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.