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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Pleasures of Contemplation

At OffScreen, this is a film review by Michael Crochetière about Robin Schlaht's first dramatic feature "Solitude" (2001). Here is my selection of highlights typically depicting the contemplative aspect of filmmaking :
(...) the fragmented, ambiguous backstories and paradoxical motivations of the lead characters, the idea of emotional detachment, the motif of observation and the folly of trying to understand the heart of another. At its heart, Solitude is about personal journeys, about everyday lives filled with small victories and moments of what Henry David Thoreau called "quiet desperation".

Solitude is a film without an inciting incident (unless one considers the arrival of Michele at the abbey, an event which occurs before the film begins). The film's structure is episodic, consisting of highly resonant privileged moments spelled by intervals of quiet reflection. Schlaht believes that these negative spaces - moments of uneasy stasis, hesitation or indecision - ultimately define his characters. (...)
Without the advantage of interior monologue Michele is most dependent upon a subdued yet charged environment which speaks eloquently for her in a language drawn from the rhythms, sounds and images of monastic life and the natural world.

With a confluence of elemental images (e.g. glass, water), Solitude speaks eloquently of dark metaphysical forests, personal boundaries and the invisible barriers that divide us. (...) We watch through the windshield as Michele engages in small talk with Geraldine, the bursts of dialogue separated by long uncomfortable silences. (...) As in Yasujiro Ozu's silent codas, these transitional sequences draw meaning and weight from the scenes that precede and follow them, speaking volumes for the characters which inhabit them.

The film's penultimate scene consists of another remarkable long take. In the forest, Michele breaks down beneath the weight of her solitary struggle. As the shot progresses, we come to understand that these are tears of redemption, that we are witnessing a deeply transformative moment. (...) In a film dominated by tableau framings, Schlaht saves one of his few close-ups for a moment when two emotionally isolated characters finally make contact. He elects to shoot Michele's epiphany in shallow focus as a means of 'isolating the character from the outside world and directing our attention towards her internal emotional process.' The scene becomes almost impressionistic, its use of tonal gradients and iridescent light conveying her fragile emotional state.

By design, Solitude is the antithesis of the tightly constructed narrative. The characters' backstories are fragmentary, the exposition gradual and ambiguous. Schlaht derives his strategy from the film's location: "It was partly due to the nature of being on retreat at the abbey. The asking of questions is not encouraged. Very few questions are asked in Solitude and even fewer are answered. The characters are so involved in the process of observing and interpreting or misinterpreting ... that it seemed appropriate to invite the audience into that same process. Not knowing keeps one engaged."

For Schlaht, the movie screen is a contemplative and cognitive space, a philosophy that's grounded in his background as a documentary filmmaker. Films such as Sons and Daughters (1994) and Moscow Summer (1996) are deeply affecting social documents that resonate with an intrinsic respect for his subject, the exquisite black and white imagery (often shot in slow motion) inviting the viewer to consider the importance of the gestures and inflections of everyday life. His move from documentary to narrative fiction is marked by a less formalized approach to the same humanistic values and concerns. The episodic structure remains, as do the meditative non-verbal sequences. (...) However, Solitude ultimately achieves a transcendence for its characters by other means, primarily through, as Andrei Tarkovsky writes, "a poetry born of pure observation...that does not signify or symbolize life, but embodies it."

1 comment:

HarryTuttle said...

I haven't seen this film, so if anyone here could talk about it I'll appreciate.
The description it reminds me of Gröning's documentary on the Chartreuse abbaye Into Great Silence (2006), or maybe Kornél Mundruczó's opera-film Johanna (2005) and even probably a bit of Almodovar's Entre Tinieblas (1983) and Bresson's Les Anges du Péché (1943)...