The Enigma of Gesture By Adrian Martin

in 17th Brisbane International Film Festival

by Adrian Martin

Sudden crying burst out everywhere during the Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) — on the screen, at least. In Izuru Kumasaka’s intriguing Asyl: Park and Love Hotel (Pâku ando rabuhoteru, 2007) — the story of a Tokyo love hotel which, as one viewer said, is really about love, rather than the usual tawdry tales suggested by such a setting — a middle-aged woman (superbly played by ex-pop star Lily) spends much of the movie in a very contained, inward, emotionally undemonstrative state, subtly expressive of the pains in her past life and the measures she must take on daily basis to keep herself and her altruistic hotel project together. But, near the end, a photo she receives in the mail sets the flood of tears going. It is like the clincher in an Alexander Payne movie, yet more mysterious: there is an element of enigma here, and a discrepancy which we cannot measure or entirely decipher between the tiny prompt and its oceanic impact.

Yet maybe it is only bad, conventional movies which have conditioned us, down the years, to expect that an emotion (as effect or release) can cleanly match or be appropriate to its cause: as philosopher Giorgio Agamben reminds us, we are always more and less than ourselves, and our emotional response (or affect) invariably occurs in the zones of the not-enough or the too-much. It is our fate. Life confirms this regularly: we find that we cannot grieve enough as we would like, or openly enough, at the funeral of a loved one or family member (with catastrophic social effects, as for Camus’ immortal ‘outsider’); conversely, we find that that the tiniest pretext, along a convoluted line of displacements and sublimations, can send us into wailing histrionics, uncontrollable and inconsolable.

When I was a teenager, the family cat died after a protracted old-age illness; in the immediate aftermath my mother, who was closest to this animal, betrayed no emotion, expressed no sadness. Only “That’s that, then”: the classic formula of Australian (and perhaps not only Australian) stoicism. But, a week later, on the television news, there was an item about a horse who fell over during a race, broke its leg, and was put down: my mother turned to me suddenly, accusing me with “You don’t care about that poor horse, do you?”, and proceeded to shout at me hysterically for several endless minutes. It is not the kind of moment that boy feels he is able to say to his mother: “Let’s analyze this emotional displacement coolly and rationally, Mum – this horse obviously stands for our cat, and I loved him too”; no, you just take it, you bear witness, and then you slink away to recover.

Often we ask, of ourselves of and others: where did that emotion come from? And we frequently ask this of the emotions we experience, individually and collectively, at the movies. It is among the greatest and most profound of cinema-mysteries.

In Anna Kannava’s lovely, ultra-low-budget digital Australian feature, Kissing Paris (2008), we see a humorous version of the phenomenon of sudden tears: from the spectacle of the central character, Claire (Natalie Vella), alone in a small Parisian chamber, far from her male partner, making purring sounds down the telephone to get the attention of her cat back home, the film cuts to her still on the bed, but now sobbing helplessly. Another kind of crying game is offered in films from Asian regions by Edward Yang (Mahjong, 1996) or Hong Sang-soo (Night and Day, 2008, also at BIFF): adult men, supposedly suave lovers and expert manipulators, crying hysterically like big babies whenever their mastery is knocked for a loop by a savvy woman.

Babette Mangolte’s Seven Easy Pieces by Marina Abramovic (2007), a brilliant documentation of a 2005 series of performance works by the famous artist at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, presents a far more mysterious case. Abramovic sits on a chair, with her leg cocked up an adjacent chair; she is dressed in leather, holding a scary-looking machine gun. She stays in this position for a long time — in reality, seven hours; Mangolte’s compressed montage boldly foregoes the chronology of the performance in order to create its own mosaic of glimpses of the spectacle and its spectators. Occasionally we hear a muffled voice, presumably a scripted or predetermined part of the piece: “Put down your gun!” Abramovic incarnates a particular kind of media image cliché: she resembles, a little, Patty Hearst in the full flush of her Symbionese Liberation Army fervour. What interests Abramovic (we assume) in this image is the clash of male militant heroics with uncertain female identity, and to force that issue, a detail slowly (not immediately) compels our attention: the triangle of leather covering her genitals has been cut out. (This is Abramovic’s re-interpretation of Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic from 1969.)

And then, suddenly, Mangolte cuts to a close-up to show us, at some indefinable point of this ‘easy piece’, the tears that have made Abramovic’s face moist. Where did they come from? What do they mean? And who is crying, exactly – the artist or the strange character or figure she is here incarnating?

Crying is frequently enigmatic, as life as in film or theatre. In fact, tears — like laughter — can quickly come to stand for the entire enigma of gesture that underlies all performing arts. Modern cinema — the cinema of Akerman, Weeresethakul, Ruiz, Schroeter and so many others – take the traditional sign-systems of gesture (systems from theatre, dance, song recitation) — and expands, to infinity, the gap between the sign and its meaning, or even more profoundly the sign and its source or cause. Implicated in this aesthetic exploration is an entire philosophical meditation on the constitution of the human creature, and its daily recourse to gestures grand and small: from whence does a gesture emanate? From will, intention? From the unconscious? The soul? And how does the body convey, deform, disguise, reveal the import of this gesture, and its intensity?

Recently re-watching John Cassavetes’ masterpiece Faces (1968) in close proximity to the BIFF screening of Seven Easy Pieces, I was reminded of an aspect of film acting (including the most seemingly or intentionally naturalistic) that puts it on a direct par with the deliberately bizarre, opaque ‘ritual actions’ of performance art since the early ’60s. Seeing Seymour Cassel leap out a window, scramble across a roof and fall down an embankment all the way to the road, which he hits running, it is impossible not to suddenly think: he actually did that — he performed a difficult, absolutely real, potentially dangerous physical gesture. Godard, as we have often read in recent years, made it a point of testing the skill of his actors by requiring them to do two or three things at once, like: fry an egg, sing a song and read a newspaper. (Jean-Paul Belmondo was especially good at it, as Pierrot le fou [1965] proves.)

Thus, filmic gesture — no matter how integral or chopped-up the mise en scène – requires, at some point or level, the real-time production of an action — and, as every actor (professionally trained or otherwise) knows, even the simplest, most daily gesture (like walking across a room, opening a bottle or closing a door) can become a risky, thrilling, agonising gauntlet, a moment that seems to last forever: very precisely, a spectacle. In Ruiz’s droll essay on documentary, Great Events and Ordinary People (De grands événements et de gens ordinaires, 1979), the moment that breaks the smoothness of the real as recorded by a vérité camera is when critic Pascal Bonitzer cannot successfully or easily light his cigarette: it suddenly becomes a show, a comedy.

I come to another BIFF highlight, the Dardennes’ Lorna’s Silence (Le silence de Lorna, 2008). Much of this film (like their work generally) is devoted, with great intensity, to the real-time performance of gestural actions, which are routinely invested with gauntlet-like gravity: crossing a street, getting into and out of a car, pouring out a cup of coffee. Is it because a woman is again the central character that Lorna’s Silence is the Dardennes’ best film since the sublime Rosetta (1999)? The men are usually amazing too, but I suspect there is something in the brothers’ investment in the warrior-like actions of a modern ordinary-extraordinary woman that takes them to a higher level of their art. Be that as it may, Lorna’s Silence is constructed systematically on the enigma of Lorna’s gestures (and her various silences, too, for that matter): at what point does body determine personal Will, or Will determine body? As we watch Lorna’s actions unfold, we ask — literally micro-second by micro-second — what is going on: such as in the extraordinary scene in which, trying to save her drug-addicted husband (an almost unrecognizable Jérémie Renier) from himself, she locks then both in their small apartment and then impulsively throws the door key out the window (it is a whirlwind of drama, of exactly the kind Agamben analyses in literature, in which the gesture completely rearranges the lines of force in a scene or situation or plot) — and then she methodically takes her clothes off, at first inexplicably, until she offers her nude body to the man … and so much in the subsequent course of events spins out from this instantaneous, almost irrational commitment on Lorna’s part to certain movements and gestures (of aggression, protection, love and desire) …

Brisbane was fortunate to enjoy the generous words and presence of the actor who brings Lorna to life on screen: Albanian-born Arta Dobroshi, undoubtedly set for a great career after this veritable Bressonian transfiguration thanks to the Dardennes. She told us of the very exacting, lengthy rehearsal process employed by the Dardennes, and the strict attention to the smallest gesture (like where a salt-shaker is put down on the table). No improvisation, as such. And she testified movingly to her need, as an actor, to feel and believe exactly what Lorna feels or believes, not to cultivate a distance or an ambiguity, even when that ambiguity (is Lorna really pregnant?) suffuses the film and its meaning as a whole. And Dobroshi spoke of another of the film’s most striking scenes: when, during an unexpected visitation and interrogation by two policemen (one of them the Dardennes’ regular Olivier Gourmet) concerning the husband’s (off-screen) death, she suddenly ‘cracks’ (as Dobroshi described it) and begins crying. Crying through or for what — grief, guilt, the need to confess, the stress of covering up? It is a virtuosic performance spectacle: the character is ‘acting’ (pretending, lying, putting on face) inside the actor’s own acting, and in the midst of that there has to be a real-time crack: the tears must come.

The mystery of how an actor ‘produces’ such an emotion at such a predetermined point in a scene — the eternal version of what Diderot once pondered (rather disapprovingly) as the ‘paradox of the actor’ — is not so far from the mystery of all our emotional outbursts: mine, yours, my mother’s. The emotion is both produced and real, intense and enigmatic. We are always more and less than ourselves.