Friday, 30 April 2010

Cries and Whispers

Ria Munk On Her Deathbed by Gustav Klimt, 1912:

Death in the Sickroom by Edvard Munch, 1895:

Perhaps the most striking thing about Cries and Whispers, beyond the actual look of the film, is the incredible use of silence to draw out that particular evocation of characters waiting for the inevitable. It is within these prolonged moments of images robbed of sound that the filmmaker is able to establish the sense of confinement; of characters disengaged, not only from the family or from the people closest to them, but somehow disconnect from their own emotional responses to these events as they unfold. It is through this continual near-silence that Bergman creates a suitably clandestine environment for this claustrophobic chamber film to develop; fully aware that any brief release of emotion, any spilled secret or slip of the mask, will resonate throughout the house and through the barriers that have formed between these distant characters haunted by the past.

The silence of Cries and Whispers could be taken as a deliberate obstruction, as disarming - in the sense of engaging the film through the greater lives of these characters - as the Brechtian elements of previous Bergman dramas like Persona (1966) or A Passion (En Passion, 1969); two films in which the director succeeded in placing the audience at an arm's length, aware of the situation and privy to the reactions of the characters and the drama that surrounds them, but also transfixed by the filmmaking technique and how it relates explicitly to the fate of these lives that drift in the balance. It could also be seen as a way of keeping the audience observant; misdirecting us as to what might actually happen, and thus creating a palpable tension; where the build up to a certain scene is prolonged to the point of almost abstract absurdity as we spend the first few minutes of the film hoping and waiting for someone to speak, or some sound beyond that of the distant ticking clock and all its mocking allusions to time and of life slowly slipping away, to break through and offer some sort of respite from the strangulating despair that Bergman carefully creates.

When the silence does break - finally stirring with the early morning light to fracture this impenetrable wall of stillness - it is not a note of hope or of comfort, but instead a scream of pain and anguish: the first suffering cry before the inevitable unravelling of thoughts, feelings and deceits that eventually unfold.

Cries and Whispers directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

The titles of Bergman's films were always incredibly descriptive, giving the potential audience a sense of the central theme of the film or the particular physical or psychological malady that plagued his central characters, but also defining a tone. Blunt and descriptive titles like Shame (Skammen, 1966), The Touch (Beröringen, 1971) and Face to Face (Ansikte mot ansikte, 1976) to name only a select few, get to the very core of the drama in a way that covers both the physical and emotional perspectives of his protagonists. Much like the title of this film, which again creates a suggestion in the mind of the potential audience as to what kind of film they could expect - Cries and Whispers, or from the literal Swedish translation, Whispers and Cries - in which the slow-death of the middle-aged Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is contrasted against the thoughts, fears and regrets of her sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann), and her maid turned personal carer Anna (Kari Sylwan), as the ghosts of the past chatter about this bleak house and we, as an audience, try to make sense of the thing.

It is the combination of sounds and silence - and the spaces between words that say so much more than conventional dialog ever could - that coerce us through this tragedy. Maintaining that incredibly numbing atmosphere, filled with illness and disease, Bergman envisions a painful world where the death-rattle choke of Agnes speaks volumes, not only about her own character, but of the feelings of the other three women who tend to her draconian-like deathbed. As is often the case with Bergman, the drama here is localised mostly to a single location; in this case a large family manor house in the autumnal Swedish countryside, where characters congregate in some kind of seclusion, plagued by the many sinful, unspoken and embarrassing secrets that seem to permeate from the guilt and despair of these three very different women. It is this sense of inner pain that embodies the house with a shocking red hue, offering the fairly obvious though no less powerful associations to the colour or blood, the colour of sickness and the colour of rage.

No. 14, 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960:

Cries and Whispers directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

The continual image of black and white-clad figures against a backdrop of piercing deep reds is near iconic within the Bergman filmography, combing that visualisation of a particular shared psychological space that is only broken at the end of the film, when a pastoral garden scene offers some kind of relief or reflection of how things were, or how things could have been. There is also the continual device of the fade to red; a fairly novel use of a scene punctuation/transition, which not only announces the movements between memory and reality, but in some way further stresses the idea of characters being swallowed up by the acrid stench of death that clings to them. This approach, combined with Bergman's extraordinary use of the close-up shot, creates an experience that is all the more punishing; as each full-face composition offers the audience the opportunity to study these characters, their faces and the look of fear or duplicity in their worried eyes, and cast judgement or pity upon them as we see it.

It also allows us to study the performances of these four female leads - Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Kari Sylwan and Liv Ullman - who each give superlative performances as these women dealing with the passing of time, memory and death, and their reactions to all of the above. In this sense, the use of silence is much more notable, not only for its element of deconstructing the natural rhythm that we might normally expect, but in the way in which it establishes the mood of tragedy, of the pre-mortem and post-mortem limbo that traps these characters in tortured suffocation, infusing the very core of the film's visual identity and the way that we, as an audience, interpret it.

Cries and Whispers directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972:

Unknown by ?:

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The Book of Mary

On the soundtrack, a dialogue between a man and a woman plays out against an aural backdrop of exaggerated birdsong effects. An accompanying montage of images establishes the central location - an affluent, neatly furnished house overlooking Lake Geneva - and the more important presentation of the "home" in the purely traditional, theoretical sense of the word. By beginning the film with the argument at its most pitiless, establishing the discordance of the family relationship and the general disharmony of the central character's turbulent home life - and therefore personifying the dialogue through the particular iconography of the domestic milieu - writer/director Anne-Marie Miéville brilliantly cuts right to the very core of this subtle yet entirely enriching story; perfectly illustrating the very obvious notion that every home tells a story, specifically when such stories, like recollections of a certain event, are recalled from the memory of a child.

In The Book of Mary (Le livre de Marie, 1984), the effect of divorce on the life of a precocious young girl, who hides the trauma of her parent's separation by disappearing into the imagined worlds of books and music, is captured by Miéville with an uncompromising rigour that places the characters at a distance from the audience, stressing a kind of detached observation. Through the flat, locked-off compositions, in which the camera records, unobtrusively, often cutting between short conversational vignettes that establish the particular post-break-up mindset of the family as a whole, the director creates a sense of reality, closer to documentary than fiction, where these over-the-kitchen-table-top discussions between the family-unity have a feeling of unrehearsed, emotional spontaneity. However, through this approach, Miéville is able to extract a greater truth from the material without the usual manipulation or gimmickry that directors exploit when making films about family dysfunction or childhood in general; offering a feeling of empathy and understanding for her characters, simply by giving them the room to grow and develop naturally over the course of the film.

Through the opening sequence of shots, with the suggestion of time passing from night to early morning - while the camera picks out and focuses on these seemingly innocuous everyday domestic items of flower arrangements, vases and table-top ornaments - Miéville brings to mind, perhaps superficially, the opening sequence of director Michelangelo Antonioni's great masterwork L'eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962). Both films begin with the break-up of a couple in the early hours of the morning, where the discussion between the characters is framed by the iconography of the location and the relics of the home. However, whereas Antonioni has his camera explore this location, framing his characters within it in a way that both obscures and reveals the various push/pull dynamics of their central relationship, Miéville has her dialogue take place over mostly empty frames, further pointing towards that suggestion of the absentee family, and again the sense of the recollection of an event as seen through the eyes of a child.

As is often the case in life, the disagreements between husband and wife/father and mother aren't always seen by children, but are heard or felt; they're experienced from behind closed doors, or drowned out, partially, by the general cacophony of the radio or the television set. These static images of a house, largely vacant, suggest the power of these objects as subconscious recording devices. If these walls could talk, people say... referring to the story behind each accumulated piece of furniture, or the particular mark of time that clings to them. In any relationship, we gather shared objects and attach a meaning to them; a picture purchased on the morning of an argument, a keepsake bought on the night of the first kiss, etc. These objects/images hold a story. However, they also create a larger narrative: the story of the various human beings that inhabit this domestic space, and define it.

Miéville, like her more famous partner/collaborator Jean-Luc Godard, seems interested in the relationship between men and women and the roles that they play: in this instance, both as facilitators in their own happiness or unhappiness, as well as in the notion of parents with a shared responsibility. This idea runs throughout the film, complementing the more immediate story of the young girl, while also adding a psychological depth to the quiet anguish of the marital situation. The story, in this sense, is anchored by three sequences of family interaction. The first, a roundtable discussion, in which the notion of the "fatal truth" is suggested by a line of dialogue that recalls Woody Allen: "Nothing can stay the same. When a thing stops moving, it's dead!" The second and third of these scenes explore the relationship between the girl and her parents: first, lounging in the bathtub with her mother, attempting to recall the "strength of love", which is "impossible without going backwards", and later working on a homework assignment with her dad.

These scenes show that, despite the volatile situation with the couple, both mum and dad are committed to raising and looking after their child; that this relationship isn't just a caricature, or something like Varda's Le bonheur (Happiness, 1965), where the characters exist for the purpose of social commentary and little else, but something that is real and entirely believable. Therefore, these three people, the mother, father and daughter, become like the geometric shapes that Le Père draws on his daughter's homework assignment; the jagged lines that change direction by forming a new angle where two lines meet.

The 'battle of the sexes'-type call and response of the earlier scenes perhaps remind us, to some extent, of the work of Godard, despite the fact that these characters have a weight and a responsibility that his own characters often don't. In a Godard film, the central protagonists usually possess a youthful exuberance; a naivety that exaggerates the emotional spontaneity of people that exist on the knife's edge of a sensation, turning every embrace into the last embrace, every kiss into the kiss of death. In The Book of Mary, these characters, as a family, are real and convincing. We believe that this man and this woman have loved for long enough and that the responsibilities of the home and the cultivation of a comfortable middle-class existence has taken some of the initial shine and vitality off a relationship that Godard may have depicted through the chaos of l'amour fou. These are tired characters already at the end of something. Even when Godard depicts the decline of a relationship, as he does in nearly all of his films, he's still at the beginning of things. There's no end for his characters. Even if some kind of climax can be found in the romanticised self-destruction of his protagonists; Tis better to have loved and lost... et cetera.

Miéville herself acknowledges this connection in an early scene in which we see Mary, in a tableau-vivant composition, watching, on a small portable television set, a pan and scan copy of Godard's early masterpiece Le mépris (Contempt, 1963). The full 'scope of Godard's images torn apart by the home video restrictions of the early 1980s, dislocating the two characters even further from one another, reducing them to single figures in a 1.37:1 frame, while this bickering between rooms, both here and on the television, is once again soundtracked - this time less obviously - by the beautiful music of Georges Delerue. It draws a line, self-consciously, from one movie to the next, revealing the enormous if subtle differences between these two great filmmakers, whilst also, on a more important level, showing how the subtext of these arguments are changed from the playful to the destructive once the wellbeing of a child becomes at risk.

[The world turned upside-down]

In the film's most famous sequence, Mary, having spent the day in the company of her separated parents - first the mother, then the father - comes home to the empty house, with its open doors and its brightly lit spaces, and puts a record on. Almost immediately, she begins to act out the music, the sensation of it; the rush of feeling, overwhelming both the character and the audience, and giving us that burst of actual, physical expression that we so desperately needed. As a sequence, it functions on a similar level to the extraordinary scene in the Leos Carax film Mauvais sang (Bad Blood/The Night is Young, 1986), where the character played by Denis Lavant is compelled into action by the sound of David Bowie's then contemporary hit single Modern Love. The music burns a hole through this character, placing his feelings into a greater perspective, and turning his movements, both jubilant and terrifying, into a kind of expression.

Like Lavant in that subsequent film, the child cannot put into words the hurly-burly of this situation. This is what makes the experience of childhood so unusual; we can't always understand or appreciate the position we're in. Things might affect us on a profound level, either at the time or much later in life, but we can nonetheless escape into worlds, through words and music, or games of imagined fantasy. As the notes of Symphony No. 2 by Gustav Mahler start up on the stereo, the power of the music is enough to kick-start a spark of life that allows this young character to articulate her feelings of confusion or tragedy through the literal movements of the music. The sound of these instruments together, creating melodies that we can attach ourselves to, becomes a different kind of facilitator; a means of transcending the dreariness of her own reality. The character, wearing her emotions down to nothing, until there's no more expression; no more movement or emotion left to convey.

At this point, the character chooses to play dead (like Björk, " stops the hurting"), and we sense that the weight of feeling conveyed in this dance of death has been enough to exorcise those feelings of hopelessness and confusion. The child is reborn. The end of the film suggests, not so much the beginning of a new chapter - the family surrogated, rebuilt, again, as in the Varda film aforementioned - but in the sense that things will continue on, still fractured, still somewhat up in the air, but now these characters at least have a clarity enough to cope with the confusion. In describing The Book of Mary, one critic writes: "There is something of Rossellini in this project, which is modest and ambitious at the same time. The film attains a dry and pure emotion, and a new truth, about the end of childhood." The description perfectly explains the strengths of Miéville's presentation, which is absolutely to the point, and yet filled with subtle depths, textures and nuances, that transform a thing that could have easily been seen as rather distant and reserved, into something that is truly remarkable.