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Knowing the limits
Death and distance in French film at the San Francisco International Film Festival
Despite the frequent artificiality and intrusiveness of death as a plot device, Felicitas Becker finds that recent French film knows how to keep a respectful distance when dealing with the subject.
The death of a protagonists is among the most common plot devices in cinema, not only in films where the body count is part of the attraction. This is the case to such an extent that the spectator may hardly take notice of how much dying actually takes place on cinema screens.
Nevertheless, deaths that serve only to take the plot forward can be obtrusive and irritating. A common example in this category is a certain type of flawed character in mainstream films who are only put there in order to die a spectacular and somehow redemptive death further down the line. Their obvious expendability, the mark of cinematic death upon them, makes them from the start an unpleasant reminder of the cynicisms of plot construction. Still, they represent the unusual case of a strong cliché in the world of cinema that has no equivalent in real life.
Films that take a protagonist's death as a cinematic event (rather than a gateway between other events involving the essential, surviving players in a plot) are however understandably rare. After all, dying is an experience inaccessible to the living, and its outcome, the corpse, is rather a non-event, characterised by a lack of movement and response.
The difficulty of representing death is one artistic problem which film shares with literature, though their reasons differ: For literature, the main one is that death means the end of consciousness, of subjectivity, which is literature's stock-in-trade. For the visual medium of film, the problem lies in representing a transition whose main interest, in spite of its biological nature, lies in its effect on the mind.
The common ways out are through exaggeration of the physical event of dying—the well-known kind of cinema death practised already by little boys when playing cops and robbers—or through symbolic representation which avoids the moment of physical death altogether. Dying on screen is hence of necessity a stylised affair, even for the expendable bodies in mainstream film, which are choreographed and governed by a multitude of conventions.
Moreover, while death is incomprehensible and the dead are inaccessible, both are of great significance to the living. To say that a film was about death is normally imprecise; death as a subject matter fractures into the mental and physical process of dying and into its innumerable effects on the living, including fear, acceptance and loss. These ramifications of the subject together with the need for stylised representation mark out the enormous difficulty of dealing with death in the cinema.
At the San Francisco International Film Festival in April of this year, however, several films dealt with the challenge remarkably well. All of them formed part of the strong French contingent at the festival. A special platform for French cinema had been planned while relations between France and the US were deteriorating. With the war going on, it became a manifesto of sorts for the liberal mindset San Franciscans pride themselves on. Stories of French participants being jibed at in the city circulated in half-whispers through the festival offices. Audiences and organisers, in turn, made a point of being particularly welcoming. Michel Ciment of Positif, the man responsible for the French film programme, and his French guests reciprocated by remaining upbeat and eloquent throughout.
Up front and held back
In Patrice Chereau's Son frère (His Brother, 2003), fatal illness, serving as a catalyst for the rapprochement between two estranged brothers, is bang on screen from the first shot, with the pale and meagre figure of the dying brother. The entire film has the physicality which so shocked the British press in Chereau's last film, Intimacy (2001). The sick man's bruises, his scars, his nosebleed, the matter-of-fact nakedness of the hospital patient, it is all up there.
The older brother's death, however, is not; with the younger brother, the spectator is left to wait whether his last swim in the sea will be fatal. Unlike him, we get no glimpse of the corpse. Chereau's camera knows where to stop and maintains an essential distance. It also knows that intimacy is not only in nakedness, vide the scenes where the younger brother enters his sibling's flat to get his things for the hospital. The empty living space, the tokens of vanity under the bathroom mirror, the jumpers lined up in the wardrobe, are in their way as revealing as the naked body—of the fragile routines of life.
In Patrice Leconte's L'homme du train (The Man on the Train, 2002), on the other hand, death is nowhere in sight at the start, merely hinted at in the shape of a few old-fashioned pistols. Instead, the film dwells on a social and personal contrast: an over-reflective, run-at-the-mouth schoolmaster, surrounded by the most select trappings of his bourgeois tradition, and a sullen, silent, unkempt aspiring bank-robber with a half-empty duffel bag over his shoulder. Much of the charm of the film lies in the schoolmaster's determination to participate vicariously in his guest's unregulated life, and the latter's faltering appreciation of his host's high-brow tastes. Later on, though, both the characters are dying on-screen, with splattered blood and bleeping machines in typical cinema fashion. They don't, however, get as far as giving up the ghost with cameras running; the conclusion of the classical stage death is missing. Instead, in their last moments the two men seem to hover in a no man's land where their lives get jumbled up in a series of speculative, plot-less and wordless images.
In Abderrahmane Sissako's Waiting for Happiness (2002), a Mauritanian-French production, death is woven effortlessly into a loose fabric of incidents and images. The film is very beautiful, not only because its location is perched between desert and sea, but even more because the director uses the simple architecture of the desert town so well. It is a film of tiny episodes and few words that presents its corpses as lightly and matter-of-fact as the living, and still conveys the impact death has on them.
One man gives up his attempt to enter Europe when the dead body of another man who tried is washed up on the beach; a little boy is prompted by the death of his foster father into a desperate attempt to leave for a bigger town and a job as electrician. The boy's attempt to wake up his dead parent by singing him a song that used to annoy him is a lasting image of the incomprehension of the living in the face of death.
There is a parallel of sorts between Son frère and L'homme du train in that both films in different ways construe death, or rather, impending death, as a last chance: of reconciliation with each other to Chereau's brothers, with one's unlived dreams for Leconte's odd couple. A more significant similarity, meanwhile, connects all three films. Although they include opposite approaches to putting death on screen in that Leconte draws out the physical act of dying while the other two directors avoid it altogether, all of them depend their use of silence and gaze as a means to make their films work.
The transition from a vague anticipation of possible death to actual dying is marked out in L'homme du train by the chatty schoolmaster's incessant voice falling silent, by the replacement of words with a faltering melody. The tectonic shifts in the relationship between the brothers in Son frère happen in between sentences as much as through them, and their farewell is wordless. The strongest scene in Son frère has the younger brother watching, in complete silence, as nurses prepare his older brother's body for surgery. He does all one can ever do on the occasion of another's dying: look on. It is an image of helplessness, but also of acceptance. The helplessness and distance of the onlookers characterise the encounters between living and dead in Waiting for Happiness. In L'homme du train, on the other hand, it is in the eyes of the dying men that the last life flickers, in a mixture of helplessness and surprise. In gazes, not in words, lies the most elementary consciousness.
The point was illustrated, by way of contrast, in the second of Lucas Belvaux's trilogy of films Cavale (On the run, 2002), Un couple épatant (An Amazing Couple, 2002) and Après la vie (After life, 2002). In Un couple épatant, a middle-aged professional becomes obsessed with the idea that he might be fatally ill. The thought drives him to cultivate, in a hyperbolic fashion, the heightened, emotional subjectivity said to accompany the anticipation of death—by sharing his musings on loneliness, fear and so on, as well as his ever-changing provisions for his will, with his dictaphone. The effect is hilarious. Wordiness in the face of death provides Belvaux's trilogy with some its funniest moments. It is not the only time Belvaux uses death to good effect in these films, though it would spoil the surprise to say more. In different ways, all three of them muse about it, if in passing.
Chereau's, Leconte's and Sissako's films could not be said to represent a unified approach to death on screen. Each one of them has its own carefully crafted balance, following diverging interests with diverging means. But silent gazes, the marking out of the limits of words which only Sissako's little boy refuses to resign himself to, are characteristic of them. Actually, they are much less about death than about the way the living respond and relate to death, and to the dead. They enable an appreciation of an essential element in this relationship: irreducible distance.
In his obituary for Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot remembered the respect for distance, a voluntary silence, on which their friendship thrived, and contrasted it with the enforced estrangement following his death. Similarly, these films are reminders that the dead are inaccessible and inactive, and that as living people ultimately the spectators' interest lies with the survivors. As the camera avoids or swings away from the dead or dying, the film reproduces in a small way the experience of those who have lost someone to death, of having to let go.
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