Speaking the Unsaid
There would seem to be a world of a difference between two films that ostensibly take as their source similar subject matter. Both Amour and Mia Madre are about the move towards the death of a loved one: the wife in Amour; the mother in Mia Madre. Yet while Nanni Moretti’s latter film would seem to tell its story on the screen, one senses in Michael Haneke’s that only half the story makes it into the diegesis. In This Business of Living, Cesare Pavese says that “in the mental effort and disturbance of writing, what sustains you is the certainty that on every page there is something left unsaid.” Moretti is a fine filmmaker with a lovely sensibility, but Pavese’s dictum wouldn’t seem to hold. There is very little in the film that we would be inclined to believe has been unsaid as Pavese couches it. Mia Madre makes clear by the conclusion that the mother was a lovely woman, a great teacher and very good mother, as the film moves towards an honest attempt to express grief while avoiding the maudlin. It is in the best sense of the term sad, but such a word wouldn’t begin to cover the terrain Haneke searches out in a film that we might be inclined to regard as losing and finding itself in the splice.
What do we mean by this? Here we can call to mind a roundtable discussion at Cahiers du Cinema in the sixties between Jacques Rivette, Jean Narboni and Sylvie Pierre, with Rivette discussing Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud. There is a mystery to Gertrud’s existence and Rivette talks of “the three or four cut-ellipses at the juncture of two scenes: tantalising cuts, deliberately disturbing, which means that the spectator is made to wonder where Gertrud ‘went’: well, she went in the splice.” Rivette adds that this is an editing decision (rather than an aspect of the pre-shooting script), but, whatever the vagaries of production, what counts is the elliptical nature of the final work: how a character disappears within the film, creating enigmas that force upon us the unsaid, the undisclosed. In this sense, Moretti’s film is a disclosed cinema, it withholds from us few secrets even if often expertly focalising our attention to emphasise a character’s feelings. Shortly before the end of the film as the mother dies, we are with the central character’s teenage daughter when she hears the news, and she pulls the duvet over her head while she starts to grieve. We might have expected the focus to be on the central character, Margherita (Margherita Buy), the filmmaker in the middle of a production, and who we have mainly been following, or her brother, Giovanni (Moretti) who has taken time off work and has been caring for his mother during her last weeks. It is a lovely and vulnerable touch that sums up well the Moretti-esque, the idea that everybody and everything is sensitised in a Moretti film.
Would we be inclined to think everyone in a Haneke film is desensitised? Perhaps, but that wouldn’t be where the aesthetic difference would lie, only the representative distinction. Giovanni, looking after his mother, would seem to be a nice man, as the husband, Georges, looking after his wife, Anne, in Amour may not be, but this will only indicate what they are like as characters, while what interests us much more is what they are like to bring out a distinction evident in the two filmmakers’ approach to the material. Moretti very understandably asks us to feel, with Moretti playing the brother himself, a wise and melancholy figure who has obviously for years tolerated his sister’s self-absorption and short-temper but hasn’t been afraid to try and tell her on occasion. Haneke casts as the husband in Amour Jean-Louis Trintignant, an actor frequently given to playing cruel, surreptitious and unsympathetic on film: from Les Biches to The Man Who Lies, The Conformist to Three Colours: Red. Moretti gets to play the character without suggesting a secret within the role. His private life remains a mystery but this seems less a productive aporia than a means by which to keep the narrative as simple as possible while allowing the empathy to be as broad as it can be. Giving Giovanni a family may have added too many narrative strands to a film that has to focus on various characters working on the production as well as attending to Margherita’s issues. Yet Haneke keeps from us information we might think essential: like what Georges’ job might have been. Music could well have been his career as it so clearly was for his wife, but we don’t know.
Yet what concerns us is less filling in the gaps that might be missing; more the nature of those gaps, taking into account Rivette’s comments as we might think of other contemporary works that create a cinema of the splice. We have in mind for example Horse Money, Stray Dogs, Inland Empire, In the Mood for Love, Dogtooth, Cemetery of Splendour, Tree of Life and There Will be Blood. These are films that however they happened to be made, contain within them a stubborn refusal to reveal their own purpose. The scenes do not join together to generate a given narrative sense but to create a mystery greater than the narrative would seem to possess.
This is partly why we needn’t agree with Rivette on the issue of production: whether the film’s mysteries were in preproduction or after the shoot. It rests more on whether there is an enigma of being explored. There is no such enigma in Mia Madre: the central character is a self-absorbed filmmaker who faces some realisations as her mother is dying. In Amour, we have numerous questions to ask. Why, if this couple has had such a happy marriage, have they produced a troublesome daughter whose relationship with her parents seems fraught? What does the wife mean when she says that Trintignant is a nice man but could sometimes be a monster? Why does Trintignant look on with such a scowl on his face as his wife flicks through a photo album of their past? How does the beginning relate to the conclusion, with the opening scene showing the police breaking into the apartment, the wife, lying dead on the bed surrounded by flowers, dressed in white? Where is Georges when the police break in? Has he, as Gilberto Perez muses, jumped out of the window that the police find open at the beginning of the film? If he has then he would have been living for a while with his dead wife’s decaying smell. (When the police arrive the smell is clearly intolerable.) If Georges has jumped out of the window, the police would have been on the scene straight away. This doesn’t mean we disagree with Perez’s speculations; more that we would have to speculate on the speculation to justify it. This is however partly what we mean when we say that only half the film makes it into the diegesis. What gets lost in the splice is found in the aporias the film generates. We might, like Perez, choose to muse over the enigmas, we might choose to go further and work on the possible nature of events that remain off-screen. We might choose not to speculate at all, but accept that the film has captured an aspect of being that doesn’t make it into the story as such, and sense it rather than explore or explain it.
Perez says, “Haneke puts us in the position not of an intimate but of a stranger who knows only what can be gathered from appearances, fragments of narrative that are sometimes attentively drawn out, sometimes elliptically cut short. The couple’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit, and as she talks to her father we realise that some time has passed. Anne, after her stroke, has been in hospital for an operation that has failed.” (LRB) This is a good example of a cinema of the splice. We might not think too much about the nature of what is happening beyond the story we see, but something of the abruptness isn’t easily ignored. These are the sort of transitions films are usually careful to avoid, whether through a montage sequence, or clear markers that indicate a very precise amount of time has passed: for example a character saying ‘I will see you next term’, and then a cut to the next semester. When the film is lost in the splice the transition is felt as a mild temporal shock: a temporal enigma that reflects the enigmas of being. After all, Rivette notes that it is Gertrud who gets lost in the splice as Dreyer generates mystery around a character through her absence at certain moments in the story.
Writing about a classic film that ostensibly addresses the enigma of being, The Barefoot Contessa, both Gilles Deleuze and David Thomson adopt very different positions, perhaps inevitable when one is a philosopher, the other a critic who has often made his living writing polished, punchy and opinionated prose for a mass audience. Deleuze, discussing director Joseph. L. Mankiewicz’s work more generally, says “the multiplicity of circuits finds new meaning. It is not simply several people having a flashback, it is the flashback belonging to several people (three in The Barefoot Contessa), three in A Letter to Three Wives two in All About Eve).” Thomson wonders how this film about a poor gypsy woman who becomes a Hollywood star could have been taken so seriously in 1954 – “How can anyone believe that Contempt is only ten years away?” Deleuze sees in Mankiewicz, “the greatest of flashback directors” as he explores the myriad ways in which the director carves up screen time. Yet while Deleuze is correct to say that Mankiewicz is the greatest of flashback authors as we find few directors more inclined to tell a story from different points of view and from a present that accesses various pasts, this is quite different from getting lost in the splice, the sort of splice Thomson may be invoking when he mentions Contempt by way of contrast. What is this difference that might suggest the chasm between classic cinema and modern cinema, but that nevertheless indicates a different approach as much as a different generation? Mia Madre and The Barefoot Contessa are both films that reveal their secrets; Contempt and Amour are films that retain them. One reason why we want to agree with Rivette in principle but extend the argument beyond the conditions of a film’s making, is because we are inclined to see that the unsaid is an ontological question rather than a technical one: that the unsaidness can be emphasised by the technical choices on the set and the choices made in the editing suite, but that the mystery lies somewhere in the stubborn nature of the material. Wong Kar-wai insisted that in In the Mood for Love “I cut the sex scene at the last moment. I suddenly felt I didn’t want to see them having sex. And when I told William Chang [Wong’s production designer, editor and closest collaborator], he said he felt the same but hadn’t wanted to tell me!” (Sight and Sound). What happened to the scene was that it was lost in the splice, but its loss permeates the material as a structuring absence that haunts the whole film and leaves us wondering not only whether or not the leading characters have made love, but also at what point in their relationship if they have. Whether the scene was shot or not isn’t what matters, as Rivette would well know. It is what the material leaves unsaid in its final diegetic form. We might see one scene where they seem to be closer than before and wonder if they are now an intimate couple, yet moments later the evidence suggests the contrary. The couple retain their secret, as though whether they have made love or not an intimacy has formed between them that needn’t and oughtn’t to be given a name.
Eric Rohmer was, of course, an (albeit complicated) colleague of Rivette’s at Cahiers and a fellow director in the Nouvelle vague. In The Taste of Beauty, Rohmer discusses someone who accused him of making films that were not cinematic, and replied “what I say I do not say with words. I do not say it with images either, with all due respect to the partisans of pure cinema…I show people who move and speak. That is all I know how to do.” Critics might sometimes accuse Rohmer of making a literary cinema, but one of the most useless forms of enquiry can be arguments around what are the essential properties of a given art form, especially when they become prejudices rather than probes, assumptions over analytic enquiries. The work might be ‘cinematic’ but ‘sayable’, while other films may be uncinematic but unsayable. What is interesting is less that films show what cinema is, but hint at what cinema or any other art form cannot quite convey. In this, we feel that Rohmer’s films for all their talk, for all their use of voice-over, remain incapable of being said. By contrast, such cinematic works as the Bourne films or James Bond movies have nothing unsaid about them. To highlight the properties of cinema and their distinctiveness from other forms does not tell us a lot about their merit even if they tell us a great deal about their distance from the literary.
What matters to us here is that the film conveys the mystery of cinema, as if each art form does not possess a set of formal properties, but a secret that it believes cannot be explored any other way. “It is true”, Rohmer says, “that I can write the stories I film. The proof is that I did write them, long ago, before I discovered cinema. But I was not satisfied with them because I was unable to write them well enough. That’s why I filmed them.” When we read a story like ‘Claire’s Knee’ we do not quite find in the story the gap between word and image, the subtlety of the relationship between the novelist within the story and the central character, old friends who may possess feelings for each other. While in fictional form it would be harder to register the tantalising place between feeling and non-feeling, Rohmer manages in the film to indicate in the body language of the actors a feeling that would be too literal in literary form. To say that a character glanced longingly at another character in a novel makes categorical that longing, but because cinema cannot film longing as a novelist can write it, this can allow for what we might call the subtlety of the simultaneous. The novelist would offer that longing as a unit of linguistic information which is not offered at the same time as the surrounding info. In other words, the longing can be contained in film by noticing what someone is wearing, how their voice is inflected, off-screen sounds and other pieces of information that vie with that yearning look. The cinematic here doesn’t rest on conveying things visually, as if using language is a debased form of filmmaking. It rests much more on accepting the audio-visual nature of film as an information system that can generate far greater ambiguity than literature, just as literature much more easily than film can create interiority.
This doesn’t mean that all books should offer characters’ thoughts, nor that all films should observe the external nature of behaviour. Of course not. That would be an assumption. What interests us is what passes for an aesthetic response to a particular problem, and thus from our point of view Claire’s Knee would be no less cinematic than the laconic cinema Michel Chion observed in late sixties film: Bullitt, Once Upon a Time in America , Playtime, 2001 and The Red Circle. Here “dialogue is terse and sober, or dense but limited to specific scenes, or spread throughout the film but sparingly, or abundant but distant and barely audible.” (Film: A Sound Art) Hardly Rohmer territory; but it isn’t the lack of dialogue that makes some of these films great: it is the sense that they do not yield all their knowledge. The unsaid in dialogue needs to be matched by the unsaid in the Pavese sense. In the scene in Claire’s Knee where Jerome describes to Aurora, who is interested in the story as a fictional proposition, what he must do to possess a young woman whom he finds attractive, there is a lot of dialogue but also much that is left unsaid. They are long-term close friends and as he describes to her his desire to touch Claire’s knee so he tells her that he wants to do so to give it the meaning that her boyfriend’s gesture did not have. The boyfriend touching her knee was a lazy, dull moment of obliviousness he insists; if he touches her knee it will contain within it at all his desire concentrated on one point. He tells Aurora this a minute after having touched her knee no less casually. If he had touched Aurora’s knee after talking about Claire’s knee it would have been an obvious and ironic moment, but by making the remark come afterwards we have not been cued to notice especially the knee touching, and might have half-forgotten it as just one of a number of affectionate gestures Jerome offers. Rohmer’s skill here rests on leaving us wondering what happens to be the feelings between these two characters and the degree to which it is sublimated in a story Aurora wants to tell and how she will use Jerome to tell it. If Rohmer believed that the story he wrote couldn’t quite convey the feelings he was looking for, it might reside in the idea that with a book everything must be stated or unstated in a very fundamental sense. In other words we would know whether Jerome has touched Aurora’s knee or not: the writer would state it or he wouldn’t.
Of course, the writer could imply it by saying it metaphorically or implicitly, but this would still be something the reader would be expected to register. If the writer says he moved his hand towards her thigh and, hovering like a bee, in time allowed it to rest on the joint, we have no mention of the knee but the gesture is still very much registered. One reason we talk about the subtlety of the simultaneous is because film needn’t register in this manner. There are numerous examples in films and television shows where viewers don’t notice the most obvious errors because there is too much information to process. An example comes from Friends, where many people missed the fact that the view from the kitchen window in the show would constantly change. Sometimes it looks like a street across the way; on another occasion just a brick wall. Now obviously very fine films often play up the subtlety of the simultaneous so that we have more information than we can readily process but that isn’t entirely irrelevant if we do notice it. This can cover anything from noticing young Charlie playing in the snow as his future is being decided in the foreground in Citizen Kane, to its most attenuated form: the two boys talking at the end of Hidden. A filmmaker can cram his frame with information that will allow an important detail to appear lost in the scene, and only the careful viewer or the person returning to the film will notice it.
In Claire’s Knee, Rohmer absorbs the moment where Jerome touches Aurora’s knee into a general scene of affection and discussion, and offers it before they talk about his quest, so the gesture could be missed, though it is hardly irrelevant. By the end of the film we might even see the touching of Claire’s knee as a narratively convoluted attempt not to confront certain feelings Jerome may have for Aurora. While in an interview with Cahiers du Cinema Rohmer insists that “the aim of cinema is to keep tightening its hold on reality”, he also says in another piece “in a world where everything is reducible to a relationship of cause and effect, there is no place for poetry, not even for fine style.” (‘Celluloid and Marble’) By combining the need to create a greater hold on reality, while at the same time insisting on escaping cause and effect, a proper ambiguity of reality is possible: the subtlety of the simultaneous. If Jerome had touched Aurora’s knee afterwards, that poetry would have been missing: cause and effect generating the obvious.
What is important for the art of cinema is that the modes of the unsaid are accentuated while also finding ways in which to express reality more completely. This is not at all a positivistic account of existence: with the tools of science applied to improve our epistemological grasp. What Rohmer insists upon is a poetic understanding that realism can contribute to as long as it isn’t without the aesthetic possibilities that undermine ready cause and effect. In ‘Celluloid and Marble’, Rohmer mentions Rivette, saying that for the latter “the highest thought of our time chooses to express itself through cinema”, but this might rest on cinema’s capacity to capture an aspect of the real but also to stretch and undermine that reality. Rohmer does so often by creating a density of mise-en-scene; Rivette discusses it as a question of editing. However it is achieved, the purpose seems to us to be one of finding the unsaid in the process of the saying. If the saying can be said, then the unsaid within it gets denied, and we have a film closer to Mia Madre than to Amour.
We have seen that the unsaid needn’t be manifest necessarily through montage or mise en scene, through a script decision or an editing one. There is no a priori approach to the unsaid, which is exactly what Pavese’s statement seems to acknowledge. It is not a technical problem, nor even a formal one: as we have earlier proposed it is an ontological issue. It is a point very subtly and ambiguously addressed by a filmmaker whose work is nothing if not about the problem of the unsaid, and someone whose work was imbued by the heavy spirit of Pavese. Michelaneglo Antonioni would say in an intervew at the time of Zabriskie Point. “Some years back, when I made a movie based on a book by Cesare Pavese [Les Amiches], I was bracketed with him. Now I’ve read Pavese with interest and with love, but I cannot say that he is my favourite Italian writer. And one reason for this is the tragic conclusion of his life, his suicide, a conclusion which made his intellectual experiences coincide with his practical experiences.” (The Architecture of Vision) Antonioni here acknowledges the unavoidable link between the work and the life, but that this link for Antonioni is a different one. The nature of the unsaid takes many forms and if Pavese’s was the suicide that awaited him, no such threat seemed likely to overtake Antonioni, taking into account Al Alvarez’s comment on Pavese in The Savage God. “Although Pavese called himself a Communist, his politics permeate neither his imaginative work nor his private notebooks. I suspect they were merely a gesture of solidarity with the people he liked, against those he disliked.” For Alvarez, the unsaid in Pavese is not unlinked to the death that awaits him, “A suicide of this kind is born, not made…he receives his reasons – from whatever nexus of guilt, loss and despair – when he is too young to cope with them or understand.”
There is a sense here Alvarez is talking about loss, while what seems vital to Antonioni’s work is absence, not quite one and the same. Though there are suicides in Antonioni’s work it is as if the absence is more important than the suicidal. The mystery of the life is more significant than the nature of its conclusion. People want to make their life anew, perhaps, rather than end it: as we find in L’avventura, The Passenger and Identification of a Woman. Few filmmakers more than Antonioni can suggest the nature of getting lost in the splice. If suicide is a problem of being, disappearance is an aesthetic question. If for example Anna had unequivocally killed herself in L’Avventura, the viewers would not have booed the film: it was the ambiguity of her disappearance that caused the problem. The disappearance in an Antonioni film is the ontological crisis meeting the formal schism. A crisis in the self, generates a crisis in the image, and Antonioni has always been interested in finding ways in which the former can open out the latter.
In an interview it the seventies, Jean-Paul Sartre proposed that “I try to be as translucent as possible, because I feel that this dark region that we have within ourselves, which is at once dark for us and dark for others, can only be illuminated for ourselves in trying to illuminate it for others.” (Sartre in the Seventies) Yet is such transparency detrimental to works of art? We think not if we accept the unsaid is not the concealed element of the said; it is the inexplicable arena of the unsayable. When Pavese insists that the work has an unsaid quality it is because the writer has sought out a space of being that can be opened up but cannot easily be disclosed. Sartre is asking for no more than the transparency of the communicable. If Mia Madre feels like a very honest film, it rests on the transparency of the communicable as it opens up only as much space as is required for the material to be clear to us. It offers the film’s sadness with sincerity, a word that might be hard to define but often easy enough to witness when in action. Yet to call Amour a sincere film would be as helpful as claiming that it is a sad one. It has entered into a realm where such words are no longer valid.
Earlier we talked about various contemporary films that possess the undisclosable, and it might be useful to say a few words about some of them. Why does PT Anderson’s There Will be Blood possess this quality while we feel it is absent from his earlier Magnolia? While it is usual that a director’s oeuvre exists in the arena of the disclosed or the undisclosable, perhaps various constraints and expectations placed on American filmmakers make this difficult to sustain. There is an enormous difference between Gerry and Elephant, and Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, yet Gus Van Sant directed all four. Our purpose though isn’t to say too much about American production history and audience expectation, but to examine the formal and the ontological. How do films There Will Be Blood and Stray Dogs, for example, find the unsaid? Much of it rests on the nature of the question the film seems be asking of itself. There Will be Blood doesn’t show a man who is making good; he is much more a figure internally unravelling while he makes a fortune and yet cannot find within himself a motive for this desire. There is no sense throughout the film that Daniel Plainview can discover in the pleasures of existence a tangible measure for his drive. If he had found women, property, drink, drugs and social status of importance the drive would have been matched by gains, however empty and finally elusive. The difference between There Will be Blood and The Wolf of Wall Street rests partly here as Scorsese frequently acknowledges the pleasures involved in central character Jordan’s life; Anderson wonders constantly what drives his central character with the question never quite finding its answer. When early in the film Plainview breaks his leg and drags himself along the ground for miles trying to find help, he is also in the process of leaving behind the gold that will make his fortune. Personal survival looks like it might sacrifice personal wealth, but Plainview will get to make his claim even though the rest of the film shows us not so much how much money he will make, but how much will he possesses. This is the opposite case in Scorsese’s film: the will is always secondary to the success, with Jordan the chancer who can’t believe his luck, and we are well aware that his notion of good fortune is entirely linked to money. His belief in it and the life it gives him means that everything can be said.
In There Will be Blood, the money appears entirely secondary to the will, with no object capable of matching the ambition of a man who can own the world, yet does not gain anything but an awareness of his emptiness as a consequence of it. Even in the sequence where Plainview talks about the benefits that will accrue to the community, as the film offers a simultaneous montage of the progress to be made, we are witnessing a man whose will is more evident than the deed. If the sequence in There Will be Blood owes a debt to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (both films have Jack Fisk as production designer) we can contrast the scene with the well-known house-building sequence in Witness. In Peter Weir’s more conventional film we have the community build a house in a montage of community values at work; in There Will be Blood we have Plainview’s speech cross-cut with the town developing under his influence. Yet the point in Anderson’s film isn’t the community spirit evident in Witness, but the force of one man’s vision imposed on the people who will work for him. We do not believe that Plainview wants the best for the community, which isn’t the same as saying he wants to destroy it either. As he intones in a voice indebted to John Huston we are reminded of Huston in Chinatown, a great film of course but one that nevertheless ‘speaks’ through Jack Nicholson’s JJ Gittes. The film is less mysterious than There Will be Blood partly because of its focalisation, its characterisational perspective. It holds on Gittes’s sense of love and loss rather than on Huston’s perversity. Anderson zeroes in on the mystery of Plainview and holds to it for three hours. The brilliant mystery of Chinatown is plotted, leading to one of the finest genre films ever made. There Will be Blood examines, trying to find in Plainview an aspect of American manifest destiny. Chinatown discloses its plot; Plainview remains undisclosable.
In Stray Dogs, Tsai Ming-Liang wonders what stillness might be, what it means to find oneself employed as a billboard man, holding yourself steady against the wind and rain, well aware that you are inadequate next to a piece of concrete holding the pole into the ground. There seems something especially strange about this form of labour in an age when automation is increasingly taking over. It is one thing to find out that complicated software might soon make you redundant, but the mere mixing of cement could make the central character here superfluous. Yet Tsai finds in the billboard man an ongoing interest in movement and its absence. If Tsai is one of the great modern directors it resides in amongst other things the relative absence of conventional bodily actions in his work and his capacity to suggest self and object are not always so easily distinguishable. Few jobs more than the human billboard objectifies the human; yet Tsai is also interested in humanising the object. “The house started crying…Can’t you see the tears?” one character says to another in the film, as we might muse over other Tsai works with houses that cry or feel lonely: the leaky apartment in Rebels of the Neon God; the empty, ‘lonely’ flat in Vive l’amour. Tsai seeks a humanity that defies the term human, as though it is not broad enough an empathic mode to incorporate all of being. By turning a man into an object as he becomes a human billboard, so Tsai can wonder what being is; where does it reside? If for Descartes the ontology rested in thinking therefore I am; for Sartre this thinking was of no use unless accompanied by action, and the more clear an understanding one has of the nature of the deed, the more clear the task. “The ideal rational act would therefore be the one for which the motives would be practically nil and which would be uniquely inspired by an objective evaluation of the situation, The irrational or passionate act will be characterized by the reverse proportion.” (Being and Nothingness)
But what of inertia, with neither a pure thought nor a pure action? Do not most films assume a Cartesian or a Sartrean formulation in thoughts and deeds? Tsai, however, assumes that a being without thought and action might be a useful place to start. Throughout his films we do not know what his characters think, and see them so often failing to act. He frequently gives them jobs that maximise this capacity to objectify themselves: selling watches in What Time is it There?, working at the box-office at a cinema in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, flogging knick-knacks on the street in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. This allows for a mode of slowness and often stillness that has an aesthetic component, of course, but also an ontological one. We distinguish one from the other by suggesting that the former will make us wonder about the difference between the photographic and the cinematic, the latter stillness and movement. The photograph has no movement even if the photo will often suggest movement within it. Think of Nick Ut’s The Terror of War, or Ron Galella’s Windblown Jackie. The condition of photography is stillness yet it constantly alludes to movement. Film is in motion, but can indicate fixity within the frame and within the film. Few directors have pushed this as far as Tsai, as if wanting to find in the moving image an ontology distinct from the metaphysics of subjectivity and towards a condition of the object.
Both Daniel Plainview and Tsai’s characters talk little, and we notice this also in other films we have mentioned in passing, like Cemetery of Splendour and Horse Money. We can see how this can contribute to scenes getting lost in the splice as they cannot say the words that can carry the cut. Let us think for example of a typical film where we have two characters going on a date and as one drops the other off at their apartment, one asks the other what they will be doing at the weekend. The other one says I am free, and the former says that he will pick her up at seven on Saturday evening. A date is set diegetically and the viewer has a temporal marker too. There may be various scenes inserted between these two moments, the characters at work, going to the gym, meeting up with friends, but whether the film goes directly from one date to the next, or inserts scenes between these two moments, nothing gets lost in the splice and nothing remains of the unsaid. But imagine if nothing is said as she exits the car, no date is made, no comments offered. The film has generated an aspect of the unsaid and we might wonder as the next scene shows him in a bar whether an hour has passed, or a week, or a month. It allows for moments to be lost in the splice all the better to find an aspect of the unsaid as we might muse over what the characters are feeling. In our first example we would have a good idea what the characters are thinking (they are looking forward to their next date), and assume that any scenes are intervening moments towards that next encounter; remove the dialogue exchange and we are more tentative in our assumptions about the feelings and the temporal.
In conclusion, this is very loosely the difference between Mia Madre and Amour. Even though Mia Madre has a number of scenes that ask us to wonder whether we are watching a flashback, a dream, a reverie or a scene within the film, our status remains surprisingly secure between one sequence and the next. In Haneke’s film, the wife’s deterioration process is full of ellipses, and within these there is the elliptical nature of the husband who would seem to have enigmas of his own. It is a modern film in the Rivettian sense of the term and generates as a consequence a modern sensibility as Mia Madre does not. It holds in abeyance our feelings because we cannot always say with confidence what exactly they ought to be. It creates like many a great modern film an affective dissonance which isn’t the same thing as feeling’s absence. While we sense that Moretti takes full responsibility for how we should feel towards the central character as we sense her pain just as readily as we reckon she is a pain, as the film gives us numerous scenes that convey her attitude and illustrate her feelings, we cannot say with the same confidence this is how Amour sees Georges. We know too little about him, and he expresses so little feeling, that the film remains a mysterious experience: a film about death that does not let us grieve, a film about courageously looking after a loved one that doesn’t allow us to feel worthy, and a film about devotion that doesn’t leave us feeling devoted. We watch pensively aware, knowing that not only scenes can get lost in the splice, but one’s emotional responses too as something gets insistently left unsaid.