About Somewhere Else
It is one of the oddest gestures in cinema, and it struck me that way when I first saw this great film on a black-and-white TV set at the age of 15. James Stewart plays a very clever defence lawyer in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and he is about to grill the best friend and co-worker of a bar owner who been killed by Stewart's client. Stewart has in fact taken a deliberate stroll through that bar, a little earlier, when it was empty. Now, standing and walking in court, he turns his back — to the characters, to the camera, to us — and 'recreates' the space of the bar (its various doors, its architectural design, its lines of movement) through his pointed finger, evoking his (and our) memory of it: "It's over there, isn't it?"
Preminger, it seems, was obsessed with this kind of mise en scène, in a manner he truly made his own: scenes that are ghosted by the memory of other, previous scenes, their spatiality and temporality. That's the basis of the immortal sequence in which Jean Simmons 'walks through her past' in the house, near the end of Angel Face (1953). Or sometimes there are ghosts of altogether absent, imaginary, 'unspeakable' scenes, which can only be alluded to in this indirect, tantalising way — like all Preminger's courtroom dramas, Anatomy of a Murder hinges on a 'primal scene' (of rape and murder) that no one can have direct access to.
I confess that I am under the spell, not only of a brilliant filmmaker, but also a brilliant film critic here: Carlos Losilla who, in his short text for LOLA, "Unspeakable Images" (later elaborated in a lecture titled "The Absent Image, the Invisible Narrative" at a Frankfurt conference on "The Audiovisual Essay"), takes us into an equally strange moment in Preminger's breakthrough assignment, Laura (1944).
There is a scene in which the camera tracks into McPherson (Dana Andrews) while he falls asleep, near a portrait of Laura (Gene Tierney); after a few moments, it tracks back to its original position, without a cut — just before the assumed-dead Laura, in the flesh, enters the room. As Losilla says, there is a lot folded into this strange camera movement: time, dreaming, an entire alternative narrative alongside the one we see... The scene, with its simple, elegant reframing completely blurs the line between fantasy and reality — and, in that, it points the way for much modern cinema to follow.
Preminger used the same trick again in Anatomy of a Murder, except this time in the opposite direction. Stewart, mid-trial, is back in that bar he was earlier evoking, trying to coax a reluctant witness into coming forth. The camera starts close in on Stewart, but then it moves out a little, as he once more 'conjures' what he thinks once happened in this space... and then, without really showing anything (except what we can imagine, or wonder), the camera moves back to its first position. The scene remembers what cannot even be seen!
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) is another Preminger film that, as Losilla asserts, plays with the absent and the invisible. Especially in the traumatic moment when Deborah Kerr, in an anguished, long-held close-up, reacts to the off-screen sight and sound of her fiancée (David Niven) cavorting with a younger woman in the bushes... a spectacle that we are discreetly not allowed access to.
I'm hallucinating now, because what I see and hear in the off-screen space of Bonjour Tristesse is a current release that closely resembles it in shape, colour and texture: namely, Alain Guiraudie's Stranger by the Lake — a film that is, in its own modern way, about the unspeakable conjunctions of sex and death, about what is seen but not admitted into knowledge, about the absent and the invisible. But that's another story...