A Small Space for Thought
After watching two apparently very minor films - Maria, Full of Grace and 52 - one may wonder why they nevertheless possesses a quality which is surprisingly rewarding. Maybe it lies in what we will call the films' reflective capacity. This is a hard to pin down quality in a movie; not amenable to conventions of back story and character arc, but it relates to a feeling the film evokes not chiefly as the film plays, nor especially at its conclusion, but in its after effect. After all, if a film possesses a reflective capacity, it should surely leave the viewer with a reflective capacity of one's own after the film has long finished.
But if we are not going to settle for the vagaries of mysticism we should try and explain this reflective capacity, suggest how a film might move toward its creation. Two elements come to mind. One concerns the way a filmmaker might hold a shot and the second in how they would play down moral throughlines.
Let us take 52 first. In Francois Ozon's film, Ozon tells his story backwards but nevertheless creates a forward momentum through slowness. This may just sound perversely paradoxical, but by always respecting the present tense-ness of the image no matter its past tense nature within the narrative, Ozon creates the forward momentum through the reflective capacity, a capacity generated by the question that ends the first of the five segments. "Should we try again?" Stephane Freiss's Gille asks Marion (Valerie Bruni-Tedeschi). Earlier that day they've got divorced, but nevertheless end up in a hotel room. During sex Marion decides she wants to stop, but Gilles continues in a sexual frenzy that is tantamount to rape. However if we're to see his comment as more than horribly ironic, we must watch the film backwards but look for clues as to why it may nevertheless reveal a deep bond between the characters - a depth that need go no deeper than that Gilles's violating of Marion is nevertheless forgivable because of the feelings they have for each other.
Thus as the film develops backwards, we search for signs of connection, even though most of the time Ozon illustrates the opposite. For example the first flashback shows us the couple inviting Gille's gay brother and his young lover over for dinner. Marion likes the young man, but Gilles isn't so sure - at one stage in the evening the young lover decides to go on to a club with friends, leaving the brother alone with Gilles and Marion. Years before, as we discover near the film's conclusion, Gilles was holidaying with his then girlfriend in Sardinia when he coincidentally meets up with work acquaintance Marion at a beach resort. One evening she asks them if they would like to go for a drink. The girlfriend says she is not in the mood but suggests Gilles goes. He insists he had better go home with his partner, but nevertheless the next day, while his partner goes off trekking, he decides to have a lie in and then goes to the beach and finds Marion there. This, we can surmise, at the very end of the film, is the beginning of their relationship, and so we might think back to the comment earlier in the film, years later, when he reckons a relationship is over when partners lack a certain type of cohesiveness. Now what is interesting in such scenes is that the flashbacks do not function as hindsight flashbacks, they do not make us know what we didn't know before. Instead they echo back on the film because we have no idea whether Gille's earlier comment is made with a conscious awareness of his own 'relational' bad faith, whether it's said so bitterly because it functions sub-consciously - an attack on another that is really a criticism of himself - or whether it is a reflection of a general air of bitterness.
And just as we can offer - at least - a threefold possibility in his comment, so we can also wonder whether, if it is the latter, if this bitterness has developed over the years. In the first three of the five episodes he's astonishingly bitter; in the last two episodes, sweet, good natured. Sure in the fourth episode Gilles is drunk and it is his wedding night, but in the fifth as well there is a freshness and relaxed sense of himself completely missing later on. What is it, we might ask, if he's so cynical in his comment that may have led to this bitterness?
We may have said enough for the moment, about 5 x 2's ability to generate the reflective capacity through a certain narrative ambiguity. Though the flashback structure could very well lend itself to hindsight, it instead forces upon us, if you like, retrospective insight. We must try and recall, rather as we must in situations in our own lives, a stray comment or gesture that nevertheless could contain some significance. Sure Ozon's film plays ontological tricks with us - reversing time as we ourselves cannot - yet he still manages to leave our perceptual processes intact.
Let us now take a brief detour before talking about Maria, Full of Grace. Many films that play with time don't leave our perceptual processes intact, in the sense that they don't allow us to perceive the world, so much as comprehend the rules of the game. Do The Usual Suspects, Irreversible, Run, Lola, Run and L'appartement, for example, really allow for this reflective capacity, or do they uitilise an aspect of the cinematic possibilities in time for the ludic denial of reality? Where is the reflective capacity in Run, Lola, Run as the film gives us three simultaneously temporal narratives as we see Lola moving towards better behaviour in each episode where her and her boyfriend rob a bank? The viewer does not expect their perceptual processes to be stretched, because the variables are laid out for us. We cannot surmise on possible permutations: the permutations are categorically revealed. Its approach reminds us of Memento director Christopher Nolan's comment on his own film that you should be able to understand the film completely after three viewings. So if in Run, Lola, Run we have the three narratives allowing us to understand the film on one viewing, and one complex backwardly moving narrative in Memento that will nevertheless be definitely clear to us by the third, 52 demands not interpretation but reflection - we can never understand Gilles's and Marion's motives, but in reflecting upon them, by trying to make sense of their marriage, we might at the same time make sense of our own lives.
52 allows us this reflective capacity through the pace and ambiguity of the shot. So for example there are many scenes that do not feel like they are illustrating the present, though they are set in the past. They do not function on the basis of the explanatory flashback where a character in the present will explain what happened in the past, and then the flashback will be there to illustrate it. No, 52's move into the past focuses not on the past as narrative illustration (where the past is revealed to explain a mystery), but the feel of the moment for itself, where we still have a very reflective, analytic relationship with the image. In relation to the ambiguous, we can see it in at least two instances. One concerns Marion's apparent fling on her wedding night, where, after Gilles falls asleep tired and drunk before they had the opportunity to make love, Bruni-Tedeschi goes out into the moonlight and meets a handsome American stranger also staying at the same hotel, and apparently makes love to him. Yet there is ambiguity here, for Ozon abruptly cuts from Bruni-Tedeschi and the stranger beginning to get close, to Bruni-Tedeschi running up the hotel stairs and into the bedroom and saying over and again to the still asleep Freiss that she loves him. Obviously in a past era such a cut from a couple getting close would be the moral and censorial cut, but Ozon need neither be moral nor censorious, so the cut functions differently. It announces an ambiguity concerning what exactly happened. Sure some time has passed - it is still dark when the stranger and Marion meet, and it is dawn when she rushes up the stairs - but how much time, and what has taken place, of that we must still guess. Hence the observationally paced ambiguity of the shot; it can't quite pass for explanation: it is uncategorical in meaning through ellipses, and doesn't necessarily impact on the characters' future, as it's a moment that Gilles apparently remains ignorant of.
In Maria, Full of Grace, the reflective capacity is achieved chiefly through denying the moral throughline, though it tells a tale that would seem to demand one. But we may be reminded here of Isaiah Berlin, referencing William Godwin's idea "that to understand a human act we must always avoid applying general principles but examine each case in its full individual detail." Herein lies the film's strengths.
The details the film especially focuses upon are those of drug trafficking, with central character Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) deciding to take some sixty odd heroine capsules from Colombia to New York. Each capsule is about the size of a couple of large grapes tied in a condom, and we see Maria practising swallowing the grapes as surrogates for the heroin. The film is at its most morally ambiguous in these moments, because the scenes lack the moral scene-setting of the film' opening, where we feel the filmmaker is seeking Maria's alibi in a life of social deprivation. Where at the beginning we watch Maria's tough job in the rose factory, and the stuttering relationship with her boyfriend she's pregnant by, in the scenes where Maria tries to swallow grapes, and later when she swallows the heroine capsules, we're caught in that marvellous dramatic device of the idee fixe. This is where a film can forego all the motivating elements and focus the viewer's attention on the specifics of the deed. A particular fine example from another drugs film comes to mind - The French Connection, where Popeye (Gene Hackman) and his team take a car apart, so sure is Popeye that he will find drugs there. At a certain stage you feel it no longer has anything to do with the wider issues, and zeroes in on the specifics of the fixed idea - something is in the car, and Popeye is absolutely determined to find it.It is like a variation on Hitchcock's Macguffin, on the idea that it doesn't matter what sets the narrative in motion, as long as something does so. We don't even need to know, finally, what that something is, and, on occasion we never do find out what it is, because we are lost in the narrative thrust rather than in the specific details. We could say Hitchcock offers a macro-narrative through the Macguffin as it sets the whole film moving; but what William Friedkin offers in The French Connection, and the director Joshua Marston here is the micro narrative through the idee fixe.
This is perhaps why The Guardian's critic Peter Bradshaw couldn't get a handle on the film, saying "what exactly are we supposed to conclude from all this?" as if he were hoping the micro would lead to the macro and perhaps also include an ideological stance to tie everything up. When he invokes an earlier film about drugs, Midnight Express, he does so to claim "it certainly packed a punch...and was, in its way, tactlessly direct about the culpable involvement of the developed world's white-collar middle classes in the grisly trade." And of Traffic he says that Steven Soderbergh "offered a wider context as it followed a grand narrative pipeline beginning in the Mexican barrio, moving across the Rio Grande..." Hence any specific element echoes onto a broader narrative, and perhaps even contains this ideological element - a point many of those who liked or despised Traffic focused upon. But it is as though Marston wanted to make a film that would focus first and foremost on the details, and then see what sort of morality can come out of the details, rather than making a film which fills in the morality tale.
Thus we can see if a filmmaker's work focuses firmly enough on the idee fixe, and on the details contained, whether the film's narrative positioning is pro or anti drugs, whether it positions itself on the side of the cop (The French Connection), or the mule (Maria, Full of Grace), the viewer is integrally engaged in the action. We're not first and foremost judging; we are in a reflective relationship with the specifics of the subject, and if we want to judge, we're expected not to judge macro-narratively, but instead to observe micro-narratively, so that any judgement we offer comes reflectively. We're not given the macro-moral perspective in which to judge the characters' actions. One of the problems with many films is that they don't attend to Berlin/Godwin comment: they don't attend to the full individual detail; they insistently fit the moment into wider moral principles. Think of all the scenes where bad characters act badly: their action is not so much about individual detail, but about summing up their characterisational awfulness for necessary plot through-lines.
Thus in Maria, Full of Grace the film could have used the factual details of swallowing drugs for the purposes of moral repugnance. The film could have used them to emphasize the morality of the gesture, but if anything the gesture de-emphasizes the morality, as the film focuses so completely on the first principle of the thing itself, that the viewer may find themselves enquiring into the very nature of swallowing, of gulping. It's an analogical option offered of course by the very film - Maria practises after all on grapes - but we might also draw analogies with sword-swallowing, fellatio and any other 'skilled' swallowing activity. There may be the assumption that the drugs trade is an easy option, but Maria, Full of Grace shows that a basic skill must first be mastered. It is partly the analogical nature of the activity that removes the moral dimension and creates the reflective one.
Another reflective over moral dimension can be found in the detailing of the body itself. The film is interested less, if you like, in the social body, than the material body. What is the difference in this context we might ask? An emphasis on the social body would have played up Maria' lack of choices, the gains to be made by drugs, and the options she would have available to her in the States, how much money she could make and exactly what she might spend it on. But by focusing on the material body the film very much makes the social body secondary. Not only does the film greatly emphasize the fact of the drugs in her system, it also makes clear the physiological nervousness of the mules (there are four of them doing the drug run at the same time), the effects when one of the heroin filled condoms bursts in one of the mules' bodies and also Maria's pregnancy.
Now that the film is a body film allows it to get away with what in other circumstances would seem a cheap device. Maria's pregnancy means she avoids an x-ray that would have lead to her arrest - pregnant women can't be x-rayed, and thus she walks free at a moment in the film where we think there is absolutely no escape. If this had been used without the material, bodily focus, Marston might have been justified in using it and claiming it was fair because a pregnant woman cannot be x-rayed at customs, but we still might have felt cheated by its cheapness as a device.
But let us say it is a device consistent with the thematic aspect of the material that is only tangentially concerned with drug trafficking and finds its distinctiveness in the body, just as 52 finds its distinctiveness in exploring the question 'should we try again?'. In each instance we have, on a minor level, perhaps, what Kundera would call a 'theme', so that, in Kundera's words, "whenever a novel abandons its themes, he says in The Art of the Novel, and settles for just telling a story, it goes flat."
Now let us call Kundera's notion of theme, our idea of reflective capacity, and that we can 'forgive' a film its so-called weaknesses if we believe it has reflective validity. Thus we needn't agree with Philip Kemp in Sight and Sound when he criticises Ozon for the hoary device of the handsome stranger appearing as Marion goes for a walk on her wedding night, but instead enquire into what this obvious device serves. If we find in pursuing the reflective capacity that no reflection seems possible, then we might assume it isn't present, while of course taking into account these notions have a degree of subjectivity in the first place - one man's reflective capacity is another man's vacuousness.
And yet, and yet...does a film such as Braveheart, or Titanic, or any other blockbuster one cares to mention justifiably have a reflective capacity, or do they work as hard as possible to avoid this reflective element? Let us take Saving Private Ryan as an example, where a material film is predicated and then eschewed. After the half hour sequence of the Normandy landings, the film settles into its narrative form and its social dimension, taking into account our comments on Maria, Full of Grace. Thus though we may initially thinks it predicates itself on one of two reflective possibilities, it sacrifices both of them. The first resides in the immateriality of memory, with the film apparently a recollection piece from Ryan's point of view as an old man, returning to Normandy and witnessing the many graves. So it seems as if the film will ask the question, what is the war in memory, how can it be recaptured? But then Spielberg quickly puts the question aside, and asks no longer what is immaterialty - his apparent previous question - but what is materiality, what is the nature of war on the body, as we see anything from Tom Hanks' hand-shaking, to people being sick before the Normandy landings, to people blown away and torsos detached from bodies once the landing takes place. But then Spielberg leaves this question behind as he settles into a story of moral significance, narrative significance and social significance, as Tom Hanks and his ragbag team determine to find Ryan and return him to the mother who has lost all her other sons to the war effort.
Spielberg, then, predicates his narrative on reflective possibilities before settling instead for narrative convention and the rejection of the reflective. Maybe some people could argue differently, for the notion of reflective capacity is, as we've proposed, nothing if not subjective. But let the burden of proof rest on others. All we have tried to suggest is its modest possibility in two films and its almost complete absence in others. We have said nothing of films by Godard, Resnais or Antonioni and Kiarostami, where its presence is paramount and often to the detriment of even ostensible narrative development (as in Godard especially, but also to a lesser degree in Antonioni). We might even conclude provocatively on a formula: the higher degree of narrative, the less present the room for reflection...But that is a debate for another day.
© Tony McKibbin