The ground floor of a villa – the windows look onto a garden. Architecture: 1930s, I’d say, for the wide arches of a terrace door and a beautiful fireplace, for the white-painted walls that provide this room with such a spectacular dimension (constantly contradicted by the details of how it is inhabited). Two massive, unwieldy armchairs, covered with a – colonial – tiger motif. Awfully awkward, but a very stimulating sight. Sitting in them presented the actors with more problems than their lines, rhythm, posture and the camera did. We can no longer – or we are afraid to – imagine people sitting in such chairs. The actors are therefore not sitting, they are quoting sitting. Deep in the chair, they appear to have taken a seat on its edge.
A small sitting area with a wall-bench: a reference to rurality, informality, associations with inns and terrace benches. The resting place of a walk in the middle of your interior! To your right, when you are sitting on that bench, is a door to the hallway. A parapet protects you from drafts and glances. There is also a kitchen table with chairs – a long way from the sitting area and the tiger-print seats. Over there, under the wing of modernity (the armchairs) and rurality (the sitting area), is the equipment of the social, of representation – here, at the table, is a domesticity that none of the players wants to have anything to do with. On several occasions, they ostentatiously stand around and start acting as the injured party. The domesticity is used as blackmail. It is no coincidence that Tesman and Elvsted are sitting at that table working to reconstruct the burnt manuscript – homemaking and morality under a kitchen lamp.
Tuesday 30 January at the Film Museum: the “world premiere” (why squander beautiful Hollywood rituals? Let’s use them!) of Jan Decorte’s third feature film (excluding his Gombrowicz).
At the box office, I grab a leaflet: credits, synopsis and filmography of the filmmaker. I assume the text was written by Decorte himself: it certainly sets the right tone.1
Short sentences with very elementary syntax. No conjunctions to reason the content together. Each sentence could be the beginning of a story: none of them have that special “first sentence” ring to them – as is the case with the images in the film. All parts of Ibsen’s story are still there, but they are no longer in the right order, no longer in the right hierarchy. The distinction between functional narratives and spectacular main moments, between building blocks and synthesis, has gone missing. Not in such a way that it gives rise to an alternative story, a sort of flip side of the actual story. That kind of critical reinterpretation is too affirmative. The “novel of interpretation” (“the little secret” of psychoanalysis, the public secret of the “class struggle”) is the fiction of a whole generation of reformers. It is as or as little attractive as Ibsen’s own fiction. The result here is an ironic “wild analysis” that is both critical and clichéd. Fassbinder already tried something similar, though with much more fascination for the “novel of interpretation” than Decorte.
On that same leaflet, the characters are referred to by their full name or by “he”, “she” or “they”, which has the effect of being very aloof. There’s no promiscuity with these fictional characters. And the actors perform inthis way as well – they act on the edge of their characters in the way that they sit on the edge of those chairs, objectifyingly, at a distance, but all the more intense therefore.
It’s a sort of acrobatic distance, here in Hedda Gabler, that makes you hold your breath in suspense (the acting is wonderful!) until it should be released by laughter. There’s a spluttering retelling of a wildly unlikely story, a kooky imitation of melodramatic conflicts, a travesty of critical unriddling, offering this extremely slow, calm countercurrent full of rapids and waterfalls.
The most unlikely things happen. Take the opening shots before the spoken credits, for instance, in which close-ups of the staircase to the house are combined with a “Congolese” colonial song performed by one of those gaudy mass choirs. It’s so irreverent, a staircase like that, so resonant, so confusing and incomprehensible!
And there’s that touching and comical love scene between Hedda Gabler and Thea Elvsted. Including a stunning resolution to this kind of situation – “resolution” both in the sense of a find and of resolving into elements. Together on a divan bed, they whisper to each other unintelligibly and excitedly. Willem Jan Otten, who was very taken with it (in Vrij Nederland of 17 February 1979), called them “very comical, and unpassionate, and obvious”.
At the very end of the film there’s a particularly “ample” (instead of “long”) shot. In the front right, Hedda Gabler is sitting in a chair, and Bracke is standing behind that chair. Both of them are silently staring into a light source that comes from outside the image and only illuminates the two of them. The rest of the room is shrouded in darkness, except for the already mentioned kitchen table, which is in the back on the right. A kitchen lamp serves as a beacon of light against which the two figures of Tesman and Thea are silhouetted. They are talking, discussing and working on the burnt manuscript.
This mise-en-scène, which is also a symbol of a dramatic situation and of evolved relationships, is gradually undermined by the duration of the shot. More and more details, components and physical elements force themselves upon us, causing the whole to crumble. The duration of the shot trivializes symbolism and meaning and focuses our attention on the building blocks. It’s completely against the classic course of aesthetic appreciation, which chiefly demands admiration for the construction and incarnation of meanings and would probably consider a return to their building blocks nonsensical and perverse. In such a long, sustained shot, meaning seems banal, a trick, a cliché, a mechanism of irritating triviality. What is fascinating and important, on the other hand, is the recapturing of things in space from their occupation and exploitation by “meaning”.
What happens to you then – the first paragraphs of my text are a striking case in point – is a very strong spatial kind of participation. Instead of affective identification there is a kind of spatial experimentation: being somewhere, sitting and standing, taking a seat and posing (in Decorte’s films, the camera and the image are “posing” as well). That is the domain of your sensitivity.
It is no coincidence – I now think, after his third film, because his films seem to complement and clarify each other quite well – it is no coincidence that Decorte made his debut with a nature morte. Still lifes, one of the lesser genres of painting, are akin to the tableau du genre which could also serve as a key to these films. Still lifes: situating objects in space, situating people as objects as well, not as characters in narrative time.
Nature morte is nature in the studio, artificial nature, compositions of fruits, objects and animals without any pretence of naturalness. It is the radical opposite of landscapes. Which aren’t found in Decorte’s films – and who can resist landscape images in film! They are all interiors, with a very strong spatial tension. And they’re unlike most contemplative cinema, which looks at space frontally with a frieze-like distance. Here, however, the classic dynamic space of fiction and suspense, both mobile and dramatic, is preserved, its complexity sounded out and explored. Dramaticism as nature morte.
This is what makes him seem so “difficult”, the combination of outwardly quite contemplative stylistic features and the suspense of the door, the pathos of duos and trios, the melodramatic tension between presence and absence. All these dramatic tricks, all this bric-à-brac of fiction is not even tarnished, but is instead closely observed. Between drama and observation, a tension is created, full of bad taste, irritating recalcitrance, shocking style combinations. “I’ve lost the manuscript!” “At Mademoiselle Lili’s!” “Why did you do that?” “He shot himself in the chest!” “She is committing suicide!” (If this last sentence would be phrased as “she is committing suicide too”, you’d immediately sense the effect of these films. The “too” makes you sensitive to repetition and accumulation and thus to the triviality of that which returns as a lack of imagination.) All these exclamations and peripeteias really mean nothing. Nothing but what they literally say. Showing this literal aspect of dramatic mechanisms, that is what Jan Decorte’s cinema is all about.
This article originally appeared in Film and Television, no. 266-267, July/August 1979.
This text is published in the context of the online première of Hedda Gabler (1978), Pierre (1977) and Witlod Gombrowicz: voorvallen, avonturen (1977) by Jan Decorte, tonight at 19:30 on Avila. You can find more information on the event here.