Retreats: Martine Rousset’s Mansfield K. and Ute Aurand’s Kopfüber im Geäst

Martine Rousset’s Mansfield K. and Ute Aurand’s Kopfüber im Geäst are two films that both explore and hinge upon a central absence. They may not seem similar at all, but despite distinct inner structutres and methodologies they can be regrouped together by the way they adhere to and gravitate around something which is in fact a void, a silence, an absence, or a disappearance.

Maybe this is something that an unrestrained cinema, a cinema guided by poetic sensibilities, is naturally inclined to; finding meaning in absence. Isn’t that the poet’s task? „La beauté, c’est le refus de l’habitude” (Helmut Lachenmann as quoted by Godard). But this refusal of habit is not a call to look further, to turn towards what’s exotic and never-been-seen-before; rather, it is the determination to look at the quotidian, at ordinary colors, shapes and sounds, from anew, from a somewhat detached point of view; and, as a consequence, an absence emerges, a sense of things being different than the way we usually experience them. Such a cinema transforms, reposits, reframes; what is seen, is but the imprint of that absence. We’re left to ponder the defamiliarized familiar.

To find meaning in absence also acknowledges a fundamental flaw in artistic practice: the failure of the whole of an artwork to live up to the potentials it implies and radiates, which ooze from its fragments. The less said the better; the whole of a film that one imagines one minute into it will always be infinitely better than the actual whole of the film. The best possible film, then, would be one that shows only one image, and for the shortest fraction of time within which it is still noticeable. Everything else would be left to the imagination, for every additional image minimizes the potential of the previous one. (The same goes for these lines; writing about an artwork is always to its detriment and belittles it, as the translation of those heaps of information-feeling it exuded into words is to force it to be streamlined, linearized, betrayed; to mount artifical lines of meaning-attribution onto which further discourse is, wrongly, affixed.)

Rousset and Aurand, however, go beyond this general, broad inclination towards absence, which takes on both a metaphorical and a literal meaning in these two films. Most astonishingly, though, despite their tendency to write out, to declare, to fully affirm a structuring, central absence – despite their dealing with death, isolation, mourning, desperation – the two works display utter gracefulness, a gracefulness rooted in the here and now. One gets the feeling of a celebratory, optimistic affirmation of life and its ephemerality. Ever-changing lights, its reflections sashaying on a floor (Aurand), on water (Rousset), or on shiny objects (Aurand and Rousset); close attention of the camera to subtle, fugitive movements, not to be retrieved, of hands old and young (Aurand); tender fragmented framing of the sturdiness of a collar and the back of a neck (Aurand), which seems to me an unbelievably familiar sight, yet is never seen represented on film; or the sensuality of two different voices reciting calmly, occasionally, texts by Katherine Mansfield over the images (Rousset).

Indeed, regarding Aurand’s film, it is almost difficult to take in so much grace and gentleness in such concentrated form. Kopfüber im Geäst is an intimist portrait of sorts of her parents that revolves around the passing of time, of their becoming old and their eventual absence. It is a film that holds on, that clings to the most fleeting of moments; yet it is precisely this fleetingness, or the impossibility to hold on to and store them, that is celebrated; what is seized is already gone while being seized; an eternal present, but one brimming over with absence. The eventual absence of the parents also appears to imbue everything with an excess of meaning: memories, places (a room, a cabinet, a shattered wall), bushes, snow, shadows; an absence felt, mourned over, yet accepted, come to terms with; embraced, maybe; and all that is contained within the world of the film appears to bear witness to it. Voiceless, soundless, that hydrangea is curling in the wind, that snow is falling down; Yes, they seem to exclaim, to cry out, we witnessed their passing, and we mourn with you, yet we must remain unfazed; we cannot give in –

„I am cold”, a stately voice keeps repeating in Mansfield K. The line is taken from one of Katherine Mansfield’s last journal entries, written shortly before her death in 1923. Contrary to Aurand’s film, we don’t see any humans, other beings, denominated things, in this film; rather, the imagery, in blue to white-blue hues, epitomizes absence; it is too cold for life to exist here. Mansfield’s writing accompanying this imagery recounts dreams and visions of death or disappearance: For a moment she is a blur against the tree, white, grey and black, melting into the stones and the shadows. And then she is gone.” „And suddenly I felt my whole body breaking up. (…) When I woke I thought that there had been a violent earthquake. But all was still. It slowly dawned upon me—the conviction that in that dream I died.”

If Kopfüber im Geäst works in a densely concentrated form, might represent absence as a concentrate, Mansfield K. works the opposite way; it is nothing but dilution. Any concrete matter that might inhabit this film, even if just from the words we hear, is immediately soaked up by a void; like ink on blotting paper – absorbed, diluted and dispersed across an open, infinite space. Or we could think of the words being spoken directly into a vault, representing the visual plane, which we expect to reverberate – only to find its walls being lined with velvet. The acoustic signal gets lost. The sound waves are still present, permeating this dark vault – but they don’t reverberate back to us, they get absorbed. Nothing of what we hear appears on screen.

Still, for all the chill, the void, the state of being gone, being lost, of leaving no trace, I find the images exude a certain warmth, a graceful warmth in their cold, a refuge even, a retreat from existence („…and now where I am? In my secret unseen place I shall abide”), or, in other words, I find meaning in their absence. The light simmers gently, it envelopes the blueish image, wherein sometimes a line, a fragment of glass or of another material, of water is to be seen, lulling us, protectively, into quiet contentment, encouraging us to abide, to hold on to this luscious nothingness.




Kopfüber im Geäst (2009)


Mansfield K. (1988)