The Right to Refuse

in 57th Valladolid International Film Festival

by Alexey Gusev

“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”, – sixty years ago these conclusive words of Samuel Beckett’s trilogy marked a break in the comprehension of what is a human being, and what is a life-working miracle of his will and despair, and how he can live further without any possibilities of living. “I want to keep going”, says Étienne, the title character from Pere Vilà Barceló’s The Lapidation of Saint Etienne (La lapidation de Saint Étienne); he is not a master-and-slave of words as Beckett’s ‘Unnamable’ was, he is just a meticulous restorer of ancient things, and, more important, he is the same master-and-slave of views, for he is in the film, not in the book. However, perhaps it is the only difference between these two characters.

The story is delusively simple: the dying old man lives in his flat and never goes out. Moreover, he refuses to accept any care from relatives, or neighbors, or social workers. He has built for himself “a prison of remembrances” about his dead wife and daughter, and, along with restoration of old furniture, it’s the sole content of his life. Nobody can understand him. But he doesn’t care. He just keeps going, with increasing sufferings of body and unceasing sufferings of spirit.

A not very attractive description, it closely resembles just one more dreary low-budget screen meditation about the “useless and unfairness of human life as it is”, a very habitual kind of cinema for all festival frequenters, in which directors never make any attempt at comprehension and so conclude an incomprehensibility, and feel a little sad. They have nothing to say, they just want to talk. And, possibly, another director could easily turn this plot into the same familiar kind of film. But Pere Vilà Barceló makes some different turns. And the result is really important.

First of all, his film is not quiet. Commonly, when nuances and blinks are more important than plot and text, an author muffles all sounds up for better, catching delicate meanings and echoes. The Lapidation of Saint Etienne is full of sound and, not least, fury. The title hero’s refusal of outer life isn’t humble and feeble at all; he asserts his modus vivendi with all his wrath and severity. His autism is stern, his fragility is sharp. The prisoner arms the metaphorical guard in this prison.

Secondly, this fullness of voice (the character as well as the author’s) allows a rising of some profound moral problems and prevents us from ignoring them. All invaders just want to take care of Étienne (with so-called “honorable motives”, apparently, no greed or profit searching, just pity and concern). Because the care is the control, some civilized kind of enslavement: Étienne is completely incomprehensible for society and, even for his sister, he is some alien, and this is unbearable, and so intolerable. Once more, it’s important: the true foundation of care is intolerance. Étienne’s sufferings is a genuine contentment of his life, not “some problem to be solved”, but for all others it’s not normal, and they’re unable to stand the very idea of the other norm that is different from their one. It’s the first purpose of care: bringing Étienne back to the understandable and controllable world. There is the second purpose too. Taking care is always pretty good reason for self-respect; moreover, it’s extremely good reason for demanding a respect. From some view, all characters in this film continuously demand a respect from Étienne. Respect for care, for concern, for pregnancy, for humanity, for kindness; and since Étienne denies all this unbidden care; these demands are overfilled by hatred and clearly show a misery of spirit. “He don’t appreciate our kindness, so we hate him”. Étienne refuses this norm. His dying is less dangerous for human life.

The gesture of refusal is the gist of this part. Étienne severely and furiously protects his rights from the outer world, and these rights are not less noble and important than the ones from the Universal Declaration. These are highly human rights, by Saint Étienne. The right to despair. The right to sanctity. The right to pain, to suffering, to torment. The right to hopelessness. The right to deafness. The right to live with death. A son of a Ravensbrück prisoner, Étienne is learning life’s fragility from his mother’s experience, and any security facilities that are defining our civil lives are just inadmissibly false for him. The verity is just a thin uneven line of cardiogram, all the rest is excess. In the one of most wonderful episodes Étienne takes a cardiogram of his dead sweetheart and, accompanied with off-screen strings, copies it on the bare wall as a kind of sacred fresco, recognizing dreams and fears, an outline of human soul, in its trembling. Compared to this scene, even the famous Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pompous final sequence from Three Colors: Blue (Trois couleurs: Bleu, 1993) seems somewhat coarse.

And, finally, casting. Most modern film actors would perform this task in a psychological way, and it could be quite acceptable and convincing, technically. But Étienne is Lou Castel: L’Enfant terrible of bygone ages, one of the strangest anthropological inventions of the roaring 60s that became almost completely inappropriate and has since been ousted to the margins of cinema streams, where sixties’ heat has replaced with seventies’ frost. (One can recall that Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, or rather Mick Travis’s McDowell (in If…, 1968), had initially appeared as an English version of Castel: the same impossible combination of youthful vulnerability and serpentine sliminess.) Without Castel, all Beckettean references in this film (as well as in this review) would be only allusions and possibilities, an important but not necessary culturological conception. With Castel, the idea and message of La lapidation… overstep the intelligible limits and settle entirely on the area of human existence itself, on the whole its range, from a highly spiritual level down to a deeply physiological one, without delimitation and even without any distinctions between them. Castel’s performance is purely instinctive and purely calculating at the same time, and one cannot note any transitions from psychological reaction to physical gesture and back. This very connection, this very lack of differences between levels of existence is the right sign of being on the most difficult and the most rare-attended field in contemporary art where all Beckett’s discoveries already exist. The last great tragedian in Western culture left us a heritage that we don’t know how to use, or, maybe, just don’t dare to realize in full. The comprehension of human existence as an over-complicated ritual that involves all levels of being and has no purpose but going on is the only reason providing the finale of La lapidation…, not mysterious but mysterial. Since Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (La procès de Jeanne d’Arc, 1962) nobody ventured upon this final Christ-like disappearance of a dead body as a triumph of essentially saint-like human spirit. To draw Bresson out of Beckett is, perhaps, the most puzzling and dizzy stunt that modern cinema is capable of; and, undoubtedly, the most necessary one.

Edited by Steven Yates