Sleeping Beauties and Existential Loners
There is a scene near the end of Le Vent de la nuit where two of the film's three leading characters (Helene and Serge) first meet in a restaurant. The middle-aged Helene is having an affair with the young art student Paul, who has befriended the middle-aged Serge, and there is the impression when Serge and Helene meet that they've known each other in the past. The dialogue, however, indicates this isn't the case, even if a couple of Cahiers du Cinema critics interviewing Garrel felt that something in the scene suggested they had. That the critics felt the need to bring it up, and that the viewer may see in this scene a curious intimacy, might lead us to ponder on what's going on not so much within the scene as beyond it.
Let us suggest what it does is bring together two key post-war cinematic traditions. On the one hand we have Serge (Daniel Duval), the existential, in this instance suicidal, loner familiar to us from for example Alice in the Cities, The Passenger, Kings of the Road and Five Easy Pieces...These are usually peripatetic figures, looking for meaning in the landscape and the road, from constantly moving on. As Jack Nicholson says in Five Easy Pieces, he doesn't want to hang around anywhere for too long because things always turn out bad if he does.
On the other hand we have the stay at home woman, if you like, a woman under the surface of consciousness, a sort of sleeping beauty figure in need of psychic resuscitation and emotional release. Here we might think of Voyage to Italy, The Red Desert andGertrud, of films where the notion of love is fundamental. As Gertrud says, looking back on a mantra she wrote for herself at sixteen. 'Am I beautiful. No, but I have loved. Am I young? No, but I have loved. Do I live? No, but I have loved.' Sixteen year old Gertrud wrote my gospel of love.'
So what we have in Le vent de la nuit is a man who has already decided to die after accepting the complete failure of '68 and the more recent suicide of his wife. And then we have a woman, Helene (Catherine Deneuve), whose suicide attempt early in the film is more readily a desperate plea for love. In the scene where Helene slits her wrist in front of her husband and her lover, it is as if she does so out of the vulnerability of rejection. (She senses in the husband and lover's casual communication her own complete isolation - that neither can give her what she desires.) It's as impetuous a gesture as Serge's desire to die is a carefully planned ritual; where Deneuve breaks a glass to slit her wrist with its shards; Serge has a pre-bought poison and even a suicidal guide book to hand as he prepares to do the deed.
And yet, for all the differences and dangerous similarities, after the film's restaurant scene, the two characters go off to a hotel room and make love. Is this an example of 'bad timing', of a relationship that can't possibly work? Taking on board some of Garrel's comments in the Cahiers interview mentioned above, maybe it does work. For Garrel implies that by passing through Serge's bed Helene can see more clearly what she needs: perhaps not so much a condescending love (which she seems to get from her husband), nor sex with a young lover ( la Paul), but disinterested love - and who could be more disinterested than a man who will end his life shortly after their one night liaison?
We can decide to read the film then not first and foremost as a brilliant example of the existential loner tradition, which ends on Serge's suicide, but just as readily as a marvellous examination of the semi-resuscitated woman of Voyage to Italy, The Red Desert and Gertrud, that allows, in Garrel's phrase for Helene's 'crystallization': a realisation that she needn't predicate her self on the presence of Paul, but simply on the idea of emotional sustenance. As she says to Serge as they lie in bed, "we've only just met. It's like we've known each other for ages." This brief liaison, Garrel says, "this relationship with Serge has appeased her."
This feminised take on isolation that Le vent de la nuit draws on isn't of course necessarily an optimistic narrative form. Whatever Antonioni's proclamations about people adjusting to a new and beautiful world in The Red Desert, the 'genre' retains an air of despair. But it suggests the possibility of love and self-respect where the loner film often works from the idea of a fundamental, even necessary, loss of meaning. If the loner road movie often proposes man will not or can no longer love, the sleeping beauty figure frequently feels she loves too much. As Monica Vitti's character, Giuiliana, says in The Red Desert, "love your husband, love your son, love a job, even a dog...but not husband-son-job-dog-trees-river." How can she limit the love she has to offer?
At the end of Voyage to Italy, Gertrud and The Red Desert we find women who have felt too much; at the end of the loner genre we sense the men feel too little. Serge says he lives in the world as it was and not as it is; in Kings of the Road the central character is asked "Is there any desire left in you?" It is as if part of Le vent de la nuit's brilliance resides in conjoining the two sub-genres for a kind of spiritual reconfiguration. Serge passes through Helene towards the death he insists upon; while Helene passes through Serge towards the life she believes in no matter her occasional desire to die.
Can we suggest then what these two mini-genres show are opposing ways of being, of choices available within staying alive or taking one's own life? And yet both Helene and Serge would fall easily into the category defined by Emile Durkheim as 'anomically suicidal'. That is, their desire to die is based on an inability to cope with a new situation. For Serge it is the realisation that society has changed - and that he can't live with the changes now his wife is dead; for Helene, the death in childbirth eight years earlier and an attempt to find meaning in a young lover who cannot provide it. But where Helene's suicide attempt seems to be anomically impuslive; for Serge it's anomically pre-meditated - that Helene needs love to resist the suicidal urge; Serge perhaps requires a moment of affection to achieve the deed. Earlier in the film, just before preparing to take his life, he phones his brother to announce he can't go on. For Serge it is simply a matter of achieving the inevitable; for Helene her wounds seem more readily healable: that she's part of an altogether more hopeful cinematic tradition. At the end of Voyage to Italy, for example, the husband and wife agree to stay together with the neglectful husband apparently adjusting a little to his wife's needs before they return to London. After more or less having nothing to do with the sort of temporal obsessions of Alex, obsessions around work and activity and where he feels instead in the south of Italy one is 'poisoned by laziness', Katherine has throughout the film been searching out ancient sites and reflecting on a close male friend who died in the region years before. Yet come the end of the film Alex admits he also was pretty shaken by the moulds of the dead at Pompeii: there is a sense that he can now understand time outside his usual narrow workaholic preoccupations. Gertrud finds purpose separating from her husband and moving from Denmark to Paris, and in The Red Desert Giuliana maybe adjust a little to life with her husband and child after a brief fling with another man. At the end of the film her son asks, "why is the smoke yellow?" Because, Giuliana replies, "it is poison." "So if it flies over there it will kill him." "yes", Giuliana says, "but the bird knows it and doesn't fly over there anymore."
It would be asburd to over-emphasize the films' optimism, but there is a sense that the problems are in essence situational and emotional. All the female characters here are anomic out of a certain neglect - they conform to Peter Sainsbury's analysis of 'Suicide in London' where he shows that in poor but socially bonding communities the suicide rate is very low, but hugely more prevalent in wealthier London districts. The problem in these films isn't so much the inability to communicate, but the difficulty in finding people with whom they can communicate and places in which they can live. Therein lies the hope.
In the male loner film the characters are looking less for emotional facilitation and psychic safe havens, than searching out ways to avoid conventional communication and the demands of social being. Where the women are usually beseeching in the sleeping beauty tradition: the loner men are more inclined to the taciturn, often communicating through gesture rather than through language. In Five Easy Pieces, there are a couple of occasions where the gifted pianist, Nicholson's Bobby Dupea, plays the piano. In one scene he plays it on the back of a truck in a traffic jam, in the other he offers a Chopin recital as he cajoles his brother's fiancee, Catherine, into his bed. This isn't about playing music well, so much as violating the context that the music is usually played within: performing classical music on a truck; using Chopin simply to ensnare his brother's woman.
In Kings of the Road Rudiger Vogler's cinema repair man, Bruno, doesn't talk to a young woman about his despair over the death of cinema, he illustrates it by putting together footage of soft-porn films to show cinema's decline. Later, just as he's about to leave the town in which the young woman lives, she cries, and he puts one of her tears on his own face. The Passenger has a key scene where Nicholson's David Locke doesn't answer a question conventionally, he asks his lover to look out the back of the car and see the road behind them. In each instance it is as if the conventions of art and language can't do justice, can't represent, thought and feeling.
Now of course none of the three leading characters - Bobby, Bruno or Locke - go so far as to kill themselves, nor are any of them strictly speaking artists, but they might be caught within what Al Alvarez, talking of the modernist, suicidal artist in The Savage God, sees as the "continuous, restless urge to experiment, the constant need to change, to innovate, to destroy the accepted styles." And yet aren't these character also caught within a certain paradox, because the loner figures both demand and reject tradition? Bruno looks towards the cinematic figures of the past, like Fritz Lang, Serge is pre-occupied with classical Italian architecture, while Locke rejects his job as a reporter partly on the basis that the westernised means of reportage can't comprehend the simplicity of African life. But maybe this contradiction contains a deeper consistency, a consistency Heidegger pinpoints when he says "without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom.' It is between tradition and modernity, between the conventional and the possible that the nothing finds itself.
Thus it is not just that '68 failed for Serge, it is that something else has succeeded, that '68 was perhaps less about the necessity of social change, but the necessity of the feeling of profound change itself, that society has moved on but somehow remained the same. Has it not settled for static thought and capitalist assumption and consumption? It is as if Serge doesn't want to be part of a Modernity that lives in a static present. What is lost for people like Serge and Locke, no matter their cosy professionally cossetted lives, is the idea of Heideggerian 'unfolding', of holding in balance opposing values to accept the necessity of the provisionality of belief. Thus Locke doesn't necessarily want to be somebody else when he changes his identity early on in The Passenger, but he wants the limbo status of adopting another persona. As he says whilst still holding onto his original identity, "we translate every situation and every experience into the same old codes. We just condition ourselves." How to escape this human condition? Bruno, meanwhile, in Kings of the Road, looks less for a sense of permanence in terms of place or a relationship than in the precariousness of his love for his job. The characters aren't so much looking for emotional consolidation, here, so much as a framework for free being.
Sure in all the male loner films the notion of a profession is vital, but no less vital is its growing absence. In Le Vent de la nuit, Serge refuses to talk about his work, in Alice in the Cities Philip gets into an argument with his editor as he realises he is more interested in photographing America than journalistically reporting on it. In The Passenger Locke changes his identity and throws in his career, and in Five Easy Pieces Bobby has long since given up music though he's from a family of musicians and professionally trained. Here we can see a notion of talent or a profession is central to their being and non-being. If they all so insistently break the rules or reject their pasts, it's because they can't seem to settle on a personal sense of well-being within their existence. They refuse or cannot accept finding it in a standardised notion of profession, in that existential lie defined over a hundred years ago by Strindberg when he said, "'character' became a middle-class euphemism for an automaton...where the man who goes on developing...was stigmatized as 'characterless' (in, of course a derogatory sense) because he was too difficult to catch, classify and keep tabs on." The unfolding, even if it's towards inevitable suicide - like Serge - or what seems to be one's murder, as with Locke, remains the priority. They must be true to this vital void.
In the loner tradition that emptiness is linked, then, to the notion of work and thought, though the characters refuse to consolidate either. In the female films it is attached more obviously to 'indolence' and emotion, for in each instance, the women are without, or appear to be without, proper work. Ingrid Bergman's Katherine in Voyage to Italy is a housewife whose main chore is arranging her husband's dinner parties. Gertrud is a gifted singe but now seems to be called upon chiefly for special occasions. Giuliana might open a shop, but there is no urgency in her calling, and the husband suggests it is something to keep her mind off her own chaos, nothing more. Helene in Le vent de la nuit is a housewife with no perceivable work or duties. If for the men the perverse purpose lies in the gap between work and non-work, and between tradition and Modernity, and demands a way of finding self-expression on their own semi or fully nihilistic terms, for the women it rests less ambitiously on emotional sustenance and the escape from aloneness. The men in the loner film aren't looking for love - affection is merely a way station before further dissatisfaction, as if they knew their being was irreparably damaged. It is a point Catherine makes to Bobby in Five Easy Pieces when saying how can Bobby expect to love anybody when he can't even love himself.
Can we say then that Le vent de la nuit isn't so much a film of standard art cinema ambiguity, but more especially about presenting profound psychic choice? That in drawing upon two distinct traditions of filmic inertia the film allows the viewer to read the ending as inevitably and more or less pessimistically conclusive from the loner tradition and obliquely optimistic from the woman in need of sustenance film. It is a film, from this duel perspective, mapping out in an astonishingly dense ninety minutes options of living or dying. There is the intellectually radical decision to die in a world that has moved on, or the emotionally necessary need to find a space of tenderness that can sustain one's existence.
To some degree, the way Le vent de la nuit presents this choice is as the difference between a public death and a private life. Not only was Serge actively involved enough in '68 to receive a criminal sentence, there are also hints that he is a well known architect . Helene seems an altogether more private character, clearly overshadowed by her husband, and so if Serge has always looked to find a new discourse through direct action and perhaps also his work, has Helene crouched within her role as housewife and accepted a more conservative status? There is the implication, when her husband talks to Paul about the writer Antoine Blondin and his promise that his wife might not be rich but she'll meet some interesting people, that he is also talking about his own wife as readily as Blondin's.
Thus again we can see how important the restaurant scene and the following lovemaking session are. Does Serge need Helene to help liberate him from the world - towards the 'tenderness' of self-annihilation - while Helene needs Serge to help liberate her simply from the limited perspective of her life? Just as Gertrud must pass through a husband, an older ex-lover and a young lover to arrive at self-definition, does Helene not need to pass through the husband, the young lover and Serge to arrive at a decision she can genuinely call her own, whatever that decision might be?
Garrel's film is from this angle not just about choice, of course, but offers the deepest of options. It is a film about a man who travels through the present as if to reenact the past: he returns to the Italian town he and other radicals stayed in in '68, visits his wife's grave in Berlin and makes love to Helene in what seems like a moment that reminds him of his time with his wife. Helene, however, passes through the present not to recall the past but to give her a possible purpose into the future. If Serge suggests a fatalistic inevitably, Helene shows the living possibilities in choosing. As Garrel points out, Helene's night with Serge has "taken her out of her fascination with Paul..."
"In the realm of fiction" Freud once said, "we find the plurality of lives which we need. We die with the hero with whom we have identified ourselves; yet we survive him, and are ready to die again just as safely with another hero." If Le vent de la nuit is so full and fascinating a work is it because we have the option ourselves of moving from one to the other within the same art work?
© Tony McKibbin