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Expressing the In-Between 

Andrew Klevan



‘Cinema is that which is between things’
          - Jean-Luc Godard (1)


  1. Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Luc Godard par Jean-Luc Godard, Tome 1:1950-1984 (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma), quoted in Douglas Morrey, Jean-Luc Godard (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2005) p. 153 (‘[Godard’s] definition of cinema as “ce qu’il y a entre les choses” [“that which is between things’’]’).



Manny Farber says of the The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946, US): ‘[It] ignores all the conventions of the gangster film to feast on meaningless business and witty asides’. (2) One of the ‘fine moments’ in the film, he writes, is ‘no longer than a blink’: Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, looks up at a sign as he crosses the street from one store to another. In fact, Farber is probably mistaken. Marlowe does not appear to look up at a sign. Rather, he seems to be surveying the sky in response to loud claps of thunder. A few moments later, after more claps, the heavy rain nearly makes it possible for him to spend the afternoon sheltering in the Acme Bookstore with the sassy proprietor played by Dorothy Malone. Instead, disappointingly, work calls, and he must follow bad guy Geiger through the stormy night. Bogart’s gesture is therefore not strictly, in Farber’s terms, a piece of ‘meaningless business’ because it relates to the impending storm which is a feature of the narrative. Yet, the spirit of Farber’s point remains: the claps of thunder and Bogart’s gesture are incidental at this point. The thunder and rain could credibly begin while he is in the bookshop.



2. Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (De Capo Press: NewYork, 1998), p. 6.
















Farber’s mistake (written before the privilege of repeated scrutiny permitted by video recordings) does not undermine his deeper understanding of what the gesture adds. He talks about the film having ‘a life of its own that goes on beneath the story action ... All the unbelievable events ... are tied together by miserable time jumps, but, within each skit, there is a logic of space, a great idea of personality, gesture, where each person is’. (3) Moreover, there is another ‘unnecessary’ gesture, which Farber does not mention. It takes place on the other side of the street – and in the background of the shot – where Bogart slaps the top of a water hydrant. Crucially, he does not stop. He may be quickly taking stock, touching-base (for safety, superstitiously perhaps), while remaining on the move. In general, it suggests Marlowe’s fluency and ease in the city, and Bogart’s on the set. As he crosses the road, I sense the construction of the setting, all its elements intimately packed into the frame – the crossing cars, the comings and goings of people – creating oblivious busyness. Yet, the meticulousness of the staging does not determine the action; paradoxically it creates a living world, precisely brought to life (an ideal environment for all that ‘meaningless business’). This is partly because responsive performers like Bogart inhabit the world built for them; they live in it. (4) In Farber’s terms, both the gestures give us ‘a logic of space, a great idea of personality, where this person is’ – this street, here, now, between these two bookstores, looking up, just before it rains, crossing it, now, touching this hydrant, as he passes. (5)


The whole scene that follows, between Bogart and Malone, is like a ‘witty aside’ but given density by all ‘those tiny, mysterious interactions between the actor and the scene’. Bogart speedily delivers, ‘Would you have a Ben Hur eighteen sixty third edition with a duplicated line on page one sixteen?’; announces that he would rather get ‘wet inside’ with the ‘pretty good’ bottle of rye that he ‘just happens to have’ in his pocket; hovers his right hand over his waist, lightly drumming his digits; and later points two fingers towards his eyes to prompt Malone to remove her spectacles. Malone, meanwhile, unhurriedly folds her arms; nimbly manipulates the pencil, evidently sexual but in scholarly hands; precisely delivers her list of each aspect of Geiger’s appearance while she ambiguously moves her eyes up and down each aspect of Bogart’s; takes out those little white cups in the upper drawer of the desk; and removes the pin, carefully spreading her lower hair just enough for it to open up and sit more comfortably upon her shoulders (tightly bunched hair prudently unfurled rather than spectacularly released). All that is ‘mysterious’ lies in the performers’ interactions, made readily available to us, and not in a secretive dissolve that insinuates but ultimately hides very little. Malone remains just a ‘pal’ – her sexual disappointment represented in his comradely squeeze of her upper arm – and she never appears again in the film.







3. Ibid., p. 6.











4. I explore the idea of the performer’s expressive rapport with his or her surroundings at length in Andrew Klevan, Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (Wallflower: London, 2005).


5. The Bogart gestures appropriately illustrate Farber’s sense of Negative Space – the term that became the title of his collected essays. Richard Thompson summarises negative space as ‘all the area in an image which is not the subject: the background, corners, air, in fact anything that does not claim our immediate attention upon looking at the image’ (Richard Thompson, ‘Books’, Cinema 6, 3: 54-56 quoted in Noel King, ‘Manny Farber’, Framework, volume 40, April 1999). Farber (according to King) encourages us ‘to direct our attention away from the centre to the margin, suggesting that the most important meaning is likely to reside in unexpected places’ (p. 13). Foster Hirsch notes how Farber ‘will often single out details which lurk in the unostentatious corners of a film - the bit player with the special tic who suggests a whole way of life in a few seconds of screen time’ (Foster Hirsch, ‘Books’, Film Society Review 6, 9, 1971, p. 49-50 quoted in King, ibid.). He promotes peripheral detail over the declamatory. Farber loved, in his own words, ‘those tiny, mysterious interactions between the actor and the scene that make up the memorable moments in any good film’ (Farber, p. 145).






This essay addresses a further five films which put the in-between at their centre. Although much theoretical work (especially French, poststructuralist work) has long traversed a landscape of liminality, interstices and even voids, I was keen to explore the in-between through criticism, that is to say through an involvement with its expression and significance in specific films which appeared to me to be successfully realised. Apart from being well achieved, each instance represents a different register, especially with regard to rhythm and pace. Indeed, there is a progression through the essay from the manic (Bringing Up Baby, Howard Hawks, 1939) to the hurried (La Peau douce aka The Soft Skin or Silken Skin, François Truffaut, 1964) to the regular (Les Nuits de la pleine lune aka Full Moon in Paris, Eric Rohmer, 1984) to the slow (Secret défense, Jacques Rivette, 1998, Fr) to the still (Ohayo aka Good Morning, Yasujiro Ozu, 1959). Beyond that, I have resisted artificially imposing a grand explanatory narrative and overview or forging clear links. The discussion of La Peau douce is the most extended and is central, while the other films act as satellites. As an essay, it stands somewhat as an experiment and continues my explorations into the possibilities of a descriptive criticism that is less systematic than textual analysis and free from a determining, and driving, academic thesis. (6) It might seem perverse that an essay about in-betweens is without its own transitions but the intention is to leave open a space for a range of connections to emerge. I hope that aspects and ideas are locally crystallised while across the essay they are free to speak to each other – inconclusively.









6. For a meta-critical analysis of this concern see my essay ‘Description’ in Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism (Routledge: Oxford, 2011), pp. 70-86 . This volume contains a range of essays pertaining to the possibilities for film criticism as a form of expression. Another recent discussion of mine relevant to the method undertaken in this essay is Andrew Klevan, ‘Notes on Stanley Cavell and Philosophical Film Criticism’ in Havi Carel and Greg Tuck eds., New Takes in Film-Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2011). Ludwig Wittgenstein’s comments in Point 109 of the Philosophical Investigations might be pertinent: ‘And we may not advance any kind of theory.  There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place’. Ludwig Wittgenstein, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006; originally 1953).






Bringing Up Baby is giddy with diversion and distraction. Professor David Huxley (played by Cary Grant) and Susan Vance (played by Katherine Hepburn) are in the middle of the forest, an enchanted in-between place, where they are searching for two leopards, a dog and a bone (in fact, a dinosaur’s intercostal clavicle). All this keeps them together long enough for them to find each other, and themselves. (7) One particularly inspired interruption finds Susan slipping down a muddy embankment, and crashing into David from behind. She causes them both to roll, and in the process crushes the Professor’s glasses. (Never mind – according to Susan – David looks ‘much handsomer without them’.) As they rise from the ground, the film cuts to a shot that shows the whole of Hepburn’s body as she starts to limp. She barely takes a breath between her announcement that he looks ‘much handsomer’ and her ecstatic screeching of ‘Oh look David, I’ve lost my heel, I’ve lost my heel’. Similarly, after realising the heel’s absence she instantaneously takes advantage of the occasion to stage a playful act. ‘Look at me walk’ she says, while singing a military tune to accompany her lopsided march. Despite the imbalance, she performs the thoroughbred, manoeuvring in dressage: the purposeful and deliberate picking up of the feet and then the curving turn in a confined space, head lowered in preparation. Amongst all the clumsiness and calamity, Susan’s speech and actions are self-possessed and sure-footed, and flow deftly into each other. (8)


The continuity of her behaviour contrasts with the discontinuity of the narrative and its constant disturbances (many of which she happily instigates). Indeed, she is, for as long as necessary, impervious to interruption: a bemused David, himself infuriated at the disjointed story, eventually raises his voice to halt her – ‘Susan, Susan’ – and announces, ‘We’re not really getting anywhere’. She stands in front of him, looking up, continues to bob up and down, and repeats her mantra: ‘I was born on the side of a hill; I was born on the side of a hill’. He shouts ‘Stop’, and tries to restrain her by putting a hand on her shoulder, but as he releases it, she just pops up again. Each time the bobbing motion brings her face to face with him, and encapsulates her (so far undeclared) desire to kiss him (and the need, for the time being, to back down). Finally, she does stop, but not before she naughtily sneaks in a jerky, yet subdued, bob, irregular in rhythm, like the final shuffle of a child’s mechanical toy insisting to be wound up again. The fairy tale forest rewards her playfulness with a silvery light that reveals delicate developments in her expression: a pretend sulk delightfully grows into a grin with fluttering eyelashes to flirt with the Professor (bobbing up or down, she never relinquishes eye contact). In all, she goes back and forth, circles around, and bounces up and down on the spot, resolutely and advantageously failing to get anywhere. Susan is the embodiment of the film’s celebration and promotion of going round in circles, and its rejection of the straight (and narrow). She creatively plays in the time and space between things, and therefore, unlike those who always want to get on and put things in their place, mines its secrets. She juggles the elements of a moment and turns out new arrangements (a brave undertaking given that, as we well know, everything may drop and spill). (9)


For those women who wear them, the breaking of a heel will be familiar – so often on the way to somewhere – yet it is uncommon in film. Susan uses the break in her shoe, normally a frustration, to take advantage of a break in normality. The film is full of items of clothing and accoutrements that provide an endless succession of inspiringly irregular images. While frustrating the straight storyline, they often tempt us to enjoy the uncertainty of sexual characteristics against our ‘better judgement’ (and the instance of David, later, in the fluffy negligee is conspicuous and fabulous). (10) We may recall Miss Swallow, Professor Huxley’s fiancée and co-worker at the Museum, who is devoid of sexuality; her ironic name is surely one of cinema’s most wicked provocations. Professor Huxley is conventional and rigid, and Susan educates him to be the person whose name she forever repeats – ‘David’. Given that she is returning him to himself, it is little wonder that she has a usefully backwards idea of progression. Susan’s fluidity and flexibility of movement shows a capacity for indefinite behaviour, an elegant erasing of boundaries (erected by stiffer bodies and stuffy institutions). The mythical forest is ideal, but she turns everywhere into an in-between place, where a lack of conventional determinations and destinations arouse indeterminacy. Maybe this is because, as she repeatedly tells us, she was born, not on the top, nor at the foot, but on the ‘side of a hill’.






7. Cavell discusses the redemptive and therapeutic nature of forests and gardens, and their relationship to locations in Shakespearean comedy, in Bringing Up Baby and its sister ‘Remarriage Comedies’ of the 1930s and ‘40s. See Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts and London, 1981).






8. Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby was one of the few female performers to embrace slapstick successfully while maintaining elegance and femininity. Indeed, she makes them happily compatible. For a vivid account of Hepburn’s unique suspension of Susan between dignity and indignity, through her handling of weight and balance, see Alex Clayton, The Body in Hollywood Slapstick (McFarland Press: Jefferson, NC, 2007).













9. Andrew Britton, in his stirring account of Grant and Hepburn, writes, ‘The principle is to identify “play” in the sense of recovered infantile polymorphousness ... with “sophistication”, the apogee of cultivated adulthood. The sophisticated couple is the couple whose sexuality is no longer organised by the phallus. The characteristic co-presence ... of two apparently distinct comic modes of farce and wit is the expression of this thematic principle. The partners engage in rough-house and in epigram and repartee; the anarchic consorts with the urbane; the infantile drives which precede maturity and civilisation are suddenly definitive of them.’ Britton, ‘Cary Grant: Comedy and Male Desire’ in Cineaction, December, 1986, p. 41. The majority of Britton’s impassioned essays, including the one mentioned here, now appear in an essential collection for anyone interested in film criticism (it isn’t quite ‘complete’ despite the title): Barry Keith Grant ed., Britton on Film: The Complete Criticism of Andrew Britton (Wayne State University Press, 2009); the quoted passage is on p. 10.

10. Britton writes about, ‘the feminised hero, and of a couple whose validity and vitality is continuous with his feminisation ... What we have in ... Bringing Up Baby is something like an image of a positive bisexuality – something with which we are familiar in the personae of many of the great female stars ... Grant formulate[s] a type of masculinity which is valuable and attractive by virtue of the sharing of gender characteristics with women. The particular beauty of Grant’s collaboration with Hepburn consists (questions of acting apart) in the complimentary bisexuality of the Hepburn persona.’ Britton on Film, p. 15.




Pierre Lachenay, played by Jean Desailly, (11) a critic and scholar of literature, and the editor of a literary review, is to deliver a lecture on ‘Balzac and Money’ in Lisbon. La Peau douce does not show him delivering the lecture, but it does show the moments before: preparing in a darkened back room where he had previously been eating his dinner with his hosts. He is partly in silhouette, smartening the knot of his tie, and moving towards the stage. The lecture hall is out there somewhere lit-up beyond the window and there are noises – the announcer, his malfunctioning microphone, and then the applauding crowd – off-screen. Lachenay marches off for his lecture. The camera does not follow, but his exit, by letting in light, illuminates the room only now that it is deserted. The film then cuts to the inside of a car, where Lachenay is being escorted back to his hotel – after the lecture.


11. From now on, I will call him Lachenay, rather than Pierre, because he is often treated formally in and by the film. The film seems to be on first name terms with Nicole so I share this address. These choices will result in the odd, but oddly appropriate, reference to their coupling: Lachenay and Nicole.





Before and after, and on the move. Lachenay spends most of the film on the move, between places. (12) Transitional locations are mostly moved through in haste, but they feel present. The first sequence, after the credits, immediately exemplifies the film’s style, while appearing simply to be getting things going. Lachenay comes out of the métro and hurries up some steps. (We soon find out that he is late for his flight to Lisbon and throughout, for one reason or another, he is never settled. Given that he is a man who must, for his occupation, sit still and read, it is notable that the film does not show this.) He reaches the crossing; he looks anxiously up; an electronic crossing sign is counting down; he crosses; he immediately turns into the doorway of his apartment building; he presses the button and pushes open the door as it buzzes; the elevator rises. The continuity is clipped, a touch too tight, and pinches the habitual locations. The sense of location is also (gently) heightened by the surrounding noise, blunt and familiar but encroaching: the shunting train; the buzzing outer door; the whirring and clanking elevator; and the screeching inner doorbell. The prevalent sound – frequently present in the film – is that of Lachenay’s hurried footsteps clipping and scuffing against the paving.  

12. The film seems to be a philosophical meditation on a line by Pascal which is quoted by Lachenay at his public address in Reims: ‘The misfortunes of man stem from one thing: his inability to stay quietly in a room’.








Dramatic elements combine fluently in passing. (13) Once the car escorting him from the lecture comes to a halt, Lachenay sights the Air Stewardess, Nicole, played by François Dorléac, the one who had first attracted his attention on his aeroplane journey from France. He sees her from a mode of transport, and the window frames her, but she is not still. She too is on the move, entering the hotel with the plane’s captain, and although she is some distance away from the darkened car, she turns around (fortuitously?) to notice him at just the right moment. He follows urgently, collecting his key from the reception, moving around the hotel kiosk, and gets to the elevator just in time for the captain to hold open the door for him. This area of the hotel foyer, next to the kiosk, was where they had earlier looked round at each other, fleetingly, while he was on his way to the lecture. Showing it again, on his return, emphasises the significance of crossing paths in transitional places where potential lovers, by destiny or contrivance, may find, and re-find, each other.  

13. Maximilian Le Cain writes: ‘[The film’s] intricately designed pattern of incessant movement unfolds with a remarkable smoothness’. His piece, suitably entitled ‘Love in Flight’, announces La Peau douce as François Truffaut’s ‘supreme achievement’, and gives a sharp overview of the film. I quote many of his fine observations here, as they usefully dovetail with my account of the film. Maximilian Le Cain, ‘Love in Flight: François Truffaut’s La Peau douce’, Senses of Cinema, June 2004.





The period in the elevator is distinctive because it is stiff and deliberate, and the antithesis of fluency. The characters are moving in transport, but they must stand still. The journey extends beyond real time, giving each character plenty of opportunity to stare at the other, the result of which, as the elevator takes forever to go up, is to lift the situation into a protracted comedy of gazing. Later, the elevator descends in real time, and further points up the earlier distension. Lachenay seems consciously, and rather awkwardly, to reposition himself perhaps under the pressure of the stares, or perhaps to find a better position to stare at Nicole (and when the co-pilot gets out, Lachenay stares uninhibitedly). The elevator is the most conspicuous of the film’s in-between spaces, and therefore somewhat emblematic of its concerns. (14) It is their first time alone with each other, and their relationship, from its inception, is on the move and constrained (and together but apart). The secrecy of affairs, away from home, entails constricted movement through anonymous spaces.  







14. Truffaut says of the film: ‘La Peau douce is truly modern love; it takes place in planes, in elevators; it has all the harassments of modern life’, New Yorker, 31st October, 1964, quoted in James Monaco, The New Wave (Oxford University Press: New York, 1976) p. 56.


The elevator, an impersonal space characterised by awkwardness and silence, matches the personality of the characters: withdrawn, self-contained and set in its ways. She is holding two wrapped up gifts, hugging them close to hide and shield, a fortification behind which she may avert her gaze and safely peer over. Her wide oval eyes query and invite, and are enlarged by long, blackened eyelashes and a smallish face (which is itself dwarfed by the closeness of her surrounding hair, especially her low fringe). His eyes look small and unimpressive in comparison, unwavering in their attention, but sad, as if what was attracting him was already depressing him. (15) When they return the next night after their drink, they once again take the elevator together. The transitional period, between The Drink and The Sex, is appropriately located in the elevator (taking them from one level to another) and their behaviour in it prefigures their relationship. Nicole surveys Lachenay, perhaps taking a private opportunity to reflect on him, or perhaps eager for a sign. With the uncertainty about how their relationship will continue, he is facing away, absorbed and agitated. He is looking ahead, anxiously anticipating making love to her – out there somewhere – incapable of looking at her now (in here). The couple never rest in the present and enjoy the affair; they are always looking forward to it.   15. Le Cain describes Dasailly’s Lachenay: ‘an unprepossessing, almost mole-like head with a contrastingly handsome, intelligent face that seems on the point of being absorbed by the mediocrity of the rest of his appearance.’ Ibid.


After the elevator, the hotel corridor (I return now to the night before they meet for a drink). Nicole gets out at floor eight, and once again glances back, swiftly, as she moves away, so her look catches us. Yet, we cannot catch its meaning – seductive, curious, uncertain, or self-conscious? This is beguilingly ambivalent (rather than lazily enigmatic) – a sense that we are losing our grasp on meaning as it moves away from us – and is reward for the film’s secure handling of mobility. After descending further, Lachenay walks slowly down his corridor, deep in thought, frequently peering down at the pairs of shoes, parked outside the rooms. The music is melancholy, lamenting, and creeping, and it draws out the strangeness of hotel corridors: door upon door, each identical, like a play of mirrors, and shoe upon shoe (mementos of missing persons). The camera closely represents his viewpoint, travelling over each pair, briskly but insistently, as he surveys them. The alternation of Lachenay and his viewpoint, along with the attending music, transforms the shoes: these everyday objects, routinely deposited, receive undue attention. They insinuate secrets, as he considers creating his own.    


Lachenay now enters the hotel room, that anonymous space open to all but, for the time being, temporarily, reserved only for you (both extremely public and extremely private). Almost immediately, he considers leaving to go to her room (Number 813), but hesitates, and stays. His use of the light switch marks this suspended moment of hesitation. He moves his hand to the switch, and there is a little delay before he switches it off rather deliberately. He stops, decides to stay, closes the door, and stands in the dark for a few moments before switching the light back on. The music is still lingering on the soundtrack, but both the switch and the door make pronounced noises, clicking and catching. The tension and indecision of the situation is dramatised through that familiar marker of entering and leaving a room – the light switch – both through the physical act of the switching, and through the consequent darkening and illumination. The lights of the hotel room continue to shape the scene. Their use gives us a vivid sense of a space that is lacking in interest (without distorting that fact). (16) As he makes his telephone call to Nicole, he sits in the dark on the side of the bed. Nobody will see him, and he will not be caught; he can call out, while remaining hidden. He executes his daring act with a cool self-confidence but without exhibiting, to her or to us, the expertise of a practised seducer (which he may or may not be). (17)   16. Le Cain: ‘the film's settings might be, on the whole, banal and even drab ... but Raoul Coutard's photography imbues them with a controlled, wintry luminosity that is memorably atmospheric, suggestive of the emotions smouldering beneath reality's increasingly porous crust. The discreet but palpable beauty Coutard is able to conjure forth from such lacklustre surroundings without significantly altering them places La Peau douce among his greatest achievements’.

17. The next night when they return to her room, he guides her assuredly out of the elevator, and then, as she turns to him outside her bedroom door, at that crucial unresolved moment – goodnight kiss, or more – he efficiently takes her hand, nestles comfortably in behind her, and carefully guides them through together. She switches the light on, but he immediately, without consultation, switches it off. Close-ups capture the clarity and decisiveness of both actions and are striking in a film that generally prefers to situate the characters. He is in control yet impassive making him seem self-assured yet unimposing. This fits with the general impression that Lachenay, always on the way to somewhere, necessarily between places, is determined and indeterminate.


Only after the phone call, and her rejection, does he switch on the bedside light. He is disappointed now, but he will not be in the dark. He walks across the darkened side of the room to a full-length mirror, but back into the light when she calls him to apologise and accept his invitation to have a drink. As he puts down the phone, the film cuts to a longer shot that takes in more of the room. The music perks up as he rises, and he moves around the room’s circumference switching on all the lights – the remaining side light, the bathroom light, and then the one for the living area. Restricted and contained, his elation is limited to sequentially turning on lights in this uninspiring locale. As each light is switched on, the music swells, rises, and hovers. For those who stay in hotels there may be, on entering a new room, a brief moment of expectation before realising that it is, yet again, just another hotel room. Nevertheless, there is a keenness to resuscitate it and eagerly greet the over-familiar features: switch on the lights, open the cupboards, inspect the mini-bar, turn on the taps, and take a little bounce on the beds. Lachenay performs a euphoric variation. At 1am in the morning, he has nowhere to go, so he creates a journey within this compact room and the switching on of lights is an audacious attempt to expand its boundaries. He even tidies his tie and collar as if he were meeting her now, a premature preparation, perhaps, while celebrating his smartness. He completes the circle, moving into the vestibule so he may actively re-enter the main bedroom. The hotel room is a civilised cage, but he concludes by springing onto his bed, satisfied, and stares out at his conquered domain. The sequence lasts only 25 seconds, and is inconsequential in moving the story forward. The impression is of the film staying around a little longer than it might have done to catch an instance of jubilation which takes place alone, in private, and which would customarily remain unobserved.    


The next evening they meet for drinks, and leave the restaurant in the early hours. Apart from a shot of them exiting and moving away from the restaurant, the film only provides one short shot of them returning to the hotel through Lisbon. They take their happy place in the city in long shot, lovers at dawn, going to bed as others go to work; a skip, to the jaunty soundtrack, in front of an early morning tram. This is but a fleeting glimpse of the romantic, for them and us, indeed, one shot, only an image. It quickly disappears as the film abruptly cuts to them entering the hotel elevator. The dreamy image, and that precious skip, reminds us that despite the importance of roads and streets, and the film’s ease in handling the movement through these spaces, there are no energetic, sprightly steps through cities invigorated by a nouvelle vague spirit. (18) The film’s central passage is set in the provincial, lifeless, no-where streets of Reims (and the cinema in Reims, where Lachenay introduces a film about André Gide, is in the darkness on the edge of town). On the way to Reims, they stop at one of contemporary life’s ugliest in-between, nowhere places, the highway petrol station, bleak and soulless. We see them turn into the petrol station from a characteristic viewing position in the film: inside the car, through a windscreen. When Nicole decides to change from jeans into a skirt (because of Lachenay’s recently announced preference), she checks his back is turned, through the back window, and we see her scurry away to the toilets, through the side window. So much seen, and envisioned, through a mode of transport. And the car appears to control perspective and direct vision in more ways than one. Standing outside, Lachenay looks out upon other vehicles speeding along the highway, his face cut together with shots of passing traffic; is he contemplating meaningfully, or staring unavoidably (at the inescapable – escaping)? Close-ups of petrol station action punctuate the scene – pump removed, dials turning, pump replaced, cap screwed, and ignition pressed – intensifying the functional. The sequence and the film drolly concentrate the indistinct.

  18. Le Cain expands upon the peculiarly synthesised relationship between space and character in this Truffaut film. He writes that Truffaut’s films are always attentive to the personality of spaces but the integration of dramatic elements is looser: ‘[For] Truffaut ... the tight degree of interaction between space and character and the systematised use of space as vehicle of movement is uniquely elaborate here. Consider even the layout of the Lachenay family flat. Coming in from the hall, there is a flight of stairs that leads to the living room which is, arena-like, on a lower level than the rest of the house. Alongside it, at hall level, is a short passage and a room with a partition that can be wound down like a car window. Truffaut frequently films this unusual layout from above, often with people moving from the lower level up or vice versa. It never feels like a calm, closed place for relaxing in but seems instead to be an almost theatrical space for the constant agitated circulation of bodies. While interiors in Jules et Jim also sometimes displayed a similarly open quality, this was to allow the characters the liberty to circulate at will, whereas here they seem regimented by the spaces they pass through. Space in La Peau douce is an engine of predetermined narrative progression instead of a variable expanse of character-generated possibility.’ Ibid. Manny Farber disliked Truffaut’s ‘constant agitated circulation of bodies’. He called Tirez sur le pianiste (1960) and Jules et Jim (1962) ‘two ratchety perpetual-motion machines’, where ‘people and incidents [are] flat, jiggling manikins ... in a Mickey Mouse comic book, which is animated by thumbing the pages rapidly. This approach eliminates any stress or challenge, most of all any sense of the film locating an independent shape.’ Farber says the films have a ‘meaningless vivacity’ where the imagery is always ‘disappearing’ and ‘evaporat[ing] off the edge of the screen ... Truffaut’s imagery is limited to traveling (running through meadows, walking in Paris streets, etc.) ... without any actual muscularity or propulsion to peg the film down. As the spectator leans forward to grab the film, it disappears like a released kite.’ Manny Farber, ‘White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art’ in Negative Space, pp. 140-2. I largely share Farber’s discontent with the manner of Truffaut’s early films, but La Peau douce would seem to be an exception where the execution and exploration of ‘travelling’, and even of evaporation perhaps, has ‘stress’ and ‘shape’. It is strange therefore that this is a rather neglected film of the director. My attentions are partly an attempt to stimulate interest in it.

The film sharply etches the particularity of unimpressive situation: the specificity of characters getting through any old place with which they are uninvolved. The camera films from inside the hotel in Reims as they collect luggage from their car, pulling back as Nicole enters through the glass entrance door. It then swivels to the left to show them moving through the reception area and up the stairs (where she points to his picture on a poster), all in one take. The continuousness of the shot helps their entrance appear unbroken, condensed and hasty, but at the same time, the camera’s set-up seems disproportionate to the importance of the moment, and therefore points out the transitional.    


Interruption also highlights the transitional, preventing characters reaching, and settling at, destinations. It is just at the moment that Lachenay is about to leave Nicole for his speech when she says she needs him to get a ticket for the screening and some stockings. (‘There goes my last pair,’ she says, but, of course, it is always the ‘last’ pair. Incidentally, Nicole would not have damaged her stockings had she not changed out of her jeans and into a skirt earlier at the garage. She does not mention this perhaps because she is a little ashamed about her own susceptibility or perhaps because she is leaving it to Lachenay’s sensitivity to notice, as the film leaves it to ours.) It is just as he is entering the official hotel, where he is to meet the provincial dignitaries, when her voice speaks in his head and says, ‘Don’t forget my stockings’. He finds a lingerie shop just as it is closing but ... the shop attendant lets him in, the film creating a cliffhanger out of an irrelevancy. He rushes back to tell her he must rush off again because the dignitaries have organised a dinner for him. Because she is in the middle of bathing she must follow him out of the room, wrapped in her towel, to the hotel landing (one in-between place) where he tells her she must get her ticket at the box office (another in-between place). At every stage, the film insistently shows him hurriedly getting in and out of his car (at one point he even bumps another vehicle). The stockings symbolise their affair: not enjoyed, but fretfully sought. They should typify the attraction of her youthful femininity, flawless and smooth – la peau douce perhaps – but instead represent the impediments of practicality and obligation.    


The screening is sold out so, as Lachenay introduces it, the film cuts away to show Nicole drifting about in the foyer. When he has finished, he is collected by his ‘friend’ Clément, played by Daniel Ceccaldi, they walk backstage behind the screen (rather than settle in front of it), and emerge in the foyer. Clément knows Lacheney’s wife and family, so Lachenay now cannot acknowledge Nicole. Clément insists they have a drink together, and throughout the sequence, he chatters on and on, oblivious to the situation. The film builds up the frustration, the sequence becoming a Hitchcockian set piece, where the consequences are deathly but not dangerous, and where the narrative anxiety congeals into a mood of indignity. Shots of Lachenay, staring out at Nicole through the café window, helplessly fixed and fixated, alternate with shots of her stranded, floating in the dark streets, which seem drearily provincial and eerily supernatural (and a strange creature more than once harasses her). Indeed, there is a science fiction quality to the situation, which provides a metaphor for the lovers separated by age and circumstance: both marooned in space, staring into the other’s world, near, yet unreachable, each unable to carry out a rescue.    





In order to free himself, Lachenay feigns illness, and they walk back to the hotel, by the parked cars. As they walk, Clément looks down, and comments, ‘To every man his woes – mine are shoelaces’ (Clément later says he put on his best shoes in Lachenay’s honour). He ties them on a car bumper but even when finished the camera stays close to his legs (and Lachenay’s close by). They walk between the parked cars and back on to the pavement, and only then does the camera pan back up to show their upper bodies. The camera studies and exaggerates the trivial frustration of undone shoelaces; like the buying of stockings, the tying of laces becomes overwrought and distressing. Sandwiched between bumpers, dark and claustrophobic, a trifle becomes woeful. Having finally lost the ‘pest’, Lachenay scampers into his hotel, where Nicole is sitting in the reception lounge, an area that rhymes with hallways, foyers, and street corners, her locations of waiting on this unfortunate evening. She has obviously decided that if she is to be displaced (and misplaced), she will at least sit down. (To his infuriating question, ‘What are you doing here?’ she replies, ‘That is a good question!’ rather generously acknowledging its unintentional philosophical aspect).    



At the end of the film, it is Lachenay who is seated, but dislocated. He decides to leave his wife, but this prompts Nicole, worried by the seriousness, to end their relationship. (19) He has only one place he can now call home, his favourite restaurant, the Bar Val d’Isere. He telephones his wife to make amends. The nanny answers: she calls for Madame down the elevator shaft, and then goes to the window, but her car is already roaring away. As he returns to his regular table, tightly set back into the corner of the room, the camera sticks to his profile, as if camera and character, after all their travelling, are now glued together irreparably and uncomfortably. The camera’s sturdy and dogged attention matches Lachenay who, despite anxieties, returns head held high with an air of stateliness and pride. His constant moving was always in tension with the stiffness and restraint of his body; he was active but never lively. When seated, he empties the remaining cigarettes from one pack into a new one. Keeping things together, this is a typical piece of behaviour for Lachenay, and probably habitual, but it appears particularly measured given that his life is now disturbed. Similarly, he daintily brushes crumbs off his plate with his palm, and then calmly unfolds his newspaper. The film attacks this image of unhurried self-containment (up to now troubled only by the lamenting music) by cutting to his wife noisily racing in her Mini. She enters the restaurant (hunting rifle hidden under her overcoat). His little corner of the world, a place of security and comfort, now takes on a different aspect. He is trapped with nowhere to go – pushed back by the table into a tiny triangle of space – and unsafely situated for a man who exists to be on the move. She shoots him dead.   19. Le Cain gives an account of this scene set in an ‘incomplete flat’: ‘The scene of their break-up, also the last time Nicole is seen in the film, takes place in an incomplete flat in an apartment block still under construction. Lachenay hopes to buy the flat for them to start a new life in. The outline of the building, still too incomplete to keep out the cold greyness of the sky, in which Lachenay finds his schemes for a future so abruptly aborted, is the most overtly symbolical use of space in La Peau douce. The shell of a living space is both a future home that will never be and suggestive of ruin, the wreckage of his family life. Its height above street level further highlights Lachenay's plight as a man adrift. It is also the end of the line: the couple stands over the movement of the city, removed from the comings and goings that kept them together. Briefly existing above the forces of movement, they have to confront each other for the first time in lucid stasis. The scene ends with Lachenay helplessly watching Nicole rejoin the agitation of the city from the vantage point of the flat, truly high and dry.’ Ibid.






Louise is in exile. She lives out in the New Town suburbs with her partner Rémi, but wishes to spend more time in central Paris (where she works for a design firm). (20) Rémi, played by Tchéky Karyo, works for the new town planning department, and he is comfortable with their location (according to Louise, played by Pascale Ogier, he considers it his moral duty to live in the sort of places he designs). A few minutes into Les Nuits de la pleine lune, her journey from the suburbs to the city is shown, not in its entirety, but in segments that concentrate on typical passages. She walks across a rather desolate square, past a shelter, a bus stop perhaps, to the train station entrance (15 seconds); she hurries off the top of the escalator onto the platform (10 seconds); she reads a magazine on the train (6 seconds); and she walks along a street in Paris that leads to her place of work (10 seconds). Each section of her journey, although mundane and workaday, is given continuous attention, but is then cut abruptly short as the film jumps to the next section: the square; escalator/platform; train; and street. The film dwells, then it snatches; consequently, each portion of the journey is routine and pointed. The segments also catch an ordinary movement, gesture or piece of behaviour and we recognise the unremarkable: the little scurry as she reaches the station; the scrunching of her scarf under her chin as she looks down the platform; the turning and folding of her magazine. The images are without artificiality, and naturalistic sounds of travel, train and traffic, often noisy, accompany the entire journey. In contrast to the street created just for Bogart to cross, just there and then, many people walk these streets. Location pre-exists Louise’s presence. Her place and her purpose are unexceptional, and despite the noisy, lifelike precision – the concreteness – these in-between spaces of the everyday commute, familiar and unimpressive, are indistinct. They disappear to leave only the person – the big red scarf moving against the watery blue-grey sky and urban repetition – with her thoughts. The routine commute is a period of self-contained thinking and provides a picture of self-absorption (a seemingly paradoxical product of the objective coverage). (21)


Louise is fragile. She has a very slim frame, swamped here under a thick coat and scarf with thin legs poking out (squeezed further by tight leggings). She looks girlish, rather than womanly – off to high school – with a large turquoise ribbon in her hair, tied with a big bow to sit upon her head, and rather than a briefcase, she carries a trellis jelly bag. Her occupation requires no formality, but these workday accoutrements are indicative. Her bag declares that she is open and carefree, but it is also skeletal and without security. Later, she shows her friend Camille the sort of lamps she designs: like Louise, the elements are tiny and spindly, and the construction angular, pokey rather than elegant, and easily broken. It also stands alone – precious – unable to assimilate into the surrounding décor. After completing the redecoration of her flat in Paris, she makes the final adjustments to the pieces on her table, many brightly coloured toys exhibited as if they were in a museum display cabinet: all neat and tidy and precisely the right distance from each other. She pinches one tiny item, moving it painstakingly, ever so slightly, to the right, and she lays out a picture book face open at a particular page; she stands back to assess the affected arrangement, and fastidiously wipes away some dust. Her flat in Paris gives her a space away from Rémi and the suburbs; she can party late into the night, and not worry about the return journey. How is it then that the accommodation of a liberated, independent woman is the secretive retreat of a young, teenage girl?


20. The proverb which opens the film reads: ‘He who has two women (wives?) loses his soul/He who has two houses loses his mind’.


















21. Stanley Cavell suggests that for Ralph Waldo Emerson walking is a ‘philosophical picture of human thinking’. Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1990), p.96.








With the room perfectly prepared, she is ready to go somewhere else. Unfortunately, one friend rings to cancel; and although she speaks to a couple of other friends, they too are unavailable that evening. While she is on the phone, there are no cuts to show these people; the film determinedly stays with her in the room (over-determined, like Louise, and her arrangements). Other people are out there. She is not settled but confined, and between people and parties. She resigns herself to staying in, collects a couple of books (one appears to be a large comic book), places them neatly in the middle of the bed, arranges pillow and covers, and brushes out the creases as if readying it for the pleasure of someone else (like a maid servicing a hotel room). She leaves the shot, but the film stays, resolutely once again, and stares at the bed, fixated; rather like Louise’s life, it should move on but it is unable. The bed is on display, but empty. Like her table with its toys and open book, everything is in its place but she cannot be; an apartment created perfectly in her own image, now renders her invisible. (22)

  22. In her penetrating article ‘Representing the Sexual Impasse’, which discusses the operation of desire in the film, Bérénice Reynaud emphasises the importance of off-screen space (and unites Louise with female characters in Le Maman et la putain (Jean Eustache, 1973, Fr) and Jeanne Dielman (Chantal Akerman, 1975, Fr): ‘Louise’s life becomes more and more dependent on what happens off-screen while she continues to deny that this is so ... the space these women inhabit ... specifically shown as their emotional base, becomes too small: since they have mentally projected themselves into an outside where, at this specific moment, they are not wanted. Their own imaginary, so to speak, devours the frame of the image: the space they are left with is no longer the space of their desire, which is outside ... the inside [is] emptied by the outside ... Rohmer remembered the lessons learnt in watching Hitchcock’s films: the bus ride undertaken by Sylvia Sydney’s kid brother in Sabotage, for example, becomes a real nightmare for the spectator because we know there is a time bomb in his satchel: the invisible ‘contaminates’, so to speak, the visible.’ In Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau eds., French Film: Texts and Contexts (Routledge: London, 2000), p. 260.





Earlier, the apartment was more straightforwardly provisional, prior to decoration and furnishing, and Louise took her friend Octave, played by Fabrice Luchini, to see it. It is between stages, like Louise, and everything is out of place. Akin to the sequence in the elevator in La Peau douce, the scene is openly emblematic of the film’s concerns, suitably so given that the apartment is not yet fully presentational. Her red scarf drapes over the wardrobe door; his newspaper and book sit on the ladder; her handbag, filled with pink, is prominent, sitting by her on the floor like an obedient and attentive pet. The combination of odd objects, often vividly coloured, in a sparse and unformed location creates abstracted configurations. Through the doorway into the kitchen, three oranges (which they had carried with them) and a small white jug sit on a pine shelf in front of a cream background: a distilled still life. These images emerge naturally from characters temporarily inhabiting an impermanent space, and are typical of the way the film seamlessly fuses the concrete and the conceptual. The abstracted appearance matches the philosophical nature of their conversation that often condenses aspects of their experience into epigram (easily extractable: ‘the other person’s desire brings out mine’, ‘you look ethereal but really you are very physical’, ‘the one experience I’ve missed is loneliness’). The space is embryonic so they are free to open up (somewhat), but the intelligence of the insights flatters their veracity and applicability. Louise and Octave are equally rehearsing and performing ideas on this bare stage – trying them on. (23)












23. Gilbert Adair notes, ‘the recurrent presence on screen of a pair, one to each home, of abstract paintings (in reproduction) by Mondrian ... His most distinctive compositions – typically, two, three or four rectangles or squares in bright building-block colours, which are deployed on the canvas along an intersecting grid of thick, black straight lines – attain [a] sweet poised serenity ... And it is precisely such a serenity that Louise is endeavouring to impose on her own messy little acre of reality, as though craving abstraction in a world which remains irrepressibly, cussedly figurative’. Gilbert Adair, ‘Les Nuits de la pleine lune’, Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1984, Volume 51, Number 611, pp. 387-388.

The makeshift space also exposes them; indeed, it makes them shift. As Louise attempts to justify her need to be independent of Rémi, her fidgeting betrays her insecure rationalisations. She kneels on the floor and leans forward on the coffee table; she moves to the chair; she puts her foot on the table, rocks back on the chair, and brings the other leg up; she folds her hands, first in her lap then over her knees; and finally she returns to kneel on the floor again. Even Octave, who is not under the same pressure to defend himself, can’t quite sit still, and rather deliberately repositions his legs as if he was self-consciously aware of a camera’s scrutiny. (The camera often remains with a character even when they finish speaking so that the other character is heard speaking from off-screen, once again maintaining, not unlike its characters, a single-mindedness.) (24) Their attempts at making themselves comfortable are somatic expressions of unease. ‘I want to love him’, Louise says, ‘but the only reason I can’t is that he loves me too much’. On this claim of suffocation, she moves away to the wall, for breathing space. This is an apparent place of safety, and the crossing of her legs appears to be casual, but she is at the edge, alone, with her back to the wall. Octave soon follows her, and leans within the kitchen doorway; in choosing to join Louise, he unsurprisingly ends up suspended (between rooms). (25)  




24. A characteristic way of presenting conversations in the films of Eric Rohmer.


25. And leaning. For more on leaning and its suspensions see my chapter entitled ‘Unconcealing the Obvious: Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Springtime’ in Andrew Klevan, Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film (Flicks Books: Trowbridge, 2000), pp. 170-205.




By attentively monitoring the prosaic, the film suggests the mysterious stirrings that determine the characters’ positions. It never shows Louise dwelling in the house in the suburbs that she shares with Rémi. It does show her between floors, going up and down, or looking up and down, the stairs that lead from the front door to the bedrooms – often just before coming in or going out. She has a work desk squashed underneath these stairs, and on one occasion, while Louise and her friend Camille ascend, the film keeps the desk in view as if it were drawn, or drawing us, to ponder its placement. Is the desk snuggled in to make a den, conjuring childlike cosiness (and if so, why would this be sought), or is it trapped in a nowhere place, between rooms, and smothered? When Louise goes to the toilet in a café in Paris, she catches sight of Rémi and, not wishing to see him, must loiter in the most ignominious of in-between places. Waiting to leave, the cleaner enters, and she is forced to feign business, turning to fiddle with the taps. The camera stares at her intently, as if it were patiently observing the activities of wildlife, and indeed, as she hides behind the door, clutching her yellow and black spotted purse, Louise has the face of a young animal, as yet unformed, lost and hurt.    











The film recognises something primal in the realistic. Louise sleeps with a young biker she has met at a party, but early in the morning, as he sleeps, she must creep naked from her bed (before rescuing her clothes). To show her brittle nakedness in this context stresses her frailty and vulnerability, and it exposes – on this night of the full moon – a creature. The civilised and rational are stripped away. She skulks out of her own flat as if for survival (‘I nearly choked,’ she later admits) and waits in a bar, until the trains start running back to the suburbs. She sits on a table adjacent to an avuncular artist, played by László Szabó, who calmly explains to her that many people fail to sleep on the night of the full moon. Much to his surprise, she says she had not noticed it was a full moon (‘You Parisians’ he exclaims disdainfully). Modern, enlightened Louise is rather reluctant to accept his supernatural explanation for her sleepless night (‘I had a reason’). She asks him if he really believes such a thing, and rather than saying ‘oui’ he claims that it affects him because he is ‘suggestible’. In disallowing the artist’s explanation, Louise is rejecting a certain suggestibility to a world of alternative explanations, where the reasons for behaviour might be deeper than the ones she can readily proffer. She finally returns home, but Rémi is not there. Later that morning, after an ellipse, he returns and explains that he is now in love with another woman, Camille’s friend Marianne (not Camille, as Louise and Octave had reasoned). She must leave again (she says, ‘I couldn’t stay in town and now I can’t stay here’) but the telling image of her dislodgment, resolutely ordinary and uncanny, comes a little earlier, after she realises that Rémi is not at home (but before he returns and she learns of his new relationship with Marianne). In all her clothes, Louise is sleeping, slightly scrunched up, on the small sofa, bathed in the blue dawn light. (26) Is she casually, temporarily, resting while waiting for Rémi or is she suspended in an earth bound, gloomy, limbo land – between beds, between men, between night and day?  















26. Blue occurs throughout the film. Indeed, in both senses of the word the film is blue. The quality of light is so precise in Eric Rohmer’s films that they frequently convey seasonal and diurnal particularity.











In Secret défense, Sylvie’s traumatic adventure originates within the routinely transitional. Sylvie, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, stands on a Métro train platform having just visited Paul, her brother, in hospital. He plans to avenge their father’s death, and she is concerned. Will she now take on the responsibility of revenge? (27) As the train pulls into the platform, one woman gets off and another woman gets on but unexpectedly Sylvie does not move. Her behaviour is obscure. Does her furtive look left and right suggest a guilty self-consciousness about her movements and a worry that people might now be reading her mind? Does her last moment jump upon the train, just before the doors close, suggest a leap into the unknown? The film suppresses these vital and pivotal thoughts (to her and to the narrative) by confining them to an ordinary location and situation that limits the potential for disclosure.  


We now see the journey in real time, without ellipse, between two consecutive stops, from getting on the train to getting off it (1 minute 45 seconds). (28) The familiar train carriage, without personality, is a suitably routine environment for a controlled experiment, related, perhaps, to the sterile laboratory where Sylvie works. From now on, Sylvie is under (our) observation. She stands alone (rather than sitting amongst others), and remains alone for the journey (no person enters the image), clutching her bag in one hand and the handrail in another. Because she travels alone, she cannot reveal her thoughts through conversation. Her isolation in the shot also emphasises her as a singular subject for examination – uncontaminated – and it intensifies concentration (hers and ours). Within this inexpressive environment, the performer might use any gestural movement, facial or otherwise, at her disposal. On the contrary, there is little variation in her manner: her body and face remain largely still and only a sideways movement of her eyes seems to mark a progression in thought. Her outward appearance remains appropriately restrained and unobtrusive for public transport. The passing scenery, behind her and next to her, provides most of the movement, as if it were graphically monitoring her passing thought. Without significant alteration of movement and gesture, the extended duration does not permit a more exact interpretation of her thoughts, but rather emphasises Thinking, consuming and prolonged (despite its containment and impassive manifestation). Bonnaire sustains the intensity of interiority without distinguishing or clarifying the details of thought, and without losing her composure. (29) Yet, it is during this short journey where Sylvie seems to launch her bold, even reckless, enterprise. (30) The film provides a telling picture of a common experience: the extraordinary progression of thought during the ordinary progression of a journey, and the imaginative transporting of our selves while being routinely transported. We are close to our own thoughts, but closed off to the thoughts of others (properly hiding behind sedate masks). The melodrama of thought conceals itself within the undramatic practicality of urban travel (between here and there).



27. Sylvie’s brother, Paul, played by Grégoire Colin, tells her that the death of their father, thought to be accidental – he fell in front of a train – was in fact murder. The murderer, according to Paul, is Walser, played by Jerzy Radziwilowicz, a partner of their father, and a close friend, and possibly lover, of their mother. Sylvie seems convinced by Paul’s evidence (a photograph shows Walser on the platform just before their father’s death). It is likely that it is during the métro journey I discuss here that she makes the decision to travel to their childhood home near Chagny where Walser is residing (possibly to dispose of Walser herself). Indeed, immediately after this métro ride, she undertakes this further journey which takes approximately 15 minutes of screen time (starting after 45 minutes of the film). Nick Roddick writes of the later longer journey, ‘the film’s intricately frenzied plot is in sharp contrast to its cool, elegant surface, exemplified by the tour-de-force journey Sylvie takes from Paris to Burgundy – one of French cinema's great ‘travelling shots’ – to commit the act that will redefine her world.’ (National Film Theatre Brochure, May 2006). Jared Rapfogel writes, ‘Rivette ... makes what is usually transitional and thus hurried over or merely alluded to, into something like a set piece. Her journey becomes ... a chance to sink into the movie, to observe, at great length and with great intimacy, Sylvie’s character. And the surprise is that, instead of losing us, the story becomes far more interesting, deeper and more mysterious, as a result. Letting us share the character’s sense of time brings us closer not only to her but to her story – we’re not being told her story, we’re experiencing it with her. This emphasis on what happens between the conventionally important moments ironically focuses our attention on what matters in the story, on Sylvie's thoughts and emotions, on what she knows and doesn't know, and, thanks to the interminable wait separating her resolution and her action, on the momentousness of what she intends to do.’ (Jared Rapfogel, ‘Secret Défense, Senses of Cinema (October 2000; Rapfogel’s emphasis). On this journey which Rapfogel so fruitfully illuminates, she inspects her gun in the train’s washroom, and it does indeed appear that she is intending to shoot Walser. Yet, her genuine intentions are always unclear to us, and possibly to herself. She in fact ends up shooting Walser’s girlfriend by accident. The preceding period on the Métro, the sequence which I discuss, is a distilled version of the longer journey to follow, but it is genuinely in real time, and crucially between seeing her brother and travelling out of Paris.

28. The journey is on line 5 of the Paris Métro (Place d’Italie/Bobigny-Pablo Picasso), one stop from Gare d’Austerlitz to Quai de la Rapée. Both placards with the station names are clearly displayed in the film, and I mention the real details of this journey to emphasise that the film shows a complete journey, between two stations, in real time without ellipse (although this is pretty clear from the sequence without any exact knowledge of Paris). Her brother is probably staying at the Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière near Gare D’Austerlitz.


Eventually, there is a break in Sylvie’s concentrated period of reflection. She makes one large movement, 15 seconds from the end of the journey, crossing the carriage to the opposite set of doors. Her move places her on the correct side of the carriage to disembark, but it equally indicates an adjustment in her train of thought. She is now more responsive to her surroundings, looking intently out of the window, as she awaits her destination. This final period echoes her train journey on the way to the hospital where we only saw the final 15 seconds and where she appears in the same position in the train and in the frame. (31) The film’s use of continuous, real time emphasises that on this occasion, we see the whole of this journey; and a particular segment of it, once perfunctory, is now charged. Métro journeys appear identical but her life has changed forever. Dispensable and indispensable periods of existence take place on the same stage, and join hands.

The film further complicates its meditation on what constitutes relevant time (in film, in life). (32) As Sylvie alights at the station, she hurriedly walks down, through the underpass and up to the opposite side of the tracks. At first, she appears to be merely changing Métro lines – the film eager to show the most intermediate and unimpressive aspects of her journey, perhaps to impress the significance of this occasion. On closer inspection, however, she has simply crossed to the opposite platform of the same line (and the train she just has got off is now pulling away). It appears as if she was originally travelling home, but made the decision to return to her office (where she discreetly collects a gun). This might account for her earlier hesitation on boarding the train and the reason why she urgently crosses the carriage when on it. (33) Nevertheless, Sylvie’s behaviour remains opaque, and equally the film barely acknowledges her change in direction. It respects her private thought and secrecy (her secret defence, perhaps), and preserves the journey’s mystery and banality, both essential and inessential (in getting her to where she wants to be).



29. As I suggest as the start of the essay, the three French films discussed in this essay exemplify three different rhythms: fast, medium and slow. In La Peau douce, Lachenay is always in a rush. He moves through in-between places quickly; he must get through them to arrive at the next destination. Despite logistical diversions, he is purposeful. Louise moves through her in-between places less resolutely and urgently. They are places she must walk through everyday, at a regular pace, and thinking fills the time (and this thinking later unveils an elegant, social version of itself in conversation). Sylvie is given more time and space within which to dwell (as is the audience). If Nuits de la pleine lune manages to infer a vague sense of inner thought from Louise’s journey from the suburbs into the city, Secret défense, while never clarifying the particularities of Sylvie’s interiority, makes it a focus for attention. For an extended discussion on the expression of interiority in films where specific thoughts are not clarified see David Turner, The Interiority of the Unknown Woman, unpublished Doctoral Dissertation (University of Kent, 2007).

30. Rapfogel writes that ‘each moment that could be considered a plot development feels like something much more authentic. Life doesn't consist of a rapid succession of dramatic moments; every important action in our lives struggles to stay afloat amidst a sea of contemplation, interpretation, and stabilization, stretching away on all sides. Secret Défense manages to tell its story without being false to this quality of experience.’ See also my study of the undramatic in Klevan, Disclosure of the Everyday.

31. Although the segments rhyme in time and appearance, this is not literally the same stretch of journey.

32. A preoccupation throughout Rivette’s career, but the exploration of duration is particularly eloquent here because it is disciplined by, and in conversation with, the situations and impetus of the ‘thriller’ narrative.



Throughout Ohayo, Minoru and Isamu (played by Koji Shitara and Masahiko Shimazu) desperately want a television to watch wrestling and baseball. Near the end of the film, their father, played by Chishu Ryu, relents (he buys the television to support Mr Tomizawa, who sells electrical goods, in his difficult retirement). The boys come home, find the television and are delighted. The film shows the television set unopened in its box in the hall, while at the end of the hallway the boys sit in their room. They have a celebratory fight for which their father scolds them (possibly jokingly), but they do not unpack the television. The box just sits there, and waits. Next morning, it is still sitting there, and the shot is the same, down the hallway, towards the boy’s room, but this time the hallway is in daylight. The hallway is a domestic place that people pass through, rather than a room where one settles and spends time, and suitably the box expresses an in-between moment: at last, the television is purchased, but it is yet to be set up and find its proper place in the organisation of the home. Indeed, the boys come out of their room smiling and walk past their new acquisition on the way to school. The box fits, its square shape in line with all the lines of the hallway, but it also protrudes like an obstacle (perhaps something to get around or get over).


Most of the film takes place in communal areas like the hallway, where people cross each other, or come across each other, like the grassy hill that we often sight down the alley between all the houses (and where the boys play their ritualistic game, hazardous for the boy who can’t master it, of learning to fart on command). Public and private intersect at doorways, entrances and porch areas where conversations with neighbours – welcome or unwelcome – take place. It is a fidgety film, where characters come and go, once again between the houses. Mrs Haraguchi, scurries around her neighbours, both creating gossip and trying to extricate herself from it. The film explores how human beings need lines, physically and verbally, most notably in the film’s title expression, ‘Good Morning’, which the boys complain is a false and worthless greeting, to which their tutor explains, ‘The world needs some unnecessary things.’ ‘Good Morning’ is one expression of the rigidities of human behaviour, both necessary and unnecessary, which Ohayo explores figuratively by emphasising a world of physical straight lines – hallways (with or without televisions), walls, screens, washing lines, picket fences, alleys, pylons, poles, roads, tracks, platforms – and observing the various ways characters work within, or manoeuvre between, them.


33. Her original direction is towards her home which is north of Gare d’Austerlitz and the river at Métro station Richard-Lenoir (line 5), but her workplace where the gun resides is south of station Gare d’Austerlitz in the other direction. This sequence closes with her standing on the platform and it is possible to see the overhead sign showing the southerly direction indicated by the terminus – Place d’Italie. Although it is possible, therefore, to piece together the geographical jigsaw, with a complementary knowledge of Paris – and playing that detective game is one of the options offered by the film – I must emphasise that the film does not situate this sequence, or ones leading to it, in such a way that Sylvie’s movements could be self-evidently located.


















  The film and the box are now at rest, but this tranquil arrangement is temporary. A passing stage, conveyed through immobility. The television in the box expresses containment: it accommodates aspects of the past and is yet to unleash its mass of moving images and noise. It evokes the drama that has preceded it – the boy’s speaking strike, the father’s worries for his family, Mr Tomizawa’s struggling retirement – and insinuates about the future. (Washing lines have a similar effect such as in the shot that closes the film where the gentle fluttering of clean pants whispers furtively of breaking wind and soiled consequences.) An image of a cardboard box in a hallway absorbs and mutes events, stills and distils them into a picture of dull domesticity that takes on an amused, yet hesitant, poignancy.    


from Issue 1: Histories


© Andrew Klevan and LOLA, 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.