Marseille (2004) and Visitor to a Museum (1989)

6 02 2011

Angela Schanelec’s Marseille is reminiscent of so much modern cinema: it has the long-shot, long-take contemplation of the Asians, of Weerasethakul and Hou; it has the ellipses of Claire Denis; it has the roaming characters of the urban Lisandro Alonso of Fantasma, characters who barely hang on to the limits of the frame, as if always in danger of falling out. And yet Marseille is singular, oddly unique without appearing to be so. A story that happens in the interstices between the scenes that are shown to us.

But we don’t miss so very much. Our protagonist vacations in the titular city. She travels across it. She meets a guy: the night, the narrow street, and the eerie wind play with their clothes. They exit our gaze. We don’t see where they end up together. In bed? At a doorway for a parting kiss? Later, our protagonist returns to her hometown and she mostly disappears from the camera’s attention. We wonder where she is, for ten minutes, twenty, and then she comes back for an encore when she returns to Marseille. Perhaps the camera only sees her when she feels alive. At her hometown, she is submerged in the everyday, in the quotidian, in boredom, in embarrassing conflicts with her friend. She must flee her hometown in order to reclaim her relevance. She must return to Marseille. And then what? She is mugged.

The film ends with a tearful walk. Marseille has not given our protagonist its promised respite. We don’t know what really happened, but it doesn’t matter. Schanelec concocts an underground flow to link the disjointed pieces. We can intuit what is going on. We simply and merely cannot chart the plot of the film, and if we did, we would end up with dead-ends, lines vanishing on the white of the drawing board. Each beginning dips into a void. She finds a love interest, she loses him. She returns home, she fades into routine and blends with the background hubbub. She comes back to the city that awakened her, she loses her course and wanders adrift out of the movie.

Visitor to a Museum by Konstantin Lopushansky is all ferociousness, a guttural shout. The protagonist wanders out of this movie too, and the plot also meets dead-ends, but these are not provoked by narrative ellipses. The dead-ends in Visitor to a Museum are violent, they’re amputations. Marseille, if there is violence in its severed plot lines, portrays a subdued violence, the protracted pain inflicted by forgetfulness, negligence, and habit. Visitor to a Museum detonates its story. Not narrative ellipses, but demolition.

Our protagonist seeks understanding in a futuristic wasteland. His search for knowledge is interrupted by mutants, and not scary mindless mutants, but inflamed mutants fanned by social exclusion. He wants access to a legendary museum, he travels past barren terrain, but along the way the mutant cause envelops him. At the house he temporarily stations in before completing his voyage, the mutant servants are mistreated as lower lifeforms. Every interaction between the “normal” landowners and their “abnormal” domestics is tense and anxious. We can see the quivering in their respective movements, a back-and-forth of power and submission, as each reacts to the other in predictable patterns that will soon shatter, because each repetition reinforces the pattern, and as the pattern is reinforced it is also wound tighter than it should, and we can feel how it will be necessary to either unwound the pattern or see it shatter in a revolution. Since the myopic “normals” refuse to reconsider the social status of the mutants, only the second option is possible.

Our protagonist thus overlooks his intellectual quest in the immediacy of the revolution that devours him. There is no cultural context outside the museum that can appreciate its lofty offerings. Just like the missing woman in L’Avventura, the museum soon becomes a pretext, an empty location that stands for the highest values harbored by the protagonist, culture, intellect, truth, concepts that have no place in the apocalyptic horror raging around the ancient repository of knowledge. As the protagonist dissolves into the unavoidable chaos, his journey is interrupted forever. Dead-ends in the plot: whether in Marseille or in Visitor to a Museum, they suggest the limits past which the characters are unable or unwilling to move. The vacant intervals of the former, or the deferred museum-bound quest of the latter, outline the borders of the characters’ lives.

Memories too painful to recall, days too tedious to regard, experiences too traumatic to retain: the vacant lots that litter the story of Marseille are like repressed events, together covering a no-man’s-land wherein our vacationing protagonist dares not intrude. When the film forgets her, it might be because she forgets herself. And when the visitor to a museum stops caring about the venerable institution, so does the film. The visitor abruptly alters his stated destination, caught in the shockwaves of harrowing social passions, and the film never reminds him of his former scholarly goals, perhaps because he doesn’t need any reminders: the sorrowful shrieks that close the film are his mad expressions of regret for a dream surrendered.

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