A Simple Story

29/11/2017

The Spirit of the Municipal

A Simple StoryThe Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous don’t have a lot in common, but they are all films that somehow seem beside themselves, that find a way inside a character’s head without ignoring the reality of a given life. But while we will pay passing attention to Bernard Queysanne’s Perec adaption, and Gaspar Noe’s claustrophobic debut feature, our focus will be on Marcel Hanoun’s beautiful study of a woman’s slide towards homelessness, A Simple Story. In some ways it is indeed a simple tale; in others it is a film that offers us a literary sense of time in its constant use of voice-over and only occasional use of diegetic dialogue, while in the process playing with our expectations of cinematic point of view.

Let us take as an example a moment late in the film when a caretaker asks the central character why she is in their courtyard, and as she walks away with her daughter the central character says in voice-over that the caretaker called for her husband and they watched as she and her daughter, Sylvie, walked down the street. Now this could be disjunctive or elliptical and we must assume it to be the former. It could have been possible that between the cut of the mother and Sylvie walking halfway down the road she had seen the couple come out. But no, as the film cuts we see the husband appear by the wife’s side at the entrance and so we assume the moment to be a disjunction between the visible and the sayable. The mother cannot know they were standing watching unless we see it is an ellipsis, and a very radical one indeed; that the voice-over is in the future beyond the film’s diegetic telling: that she would later possess this knowledge but we won’t know how she possesses it. Perhaps they will help her out beyond the diegesis of the image but within the non-diegesis of the narrative. It isn’t impossible: after all the film is told in a flashback loop. About ten minutes into the film our central character reflects on her recent experiences that led to another kindly woman helping her out. The film concludes on the central character and Sylvie sleeping on some waste ground, and starts with the kindly woman finding them there. It ispossible that our heroine later sees the couple again, and they tell her they watched her walking down the street with great sadness.

We don’t want to be any more ingenious than necessary here, and we don’t want to say that Hanoun’s title is ironic: that the story is not very simple at all. It both is and it isn’t. We can easily watch Hanoun’s film as a devastatingly straightforward account of a woman’s descent into absolute poverty, but it is also an attempt to capture within that despair a tone that goes beyond that poverty without at all undermining it. The beyond in this sense is the voice-over, giving astonishing audibility to a woman who is socially all but invisible, and the film’s looping back to the end at the film’s beginning. Here our heroine is just another woman struggling to make ends meet, but who is in danger as a consequence of meeting her end. There is a moment for example when she stands in front of railway tracks and Hanoun films her initially in medium close up from behind the railings, with the use of the zoom moving into a close up as we hear the trains passing. The image suggests a woman incarcerated before Hanoun offers the counter shot from behind her back and it is as if she is free, but to do what: to kill herself, to throw herself onto the tracks? If prison is the ultimate act of constraint, is suicide freedom’s further reaches, an awareness vital to Bresson’s work where imprisonment (A Man EscapesThe Trial of Joan of ArcL’argent) and suicide (MouchetteA Gentle CreatureThe Devil, Probably) are so often central to the stories? Here Hanoun suggests the former in the shot and the latter in the counter shot, without committing to either. Yet these seem to be the stark choices available to the character: to steal and risk jail, or to accept she is without resources and take her life, and possibly her daughter’s. There are simplicity and complexity here simultaneously.

Noel Burch’s Theory of Film Practise proposes provocatively that A Simple Story is a more important film than Last Year at Marienbad, and of course, this raises questions of what important means, and from the perspective of influence we can say that Burch is wrong. Hanoun’s film has been little seen let alone had the chance to prove of much importance. Yet from a certain angle Burch has more than a point, and to help us here let us reference not only Burch but also Andre S. Labarthe’s essay on Last Year at Marienbad where he claims “that Marienbad is the last of the great neo-realist films.” Labarthe later explains: “traditional cinema has managed to do away with any possibility of ambiguity by building into every scene and shot what the spectator wasmeant to think of it: ie its meaning. Taken to the extreme, this kind of cinema did not need the spectator since he was already included in the film.” (Cahiers Du Cinema) For Labarthe the novelty of neo-realism rested on this inclusion, and could thus result in the ambiguity of meaning that led the viewer to see a film in their own way, and none more so than in the freedom to interpret that Last Year at Marienbad offers. Yet this was undeniably for many an infuriating ambiguity, one that was not quite Bazin’s ontological ambiguity of reality, but the aesthetic ambiguity of art. The ambiguity inLast Year at Marienbad was forced upon the viewer as voice over was so clearly at odds with the image, and where the two main characters could not agree on certain events. The viewer was in no position to say what was going on. They were included in one way yet excluded in another. How to create the ambiguous that is closer to Bazin’s over Resnais’? This isn’t to insist one approach is better than the other; more to suggest opposing modes of the ambiguous. If for example we see a stranger pass us in the early afternoon looking happy and we see the same person again a few hours later looking very sad, we have Bazin’s ontological ambiguity without at all an attack on our perceptual faculties. What we have is what cinema constantly practises: ellipses. We do not know what has happened in the interim, but we do feel that in the elapsed time something of significance could well have taken place. Now the person is a stranger so we are unlikely to concern ourselves with the elliptical ambiguity of the situation, yet it is there, and we could potentially attend to numerous such events in our life if we were so inclined. There has been no mystery that transcends the physical world, or questions our faculties within it, just prosaic ambiguous reality.

This is the type of prosaic ambiguity that A Simple Story appears to practice and can lead Burch to say that Hanoun’s film works “in a purely empirical manner”, as Last Year at Marienbad clearly does not. Yet both would be practising what Burch calls an indefinite ellipsis: the difference resides in Resnais’ aesthetic retreat from the real into the possibilities of the imaginary, and Hanoun’s insistence on remaining close to real-world coordinates by making the form serve the real rather than countering it. It can be consistent with our remark about the person in the street who seems happy earlier in the day but sad later on, and we don’t know why they have become so because of the limited information we possess. Now Burch refers to the indefinite ellipsis within the context of the aesthetic: his essay is predicated firstly on decoupage, the way a film is put together. Here he notes that it has two general meanings that could be translated into English, but a third that escapes translation. The first covers the final form of a script, and the second, an extension of the first, the breakdown of all the shots required but before shooting actually begins, perhaps including storyboards and so on. But the third meaning is the notion that “a film consists of a succession of fragments excerpted from a spatial and temporal continuum.” Decoupage in its third French meaning refers to what results when “the spatial fragments excerpted in the shooting process, converge with the temporal fragments whose duration may be roughly determined during the shooting, but whose final duration is established only on the editing table.” Burch goes as far as to say that this third meaning is central to the formal developments the French instigated. “If many of the formal break-throughs in film in the last fifteen years have occurred in France, it may be in part a matter of vocabulary.” This indicates Burch is a formalist before he is a realist, yet he regards A Simple Storymore highly than Last Year at Marienbad, and acknowledges the former’s empiricism over what we might almost call the latter’s idealism.

Now before getting back to A Simple Story we should just say a word or two about Burch’s formalist thrust in the book and how it pertains to Hanoun’s film. Burch says that “five distinct types of temporal articulation between any two shots are possible.” Two shots might be absolutely continuous, as in a shot/reverse shot when two people are talking to each other. A second would be two shot with a gap between them: someone goes into a building and the next shot shows him halfway up the stairs or in the office. A small ellipsis has taken place. A third type would be the indefinite ellipsis. Perhaps the seasons have changed and we know that a length of time has passed. A fourth would be a time reversal, with part of the action repeated so that we might have a character say putting his hand on his holster and the action would be shown three times for emphasis. The fifth would be the flashback that could cover anything from a few seconds to a few years.

Yet what concerns us here is chiefly Burch’s third category, the indefinite ellipsis. The chronology in A Simple Story is generally both precise and indefinite, inexorable and mysterious. When the central character insists that she will leave the house of the fireman and his wife who have kindly taken them in, there is no obvious reason for her to leave. The wife has told her she has the run of the place when she goes out, a neighbour comes round and asks how she is doing on the recommendation of the wife, and the wife even phones her to ask how she is. Yet still, she believes she must leave. She does so filmically through a fade to black of her sitting in a chair, to us seeing her coursing the street holding her daughter’s hand, yet this is the start of a flashback that incorporates the rest of the film. The voice-over informs us that she arrived at the station in the early afternoon but wasn’t ready to go to her friend’s place. The film cuts from them crossing the street to an overhead elevation shot of the pair presumably crossing the same road, before we see them exiting a guest house: the voice over informs us that she will go the friend’s the next day. It is somewhere in the suburbs and she doesn’t know how to get there.

There is much that doesn’t make ‘sense’ here on a narrational, psychological level, yet at the same time, we wouldn’t be inclined to regard the film as at all absurdist or irrational either. Yet this is where we might be inclined to disagree with Burch and see the film not quite as empirical as he believes it to be, and that the notion of decoupage might be a formal idea, but that it passes through what we might call the metaphysics of pride. If there appears to be a Bressonian aspect to the film it resides partly in this concept. If we reckon there is no obvious reason why the central character should leave the couple’s home, and no particular reason why she shouldn’t go to her friend’s place more immediately, it might rest on this point. Just as Bresson’s films are preoccupied with prison and suicide, so also are they fascinated by proud figures. We use the word pride advisedly, and think of certain phrases that suggest it is a pejorative word: pride before a fall; let go of your pride and hold on to your dignity. There is John Ruskin’s “It is better to lose your pride with someone you love rather than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride.” We might also think of the line from Antigone, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”

So pride is often devoid of positive connotation, yet in Bresson’s work, as in Hanoun’s film, it functions metaphysically rather than socially. Pride doesn’t come before a fall; it is a state after the fall. It is a condition of man, or woman, who seeks a certain grace. Hanoun’s film isn’t then a plea for alleviating poverty: that would be a secondary, social principle. It is the principle of recognizing a value within the human. If society does not offer the individual dignity, then it must be met with pride. As Simone Weil says: “in order to feel gratitude…I have to think that it is not out of pity, sympathy or caprice that I am being treated well, it is not as a favour or privilege, nor as a natural result of temperament, but from a desire to do what justice demands.” (Gravity and Grace) Yet this is where the film’s form meets the film’s theme, and why the decoupage comes with a problematic it must explore through content as readily as form. If Burch is right to say that French cinema has the advantage of a word that indicates the ordering of film in space and time, we might add that it can only do so purposefully if there is a problem that demands an extension beyond the readily coordinated. Most films have the conventional form they take because the ideas they possess can be so easily contained. The parallel montage of the thriller or the romantic comedy, the close-ups of the conflictual melodrama, the montage sequence in the historical drama showing years passing, allow form and content to meld into an indissoluble whole. Of course sometimes a film could be told in a conventional way that becomes radical in its form – like A bout de souffle – but even here Godard creates in Michel and Patricia characters who often act contrary to expected B-movie behaviour: Michel should really be on the run or under cover rather than sauntering around Paris, and Patricia might be the femme fatale but she acts instinctively, even impetuously, rather than in a preconceived manner, one that can generate a clear narrative through-line we find in anything fromDouble Indemnity to Body HeatThe Maltese Falcon to The Long Goodbye. Michel and Patricia are modern figures, people given to enjoying the moment rather than plotting their lives, and the film’s form captures this. It is partly what makes Godard’s film so influential: he introduces a “new anthropological type”, as Gilles Deleuze would say, into cinema. (Cinema 2: The Time Image)

Thus what the French notion of decoupage offers is an opportunity for filmmakers not only to generate new forms, which could just seem arbitrary and artificial but find new modes and thoughts that demand a different expression. What Hanoun seems to seek out in A Simple Story is a pride often absent in even neo-realist cinema. Hanoun suggests that the meek shouldn’t inherit the earth, neither should they see themselves as meek. No, it is meekness itself that should be eradicated because there is no reason for people to find themselves in a position of such need. This isn’t a position demanding social justice, but an ontological first principle. As Weil says: “the recognition of human wretchedness is difficult for whoever is rich and powerful because he is almost invincibly led to believe that he is something. It is equally difficult for the man in miserable circumstances because he is almost invincibly led to believe that the rich and powerful man is something.” (Gravity and Grace) Pride here resides in acknowledging the wretchedness of all rather than the meekness of some. Once we accept this idea then we needn’t be submissive to anyone; not out of arrogance, but out of a universal awareness of our wretched condition: the ontological first principle.

If we see Hanoun’s film from this angle, we can then understand something of his decoupage; the director’s desire to generate a means by which to understand this woman’s pride within wretchedness, a point we will come back to in relation to The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous. As the film starts with the film’s end, so we see her being taken in by the couple and then flashing back to how she found herself there. Yet flashback doesn’t quite seem to cover this use of the past tense. Even in the early moments when the woman and her daughter stay at the couple’s place, the voice-over is evident, as if this is part of the flashback too. The gap between word and deed remains pronounced, while usually in flashback the word only serves as a bridge between the past and the present. This leads to the film’s third discrete element, the music, which again separates itself from the diegesis. If films usually seek to create a seamless whole between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, between the story being told and the voice-over utilised and the music used, then A Simple Story keeps each element distinct, as if in fear of the sentimentality that might come with their conjoining. We can see even the narrative structure within this demand: that if the film concluded on the fireman’s wife taking the woman and her daughter in, we would have a moment of Dickensian sentimentality, when what the film seeks is a Bressonian severity consistent with Susan Sontag’s remarks on the French director. Sontag says, “the effect of this “superfluous” narration is to punctuate the scene with intervals. It puts a brake on the spectator’s direct imaginative participation in the action.” (Against Interpretation) In Hanoun’s film it also eschews the notion of charity over pride. The film refuses to become diegetically integrated enough for the sentimental moments to be realised.

Yet is this really true? Someone could look at the scene near the film’s conclusion that is also diegetically, chronologically the opening of the film as a moment of great pity. Here we have the central character and her daughter finding rest in a vacant lot while Vivaldi’s music swells. But the gap remains, as though the film is looking for a first principle as readily as a primary emotion. It is here where we can invoke again the difference between the visible and the sayable and Deleuze’s remarks on the distinction in Foucault. “From the beginning, one of Foucault’s fundamental theses is the following: there is a difference between the form of content and the form of expression, between the visible and the articulable (although they continually overlap and spill into one another in order to compose each stratum or form of knowledge.” Cinema’s purpose since the birth of sound has been to absorb the audio into the visual, and if many early film theorists were resistant to sound it resided at least partly in sound taking precedence over the visual aspect. Yet sound rarely became a quality; it became the means by which one would offer plot exposition, witty dialogue, useful voice over and more plausible body language than silent cinema could offer: in the pre-sound cinema actors offered a dimension of mime to convey the words the technology made them unable to express. Sound cinema made film a more ‘believable’ medium, but it rarely took into account the idea that sound was a foreign body, a phantom intrusion on the image. Imagine if books could talk, or paintings contained within them a musical track? Of course, there are audio books, and perhaps some galleries will have music playing in the background, but that isn’t quite what we mean. We are talking about a new quality to the form, a mono-sensory medium was suddenly functioning with two senses. As Hugo Munsterberg could say in 1916. “A photoplay cannot gain but only lose if its visual purity is destroyed.” (The Film: A Psychological Study) Dudley Andrew notes in The Major Film Theories that “to [Rudolph] Arnheim it [sound] is indeed a cancer which has destroyed the artistic life of film by distorting its ensemble form.” Arnheim was writing at the beginning of the thirties.

We are now inclined to find such comments quaint, but directors like Hanoun could still ask in the late fifties what is this invasion of sound in the image; how do we capture the nature of its invasion and insist that cinema should not take for granted the image and the sound, but should look at the types of sound: the difference between dialogue and voice-over, and diegetic and non-diegetic music? A Simple Story asks these questions of itself continuously; it is partly how the film resists the sentimentality it might suggest. The form generates a distance we cannot deny: a distance in the very nature of its aesthetic. If we think of the moment early on when the central character looks at two photos on the mantelpiece, photos we can assume to be of the fireman and his wife when younger, how would this usually be filmed and ‘sounded’? We could have the mother looking at the photos, offering a look that suggests she is intruding on their marital bliss and says to her daughter “we should go”. We would probably get the point but we wouldn’t be getting the form: it wouldn’t have found a means by which to announce itself to us. Instead, Hanoun first offers a close-up of the central character’s face that could be out of silent cinema. She is both heavily lit from the front, but also highlighted from behind, creating a haloed effect even though the other shots surrounding it are much more darkly lit and shadow-rich. She doesn’t say anything to her daughter but instead offers her thoughts in voice-over, saying that she couldn’t stay there any longer; that she must leave. All the while the music plays through the sequence, creating a further discreteness. It is as if we have silent cinema invaded by sound, a form of film that sees sound as a welding together with the image Munsterberg saw as so worrying.

Now of course Hanoun doesn’t see it as a problem but instead as an opportunity to suggest a contrast between the sound and the image, to create a dialogue between the two so that we don’t fall into the image: we are kept at one remove by the sound that indicates a literary dimension which most films accommodate on the script level. Hanoun utilises the audioscape, showing that if films tell stories (a phrase we still use, despite all the claims about film showing rather than telling), then let us in this instance emphasise the telling and play down the showing. Numerous pieces of information are shown, but the soundtrack imposes itself on the potential drama. In one exchange with a waitress, the woman asks where she lives and we hear our heroine explain in voiceover while we don’t even get to see the waitress’s face. While she talks about the waitress fondly the film cuts from the central character and Sylvie sitting in the cafe, to the central character standing on the right-hand side of the frame as we see a woman on the left whom she is asking for accommodation. There could be five minutes or an hour, or several hours between the first shot and the second, an open ellipsis that we might fill with the voice over; that our central character has talked to the waitress long enough for her to comment on her niceness. But what we have here especially is what we might call the assertive voice-over, a tautological tool in the hands of other films including the two we talked about initially, The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous, and indebted of course to Bresson. This is where the image so serves the audio that we can close our eyes and follow the story; a reversal of the assumption that we should be able to turn the soundtrack off and still know what is going on. It refuses the hierarchy instigated by the image because silent cinema was all image, and says that if cinema is no longer all image, then surely we need to remove many of our preconceptions predicating the art on the visual. As Eric Rohmer says in ‘For a Talking Cinema’: “If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element. Even today [1948] there is too great a tendency to believe that a film is better if it can easily do without speech, and that a cinematic work worthy of this title must lose very little when seen in the original version by a foreign audience.”

One reason why we talk of an assertive voice-over in Hanoun’s film is to acknowledge a counter assertiveness in its function; in saying we have the capacity to tell a story, not always to show it, and some filmmakers should take advantage of this privilege. Hanoun simultaneously acknowledges sound invades the image and also acknowledges its right to exist quite literally over it. We see this present in other directors’ works in various manifestations which would make a useful essay in itself and that has been so carefully explored by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Bresson, Godard, Rohmer, Resnais, Marker, Duras, for example, but also Syberberg and Straub/Huillet. Each director finds his or her own way of addressing it.

But we have suggested that Hanoun’s work comes out of Bresson’s while looking forward to Queysanne and Noe’s films, and we might describe this issue of audio intrusion as not only assertive in its voice-over but also one that leads to the claustrophobic in the imagery. There is a sense that in each film the character is caught in a state of predestination, and this is where pride meets with Jansenism, explicitly apparent in Bresson’s work, but less theologically so in the other films. What do we mean by this? No more than the notion that in Jansenism life is a trial involving ascetism, self-abnegation and the unavoidable. We have the feeling watching the films that we are not in a story going somewhere, but in a world that won’t quite let the characters go anywhere, and that the only hope is the gracefulness of a higher being that will acknowledge the life below. The less religiously inclined the work; the less this will be evident, but most of the characteristics can be found in A Simple StoryThe Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous. There is a passage near the end of Perec’s book where he says “it means nothing to talk of hitting rock bottom, or to plumb the depths of despair or of hatred, or of alcoholic decline or of haughty solitude…God’s mercy extends no less to him than to those who have never strayed from His Flock. Sinners, like divers, are made to be absolved.” This isn’t too far removed from Bresson’s claim concerning Pickpocket. “I make him aware of the presence of God for three minutes. Few people can say they were aware of God even that long. This line of dialogue is very personal; it shows that although influenced by Dostoyevsky, I made my story benefit from my own experiences.” As Bresson says: “At his mother’s funeral, a singer sings the Dies Irae in exactly the same simple way another singer sang it at my mother’s funeral in the Cathedral of Nantes, where, apart from ten nuns, my wife and I attended the service alone. Somehow this Dies Irae made a strange impression on me; I could have said then, like my pickpocket, ‘I felt God during three minutes.’” (Robert Bresson.com)

It concerns the possibility less of believing in a higher being, than sensing the possibilities of experience beyond the prosaic. When near the end of Seul contre tous, Pachelbel’s music comes in it feels like the heavens have opened just as the ground is about to swallow the central character up. It is abjection meeting transcendence, as if there is finally little between the two. Reaching rock bottom, as Perec would say, or reaching for the heavens isn’t so very different: they both hint at nothingness. This is what is vital to a Jansenism that seeks the misery of one’s own existence meeting the possibilities of another one: it is yet another possible variation of Rimbaud’s famous “I is another”. In A Simple Story this takes the form of the form: the gap between the woman we see moving through the images, and the woman who offers her thoughts, reflections and above all statements in voice-over. Just after the scene in the cafe she goes to a hotel and the woman says she has no rooms while mentioning that Sylvie is pretty, and our central character repeats it in voice-over in a useless tautology, or what we might call, in a more elevated fashion, pleonasm: a repetition of words according to literary theory, and sometimes used deliberately for a certain type of emphasis. In sound film we have both word and deed, but usually one would take precedence over the other, and preferably the visual over the articulable, yet Hanoun gives us both. Why? Perhaps because, like Bresson, who also utilises this form of repetition, the aim is to find in cinema the very medium (pun half-intended) by which to suggest less a split between the body and the soul, than the idea that the body has another existence, a spiritual being that may or may not await an afterlife, but at least has a residual aspect in this one. Thus when Hanoun opens the film with a statement like “I am only repeating a true story in minute detail as it was told to me by its heroine…” we should take this with a pinch of the proverbial. It is after all a film, not a written account, and so we have to acknowledge the gap between the two, just as Hanoun announces how direct his intentions happen to be. This doesn’t mean we reduce the film to an exercise in pure form (whatever that might mean); more that we see it as a rigorous acknowledgement of a corporeal being who is also a sentient individual. It is often said that psychologically one of the worst features of being homeless is that you are invisible, and from this perspective Hanoun’s is a document of visibility through audibility. It is again a question of pride, but this time from the angle of basic human decency as well as elevated human decency.

Yet if the film is metaphysically, psychologically and sociologically astute, it is economically aware too. It might be Bresson’s final film that went by the name ofL’argent, but as Burch points out, A Simple Story offers a narrative based on making clear that time is money. “The passage of narrative time, however, is not made ‘palpable’ through the actual succession of days and nights on the screen, but rather through the way in which the woman’s hundred francs dwindle away, for she is shown again and again anxiously counting and recounting her money.”  (An idea Seul contre tous draws upon too.) Here money defines one’s fate and yet an act of kindness can seem like an act of grace. It is perhaps not accidental that the film concludes not only on this act of kindness, as the film then loops back onitself, but that this is kindness from on high. The fireman and his wife live in a high rise as Hanoun brings together the metaphysical possibility of grace with the municipal needs of post-war housing. It is an ironic conclusion to a film that hints at the Bressonian but is grounded in the neo-realist idea of social amelioration: Jansenism meets municipalization. This is a less facetious thought than one might think. Hanoun manages to suggest that life is a trial for anybody in dire straits, and that someone who counts the pennies when there are no more coming in can see in front of them their own suffocating human destiny: a certain horrible predestination. In A Man Who Sleeps we have someone allowing his mind to disintegrate in an act of existential pride contained by an immense sense of anxiety. Seul contre tous shows a butcher at its centre capable of the foulest deeds (beating his partner to a probable miscarriage, apparently shooting his daughter dead) before the possibility that he will take his own life. The central character in Hanoun’s film seems more a figure for whom the municipal could rescue. While the protagonist in The Man Who Sleeps can say, in Perec’s novella, “it is as if you were living with the constant dread that the slightest weakening of your resolution might, all at once, take you too far”, the woman in A Simple Story says a third of the way through the film that “I was sure I had lost some money”, before adding “Sylvie shouldn’t have to worry about this”. The music is probably at its high point here, swelling loudly as if suggesting some aspect of grace but clearly if anything indicating the problem of disgrace: the idea that soon the central character will run out of cash and she and her daughter will be homeless. Can the prosaic solve the problem – is our heroine both a Joan of Arc of post-war suffering, and a woman who merely needs to live in a society that dignifies a person’s financial struggle by providing enough?

There is a lot more to Hanoun than this of course, and later films like Winter andSummer are very different works from A Simple Story, despite the continued interest in the gap between image and sound. There is a political integrity evident in A Simple Story that manages to shuttle between the metaphysical to the everyday political, and back again. In the marvellously titled ‘Quotidian Melancholies’ Philip Cartelli suggests that Hanoun’s work “strove for a kind of ontological humanistic socialism, a democracy of production values and distribution.” (Senses of Cinema) It sums up well the type of unusual ascetism that A Simple Story possesses, without the film necessarily siding withthe ascetic it explores.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

A Simple Story

The Spirit of the Municipal

A Simple Story, The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous don't have a lot in common, but they are all films that somehow seem beside themselves, that find a way inside a character's head without ignoring the reality of a given life. But while we will pay passing attention to Bernard Queysanne's Perec adaption, and Gaspar Noe's claustrophobic debut feature, our focus will be on Marcel Hanoun's beautiful study of a woman's slide towards homelessness, A Simple Story. In some ways it is indeed a simple tale; in others it is a film that offers us a literary sense of time in its constant use of voice-over and only occasional use of diegetic dialogue, while in the process playing with our expectations of cinematic point of view.

Let us take as an example a moment late in the film when a caretaker asks the central character why she is in their courtyard, and as she walks away with her daughter the central character says in voice-over that the caretaker called for her husband and they watched as she and her daughter, Sylvie, walked down the street. Now this could be disjunctive or elliptical and we must assume it to be the former. It could have been possible that between the cut of the mother and Sylvie walking halfway down the road she had seen the couple come out. But no, as the film cuts we see the husband appear by the wife's side at the entrance and so we assume the moment to be a disjunction between the visible and the sayable. The mother cannot know they were standing watching unless we see it is an ellipsis, and a very radical one indeed; that the voice-over is in the future beyond the film's diegetic telling: that she would later possess this knowledge but we won't know how she possesses it. Perhaps they will help her out beyond the diegesis of the image but within the non-diegesis of the narrative. It isn't impossible: after all the film is told in a flashback loop. About ten minutes into the film our central character reflects on her recent experiences that led to another kindly woman helping her out. The film concludes on the central character and Sylvie sleeping on some waste ground, and starts with the kindly woman finding them there. It ispossible that our heroine later sees the couple again, and they tell her they watched her walking down the street with great sadness.

We don't want to be any more ingenious than necessary here, and we don't want to say that Hanoun's title is ironic: that the story is not very simple at all. It both is and it isn't. We can easily watch Hanoun's film as a devastatingly straightforward account of a woman's descent into absolute poverty, but it is also an attempt to capture within that despair a tone that goes beyond that poverty without at all undermining it. The beyond in this sense is the voice-over, giving astonishing audibility to a woman who is socially all but invisible, and the film's looping back to the end at the film's beginning. Here our heroine is just another woman struggling to make ends meet, but who is in danger as a consequence of meeting her end. There is a moment for example when she stands in front of railway tracks and Hanoun films her initially in medium close up from behind the railings, with the use of the zoom moving into a close up as we hear the trains passing. The image suggests a woman incarcerated before Hanoun offers the counter shot from behind her back and it is as if she is free, but to do what: to kill herself, to throw herself onto the tracks? If prison is the ultimate act of constraint, is suicide freedom's further reaches, an awareness vital to Bresson's work where imprisonment (A Man Escapes; The Trial of Joan of Arc, L'argent) and suicide (Mouchette, A Gentle Creature, The Devil, Probably) are so often central to the stories? Here Hanoun suggests the former in the shot and the latter in the counter shot, without committing to either. Yet these seem to be the stark choices available to the character: to steal and risk jail, or to accept she is without resources and take her life, and possibly her daughter's. There are simplicity and complexity here simultaneously.

Noel Burch's Theory of Film Practise proposes provocatively that A Simple Story is a more important film than Last Year at Marienbad, and of course, this raises questions of what important means, and from the perspective of influence we can say that Burch is wrong. Hanoun's film has been little seen let alone had the chance to prove of much importance. Yet from a certain angle Burch has more than a point, and to help us here let us reference not only Burch but also Andre S. Labarthe's essay on Last Year at Marienbad where he claims "that Marienbad is the last of the great neo-realist films." Labarthe later explains: "traditional cinema has managed to do away with any possibility of ambiguity by building into every scene and shot what the spectator wasmeant to think of it: ie its meaning. Taken to the extreme, this kind of cinema did not need the spectator since he was already included in the film." (Cahiers Du Cinema) For Labarthe the novelty of neo-realism rested on this inclusion, and could thus result in the ambiguity of meaning that led the viewer to see a film in their own way, and none more so than in the freedom to interpret that Last Year at Marienbad offers. Yet this was undeniably for many an infuriating ambiguity, one that was not quite Bazin's ontological ambiguity of reality, but the aesthetic ambiguity of art. The ambiguity inLast Year at Marienbad was forced upon the viewer as voice over was so clearly at odds with the image, and where the two main characters could not agree on certain events. The viewer was in no position to say what was going on. They were included in one way yet excluded in another. How to create the ambiguous that is closer to Bazin's over Resnais'? This isn't to insist one approach is better than the other; more to suggest opposing modes of the ambiguous. If for example we see a stranger pass us in the early afternoon looking happy and we see the same person again a few hours later looking very sad, we have Bazin's ontological ambiguity without at all an attack on our perceptual faculties. What we have is what cinema constantly practises: ellipses. We do not know what has happened in the interim, but we do feel that in the elapsed time something of significance could well have taken place. Now the person is a stranger so we are unlikely to concern ourselves with the elliptical ambiguity of the situation, yet it is there, and we could potentially attend to numerous such events in our life if we were so inclined. There has been no mystery that transcends the physical world, or questions our faculties within it, just prosaic ambiguous reality.

This is the type of prosaic ambiguity that A Simple Story appears to practice and can lead Burch to say that Hanoun's film works "in a purely empirical manner", as Last Year at Marienbad clearly does not. Yet both would be practising what Burch calls an indefinite ellipsis: the difference resides in Resnais' aesthetic retreat from the real into the possibilities of the imaginary, and Hanoun's insistence on remaining close to real-world coordinates by making the form serve the real rather than countering it. It can be consistent with our remark about the person in the street who seems happy earlier in the day but sad later on, and we don't know why they have become so because of the limited information we possess. Now Burch refers to the indefinite ellipsis within the context of the aesthetic: his essay is predicated firstly on decoupage, the way a film is put together. Here he notes that it has two general meanings that could be translated into English, but a third that escapes translation. The first covers the final form of a script, and the second, an extension of the first, the breakdown of all the shots required but before shooting actually begins, perhaps including storyboards and so on. But the third meaning is the notion that "a film consists of a succession of fragments excerpted from a spatial and temporal continuum." Decoupage in its third French meaning refers to what results when "the spatial fragments excerpted in the shooting process, converge with the temporal fragments whose duration may be roughly determined during the shooting, but whose final duration is established only on the editing table." Burch goes as far as to say that this third meaning is central to the formal developments the French instigated. "If many of the formal break-throughs in film in the last fifteen years have occurred in France, it may be in part a matter of vocabulary." This indicates Burch is a formalist before he is a realist, yet he regards A Simple Storymore highly than Last Year at Marienbad, and acknowledges the former's empiricism over what we might almost call the latter's idealism.

Now before getting back to A Simple Story we should just say a word or two about Burch's formalist thrust in the book and how it pertains to Hanoun's film. Burch says that "five distinct types of temporal articulation between any two shots are possible." Two shots might be absolutely continuous, as in a shot/reverse shot when two people are talking to each other. A second would be two shot with a gap between them: someone goes into a building and the next shot shows him halfway up the stairs or in the office. A small ellipsis has taken place. A third type would be the indefinite ellipsis. Perhaps the seasons have changed and we know that a length of time has passed. A fourth would be a time reversal, with part of the action repeated so that we might have a character say putting his hand on his holster and the action would be shown three times for emphasis. The fifth would be the flashback that could cover anything from a few seconds to a few years.

Yet what concerns us here is chiefly Burch's third category, the indefinite ellipsis. The chronology in A Simple Story is generally both precise and indefinite, inexorable and mysterious. When the central character insists that she will leave the house of the fireman and his wife who have kindly taken them in, there is no obvious reason for her to leave. The wife has told her she has the run of the place when she goes out, a neighbour comes round and asks how she is doing on the recommendation of the wife, and the wife even phones her to ask how she is. Yet still, she believes she must leave. She does so filmically through a fade to black of her sitting in a chair, to us seeing her coursing the street holding her daughter's hand, yet this is the start of a flashback that incorporates the rest of the film. The voice-over informs us that she arrived at the station in the early afternoon but wasn't ready to go to her friend's place. The film cuts from them crossing the street to an overhead elevation shot of the pair presumably crossing the same road, before we see them exiting a guest house: the voice over informs us that she will go the friend's the next day. It is somewhere in the suburbs and she doesn't know how to get there.

There is much that doesn't make 'sense' here on a narrational, psychological level, yet at the same time, we wouldn't be inclined to regard the film as at all absurdist or irrational either. Yet this is where we might be inclined to disagree with Burch and see the film not quite as empirical as he believes it to be, and that the notion of decoupage might be a formal idea, but that it passes through what we might call the metaphysics of pride. If there appears to be a Bressonian aspect to the film it resides partly in this concept. If we reckon there is no obvious reason why the central character should leave the couple's home, and no particular reason why she shouldn't go to her friend's place more immediately, it might rest on this point. Just as Bresson's films are preoccupied with prison and suicide, so also are they fascinated by proud figures. We use the word pride advisedly, and think of certain phrases that suggest it is a pejorative word: pride before a fall; let go of your pride and hold on to your dignity. There is John Ruskin's "It is better to lose your pride with someone you love rather than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride." We might also think of the line from Antigone, "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride."

So pride is often devoid of positive connotation, yet in Bresson's work, as in Hanoun's film, it functions metaphysically rather than socially. Pride doesn't come before a fall; it is a state after the fall. It is a condition of man, or woman, who seeks a certain grace. Hanoun's film isn't then a plea for alleviating poverty: that would be a secondary, social principle. It is the principle of recognizing a value within the human. If society does not offer the individual dignity, then it must be met with pride. As Simone Weil says: "in order to feel gratitude...I have to think that it is not out of pity, sympathy or caprice that I am being treated well, it is not as a favour or privilege, nor as a natural result of temperament, but from a desire to do what justice demands." (Gravity and Grace) Yet this is where the film's form meets the film's theme, and why the decoupage comes with a problematic it must explore through content as readily as form. If Burch is right to say that French cinema has the advantage of a word that indicates the ordering of film in space and time, we might add that it can only do so purposefully if there is a problem that demands an extension beyond the readily coordinated. Most films have the conventional form they take because the ideas they possess can be so easily contained. The parallel montage of the thriller or the romantic comedy, the close-ups of the conflictual melodrama, the montage sequence in the historical drama showing years passing, allow form and content to meld into an indissoluble whole. Of course sometimes a film could be told in a conventional way that becomes radical in its form - like A bout de souffle - but even here Godard creates in Michel and Patricia characters who often act contrary to expected B-movie behaviour: Michel should really be on the run or under cover rather than sauntering around Paris, and Patricia might be the femme fatale but she acts instinctively, even impetuously, rather than in a preconceived manner, one that can generate a clear narrative through-line we find in anything fromDouble Indemnity to Body Heat, The Maltese Falcon to The Long Goodbye. Michel and Patricia are modern figures, people given to enjoying the moment rather than plotting their lives, and the film's form captures this. It is partly what makes Godard's film so influential: he introduces a "new anthropological type", as Gilles Deleuze would say, into cinema. (Cinema 2: The Time Image)

Thus what the French notion of decoupage offers is an opportunity for filmmakers not only to generate new forms, which could just seem arbitrary and artificial but find new modes and thoughts that demand a different expression. What Hanoun seems to seek out in A Simple Story is a pride often absent in even neo-realist cinema. Hanoun suggests that the meek shouldn't inherit the earth, neither should they see themselves as meek. No, it is meekness itself that should be eradicated because there is no reason for people to find themselves in a position of such need. This isn't a position demanding social justice, but an ontological first principle. As Weil says: "the recognition of human wretchedness is difficult for whoever is rich and powerful because he is almost invincibly led to believe that he is something. It is equally difficult for the man in miserable circumstances because he is almost invincibly led to believe that the rich and powerful man is something." (Gravity and Grace) Pride here resides in acknowledging the wretchedness of all rather than the meekness of some. Once we accept this idea then we needn't be submissive to anyone; not out of arrogance, but out of a universal awareness of our wretched condition: the ontological first principle.

If we see Hanoun's film from this angle, we can then understand something of his decoupage; the director's desire to generate a means by which to understand this woman's pride within wretchedness, a point we will come back to in relation to The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous. As the film starts with the film's end, so we see her being taken in by the couple and then flashing back to how she found herself there. Yet flashback doesn't quite seem to cover this use of the past tense. Even in the early moments when the woman and her daughter stay at the couple's place, the voice-over is evident, as if this is part of the flashback too. The gap between word and deed remains pronounced, while usually in flashback the word only serves as a bridge between the past and the present. This leads to the film's third discrete element, the music, which again separates itself from the diegesis. If films usually seek to create a seamless whole between the diegetic and the non-diegetic, between the story being told and the voice-over utilised and the music used, then A Simple Story keeps each element distinct, as if in fear of the sentimentality that might come with their conjoining. We can see even the narrative structure within this demand: that if the film concluded on the fireman's wife taking the woman and her daughter in, we would have a moment of Dickensian sentimentality, when what the film seeks is a Bressonian severity consistent with Susan Sontag's remarks on the French director. Sontag says, "the effect of this "superfluous" narration is to punctuate the scene with intervals. It puts a brake on the spectator's direct imaginative participation in the action." (Against Interpretation) In Hanoun's film it also eschews the notion of charity over pride. The film refuses to become diegetically integrated enough for the sentimental moments to be realised.

Yet is this really true? Someone could look at the scene near the film's conclusion that is also diegetically, chronologically the opening of the film as a moment of great pity. Here we have the central character and her daughter finding rest in a vacant lot while Vivaldi's music swells. But the gap remains, as though the film is looking for a first principle as readily as a primary emotion. It is here where we can invoke again the difference between the visible and the sayable and Deleuze's remarks on the distinction in Foucault. "From the beginning, one of Foucault's fundamental theses is the following: there is a difference between the form of content and the form of expression, between the visible and the articulable (although they continually overlap and spill into one another in order to compose each stratum or form of knowledge." Cinema's purpose since the birth of sound has been to absorb the audio into the visual, and if many early film theorists were resistant to sound it resided at least partly in sound taking precedence over the visual aspect. Yet sound rarely became a quality; it became the means by which one would offer plot exposition, witty dialogue, useful voice over and more plausible body language than silent cinema could offer: in the pre-sound cinema actors offered a dimension of mime to convey the words the technology made them unable to express. Sound cinema made film a more 'believable' medium, but it rarely took into account the idea that sound was a foreign body, a phantom intrusion on the image. Imagine if books could talk, or paintings contained within them a musical track? Of course, there are audio books, and perhaps some galleries will have music playing in the background, but that isn't quite what we mean. We are talking about a new quality to the form, a mono-sensory medium was suddenly functioning with two senses. As Hugo Munsterberg could say in 1916. "A photoplay cannot gain but only lose if its visual purity is destroyed." (The Film: A Psychological Study) Dudley Andrew notes in The Major Film Theories that "to [Rudolph] Arnheim it [sound] is indeed a cancer which has destroyed the artistic life of film by distorting its ensemble form." Arnheim was writing at the beginning of the thirties.

We are now inclined to find such comments quaint, but directors like Hanoun could still ask in the late fifties what is this invasion of sound in the image; how do we capture the nature of its invasion and insist that cinema should not take for granted the image and the sound, but should look at the types of sound: the difference between dialogue and voice-over, and diegetic and non-diegetic music? A Simple Story asks these questions of itself continuously; it is partly how the film resists the sentimentality it might suggest. The form generates a distance we cannot deny: a distance in the very nature of its aesthetic. If we think of the moment early on when the central character looks at two photos on the mantelpiece, photos we can assume to be of the fireman and his wife when younger, how would this usually be filmed and 'sounded'? We could have the mother looking at the photos, offering a look that suggests she is intruding on their marital bliss and says to her daughter "we should go". We would probably get the point but we wouldn't be getting the form: it wouldn't have found a means by which to announce itself to us. Instead, Hanoun first offers a close-up of the central character's face that could be out of silent cinema. She is both heavily lit from the front, but also highlighted from behind, creating a haloed effect even though the other shots surrounding it are much more darkly lit and shadow-rich. She doesn't say anything to her daughter but instead offers her thoughts in voice-over, saying that she couldn't stay there any longer; that she must leave. All the while the music plays through the sequence, creating a further discreteness. It is as if we have silent cinema invaded by sound, a form of film that sees sound as a welding together with the image Munsterberg saw as so worrying.

Now of course Hanoun doesn't see it as a problem but instead as an opportunity to suggest a contrast between the sound and the image, to create a dialogue between the two so that we don't fall into the image: we are kept at one remove by the sound that indicates a literary dimension which most films accommodate on the script level. Hanoun utilises the audioscape, showing that if films tell stories (a phrase we still use, despite all the claims about film showing rather than telling), then let us in this instance emphasise the telling and play down the showing. Numerous pieces of information are shown, but the soundtrack imposes itself on the potential drama. In one exchange with a waitress, the woman asks where she lives and we hear our heroine explain in voiceover while we don't even get to see the waitress's face. While she talks about the waitress fondly the film cuts from the central character and Sylvie sitting in the cafe, to the central character standing on the right-hand side of the frame as we see a woman on the left whom she is asking for accommodation. There could be five minutes or an hour, or several hours between the first shot and the second, an open ellipsis that we might fill with the voice over; that our central character has talked to the waitress long enough for her to comment on her niceness. But what we have here especially is what we might call the assertive voice-over, a tautological tool in the hands of other films including the two we talked about initially, The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous, and indebted of course to Bresson. This is where the image so serves the audio that we can close our eyes and follow the story; a reversal of the assumption that we should be able to turn the soundtrack off and still know what is going on. It refuses the hierarchy instigated by the image because silent cinema was all image, and says that if cinema is no longer all image, then surely we need to remove many of our preconceptions predicating the art on the visual. As Eric Rohmer says in 'For a Talking Cinema': "If talking film is an art, speech must play a role in conformity with its character as a sign and not appear only as a sound element. Even today [1948] there is too great a tendency to believe that a film is better if it can easily do without speech, and that a cinematic work worthy of this title must lose very little when seen in the original version by a foreign audience."

One reason why we talk of an assertive voice-over in Hanoun's film is to acknowledge a counter assertiveness in its function; in saying we have the capacity to tell a story, not always to show it, and some filmmakers should take advantage of this privilege. Hanoun simultaneously acknowledges sound invades the image and also acknowledges its right to exist quite literally over it. We see this present in other directors' works in various manifestations which would make a useful essay in itself and that has been so carefully explored by Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Bresson, Godard, Rohmer, Resnais, Marker, Duras, for example, but also Syberberg and Straub/Huillet. Each director finds his or her own way of addressing it.

But we have suggested that Hanoun's work comes out of Bresson's while looking forward to Queysanne and Noe's films, and we might describe this issue of audio intrusion as not only assertive in its voice-over but also one that leads to the claustrophobic in the imagery. There is a sense that in each film the character is caught in a state of predestination, and this is where pride meets with Jansenism, explicitly apparent in Bresson's work, but less theologically so in the other films. What do we mean by this? No more than the notion that in Jansenism life is a trial involving ascetism, self-abnegation and the unavoidable. We have the feeling watching the films that we are not in a story going somewhere, but in a world that won't quite let the characters go anywhere, and that the only hope is the gracefulness of a higher being that will acknowledge the life below. The less religiously inclined the work; the less this will be evident, but most of the characteristics can be found in A Simple Story, The Man Who Sleeps and Seul contre tous. There is a passage near the end of Perec's book where he says "it means nothing to talk of hitting rock bottom, or to plumb the depths of despair or of hatred, or of alcoholic decline or of haughty solitude...God's mercy extends no less to him than to those who have never strayed from His Flock. Sinners, like divers, are made to be absolved." This isn't too far removed from Bresson's claim concerning Pickpocket. "I make him aware of the presence of God for three minutes. Few people can say they were aware of God even that long. This line of dialogue is very personal; it shows that although influenced by Dostoyevsky, I made my story benefit from my own experiences." As Bresson says: "At his mother's funeral, a singer sings the Dies Irae in exactly the same simple way another singer sang it at my mother's funeral in the Cathedral of Nantes, where, apart from ten nuns, my wife and I attended the service alone. Somehow this Dies Irae made a strange impression on me; I could have said then, like my pickpocket, 'I felt God during three minutes.'" (Robert Bresson.com)

It concerns the possibility less of believing in a higher being, than sensing the possibilities of experience beyond the prosaic. When near the end of Seul contre tous, Pachelbel's music comes in it feels like the heavens have opened just as the ground is about to swallow the central character up. It is abjection meeting transcendence, as if there is finally little between the two. Reaching rock bottom, as Perec would say, or reaching for the heavens isn't so very different: they both hint at nothingness. This is what is vital to a Jansenism that seeks the misery of one's own existence meeting the possibilities of another one: it is yet another possible variation of Rimbaud's famous "I is another". In A Simple Story this takes the form of the form: the gap between the woman we see moving through the images, and the woman who offers her thoughts, reflections and above all statements in voice-over. Just after the scene in the cafe she goes to a hotel and the woman says she has no rooms while mentioning that Sylvie is pretty, and our central character repeats it in voice-over in a useless tautology, or what we might call, in a more elevated fashion, pleonasm: a repetition of words according to literary theory, and sometimes used deliberately for a certain type of emphasis. In sound film we have both word and deed, but usually one would take precedence over the other, and preferably the visual over the articulable, yet Hanoun gives us both. Why? Perhaps because, like Bresson, who also utilises this form of repetition, the aim is to find in cinema the very medium (pun half-intended) by which to suggest less a split between the body and the soul, than the idea that the body has another existence, a spiritual being that may or may not await an afterlife, but at least has a residual aspect in this one. Thus when Hanoun opens the film with a statement like "I am only repeating a true story in minute detail as it was told to me by its heroine..." we should take this with a pinch of the proverbial. It is after all a film, not a written account, and so we have to acknowledge the gap between the two, just as Hanoun announces how direct his intentions happen to be. This doesn't mean we reduce the film to an exercise in pure form (whatever that might mean); more that we see it as a rigorous acknowledgement of a corporeal being who is also a sentient individual. It is often said that psychologically one of the worst features of being homeless is that you are invisible, and from this perspective Hanoun's is a document of visibility through audibility. It is again a question of pride, but this time from the angle of basic human decency as well as elevated human decency.

Yet if the film is metaphysically, psychologically and sociologically astute, it is economically aware too. It might be Bresson's final film that went by the name ofL'argent, but as Burch points out, A Simple Story offers a narrative based on making clear that time is money. "The passage of narrative time, however, is not made 'palpable' through the actual succession of days and nights on the screen, but rather through the way in which the woman's hundred francs dwindle away, for she is shown again and again anxiously counting and recounting her money." (An idea Seul contre tous draws upon too.) Here money defines one's fate and yet an act of kindness can seem like an act of grace. It is perhaps not accidental that the film concludes not only on this act of kindness, as the film then loops back onitself, but that this is kindness from on high. The fireman and his wife live in a high rise as Hanoun brings together the metaphysical possibility of grace with the municipal needs of post-war housing. It is an ironic conclusion to a film that hints at the Bressonian but is grounded in the neo-realist idea of social amelioration: Jansenism meets municipalization. This is a less facetious thought than one might think. Hanoun manages to suggest that life is a trial for anybody in dire straits, and that someone who counts the pennies when there are no more coming in can see in front of them their own suffocating human destiny: a certain horrible predestination. In A Man Who Sleeps we have someone allowing his mind to disintegrate in an act of existential pride contained by an immense sense of anxiety. Seul contre tous shows a butcher at its centre capable of the foulest deeds (beating his partner to a probable miscarriage, apparently shooting his daughter dead) before the possibility that he will take his own life. The central character in Hanoun's film seems more a figure for whom the municipal could rescue. While the protagonist in The Man Who Sleeps can say, in Perec's novella, "it is as if you were living with the constant dread that the slightest weakening of your resolution might, all at once, take you too far", the woman in A Simple Story says a third of the way through the film that "I was sure I had lost some money", before adding "Sylvie shouldn't have to worry about this". The music is probably at its high point here, swelling loudly as if suggesting some aspect of grace but clearly if anything indicating the problem of disgrace: the idea that soon the central character will run out of cash and she and her daughter will be homeless. Can the prosaic solve the problem - is our heroine both a Joan of Arc of post-war suffering, and a woman who merely needs to live in a society that dignifies a person's financial struggle by providing enough?

There is a lot more to Hanoun than this of course, and later films like Winter andSummer are very different works from A Simple Story, despite the continued interest in the gap between image and sound. There is a political integrity evident in A Simple Story that manages to shuttle between the metaphysical to the everyday political, and back again. In the marvellously titled 'Quotidian Melancholies' Philip Cartelli suggests that Hanoun's work "strove for a kind of ontological humanistic socialism, a democracy of production values and distribution." (Senses of Cinema) It sums up well the type of unusual ascetism that A Simple Story possesses, without the film necessarily siding withthe ascetic it explores.


© Tony McKibbin