BY Jonathan Romney in Profiles | 10 OCT 04
Featured in
Issue 86

Middle, End, Beginning

Mainstream films are increasingly employing narrative fragmentation and non-linearity – attributes more commonly associated with experimental cinema

BY Jonathan Romney in Profiles | 10 OCT 04

Are cinema’s conventional narrative certainties crumbling? We seem to be passing through a vintage period for films that undermine the traditional stabilities of storytelling. Consider the last year alone. In 21 Grams (2003) Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñarritu took what might have been a straightforward melodrama and shattered it into roughly 100 brief, disconnected fragments. The strategy seemed calculated to alienate and mystify and yet, according to the director, most viewers confidently crack the narrative code approximately 25 minutes into the film.

Then there’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), by director Michel Gondry and the notoriously ludic screenwriter Charlie Kaufman – a labyrinthine narrative set largely within the mind of a man having his memories erased. Not only does the film star two extremely commercial names, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, but it was also successfully marketed, not as an avant-garde exercise in dislocation but as a cool, quirky romantic comedy with a difference.

And take the case of a Spanish director making a film about a Spanish director who is handed an autobiographical script about a boy who grows up to be either an actor or a transvestite cabaret artist – but who, at any rate, is the author of the script that becomes (or partially becomes) the film we are watching. While several of the characters change sex and/or identity throughout, the one thing we can be sure of is that the director within the film is a fictionalized version of the director of the film we are actually watching. Given such Byzantine mirror play, it’s remarkable that Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004) – one of the rare foreign-language films to make the UK box-office Top Ten – was considered accessible enough to be this year’s opening night film in Cannes.

Arguably none of these three films puts any completely new devices into play. But what is striking is that they all deliver their formal challenges within – or, in Almodóvar’s case, on the art-house fringes of – the commercial mainstream. Narrative fragmentation and non-linearity are hardly unprecedented on screen, yet we associate them with a type of cinema widely regarded as difficult and esoteric. In particular, think of the formal experimentation of 1960s and 1970s European cinema: of Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and novelist-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, who re-edited his (already jigsaw-like) feature L’Eden et après (1970) into its own anagrammatical ‘remix’, N. a pris les dés (1971). The dislocations of 21 Grams could be seen as a more thorough, consistent application of the ruptures that once seemed so shocking in the films of Nicolas Roeg, such as Bad Timing (1980) and Don’t Look Now (1973).

Remarkably financiers are now willing to take a risk on the box-office viability of material as fragmented as that of 1960s and ’70s Modernism. That means, in theory at least, that mainstream audiences too are prepared to take the risk, and have become adept at reading a type of material that they might have resisted not so long ago. Certainly we are not seeing an overwhelming wave of experimentation so much as an occasional crop of bold aberrations – as opposed to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when dislocations inherited from the French New Wave became a standard feature of Hollywood thrillers such as Point Blank (1967), The Parallax View (1974) and The Conversation (1974). In an overall context of greater formal conservatism it comes as even more of a bracing shock to the cognitive system to see the holy triangle of beginning, middle and end turned inside out, shattered into crazy-paving fragments.

The labyrinth effect is seen at its most extreme in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that suggests that, whereas Lacan saw the unconscious as structured like a language, for Kaufman it is structured like a screenplay. Much of the action is revealed within the mind of a hero who has paid to have his memories of a painful romance erased: we see the events of his life as he simultaneously remembers and forgets them. What is most impressive is the visual fluidity with which director Gondry threads the metaphor of forgetting through the film: no sooner is something seen than it disappears, as titles fade from book spines, faces melt into smudges and the lobby of Grand Central Station magically voids itself of passengers.

Audaciously novel as Eternal Sunshine feels, Gondry and Kaufman are working in an identifiable tradition. Their shifts between actuality and memory, dream and waking states, are very close to the disorienting syntax of French-based Chilean director Raul Ruíz – for example, in his attempt to find a visual equivalent for Proustian memory in his 1999 adaptation of Time Regained. Most of all, Gondry’s film recalls the temporal labyrinths of Alain Resnais, notably in Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968), about love and time travel, and Providence (1977), in which remembered places physically merge into each other in the memory of a dying man.

Jonathan Romney is a film critic, author of Short Orders, and co-editor of Celluloid Jukebox (BFI), a survey of popular music and the movies.