Monday, 24 February 2014

Reconstructing the Past

    Tren de sombras / Train of Shadows (José Luis Guerín, 1997) is one of the films that has been mentioned multiple times in relation to El futuro / The Future (Luis López Carrasco, 2013), in Spanish coverage at least, but it could also stand as a companion piece with Aita (José María de Orbe, 2010) focusing as it does on a combination of (apparent) archival footage and a grand house. The connection to El futuro is the recreation of an era, not simply representing the past but constructing a film that looks as if it was made in the era depicted. Guerín's film is almost wordless and the only contextualisation for what we see are the opening intertitles explaining that in November 1930, amateur filmmaker Gerard Fleury made a home movie in the grounds of his house, a film that would be his last as he died a few months later in mysterious circumstances while filming on a nearby lake. The film is in such a fragile state that it cannot be projected - some confusion due to the lack of English translation meant that I initially thought they had managed to reassemble it when in actual fact Guerín recreated it (it's a testament to the quality of this reconstruction that it is perfectly believable as the actual 1930s film).
    The film opens with this 20 minute home movie, showing Fleury's extended family at play in the grounds of their home and the surrounding countryside in the summer of 1930. We then move to 'the present' and the nearby town (now in colour), before moving into the grounds of the Fleury home and then the house itself (the interior of which is not seen in the home movie). It is at this point that Guerín's film foreshadows aspects of Aita; although this house is evidently inhabited, the attention to textures, patterns, reflections, as well as the use of doorways and mirrors to frame our view and the 'layering' of the image (by which I mean that the depth of field alters, allowing us deeper into an image) reminded me of the later film. This sequence is extraordinarily lush with rich colours and patterns in the interior of the house and verdant greenery outside - in conjunction with the music on the soundtrack, it put me in mind of the kind of magical otherness that I associate with Powell and Pressburger productions. The detailed layering and framing hints at what is yet to come, as Guerín and his camera turn detective and revisit the 1930s footage to peel away its layers and reveal secrets within.

    In almost a cross between Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) and the kind of analysis that the Zapruder film has been subjected to, Guerín slows, replays, freeze frames, and enlarges different sequences of the family film to follow the sightlines of those on camera (it is striking that the woman at the centre of the sequences Guerín focuses on so often returns the camera's gaze) and give new emphasis to the play of shadow and light at the back of the image, in order to bring hidden connections and relationships to the surface. Guerín plays with the language and form of cinema on the screen. The film is broken down to its constituent parts and then put back together with the grain of the image acting as a 'witness' to the supposed veracity of what we're presented with, when in fact it is another layer of the show constructed by the director. The sequences that 'reveal' the most are then performed in front of us anew in colour (which is quite jarring and the point at which the fakery seems most apparent) with the camera moving between the different fields of view within the image, illustrating the layering of the image (and again demonstrating the importance of depth of field). As with Aita, at the end of the film I felt like I had just watched a magic show.

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