"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

CINEMA PSYCHODRAME (7)/Berlinale 2019 - I Was at Home, But (Angela Schanelec)

Sunday, 28 April 2019 10:23

James Lattimer

The Comma, The Three Dots, The But

Ariane visits the library in The Dreamed Path and something shatters. The pieces lie on the floor, jagged shards of glass, it’s hard to see how they could ever have fitted together, but they did, although the side of the bookcase they formed is never seen. Philip and Flo wrestle on the bed in I Was at Home, But and something shatters. The pieces of green china lie on the floor in the other room, beneath the table, next to a bare foot, it’s hard to see how they could ever have fitted together, but they did, although there was nothing green on the table before.


Each film is made up of similar pieces itself and fitting them together is key, there’s no shot of the pristine bookcase, no shot of the complete vessel, the blueprint, if you can even call it that, appears in the mind and perhaps only in retrospect. Its shifting lines intersect based on a similar logic to that which links the two scenes: the connection is self-evident, but its meaning is not; all that can be said is that it exists, that it is there. Commonality thus doesn’t preclude difference, even dissonance, and each link is to be made freely, although the more you look, the more you find and accumulation is inevitable. It’s like the previous film and this one: they both come in pieces, but the pieces are not the same, different parts and fragments bring about different combinations, produce new effects, form themselves into fresh shapes.


SchanelecPhilip comes back at dawn, his coat so caked with dirt that the woman at the cleaner’s says it may never come out. He was long enough away for his little toe to get infected; later, in summer, in the small river, when he carries Flo on his back, it’s no longer there. His mother Astrid buys a bicycle from a man who needs a machine to speak; she buys a new saddle, the gears jam, she lays it in the undergrowth by the side of the road before returning it to him to complain; he will call later to say it’s fixed. The man in the street is wheeling a bicycle too when she meets him before the supermarket, the film director who gave the presentation at the university, who made the film with the dancers, with the dying woman, they talk, they disagree, she speaks far more than he does.


The teachers at Philip’s school discuss his absence and its consequences, although hardly anyone has anything to say, they seldom even move, even when Astrid appears; the only time they seem animated is when parrying with plastic swords. One of their number, Lars, is with Claudia, they go to a gallery together, they see the moon over St Mark’s Square, they are often silent. He wants a child but she sees no sense in it, she speaks of being aware all the creatures in the world, of loneliness, a mission, of being ready. The children at the school are rehearsing Hamlet, they perform in classrooms or out in the open, their costumes are rudimentary, improvised, a veil, a plastic sword, a crown made from a tin can, they bang on tables, they stare into space, there are no adults. There’s also the boy at the supermarket, his crown is of paper, not silver, but gold, it sparkles among the leaves, on the earth, by the river. And then there are the animals, also in the summer, the rabbit, the donkey, the dog, its moving chest.


When Astrid speaks to the teachers, she says there’s no word to describe the state of being and becoming at the same time, however visible it might be. She’s talking about Philip, his development into a man, but she could equally be describing all the pieces, their structure, their nature. If being is stasis and becoming is narrative, they tend to trace out something in between and it is indeed hard to describe what exactly that is: everyday tasks of an inexplicable weight, conversations that meander away from their original subjects, dramatic units that build in intensity without reaching the final performance, chase scenes curtailed, screaming arguments no longer mentioned, children out on the street. It’s not that things don’t happen or changes don’t occur, it’s just that the wider trajectory they belong to is elided and the focus lies elsewhere, on a sensation, a configuration, a silence waiting to be broken, a shifting mood, whether wry, melancholy, or despairing, always multi-valent, never one thing at a time.


Some of the overlaps between the pieces are obvious, they proceed from Astrid’s life and spread out to encompass those around her, but other connections are not, they curl their way around things that otherwise wouldn’t touch and pull them together, though never too tightly. Like the link between the bookcase and the green vessel, the imperative of each connection is that it is there and nothing more, although accumulation is inevitable. When Claudia talks of not wanting a child, of the inevitability of loneliness, she could almost be some past version of Astrid, her fears proven right in the present. When she talks of all the creatures in the world, she could equally be referring to a rabbit or a quail; as the dog lies next to the donkey in the grey light, the only thing in motion is its ribcage as it breathes, just like Astrid’s chest after she flings her arms around Philip’s legs upon his return.


Other overlaps derive from how reality intermingles with representation: the arrangement of the teachers around the table in the staff room could be plucked from a stage-set, their languid answers scripted, perhaps even more so than what the pupils in the classrooms say as they hold the makeshift props; two swordfights, one playful, one serious, adults and children, acting and real life. The first scene to be performed from Hamlet is the play within the play, it’s not a coincidence. Philip plays the Prince of Denmark, albeit without a crown; yet when he is fallen, a crown is there among the leaves in the very next scene, the one worn by the boy from the supermarket, who like him, is now stretched out on the ground; two boys, two princes, one still lost, one already found, a tragedy, its end?


There are also the moons, in words, in images, the first of which barely audible; when Philip sings Moon River to Flo to lull her to sleep, to comfort her as he will do again, it’s little more than a murmur, as if still being heard from the corridor outside where Astrid waits. It’s easy to overhear the mention of moonlight in the song that starts playing in the cemetery too, itself a version of a song by someone else, because the scene never stops shifting, from the body stretched out on the ground before the gravestone, to the quail moving around between her arms, to the three dancers before the hospital bed, undulating hands, hands stretched out, to the night sky, a single star and a bird in flight, to two paintings, two moons, Astrid, Claudia and Lars, a grieving face behind glass, serious moonlight. Gestures, moods, sensations, silences that could so easily be disparate, but aren’t, they wrap themselves around one another, they work their way into a shape.


The same thing is happening elsewhere too, all the time, in fact, like when Astrid bumps into the film director before the supermarket, he wheels his bike as they talk. She speaks far more than he does, drawing lines between different moods, different subjects, subjects that might seem disparate if the conversation didn’t unfold as one continuous flow, curling its way around things that otherwise wouldn’t touch and pulling them together. She says that acting, acting in theatre, acting in film, is liberation but also deceit, that actors never perform out of an imperative, they are always in control, although losing it is everything, as she herself will do in the very next scene, it’s about becoming nothing but body, maybe that is only possible when death is near. She talks of how meaning is constructed in art, how different things come together and are transformed, she thinks it should occur based on experience and never just ideas. Her words could seem overly theoretical, but there’s a tension, even desperation in how they come out, she talks too of stretching out on the earth to sleep and of one day returning to it; before they part, she says she feels like she’s going mad.


All this talk is seemingly inspired by the one scene from the director’s film that she actually saw, but it could have been set in motion by this film too. The director says she should have watched the film to the end and maybe the conversation would have been different as a result, but this one, the film works differently anyway, it’s hardly about a simple movement from start to finish, but rather about the sum total of all the connections, links, intersections, crossed lines, accumulation is inevitable, yes, but what shape does that produce? It’s as hard to describe as everything else, no one element remains unconnected to the rest and the structure is fluid, coherent, even robust, but there’s a gap nonetheless. They all seem to want to avoid forming a centre, preserve an empty space, stay suspended around the hole that could stand for so many things and contain them too: starting with the comma, the three dots, the but.



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