Saturday, 26 June 2010

True likeness: Peeping Tom and Code inconnu/Code Unknown

A filmanalytical exploration of some of the obvious, as well as the more obscure, similarities between two films: Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) and Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages/Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (Michael Haneke, 2000). It was made according to principles of Fair Use (or Fair Dealing), primarily with scholarly and critical aims, and was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License in June 2010.

What interests me most in academic study is the exploration of what Gérard Genette called "transtextuality", that is to say, "everything that brings the text into relation (manifest or hidden) with other texts" (Genette, Palimpsestes, 1992: 81). Sometimes this interest alights on matters of cultural influence and film authorship (see here, for example), but often it focuses itself on the issue of the recognition of cinematic interconnectedness.

Now, in an age of digital and multimedia scholarship, how better to explore filmic connections of different kinds than to use the format of the video mashup? The above essay is, then, the first in a series of "scholarly mashups" here at filmanalytical, examining the obvious and obscure connections between particular films in ways that are both striking and, hopefully, more precisely illuminating with regard to their form as films, than comparisons performed purely in non-audiovisual formats might be.


The form finally taken by True likeness, the video embedded above (please watch it first; then read this), was very much inspired by a reading of Brigitte Peucker's great chapter "Games Haneke Plays: Reality and Performance" which has just been published in the excellent collection On Michael Haneke, edited by Brian Price and John David Rhodes.

I had been thinking for a long time about Haneke's films in general, and Code Unknown in particular, in relation to their representation of filmmaking and performance. Peucker's article opens by setting out, very powerfully, some thoughts on those topics that coincided with my own starting point on this film, as well as with that of others.*

She writes,
What is the boundary between real emotion and mimed emotion, between life and performance, between reality and illusion? The film's movement from what appears to be reality -- in [one] case, a frightened little girl -- to its acknowledgment as a diegetic performance is a strategy central to Haneke's film. Time and again Code Unknown presents us with sequences that promote confusion between the diegetic reality of the film and a performance within it, sequences that promote the spectators' uncertainty about the status of the image. Since the action of such sequences always involves emotional pain, the sequences promote strong affects in the film's audience, feelings followed by relief that such actions are doubly distanced from the diegetic real, that even in the fictional reality of the film the sequence is "only a performance". [...] 

In moving between illusion and diegetic truth, Code Unknown provokes in its spectator an uncertainty that is decidedly disturbing: its ludic dimension crosses over into sadistic tricking. But then the film's compelling images catch us up again - at least until we play the spectator game of assembling its narrative fragments, until we try to decipher the film's governing code. This code too remains unknowable. [pp. 16-17]

Peucker argues, effectively, that this unknowability begins with the import or meaning of the little girl's charade at the beginning of Haneke's film.

Later in her chapter, though, she introduces her highly original argument that, at least in some of the above concerns, Haneke's film "borrows" from Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom.

For her, this is especially the case with regard to Code Unknown's "French New Wave-story" [p. 19]. This story, one of a number of the multiprotagonist strands in Haneke's film, features Juliette Binoche as Anne, an actress with a live-in partner, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a war photojournalist who takes hidden camera shots of metro passengers (in an echo of Walker Evans' "Many Are Called" project).

Peucker writes, "In Powell's film, the central character's sadomasochistic project is to capture on film the quintessential image of (female) fear, 'the true expression' of fear, as you will recall, this is what the psychopath -- or director -- wants from Anne [in Code Unknown]" [p. 21].

Peucker compellingly (and at length) argues that, apart from the above (and a few other) similarities in plot between Code Unknown and Powell's film, and in what she regards as the "detached, cold [and cruel] tone" of them both [p. 22], "Peeping Tom looms large" in Haneke's work as a whole. She writes that Powell's film functions as "more than a gloss on Haneke's films, serving as a possible source both for their mini-narratives of child abuse and for a modernist fascination with self-reflexivity and form" [p. 26].

When I started exploring both films in a video editor, suitably fired up by Peucker's argument, not only was I easily able to find some more audiovisual evidence for her observations about what Peeping Tom specifically "lends" Code Unknown, but I could also see that one could take these observations quite a lot further. 

Following through on the idea of Peucker's "gloss" (a kind of "invisible note in the margin" of Haneke's films), it struck me that Peeping Tom could also be deployed audiovisually, as a kind of cypher-machine through which one might perform a "cryptanalysis" of the enigmatic and incompletely told Code Unknown. Given that Peeping Tom's screenplay was itself written by wartime cryptographer Leo Marks, this would, of course, be a classic Hanekian funny game.

I don't want to go on to re-summarise in writing everything that the mashup already presents in sounds and images about the connections it makes between the two films: that would be a (hopefully unnecessary...) tautology.  But I finish this supplementary "Making Of" essay with the following further written observations:
  • Sequences from Peeping Tom can very productively be deployed to begin, end, and even echo in reverse visual form, a number of Code Unknown's famously incomplete sequences. (I reversed the sequence of Mark as a boy mutely coming into say goodbye to his dying or dead mother in the silent-film-within-the-film to show the latter).
  • The blocking in the two films is at times uncannily similar, and thus an uncanny effect can be achieved by making Peeping Tom irrupt in the later film, and vice versa
  • Although I didn't include much of this in the final mashup, which I wanted to keep very short, I felt that Peeping Tom also cast a great deal of light on Code Unknown's constant play with muteness and sound through its various portrayals of audio and audiovisual recording equipment (the same can be said of the later film's portrayals of exposed and obscured vision, which echo Peeping Tom's representations of blindness, light and dark). One observation on sound that I wished I'd included, though, is an edit to show the striking similarity in rhythm and sensibility of Code Unknown's concluding drum band with the jazzy percussion music in Peeping Tom's screen test sequence.
  • The experience of making the mashup leads me to disagree strongly with Peucker's argument that Peeping Tom has a "detached, cold [and cruel] tone" to match its cold and cruel narrative events. Being exposed so much to the remarkable musical score of Powell's film, as well as to its highly expressive visual design, revealed to me, at least, a deeply elegiac, although certainly also reflexive, film that succeeds in mourning the otherwise irreversible effects (in its plot) of parental sins being visited on children. Juxtaposing, or overlaying, some of the  expressive sensibility of Powell's film with Code Unknown's cooler, more 'documentary', aesthetic may work to supplement our experience of Haneke's film with a hitherto deliberately incomplete affect. This would be a provocative audiovisual accompaniment, indeed, for the later film's own stories of often weeping, frightened, bewildered, and inadequately recognised child and adult characters.

*Perhaps most notably Girish Shambu in his "Auto-Dialogue" on Code Unknown, Thomas Elsaesser in his chapter "Michael Haneke's Mind Games" (pdf) in Roy Grundmann's A Companion to Michael Haneke, and David Sorfa in comments on the "insecurity of the boundaries between the 'I' and the 'not I'" in his article on "Uneasy domesticity in the films of Michael Haneke" (see fn 7, pp. 100-1).

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Unsentimental Education: On Claude Chabrol's Les Bonnes femmes (1960)

Les Bonnes femmes/The Good Time Girls (France/Italy, 1960), a French New Wave film directed by Claude Chabrol. 
The video was made in association with the non-commercial, scholarly film website Film Studies For Free. 

The above was my first, rather tentative attempt at a film-critical video essay. I completed it almost a year ago. I never knew that I would be able to create such an artifact when I started out as a jobbing Film Studies ('theory' not 'practice') academic many years ago. But what surprised me most about it, apart from how (relatively) straightforward it is to set about making such work now, given the proprietary editing software that comes free with most computers, was how much more I learned about the form of this film as a result of making it.  

Les Bonnes femmes was a movie I had taught many times and thought that I knew very well, which was why I chose to work on it. What I realised afterwards was that I had also been motivated by a desire to engage with this film's strangeness -- its beguiling yet disturbing affect -- which neither I nor my students had been able to articulate in words, in detail at least, in numerous individual sequence analyses in university seminars.

Working on the film in an editing programme was very much like studying it frame by frame on a flatbed editing table (as in the Film Studies classes of a mostly bygone era), and that rendered a much better understanding, for example, of the film's constant moves from high to low, and its graphic matching of key shapes, like that of the statue at the beginning.

But it was the process of having to construct and then convey or perform a meaningful analysis by re-editing the film that completely convinced me of the merits of the video essay as an analytical, pedagogical, and creative process. How better to understand the intense affective charge of the moment in the film when a character breaks the film's fourth wall than to try to re-frame it, while retaining the feeling of that charge, in the form of a new (summarised? pastiched? bowdlerised?) transformative work?

A year ago, I didn't have the confidence in this process to let an intuitive, creative understanding of the film emerge, to be expressed through a new practice of montage. The essay is quite long at thirteen and a half minutes and even its fairly sparse voiceover commentary (which was largely improvised to accompany the re-editing, rather than pre-written) seems too wordy to me now. That commentary is reproduced below, along with some links to other, hopefully useful material.

This is all just to announce that my next, quite different, video essay will be posted here, with an accompanying post at Film Studies For Free (my other website), in the next few days...

Claude Chabrol's 1960 film Les Bonnes femmes/The Good Time Girls opens in the Place de la Bastille in central Paris. We see the statue erected to the Genie of Liberty: not a statue of Eros as many commentators on the film have thought. The film thus opens with an image of freedom, and it is freedom and tyranny that will be its central concerns.

We pass through the Arc de Triomphe and gaze for a while at the image of the Eternal Flame before moving down the Champs-Élysées to the first main location of the film. Here we find ourselves outside the Club Grisbi, the Grisbi striptease club on the Champs-Élysées .

We've gone from the height of the statue to the low level of the street. And in the distance Chabrol is signalling someone who will be a protagonist in the film. Through the window of an appliance store André Lapierre, the man of stone, has caught sight of what he seemed to have been waiting for. And the woman he was waiting for can also sense him - captured once again behind glass and taken by the feel of his tiger skin seat.

Jacqueline is the first of the four 'good time girls' we see in the film searching for love. During the day she works at a different electrical appliance store in a different part of Paris along with three other young women, all searching, like her, for excitement and love, as well as an escape from the tyrannies of time and commerce.
Even in these documentary scenes, André Lapierre still lies in wait.
Liberated once again, they escape into the Parisian night. And nocturnal Paris is the space in which the film is free to explore the distinction between watching and being watched.

The animal postures and attitudes of the nightclub scene are echoed in one of the most famous sequences in the film: the trip to the zoo. In this sequence, spectator and spectated upon are once again divided by a thin layer of glass. In this way, the film questions the distinction between 'captured' and 'captors', between 'predators' and 'prey'. And it traces the literal distance between those dangerously on the same side of the glass.

In the swimming pool sequence, two of the film's many male figures of black comedy subject all of the girls to tormenting. But it is Jacqueline, alone, who is singled out by the film for danger. Here, Les Bonnes femmes begins to explore the divide between life and death.

In another of the film's moves from high to low, Jacqueline's waiting 'protector' springs into action. Can she really be unaware, the film seems to ask us, that tall, dark strangers sometimes bring dangers of their own? It's not that film doesn't warn her, but rather that, like us, she seems to be dangerously drawn into its cautionary tale.
Here at this moment of physical intimacy and emotional trust, the film and André begin to explore the limits of his freedom and the potential for her acceptance of it. She passes his test with flying colours and we can see that both André and the film have successfully negotiated the distance between the two hand gestures that bookend this sequence, and which transport us, fatalistically, to the film's dénouement. And the beauty of this sequence, with its sweeping arch-like pan, might make us wonder about its creator: what does he want us to think as Jacqueline is led off, a virgin to be 'deflowered'? Or to be sacrificed?

His deed now done, and seen once again from on high, Lapierre seems more a mere tragic-comic mortal than some kind of almighty Genie of Liberty and death. The strange coda to Chabrol's film, which has so mystified critics, takes place in another nightclub. Another man waits and watches. Another woman waits and is watched.

Like the sequence in the zoo, the camera is tracking the distance between the two people. It's a slow to and fro motion which is underscored by the music of this final sequence of the film. To and fro. The 'pick up' here is depicted as a mutual process - a mutuality which makes everything which preceded the film's coda even more troubling.

Men of stone and women of glass? On high, the glitterball doesn't just glitter; it mirrors. It witnesses and fragments what lies beneath: the 'special occasion' that punctures the endless dull time which imprisons us all. But we are held by the spectacle, waiting for something to happen. And then it does: the troubling moment when the character - as in so many other New Wave films - returns our gaze. What does she want to happen? And what do we want to happen?
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