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Two Pieces on Film: Hitchcock & Bresson

By Clément Rosset.

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On Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes

A very striking sequence in Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes shows eight characters who occupy each of the eight places available in the compartment of a train hurtling at top speed across a Central European plain. These eight people, who seem, moreover, to be of differing nationalities, don’t seem to know each other, or at least appear, for the most part, not to know each other. A young English woman sits with another English woman, one a lot older than her, with whom she has clearly struck up a friendship (it is the famous ‘Lady’, the one who is to disappear), and who invites her to take tea with her in the restaurant car: a scene during the course of which she will have the chance to trace her name ­­­­­on the window covered in condensation, just under the table at which they sit. On their return to their compartment, the young woman dozes for a few instants. As soon as she re-opens her eyes, she notices that her new friend is no longer sitting opposite her. Assuming that she is occupied with her toilette, she begins to doze again, but begins to be disquieted as she realises that her friend has still not returned. At this point she begins to enquire of her companions if they happened to see the old lady leave; but each shakes their head and declares that there have only ever been seven people in the carriage since the train’s departure. The young lady has been asleep the whole time, they explain, and she has without doubt dreamt up this non-existent personage. The young woman, of course, knows quite well that she has done nothing of the sort, and embarks on a close search of the train, using the opportunity to question everyone, including the dining car staff, but without success. It should be noted here that the train in question, which had its departure significantly delayed due to bad weather, hurtles uninterruptedly towards its final destination (Vienna, if my memory serves me well) without slowing down or stopping at any of the intermediary stations along the route; as a consequence of which the old lady would have had no opportunity to slip away from the train. The young woman has to regain her seat, under the amused looks of her six companions in the compartment, who seem to think that this young English woman possesses a grain of originality, not to say of strangeness, and perhaps even of madness.

Before continuing with my analysis, I’m going to draw attention to Wittgenstein, who in fragment 420 of his posthumous book On Certainty, seems almost to have inspired this episode in Hitchcock’s film, but who, in any case, reproduces its spirit exactly:

Even a proposition like this one – that I am now living in England, has these two sides; it is not a mistake – but on the other hand, what do I know of England? Can’t my judgement go all to pieces? Would it not be possible that people could come to my room and say the opposite? Even give me proofs of it, so that I suddenly stood there like a madman, alone among people who were all normal, or a normal person among madmen? Might I not then suffer doubt about what at present seems furthest removed form doubt?

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In Hitchcock’s film, the young woman finds herself in an strange situation (‘odd’, as in Poe’s The Purloined Letter, analysed by Lacan under this light at the beginning of his Écrits), which has the atmosphere of a nightmare, but also of the uncanny, as it is at the same time both real, and yet impossible. For it is impossible that the person with whom she had conversed so closely for such a long time, and with whom she’d taken tea in the restaurant car, only existed in her imagination. Yet it is equally impossible that her six companions in the carriage whom she questioned (and whom she will only find out later were accomplices), that the people in the other parts of the train (who, we find out later, didn’t notice, or didn’t want to notice the old lady, due to inattention, distraction, or an egotistical concern not to get mixed up in any trouble) and, finally, that the restaurant car staff (accomplices also, though she will have to wait a long time before she can guess this), in short, that all of the passengers on the train had lied to her, for reasons incomprehensible to her, to say the least. It is therefore impossible that the old lady does not exist, since the young lady has seen her and spoken with her; but it is also impossible that she does exist, since nobody has seen her. In this battle of wills between a personal identity (whereby one’s self and thoughts feel integrated) and this social identity (where all seems corrupt and false); between this young woman, who insists she has seen the old lady, and everyone else on the train, who insist that they have seen nothing, it is naturally personal identity which is the first to crack up, and where doubt is first felt (as well as in the mind of the spectator). But this chronological priority is deceptive: it is the inverse of the true priority, which is a causal priority. I want to say that it is precisely because the girl’s social identity has been attacked first that her personal identity comes to waver. For one confines oneself to actual events and gestures (with those which have the appearance of being false or rigged being of little import), not to those which pass through one’s mind. For it is in the domain of events and gestures, along with that of papers and documents, where a social identity is formed, and is the only one that has an official course. The rest, what one thinks, or one depicts only tentatively, belongs to an uncertain and unverifiable realm of phantasms and reveries, that of our private cogitations, in Descartes’s phrase; in short, that of a personal identity that nobody will ever be able to know, or to recognise officially. A crazy traveller who talks nonsense has lost, in the first place, all of the privileges attached to a social identity; secondly, this calling into question of social identity leads inexorably to doubt about the solidity of the traveller’s personal identity (have I become mad, that is to say, alienated, or become ‘other’, deprived of my integrity and of my personal identity?)

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This theme of existential doubt – am I really me? Am I really sure of not having done or seen or heard that which I cannot remember in any way, but which everything at present colludes to assure me that I heard it said or saw it done? – appears in almost every Hitchcock film. One can say that here everything society strives to demonstrate against all truth, is aided in its task by an implacable verisimilitude, in which, nevertheless, the hero of the film refuses to believe. The film’s hero does not believe that he cannot have accomplished that which in reality he has accomplished, and that he has, on the other hand, committed misdeeds that he hasn’t committed, and that he persists childishly to deny, with all of his acts, all circumstance, all the evidence, showing him ostensibly to be wrong. To parody Boileau, one can say that, in Hitchcock’s world, the truth is never plausible and the plausible is never the true. This basic situation, which is at the source of what is most admirable in his films, but perhaps also of their monotony and occasional superficiality and air of being ‘third-rate’, is with Hitchcock a kind of ‘tic’, which is probably linked to the memories and terrors of childhood which psychoanalysts like to refer to as ‘atavistic’. Or to a feeling of having being caught red-handed in an act one has not in fact committed, but where all appearances count against one. Or again, having been made to feel guilty due to an overly puritan familial atmosphere or upbringing, for having being surprised in giving oneself over to some activity we should think of as entirely natural. What is certain is that, for Hitchcock, that which one most admires about him and which gives such power to his films and to his virtuosity as a director is the way he depicts the fragility of one’s sense of a personal self when confronted with forces which threaten its integrity by putting into doubt one’s social and official self. Nevertheless there remains in his films a ghost of a personal identity, ultimately presented – often not without humour – as the real me. But, as Spinoza said, enough on this subject.

 

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On Robert Bresson’s L’Argent

Robert Bresson, in L’Argent, as in his preceding films, excels in showing a whole by a detail, succeeds in rendering expressive a place ostensibly anodyne and nondescript. In a film where nothing much happens, a dully edifying fable based on a short story by Tolstoy, one, moreover, in which there are no interesting characters or any notable actors, one can say that it is the places in the film which speak to one and capture one’s attention. Places are captured one after another by a camera almost always immobile and silent (one remarks the almost total absence of music, except for a brief satiric instant) but which succeeds, nevertheless, in awakening their genius loci. One curious circumstance is that this place will generally be a location with little character, one which gives little or no narrative information and is ostensibly lacking in signification. A place one would pass by or through in order to get to the essential but where one would have no reason to linger. Nevertheless, Bresson does linger, and comes to a stop there, suggesting perfectly the whole by fastening on details. In this way then, part of or a whole apartment is suggested by a section of a door or the corner of a landing; or a Court of Assizes by the little lamp that lights the judge’s chambers. An equally curious circumstance is that the Bressonian place often enough evokes a ‘non-place’, that is, a place that is as far as it is able, merely a passage from one place to another, such as the innumerable doors which run through the film from beginning to end, or the space fixed on by the camera to show, on two occasions, the arrival at prison: not the cell door, nor the steps leading to the gate of the prison, but the intermediary space between the two, the passage from one to the other.

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How should one interpret this mastery of detail and this art of place, or, rather, summarise the impression that they produce on the spectator? It seems to me that the effect produced is twofold. First, that the detail does in fact count more than the whole, and the materiality of these signs carry more weight of signification than it is supposed to (thus, the money that is the films leitmotif is present throughout as matter, paper that one handles and crumples, rather than as a symbol of wealth). Next, and above all, are those places and things which count and remain when all has passed through or over them and has been long forgotten: as if the story that took place there hardly mattered, made barely any sense, and that ultimately ‘nothing will have taken place except the place’, to adapt a celebrated formula of Mallarmé’s. This is why Bresson so often shows the place before anything happens there: such as the door that gives onto the bedroom where the murder is to take place and that one makes out only obscurely for a long time, until it is lit by a storm lamp. Or, inversely, the immutability of a place once nothing more is happening there: the camera lingers in a corner of a kitchen garden where one comes to pick potatoes, or in a corridor, or on a metro platform left deserted after the passengers have just boarded. This keen delight Bresson takes in showing a place before and after human use is enough to reveal to us the importance of the former and the insignificance of the latter in the eyes of this director.

 

N.B.: The above texts are from Clément Rosset’s Propos sur le cinéma, © Presses Universitaires de France, 2011: ‘Une femme disparaît’ (pp. 101-16) and ‘L’argent: Hommage à Robert Bresson‘ (pp. 121-23).

Published in 3:AM Magazine with kind permission from the author and Presses Universitaires de France.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Clément Rosset is a French philosopher and writer. Among his many books are Joyful Cruelty: Toward a Philosophy of the Real; The Real and Its Double; Le réél, l’imaginaire et l’illusoire; and L’invisible.

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Chris Milton is a freelance journalist living in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, February 2nd, 2015.