16 August 2007 | Chris_Docker
A worthy attempt at a difficult idea
In my youth, I remember driving a flashy car and living a 24-hour lifestyle. A slave to my own 'success', I was soothed by earning what could be called an obscene amount of money. Nowadays, I have a much more modest income. But also a life. I make my own decisions. Instead of having them made for me by lifestyle, my mortgage, my American Express balance or expectations of achievement.
The sense of living in the moment. Finding a deep satisfaction with every breath It is something that is so easy to lose in the city. Someone told me she learns Zen from walking the dog because a dog 'experiences' the moment. Everything. Every falling leaf. Every passing scent. For us mere humans, our thoughts play a continuous soundtrack, and one we can usually only blot out with increasingly powerful jolts to the senses. We forget what it is, quite literally, to 'smell the grass'. To taste the salt on the air as we stoop at the ocean shore. To stand on a hill and experience the newness of the sun. To be alone, for a moment, with our consciousness.
That type of experience is so hard to put into words. The movie's objective is as difficult as Virginia Woolf's 'stream of consciousness'. To define the undefinable is to err. It is like the sound of that sudden, small intake of breath before you kiss the person of your dreams. The sound of the blood rushing in your eardrums as you are swept away with consciousness of passion, wonder at the midnight sun, the words of a great teacher that hang in the air and sweep away the dust of your questions. Or sometimes in the smallest, of seemingly insignificant incidents. And what can be even harder is trying to re-connect. When you know something is missing, but can't put your finger on it. The sound of one hand clapping? In The Cities is a poetic and almost philosophical reflection on the restlessness of city life. And the story of trying to get in touch with something deeper while still living in the city.
The initial pace of the film may seem exasperatingly slow. I almost expect her, Fanny, to sit and watch the leaves turn brown. But it is taking us through an experience, taking us to a place that cannot be conveyed with words and images alone. The pacing is intentional.
It is didactic in tones at times. "This is what it must be like to die," says an old woman lying on the ground. She has slipped and fallen and is watching the leaves of the trees. It is only after a number of cul-de-sacs that Fanny, our kindly young protagonist who helps her up again, confronts her own expectations of who she is and finds an unexpected guide. A guide in the form of a blind man. His qualities enable her to open her eyes to a world she has struggled towards.
Watching In The Cities is almost to experience a physiological metamorphosis. Our fidgeting gives way to patience. We breathe a bit deeper it is a beautiful film, after all, bathing us in warm pastels like morning dew. We slowly realise that there is a repeated attempt to find meaning beyond the immediate. The same way that good sonnet can find real if unexpected and unstated meaning by juxtaposing words. Like the process of creativity itself.
Fanny initially has a blank space. She wakes up at 3am every morning and cries for no reason. For her, like the audience, the point is irritatingly obscure. We are blind to what the filmmaker is trying to say, and understanding will not come by attempts to rush.
As in watching a piece of fiction, we need to suspend disbelief with poetic form long enough for an idea to seep through. Over-the-top lines only avoid being pretentious by the fact that there is a point to this long dalliance. "Stars are people's eyes that have escaped their lids and risen to become bright and to rest. That is why, in the country, where everyone sleeps, the sky has all its stars, unlike in city skies, where few can be seen. So many city folk are restless, weeping, reading, laughing or lying awake, and they keep their eyes." I was also struck by the fact that the film comes from French Quebec, an area that has shorter working hours than most western societies but not as few as France. Fanny's work however (she looks after trees) also enables her to meditate on nature and beauty. She slowly develops a sensitivity and a capacity that she had always wanted.
Says director Catherine Martin: "Walking in the city, it often happens that when my gaze encounters a person whose pain is obvious, I suddenly feel flooded with compassion. At the same time I feel a sense of revolt as I become aware of my helplessness to change anything whatsoever . . .
dans les villes was born of these feelings."