Jeonju 2011

In Memoriam

Tales, a collaborative film by Saskia Gruyaert, Raya Martin and Antoine Thirion, is a fable of a girl and a ghost, filmed in the place of its name. Its prologue is a single image : a vast grey cumulus, oppressive to distant trees and close branches, hangs in stasis across the frame, halted and haunted. The shot, in its expansiveness, is suggestive of the sense of scale one finds in the landscape films of James Benning or Peter Hutton, but comparisons probably end there : this motionless vortex, like Tales itself, points to internal states, intangible conditions — not the grand opera of the world stretched out before the camera, but those subjective emotions the screen struggles to register, or often forgets. A second set-up renews the image at ground level : a girl (Gruyaert) sits at the wheel of a car, as still as the sky, branches reflected across the windscreen. She clutches the wheel, too tightly, and blinks repeatedly, too often. The shot is a play of surfaces, pitched at the revelation of hidden meaning : all it holds is the movement of the wind (that now archetypal index of the real), and all it points to is the very act of seeing : to blink again, or cling to a faltering reality.

The narrative is slight : a few events over the course of a day or two, maybe more, told with no need for the spoken word. The story is written, and the images that relate it are clear, unambiguous — a crisp edit, a close-up, or a lengthy dissolve is enough to suggest a continuum or ellipsis, events and the relations between them. A few intertitles do appear, but the film is not ‘silent’ like Martin’s Filipino history lessons — sound (be that of the night, the river, the road) is never withheld, or muted for an orchestral accompaniment. Its fiction is a simple one of anti-matter : a girl visits the country whilst mourning for her dead lover, passes the time alone, and listens for the afterlife. Her everyday activities dictate a sequence of events — drinking a glass of water, sitting under the sun, hanging out the washing, walking across an empty street on a clear afternoon — given over to minor details and quotidian (no)things : wind, leaves, liquids, cloth, weathered stone, fragile bodies. The first half almost resembles a light, pastoral Jeanne Dielman, and Gruyaert performs tasks in a mechanical, non-communicative manner, always occupied by a thought or solitude. Her actions are weighted by something unseen, marked by an emotion we cannot measure — a representation of the everyday rendered impersonal by the grief she bears.

One of Tales’s most striking sequences occurs at the halfway mark, under the antiseptic light of a small bathroom : the girl brushes her teeth whilst water pours from a tap into the sink, her routine motions forgetful of the present. Until this point, the sound of liquid has been gentle, fluid (the current of the river, the fountain in a town square), but here it is turbulent, unrelenting — the screen fills with a deluge of water, a torrent which renews the strangeness of the objects around her. Godard once spoke of how Hitchcock always gave a unique force to ordinary objects — a glass, a pair of spectacles, a draining plughole — and a similar effect is felt here : the pouring tap becomes a manifestation of trauma, fissuring the present and past. As the mirror on the wall fogs, obscuring the girl’s reflection, a slow dissolve to high-contrast clouds calls her to the woods. The video image turns murky, lit only by the barest shadow of the moon, and the world (scuttling branches, a river’s edge) finds its voice in the dark, haunted again. On the girl’s return, her dead lover appears, sitting before her at the edge of a bed — the shot is (too) plain, matter-of-fact : a ghostly body as concrete in its presence as its absence. The girl retreats to bed, pulling the covers close, blinking again. Every gesture here is purely visual : we see what she sees, not that she sees it. The movement between consciousness of the present and past is a movement of the eyes ; a struggle of, and for, perception.

Tales could be a film about dreaming, about a shock that forces immersion in unreality. It is interested in the intersection between memory and environment when tethered to a damaged subjectivity — what happens when the material breaks down, and fails to renew itself. After I’d seen the film for the first time, Antoine wrote to me that : "we thought that the most interesting thing about it was the process, and process is not easy to render in a film.” If Tales retains an element of that, it would be found in its sincerity and sadness — its attempt to show the muted consciousness of living with absence. So at the end of the film, a simple set-up leads the eye past a car and road to a cloud which marks the sky, light grey and globular. That’s all there is to watch, an image which doesn’t appear to say, or address, anything. Like the rest of the film, the screen becomes completely transparent, which is what makes it moving, gives meaning. Only the clearest form might inscribe the very processes of grief and recovery — this could be the only answer that Tales offers, and perhaps the only question we need ask of it.

par Matthew Flanagan
mercredi 4 mai 2011