old guitar.

Bleak Moments directed by Mike Leigh, 1971:

These characters meet regularly but rarely speak, choosing instead to linger on the fringes of the frame, making pained attempts at conversation that go nowhere. To accentuate the discomfort of these scenes, the shots are allowed to play out for what seems like an eternity; establishing a particular rhythm that perfectly underlines that feeling of the awkward - why didn't I say it - sense of inarticulate longing. Expressing perfectly that failure to express through the recognisable pattern of failed conversation - the think, open mouth, a sigh, a false start, conversation stalling, think again, a look, a nod of approval, an uttered word, hushed and mumbled, a pause, a false start, a look of confusion - repeating itself until the words begin to take shape. In this vision of loneliness and repressed desperation the whole film becomes suffocating to watch; with that think and heavy, pregnant with the anticipation of something mood never alleviating throughout its stifling 111 minute running time, as the accretion of these bleak moments creates a depressing and overwhelming effect.

Bleak Moments directed by Mike Leigh, 1971:

Ebert defined this quality as such: "Bleak Momentsis not entertaining in any conventional way. This is not to say for a moment that it is boring or difficult to watch; on the contrary, it is impossible not to watch. [But] This movie deals so basically with the pain and utter frustration of life that we may, after all, find it too much to take." It is in this almost searing social-anguish, as this collection of characters attempt to co-exist in the everyday world, though ill-equipped to deal with the various pitfalls as a result of their own self-conscious quirks and idiosyncrasies, that the characteristics of the film is defined. Not simply in terms of the general structure of scenes or the goals and ambitions of these characters, but in the actual putrid air that Leigh is able to create through his presentation of rooms haunted by characters unable or unwilling to interact with life; all the while being crippled and torn apart by their repressed feelings of guilt, love, longing and loss, all brought painfully into focus in the numerous extended sequences of uncomfortable silence and embarrassing personal confession.

In this respect, the film is as much a social chronicle of a certain kind of lifestyle as it is a dramatisation, presented in a densely atmospheric, heavily stylised and deeply austere cinematic manner, in which every tool at Leigh's disposal is used to prolong the quiet suffering of these characters and their endless days of drift and nothing. Although there is a sense of humour to certain aspects - the particular absurdity of situations and the natural comedy of life as characters crack jokes or cringe at their own suffering faux pas' - the film remains much more serious in tone than many of Leigh's more widely seen films: with the general feeling being closer to something like Meantime (1984) or Naked (1993), though even that was marked by Johnny's (David Thewlis) constant quips and puns. Like those films, the drama of Bleak Moments is captured within an exhausting, highly minimalist mise en scene that recalls the Fassbinder of Why Does Herr. R Run Amok? (Warum läuft Herr R. Amok?, 1970), the Bergman of Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop, 1972) and the Pialat of La Gueule ouverte (The Slack-Jawed Mug, 1974); where the location and production design and the closeness between characters unable to feel intimacy is explored.

From this, there's no escape for Sylvia, who tires valiantly to connect with the shy Peter and the lodging Norman, but finds both men too damaged or too introvert to really get to grips with. The drama reaches an apex with two of the most painful scenes of Leigh's cinema to date. In the first scene, Sylvia and Peter go for a meal at an over-lit, largely vacant Chinese restaurant. Once there, Peter becomes agitated, berating the snooty waiter over trivial reactions and off-setting the atmosphere with his constant, ill-at-ease scowl. As the evening progresses the couple barely speak; with Sylvia instead left to ponder and observe the solitary serenity of the restaurants only other customer, who sits huddled in the corner, happy in the company of himself. This scene acts as the catalyst for the second scene, in which the couple go back to Sylvia's house for coffee and chat. During the scene, the sense of desperation welling up within Sylvia comes close to breaking point, as she confesses her desires for Peter and extends an invitation to bed. Peter, affronted and somewhat disgusted at such baseless, brazen provocation, leaves; making a painful, humiliating and emotionally raw sequence all the more heartbreaking.

Bleak Moments directed by Mike Leigh, 1971:

Throughout the film these characters attempt as best they can to improved their social situation, but instead, end up repeating the same mistakes ad infinitum. In achieving the requisite emotional pull from this cold and loveless film, Leigh's genius, apparent even at this early stage of his career, is to allow his actors the room to move between the different emotional shades, letting the characters drift from moments of cold resentment to painful longing, often within the confines of a single scene. To emphasise this feeling, the direction of the film, in the technical sense, seems intent on stripping away all (if any) of the extraneous baggage that might reduce these situations to the level of mere melodrama; with Leigh muting the colours of the costumes and production design to the level or near monochrome, so that these characters are quite literally existing, or attempting to exist, in this grey and depressing milieu.

This particular aspect is brilliantly defined by Fernando F. Croce who evocatively describes "figures shambling down overcast London streets with leafless trees, or pinned against greenish domestic interiors." Leigh exaggerates this by reducing the score to the brief acoustic interludes of Norman, as he spends his nights cocooned in Sylvia's garage, plucking and strumming his guitar as the world continues to turn. In these scenes one may feel oddly compelled to describe the mood as 'intimate', and yet it becomes clear very early into the film that these characters are incapable of experiencing such frank, emotional honesty. The only characters that seem free from these rigid and soul destroying social restraints are Sylvia's sister Hilda, whose mental disorder offers a certain ignorance to the pressures of everyday life, and the mother of Sylvia's workmate Pat, who is forced to spend her life cooped up in bed, oblivious to the social climate of the time.