What You See Is What You Get

in 56th Cannes Film Festival

by Hans Beerekamp

Reflections on the representation of reality in some films of the 56th Cannes Film Festival.

If the very last scene of a film reveals that everything you have seen so far was nothing but a dream, you would feel a little cheated. There is an unwritten agreement between the filmmaker and the spectator, that what you see is what you get: the film, even a documentary, is not reality itself, but a consistent representation of reality according to the vision of the filmmaker. The screenplay and the mise-en-scène may play around with this notion, for the sake of entertainment or another solid reason. Very few people who saw The Sixth Sense felt betrayed by the revelation in the end that Bruce Willis, the main character, had been a dead man all along, even though he didn’t look or act like a ghost. The surprise ending, punishing the viewer for his suspension of disbelief, was generally regarded as a clever solution and a masochistic pleasure.

In this year’s Cannes competition, a few films cheated us into wrong presumptions or even questioned what reality in film is, really. François Ozon’s Swimming Pool appears to be a clear example of the ‘ha ha, I fooled you, didn’t I?’-kind of screenplay. When in the very last minutes the daughter of Charlotte Rampling’s editor appears as Julia, a braced and plump teenager, instead of the gorgeous blonde Julie we all believed that was the daughter, the notion pops up that we have witnessed a film that entirely took place in the head of Rampling, a fiction writer. Some other mysterious scenes make more sense than they did before, and after all Ozon succeeds in pulling our leg elegantly. The cleverness of Swimming Pool includes the fact that many viewers may not even notice the revelation, and just watch a pleasurable film about a stiff middle-aged woman rediscovering some joys of life in the South of France. Okay, a film has the right to be interpreted on a different level by any viewer.

Things get more complicated in Father and Son, Alexander Sokurovs film that was awarded this year’s FIPRESCI award for a film in the main competition. The first images appear to be a close-up of a woman giving birth, which extend in Sokurov’s stream of consciousness-style to the image of two naked adult men in a tender embrace. Very few people would hesitate to interpret these images any other way than as a gay love scene. Sokurov, however insists both in the dialogues, the title and in the description of the film in the press kit that both men are not primarily lovers, but a father and a son who are just very fond of each other. Though the images show something else, like the unrequited love of a female friend for the son, or the apparent very small age difference between the men from two generations, what you see is this time not what you get. Sokurov has never been a realistic filmmaker; his work is generally situated in a ‘zone’, to quote Tarkovski’s Stalker, where nothing is what it seems. The denial of a certain sensual way of looking at male bodies by the author of the film, may be produced by taboos in Russian society, or by the desire to remain ambiguous. It puzzled me a little, but I did not feel cheated, rather amused by the refusal to be explicit.

Two other films in competition rather explicitly however try to reinvent cinema as we know it. Peter Greenaway has been declaring the death of cinema for at least ten years, deploring the fact that cinema is still the almost exclusive territory of storytellers in the tradition of the 19th century novel. The Moab Story, shown in Cannes, is the first part of a trilogy of feature films collectively titled The Tulse Luper Suitcases. The project also consists of a television series, 92 DVDs, at least two novels and a multilayered website. More important for cinematic language is the way Greenaway conveys information on the screen. We take it for granted that in cinematic fiction one actor plays one character. Only when the character is followed over a longer period, it is accepted that actors of different ages play the same character consecutively. Greenaway introduces every character with a superimposed written title, mentioning his name (and character number), not unlike the intertitle of a silent picture. Then he sometimes shows the ‘auditions’ (in fact: reconstructions of auditions) of several actors for the same part, and has them sometimes in split screen speak the same lines simultaneously. Thus the identification of the viewer with the character may become marred, but since the characters are rather archetypes than living people, I did not really mind, even felt that the freedom to follow any or all of the actors, enhanced the film.

One could say that Greenaway reinvents cinema by adding so much to the traditional codes of watching and understanding, that these codes lose their original meaning. You get more than you can see at first glance. Lars von Trier chooses the opposite direction. In Dogville he blows up our notion of cinema by removing every generally accepted representation of reality: no sets, no nature, no mise-en-scene, just an empty hall, with scarcely costumed actors and chalk lines and names, suggesting a street, a bush, a house. Three DV cameras follow the actors in Dogma95-style and registrate the piece as if it were live television. What you get is a blueprint or a skeleton of a film, with not much to see.

Von Trier has in creating Dogville largely been inspired by the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. For political reasons Brecht wanted his audience to be aware of the fact that his plays were a representation of reality, not reality itself. The soothing by a fictional world was anathema to Brecht’s view of a real world divided by class differences, waiting for a revolution.

Several earlier attempts to adapt this Brechtian principle to cinema, with the possible exception of Pabst’s Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera, rather a musical than a film), failed, because the hypnotic nature of cinema (as in Von Triers Europa or any film by Alexander Sokurov) does not allow the rational attitude that Brecht wanted his audience to have: ready to learn and act in a revolutionary sense.

Von Trier gives us a television program of a Brechtian play, and wants us to believe that this will be a new beginning for cinema. Greenaway wants us to be hypnotized by an overflow of information, and combine pleasure and thinking. The latter is, I believe, a more tempting prospect for the future of cinema.