Accident

15/03/2020

The Excavation of Subjectivity

If the Pinteresque is commonly enough utilised, the Loseyeque is rather less so, but when watching Accident we can see how the two coalesce to become a cinematic vision. Pinter was happy to acknowledge many years later on the DVD extras that Losey was the visual mastermind on Accident; that Pinter provided the material but it was Losey (who of course worked in theatre early in his career) that shaped it into the specifics of an audio-visual medium that utilises cutting. Stagecraft is a different thing, it can share some similarities with cinema, indeed obviously utilised them long before cinema’s existence, but it can seem to possess a very limited audio-visual vocabulary next to film. Reliant on exits and entrances, on lighting different sections of the stage for emphasis, it can use the equivalent of non-diegetic music, and blocks the figures on stage to maximise the viewer’s need to see the dramatic action, yet cinema has rather more techniques at its disposal, more directorial choices available to utilise and that can allow us to talk of auteurship. It is in taking advantage of the choices that a director becomes recognizable,  and there is a certain type of auteur, and Losey seems a very good example of it, who manages to combine the apparently arbitrary with the properly motivated. In this film based on Nicholas Mosley’s novel about a couple of Oxford dons and an aristocratic student vying for the attentions of a Belgian princess studying philosophy, Losey frequently puts the camera in places that can seem unmotivated only for the motivation to become clear later in the sequence.

To get started we can think of two examples. One is halfway through the film when Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) comes home and finds, with his wife and kids away, that colleague Charley (Stanley Baker) has been sleeping with Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), the Belgian princess, in his house. As Stephen comes through the door, in darkness, and puts on the hall light, the camera angle is high, positioned at the top of the stairs. He is drunk, it is the early hours of the morning and when he puts his head in his hands we might think this is a roaring headache or incipient guilt: he has been in London and slept with an ex-lover. There is a creak of the floorboards and Stephen looks up, gets out of the chair and holding onto the wall looks up again as the film cuts to him in close up, before cutting again to Charley coming down the stairs, wearing only a dressing gown, his head in shadow until he lowers it as he peers at Stephen. From initial fear, Stephen shows relief as the film cuts between Stephen in close up and Charley seating himself on one side of the stairs. A moment later, another person starts coming down the stairs and again there is a look on Stephen’s face that will soon change. Who is it he may wonder, surely Stephen’s wife, dressed as the person is in clothes very similar to those we have seen his wife wearing earlier in the film. It turns out to be Anna (after all Stephen’s wife is away with the kids for three weeks), but the look of anguish on his face suggests he might initially think it’s his spouse. He may not be happy that Stephen is sleeping with a woman he happens to desire as well, but better this than arriving home to find his colleague in bed with the mother of his children. That initial shot from a high angle with no apparent motivation becomes motivated indeed when we realise there are people upstairs. Losey manages to generate unease in the initial nature of the shot as it seems to linger obscurely from a high angle, and then shows its justification in the drama. Another filmmaker might have started by showing Stephen coming through the front door, cutting to him sitting down, and cutting again as he hears the creak of the floorboards. It would be a perfectly acceptable way of filming the sequence, but the director wouldn’t have visualised an underlying tension in the scene. Partly what makes Losey such a fine director during this period of his career (a period of fifteen years that would include Eva, The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between and Mr Klein) is that in these works he offers a mise-en-scene, and a sense of camera placement, that both generates mystery in the form while dispelling it in the drama, and also leaving a residue of that mystery the drama can’t quite eradicate. The camera placement at the top of the stairs becomes motivated by the dramatic interaction that then takes place between the characters, but its original placement allows the scene to retain its disquiet.

Which leads us to our second example. Near the end of the film, Anna waits by the front door of the cottage, the front door ajar, and a car pulls up, Stephen gets out and Stephen and Anna move towards leaving the house. Again the camera is ‘oddly’ placed: situated at a distance from the characters with the camera underneath the stairs on the right and a wall on the left, and the scene is played without a cut. The camera remains in place, retreating slightly as the phone rings and Stephen moves towards the camera while he answers the phone with the film retaining the long take. We can see the camera has been placed there because that is where the dramatic action will be: the phone call where Stephen (presumably hearing his wife has given birth) explains to someone that he couldn’t answer the phone because he was asleep. The camera again finds motivation in the action but holds to a visual disquiet that echoes a broader disquiet in the dramatic throughline of the scenes themselves. In the first scene Charley, a married man, sneaks into his colleague’s house to have sex with a student aware that he could hardly do so at home. The adulterous moment is somehow weak next to the invasiveness of the gesture. We seem to be in the company of people who think not only of themselves, but think ahead for themselves, strategically positioning themselves in relation to others. Does Charley choose Stephen’s place because he knows that Stephen is attracted to Anna too, giving it in an additional frisson, or (and perhaps as well) because he sees Stephen as weak enough to accept it? In the scene near the end, he lies about not hearing the phone, and while his wife was giving birth to their baby, Stephen was raping Anna on the evening where she has just lost her fiance: the film is predicated on a car crash that kills the aristocratic boyfriend but that leaves Anna physically more or less untouched. The camera position in each instance serves both a denotative and connotative function: it both places itself in the best position to tell the story, but also by anticipating the story it tells, by appearing initially unmotivated, it captures the connotative feeling of unease. It gives the camera the impression of aloofly looking on as the characters icily look on in their own lives. 

Paul Schrader can be usefully invoked when he says there are two types of camera movement. “Motivated and unmotivated. Motivated camera movements are direct responses to the action on screen: you move, I follow you. A character walks across the room and the camera tilts, pans, or physically moves by hand or on tracks. Unmotivated camera moves are used for emphasis of one kind or another, be it emotional or supernatural, by the storyteller. You stand still, I approach—that’s unmotivated. There are two types of unmotivated camera movement” Schrader notes. “One is logical. A character is doing something—brandishing a small object, making a gesture, displaying a look of heightened emotion— and it’s important that we see it, so the camera moves in to get a closer look. The camera is doing what the viewer wants or needs it to do. And if emotion is building in that character, the camera gets closer. Logical.” But then Schrader sees that there is also illogical unmotivated camera movement. “This occurs when the storyteller imposes himself on the story, when the camera calls attention to itself. Many people don’t care for this type of movement. Recently, I read an interview with a DP who said that ‘the best directors and cinematographers utilize camera movement to tell the story and never move the camera arbitrarily.’ Unmotivated camera movement, for him, ‘feels unnatural and artificial—and at worst, it doesn’t help tell the story.’” (Film Comment) The unmotivated camera is wonderful, Schrader reckons, and gives The Conformist as a great example of irrational unmotivated camera movement, but clearly we can also discover many examples of it in Antonioni and Godard’s films as well, even in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Diver which Schrader wrote — as we find when the camera travels around the garage near the beginning of the film and the shot where Bickle is talking on the phone to Betsy and the camera moves away from Bickle and towards the hallway. The camera would usually then give us information to make the shots logical: Bickle sees something of interest as the camera pans around the garage; a character walks down the hallway and tells Bickle to get the hell off the phone. Both would then be logical and motivated. Scorsese doesn’t motivate them and thus they remain illogical in Schrader’s parlance. 

But what we see in the two examples we have given from Losey is the paradoxical camera: they are both illogical and logical. They initially appear arbitrary and then become purposeful. The examples from Taxi Driver (and numerous instances we could equally give from Antonioni, Godard and Bertolucci) retain their arbitrariness. Losey takes advantage of the developments in sixties cinema concerning camera movements, and the freedom directors created for themselves in deploying them, but usually kept in mind the need to contain that freedom within the limits of ‘sense’. The camera suggests arbitrariness, which can often create the disquiet Losey’s work possesses, but then shows a very motivated positioning where the camera preempts the action but doesn’t counter it or prove irrelevant to it. Schrader can talk about the motivated and the unmotivated, and sees the logical or the illogical in the latter, while Losey so often adopts the preemptive camera shot that demands initial bafflement followed by a certain assurance that the camera is telling the story; nevertheless allowing the shot to retain a residue of that initial arbitrariness. 

We can also think of the film’s opening sequence. Losey slowly tracks in on a house while offscreen what we hear is a speeding car that eventually skids and crashes. The camera pays no attention to this dramatic action as it remains focused on unremittingly and slowly moving towards the house. But then, we may notice that we no longer hear the tapping of the typewriter as a dog starts barking and a man comes out of the property. This man (Stephen) will become our central character but most of what we learn about him will come from a lengthy flashback before the accident, and that will show how well he knows the two people he finds in the car. A shot that can seem hopelessly arbitrary as it moves in on the house rather than attending to a car crash offscreen, will then show us over time just how important that house and its occupant happens to be. Schrader is right to take the DP to task for suggesting that the best directors and cinematographers utilise camera movement to tell the story and never move the camera ‘arbitrarily’. What Losey does here is refuse to put the camera where we would expect it, and where the drama happens to be taking place, all the better to anticipate both the situation and the broader ramifications. Though the car crash is dramatically the most important scene in the film, it is the inner violence that interests Losey much more and which will permeate the work.

One takes the term inner violence from James Palmer and Michael Riley’s book on the director (The Films of Joseph Losey), and their chapter specifically on Accident. It is a term that is useful even if the broader claim they make in the chapter interests us less. Palmer and Riley draw upon Edward Brannigan and Bruce Kawin to discuss subjective camera and mindscreen, seeing the film, or more especially the flashback, as Stephen’s perspective on events. This isn’t quite the same thing as point of view, which shows an event directly from a character’s perceptual viewpoint, as we see in Rear Window when Jefferies looks across at the neighbours, or when Anna Karina watches The Passion of Joan of Arc in the cinema in Vivre sa vie. It is instead when the film is seen through the character's perceptions rather than through their eyes. To see a film entirely through a character’s eyes is an exhausting experience and only rarely attempted, to view a scene through a character’s eyes not uncommon. Palmer and Riley reckon there are two ways in which a film can be from the mind of a character as they distinguish between the physical eye and the mind’s eye. But within the mind’s eye, there are at least two ways in which this can be done: it can be viewed from the perspective of a character looking back on their life and utilises flashback, or it can eschew such assured devices and leave us stranded between a subjective/objective position. This is the difference between what they call ‘authorized’ and 'unauthorized' first-person narration. We are no longer having the story narrated by the character who introduces the past to us as in Double Indemnity or The Lady from Shanghai, but by someone who seems to generate an indeterminate subjective/objective world. “Unauthorized first-person narration, however, provides an especially strong possibility of discerning a simultaneous commentary by third-person narration as well.” Palmer and Riley reckon this is vital to art house narration and though, in the chapter, they don’t give any other examples, Michel Ciment notes that “almost nothing happens in terms of action, except the accident at the beginning. The film builds on empty moments…it belongs completely to the sixties, with the achievement of the inner dimension of cinema. It’s as if up to that point cinema had only two dimensions, and now cinema had gained a third dimension.” (DVD Extras) Ciment gives as examples, Hiroshima, mon amour, L’avventura, Pierrot le fou, Persona, Belle de Jour and others, and saw that Accident fitted perfectly into this mode of cinema. Ciment reckons they are all “able to escape the flat surface of the screen, as if they were in the mind,” as he suggests sixties cinema managed to get much closer to a character’s thoughts than film before it and thus to unauthorized narration.

In eschewing other examples beyond Accident, Palmer and Riley do make clear how such works resemble and differ from literature, and namely the Nicholas Moseley novel the book was based upon. “Forsaking the novel’s style, however, did not mean forsaking subjectivity altogether. Rather it meant turning to a different mode, that of “art cinema” narration with its potential for complex relationships between objectivity and subjectivity, rather than classical narration, which typically relies on observable reality as an index of characters’ inner lives.” (The Films of Joseph Losey) Yet the irony in Accident is that by problemitising access to consciousness it doesn’t so much get closer to it, but registers the difficulty of knowing what is going on in people’s minds. Rather than seeing Accident as a mindscreen that allows us to understand Stephen’s thinking, we’re more inclined to see the film taking advantage of the motivational ambiguity by refusing ready access to someone’s thoughts. When in Double Indemnity the film flashes back to Fred MacMurray explaining how he ended up in his predicament, the film gives us access to his thinking, but in the type of narration Palmer and Riley invoke, unauthorized narration, might not be narration at all. Nobody is going to dispute that Double Indemnity is narrated by Murray’s insurance detective, it is a moot point whether Accident is narrated by Stephen, though we wouldn’t deny the film holds almost exclusively to his centrality in the narrative. He is in almost every scene. It seems to us that ambiguous motivation is more important to Losey and Pinter than unreliable narration. Though it shares with the various films Ciment invokes a formal complexity absent from classical cinema, vital to that complexity isn’t a narrator who remembers in their own way (even Last Year at Marienbad, L’Immortelle and 8 1/2 don’t quite do that), but one that raises questions about the confidence we have in making a truth-claim about what we see. When for example in a classic or conventional film someone says something or looks at an object or a person, we can say with some confidence what they believe or what they feel about what they are saying and looking at. When in The Big Lebowski Jeff Bridges watches the turquoise-suited pervert (John Turturro) playing ten pin bowling in slow motion, we are in no doubt what Bridges thinks: who is this idiotic clown with his fancy moves, absurd clothing and black hairnet? As the film cuts back from Turturro to Bridges, we don’t know exactly what happens to be on Bridges’ mind (as we would in a novel or with the aid of voice-over) but it is pretty clear Turturro is someone who Bridges and his friends can’t take admire as they discuss his background exposing himself to an eight-year-old. In The Hurt Locker a reckless sergeant keeps putting the lives of his subordinates at risk and when he disappears from sight at one moment we see a look on their faces which say they are wondering what they should do about him. They then start discussing how it would be quite easy for an accidental explosion to take place. Their expressions make clear what they then discuss: that their sergeant is a liability. We offer an example from two contemporaries films, from a high comedy and a serious drama, to show how fine filmmaking nevertheless conforms to pretty categorical meaning because of the way the shots are put together and the dialogue that then confirms what the images initially convey. 

In Accident, there are many shots that generate the notion that things are on the characters’ minds but we can’t easily know what these happen to be. A film that focuses a little too completely on seeing the film as more or less from Stephen’s mind, assumes an access to his thinking and pays too little attention to what happens to be on the minds of others. In Accident, we do find ourselves wondering what Stephen is thinking, but we also muse over the thoughts of the other main players (Stephen, Charley and Anna) and also William (Michael York), Stephen’s wife, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant) and even the college provost and a plain-clothes detective. In a scene where Rosalind and William are preparing lunch by shelling pees, Stephen comes in saying Charley has arrived and wonders whether he will be staying for lunch. Rosalind says of course as she and Willian exchange complicit glances, and William then pops a pea into her mouth. She tells William to fill the pot with water and as he exits the frame, Rosalind looks him up and down with a look that suggests she likes what she sees even if the film will not at all narrativise that look. When in The Big Lebowski and The Hurt Locker a gaze is offered, it is one that asks us to make certain assumptions about it, whether about the dubiousness of Turturro’s character, or the recklessness of Jeremy Renier’s sergeant. But Accident is full of looks and glances that go ‘nowhere’, as though we know there are things going on in people’s minds but that we don’t have access to them. The danger of seeing Accident as narrated from Stephen’s point of view, as the film mainly takes place in flashback, would be that so many of these looks and glances become irrelevant next to the thrust of Stephen’s ambiguous subjectivity. Isn’t it instead that the film indicates everybody has an ambiguous response to situations and events? Early in the film and after the accident the police arrive, Stephen explains what happened while indicating William was alone in the car. At one moment when Stephen is interviewed by the sergeant in uniform, both seated, the plain-clothes detective paces the room and then goes out into the hallway and looks up at the stairs. Has he heard a noise (Anna is there), or is he just curious to have a better sense of the house, after all, it is a very elegant country home on three floors. His accent is regional, even working-class, and he might just be envying Stephen’s social status. 

We can think too of the provost’s remarks late in the film when Stephen, the provost and others are watching cricket. Stephen says he saw the provost’s daughter Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) in London. The provost has a puzzled look on his face and Stephen reiterates “your daughter.” The provost asks how is she, and Stephen says very well; she sends him her love. The provost says to send her his love back next time he sees her. Wouldn’t he likely be seeing his daughter sooner than Stephen; Oxford is only fifty miles from London? Or is that he no longer has contact with her presumably due to a fall-out and if so when he says to Stephen give her my love is he being ironic? Does he know that Stephen had an affair with her in the past, and assumes it is still continuing and thus Stephen is likely to see her sooner than he will? We don’t know. What we do know is that their affair wasn’t entirely private: when in London a former student at Oxford working in television asks him about Francesca, saying, “you knew her well.” Here we have in the provost (put aside the former student, played by Harold Pinter) a complexity of motive that suggests everyone in the film has their reasons. The film’s purpose isn’t to explain them but to multiply them. 

Thus rather than seeing Accident as solving the problem of film’s difficulty in getting into people’s heads as a novel can so easily do, Losey emphasises that difficulty and produces a high degree of ambiguity out of it. Imagine if a film replicated a novel’s capacity to move between characters’ thoughts? In a passage from Zola’s Therese Raquin the narrator says “Therese only wanted to marry because she was frightened and her organism demanded Laurent’s violent love-making…” and the next paragraph begins “Laurent, coarser-grained by nature, though giving in to his panics and desires, nevertheless was determined to reason out his decision.” Here we have the narrator getting into the thoughts of the character and we see how easily a novel can move from person to person, explaining and analysing characters and events from inside someone’s consciousness. Certainly film can imitate this form as we find for example in Lars von Trier films like Dogville and Manderlay, but von Trier wouldn’t pretend these aren’t literary films with their knowing, ironic voiceovers provided by British actors Paul Scofield and John Hurt. We aren’t so much inside the characters’ heads; we are following an omniscient narration that keeps the film at a deliberate distance. If in the scene between the provost and Bogarde the film were to provide the sort of interiority a novel can so easily offer we might be in something very crude or very funny. We would have as an interior voiceover Stephen musing over how much the provost knows as he says he saw his daughter in London and the provost thinking in voiceover that Stephen is an idiot if he isn’t well aware Stephen has slept with his daughter. How close to such moments can be to humour is illustrated well by Woody Allen in Annie Hall. There Alvy and Annie are on the balcony saying one thing and thinking another, as subtitles offer their thoughts while they speak. It is a crude device redeemed by humour, with Allen more or less saying that cinema can’t do what literature does so easily unless it plays it as a gag. “Cinema does not have the same means as literature,” Ciment says.“It could never get inside the psyche but by cinematographic means it can visually bring us nearer to an inner conscience, and I think Accident is one of Losey’s films that succeeds best in this aim.”(DVD Extras). Our impression, however, isn’t that film in the sixties became closer to the novel. Its attempt to generate modes of subjectivity in cinema didn’t so much reveal characters’ thoughts but instead showed just how complex they can be.

Of course, Palmer and Riley, and perhaps Ciment, are invoking a sixties art house model for their interpretation of the film in seeing the flashback as Stephen’s mindscreen. But that still leaves us with the problem of understanding other people’s thoughts even if we think we understand Stephen’s:  it is surely a film made up of these ambiguous multiplications. Our point is that, finally, we understand Stephen’s motives no better than anybody else’s. It is true that when he lies we know he is lying more readily than we know when others lie, but this isn’t because we know what he is thinking - more that we have greater access to his life and see how the things he says don’t match up with the nature of events. When he discusses the accident at the beginning of the film with the police officers we know that Anna was involved in the crash and that she is upstairs in the house. He does not disclose this. Later in the film, he tells his wife that he saw Franceska in London but lies by omission again as he suggests they only had dinner. The film isn’t as ambiguously complex as Last Year at Marienbad where we can’t possibly work out what is true and what is not, what is memory and what is false memory, but it does generate a feeling that nobody is quite being honest with anybody else. We take as fact that Anna is upstairs when he speaks to the police, and we take as fact that he slept with Franceska in London, no matter the dreamy nature of the sequence. Stephen is not honest with others and perhaps also dishonest with himself, but we can say with great confidence that he proves himself a liar and with more modest confidence that he practises self-deception. Stephen lies because we know there is evidence that, taken together, produces inconsistencies and it would be daft to pretend that Stephen isn’t our central character partly on this basis. When the provost gives no sign that he knows an affair has taken place between his daughter and Stephen we have no idea whether he is hiding things or not because we don’t have what we could ‘scene access’ — moments in the film that allow for a gap between what a character claims and what we have seen. 

Stephen is clearly our most screen accessible character, the one as Palmer and Riley note is in almost every scene in the film, in contrast to any number of characters who may be lying, dissembling and non-disclosing as readily as Stephen but whose scene accessibility is much more limited. Thus when Charley turns up for lunch and says he was just passing by, should we believe him? There has been a moment not long before where we see Charley in Stephen’s office at Oxford in Stephen’s absence. He has a bottle of vodka in his arms which may well be the bottle he then gives to Stephen, but this would seem to be a day or two before the Sunday lunch. The manner in which he says he was just popping by will likely make us wonder how true that happens to be but we don’t have the scene accessibility which would allow us to say that he has lied, as we can on a number of occasions with Stephen. The irony of the film’s attempt to register inner consciousness isn’t that it finds the truth there, but instead the lie. With Charley, we don’t have access to his truth either, but neither do we have access to the truth of his lies. All the other characters remain inaccessible in their probable dishonesty; only Stephen offers us some of that accessibility. 

Rather than seeing the film as a mindscreen allowing us into Stephen’s head, better perhaps to see Accident as a film, like many of the great works of the period, accessing instead philosophical problematics in film form. Two that come to mind are the examination of bad faith, and the other the question of triangulated desire so that people are seen as use objects and become properly soulless as a consequence. Taking the question of bad faith first, we have noted that though we don’t have access to Stephen’s thoughts we do have scene accessibility which registers his dishonesty as we do not with any of the other characters. Thus while we don’t get into Stephen's head we do comprehend him well enough to understand the bad faith he practices. Sartre describes bad faith as “not restricted to denying the qualities which I possess, to not seeing the being which I am. It attempts also to constitute myself as being what I am not. It apprehends me positively as courageous when I am not so…and the “not-being’ of not-being -courageous which I wish to hide from myself.” (Being and Nothingness) Yet central to bad faith is that it is not the same as lying, and we can think of many films that give us scene accessibility all the better to show that someone who makes one claim then counters it in a later scene. A film like The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t a film of bad faith even it is a film full of liars: Jordan Belson and his other financial shysters tell people what they want to hear but don’t for a moment believe that what they are saying is true. In one scene Belson is lying to a client on the phone while the rest of the team are listening to the bunk Belson offers. This is just lying. But bad faith is a certain way one lies to oneself. If we might believe that we are in the head of Stephen it is only because our access is great enough to see the bad faith he may seem to practise. When Stephen tells his wife he is inviting some people over on Sunday his wife asks which people. Stephen says William, and then offers, as if an afterthought, Anna too. In the previous scene, we have noticed it has been the other way round: he asked Anna and then suggested she come with William. The gap between what he says to Anna and what he says to his wife creates in the viewer a sense that he isn’t entirely honest with others but also that he might not quite be honest with himself. A little later in the film, at the Sunday gathering, Charley asks William to describe to him what everyone is doing. William offers it literally: Stephen is weeding the garden, Rosalind is lying down and Anna is making a daisy chain, and so on. But Charley goes further saying that Rosalind is pregnant and Stephen is having an affair with a girl at Oxford. Charley isn’t quite offering speculation or fact, but needling Stephen (who can overhear the conversation) with what he and we may see as Stephen's own suspect motives. Why exactly has he proposed this Sunday gathering that Charley has intruded upon? Is it really just to gather some people together for a relaxed day, or does he have designs on Anna, perhaps even on William? In a scene shortly afterwards, William asks Anna if she fancies a walk. Anna says she is happy lying where she is. A moment later Stephen, with a calculating expression on his face, says he is going for a walk - Anna says she will join him. We don’t know exactly why he wants to do so: is it to go for a walk with William, or more obviously to find out Anna is interested in him, to find out if he isn’t able to keep his hands off girls as Charley has proposed? As they walk there are few moments where a kiss looks likely, but nothing happens. It’s as if Stephen doesn’t quite know what his motives are. Later in the film when he finds Charley and Anna in his home, he doesn’t turf them out, he suggests they can use the place again.  

However, if Stephen practises bad faith, where does this faith exist in relation to the lies that he tells himself? Sartre insists that bad faith is a faith. “The true problem of bad faith stems obviously from the fact that bad faith is faith. It cannot be either a cynical lie or certainty…” This is where things can become very complicated. “For me to have represented it to myself in bad faith would have been cynicism; to believe it sincerely innocent would have been in good faith. The decision to be in bad faith does not dare to speak its name; it believes and does not believe itself in good faith.” (Being and Nothingness) Jordan Belson doesn’t at all have this problem — he is cynically aware that he lies to get what he wants, whether it is cheating clients or cheating on his wife. He wouldn’t pretend to be honest in his job and a good family man. Stephen however probably would, reckoning that he cares about his students and that he is a very good husband. When he tells his wife that he met Franceska in London he probably believes that there is no need to tell her what actually happened because what happened is not important to the marriage: why waste a few words on an irrelevance; he isn’t likely to leave his pregnant wife for Franceska now is he? When he tells his wife that Charley is sleeping with Anna after Rosalind’s enquiries he says of course, as if to say that is what Charley does, and by implication it is the sort of thing Stephen wouldn’t do. But the difference is one of directness. When a couple of scenes earlier, Stephen asks Charley if that Sunday night when everybody stayed over he slept with Anna, Charley says “of course I did.” We might be more likely to assume he will say “of course I didn’t” even if he did, but Charley’s brutal honesty contrasts greatly with Stephen’s coy bad faith. This doesn’t make Charley at all an agreeable character but it does make him a very different one from Stephen. If Charley likes blunt truths that disarm others; Stephen prefers a different sort of game that he might not even see as a game at all: to feel that he has an upper hand no matter the perversion involved. When he suggests Charley can keep sleeping with Anna in his home while his wife is away, does this mean he has greater access to Anna knowing that she will be in his home, and perhaps greater access to William since Anna will be with Charley? Throughout all these machinations of the mind nevertheless Stephen will probably see himself as a decent sort, unlike that brute Charley - a man who has left his wife (and with whom Stephen communicates through mail) and who Stephen also visits asking how she is coping. Stephen needs Charley to define his decency. It is a ‘friendship’ that supports his bad faith.

The issue of triangulated desire is a Hegelian concept picked up by numerous thinkers but let us quote the film critic Peter Wollen utilising the idea through Kojeve in an essay, “On Gaze Theory”: “In the relationship between man and woman, for example, desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the desire of the other … that is to say, if he wants to be ‘desired’ or ‘loved’ or, rather, ‘recognized’ in his human value, in his reality as a human individual. Likewise desire directed toward a natural object is human only to the extent that it is ‘mediated’ by the desire of another directed towards the same object; it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it.” Kojeve adds, “thus, an object perfectly useless from the biological point of view (such as a medal or the enemy’s flag) can be desired because it is the object of other desires. Such a desire can only be a human desire, and human reality, as distinguished from animal reality, is created only by action that satisfies such desires: human history is the history of desired desires.” (New Left Review) We might note in Accident that the desire is more than triangulated and hence the film’s complexity. Does Charley desire Anna because he reckons Stephen desires her, or does he wish to sleep with her to get one over on the aristocratic William, since Charley is from clearly a less comfortable background? Does Stephen desire Anna because William desires her and he desires William? Does Rosalind desire William because he seems to have the younger and more beautiful Anna and so on? Strictly speaking, by Kojeve’s reckoning, through Wollen, all films will work off a similar relationship with desire, but Accident multiplies the relationships, seeing in each character and more especially Stephen that desire conjoins with bad faith and generates a refractive sensuousness with Anna as the object of desire, close to ‘useless’ as a character except as a function of the desires of Stephen, Charley and William. 

One may have a problem with this on the level of gender politics if we reckon that the men are useful in and of themselves but that Anna is not. Losey doesn’t help much when saying to Ciment, “the girl was just a catalyst too. This is the reason why that poor unfortunate girl, Jacqueline Sassard, was quite unhappy on the picture, because she had those eyes which were windows, which you could look through, but she is never more than an instrument. She’s simply a catalyst for all the other things.” (Conversations with Losey) Yet this is useful uselessness, quite distinct from the Bergsonian problem of use Gilles Deleuze briefly discusses when looking at Werner Herzog’s work. A character in a Herzog film says, “‘where do objects go when they no longer have any use?’ we might reply that they normally go in the dustbin. But that reply would be inadequate, since the question is metaphysical. Bergson asked the same question and replied metaphysically: that which has ceased to be useful simply begins to be.” (Cinema 1: The Movement Image) We can see that the difference between useful uselessness (Anna) and useless uselessness (that needn't go in the bin) is the difference between the soulless and the soulful. One needn’t be overly religious about this; that wouldn’t be our point. The soul here functions as an object or being that escapes use value. If Losey sees that Anna is merely a means to others’ ends, and that those using her see her as functionally useful in the context of their manipulations (especially Charley and Stephen), she is useless (in the sense of having little agency), useful (in that she serves the desires of others) and yet soulless because she is usefully useless. The other characters may seem soulless too, as they exist in competition with each other, determined to win Anna but without any sense of commitment in the process. Only William seems to be acting considerately as Anna announces she will be marrying him, but that decency counts for little in a film where so many games are being played. These may be literal (tennis, cricket and an arcane aristocratic game involving a fight over a leather cushion) but they are insignificant next to the mind games the characters are playing and that Stephen can’t seem to work his way out of even if he is hardly an innocent in the process. When Anna tells him that she is marrying William it comes moments after Stephen asks her if she had a nice weekend while she thanks him for his hospitality — clearly Charley and Anna were having sex at his house while he was visiting the wife and kids at his mother-in-laws. But Anna offers her gratitude harshly and announces her engagement. She asks Stephen to tell Charley and to then let her know what he thinks, a moment that indicates the least important of the three men in this situation happens to be the one she is marrying. It captures well the soullessness of the encounter: the sense that feeling gives way to power. 

In many of Losey’s film power has been important, a negotiation of self in the company of others that suggests others are more readily a threat to one’s identity than an augmentation of it. It might be The Servant who once in the master’s home creates a breach in the latter’s being, the phoney writer in Eve who allows himself to be destroyed by a woman whom he adores but holds him in contempt, or the art dealer determined to prove that he isn’t a Jew in Mr Klein, only to become preoccupied with the other Mr Klein who is Jewish, and who will lead him to his death. In these other three films, the men are ruined or killed. In Accident, Stephen comes away relatively unscathed — he remains at the end of the film the family man that Anna’s presence threatened to destroy. But as we have the film’s opening shot almost replicated at the film’s ending, though this time in daylight, as the camera pulls back instead of pushing in, we hear again a crash on the soundtrack. Losey’s camera throughout the film doesn’t side with the characters but remains aloof from them, and in this closing shot suggests the bad faith Stephen can’t easily confront is the film that we have just watched. Losey isn’t interested we believe in suggesting this is Stephen’s mindscreen that we have been watching, but a certain approach to Englishness and the soul where the latter will be ignored for the furtherance of a narrow-minded notion of the former. It might be the aristocratic William who is dead, and the male characters a little or a lot further down the social scale who are still alive, but the film suggests, with Anna, the Belgian aristocratic outsider, gone, life continues as normal, however, soulless that normality may be.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Accident

The Excavation of Subjectivity

If the Pinteresque is commonly enough utilised, the Loseyeque is rather less so, but when watching Accident we can see how the two coalesce to become a cinematic vision. Pinter was happy to acknowledge many years later on the DVD extras that Losey was the visual mastermind on Accident; that Pinter provided the material but it was Losey (who of course worked in theatre early in his career) that shaped it into the specifics of an audio-visual medium that utilises cutting. Stagecraft is a different thing, it can share some similarities with cinema, indeed obviously utilised them long before cinema's existence, but it can seem to possess a very limited audio-visual vocabulary next to film. Reliant on exits and entrances, on lighting different sections of the stage for emphasis, it can use the equivalent of non-diegetic music, and blocks the figures on stage to maximise the viewer's need to see the dramatic action, yet cinema has rather more techniques at its disposal, more directorial choices available to utilise and that can allow us to talk of auteurship. It is in taking advantage of the choices that a director becomes recognizable, and there is a certain type of auteur, and Losey seems a very good example of it, who manages to combine the apparently arbitrary with the properly motivated. In this film based on Nicholas Mosley's novel about a couple of Oxford dons and an aristocratic student vying for the attentions of a Belgian princess studying philosophy, Losey frequently puts the camera in places that can seem unmotivated only for the motivation to become clear later in the sequence.

To get started we can think of two examples. One is halfway through the film when Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) comes home and finds, with his wife and kids away, that colleague Charley (Stanley Baker) has been sleeping with Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), the Belgian princess, in his house. As Stephen comes through the door, in darkness, and puts on the hall light, the camera angle is high, positioned at the top of the stairs. He is drunk, it is the early hours of the morning and when he puts his head in his hands we might think this is a roaring headache or incipient guilt: he has been in London and slept with an ex-lover. There is a creak of the floorboards and Stephen looks up, gets out of the chair and holding onto the wall looks up again as the film cuts to him in close up, before cutting again to Charley coming down the stairs, wearing only a dressing gown, his head in shadow until he lowers it as he peers at Stephen. From initial fear, Stephen shows relief as the film cuts between Stephen in close up and Charley seating himself on one side of the stairs. A moment later, another person starts coming down the stairs and again there is a look on Stephen's face that will soon change. Who is it he may wonder, surely Stephen's wife, dressed as the person is in clothes very similar to those we have seen his wife wearing earlier in the film. It turns out to be Anna (after all Stephen's wife is away with the kids for three weeks), but the look of anguish on his face suggests he might initially think it's his spouse. He may not be happy that Stephen is sleeping with a woman he happens to desire as well, but better this than arriving home to find his colleague in bed with the mother of his children. That initial shot from a high angle with no apparent motivation becomes motivated indeed when we realise there are people upstairs. Losey manages to generate unease in the initial nature of the shot as it seems to linger obscurely from a high angle, and then shows its justification in the drama. Another filmmaker might have started by showing Stephen coming through the front door, cutting to him sitting down, and cutting again as he hears the creak of the floorboards. It would be a perfectly acceptable way of filming the sequence, but the director wouldn't have visualised an underlying tension in the scene. Partly what makes Losey such a fine director during this period of his career (a period of fifteen years that would include Eva, The Servant, Accident, The Go-Between and Mr Klein) is that in these works he offers a mise-en-scene, and a sense of camera placement, that both generates mystery in the form while dispelling it in the drama, and also leaving a residue of that mystery the drama can't quite eradicate. The camera placement at the top of the stairs becomes motivated by the dramatic interaction that then takes place between the characters, but its original placement allows the scene to retain its disquiet.

Which leads us to our second example. Near the end of the film, Anna waits by the front door of the cottage, the front door ajar, and a car pulls up, Stephen gets out and Stephen and Anna move towards leaving the house. Again the camera is 'oddly' placed: situated at a distance from the characters with the camera underneath the stairs on the right and a wall on the left, and the scene is played without a cut. The camera remains in place, retreating slightly as the phone rings and Stephen moves towards the camera while he answers the phone with the film retaining the long take. We can see the camera has been placed there because that is where the dramatic action will be: the phone call where Stephen (presumably hearing his wife has given birth) explains to someone that he couldn't answer the phone because he was asleep. The camera again finds motivation in the action but holds to a visual disquiet that echoes a broader disquiet in the dramatic throughline of the scenes themselves. In the first scene Charley, a married man, sneaks into his colleague's house to have sex with a student aware that he could hardly do so at home. The adulterous moment is somehow weak next to the invasiveness of the gesture. We seem to be in the company of people who think not only of themselves, but think ahead for themselves, strategically positioning themselves in relation to others. Does Charley choose Stephen's place because he knows that Stephen is attracted to Anna too, giving it in an additional frisson, or (and perhaps as well) because he sees Stephen as weak enough to accept it? In the scene near the end, he lies about not hearing the phone, and while his wife was giving birth to their baby, Stephen was raping Anna on the evening where she has just lost her fiance: the film is predicated on a car crash that kills the aristocratic boyfriend but that leaves Anna physically more or less untouched. The camera position in each instance serves both a denotative and connotative function: it both places itself in the best position to tell the story, but also by anticipating the story it tells, by appearing initially unmotivated, it captures the connotative feeling of unease. It gives the camera the impression of aloofly looking on as the characters icily look on in their own lives.

Paul Schrader can be usefully invoked when he says there are two types of camera movement. "Motivated and unmotivated. Motivated camera movements are direct responses to the action on screen: you move, I follow you. A character walks across the room and the camera tilts, pans, or physically moves by hand or on tracks. Unmotivated camera moves are used for emphasis of one kind or another, be it emotional or supernatural, by the storyteller. You stand still, I approachthat's unmotivated. There are two types of unmotivated camera movement" Schrader notes. "One is logical. A character is doing somethingbrandishing a small object, making a gesture, displaying a look of heightened emotion and it's important that we see it, so the camera moves in to get a closer look. The camera is doing what the viewer wants or needs it to do. And if emotion is building in that character, the camera gets closer. Logical." But then Schrader sees that there is also illogical unmotivated camera movement. "This occurs when the storyteller imposes himself on the story, when the camera calls attention to itself. Many people don't care for this type of movement. Recently, I read an interview with a DP who said that 'the best directors and cinematographers utilize camera movement to tell the story and never move the camera arbitrarily.' Unmotivated camera movement, for him, 'feels unnatural and artificialand at worst, it doesn't help tell the story.'" (Film Comment) The unmotivated camera is wonderful, Schrader reckons, and gives The Conformist as a great example of irrational unmotivated camera movement, but clearly we can also discover many examples of it in Antonioni and Godard's films as well, even in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Diver which Schrader wrote as we find when the camera travels around the garage near the beginning of the film and the shot where Bickle is talking on the phone to Betsy and the camera moves away from Bickle and towards the hallway. The camera would usually then give us information to make the shots logical: Bickle sees something of interest as the camera pans around the garage; a character walks down the hallway and tells Bickle to get the hell off the phone. Both would then be logical and motivated. Scorsese doesn't motivate them and thus they remain illogical in Schrader's parlance.

But what we see in the two examples we have given from Losey is the paradoxical camera: they are both illogical and logical. They initially appear arbitrary and then become purposeful. The examples from Taxi Driver (and numerous instances we could equally give from Antonioni, Godard and Bertolucci) retain their arbitrariness. Losey takes advantage of the developments in sixties cinema concerning camera movements, and the freedom directors created for themselves in deploying them, but usually kept in mind the need to contain that freedom within the limits of 'sense'. The camera suggests arbitrariness, which can often create the disquiet Losey's work possesses, but then shows a very motivated positioning where the camera preempts the action but doesn't counter it or prove irrelevant to it. Schrader can talk about the motivated and the unmotivated, and sees the logical or the illogical in the latter, while Losey so often adopts the preemptive camera shot that demands initial bafflement followed by a certain assurance that the camera is telling the story; nevertheless allowing the shot to retain a residue of that initial arbitrariness.

We can also think of the film's opening sequence. Losey slowly tracks in on a house while offscreen what we hear is a speeding car that eventually skids and crashes. The camera pays no attention to this dramatic action as it remains focused on unremittingly and slowly moving towards the house. But then, we may notice that we no longer hear the tapping of the typewriter as a dog starts barking and a man comes out of the property. This man (Stephen) will become our central character but most of what we learn about him will come from a lengthy flashback before the accident, and that will show how well he knows the two people he finds in the car. A shot that can seem hopelessly arbitrary as it moves in on the house rather than attending to a car crash offscreen, will then show us over time just how important that house and its occupant happens to be. Schrader is right to take the DP to task for suggesting that the best directors and cinematographers utilise camera movement to tell the story and never move the camera 'arbitrarily'. What Losey does here is refuse to put the camera where we would expect it, and where the drama happens to be taking place, all the better to anticipate both the situation and the broader ramifications. Though the car crash is dramatically the most important scene in the film, it is the inner violence that interests Losey much more and which will permeate the work.

One takes the term inner violence from James Palmer and Michael Riley's book on the director (The Films of Joseph Losey), and their chapter specifically on Accident. It is a term that is useful even if the broader claim they make in the chapter interests us less. Palmer and Riley draw upon Edward Brannigan and Bruce Kawin to discuss subjective camera and mindscreen, seeing the film, or more especially the flashback, as Stephen's perspective on events. This isn't quite the same thing as point of view, which shows an event directly from a character's perceptual viewpoint, as we see in Rear Window when Jefferies looks across at the neighbours, or when Anna Karina watches The Passion of Joan of Arc in the cinema in Vivre sa vie. It is instead when the film is seen through the character's perceptions rather than through their eyes. To see a film entirely through a character's eyes is an exhausting experience and only rarely attempted, to view a scene through a character's eyes not uncommon. Palmer and Riley reckon there are two ways in which a film can be from the mind of a character as they distinguish between the physical eye and the mind's eye. But within the mind's eye, there are at least two ways in which this can be done: it can be viewed from the perspective of a character looking back on their life and utilises flashback, or it can eschew such assured devices and leave us stranded between a subjective/objective position. This is the difference between what they call 'authorized' and 'unauthorized' first-person narration. We are no longer having the story narrated by the character who introduces the past to us as in Double Indemnity or The Lady from Shanghai, but by someone who seems to generate an indeterminate subjective/objective world. "Unauthorized first-person narration, however, provides an especially strong possibility of discerning a simultaneous commentary by third-person narration as well." Palmer and Riley reckon this is vital to art house narration and though, in the chapter, they don't give any other examples, Michel Ciment notes that "almost nothing happens in terms of action, except the accident at the beginning. The film builds on empty moments...it belongs completely to the sixties, with the achievement of the inner dimension of cinema. It's as if up to that point cinema had only two dimensions, and now cinema had gained a third dimension." (DVD Extras) Ciment gives as examples, Hiroshima, mon amour, L'avventura, Pierrot le fou, Persona, Belle de Jour and others, and saw that Accident fitted perfectly into this mode of cinema. Ciment reckons they are all "able to escape the flat surface of the screen, as if they were in the mind," as he suggests sixties cinema managed to get much closer to a character's thoughts than film before it and thus to unauthorized narration.

In eschewing other examples beyond Accident, Palmer and Riley do make clear how such works resemble and differ from literature, and namely the Nicholas Moseley novel the book was based upon. "Forsaking the novel's style, however, did not mean forsaking subjectivity altogether. Rather it meant turning to a different mode, that of "art cinema" narration with its potential for complex relationships between objectivity and subjectivity, rather than classical narration, which typically relies on observable reality as an index of characters' inner lives." (The Films of Joseph Losey) Yet the irony in Accident is that by problemitising access to consciousness it doesn't so much get closer to it, but registers the difficulty of knowing what is going on in people's minds. Rather than seeing Accident as a mindscreen that allows us to understand Stephen's thinking, we're more inclined to see the film taking advantage of the motivational ambiguity by refusing ready access to someone's thoughts. When in Double Indemnity the film flashes back to Fred MacMurray explaining how he ended up in his predicament, the film gives us access to his thinking, but in the type of narration Palmer and Riley invoke, unauthorized narration, might not be narration at all. Nobody is going to dispute that Double Indemnity is narrated by Murray's insurance detective, it is a moot point whether Accident is narrated by Stephen, though we wouldn't deny the film holds almost exclusively to his centrality in the narrative. He is in almost every scene. It seems to us that ambiguous motivation is more important to Losey and Pinter than unreliable narration. Though it shares with the various films Ciment invokes a formal complexity absent from classical cinema, vital to that complexity isn't a narrator who remembers in their own way (even Last Year at Marienbad, L'Immortelle and 8 1/2 don't quite do that), but one that raises questions about the confidence we have in making a truth-claim about what we see. When for example in a classic or conventional film someone says something or looks at an object or a person, we can say with some confidence what they believe or what they feel about what they are saying and looking at. When in The Big Lebowski Jeff Bridges watches the turquoise-suited pervert (John Turturro) playing ten pin bowling in slow motion, we are in no doubt what Bridges thinks: who is this idiotic clown with his fancy moves, absurd clothing and black hairnet? As the film cuts back from Turturro to Bridges, we don't know exactly what happens to be on Bridges' mind (as we would in a novel or with the aid of voice-over) but it is pretty clear Turturro is someone who Bridges and his friends can't take admire as they discuss his background exposing himself to an eight-year-old. In The Hurt Locker a reckless sergeant keeps putting the lives of his subordinates at risk and when he disappears from sight at one moment we see a look on their faces which say they are wondering what they should do about him. They then start discussing how it would be quite easy for an accidental explosion to take place. Their expressions make clear what they then discuss: that their sergeant is a liability. We offer an example from two contemporaries films, from a high comedy and a serious drama, to show how fine filmmaking nevertheless conforms to pretty categorical meaning because of the way the shots are put together and the dialogue that then confirms what the images initially convey.

In Accident, there are many shots that generate the notion that things are on the characters' minds but we can't easily know what these happen to be. A film that focuses a little too completely on seeing the film as more or less from Stephen's mind, assumes an access to his thinking and pays too little attention to what happens to be on the minds of others. In Accident, we do find ourselves wondering what Stephen is thinking, but we also muse over the thoughts of the other main players (Stephen, Charley and Anna) and also William (Michael York), Stephen's wife, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant) and even the college provost and a plain-clothes detective. In a scene where Rosalind and William are preparing lunch by shelling pees, Stephen comes in saying Charley has arrived and wonders whether he will be staying for lunch. Rosalind says of course as she and Willian exchange complicit glances, and William then pops a pea into her mouth. She tells William to fill the pot with water and as he exits the frame, Rosalind looks him up and down with a look that suggests she likes what she sees even if the film will not at all narrativise that look. When in The Big Lebowski and The Hurt Locker a gaze is offered, it is one that asks us to make certain assumptions about it, whether about the dubiousness of Turturro's character, or the recklessness of Jeremy Renier's sergeant. But Accident is full of looks and glances that go 'nowhere', as though we know there are things going on in people's minds but that we don't have access to them. The danger of seeing Accident as narrated from Stephen's point of view, as the film mainly takes place in flashback, would be that so many of these looks and glances become irrelevant next to the thrust of Stephen's ambiguous subjectivity. Isn't it instead that the film indicates everybody has an ambiguous response to situations and events? Early in the film and after the accident the police arrive, Stephen explains what happened while indicating William was alone in the car. At one moment when Stephen is interviewed by the sergeant in uniform, both seated, the plain-clothes detective paces the room and then goes out into the hallway and looks up at the stairs. Has he heard a noise (Anna is there), or is he just curious to have a better sense of the house, after all, it is a very elegant country home on three floors. His accent is regional, even working-class, and he might just be envying Stephen's social status.

We can think too of the provost's remarks late in the film when Stephen, the provost and others are watching cricket. Stephen says he saw the provost's daughter Francesca (Delphine Seyrig) in London. The provost has a puzzled look on his face and Stephen reiterates "your daughter." The provost asks how is she, and Stephen says very well; she sends him her love. The provost says to send her his love back next time he sees her. Wouldn't he likely be seeing his daughter sooner than Stephen; Oxford is only fifty miles from London? Or is that he no longer has contact with her presumably due to a fall-out and if so when he says to Stephen give her my love is he being ironic? Does he know that Stephen had an affair with her in the past, and assumes it is still continuing and thus Stephen is likely to see her sooner than he will? We don't know. What we do know is that their affair wasn't entirely private: when in London a former student at Oxford working in television asks him about Francesca, saying, "you knew her well." Here we have in the provost (put aside the former student, played by Harold Pinter) a complexity of motive that suggests everyone in the film has their reasons. The film's purpose isn't to explain them but to multiply them.

Thus rather than seeing Accident as solving the problem of film's difficulty in getting into people's heads as a novel can so easily do, Losey emphasises that difficulty and produces a high degree of ambiguity out of it. Imagine if a film replicated a novel's capacity to move between characters' thoughts? In a passage from Zola's Therese Raquin the narrator says "Therese only wanted to marry because she was frightened and her organism demanded Laurent's violent love-making..." and the next paragraph begins "Laurent, coarser-grained by nature, though giving in to his panics and desires, nevertheless was determined to reason out his decision." Here we have the narrator getting into the thoughts of the character and we see how easily a novel can move from person to person, explaining and analysing characters and events from inside someone's consciousness. Certainly film can imitate this form as we find for example in Lars von Trier films like Dogville and Manderlay, but von Trier wouldn't pretend these aren't literary films with their knowing, ironic voiceovers provided by British actors Paul Scofield and John Hurt. We aren't so much inside the characters' heads; we are following an omniscient narration that keeps the film at a deliberate distance. If in the scene between the provost and Bogarde the film were to provide the sort of interiority a novel can so easily offer we might be in something very crude or very funny. We would have as an interior voiceover Stephen musing over how much the provost knows as he says he saw his daughter in London and the provost thinking in voiceover that Stephen is an idiot if he isn't well aware Stephen has slept with his daughter. How close to such moments can be to humour is illustrated well by Woody Allen in Annie Hall. There Alvy and Annie are on the balcony saying one thing and thinking another, as subtitles offer their thoughts while they speak. It is a crude device redeemed by humour, with Allen more or less saying that cinema can't do what literature does so easily unless it plays it as a gag. "Cinema does not have the same means as literature," Ciment says."It could never get inside the psyche but by cinematographic means it can visually bring us nearer to an inner conscience, and I think Accident is one of Losey's films that succeeds best in this aim."(DVD Extras). Our impression, however, isn't that film in the sixties became closer to the novel. Its attempt to generate modes of subjectivity in cinema didn't so much reveal characters' thoughts but instead showed just how complex they can be.

Of course, Palmer and Riley, and perhaps Ciment, are invoking a sixties art house model for their interpretation of the film in seeing the flashback as Stephen's mindscreen. But that still leaves us with the problem of understanding other people's thoughts even if we think we understand Stephen's: it is surely a film made up of these ambiguous multiplications. Our point is that, finally, we understand Stephen's motives no better than anybody else's. It is true that when he lies we know he is lying more readily than we know when others lie, but this isn't because we know what he is thinking - more that we have greater access to his life and see how the things he says don't match up with the nature of events. When he discusses the accident at the beginning of the film with the police officers we know that Anna was involved in the crash and that she is upstairs in the house. He does not disclose this. Later in the film, he tells his wife that he saw Franceska in London but lies by omission again as he suggests they only had dinner. The film isn't as ambiguously complex as Last Year at Marienbad where we can't possibly work out what is true and what is not, what is memory and what is false memory, but it does generate a feeling that nobody is quite being honest with anybody else. We take as fact that Anna is upstairs when he speaks to the police, and we take as fact that he slept with Franceska in London, no matter the dreamy nature of the sequence. Stephen is not honest with others and perhaps also dishonest with himself, but we can say with great confidence that he proves himself a liar and with more modest confidence that he practises self-deception. Stephen lies because we know there is evidence that, taken together, produces inconsistencies and it would be daft to pretend that Stephen isn't our central character partly on this basis. When the provost gives no sign that he knows an affair has taken place between his daughter and Stephen we have no idea whether he is hiding things or not because we don't have what we could 'scene access' moments in the film that allow for a gap between what a character claims and what we have seen.

Stephen is clearly our most screen accessible character, the one as Palmer and Riley note is in almost every scene in the film, in contrast to any number of characters who may be lying, dissembling and non-disclosing as readily as Stephen but whose scene accessibility is much more limited. Thus when Charley turns up for lunch and says he was just passing by, should we believe him? There has been a moment not long before where we see Charley in Stephen's office at Oxford in Stephen's absence. He has a bottle of vodka in his arms which may well be the bottle he then gives to Stephen, but this would seem to be a day or two before the Sunday lunch. The manner in which he says he was just popping by will likely make us wonder how true that happens to be but we don't have the scene accessibility which would allow us to say that he has lied, as we can on a number of occasions with Stephen. The irony of the film's attempt to register inner consciousness isn't that it finds the truth there, but instead the lie. With Charley, we don't have access to his truth either, but neither do we have access to the truth of his lies. All the other characters remain inaccessible in their probable dishonesty; only Stephen offers us some of that accessibility.

Rather than seeing the film as a mindscreen allowing us into Stephen's head, better perhaps to see Accident as a film, like many of the great works of the period, accessing instead philosophical problematics in film form. Two that come to mind are the examination of bad faith, and the other the question of triangulated desire so that people are seen as use objects and become properly soulless as a consequence. Taking the question of bad faith first, we have noted that though we don't have access to Stephen's thoughts we do have scene accessibility which registers his dishonesty as we do not with any of the other characters. Thus while we don't get into Stephen's head we do comprehend him well enough to understand the bad faith he practices. Sartre describes bad faith as "not restricted to denying the qualities which I possess, to not seeing the being which I am. It attempts also to constitute myself as being what I am not. It apprehends me positively as courageous when I am not so...and the "not-being' of not-being -courageous which I wish to hide from myself." (Being and Nothingness) Yet central to bad faith is that it is not the same as lying, and we can think of many films that give us scene accessibility all the better to show that someone who makes one claim then counters it in a later scene. A film like The Wolf of Wall Street isn't a film of bad faith even it is a film full of liars: Jordan Belson and his other financial shysters tell people what they want to hear but don't for a moment believe that what they are saying is true. In one scene Belson is lying to a client on the phone while the rest of the team are listening to the bunk Belson offers. This is just lying. But bad faith is a certain way one lies to oneself. If we might believe that we are in the head of Stephen it is only because our access is great enough to see the bad faith he may seem to practise. When Stephen tells his wife he is inviting some people over on Sunday his wife asks which people. Stephen says William, and then offers, as if an afterthought, Anna too. In the previous scene, we have noticed it has been the other way round: he asked Anna and then suggested she come with William. The gap between what he says to Anna and what he says to his wife creates in the viewer a sense that he isn't entirely honest with others but also that he might not quite be honest with himself. A little later in the film, at the Sunday gathering, Charley asks William to describe to him what everyone is doing. William offers it literally: Stephen is weeding the garden, Rosalind is lying down and Anna is making a daisy chain, and so on. But Charley goes further saying that Rosalind is pregnant and Stephen is having an affair with a girl at Oxford. Charley isn't quite offering speculation or fact, but needling Stephen (who can overhear the conversation) with what he and we may see as Stephen's own suspect motives. Why exactly has he proposed this Sunday gathering that Charley has intruded upon? Is it really just to gather some people together for a relaxed day, or does he have designs on Anna, perhaps even on William? In a scene shortly afterwards, William asks Anna if she fancies a walk. Anna says she is happy lying where she is. A moment later Stephen, with a calculating expression on his face, says he is going for a walk - Anna says she will join him. We don't know exactly why he wants to do so: is it to go for a walk with William, or more obviously to find out Anna is interested in him, to find out if he isn't able to keep his hands off girls as Charley has proposed? As they walk there are few moments where a kiss looks likely, but nothing happens. It's as if Stephen doesn't quite know what his motives are. Later in the film when he finds Charley and Anna in his home, he doesn't turf them out, he suggests they can use the place again.

However, if Stephen practises bad faith, where does this faith exist in relation to the lies that he tells himself? Sartre insists that bad faith is a faith. "The true problem of bad faith stems obviously from the fact that bad faith is faith. It cannot be either a cynical lie or certainty..." This is where things can become very complicated. "For me to have represented it to myself in bad faith would have been cynicism; to believe it sincerely innocent would have been in good faith. The decision to be in bad faith does not dare to speak its name; it believes and does not believe itself in good faith." (Being and Nothingness) Jordan Belson doesn't at all have this problem he is cynically aware that he lies to get what he wants, whether it is cheating clients or cheating on his wife. He wouldn't pretend to be honest in his job and a good family man. Stephen however probably would, reckoning that he cares about his students and that he is a very good husband. When he tells his wife that he met Franceska in London he probably believes that there is no need to tell her what actually happened because what happened is not important to the marriage: why waste a few words on an irrelevance; he isn't likely to leave his pregnant wife for Franceska now is he? When he tells his wife that Charley is sleeping with Anna after Rosalind's enquiries he says of course, as if to say that is what Charley does, and by implication it is the sort of thing Stephen wouldn't do. But the difference is one of directness. When a couple of scenes earlier, Stephen asks Charley if that Sunday night when everybody stayed over he slept with Anna, Charley says "of course I did." We might be more likely to assume he will say "of course I didn't" even if he did, but Charley's brutal honesty contrasts greatly with Stephen's coy bad faith. This doesn't make Charley at all an agreeable character but it does make him a very different one from Stephen. If Charley likes blunt truths that disarm others; Stephen prefers a different sort of game that he might not even see as a game at all: to feel that he has an upper hand no matter the perversion involved. When he suggests Charley can keep sleeping with Anna in his home while his wife is away, does this mean he has greater access to Anna knowing that she will be in his home, and perhaps greater access to William since Anna will be with Charley? Throughout all these machinations of the mind nevertheless Stephen will probably see himself as a decent sort, unlike that brute Charley - a man who has left his wife (and with whom Stephen communicates through mail) and who Stephen also visits asking how she is coping. Stephen needs Charley to define his decency. It is a 'friendship' that supports his bad faith.

The issue of triangulated desire is a Hegelian concept picked up by numerous thinkers but let us quote the film critic Peter Wollen utilising the idea through Kojeve in an essay, "On Gaze Theory": "In the relationship between man and woman, for example, desire is human only if the one desires, not the body, but the desire of the other ... that is to say, if he wants to be 'desired' or 'loved' or, rather, 'recognized' in his human value, in his reality as a human individual. Likewise desire directed toward a natural object is human only to the extent that it is 'mediated' by the desire of another directed towards the same object; it is human to desire what others desire, because they desire it." Kojeve adds, "thus, an object perfectly useless from the biological point of view (such as a medal or the enemy's flag) can be desired because it is the object of other desires. Such a desire can only be a human desire, and human reality, as distinguished from animal reality, is created only by action that satisfies such desires: human history is the history of desired desires." (New Left Review) We might note in Accident that the desire is more than triangulated and hence the film's complexity. Does Charley desire Anna because he reckons Stephen desires her, or does he wish to sleep with her to get one over on the aristocratic William, since Charley is from clearly a less comfortable background? Does Stephen desire Anna because William desires her and he desires William? Does Rosalind desire William because he seems to have the younger and more beautiful Anna and so on? Strictly speaking, by Kojeve's reckoning, through Wollen, all films will work off a similar relationship with desire, but Accident multiplies the relationships, seeing in each character and more especially Stephen that desire conjoins with bad faith and generates a refractive sensuousness with Anna as the object of desire, close to 'useless' as a character except as a function of the desires of Stephen, Charley and William.

One may have a problem with this on the level of gender politics if we reckon that the men are useful in and of themselves but that Anna is not. Losey doesn't help much when saying to Ciment, "the girl was just a catalyst too. This is the reason why that poor unfortunate girl, Jacqueline Sassard, was quite unhappy on the picture, because she had those eyes which were windows, which you could look through, but she is never more than an instrument. She's simply a catalyst for all the other things." (Conversations with Losey) Yet this is useful uselessness, quite distinct from the Bergsonian problem of use Gilles Deleuze briefly discusses when looking at Werner Herzog's work. A character in a Herzog film says, "'where do objects go when they no longer have any use?' we might reply that they normally go in the dustbin. But that reply would be inadequate, since the question is metaphysical. Bergson asked the same question and replied metaphysically: that which has ceased to be useful simply begins to be." (Cinema 1: The Movement Image) We can see that the difference between useful uselessness (Anna) and useless uselessness (that needn't go in the bin) is the difference between the soulless and the soulful. One needn't be overly religious about this; that wouldn't be our point. The soul here functions as an object or being that escapes use value. If Losey sees that Anna is merely a means to others' ends, and that those using her see her as functionally useful in the context of their manipulations (especially Charley and Stephen), she is useless (in the sense of having little agency), useful (in that she serves the desires of others) and yet soulless because she is usefully useless. The other characters may seem soulless too, as they exist in competition with each other, determined to win Anna but without any sense of commitment in the process. Only William seems to be acting considerately as Anna announces she will be marrying him, but that decency counts for little in a film where so many games are being played. These may be literal (tennis, cricket and an arcane aristocratic game involving a fight over a leather cushion) but they are insignificant next to the mind games the characters are playing and that Stephen can't seem to work his way out of even if he is hardly an innocent in the process. When Anna tells him that she is marrying William it comes moments after Stephen asks her if she had a nice weekend while she thanks him for his hospitality clearly Charley and Anna were having sex at his house while he was visiting the wife and kids at his mother-in-laws. But Anna offers her gratitude harshly and announces her engagement. She asks Stephen to tell Charley and to then let her know what he thinks, a moment that indicates the least important of the three men in this situation happens to be the one she is marrying. It captures well the soullessness of the encounter: the sense that feeling gives way to power.

In many of Losey's film power has been important, a negotiation of self in the company of others that suggests others are more readily a threat to one's identity than an augmentation of it. It might be The Servant who once in the master's home creates a breach in the latter's being, the phoney writer in Eve who allows himself to be destroyed by a woman whom he adores but holds him in contempt, or the art dealer determined to prove that he isn't a Jew in Mr Klein, only to become preoccupied with the other Mr Klein who is Jewish, and who will lead him to his death. In these other three films, the men are ruined or killed. In Accident, Stephen comes away relatively unscathed he remains at the end of the film the family man that Anna's presence threatened to destroy. But as we have the film's opening shot almost replicated at the film's ending, though this time in daylight, as the camera pulls back instead of pushing in, we hear again a crash on the soundtrack. Losey's camera throughout the film doesn't side with the characters but remains aloof from them, and in this closing shot suggests the bad faith Stephen can't easily confront is the film that we have just watched. Losey isn't interested we believe in suggesting this is Stephen's mindscreen that we have been watching, but a certain approach to Englishness and the soul where the latter will be ignored for the furtherance of a narrow-minded notion of the former. It might be the aristocratic William who is dead, and the male characters a little or a lot further down the social scale who are still alive, but the film suggests, with Anna, the Belgian aristocratic outsider, gone, life continues as normal, however, soulless that normality may be.


© Tony McKibbin