Life is Elsewhere
Life is Elsewhere may be the title of a Milan Kundera novel, but it could also be an alternative title for Rafael Filippelli’s Buenos Aires set Musica Nocturna. Here is a film that in theme and content alludes constantly to a world somewhere else; to other hopes and other possibilities, and might be described as a melancholic work in the Pessoan sense when the great Portuguese poet says in The Book of Disquiet, “the other truth is that, since every noble soul desires to live life in its entirety – experiencing all things, all places and all feelings – and since this is objectively impossible, the only way for a noble soul to live life is subjectively; only by denying life can it be lived in its entirety”.
The film follows little more than a night in the life of a Buenos Aires couple, both of whom still love each other but where desire is perhaps somewhere else. Both are creative – she is a playwright while he writes fiction and articles – and it is maybe in the creative act that they feel the melancholy not of past event (as if lost like characters in a Marguerite Duras novel in a moment of time past) but in the inadequacy of time present. This is a Proustian rather than a Durasian problem if we take into account comments by Julia Kristeva who has written illuminatingly on both writers, on Duras in Black Sun; on Proust in Proust and the Sense of Time. But it is a few comments she makes in a book of interviews that we want to look at. In one of the interviews she mentions her own students and Duras, saying they insist “we cannot read Duras because it is so close to us that it plunges us back into the sickness”. This is the sickness of life lost and recollected not in Proustian tranquillity but in despair: Kristeva considers that Duras’s work contains and retains the despairing, “but I consider that it is not cathartic, but, let’s say an echo, a connivance with depression.” Proust, however, she says in another interview, referring to the Proustian sentence, escapes “from the linearity of passing time to create the highly specific temporal weaving, a weaving that makes us think of Heidegger’s temporality but is deeply different from it because it goes beyond concern and into joy”. If Duras gets locked in time past and into depression; Proust frees time from ready coordinates and achieves joy.
Does this make Musica Nocturna a joyous film? No, not exactly, but perhaps we can call it a melancholic film, utilising melancholy not as it is often, and was originally, used, as meaning depression, but closer to the Pessoan position: as the sadness of living only one life when we wish we could live many, the sadness of living in the present tense when we know a full existence requires accessing the past and awaiting the future to contain it. The self is joyous but curiously discontent – as if the present cannot fulfil one’s yearnings. As Proust notes in Time Regained: “there was in me a personage who knew more or less how to look, but it was an intermittent personage, coming to life only in the presence of some general essence common to a number of things, these essences being its nourishment and its joy. Then the personage looked and listened, but at a certain depth only, without my powers of superficial observation being enhanced.” Here the self is only partially in the moment all the better to extract from that moment the essential characteristics. It is as though the principle of the thing allows for joy over sadness, but nevertheless accepts the melancholic impossibility of living within the moment itself.
The question Musica Nocturna seems to ask is how does one express this both narratively and formally. How to tell a story that lives inside the moment yet constantly alludes to a broader sense of existence? Narratively the film does so by condensing a marriage, possible infidelities and work into a twenty four hour period, and alluding to the length of time of the marriage in a certain indifferent familiarity the couple share. For example when we first see Cecilia arriving home she doesn’t immediate say hello to her husband, but attends to a couple of details first. Filippelli reflects this in the shot that he offers. Federico sits on the couch looking into the distance at the mirror, and we see Cecilia passing across the hall through her reflection in it. They can see each other by virtue of the mirror, but they show indifference in their inability initially to face each other. This is an Antonioniesque choreography of crisis but literally reflected in the mirror that allows them to see each other without immediately and physically acknowledging the other’s presence. It is a love without energy, which isn’t the same thing as saying the characters do not love each other, nor that they don’t need each other, but merely it seems that they cannot generate the emotional enthusiasm required to greet each other when one of them comes through the door. Yet aren’t they also inextricably connected, that their deepest loyalties lie with each other, no matter if their passion may reside elsewhere?
We may note for example the moment in the film where Federico is going out the main door of the building and he holds it open for a young woman who mistakes him for someone else as she kisses him on the cheek. As she continues out of the frame and up the stairs, his body is turned longingly in her direction: a brief moment of unequivocal emotional enthusiasm he cannot offer his partner, and that his partner cannot offer to him. Yet when we later see Cecilia with a friend, who now lives in Madrid but is back in the city to promote his new book, and who is like Federico a writer and a rather more successful one, Cecilia cannot quite give herself to him, cannot quite eradicate from her body language and her thoughts the man she still seems to love. As Sergio and Cecilia walk, with his arm in hers in a gesture more possessive than mutual, he mentions the Latin phrase “Voluntatis defectio: lack of will power, apathy”. Just afterwards, when Cecilia says that she suspects that Federico will never finish his book, and that he had an article rejected, Sergio asks how he can live like that, and Cecilia’s body language shrinks from Sergio as if returning to Federico.
It is perhaps that she sees in Federico not the ambition that is so obviously present in Sergio, but a hesitancy of ambition which is not quite the same thing as failure. It is again perhaps a Pessoan thing, evident when Pessoa says “the higher a man rises, the more things he must do without. There’s no room on the pinnacle except for the man himself. The more perfect he is the more complete; and the more complete, the less other.” Sergio is successful enough to have his book prominently displayed in large book shops; Federico has still to write his. Sergio is all of a piece: his gestures, voice and attire all contributing to a smooth image of a man in control of his environment; while Federico is metonymically the man of existential authenticity and social failure. Where Sergio wears a coat, shirt, tie and jacket that match his salt and pepper hair; Federico is the balding, long-haired figure in the long coat: he is in the European tradition of Bruno Ganz in In the White City or Eternity and a Day, Marcello Mastroianni in The Suspended Step of the Stork and The Bee Keeper. Where Sergio seems to have a younger woman; Federico longingly looks at one as she goes up the stairs.
One might say that to be a success is to deny one’s possibilities; whilst in failure one can still be what ever one wants to be. Even a failed marriage is from a certain point of view, cinematically, better than a successful one: the film may not have much of a story, but how much less interesting would the film have been if the characters stayed in for the night? There is a sense in their night ambulations, of Cecilia’s meeting with Sergio, and Federico’s wanderings, that this is yearning given physical form: it is a kind of emotional ballad, taking into account Deleuze’s comments on the trip/ballad in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Here he says that in some way the characters are “unconcerned even by what happens to them: whether in the style of Rossellini, the foreign woman who discover the island, the bourgeoise who discovers the factory; or in the style of Godard, the Pierrot le fou generation. But it is precisely the weakness of the motor linkages, the weak connections, that are capable of releasing huge forces of disintegration in the characters.”
There are certain genres that lend themselves to this disintegration just as there are others that lead to the reaffirmation of self. If the romantic comedy is an obvious example of affirmation, as it goes towards the making of a couple, it is also interesting to take into account philosopher Stanley Cavell’s notions of the comedy of remarriage, mentioned in Pursuits of Happiness, which would surely be an example of reaffirmation. Here we have films like Adam’s Rib, Mr and Mrs Smith and His Girl Friday, where the marital discord is returned to the sensory motor demands of the romantic comedy. The couple split up all the better to get back together again, as the couple who initially part discover a new set of obstacles (irritation with each other; other suitors) before realising that they are meant to be together.
But the disintegrating marriage film (from Voyage to Italy to La Notte to We Don’t Live Here Anymore), whether the couple end up together or not, starts to create the sort of spaces for the melancholic possibilities we have alluded to in relation to Pessoa, and the more abstract and allusive these possibilities are, the more the film loses its clear narrative coordinates. The choreography of crisis Antonioni so mastered replaces the certitude of gesture. Instead of each action containing an external reaction, it adopts an internal one, and this is why we talk of the absence of emotional energy: whether it is turned towards someone else or against the partner, there is subdued emotional force within the marriage, and it is this subdued energy that disintegrates the kinetic force of sensory motor action. In Voyage to Italy, Ingrid Bergman’s character becomes fascinated by the sights in and around Naples, as though looking to find affective meaning where it is absent in her marriage. In La notte, Jeanne Moreau wanders round Milan rather as Bergman passes through Naples: someone looking to find a place for frustrated passion. Even in the more mainstream We Don’t Live Here Anymore, it transpires that when Mark Ruffalo can tell his wife about his affair, it releases once again the feelings he has for her: that the passionate fling with Naomi Watts’s character is finally irrelevant next to unresolved feelings he has for his wife. In other words the films are working with internal energy forces that deny the smoothly kinetic: they are interested in accessing trapped energy, not too easily or readily releasing it.
How does this manifest itself, though, beyond the characters in Musica Nocturna and through the very film itself? One can think here of the various filmic elements, including sound, image and posture. From the opening shot the director indicates that sound occupies off screen space as much as an on screen presence, and this off-screenness is twofold. It lies in the direct sound Filippelli uses, and also in the non-diegetic music that punctuates the film. In this first shot, interrupted by reflective voice-over, the fixed frame captures a street in Buenos Aires at presumably approaching dawn, with the sounds of chirping birds and the vague sound of barking dogs. It would be a meditative shot even without the voice-over, indeed almost invites the voice-over. The film announces its mood by announcing the space: this is a frame suggestive of absence (no character passes through it), and a world elsewhere not only in hints of off-screen space, but also in its dawness: a city that is still asleep; the approaching dawn announces itself like a frame waiting to be filled. After this initial shot, Filippelli cuts to black leader, to a blacking out the frame, holds it briefly, and then offers a high angled shot from an apartment balcony as we see central character Federico crossing the street presumably coming towards the very flat we are viewing the shot from. There is faint piano music playing, as if caught between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, between music that one might assume is playing in the apartment if someone were in it, and music playing outside the story. Like the use of Mikhail Glinka in Sokurov’s Mother and Son, Shostakovich in Reygadas’s Japon, it might best be described as interdiegetic, somehow caught between ambient on-screen music and music superimposed on the film. How could it be playing in Federico’s apartment we may wonder when he arrives in it and he is alone? Yet it doesn’t quite impose itself upon us as much non-diegetic music does: it doesn’t operate directly on our emotions, but alludes instead to an internal feeling slightly out of reach. This isn’t the case with famous examples of non-diegetic classical music in, say, Visconti’s Death in Venice, utilising Mahler, Bresson using Lully in Pickpocket or even Vivaldi in Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. The non-diegetic music is still explicit: in Sokurov, in Reygadas and in Filippelli it becomes implicit.
It is we might notice a potentially decentring device consistent with the use of ambient sound, the sense of off-screen space and the marital disintegration that leads to sensory motor disconnection. If the music imposes itself too strongly on the film it centres the screen space and life is no longer elsewhere. It lacks that necessary melancholy of the possible.
This sense of life being elsewhere is also evident not only in the image but in the soundtrack more generally. The sounds of off-screen space are prominent. During a conversation between Federico and a friend at the theatre where Federico’s wife’s play is performed, the conversational is more imposing than the ambient, but the ambient is still strongly enough present to make the chat feel contained by the world of alternative possibilities. This sense of ambience puts everything the characters say into a perspective broader than their own thoughts: it gives conversation a conditional air. In most films the dialogue is purposeful rather than conditional: often expository and dynamic. Expository in the sense of telling the story through the characters comments as they explain future events or meetings, and dynamic taking into what script gurus often talk of as goal-oriented behaviour. As David Howard says in How to Build a Great Screenplay, “…all characters – not just the protagonist and antagonist, but also the other principals in the story – need to want something.” The dialogue they offer is consistent with the known desires they possess. This can lead to the purposeful. But the conditional has less known desires than wistful yearnings, so that where many films will close that off-screen space all the better to reflect on screen wants, a film like Musica Nocturna seeks to reflect yearning over known desire, and opens up the screen space to conditional possibilities over purposeful actions. “It is important to keep characters busy with activities”, Howard says, but Filippelli would probably reply that it is important to keep them idle with thoughts. When Federico and his friend ‘walk and talk’ this isn’t in the narratively oriented manner so described by Hollywood filmmakers and explored by David Bordwell in The Way Hollywood Tells It, “with a steadicam carrying us along as characters spit out exposition on the fly”, but more walk and thought. As Federico and the friend discuss the idea that the critic needs to be more flexible than the artist, needs a broader range of interests, so we feel a twofold tentativeness. Firstly the dialogue offers speculation: an idea about artists and critics; secondly: the ambient sound reflects the arbitrariness of the conversation. It is a conversation amongst other conversations. In walk and talk this doesn’t happen; usually the dialogue is crisp and surrounding sound irrelevant: we have to focus on the conversation, especially, as Bordwell notes, since it is usually expository. Indeed even the very camera movement indicates urgency: as if to say listen carefully and listen hard. Filippelli might say instead: listen deeply and with feeling.
In walk and talk, posture is assured and confident; purposeful and focused. In Musica Nocturna posture is ‘undecideable’, caught between stillness and action, between assertion and fatigue. In a film so in sympathy with ambivalent bodily states it figures that Sergio comes across as supercilious: all his bodily gestures move in the direction of increased assuredness, and it makes sense that when Sergio not only offers body language but also questions the way Federico acts, that Cecilia allows her own body language to become caught between different postures; or rather decides to turn it away from Sergio and as if towards the absent Federico. At that moment it would seem life is elsewhere for her; as if the failure of her husband nevertheless seems favourably real next to the smugness of Sergio. Sergio seems someone who is never quite elsewhere, but always there. He is based in Madrid and visiting Buenos Aires, but he gives off no sense that he is nostalgic for home, and presumably can fly back without much fear of the cost or worry over lost time: he is the man simultaneously at leisure and at work. He is someone who in the clothes he wears, and with the success of the book he has written, suggests he can be at home anywhere: he is comfortable.
This isn’t to say Federico and Cecilia are without money. They appear to live in an adequate apartment in a decent part of the city, and she writes plays while he attempts to write a novel. Cecilia dresses well enough, and Federico’s dress sense indicates less poverty than disillusionment: the garb of writer’s block and imminent failure. These are dissatisfied people rather than poor ones; merely a couple lacking the resources to live the sort of life Sergio can take for granted, as if they lack the capacity to actualise the possible: to live that life elsewhere. One might even see it in the contrast between Sergio’s comments on taking a younger woman as a lover, and the moment where we see Federico look longingly at the girl after he lets her into the building. Sergio talks of an absent woman he has possessed with no sense of yearning or loss, while Federico watches a person who has exited the frame and seems to contain in her, in that moment, all that he wishes he could have.
Perhaps the scene that encapsulates the film best is the one in the bar between Federico and an old man he chats with. The man used to write stories for the radio, and still leafs through the newspapers looking for possible inspiration for a job he no longer has. He tells Federico about one story in the paper where two Japanese men believed they were still at war many years after it had ended, as if reflecting on his own activities after he has become more or less unemployed, and also at the notion that life is often elsewhere. Here are two men on a Pacific island still believing the war is ongoing, afraid to return home in case they are treated as deserters, and instead post-war Japan has moved on. It is almost an Ozu scene, so the Japanese reference is especially apt: the type of reflective moment Yasujiro Ozu would often have in films like An Autumn Afternoon or Late Spring, where men talk at the bar, and suggest the passing of time not only in the casual instant spent there, but also in the reflections that come out of the bar space. It is a scene that simultaneously reflects theme, suggests the arbitrary (the men have never met before, and Federico really only went into the bar to use the bathroom), and opens up the film’s sense of narrative stillness: that any encounter can be absorbed into the film’s diegesis, without having to further narrative event.
If this latter point is especially important it is because it can capture the feeling of life always being potentially elsewhere, instead of narratively somewhere. The more apparently arbitrary, the more untethered from narrative furtherance, the greater the possibility for this ‘elsewhereness’. Now obviously the more mainstream a film is the less chance of the encounter that hints at the elsewhere, the less likely the arbitrary will be. Indeed David Howard insists in How to Build a Great Screenplay, “you can build stories around characters who pursue impossible dreams or attempt impossible actions, but you can’t effectively tell their stories by making the audience hope for their success in those dreams and actions.” Why, we may ask, especially when Howard adds, “we can invest our emotions in a character who is striving to do an impossible feat only so long as our hopes and fears are focused elsewhere on the character’s life and well-being, not on his predictable failure.” By this reckoning Musica Nocturna is a failure on all levels, but better to quote Pessoa than to allow a script guru to dismiss the film. “My destiny, which has pursued me like a malevolent creature, is to be able to desire only what I know I’ll never get.” When Sergio expresses his incomprehension over Federico, it isn’t too far removed from a script guru frustratingly trying to adapt The Book of Disquiet.
At the beginning of Musica Nocturna the very first scene seems permeated with the inevitability of failure. It lies in the burgeoning dawn light to which we have already alluded, and the voice-over admitting the difficulty of writing a novel. This isn’t so much narrative thrust as narrative distrust, exemplified in the difficulties expressed in the writing of fiction. When Federico says at the beginning of the film “between interesting ideas for lost articles and writing a worthy book, there’s a distance from here to Morocco” it resembles Kundera’s claim in The Art of the Novel about Kafka’s novels and his letters. “From the sketch to the work one travels on one’s knees”, Kundera says, quoting Vladimir Holan. “And I refuse”, Kundera adds, “to put the Letters to Felice on the same level as The Castle.” Yet few would deny that Kafka’s letters are more interesting than many writers’ novels: not all books seem to require the writer travels on his knees, or that the distance from an article to a book is the distance from Buenos Aires to Morocco. The difficulty for Federico resides presumably in the notion of a worthy book; what makes the book difficult isn’t the labour only, but the force within the self that demands the work exist on its own terms; where one senses Sergio’s book exists much more on social terms. During the conversation in the theatre, the friend says that to do really good work one has to be a bit reckless, and draws an analogy with a Risk Club in England. Here one can only be a member if the person has done some dangerous activity like parachuting or chained submerged in a bucket of water. The work must risk something it seems, and when later in the film Sergio expresses incomprehension over Federico to Cecilia, is he someone who risks far less, no matter his relative success? Has he really crossed Buenos Aires to Morocco in the work, or has it been like his own smooth aerial transportations from Madrid to Buenos Aires?
Is Musica Nocturna itself a vainglorious work, full of pride for its own difficulties in evolving a story? Perhaps it belongs to the tradition of the conditional film, yet without itself becoming about the process of its own making. Godard is of course the master of this tiny genre of the conditional: Le Mepris, Tout va Bien, Forever Mozart, even Eloge de L’amour, while other examples would include Fellini’s 8 ½, and Richard Rush’s The Stuntman. But there is also the conditional film as analogous art form, and John Orr in Contemporary Cinema has written about La Belle Noiseuse and Caravaggio as films that allow for the filmmaker’s self-image to be indirectly transposed through another art form as he talks of the camera as double vision. In Musica Nocturna, the film is a bit like the book Federico cannot write; that its narrative absence is part of the film’s hesitant nature.
Yet the joy of cinema is perhaps the manner in which the conditional can be registered through a certain inevitability of the medium: the sense that cinema doesn’t need to be made; one merely needs to turn the camera on. When a conservative critic like Roger Scruton in an article called ‘Photography and Representation’ insists cinema cannot be an art because it is a mechanical instrument, but can only be an art because of its dramatic rendering (because of the story it tells in front of the camera), this might be nonsense from one point of view, but useful from another. It is useful not as a way of dismissing cinema but of accepting that it is a great conditional form. Even the sketch that never becomes a painting, the notes that never become the novel, nevertheless require non-mechanical intervention: a film can be made without the same cognitive effort and craftsmanship. When Wim Wenders says in an essay, ‘Impossible Stories’, found in The Logic of Images, “story always assumes control, it knows its course, it knows what matters, it knows where it begins and ends” he is offering the sort of comments that Scruton would naively say allows cinema to be an art. But Wenders wouldn’t agree, and adds “Daydream is quite different; it doesn’t have the ‘dramaturgical’ control. What it has is a kind of subconscious guide who wants to get on, no matter where.” It is the very mechanical nature of reproduction, the relative arbitrariness of the form that is not especially controlled, that allows for Wenders’ art. The conditional resides in not quite knowing what one has captured, because by turning the camera on you will always capture something, no matter the lack of the will in the person doing the filming. Wenders isn’t denying film art by resisting the dramatic (which for Scruton would remove the aesthetic aspect from the film, since the aesthetic lies in the dramatic manipulation), but as readily reveals it. In this sense the film doesn’t know what it will be until it is made: and it is the very making that captures the quality of wilfulness meeting the absence of will, and hence the conditional. Musica Nocturna obviously doesn’t suggest the camera was simply turned on, and we’ve explained how the film utilises sound and image in distinctive ways. But it is as if there is always in film a dimension of the arbitrary and conditional, and that Musica Nocturna accesses this dimension.
It is the conditional that also returns us to Pessoa and the possible: is the conditional in film not a variation of the possible in Pessoa’s writing? “After I’ve slept many dreams, I go out to the street with eyes wide open but still with the aura and assurance of my dreams. And I’m astonished by my automatism, which prevents others from really knowing me.” Musica Nocturna feels a little like not a waking dream, so much as a semi-awoken state: a state where feeling takes priority over action, where mood is more significant than purpose. It is a film that respects torpor as not an escape from reality but its very core. Boredom becomes the opportunity to be manifold. Federico may be a manifold failure; but is this not a better place than singularly oneself as Sergio appears to be? Cecilia’s very vacillation – her frustration with Federico; her irritation with Sergio – leaves her caught between two modes, two approaches to the world. Near the end of the film she insists Sergio was never in love with her – they have known each other since high school. The comment comes shortly after Federico plays a piece of music from a 16th century composer who killed his wife and her lover. Buenos Aires in the 21st century would not seem to be a place for such passions, but the subdued feelings can nevertheless equally be expressed in the music that they listen to as they talk about life’s possibilities (Cecilia talks of the chance of working in a university in the States), while sitting and offering the most tentative of affection within a relationship so established that it seems almost inevitably to be atrophying. Cecilia touches Federico’s beard and wonders if he needs it trimmed. Can a new feeling emerge out of this most banal of gestures? Earlier in the film after returning from Cecilia’s play, Federico kisses her almost as if they were on a first date, and she says, “so you like me?” Can an old relationship find a new feeling, the film almost seems to ask; can it find the possible out of the probable, or will Cecilia and Federico, listening to night music, inevitably move on?