Fact
Essays

Main Character

Gabrielle Marceau

The television lived on top of a pine cabinet in the basement of the house I grew up in. It was small and placed out of my reach, but as a child I imagined I could climb inside it, crossing through the glass into the image. We’d play the same handful of videocassettes over and over—the beginnings of an obsessive habit—and I would often yell for someone to stop and rewind the cassette so I could watch the scene again. I wanted to get closer to the image, to step inside it: a brown-haired girl spinning on the grass as the wind kicks up dandelions, animated deer galloping through a looping purple forest. I’m not sure at what age you learn that the image on screen is separate from you—like some kind of second mirror stage—but maybe I knew, even then, that an essential part of me was being built in this impossible-to-breach distance.

Years later, and now the owner of my own small screen, I kept coming across the same series of images on Tumblr: a woman appears out of the darkness through a carved wooden door flung open with uncommon strength. Her dress is dark eggplant, her hair is unkempt, and her face is pale and gleaming with sweat. Her eyes are wild and bulging, rimmed in black and red. The wind picks up her hair, splaying it out Medusa-like as her gaze fixes on her rival.

When I finally saw Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), a film about two nuns whose lives are disturbed when a man enters their sanctuary, I was distracted, waiting for the moment I had seen so often, the image I couldn’t scrub from my mind. Despite the number of times I’d seen it on my computer screen, it still jolted me—like when you miss the bottom stair and think some trap door has opened—to see her eyes, the heat of her hatred. Although I’ve seen the film twice now, this is the one scene I remember clearly. It eclipses the rest. Only moments later, the woman falls to her death from a vertiginous cliff in the Himalayan mountains to the booming sound of a church bell.

 

Over the years I’ve become a kind of scavenger of these moments, thinking of them as marbleized versions of cinema, emblematic of the overwhelming and inarticulable way that a moving image can affect us. Think of the first time you saw sex on screen, or death; the first time you related, the first time you felt longing.

Becoming fixated by a film fragment until it becomes more significant than the film itself is a hallmark of cinephilia. But what is this attraction? A Freudian fetish, a phenomenological event, or an effect of the indexicality of the photographic image—the way an image, as the product of light reacting to physical presence, carries some existential trace of its subject, like a footprint or a shadow? I found none of these answers satisfactory, perhaps because I resented that there was so much documentation of an experience that I felt was mine alone. This fragment was unique and uniquely mysterious, possible only because of the deep currents of feeling singular to me.

Most of my reactions to film fragments weren’t all that mysterious when prodded for long enough. If I traced them back, the sources of their effects aligned, like pearls being strung one by one. I remember myself at fifteen, flipping through channels on the television and stopping on an image of a girl. She looked to be around my own age, naked and standing in a large basin. She is being bathed by an older man. They are in a large ground-floor bedroom with paper-thin walls, the sounds of a busy market street leaking in from outside. I knew they would have sex and so I quickly changed the channel, afraid my mother would walk into the room.

The image faded, but it must have lodged somewhere, filed in my long-term memory. Over a decade later, reading Marguerite Duras’s L’Amant (1984), I came across the same scene and felt a shock of recognition. The man, a wealthy businessman Duras names Le Chinois, makes love to a young French girl in colonial-era Vietnam. The book describes the event in the ground floor room in detail, but to me, it seemed like a pale prefiguration of the image I’d passed over and then obsessed over. This orphaned image from the 1992 adaptation The Lover, deprived of the context of narrative and sequence, had worked its way under my skin as a template for sexuality, drama, space and mood, even though I had all but forgotten it. The details of the scene—like the sweat on the actor’s brow and the creases in the knees of his suit, which made him look dishevelled by desire—were more poignant than the whole.

 

I also became obsessed with imagined scenes of my own. As I grew older I wanted to make films to exorcise the scenes that had taken possession of my mind. Once I got to film school I wrote frail scripts to contain these potent images and felt the fragment held enough meaning to fill an entire film. I was uninterested in characters or plot, which seemed like prosaic, middle-class distractions from the immediacy and drama of the fragment.

Ideas for films:

A woman chases another woman through the woods, up a hill.

A wife in her kitchen touches the frost on the window when her husband’s body falls in front of her eyes, having slipped off the roof.

A woman walks up a staircase with no railing, looking over her shoulder repeatedly.

A woman cuts a vine on the wall with scissors.

A woman pours the contents of a martini glass onto a sheepskin rug; another woman kneels and starts dabbing at the stain with the hem of her A-line skirt, her hair coming steadily undone.

A woman…[blank]. The construction of my images, my precious fragments, where a woman does… something. A woman doing, often alone, often inexplicable. A hint of dread or danger, as if suspended at the moment before an attack, as if she may spiral at any moment—cut herself with the scissors, have her nemesis catch up with her, fall from the stairs. I liked the unfinished story, the half-phrase, and the wandering camera. I think I wanted to be a woman doing, not just a woman thinking—to be the protagonist of a potent fragment. In film school I was also profoundly unwell, sometimes unable to get out of bed; certainly unable to pay bills, do my readings, and keep my life in order. I felt like my life was a staircase with no railing. These women, about to slip, were my fragile effigies.

 

I used to long to understand the dark pull of an image and, later, to recreate the image in my films. But I found the finished product hollow and the precious scene sapped dry. Now I consume as much as I can, sometimes late into the night while fighting off sleep, and feel very little longing. Every image is immediately replaced by a new one, every fragment fades into another, ideas appear and wither, clothes go out of style, opinions become boring, and eager reviews sour once the film reaches the screen. Every image seems to have a dozen frames until frames dominate the image, become overburdened by context, by someone else’s take.

Only my window brings some peace. A frame, yes, but one that gives me no control over the unfolding scene. Just painted white, the same alley and trees, the same broken gutters the landlord hasn’t replaced, dogs on their walks. I take walks too, trying to think only about the flowers I pass and how they pass, throughout the spring and summer, from one bloom to another. Imagine a plot filled with bulbs and roots, each one getting its turn to flower: the tulips in April, irises in May, the alliums in June and the roses almost through the fall. Transitory flowers, falling into the end of their season.

 

I think of the spring a few years ago when a friend drove us three hours to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, the birthplace of Kodak film, for a festival of films screened on nitrate prints. This type of film has been out of use since the 1950s because of the extreme flammability of its chemical composition. The stock is appealing because of this frisson of danger but also because it is gorgeous with vibrant colour, silvery black and white and incredibly clear depth of field. The last film of the festival was a print of a 1950 Powell and Pressburger film, Gone to Earth, about Hazel, a young woman in the English countryside in the late nineteenth century who is torn between her two lovers and her wild nature.

In one scene, Hazel runs barefoot through the mud in a scarlet gown. As she approaches the castle belonging to her wealthy, fox-hunting lover, she stops to wipe her feet on another gown (daisy yellow) which has been left in the middle of the dirt road. The motion is childlike and feral, made more poignant by the grandeur of the dresses and by the adult task she is rushing to do. In another scene, when Hazel meets her lover for the first time, she is gripping a bouquet of red carnations which she drops to the ground when he kisses her, his boot crushing the blooms. But the image seared in my mind is from the ending, when the wild-hearted protagonist, fleeing the forces that wish to contain her, falls suddenly, howling and clutching her beloved fox, into a sinkhole and to her certain death.

Outside the theatre, while my friends deliberated over which restaurant to go to, I ducked into the museum’s garden and cried. Even years later I find it difficult to describe the film’s impact, the moments still hot in my mind. After the festival, watching films felt cursory, like a habit, and I grew hesitant to watch them at all. It was as if I was desperate to protect some piece of that clarifying feeling in the garden. I realized I had become estranged from myself or any true desire, that I was sure to die without fiercely pursuing true passion, settling instead for a shrunken, desaturated version of my own life.

Later that night, at a barbecue place off the highway, someone mentioned that the print of Gone to Earth we had seen (which shrinks microscopically every time it is screened) had shrunken to the point that it may no longer be able to fit through the projector. We could have been the last audience to see that print. I thought of the film receding into the distance, the image shrinking like a sponge being wrung out, and I felt again like I might cry.

Sometimes I pass by a thumbnail of Gone to Earth when I’m trying to choose something to watch on a streaming service. It pains me to remember that moment of clarity in the garden when I am still waiting for some kind of revelation.

 

In the months following the festival, Hazel’s fall pursued me and I began to think of other falling women. Alice hurtling down a rabbit hole in a prolonged fall, one that warps her sense of time and space. Frida Kahlo’s 1938 painting, The Suicide of Dorothy Hale, which depicts each stage of the society woman’s jump from her Manhattan apartment, unfurling before us in its unstoppable tragedy, the end foretold by the beginning: one fateful step. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina at the train station, catching a glimpse of a way out. I don’t even have to look very far from Gone to Earth to find more falling women; Powell and Pressburger are fond of them. There is, of course, Sister Ruth’s fall in Black Narcissus (1947). And in The Red Shoes (1948), a ballerina is forced to choose between her lover and her great love: dance. In a fugue, while the opening coda of her signature ballet plays, she performs her own dance, the steps of which lead her off a balcony and into the path of a moving train.

It occurred to me later that the image of Hazel’s crushed red carnations reminds me of another falling woman. In a picture from Ana Mendieta’s series of photographs Silueta (1973–80), the artist lies naked in a body-shaped hole, covered in flowers. It’s one among a series of silhouettes of female bodies dug into earth, made from bent wire or frozen in ice, their animating absence the woman who once was or never was, elemental but elusive. The silhouettes are on the verge of collapse, turning to ash, washed away by the tide, or filled up by animals and dirt. (Idea for a film: A woman walks through the woods, digs a her-shaped hole, lies down and dissolves.)

I saw Mendieta’s Silueta series at the Guggenheim, on the spiral staircase. All I could think about was the scene from Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000) where Ophelia drifts down those same stairs, gripping the railing and dropping Polaroids of flowers onto the ground. She’s a maiden of the new millennium who knows flowers only through pictures. Rosemary for remembrance, pansies for thoughts. The violets have died, Ophelia says, and the only flowers left for her are the ones that have fallen on her father’s white shroud. Women are perpetually associated with flowers, even—or especially—in death. In Mendieta’s works, the woman becomes stone and flower and fire: “Through my earth/body sculptures, I become one with the earth… . I become an extension of nature and nature becomes an extension of my body.”

Ana Mendieta was also famous for falling to her death, from her Greenwich Village apartment in 1985. In a 911 call after her fall, her husband, the sculptor Carl Andre, claimed they had argued because he was more famous than her. “She went out of the window,” he said. Andre was arrested for her murder and later acquitted. The mystery of that moment at the window keeps Mendieta’s public persona in a kind of stasis, never able to fully rest. In the world of falling women, perhaps the key is perpetuity, a moment with a strange nature: a suspension of self, stillness, velocity, final words elided, slipping through, slipping away.

In the moments before Anna Karenina’s death, she feels the world spilling in as an uncontrollable influx of image and sound. From her carriage she hears snippets of conversations and menacing laughter, and she starts to imagine the laughter is directed at her. The world becomes overwhelming and suddenly she is in front of the train: “Where am I? What am I doing? Why?” The world closes in, loses coherence, and she cannot bear it.

I had always assumed that Anna’s death would come at the very end of the novel, that we would see the blinding light, feel the impact, and the story would stop with her. But following her death are almost sixty pages about the other characters, Kitty and Levin, now married and happy in the countryside. It felt like a betrayal—to Anna, who is barely mentioned in these last pages, but also to falling women and their cinematic endings. Powell and Pressburger always ended right on their heroine’s fall, with only a few moments given to the dumbstruck witnesses. As Levin sits in his field, pondering faith and goodness, he concludes that life cannot be lived solely to satisfy our desires. Anna had pursued her passions to the end, destroying herself, her lover and her family in a moment. Kitty had settled for the stable (perhaps uninspiring) Levin, but she could continue to live.

 

Cinema is about death too. The material image is fragile: film can be scratched from the moment it is lifted into someone’s hands; it fades every time it is shot through with light; it decomposes, burns, or languishes in storage, unwatched. In films, the falling woman makes herself the main character by the force of her final act. She is the dramatic locus, the black hole of narrative. I always longed to be the protagonist, the falling woman—impelled by unruly passion, driven by beauty and desire, turned into stone, drowned in flowers. I pursued her through films, museums and books and in the halting, reckless frames of my own life.

But I grew older. And lately I’ve been watching films with fewer opportunities for the divine, closer to my actual life. Ones that involve waking, getting dressed, making breakfast; the textures of daily life, the habits, disappointments and revelations. In the space of the day—while picking up a book from the library, feeding the cats, folding laundry, hanging up my jacket, lining up our shoes by the door, slipping my subway card back into my wallet as I step through the train and try to find a seat—I catch myself imagining what these everyday details would look like as a film. I want to sink into those moments and let them expand instead of clacking through them like turnstiles. I’d like to give them the close reading I give scenes from a film. At home, I start to fall asleep, remembering I forgot to take my pills or turn off the light in the kitchen. I remember. The things that line up in our world, that keep us from falling through the cracks—picking up shoes, pulling scarves out of coat sleeves, stretching in the morning—these have become the things I want to watch.

 

Scene from a film:

A woman wakes up and looks through her closet for something to wear, wishing she owned something in dark pink. She’s hungry but it’s too late for breakfast. The flowers are still in good shape; she notes she’ll need to change the water soon. She walks along the sidewalk, holding a coffee cup in her hand. She steps onto a streetcar, zips up her wallet and sits at the window. The storefronts pass by. She knows this is the last still part of her day. She watches things rush, a flux of images like the shuffling of tarot cards. She thinks again about how many films feature women looking out of the window of a vehicle—women who don’t drive. She doesn’t resent it. She likes to think of herself as a woman in a film, but only when the women have nothing to do. In the evening after work, she sits in the lobby. She is meeting her lover but he is late. She notices a chip in her nail polish and thinks about how this will look to others, how this will unbalance her appearance. If this were a film, he would never show up and this would be a defining moment in her character arc. As he walks through the revolving door of the lobby, she’s grateful that she is not in a film, that this moment will be no more and no less defining than any other, and that it will belong to her. Nobody is watching. It is nobody’s image.

Image: Shary Boyle, La Papessa, 2017. Ink on paper.

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Gabrielle Marceau

Gabrielle Marceau is a writer, critic and editor living in Toronto. She has published essays in Mubi Notebook, JANE and Leste Magazine, film criticism in Sight and Sound, Cinema Scope and Reverse Shot, as well as fiction and poetry in Arc Poetry and Adult Magazine. She is the Editor-in-Chief of In the Mood Magazine, a triannual pop culture journal, and she is currently writing a full-length collection of essays on film.

Instagram: @losing_my_edge_

Twitter: @pureunevile

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