Note: This is part of our coverage of TIFF Bell Lightbox’s On the Road: The Films of Wim Wenders
This essential retrospective devoted to one of the giants of the New German Cinema features new digital restorations of Wenders’ essential early works. Jan. 28 – March 6, 2016
(This is an analysis therefore there are spoilers.)
I was riding home on the subway late one night and I was sitting across from an old couple arguing heatedly in Portuguese. The woman shouted a bunch of what sounded like expletives, her hands animated in a threatening fury against, who I assumed, was her husband. He shouted back at her, “Você é nada! Você é nada!” From the very little Portuguese I could understand, he repeated to her that she was nothing.
They quieted down after a bit, yet they remained sitting close, breathing heavily, and looking at anything but each other. When their stop came they instinctively reached out for each others’ hands, connected, and stepped off the train.
It was just small slice I witnessed of a much bigger picture in the lives of this couple. They will probably forget it or maybe they had already resolved their issue. Regardless, this moment stuck with me when I saw Peter Handke‘s The Left-Handed Woman. Handke is best known for his long time writing collaboration with Wim Wenders and this is his debut directorial feature.
The film starts off with a Marianne (Edith Clever), a former literary translator, awaiting her husband Bruno’s (Bruno Ganz) return from a business trip. She’s quiet as he tells her of his happiness and his comfort at being with her again. After spending a romantic night in a hotel, Marianne tells her husband that she’s had an epiphany. She tells him that he must move out and leave her alone with their son. With some great hesitation and a bit of frustration, Bruno complies, but curiously doesn’t question her motives and neither does anyone else.
Things seem out of place in Clamart, a commune on the suburbs of Paris that is the setting for the film. Marianne takes her son Stefan (Markus Mühleisen) to visit his father. As they step out she follows Stefan, even skipping along with him. As they turn onto the street, a bus nearly skims them and a woman runs by them. For a few seconds the camera lingers, showing the woman in a slight state of recognition, but she turns and continues on her way. In another, a man is looking outside his balcony into the night. A man upstairs from him jumps out of the balcony and unto the floor below.
On a movator, Metro commuters walk in line towards their destination while two old ladies move in the opposite direction, slowly and with very deliberate steps. There is no sign that they are confused, just that this is the direction they decided to take, which is the hardest. Scenes like these take the viewer out of the story, but force them to find meaning in where they fit in the narrative. It’s quite clear that Marianne is feeling a great detachment with the world that’s always been around her. With her husband moved out, she rearranges furniture, buys new books, and she starts writing again, eventually finding her voice in the words of Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales. In the film, she focuses on the first story in it, A Simple Heart. This is the tale of a simple woman called Felicité, who by circumstance takes on the job as a servant in a widow’s household. With no children or family of her own, she finds great joy in giving love and dies virtually unnoticed to the world around her. Marianne starts off her translation of the text in a literal form, but as the movie moves on, she expounds upon the words and creates a world of colourful meaning for Felicité. Of course, this is only grasped in the moments where finds time and space to work beyond her son seeking her out for attention and food.
It is unknown whether she keeps Stefan with her because she is his mother or because she finds meaning in him. She sits by the fireplace with him having an indoor picnic with wine and strange fruit. He tells her of the boy in class who doesn’t fit in. Marianne winces realizing her son conforms to the norm in the school, but at the same time understanding his efforts. She laughs, but he says:
“You’re never really delighted. Just one time you were delighted with me.”
Stefan is very much a part of Marianne. Her love for him is protective and motherly, but the disconnect is still palpable and it becomes a part of her overall despair in the film. Motherhood is just a facet of her being.
She even dresses up one night in her finest, just to sit down to write. Examining herself in the mirror, she looks young and refreshed with her hair set back from her face. Marianne pulls her diaphanous cloak around herself, as giving herself a deep hug. She seeks to be feminine, a sensuous woman worthy of love for herself and sits to write again. Right after this scene her house is shown in the daylight. It looks empty, but inside she is rearranging things again, moving things nonsensically about, and discarding of excess without a care. Is she mad? Is she sorting her brain together to find a solution to her disconnect with those around her? Like solving a puzzle she moves things and even tries different spaces in the house, seeking out comfort away from the scenes of normalcy that exist around her. As she hides in a shed an old couple sit sharply dressed in their backyard smiling and regarding the blue sky.
The house itself is seen from the outside in many scenes in the night and during the day. It is strangely reminiscent of Rene Magritte’s The Empire of Lights. In the painting series, the landscape looks very ordinary and only a street light centres the picture while the eye is drawn to the two sets of windows lighted up to the left on the house that looks like the one in the film. It’s an average night in the world of Magritte, but we are meant to know more, or at least to discover more beyond those windows.
The same can be said for Marianne’s life and the characters that inhabit her neighbourhood. The schoolteacher who is a good friend of hers, confesses her distaste for kindness towards her students. She wishes to be strict and pure in her strictness. She feels ashamed, but knows this to be her inner truth and must work against it. This is just one of many hints that there is world of turmoil within every one of the characters in the film, but they sacrifice their freedom of expression in order to deal with their day to day script.
Marianne takes Stefan and his best friend to see a silent film in a theatre. They watch Ozu Yasujiro‘s Tokyo Chorus. Marianne starts to fall asleep in one of the more meaningful, but repetitive moments of the film where a wife discovers that her kimono wardrobe has been sold to pay for hospital bills. The wife sits down to join her family in a clapping game. Holding back tears, she smiles, but her husband watches her searching for her reaction. It’s a telling seen, even as it is shown here with no soundtrack, just the monotonous crackle of the old film spooling through the projector. It is like an examination of a slice of life under a microscope. While all might seem well, it is not, but still it must all seem well.
Marianne goes for a walk through the suburbs of Paris, takes the train, walks on with no particular direction or goal. However, there are moments when she pauses in the midst of her chosen state of solitude to observe the things around her, particularly the sky. It’s almost as if she is searching for meaning in the heavens, although her only step into a church is to pass through it and not dwell in it. Her personal search of her psyche is in a void and it is a void the people around her understand too well, especially her father who is a writer. He’s alone and has formed schema to work through as a whole person within that solitude. He tells her:
“Sometimes my writing feels like an excuse to me…Before falling asleep at night often I don’t have anybody to think about. For the simple fact that I haven’t met with anybody all day. Even though I know how good it feels to fall asleep thinking of someone. On the other hand I meet with people mainly to make sure I’d be found in time if worst came to worst.”
He, like her, has chosen a life of seclusion from others for introspection, but the mystery is in the cause of their search. It is never made clear in the film and it is up to the viewer to posit a full picture together for themselves. In the end, the various characters part ways in a combined sense of play in their desolation. The last scene is of two children parting ways in a Parisian subway tunnel before the onslaught of rush hour commuters starts up again.
Routine is a schematic way of dealing with every day tasks and many rely upon it as a way to navigate the various forms of madness within themselves. I suggest madness because everything out of the ordinary is labelled as crazy and even Marianne’s small outbursts are labelled as hysterical. She keeps her feelings inside as a choice and as a way of maneuvering in her universe. Marianne feels like nothing, but she is determined to search within nature, the nature of others, and in the signs in her own brain that her chosen life as a suburban ascetic might give her grief, but can also bring great privately personal epiphanies of something more and greater in the world.
The state of chosen exile is a vital rebellion for personal being and it is a compassionate, but abstract truth for the disenfranchised mind.
- Wim’s Films: American Friends & Foreign Influences, running from January 30 to March 17. Curated by James Quandt, Senior Programmer, TIFF Cinematheque, it spotlights fifteen of “Wim’s Films”—road movies and noirs, venerated classics and films maudits—gathered both from evidence (Wenders’ own list of favourites) and inference (of his obvious influences and affinities).