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Irony, Contemplation and Judgement: Tuning in to the Minds of Fictional Characters

Elisa Battistini


The attempt to recount the past presents the cinema with very specific choices. Narrative choices, because the plot of a film can follow events chronologically in a historically accurate manner, or instead abandon a strict interpretation of the facts in order to give a better idea of the overall sense of an event, a period, or person. The director may choose to focus on the details surrounding an emblematic episode or attempt, with broader strokes, to paint a more general picture. The sets, the costumes, even the choice of actors, can all be aimed at an exact reconstruction or, alternatively, can serve to evoke an atmosphere which, if not entirely faithful to reality, is nonetheless effective.


All of the elements at the disposal of cinema as an art form (photography, editing, sound) work together to elicit a sense of involvement in the viewer, or to place the spectator in a position of critical distance from the events evolving onscreen. In some cases a stylistic choice reveals the presence of the camera lens and the director’s eye, which may or may not be in harmony with the actions and desires of the protagonists, and may consequently take a specific position with regard to the narrated events. If the proceedings or period in question belong to the recent past, the film must often come to terms with the fact that the need to understand the events has not yet been satisfied in the real world, perhaps because a collective judgement on that moment in history has not been reached and its consequences have yet to be understand in their entirety. In these cases, the director is called upon to provide a key into interpreting the situation, if not totally reveal his or her personal opinion on the matter. Indeed, the director’s attitude – of participation, distance, or judgement – and his way of tuning in to his characters, the promoters of past events, can become a central element for the meaning of the film.


It is interesting to compare this concept in three cinematic works realised in the last few years, three films that deal with controversial and still-debated events belonging to the recent past: The Dreamers (2003) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, Buongiorno, notte (2003) directed by Marco Bellocchio, and Philippe Garrel’s Les amants réguliers (2005). The films by Bertolucci and Garrel revolve around the social movements in France in 1968, while Bellocchio’s film deals with the 1978 kidnapping of Aldo Moro, the president of the Christian Democrats political party and five-time Prime Minister of Italy.


Although these films present some narrative similarities, they differ in style and directorial choices, and diverge especially in the viewpoints the directors choose to assume with regard to the storyline. The films share a common disinterest for a strict reconstruction of the facts. Much attention is instead devoted to the characters: the three films seem to have as their centre the desires, emotional impulses, and conflicts of those who participated in the French demonstrations of 1968 and the violent political and social protests of the Italian Red Brigades. The directors seem to ask themselves: what kind of people were the protagonists of these periods? How did they perceive themselves? How did they represent themselves to others? How did their minds work? And their imaginations?


In an effort to answer these questions, the directors concentrate on the characters, which become the key to understanding the story. It is not an accident, therefore, if all three films include events and details which are extraneous to a strictly factual rendering of the historical episodes, but are decisive for revealing the characters’ thought process. If the directors’ choice is to focus on the characters, the ways in which they access their protagonists’ inner lives are certainly very important. But it is even more interesting, from an analytical standpoint, to see how these departures from reality are incorporated into the film. Understanding how these elements are made to work together allows the viewer a better understanding of the directors’ approach to their subjects, both with respect to the films’ characters and to the historical events they describe.


In The Dreamers, Bertolucci uses single frames and fragments taken from other films in order to render the fantasy life of his characters visible to the viewer (in fact, it is The Dreamers’ very protagonists who quote and imitate scenes from other films). The director jumps back and forth between the action of his protagonists and original scenes from the films to which they make reference. These inserted elements make many things about Bertolucci’s work more clear. In the first place, that cinema holds a central role in the lives of the dreamers of 1968: nothing is more emblematic of this cultural influence than the scene in which Isabelle (Eva Green) imitates Jean Seberg, the actress who once hyperbolically claimed to have been born with Á bout de souffle (Breathless) (1959) by J.L. Godard.


The references to other films, however, also have meaning in the context of Bertolucci’s storyline, because all of the main developments in the relationships between the characters occur in the wake of a game of cinematic charades (one of them acts out a scene from a film, the others must guess which, and if they do not guess correctly, must pay a penalty).

Imitation of the cinema is therefore also the impetus driving the narrative progression, as if the cinema and the game were the only means to bring out the latent tensions between the film’s characters.


Moreover, if imitation is a basic part of learning, Bertolucci’s protagonists are like children who learn through the repetition of gestures seen on the screen. This is especially true for Isabelle, who always seems to be acting: for this young woman, the scenes of the films she has seen represent the visual depiction of what it means to be in the world, each image a perfect system that can be transformed into reality according to the circumstances. Born with the birth of the cinema, imitators of the cinema: it truly seems that, for the dreamers, the source of all action is the imitation of art. And they seek to make the world into a work of art. For these characters reality possesses urgency and beauty only when conceived as an aesthetic event, a point made by Theo (Louis Garrel) when he claims that for him, Mao is like a great director who is making a film with millions of extras marching together towards a glorious future with the Little Red Book in hand. For Theo, the Chinese Cultural Revolution is a kind of cinematic epic, as are the riots on the streets of Paris – which the three young people join only at the film’s end.


In all of this, the manifest presence of references to the cinema is not irrelevant to understanding Bertolucci’s vision, which shows the mental images of the protagonists by allowing the viewer to enter into their imagination, but which also reveals itself as capable of seeing above and beyond the experiences of the characters. Bertolucci makes his presence external to the film’s plot line. This is all the more evident if one considers that in most other ways the direction of The Dreamers follows traditional cinematic canons: the film always takes the viewer by the hand, carefully tends a credible mise-en-scene, follows a narrative that is linear rather than elliptical, and constructs a plot that is clear rather than ambiguous. Above all, the film quotes other cinematic works but does not call into doubt the ontological meaning of the images it cites. The planes of fantasy, plot and reality are kept separate.


This is especially evident in Bertolucci’s handling of a historically factual episode: the demonstration at the Cinémathèque française, where his fictional characters meet each other for the first time. The director reproduces a few moments of the protest, and to do so, uses the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, a person who participated in the real event. Léaud imitates the same gestures that he made spontaneously in that place and on that occasion 35 years earlier. Bertolucci enjoys making reference to reality, reproducing it in a scene of his film and alternating the action with documentary film images from 1968 in a quick montage sequence. The original model in this case, however, is a true event, reproduced by a scene in the film The Dreamers: it seems that the director is now playing his characters’ game... but in reality he is doing the exact opposite! In fact, Bertolucci films a scene that is faithful to reality by playing explicitly with cinema as a tool for reproduction and representation.

From this moment – that is, from the very beginning of The Dreamers – the viewer cannot ‘seriously’ adhere to the dream that Bertolucci recounts, because it is the director himself who reveals, with irony, the presence of the cinema as the connection between past and present, as a magnificent invention constructed to give meaning to reality. The film deals with young people’s desire to see the world as an aesthetic fact that lends fantasy the same weight as real life and which is the stage for experimentation, for the realisation of idealised intuition. But in the end, Bertolucci seems to want to tell the viewer that this fresh-faced innocence is no longer our way of seeing the world. Through the use of irony and revealed references Bertolucci positions himself beyond that impulse, that desire, which he manages to depict so perfectly, and winds up in a position of distance and posterity with respect to his characters because, unlike them, he reflects on the constructionist statute of cinema. And of all great dreams.


Les amants réguliers does not make open reference to the cinema, and it does not ‘play’ with the fantasy life of its characters.

On the contrary, the film depicts fantasy and dreams directly, which is a very different thing. The protagonist, François (Louis Garrel, son of the film’s director and the actor who played Theo in The Dreamers), has three dreams that the viewer witnesses, two of which are very significant. The first, which comes at the end of a long sequence (about 20 minutes) and is a distinct departure from reality (the action takes place in physical spaces that are not clearly defined; the Parisian street in which ‘the battle’ occurs is abstracted, suspended in space), shows the clashes between the police and the demonstrators of 1968. The dream is introduced by a recurrent musical theme which is followed by a sudden break in the action and a sense of calm: François falls asleep behind a barricade and dreams about a Jacobin procession during the French Revolution.


The second dream takes place in the film’s finale and is introduced by another form of cinematic punctuation: a binocular mask fading out on the face of François (a visual signal often used in silent films and re-proposed by nouvelle vague directors, and by Truffaut in particular). The dream is also significant because it is a prelude to death: in fact, Les amants réguliers ends with François taking his own life, before which he imagines himself and the girl who has left him as fugitives – members of a sect, perhaps the Carbonari (secret revolutionary societies founded in early 19th century Italy) – who must hide from their persecutors.


What is the meaning of François’s ‘period’ dreams? They seem to express an emotional correlation: François thinks of himself as a revolutionary and a member of a Romanticist secret society. The search for the essential meaning behind his personal experiences helps François come to terms with reality. By filming the dreams and making them true elements of the storyline, Garrel gives the viewer an idea of what the events mean for the protagonist who lives through them. It may seem strange to quote Husserl in this context, but it is interesting that the father of transcendental phenomenology affirms that “representations and free fantasies are accorded a privileged position with respect to perception” (Ideen, I, §70). Free dreams are fundamental for our understanding of things; they reveal the true nature of human experience and help us to reach its essence.

The young people of Les amants réguliers do not imitate a fantasy or dream; they are not looking to reach some kind of aesthetic effect or ideal. On the contrary, they see themselves as part of history, they feel in tune with all historical moments in which the struggle for a utopian ideal becomes the focus of real life.


But how are François’s dreams inserted into the stylistic context of the film? As we have already seen, dreams are typically introduced by visual and other cues that suspend the main action, small tricks that alert the viewer, telling us implicitly: this is a dream. These signals are even more essential in Les amants réguliers because the visual rendering of the dreams might otherwise be indistinguishable from the other scenes of the film: a careful work of contemplation filmed in an evocative black and white. Garrel seems to have designed everything with the aim of eliminating any detail that might render the overall picture too realistic: the essential nature of the reconstruction of the historical period and of the definition of the characters (never invasive or dialogue-driven), the elliptical narrative form used to recount the episodes that create conflicts and divisions between the protagonists. Space and time are almost abstract in this film. Characters are shown and never explained. The director’s eye seems to search for a focus of meditation rather than one of observation. Garrel creates – with the attitude of a phenomenologist – the means to examine an historical event in its purest form. The director distances himself from his characters in order to better observe them, but at the same time manages to maintain a striking sense of closeness, as witnessed by the long and frequent close-ups in which Garrel seems to be right next to François, Antoine, Lille... and at the same time observes them from another dimension of reality.


Garrel’s intention appears therefore aimed at depicting the very essence of the past, at studying its meaning for those who lived through it, at giving space to the thoughts (and dreams) of those who believed in a different world.

The director does not attempt to place the events of his film within the context (social, cultural and otherwise) of history. Without making any judgements Garrel attempts to find the best vantage point from which to draw conclusions about the truths relative to a specific moment in the past, and shows us how it was for those who lived through it. The dreams are the only incursion Garrel allows into François’s inner life, and they do not represent an intrusive or voyeuristic penetration. Above all, these episodes serve to share the character’s thoughts and imagination with the viewer. The feeling that Les amants réguliers leaves us with is that 1968 was the moment when utopia truly touched reality. Or at least that is how the protagonists experienced that period, which for Garrel, is all that counts.


The narrative liberty with which Bellocchio recounts one of the most tragic episodes of post-war Italy, the kidnapping and killing of Aldo Moro by members of the Red Brigades, is reflected in Buongiorno, notte in the total freedom with which the director employs television broadcast clips from 1978 as well as references to films and dreams to describe the crisis of his main character, Chiara (Maya Sansa) and her ideology.


Chiara – a character inspired by one of the real-life kidnappers, Anna Laura Braghetti, on whose book, Il prigioniero, Bellocchio’s film liberally draws – has a number of dreams which feature standardised scenes (the Soviet Union, soldiers of the Red Army, the effigy of Lenin). Chiara’s dreams are marked by cultural clichés, a fixed set of symbols that reflect the credo she has adopted, suggesting that the young woman has no imagination, nor is she free, not even when she is dreaming. In a one of the film’s scenes, images of Stalin’s Soviet Union are presented as a kind of collective fantasy for the Italian terrorists. In this case the association Bellocchio establishes is not between the standardised images and the single conscience (that of Chiara), but rather between the clichés and the group psychology (that of the Red Brigades cell). Therefore this series of images cannot be treated, cinematographically, like the visualisation of a dream: it is instead an association created by the director and which the viewer reads as a judgement. Bellocchio tells us that the imagination of the terrorists is filled with pat symbols, a banal ideology. And that the ideology itself is a dead end, asphyxiated by its own need to remain a closed circuit.


There is however a point in the film – in every sense its climax – where this mechanism of prosaic associations evolves, at least for Chiara, in a different direction. And it is not by chance that this represents the moment when the young woman’s certainties are seriously called into question: when Chiara reads the letter that Moro – who realises that no Italian politician will bargain with the terrorists, and therefore understands that his captors will have no choice but to kill him – writes to his wife. Chiara’s awareness suddenly explodes into the foreground and the woman seems to understand, to her horror, that she has actually kidnapped a man, and not a symbol of power.


In a voice-over, Moro (Roberto Herlitzka) begins to read the letter, while the camera hones in for a close-up of Chiara. The director cuts from a medium shot of Moro alone in his cell, close to tears. The voice-over continues until – at the image of Moro who puts his hands over his face in a sign of desperation – the voice of the letter falters and another voice begins to take over reading the letter of a partisan who writes to his companion before being killed at the hands of the Fascists: “My love, tomorrow at dawn the execution party of the Fascist Republican Guard will end my life..” At this point the pace of the montage - which alternate between images of Chiara, the other Red Brigades members, and Moro – is increased and a song by Pink Floyd (The Great Gig in the Sky) takes over in a violent explosion of sound. As this music plays, close-ups of the characters are interspersed with fragments from the last episode of Paisà (1946) by Roberto Rossellini, in which the partisans are thrown into the Po River by the Fascists. The comparison between Moro, kidnapped by the Red Brigades, and the partisans killed by the Fascists is fully drawn. At this point, however, we do not have enough elements to believe that the judgement reflected in this sequence is shared by Chiara, although at the end of it we see her cry. It is only a few scenes later that we discover that it was Chiara who imagined the Moro-partisan analogy. Chiara is the only kidnapper who has a double life: during the day she works in a library where she often speaks with a young man, Enzo (Paolo Briguglia) who plays an important role in the film. In fact, Chiara tells Enzo that she has read Moro’s letter to his wife in the newspaper and that it reminds her of the letters written by the partisans before their death.


The viewer knows with certainty that an important shift has occurred in the mind of Chiara when she no longer dreams pre-packaged images, but formulates her own analogy between Moro and the partisans, between the group to which she belongs and the Fascists. It is not only the judgement of Bellocchio; therefore, it has also become a mental elaboration of the protagonist. Or perhaps in the scene of the letter, the two points of view finally unite: we could retrace the text of the partisan’s letter to an association of Chiara, but the scene from Paisà, it must be said, represents exclusively the explicit eye of the director. Nothing leads us to believe that it is Chiara who makes the mental reference to the film by Rossellini. At this point, therefore, Bellocchio is in tune with his protagonist’s perception of the events and the two visions meet on the same wave length.


But the relationship between the director’s point of view and that of Chiara is more complicated, and is further compounded by the fact that Enzo, a friend of Chiara’s, has written a screenplay about the Moro kidnapping entitled, Buongiorno, notte. In reality we could say that Enzo often appears to be the physical manifestation of the director’s voice, giving air to his opinions. And if, in Enzo’s script, a woman – a member of the group of kidnappers – decides in the end to free Moro, Chiara will dream about doing just that in the last part of Bellocchio’s film. Unfortunately, the image of Moro walking freely along the streets of Rome at dawn is only a dream. The film’s actual conclusion is that of history: the murder of Aldo Moro. Chiara however, at the film’s end, dreams differently from how she dreamt at the beginning: no longer through banal associations, revocations of flags and standards, but freely, so freely that she even comes up with an alternative ending for history. Her change is the fruit of different emotional factors, but in order to show it to the viewer in an effective manner, Bellocchio himself enters into the film and reveals his opinion in many ways: through the association of images – and the consequent opinions they represent – that the director sprinkles throughout the film, and through the character of Enzo, who in part explains the contents of Buongiorno, notte. The dramatic nature of the real event emerges therefore with even more force, because the cinema has falsified history for a moment and because the opinion of the director finally meets that of his protagonist.

In Buongiorno, notte the director enters into the film: Bellocchio does not remain on the sidelines but rather interferes with the plot, reveals his opinion, and makes his judgement interact with that of his protagonist.


In short, the different styles of directing and cinematography employed by Bertolucci, Garrel and Bellocchio demonstrate the various ways in which a director can relate to his characters, recounting their imaginary life with ironic distance, with a contemplative gaze, or intervening to make an explicit judgement. If the characters are the witnesses or protagonists of an historical event, the indirect result is also to cast a look on the past as a whole.
Bellocchio enters into his film, interacts with the protagonist, and even attempts to change the end of a tragic historical episode, with the effect of further dramatizing the story of the actual events, an effect from which the unwavering and unforgiving opinion of the director emerges even more forcefully. Garrel apparently seems detached from his characters and from his protagonist François, but in reality his distance is a position of contemplative removal. Or better, the director settles in a place that is both internal and external to the events onscreen and which attempts to get at the essence of the happenings of 1968 rather than drawing conclusions about the episode from the point of view of the present.
The result is that Garrel renders the sense of that period eternal; its spirit is valid in any age. Bernardo Bertolucci, on the other hand, observes the fever for fantasy that he identifies as the motor pushing the events of 1968 from an external position.
His sense of irony makes his approach to the subject different from that of his characters, with the result that the years he recounts seem truly over, past, part of another age of life and of history. Even if, in the end, Bertolucci seems to say that we should always remember the innocent spirit of youth in order to give meaning to our own lives.


English translation by Emiliabianca Pisani