Sunday, 23 October 2016
The past and the present are not mutually exclusive. We all have memories of time shared with people we love, people we have loved, people we will always love. Our memories are who we are. They’re proof that we exist. And we have lives. We love, we work, we eat, drink, talk, spend time. We move towards the unknown of our future. We live. But what happens when all we can see is the past, our memories of the people and places that no longer have a future? How do we live our lives without them? Such questions are posed in three superb films I saw at the London Film Festival, all of which explore the past’s hold over us in profoundly different ways.
First off: Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Opening in Recife in the 1980s before jumping ahead to the present day, Aquarius follows Clara, a retired music critic, as she fights to keep her home out of the hands of bullish property developers. Having bought out every other resident of the titular apartment complex, these developers plan to demolish the building and rebuild the “New Aquarius”, a modern and luxurious living space, in its place. But they need Clara to leave so they can start work. They can’t evict her. She owns her apartment, so as long as she stays they can’t do a thing but try to force her to go. And the deal they offer her is a good one: a lot more than the asking price. But for Clara, this isn’t about money. This is her home. She raised her children here with her late husband. She beat breast cancer here. Her family have been here for decades. She can’t just leave, knowing that the physical space her memories are tied to will be destroyed if she goes. She’s holding on to the past because it’s hers to hold on to. It’s an act of preservation. Like how she defends digital music in spite of her love of vinyl. The resonance of a song is not lost because it’s heard as a file on an iPod. At least it’s the same music. But tearing down a building and replacing it with a new one is a cover version. It might exist in the same place, with the same name, but its soul will be lost, leaving nothing but a hole filled with money in a city where life used to be.
Mendonça steeps Clara’s life in history: a John Lennon LP she bought second hand in Brazil mysteriously contains a clipping of an LA Times profile of Lennon conducted shortly before his death; a chest of drawers, repeatedly observed, is closely associated with memories of her beloved late aunt, who owned it as a young woman; the bookshelves of her apartment are stacked with photographs and photo albums; even the scars from her mastectomy serve as a daily reminder of her cancer battle. This is richly detailed, perhaps even novelistic filmmaking. Mendonça takes the time to create a vivid sense of Clara’s life by zooming in on the details that make it real, that make it important, beautiful, essential. And life is meaningless without its history. If our past is taken away from us, destroyed and rebuilt in the name of a future that’s leaving us behind, how do we know that we even lived at all?
“I need more from you.” These words said to a gushing tap cut to the heart of Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, a beguiling ghost movie in which Maureen, an American spirit medium working as personal shopper to an elusive socialite in Paris, searches for a promised sign of (after)life from her dead twin brother. She spends her days riding around the city on a moped collecting clothes and jewellery from designer boutiques, and her nights drawing, reading, teaching herself about art, and talking to her boyfriend on Skype as she sits alone in her tiny apartment. He wants her to join him in Oman. She hates her job, and being in Paris. There’s nothing keeping her here but her memories of her brother. But she feels obliged to stay until he gives her a sign: a ghostly encounter, a tap inexplicably gushing water, a glass smashing on its own; unexplained noises, scratched crosses appearing on walls. And then she receives a barrage of mysterious and insistent text messages from an unknown number. Is this the sign she’s in Paris waiting for?
Maybe. And that’s exactly the point. She wants to believe, so she does. She’s waiting. And when you wait, you look at everything with the expectation that something is about to happen, something to justify all this lost time. Maureen needs something from her brother so she chooses to believe that he’s speaking to her, somewhat reluctantly following the instructions of the bizarre messages in spite of all corporeal logic. But then anything can be explained rationally. A glass smashing on the floor with no apparent stimulus could’ve been caught in an unnoticed gust of wind, or maybe it was placed precariously on the edge of a table. And these texts could be an elaborate practical joke, or part of something more cynical. But they might also not be. Assayas, to his credit, never really clarifies any of this. He’s happy to let Maureen exist in a world of grey in which there are no definites. Even communication is increasingly shrouded in mystery: face-to-face meetings become lo-res Skype conversations; handwritten notes become text messages from unknown numbers; IRL becomes URL. Maureen is always connected to the world and always alone in it. Glued to her phone and stuck in a city that isn’t her home, Maureen’s physical connections are all a distant part of her past. It makes sense, then, that she chooses to believe in ghosts. That she asks questions to empty rooms, hoping for an answer to fill the silence. What else is there to do in a digital world but look for signs of life.
In Marco Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams, Massimo, a successful journalist, returns to his childhood home to sort through the possessions of his mother, who died when he was young. It’s 1999 in Turin, and the looming presence of the abandoned Stadio Comunale, the former home of both Juventus and Torino FC, looms large through the window. In his youth, this stadium roared as his beloved Torino played. He gave spirited mock-commentaries from the balcony. The team photos (still) adorn his childhood bedroom wall. But the place that ignited his life is now overgrown and rotting. In 2006, the stadium was renovated and Torino FC returned. Bad situations can have silver linings, but this isn’t 2006. It’s 1999. The positives haven’t been drawn yet. There’s just crumbling concrete, wasted ground. Lost history.
Of course, the same can be said of Massimo’s lost relationship with his mother, the woman who encouraged him to dance around the living room with her, who watched scary movies with him in the middle of the night, who snuck into his room as he slept to wish him “sweet dreams”. He was never told how she really died. His whole life is built around her unfathomable absence. Bellocchio jumps backwards and forwards around Massimo’s life to remove any sense of it as a linearly experienced thing, instead viewing everything through the prism of his memories of his mother. She’s a ghost, haunting every second of his life, in whatever order it’s experienced. His rise to prominence as a journalist; his time at school; his blossoming romance with a doctor; his troubled relationship with his father. She’s there, even if only peripherally. Hopeful and unreciprocated glances up at a row of mothers cheering his classmates through a swimming lesson; reluctant-then-uncontrollable dancing to The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird; breathlessly watching as his girlfriend jumps from a ten metre diving board. All moments implicitly loaded with the grief and confusion of having lost his mother. “Let her go,” Massimo’s girlfriend tells him one night, before Bellocchio jumps back once more to his childhood. He and his mother are playing hide and seek. Massimo looks and looks but can’t find her — she’s in a cardboard box in a dark cupboard, but Massimo looks right past her. Panicked and crying out for his mother, she finally rushes from the cupboard to comfort him, inviting him back to her hiding place. They sit in the dark, away from the world, alone together and happy. Nothing lost is gone forever. Memories, good or bad, are always beautiful, so how could we let them go? They’re proof that we’re alive.