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Rational Passions

About Adam and Others


Michael Tierney, interviewing About Adam director Gerry Stembridge in Film West, wondered whether some people might find the film ‘self-satisfied’. After all, the film’s about a young lothario who drives a vintage Jaguar, has an arty career and seduces three sisters without any comeuppance, all set in a Dublin lacking in poverty and full of life’s possibilities. Stembridge wonders whether the film is less self-satisfied than perhaps celebratory: he believes that it’s trying to celebrate not so much the tiger economy, but the liberal possibilities in a secular society. Whether or not in consequence he’s saying anything about the state of the economy itself is for him a secondary issue. He is, if you like, trying to make a film about being satisfied with the self. ‘I would rather say though that if we are afraid to celebrate anything that gives us pleasure then we will never make films that are not angst-ridden and tragic.’

Maybe, though, there’s a way of accepting Stembridge’s general assumption while nevertheless still questioning the air of facility that hangs over his film. Is Stembridge’s satisfaction with the self not unjustified per se, but too readily justifiable? What Stembridge offers us is the satisfied- self of Adam (Stuart Townsend), but maybe gives us too many advertorial elements that allow us to buy into his self-satisfaction. Adam’s good-looking, always well-turned out, articulate, and good-tempered, can quote chunks of Christina Rossetti, attends the theatre yet loves football, is always available but good at his job. It’s one thing to create a character who signifies a satisfaction with the self; but it’s another to do so through making the mutually incompatible too easily achievable: by making the various threads that should be simultaneously impossible readily satisfied. If a filmmaker wants to push forward an ethical code – a way of being that goes beyond the generally accepted conventions – then the less artificial the approach, the more concrete the perspective. Stembridge’s thesis – that a young man can satisfy all three sisters simultaneously without necessarily hurting any of them – might be a stretch, but it’s not intrinsically impossible; in fact it’s ethically very possible if  we could relax our moral codes for ethical adventurousness. But to add to this ethical conceit the need to make Adam the perfect man takes it into the realm of the impossible. By exaggerating Adam’s qualities, the film’s in danger of having its ethic reduced to a fanciful idea contained by candy floss.

And yet the idea is worth something. In one scene we see Adam from the point of view of the second sister, Laura, whom he’s recently seduced, taking the first sister, Lucy (Kate Hudson), who’s his ‘official’ girlfriend, for a romantic weekend. The destination is to remain a secret until they arrive, so Adam’s blindfolded Lucy from the moment she gets in the car. As she sits waiting for Adam to jump in, Laura (Frances O’Connor) comes out of the house, looks stricken, and Adam gestures for her to come towards him. Laura comes over, Adam quietly quotes some poetry, and they give each other a big kiss that proves his affection towards her, but still keeps Lucy blissfully and obliviously happy as she prepares for her romantic weekend. Here Adam’s keeping two women happy at once with the aid of contingency but without any hint of preconception. It’s a wonderful reversal of the usual mind games that insist seduction demands duplicity: where  seduction is often based on the idea that the mind be in two places at once, in this scene it’s the presence that manages to be in two minds at once: at the same moment he’s giving each sister exactly what she wants.

In the process what he’s doing is amplifying his experiential possibilities without simply satisfying his ego; and in the process amplifying the possibilities of the two sisters. Lucy states at the beginning of the film in voice-over that she wants a grand romance; the bookish Laura clearly wants somebody to help her turn dry words into actual passion. In such moments Stembridge offers something unlikely but not impossible; but by containing such sequences within a stylized look and feel, we could come away from the film thinking less of the ethic at work than the fantasy overtly realized.

In some ways Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir and Eric Rohmer’s An Autumn Tale virtualize the themes About Adam realizes. This could of course make Rohmer and Rivette seem conservative next to Stembridge; and yet we should think less of the flirtatious action as liberating and the flirtatious inaction as frigid, but think chiefly in terms of the freedom available in giving room to one’s impulses and instincts. All three films ask the same question: how do we give to our lives the space to amplify our feelings?

In Rivette’s film he creates six characters in search of an author, certainly, but though of course Pirandello is the playwright of the play within the film, the notion of being in search is one less of authors than nouns the characters can subjectively apply themselves to. They try out their feelings on other characters as if trying to find in the other person an explication of their own thoughts by turning them into feelings. “One of the novelties that I have given to modern drama consists in converting the intellect into passion” Pirandello once said, and Rivette’s purpose seems to be to play the words off each other, to create a world of rational passion. Hence we have a series of semi-relationships, all of which remain unrequited, except for one which is based on pure transaction. We have theatre actress Camille (Jeanne Balibar) showing interest in her ex-partner, Pierre, while her present partner, Ugo (Sergio Castellitto), falls a little in love with young student Dominique. Meanwhile Pierre’s partner, Sonia, finds herself being seduced by Dominique’s half-brother Arthur. But the one sexual liaison is between Arthur and Camille, with Arthur following his tried and trusted routine (‘I’ve champagne in a bucket of ice’, ‘how novel’, she replies) while post-coitum she searches out a ring he’d stolen from Sonia. In Rivette’s world, sex is all very well for cause and effect, and this is clearly where Arthur excels, but often emotional amplification requires more attenuated behaviour. Where Arthur expects everything to be contained by the end goal of sex, for the other characters the possibility of sex is contained within a wider emotional exploration.

There’s little doubt for example that the burgeoning friendship between Ugo and Do has a frisson of sexual possibilities, but where for example in About Adam the relationship between Adam and Laura is sexualized by virtue of a  shared passion for literature, in Rivette’s film it’s based on something else: it’s based on the generation gap being closed by the seductive possibilities in art, and the shared curiosity Ugo and Do bring to Ugo’s search for the missing Goldoni play Ugo is determined to find and then perform. In About Adam we feel art plays a flirtatious, preliminary role, but it’s not essential to the relationship once it’s developed. Or rather its purpose is cause and effectually relevant: it serves as an aphrodisiac, illustrated in the scene quoted above, and also in a sequence where Wuthering Heights proves a useful precursor to hot passion between Adam and Laura. In Va Savoir no such cause and effect is offered; maybe because Ugo and Do aren’t simply falling in love but testing out a more general passion, and general confusion,  within the emotional context they’ve set up. This is the intellectual passion Pirandello talks about. Do’s area is Italian art history, and the friendship she strikes up with Ugo seems about reinvigorating a passion for art as readily as instigating a sexual liaison with Ugo. Where Adam is more or less Heatchcliff to Laura’s determined need to play Cathy, and with Laura very much falling in love with the handsome man around her own age who can quote Rossetti and knows Wuthering Heights, Do sees in Ugo something else: a middle-aged man who has retained a passion for art and theatre.

Now where Adam is the man of Laura’s dreams; Ugo is more the assuagement of Do’s careerist and existential worries. If she becomes so interested in his search for the missing Goldoni play, it’s not because he’s the handsome potential lover, nor even necessarily the older man from whom she has much to learn, but because he possesses a preoccupation with art. Is Do falling in love with Ugo, or falling in step with his preoccupation? With Adam and Laura we’re in little doubt that art is merely a precursor: at one stage Laura wonders whether Emily Bronte and co. wouldn’t have been better putting all that mad passion into their lives rather than in their novels; the line between art and life is clearly drawn. In Rivette, though, the line is a circle, with art and life constantly feeding into each other. Obviously this is a constant Rivette theme – apparent from L’Amour Fou to La Belle Noiseuse – but here it may be at its most playful, or more especially at its least emotionally damaging, as  if Rivette wanted to suggest the way art can amplify our lives without the need to act categorically in life. In some ways it’s a reversal of L’Amour Fou, where the truth of art had to find its meaning in the truth of life: with the intensity of the art mirrored in the intensity of the characters’ own existence. But here it’s more that Rivette wants to see art, in Nietzsche’s words, not as an “imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement, raised up beside it in order to overcome it.” Thus there’s no need for either cliché on art to hold: not the idea that art is a vicarious experience, a la the Brontes; or that art is based on experience: the romantic notion. But instead that art and life permeate each other to create greater metaphysical possibilities in life; further metaphysical possibilities in art. After all, Do and Ugo don’t have sex, yet Camille and Arthur do; but the former relationship is closer to an affair than the latter, if we define an affair as an exchange of possibilities generated out of mutual enchantment and engagement, over that of transactional sex with each party getting what they want and knowing exactly what that something is and why they want it.

If novelist Beryl Bainbridge is right when she says, “he is, after all, the reflection of the tenderness I bear for myself. It is always ourselves we love” then the key here is the tenderness within oneself that one also symptomizes in another. In the la ronde scenario Rivette sets-up, it’s as if one’s feelings are unlocated symptoms that another can help us find. For Do the purpose of the ‘affair’ lies in the justification of art in the presence of one who loves what he does. For Ugo it resides in finding in the work he happens to do a passion that combines with curiosity and hope. If his own relationship with his actress partner Camille seems stale as they constantly work together, is the search for a missing manuscript with the young Do not a healthy way of replicating his own feelings towards his partner that were presumably present in the early stages with Camille but have now atrophied? Thus we see for both Do and Ugo the burgeoning relationship is about not necessarily passionate love, but avoiding atrophy, and yet in avoiding this atrophy in relation respectively to her studies and his relationship, certain feelings develop. They start to recognize their symptoms.

This is also true of the other unrequited relationships in the film. Camille realizes she still has feelings for her ex, Pierre, but are these really feeling for him or about herself? At the beginning of the film she frets about her performance, and whether she can act, while throughout the film Pierre can’t get round to finishing his Heidegger thesis. When Camille gets back in touch with Pierre is it because she wants again to embark on a relationship, or once again get in touch with someone whose insecurities can match her own – as if Pierre can help her to understand her own feelings of inadequacy over more conventional feelings of love? And is this notion of getting in touch with oneself as much as falling in love with another not also relevant to the third pairing in the film? Sonia is besotted by the seductiveness of Arthur, but there’s the suggestion that in her infatuation with a younger man, and the possibility of a tempestuous affair, these are feelings from her past that she’s trying to relocate in the present. When, at the end of the film, accepting that an affair with the duplicitous Arthur would be empty, she allows Camille to keep the ring that Camille has poached back from Arthur: she believes that this ring given to her years before signifies a side of herself that she should move beyond: its theft by Arthur and the ring itself somehow symptomatic of a false consciousness. So in each instance, a shadow self develops out of the relationship that is never requited. In each case Rivette suggests that this ‘failure’ to act leads to an amplified sense of self.  It is a theme we might usually expect to be developed in Rohmer: a man or woman falls in love with another from the opposite sex but doesn’t necessarily act upon the feelings produced so much as explore their contours.

To some degree this is relevant to Rohmer’s An Autumn Tale, but Rohmer perhaps pushes the unrequited here into the area of the emotionally repressed. When critics like Molly Haskell and others have attacked Rohmer for his in-corporeality, they’ve often missed the point. As Haskell in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary accuses Rohmer in Love in the Afternoon of ‘complete capitulation to bourgeois morality, a victory of blindness over (in)sight’ she seems unwilling to accept that to act upon one’s feelings isn’t necessarily to comprehend them, just as denying to act upon them isn’t necessarily based on a failure to comprehend them either. And yet in An Autumn Tale the central character’s failure to act upon her feelings may prove troublesome. Here Isabelle (Marie Riviére) has been married for twenty four years, has taken over the family business in a small Southern French town, and worries about a friend, Magali (Béatrice Romand), who’s a widower. After putting a lonely hearts advert in the newspaper for her friend, she initially plays the role of the lonely widower with the idea of playing premeditation off contingency: Magali believes that if she’s to meet another man it shouldn’t come through the crude cause and effect of lonely hearts columns but through a casual meeting. Thus, Isabelle surmises, she’ll befriend the man, then, at a later date, engineer an apparently casual meeting between Magali and Gerard. But does she start to have feelings for Gerard herself? Maybe, maybe not, but what is clear is that something in the film’s closing shot where we see Isabelle’s pensive, even slightly stricken face as she dances with her husband at her daughter’s wedding after having helped perhaps set Magali up with Gerard, suggests that something in her life remains unfulfilled, and that her brief, virtual relationship with Gerard hinted at this lack of fulfillment.

What’s important to Rohmer – and this is what critics like Haskell might be missing – is not to act or not act, but to understand the nature of one’s actions. There’s a nice comment from Michel Foucault where he talks about Epictetus: “Each morning, while taking a walk in the city, one should try to determine with respect to each thing (a public official or an attractive woman), one’s motives, whether one is impressed or drawn to it, or whether one has sufficient self-mastery as to be indifferent.” (Ethics) Is it not in this final shot that Isabelle realizes the degree to which she has been practising denial whilst simultaneously creating space for the admittance of emotional emptiness? This isn’t of course something Rohmer categorically expresses, but it is a reading that justifies the film’s allusive sense of emotional devastation. For maybe what Isabelle has done is the opposite of what Foucault believes: she offers a helping hand to her widowed friend but refuses to acknowledge her own emotional involvement: she fails to offer a hermeneutics of the self, and thus at the film’s conclusion is left perturbed and curiously self-absorbed.

Of course we could conclude that Isabelle’s problem is that she hasn’t committed herself to a relationship with a man in whom she’s attracted, but that would only be half the story. The other half concerns the hermeneutics Foucault talks about when he says in the essay and interview collection Ethics that “the true self is defined only by what I can be master of.” Has Isabelle really attempted to master herself, or just found excuses to indulge in a brief, virtual fling without analysing the underlying principles of her interest? She has failed, in Pirandello’s terms, to rationalize her passions. In Rivette that’s the very thing that the characters succeed in doing. When, for example, Ugo refuses to open his hotel room door to Do, he explains that if he did he would immediately jump on her: at that very moment he rationalizes his passion twofold. On the one hand he admits his feelings for Do; and on the other accepts that he needs a locked door to keep him from acting upon them. The equivalent scene in An Autumn Tale comes when Isabelle explains to Gerard that he’s not enough unlike her husband for her to be interested in him; though from what we see the two men have nothing in common. If Ugo practises admittance followed by denial, by trying to resist Do’s charms, Isabelle’s denial of her feelings perhaps kicks in too early: she denies before she admits, and thus at the end of the film may ‘admit’ to her feelings too late as she dances with her husband but may be thinking of Gerard. Come the end of Va Savoir as Ugo dances with Camille there is no hint of regret: the virtual relationship between Ugo and Do has been requited on the premise on which it was based: a fascination with a Goldoni text that is eventually found; and Camille has slept with Arthur and retrieved Sonia’s ring. To virtualize or actualize a relationship in Va Savoir isn’t the point; what is central is the hermeneutic, the comprehension of one’s self by one’s self.

This also of course fascinates Rohmer, but where Rivette arrives at a narrative neatness by working through this hermeneutic, Rohmer achieves a deeper, devastating ambiguity by denying the hermeneutic until the very last shot. Where Rivette’s characters work through their feelings with another, without having to actualize them, it is as if Isabelle hasn’t quite worked through her feelings until she realizes the feelings working through her. It’s as though in that final shot Rohmer illustrates the whole space Isabelle has created suddenly haunting her whilst in the company of the man she’s proclaimed to love.

In each instance, however, in Rohmer and Rivette, what’s worked through aesthetically is the final irrelevance of extension next to the significance of amplitude, amplitude as Gilles Deleuze would define it in The Fold, utilizing the incompossible, a term taken from Leibniz. In a chapter called ‘Incompossibility, Individuality, Liberty’, Deleuze says, “But in truth the soul is that what invents its own motives, and these are always subjective. We have to begin from all of the smallest inclinations that ply our soul in every direction, in the flash of an instant, under the stress of a thousand little springs: disquiet” It isn’t that Isabelle hasn’t had sex with Gerard that is necessarily the problem; it is that she hasn’t worked through her feelings which allowed her to create this brief, virtual liaison. If About Adam lacks the significance of An Autumn Tale and Va Savoir it partly lies in this inability to see the significance of virtuality. There is an interesting comment from the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz where he rates his own books as “probably, like the rest of modern Arabic literature, fourth or fifth rate.” He says this because he believes literature comes out of a given social context and is shaped by the attitudes of its readers. Whether we buy into Mahfouz’s self-deprecation wholesale isn’t the point; the point here is that maybe a certain type of art is difficult to create without given contexts within the social and aesthetic milieu. The cause and effect cinema practised by Stembridge is consistent with much art produced by countries still defining themselves over defining the individual, as if Adam’s purpose isn’t individualist but metaphoric: Adam represents Irish liberation, a post-theological position that is about pushing towards an ethical freedom through sexual pleasure. Of course in Rohmer and Rivette that idea of ethical freedom is taken as a social given. What they want to explore is the variations within freedom, so that freedom doesn’t become a social issue but a personal quandary, full of paradoxes and (com) possibilities. Perhaps in a cinema wary of repression and oppression, the idea of freedom coming out of abstinence might smack of bad faith, of a retreat into the old values while proclaiming them as personal ones. But if a national cinema wants true freedom, to present true emotional and sexual liberation, it needs to explore states of ethical consciousness. About Adam too readily assumes its characters’ well being?


©Tony McKibbin