Monday Morning is a great film about what exactly? It is about finding ways to alleviate the mundane pressure of everyday life, yes, but also the need to live freely within oneself yet also for others. Otar Iosseliani’s film works with the paradox of one’s responsibility towards others, and one’s responsibility towards oneself. In the early sequences at the factory which play like The Red Desert filmed by Jacques Tati, the film captures well the absurd nature of industrial productivity, while countering it with the village life central character Vincent (Jacques Bidou) returns to each evening. However one day he doesn’t return and instead gets a train from his French village to Venice, drifting through the Italian town, sharing encounters, having his wallet stolen and getting drunk with an acquaintance he meets as they look over Venice from one of its rooftops. In an interview with Positif, Iosseliani once said, speaking of influences cinematic and otherwise, “I am what I am because of my grandparents, who brought me up, and my parents. Even their absence was sometimes an example, perhaps an even more significant one than their presence.” It is as though Vincent wants to test out this hypothesis by disappearing from his family’s life for a short period, with not only Vincent trying to discover himself again, but also those he left behind.
What is worth exploring here is how Monday Morning achieves this sense of the present and the absent, the film’s gentle capacity to imply a presence but also acknowledge a broader aporia. Indeed Vincent’s commuting back and forth to the factory is a play on this as he returns home early in the film as if a stranger in his own house. As he wanders through the rambling place he tastes some food, says hi to the kids and goes up into an attic space where he paints. It seems everybody is absent and present to each other; yet Iosseliani here is not at all a director of alienation, of people locked in on themselves; more one who explores contingent emotional needs. As he pragmatically proposes, “in my opinion, there are two sorts of people – those I would like to share a meal with, and those I avoid, using work or whatever as an excuse.” In Monday Morning, the character meanders through the film looking for whatever gives him space to breathe, to feel, to think.
What we’ll touch upon here is a number of these encounters. Vincent takes a train from the French town to Venice, meeting on it a woman who looks on disapprovingly as he drinks straight out of a bottle of wine. Shortly afterwards, though, he is helping her with her luggage as they get off the train. After he sees her to her boat, as it pulls away she blows him a kiss. We have no idea how the encounter develops from a look of disapproval to a loving kiss as Iosseliani once again offers what we might call a hiatal interaction – a brief moment in one’s life that need have no further impact of one’s existence beyond it, and Iosseliani’s use of ellipsis adds to the mysterious meaningfulness of the encounter. Another example of this hiatal interaction comes when Vincent gets robbed in the Italian city. Later in the film the same thief tries to rob him again, but Vincent turns to face him before turning out his pockets to show that he has no more money: the thief has already taken it. In another film this would be played for two things: cause and effect and drama. The earlier scene would leave Vincent resentful, and when he sees the thief again he would confront him in a tussle. Instead they have a hiatal interaction: Vincent acknowledges the thief has to make a living, and the thief has to accept that Vincent is a tree whose fruit has already been picked. The film plays up the elliptical mystery of the exchange.
In this sense the film is philosophical in common parlance: as one might say after we have lost our money in a bad business deal that we must be philosophical about it. One finds a perspective that is aloof to the crisis of the situation. Vincent passes through these situations as if always greater than the events that happen to him, but nevertheless capable of living in the moment. To live so completely in the moment allows for hiatal interaction, creates the space for encounters that needn’t be especially motivated, nor especially impacting on one’s life. When at the end of the film the mother asks whether he enjoyed his time away, he says that it was a journey. He offers the comment with what might seem like a mixture of futility and regret, but better to see it as the acknowledgement of a series of moments discrete and inconsequential, yet also meaningful.
Indeed such a method indicates Iosseliani’s own: an approach to story that doesn’t build but drifts, where character purpose is usually secondary to the flux of life. This is evident also in Gardens in Autumn, where people gain and lose political power but the film’s take on the political is that there are always more important moments to concern us if we create the space to attend to them. This might seem paradoxical – talking of important moments on the one hand but the contingencies of life on the other – but for Iosseliani it seems the moment is well put by the great ancient philosopher Marcus Aurelias when he says ,“for the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.” Iosseliani’s approach, consistent with the Roman author, is the antithesis of the narrative model that Syd Field in Screenplay and other screenwriting gurus insist upon. “If you don’t know the basic structure of your story line, you’re not really ready to start writing. That’s why I stress the importance of the four things you need to know before you put one word down on paper: the ending, beginning, and Plot Points I and II. If you don’t know these four points you’re in trouble.” Iosseliani’s method is quite different. “My method is closer to writing music, or mathematics. I often apply mathematical methods, particularly that of the shortest length between two points.” “Once I’ve got an outline, I elaborate each sequence, each one around a fable of its own.”
Such an approach allows Iosseliani to create his lazy momentum, where things happen but without much thrust coming from the characters themselves. He creates multiple strand storytelling without arriving at the sort of network narrative filmmaking that has become popular in recent years, in films like Babel, Amores Perros, The Edge of Heaven, Paul Haggis’s Crash, and Magnolia. Generally in the network narrative films stories pull together to create a lateral pot logic; In Babel we realize at the end of the film the gun that wounds the American wife on the bus in Morocco belonged to a man who lives in Japan, and so the cross-cutting between three continents ends up justified by the gun that links them together. In Crash, the white racist cop who sends a black couple’s marriage into freefall after he stops the husband’s car is the very man who later rescues the wife from a car crash. Often we’re watching and wondering how certain events are linked to others, and the narrative pay off comes later in coincidence and revelation.
Iosseliani is interested instead in gentle rhythms more than plot revelations and coincidences, which is why it makes sense he draws analogies with music. The encounters throughout the film, and the stories that develop partly off-screen, are based on this ease of rhythm, a lazy undramatic unfurling. There is a scene where Vincent goes along to the beach where a group of people are having a picnic. As Vincent talks about wine to a priest a few yards away from the group, a child starts playing up and an adult clips him over the head. The camera passes in one shot from Vincent and the priest talking and then on to the boy being smacked. Now during the sequence Vincent joins them and is seated on the edge of the frame, but by the end of the shot, after the boy has been smacked, we see him sitting by the shore, where he says in his country they don’t smack children. Now we have no idea how Vincent reacted to the slap, except that he must have got up and walked off to sit by the shore. The dramatic way to show such disapproval of violence towards children would have been a reaction shot to Vincent, and then watching him get up and storm off. But Iosseliani’s manner of filming leaves us knowing that Vincent has got up and left because later in the shot he sits by the beach. The director has registered disapproval without showing dramatic righteousness. Just as we noted Vincent turning to the thief and showing that he has no money rather than attacking the man who has stolen from him, here Vincent quietly removes himself from the situation without entering into conflict. Many of the network narrative films search out collisions dramatically and narratively; Monday Morning asks no more than that people have their reasons and they differ from those of others. There is no need to fight over these conflicts; one avoids people if they’re troublesome to our sensibility, or one’s drawn towards them if others share a sensibility like one’s own: the earlier Ioselliani quote. Not that this is especially true of all of Iosseliani’s work, and for example his mid-eighties Favorites of the Moon captures the tension of Parisians more than any blaseness; the lazy momentum is in the story, but not in the characters.
In Monday Morning there are characters as bitter and self-absorbed as in Favorites of the Moon, but the film’s sensibility lies elsewhere. We might think in this instance of the scene where Vincent visits a Venetian Monsignor who was a friend of his father’s. As Vincent hands a note over to his servant, the servant goes upstairs and delivers it, with the Monsignor getting out of bed, putting on his robe and arranging the apartment ready for a visit. Vincent goes up and stays for little more than a minute, leaving as though disapproving of the figure he is sitting having tea with (he accepts a drink but refuses the tea). There is nothing in the exchange that makes us think Vincent is especially irritated with the man, though the moment before Vincent arrives the Monsignor clearly creates a particular, prepared impression that we witness but Vincent does not, and after Vincent leaves he starts swearing at the maid, and Vincent overhears him from outside the building as he takes off on a boat. Again Vincent doesn’t respond aggressively to a moment that might seem to demand it, even if the insults start after Vincent has left the room.
In an article on Iosseliani in Cinemascope critic Quentin refers to his films as a cinema of kindness; we’re more inclined to call some of his films examples of a cinema of gentleness, a minor distinction perhaps, but a useful one if we want to understand the rhythms of Monday Morning. Certainly people are kind here, as Vincent finds places to stay, alcohol to drink, and company to share, but taking into account the encounters with the thief, the woman on the train, the child being hit, and the visit to the Monsignor, in each instance one could have had an inflammatory situation. But gentleness reigns.
Perhaps even the nature of aporia can be traced to this gentleness of perspective. Earlier we mentioned the director’s interest in letting a story develop with a minimum of on-screen markers, with the exchange between the woman on the train and Vincent a good example. One might see this as the difference between a sketch and a painting. Syd Field and other script experts insist on draft after draft of a script, with David Howard saying in How to Build a Great Screenplay: “one more thought on cost-benefit analysis: it’s far better, stronger and more efficient to spend the screen time to set out an idea or information well than it would be to save a little time and do it halfway. Chances are, if you scrimped the first time, you’ll find you need to do the same information again later.” Yet as Iosseliani says in the Positif interview what he wants to do is “begin by working out a kind of skeleton”, and then fleshes it out by adding “in all the little things I like, the things that make me want to shoot. I’d rather do it this way than develop a screenplay in a linear fashion, as one would a novel.” If the conventional screenplay is often suffocatingly pre-conceived, Iosseliani searches out the sketch that can give him the freedom to add what he sees in the process of shooting. The lightness of his films lies partly in their deliberate sketchiness.
There is a sequence after Vincent and the acquaintance get inebriated where he goes back to the friend’s place. They’ve both drunk too much and the wife gets annoyed but nothing is made of this irritation, and the next morning when the husband leaves for work with Vincent, the couple seem reconciled, though we have no idea whether they have made up, whether this is how they usually live – with him getting drunk and her putting him to bed – but that what counts is a certain human feeling between them. It parallels Vincent’s relationship with his own wife, with the friend also someone who goes off each morning to work in a factory to support the family. We all have our role to play, Iosseliani seems to be saying, a role that is both about responsibility towards others and freedom for ourselves. The day they spend drinking and having fun takes cares of the pleasure; the work responsibility. The sketchiness of the details need not result in superficiality of characterisation however; it can register instead depth of feeling. It leaves unsaid what is utterly and fundamentally acknowledged.
The network narrative films are very different in that they create narrative connections that perhaps in their over-determination undermine a character’s secret yearnings and desires. When near the end of Magnolia the characters share their thoughts and feelings in a montage to Aimee Mann, the film reveals these feelings as though cinema can readily access our deepest needs. Part of Monday Morning’s gentleness and ‘sketchiness’ rests in believing that cinema’s purpose resides sometimes in accepting life is a series of vignettes of which we are a part. At the end of the film Vincent returns to work, and the film’s last five shots consist of Vincent’s young son playing the piano, the older son hang-gliding and a point of view shot on the land far below, and two shots of the factory chimneys. It is a moment of disparity rather than desperation; a montage ending where the gaps the film works with are exemplified by the joy of creativity and freedom enjoyed by the kids; and the work the father returns to do. Regret, yearning, desire, hope and meaning are all evident, but remain gently subterranean.