A Shadow that Speaks: Varastettu Kuolema by Nyrki Tapiovaara

 

“It’s normal: when the cinema was “silent,” we were free to lend it all the noises, the tiniest as well as the most intimate. It was when it set about talking, and especially after the invention of dubbing (1935), that nothing remained to challenge the victory of dialogue and music. Weak, imperceptible noises no longer had a chance. It was genocide.” – Serge Daney, Cinemeteorology

The new restoration of Nyrki Tapiovaara’s Varastettu kuolema happened without much notice last year, released on DVD in Finland from a new digital transfer, a restoration of the original cut released theatrically. Unavailable until now, it was then-criticised by the social-democratic magazine, Kulttuuriskandaali, for including insert shots of decadent objects owned by two of the film’s principal characters. In 1954, 16 years later, the film was re-released with changes made by Tapiovaara’s editor/cinematographer, Erik Blomberg. Blomberg elected to cut all the high angle and insert shots from the film for the reasons above, deeming them too extravagant and inspired by a French Avant-Garde cinema irrelevant to the film’s narrative of Finnish resistance fighters. Tapiovaara couldn’t approve of these edits, however, as he’d died two years after the film’s original release fighting for Finnish independence in the Winter War of 1940.

Opening with the machinations of a covert, student-activist printing press, Robert (the film’s initial protagonist), leads his comrades through the streets of Helsinki, before being tailed by a constantly-looming Russian force, attempting to overthrow their grassroots resistance against Soviet rule. Robert and his comrades are eager to increase their partisan efforts by transporting weapons to fellow comrades on the Russian/Finnish front. Only the local arms-dealer, Jonni, stands in their way – offering them weapons and passports by way of blackmail, holding Robert’s list of partisan names as collateral. Both parties are well-aware that Jonni’s the only feasible way of purchasing and transporting weapons out of the country. If Robert and his partisan cohort refuse to buy Jonni’s weapons (with money that they don’t even have), the list of names will be released to Soviet authorities and they’ll be sent to death. Even still, they rebuff Jonni’s advances and opt to transport the weapons themselves – but with few means to do so. The film’s characters are among one of two factions: collaborators or dissidents. The collaborators are made up of Jonni, Robert’s bourgeois family, the aforementioned gendarmes looming among the spare Helsinki streets and their higher-up czarist officers unerringly chasing down our leads in the film’s climax. The revolutionaries are an even smaller group, primarily made up of Robert and his comrades, Jonni’s former accomplice Manja, a shoemaker who shelters Robert from the gendarmes and the dispirited trinket shop-owner with whom Robert covertly deals in black-market passports.

The film’s focus eventually shifts to Manja, one of the great partisans I can recall in cinema. Upon meeting Robert, she turns his printing press into an arms trading post, flouting Jonni’s grip over her in the process. She helps Robert – with her knowledge of Jonni’s weapons and their whereabouts – to transport guns in coffins and haul ammunition belts beneath her many hats and dresses. In this time, she’s now been fully radicalised and still experiences the majority of the film’s indignities both firsthand and undeterred. Firstly, she’s shunned to her face by Robert’s mother as a working-class wastrel and – when running a gun hidden in a baby carriage – is swarmed by the gropes and advances of a lurking gendarme officer. Still, through her, both the film’s noir and melodramatic trappings manifest – then quickly metamorphose beyond themselves and into a higher purpose. When faced with the film’s potential noir narrative, Manja the femme fatale is summarily left behind by Manja the revolutionary. As the primary example of this, when first left alone with Robert, she describes to him her upbringing and life thus far: having been a seamstress in rural Finland, she’s now adorned with shiny jewellery and tea gowns from Jonni (the same gowns she uses to transport guns), donning this bourgeois-collaborator facade with a simmering contempt. She then approaches Robert like the „femme fatale“, insinuated through her longing glances and the shadow-filled room they’re cast in. But this (additional) facade is undone-then-re-established within the movement of their embrace, all for a greater purpose; that of her newfound revolutionary drive, one she sees in Robert.

Without the burden of boy-meets-girl inner conflicts or this bi-polar, femme fatale persona, she very readily leaves Jonni shortly after this encounter and even more readily kills him when kept from Robert in the final act. Though these femme-fatale/love interest constructs are bypassed altogether, one can sense the spectres of their narrative constructs floating through the film’s darkened palette: the glint of Manja’s earring in a close-up that merely traces the outline of her face in a silvery light; the glaring white spotlight of a streetlamp that punctures through the pitch-black fabric of a night-time-set, overhead shot; the swinging light that sways over Jonni’s dead body, splayed atop his taxidermied panther – among these images, the film’s iridescent whites burn with a greater mystery than anything said or inferred through conventional narrative incident or spoken dialogue. Tapiovaara understood, at a point when noir cinema was in its nascency, that it’s the swipe of a hand, a sliver of light that reveals an eye or the passing of currency in close-up that keeps a mystery alive, not the narratives that incite it all.

Mandated by the time and technical means, the above incidents are set to one of two sounds at any given moment: either a tinny, interpersonal dialogue spoken in the film’s interiors or a degraded-sounding orchestra underscoring the exterior set pieces (a bipartite limitation set by its early post-sync sound, monaural soundtrack). Tapiovaara, by necessity most likely, wasn’t tempted to overwhelm his film with overdubbed dialogue or foley work in a time when Northern/Eastern European cinema was first learning how to speak. Set only to the orchestra’s swells, the film’s final set piece reunites Robert and Manja as they speed through in a carriage – machine gun in tow – to a getaway boat on the Finnish/Russian border. Manja is shot by the trailing gendarmes and dies a slow death on the way to these Finnish borders. Having been pilfered, cheated, masqueraded and used as a form of transportation, a true death has manifested through a soldier of the revolution. As Robert closes Manja’s eyes, the film fades to black, without an “end” title card. Eliding spoken and written text, there’s the sense in the film’s conclusion that there’s no time left for explanations and – as a result – no time for a film that speaks of a then-unforeseen national independence; only time for one that shows it.

Distant Fingers: Oublie-moi by Noémie Lvovsky

In Noémie Lvovsky’s film Oublie-Moi, its main character is Nathalie (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), but the opening image is of her best friend, Christelle (Emmanuelle Devos). Connected by their clasped hands and a resulting twirl (motivating a connective pan of the camera), they dance together in Christelle’s apartment to Patti Smith’s “Distant Fingers”. These opening seconds are already enough to endear them, aided by Lvovksy and her cameraman, Jean-Marc Fabre, capturing it all in an uninterrupted take. Like Agnès Godard and Claire Denis, Farbre and Lvovsky know best when *not* to move the camera. As such, it’s the performers who astonish, not the virtuoso take that captures them.

Nathalie spends the rest of the film going to and from former and current suitors (the imperceptible line between “former” and “current” is among Nathalie’s gifts; the film’s also). The first she speaks to is a dishevelled-looking Eric (Laurent Grevill), repelled by her mere presence, both of them unfavoured by the harsh and truthful-looking fluorescents of the Paris metro. The next boy in her orbit is her off/on, live-in boyfriend, Antoine (Emmanuel Salinger), arriving at this metro location to lend a seemingly desperate Nathalie a 100 franc note (one she immediately throws on the train tracks). The third is Christelle’s own boyfriend, Fabrice, arriving to Nathalie and Christelle (again, seemingly pulled in from the ether into Nathalie’s metro space) in a drunken stupor and, at first glance, Nathalie’s equal in a skittish nervous energy – one that reunites them later in the film for a botched bed-in in his barren apartment (Rarely has a colour film rendered Paris apartments so desolate and white, excepting perhaps Bresson’s post-Mouchette output).

Nathalie’s encounter with Fabrice, building from the opening dance, strengthens a flow that courses through the rest of the film (it’s also the second musical sequence in the film, this time set to the strains of Lou Reed’s “There is No Time”). Remembering a phone number insisted upon by Fabrice, Nathalie uses a pocket of her unending, waking hours to show up at his place with a bottle of gin. They subsequently souse themselves from it, unchanging in their composure or speech. Fabrice proceeds to strip to his underwear and covers himself in a sheet on his thin, floor-bound mattress. In response, Nathalie strips completely nude and lies beside him, ridiculing his face as they stare each other down on the mattress. Every version of this scene not involving Nathalie would be a traditional sex scene, but this version is invariably less interesting than the one that we’re shown. Nathalie seems only capable in relating to others if she simultaneously attracts and repels them; they must re-iterate (and sometimes repeat verbatim) the words she spits out at them. By the time she has ventriloquised these suitors, they’ve already left her sight, abandoning – yet again – what drew them to her in the first place (i.e. that same energy that introduced us to her).

She isn’t only a repellent force, but a catalyst for change; a discriminatory one that retains, within her gravitational pull, all those willing/stupid enough to be held up by such emotional hostility. Partially externalised through flinty and reactive movements – the flick of a hand or biting of her tongue – all of which fuse Tedeschi’s freedom as a performer to that of her character. It goes without saying that her performance is remarkable; beyond that, she has a freedom few performers have had since. A good narrative film usually has both an intelligent director and an intelligent lead actor; it’s seldom the case that the director lets this intelligent actor move freely, unbounded by “marks” of tape on the floor or a dictatorial DP and/or first AC. Lvovksy is among a group of French filmmakers underrated outside of France and more well known as an actor, like Mathieu Amalric (both also got their start behind the camera with Arnaud Desplechin). Amalric, and presumably Lvovsky also, see acting as a means to financially support their directing efforts. But as with Oublie-moi’s opening, their practical understanding of performance flows through to their performers (many of whom are already close friends/collaborators of these filmmaker(s)).

We (the viewer, the filmmakers and, eventually, her surrounding characters) must admire the behavioural boundaries she pushes. Because placed within a film, these are dramaturgical boundaries also. For Lvovsky and Tedeschi – up until the film’s final frame (seemingly made frozen by Nathalie’s smile) – all formal liberties are a result of a charitable-yet-unblinking gaze, and the resulting freedoms captured from said gaze. They’re enough to – not only justify – but conduct Nathalie’s inner light.

Notes on „Genèse“ by Philippe Lesage

Rewatching Philippe Lesage’s Genèse after two years, I was taught a few things:

Firstly, that rewatches – no matter the distance between first and second viewings – make one notice when time quickens. It quickens, here, when recognisable songs sound different. In Genèse there are five of these songs:

  • Aldous Harding – Imagining My Man
  • The Trashmen – Surfin’ Bird
  • TOPS – Outside
  • Le Tigre – Deceptacon
  • John Maus – Do Your Best

Three of these songs (excepting Deceptacon and Do Your Best) are played at least two times throughout the film. They’re not played in their entirety, and are used once or twice respectively in either a non-diegetic or diegetic context: Diegetic for bars and clubs, non-diegetic for the times in parks where a bar’s noises/lyrics reverberate in a quietened mind. The songs sounded different in the film than when I last watched it, and from when I listened to them on their own. They sounded pitch-shifted this time. It also helps that they’re songs I recognise from the above, very real physical and mental spaces – instead of merely existing on the director’s iPod or Spotify playlist.

Familiar, shortened and pitch-shifted is the ideal way to filter a year that ends adolescence; a year shared between the film’s protaganists/half-siblings (or were they step-siblings?) Guillaume and Charlotte. Director Philippe Lesage is the correct age for this vantage point, assuming the Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge… series is the benchmark. Of that series’ best films, Travolta et Moi’s director was the youngest (Patricia Mazuy, 33 or 34) and Les Roseaux Sauvages’ the eldest (André Téchiné, 51). Lesage splits the difference at 40 (or 41?), his age at the time of Genèse’s filming (2017-2018). The specific age isn’t so important as the 40+ y/o director, if showing what they’ve learned properly, feels less urgently that their youth is passing. Their youth has already passed, and as such, a filmmaker still close enough to this adolescence cannot make a film about it – they merely make a film.

And finally, the second and third things I learned from this viewing –

  1. Unrequited love is the most beautiful kind in cinema
  2. Théodore Pellerin (Guillaume) is the rare, newer film actor who truly excited me – alongside Aenne Schwarz (Alles ist Gut) and Tom Mercier (Synonymes).