The Character of a Season
Each season has its own visceral qualities. It would be hard to argue, that in their divergent expression one were the victor, but in the middle of each it is easy to imagine that it extends forever in its splendor or insufferability. With the slowly gradating and dwindling autumnal leaves backgrounded by flat grey skies and foregrounded by hard frosted earth, November’s rich and vital decay is truly upon us. What is it about Fall, so tactile yet so potently metaphysical, that draws the imagination outward, darkly and passionately? Perhaps it is the burst of warm hues that belie a mass death, or the crisp heaviness of the cold air that crystalises breath and coaxes us into introspective hibernation. Mortality alighted in the rusting and rustling of foliage, concavity carved by sloping temperatures, comforts sought in reclusion and the embrace of many textures, the indistinguishable dovetailing into winter’s stillness….. the art of Fall is that it exists in no-time, its final act is a freeze-frame of bare branches, flat light and fluttering scarves and no one can say when the last leaf fell.
It takes a rare filmmaker to capture the mutually physical and spiritual dimensions of this most transitional season, which means more than merely setting a story in the cold-curving months of the year. Few films capture the specter of autumn with as much sensitivity, sensuality and character as El Sur (1983) by Victor Erice, The Ice Storm (1997) by Ang Lee, or The Double Life of Veronique by Krzystof Kieslowski (1991). Each uniquely expresses the elegiac aspect of Autumn, a season somehow vital in its solemnity. In fact, each film can be seen as an elegy unto itself, a grieving of the death of an idea, an impression, a person, a place, a time. There is nostalgia, fear, and fantasy wrapped in the frames of these films. El Sur in particular, noting its harshly abbreviated production, is in a sense an elegy for the more expansive film it never became. An elegy within an elegy.
Other curious qualities correlate these works from Spain, the States by way of Taiwan and France by way of Poland. Though all directed by men, each anchors dynamic female performances, all three describe to some extent a transforming father-daughter relationship hastened by the intervening season, and each has a sense of the world that exists beyond explanation, beyond reason, residing in pure experience. Erice, Keislowski and Lee have rendered beguiling works in this regard because they express the sinuousness of the spiritual and the empirical in wildly differing ways.
Based on Adelaida Garcia Morales’s memoir-like novella of the same name, El Sur (recently released by Criterion on Blu Ray with the novella included!) is like a series of recollections, fading in and out to black as Estrella ponders aloud with analytical freshness the isolate days of her youth and her shifting perceptions of her brooding, interior, mystic (as it turns, utterly depressive) father in the north of Spain where he cloistered them. Erice has visualized here perhaps the most memorable coming of age story, memorable for its centralization of Estrella’s growing emotional intelligence without hinging on sexuality as a precursor for that evolution. It hinges instead on her perceptivity. Estrella’s relationship to her father is not conventional, not explicit, but rather implicit. They share an interiority, an affinity for solitude, an intrinsic sense of the mystical as something ordinary. He is a Doctor and also a Diviner, swinging his pendulum to tease out knowledge from the air and the earth, and therefore he dwells at the threshold of the spiritual and empirical, an autumnal characterization. Erice too, uses cinema as a direct means of exploring behaviors and effects, yet there is something wildly intangible that permeates his films (see also Spirit of the Beehive). As she grows and observes, Estrella seems to float upon the cold sinking energy seething from her father’s secret history in the south, wherein lies the power of Erice’s vision. El Sur is the portrait of a past within a past, one of which is known only by the consequent shape of the other, and another still which we cannot know because the film ends where it does, at the tip of infinity, something Erice mourns and expounds upon in a raw interview featured on this new edition.
Though it arcs across all seasons, the rural town in El Sur seems perpetually autumnal, the season in which it commences. It has a sense of natural light, alternating between gray overcast skies and warm amber interiors of high contrast. A marvelous and evocative decision by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine to emphasize the colder isolation of life in the north, but having intended to counteract it with brighter more saturated photography in sequences never filmed in the actual south. Somehow….for me…. El Sur is rendered infinite by its abbreviation, like the last leaf of a tree, clinging tenuously to its branch, embodying in its singularity the tree in its fullness.
The outsider’s view can often be profoundly piercing and perceptive. Ang Lee’s 1997 arthouse suckerpunch The Ice Storm, based on Rick Moody’s novel, is a prime example of just such an event (something Lee did once again in 2005’s Brokeback Mountain). The Ice Storm takes place over Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, focused on two somewhat unsavory New Canaan, Connecticut families. Lee excavates the seething dissatisfaction of these upper middle class people, each remedying their malaise through infidelities, experimentation, vices and escapism. What could be expressed as pulpy melodrama in lesser hands is offered as a trenchant and sometimes transcendent vision, making adults of children and children of adults.
The peripheral decay of American politics, the threatening onslaught of a storm, mid-autumn’s muted palette, its uncanny sense of the air, the entangled precariousness of burgeoning youth and lost youth, desire and deception, all merge in tragic forms. Lee makes the ugliness and vulnerability of his characters visceral, and any time I watch The Ice Storm I am drawn to it as one is drawn to the grotesque, the chaotic, the mundane, yet the film is ostensibly still, halted, anaerobic like the vacuum of an oncoming winter full of unsaid things, the portent of which is voiced by Mychael Danna’s spacious score. Danna hints at the mythical within the physical and the physical within the mythical.
The Double Life of Veronique marks Krzysztof Kiesklowski’s expressionistic leap into a more sense-based cinema, though somehow as intent and direct as even his documentary and early narrative works. One might even call his work from this point onward a partly synesthetic cinema. The odd but seemingly simple premise - a woman’s doppelgänger (Veronika) dies suddenly and she who remains (Veronique) experiences a wave of inexplicable grief that changes the course of her life - is a deception of the highest order in that Keislowski is primarily telling a story of resonances, reflections, refractions and relationships (both explicit and implicit, both direct and analogistic) and less a story of anecdotal coincidences. Every element of cinema is thriving in this film, which both levitates with a sense of mysticism and is dense with gravity and textures. Thus is the crux of Veronique’s malaise, feeling the rapture of the tertiary and the flow of the infinite, and learning to reconcile the two. Amber, reds, golds and greens are saturated throughout and evoke the telling, if not uneasy autumnal shift during the story. These bold filters cast the world in an otherworldliness, a familiar feeling renewed each fall when impossible hues saturate the landscape and filter the light of day into something warmly kaleidoscopic while connoting death.
Each of these titles are available through the Criterion Collection, and I have to express some seasonally appropriate gratitude here for their continued effort to preserve and expand important international cinema. In the age of streaming, the concept of ownership is ever changing. I for one am highly selective about what films I think “demand to be owned”, whereas before I was a cavalier collector. All three of these Autumnally spirited films entered my life because of the Criterion Collection and each has a venerated place on my shelves.