Film Essay : Absences and Silences in “Timbuktu”, “Pulse”, “35 Shots of Rum” and “The Red Turtle”

Here are four quiet movies.

Hailing from Mali, Japan, France, and the Netherlands, the filmmakers of Timbuktu, 35 Rhums, Kairo, and La Torte Rouge have as close to disparate careers as you are likely to find in a set of four 21st century films, yet each has put to film, in one way or another, an argument for nothingness.

Timbuktu is Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film about the disruption of life in the titular Malian region upon the arrival of some rather small-time jihadists. In Timbuktu, nothingness, specifically absence (of a football) becomes a central image of a key scene through which the film’s lovely balancing of humour and anger play out.

35 Rhums, or 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis’ 2008 drama tells the small story of two unremarkable Parisians whose relationship isn’t clear to us at first, until it is. From this central family, spiraling outward, Denis leaves almost every human connection initially unexplained, leading to a film that you watch with care and some conjecture, paying attention to every small detail. For my purposes, I’m going to note the title as the key ‘absence’ here. Sweetly and frustratingly, we long to know more about these people, particularly Lionel (Alex Descas) who is a man of or near retirement age, perhaps an immigrant, clearly decent and yet also perhaps unable or unwilling to reach out to those in pain around him. At one point someone jubilantly mentions ‘the story of the night of 35 rums!’ as a kind of pseudo myth about Lionel, who nods and smiles, perhaps confirming it. It is mentioned that we (via our surrogate, his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop)) really must hear the tale sometime. To better understand Lionel, it is implied. We never do.

Kairo, or Pulse, from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (the other Kurosawa, if you must) is a 2001 horror film unlike any other. On its surface, it seems like a clear, rather facile concept: at the height of a global sense that people might prefer screens to…life; this film proposes a Tokyo that is slowly emptying of life as people are drawn away, somehow, by an unknown malevolent presence reached via the internet. Yet what a desolate, disturbing, ghost of a film. It is quiet, patient, unforgiving, and sincere. It pursues its own fearful heart down a stumbling, foggy path. It will strike some viewers as slow and short on horrific or heart-snagging moments. But those who stay to the end, particularly if watching alone, I think, will be unable to forget the emptiness, loneliness, and closeness of this choked world.

La Torte Rouge, or The Red Turtle, is Michael Dudok De Wit’s speechlessly gorgeous animated shipwreck film. Along with the other titles in this list, it is unpredictable and alive in a wonderous, rainstruck way. It’s scope is vast, but its story is narrow and small. It aims — and largely succeeds — to describe fundamental things of life and its mysterious contract between humanity and nature. It is spare, silent (in terms of words — there is no dialogue) and profound in a way that is moving regardless of the viewer’s age or background. It is a spiritually lovely feature that I’ve watched alone as an adult, feeling the full force of its relationships, awe, loneliness, and heart. I’ve also shown it to a second grade class, nervous that they might find it obscure or unexciting, finding instead that they enjoyed its simple narrative and picturesque, fairytale world.

Let’s begin with 35 Shots of Rum.

35 Shots of Rum (2008, France, Claire Denis). Here is a movie to reveal its maker’s heart. Claire Denis, French by way of a West-African youth, has spent her career placing people in landscapes, cities, homes, and relationships where they are defined by how they don’t fit in and, often, brought to account for the intrusion that their life, skin, heritage, and choices represent, consciously or not. For Denis, in my opinion, there is a responsibility to both occupy your bodily identity and deny it. Her characters are thoughtful, reticent, reactive, and battered by change. They are also sometimes peaceful islands among the ocean of life and culture around them. Sometimes.

35 Shots of Rum is the story of a man and his daughter. Lionel (Alex Descas) is a black Parisian train operator who lives with his grown daughter, Josephine (Mati Diop). His world, as we enter it, is composed of small gestures and little hand-wringing. He seems content to be as he is, and as the movie starts, we note with a smile that both he and Josephine have come back to their fine little flat with rice-cookers, each having purchased one for the household (and, therefore, for each other). Thus we’re presented with two people who are in tune, not via their identity or livelihood, nor even, really, their blood tie, but instead via simple kindness and consideration. We’re provided with a chapter’s worth of information about this man as a father and this young woman as a daughter and individual in this opening sequence alone. For them, life is about gestures, and about the places where they can overlap with each other, but also about how even in kindness, when things aren’t said, our measures of self-protection can become their own form of character defect.

As the film goes on, we will see how Josephine, despite living with Lionel, is looking for her father in the world around her. Searching out his example and contrasting and measuring other people and events by it, in particular her friendship and possible feelings for an aimless neighbour Noé (Gregoire Colin) who seems frustrated by his inability to read Josephine. Likewise, we note Lionel’s almost cruel silence towards Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue), another neighbour, a cab driver, who still carries a torch for him based on some hinted-at past romance.

As their lives play out in this small, quietly-witnessed story, Denis’ affection for these people comes through as a measure of detached respect, as patience-trying and maddeningly mature at times as Lionel himself. But she doesn’t let either her or his perspective go unchallenged. The key dramatic stakes in the film are small: will Lionel keep working much longer? What of Josephine’s mother — whomever that is? Will Noé express himself to her outright? But the most impactful dramatic incident — a remote tragic event — falls directly into the category of something that happened, senselessly, for no reason. Except, perhaps — as we suspect — because of just how close to the hip Lionel plays things. Is it enough to be good and keep silent in a troubled world?

This is on 35 Shots of Rum’s mind. But so is the question of how we get by, day by day, and how our well-being is sustained by the listening and sharing we do or don’t do with those around us.

In the end, the absence of Lionel’s motivating core, exemplified through the titular story (mentioned but never told) about him and the ‘night of 35 rum shots’ leaves us feeling isolated by our own identity-establishing measures. Our own strength. The fact that dignity is not automatically outward-extending or compassionate, not without action. It can be, but it can also blinker us.

What Denis proposes, I think, is that life is composed of sharing such close quarters with people, planned and unplanned, that we can never actually experience great joy or great pain alone. In the end, distance is an illusion, and our pursuit of peaceful-heartedness will play out as a series of maneuvers during which we either choose to extend our minds and vulnerability to others, or don’t. And while I think that Ms. Denis certainly must have her own explanation for this and her own scale of just how much we are each responsible for the well-being of the communities around us, I nonethless find this to be one of the most closely observed films about exactly what we owe each other, what is owed to us, and what, if anything, is the right response to people who carry on, willfully insisting on their grip of the past.

Noé, Gabrielle, and a colleague of Lionel’s are all, in one way or another, unable to move on from the past. They are choosing to be the composite of their parts. Lionel, rather, is so certainly not this, that he is almost supernaturally able to be independent and unreachable, to the point where 35 shots of rum is rumoured to leave him just as sober as zero shots. By the film’s end, at least two major elements in his world must surely be either forever changed or forever about to change. And that’s okay. He can cook rice for himself now, after all.

The Red Turtle (2016. France/Japan. Michael Dudok De Wit)

To be honest, there are certain categories, genres even, of film that I find it difficult to get excited for, no matter how excellent they are said to be. I have to remind myself that excellence means that something has been made with care and energy, but also that beyond emotional/cerebral engagement, I’ll feel pleasure. I’ll feel good. I’ll watch with a rush, wanting to tell other people about it. I’ve never met a film I wished I hadn’t saw and have never walked out of a cinema (though twice this year I’ve wanted to), but sometimes, you see a title and it looks to be what Roger Ebert would call ‘spinach cinema’ — that is, good for you, rather than tasty and delicious.

For me, it’s hard with animation. Whether an innovative new voice (The Triplets of Belleville, Kubo and The Two Strings, April and The Enchanted World) or near-sure-things Pixar, Aardman, or Ghibli; I generally think : “Okay. I know what I’m going to get”. I could say the same for any drama that has anything to do with either World War II or its legacy.

So. The Red Turtle. On top of being an unknown, rather plainly named (intentionally) nature-centric fable, it came along touted as being entirely sans dialogue.

This does not exactly quicken the pulse.

Well, it does and it doesn’t. While I do fully support and get excited by experimental, unorthodox, and even gimmicky formatting, I must say, the idea of an animated film without even the spark of dextrous voice-over work is daunting.

The Red Turtle is not boring. It is painterly, lonesome, humane, and strange. So much so that I am going to figure it into this overall article by saying that the absence of speech in it is completely necessary. I don’t doubt that it has a resonant thematic purpose. But beyond that, I’d wager that the whole thing falls apart with voices and words involved (implicit though both are, inevitably, throughout the tale). The risks here are large, because the film’s mind is lushly, dreamily sentimental. Scenes and sequences that take us from an ordinary shipwreck tale to a…well…potentially different range of topics, theorem, and cosmology (apologies for being so vague) could easily be ridiculous, trite, or just plain bizarre.

But, sans commentary and voiced context, we draw from universals, allowing The Red Turtle to approach fundamental, archetypal poignancy. A man’s face shows pain and discouragement; he pounds the sand in despair. A creature twists and moves — does it smile or do we only see what we want when we look at animals? Hours pass and seasons and vast swathes of time are beyond us, then suddenly upon us, then far behind. Shadows grow long, needling across the shoreline as trees sway behind the back of a ragged castaway who has found peace, maybe.

Without saying much more, I’ll note that The Red Turtle is pitched at a tone that is both warm (earthy, rainy, scattered, real, and surreal) and also softly challenging. What it asks, I think, is not dissimilar from 35 Shots of Rum, in a way: when we are someplace where who we are doesn’t matter, how we look isn’t us, and what we feel may or may not be relevant to the life around us: how do we get by? What community, family, and life can we make with whatever is around us? What do we owe those with whom we share life intimately, but perhaps based only on chance and proximity? Everything? Nothing? Is a world real if it is dreamed by one person, or does it take two?

Do not watch the trailer.

Timbuktu (2014. Mali. Abderrahmane Sissako)

Timbuktu is a funny film. It is a difficult film, as well. Frustrating and sad, but certainly with more humour than anything with the word ‘jihadists’ in its summary would suggest.

Its primary pleasure, and the main draw for film lovers and ordinary viewers alike, is the visual mastery on display here. It is a completely pretty-looking movie, with the kind of cinematography that makes you realize how little actual directing occurs in so many films nowadays, entrenched in indie/you-are-there immediacy as many mainstream pictures have become (those that aren’t showing us graphic-novel-based-landscapes). There’s poetry in naturalism, to be sure, and comic books should lend themselves to visually rapturous adaptations. Yet, often, we get the same look to things. Slick, brightly coloured mechanisms moving against glossy vistas. Or handheld shots tracking action and the drab details of life. Remember when cinema showed us things in between? The sights of life that our mind takes in and enlarges, paints over, and shocks to life with emotion and meaning? Remember when every movie opened with the waking-into-a-dream of ‘FADE IN ON:’ rather than opening directly onto an image.

Here is something to shock us into remembering the purely cinematic pleasure of beautifully filmed moments.

This story involves the basic concerns of village life: sufficiency, time-passes, peace of mind, ownership, jealousy, and group cohesion versus personal dignity.

There is a central throughline involving a moment of rash behaviour on the part of a good man. This, however, like everything else, is set against the backdrop of a group of somewhat shambolic militants who lazily take over the town and impose strict religious regulation on a people who are, by and large, already fairly religious but have long since struck a balance between earnest Muslim beliefs and African/Malian daily life and commerce.

The faintly goofy brigade comes tumbling in even as their leader, Abdelkarim (the handsome, soulful Abel Jafri) sneaks cigarettes and drives his jeep around in wild shapes in the sand when his troops aren’t near. The jihadists struggle to impose their strictures, taken to task by various townspeople, including the local, rational, Imam who gently offers Koranic and Prophet-spoken wisdom to counter their brute-force methods. Also, wonderfully, there is Zabou (Ketty Noel), a maybe-cracked woman in town who is on speaking terms with her chickens, lives however she damn well pleases, and flat-out stands in the way of the trucks of the invading squad, dressed like she has a Santeria parade to attend later. She has seen too much and suffered too much to hear out these boys. She knows that they and their control will be here, and then eventually be gone. Like a storm.

All of this leads to a scene that is both the culmination of the plot and a complete break from it. It is extraneous and yet fulfills the film’s delicate visionary tone and just-shy-of surreal grip of tragedy and joy. In this scene is also this film’s moment of absence.

Have a look and see for yourself:

The absence, of course, is of an actual football. Removed as a sinful, Western-indoctrinated distraction by the new powers-that-would-be; gone is the sole piece of equipment really required to play The Beautiful Sport. And if you’ve ever wondered by soccer is so beloved round the world, consider: that one needs only, really, a ball and some space. Goalposts can be made from two rocks, two bottles, a tree and a chalkline. That’s it.

But what about without a ball? The villagers in the film, baffled but not quite rebellious, simply carry on, playing in the dust, passing, striking, and training with an imaginary football. And so, just as they once incorporated what they were told was the right way to live, folding it into their traditions, they will once again find a way to be both compliant and keep their ways. Are they striking a blow for freedom? Not really. Are they being overly meek in not fighting back? Hardly. The truth is that radical oppression is not subdued by logic, nor really by submission, even (which is never good enough, revealing the true desire of extremism for control and pleasure, even while hating it in others). Nor does it respond to intimidation, persuasion, or most other means of argument. It insists on the terraforming of a whole place and people to its highly conditional shape. There isn’t much to be done, really, aside from to risk your life in fighting back, or to try and carry on. And in Timbuktu, most people choose the latter.

Kairo (Jap. 2001. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Pulse is a movie with absence, disappearance, and the loss of control so deep in its blood that it takes a little while to realize just how lonely and afraid the film and its characters really are. In other horror films, we’ve seen countless people panic, scream, thrash, suffer, and run. But how many times have you watched an extended, aching movie pitched at the level of real dislocation? One that asks you if the truest fear is of becoming nothing or of surviving to become the only something left?

This is one of the most lingeringly distressing films I have ever seen, and yet I cannot recall a specific moment of violence. I know that there are some, but the effect of dream is the stronger draught here. We drink in the fragmentation of a whole place, of people themselves. Of all things, I would compare it to Zodiac in its relentless, hollowing effect on the viewer.

It establishes a world of absent light, overhwelming space, modest place for people or human engagement. A place where losing your belief that you are real might lead to simply disappearing into the walls if you or someone you love can’t talk you down.

Silly as it sounds, it really does paint a picture of a modern world in which we could all, without warning, simply disappear into the machines we worship.

In Pulse, a somewhat socially inept young man begins a long search for the truth after encountering a disturbing piece of content online and a seeming spate of disappearances, and worse. He begins to lose track of where the boundaries of his world and the world of the dematerialized are. He is eventually unable to keep anything tangible.

For me, this is a deeply troubled kind of horror, the childish fear that you’ll simply not be able to hold things, they won’t keep in your hands, the world will bend and fall and everything will roll away, you’ll be stuck struggling up an impossibly steep hill as your body tips backwards, you’ll hug and hold the person you need the most and they’ll just fade into nothingness in your arms.

The fear for the victims in Pulse reminds me of being young and panicking over the realization that there are conscious muscles and bodily processes, and automatic ones. What if one forgot how to breathe? What if you willed your heart to stop the same way you can will an arm to lift? What if you suddenly simply forgot to exist, to matter, to be a thing? I recall the fear of lying in bed as a child, my mind awake but my eyes too heavy, stuck, and not opening until I exerted some huge-seeming effort in getting just one to open. The process, and what I was learning, is of course as benign as it is foolish to consider in retrospect. But the fear was very real, and it is more plausible than a creature or disaster.

None of us really expect to die via a horrible incident like murder or natural mayhem. But some of us, most maybe, really do sometimes feel like somehow we’ve been drawn back, like everyone else is suddenly a little distanced. Like the way we used to just do anything is now strange, the world is full of walls and doorways and places for us to just hide and maybe disappear. And we might want to.

In Pulse, this overhwelming sense is drawn out through a simple-enough technophobic parable. The idea that being plugged in, sat down, staring, from net cafe to net cafe, from home to office to school, is going to essentially render all of us vulnerable to…oblivion.

Kurosawa has long had a preoccupation with the relationship between the human ability to obsess on a particular thing and the act of creation. Does reality really come from our instinct for repetitive thinking? And, in a sick person, can the reality we create be negative reality, unreal space, or Nothingness?

In his Cure (1998) — perhaps the most bleakly scary film ever made — circular, spiraling thoughts, isolation, anti-social behaviour (to the extreme in that film’s case) and insanity are all linked. In Creep, his brisk, slick 2016 film — not without its dark humour — he once again posits that enough singular, focused thought on darkness can create entire spaces, places, and truths.

Kurosawa’s films are about the mind and how it is subject to manipulation, made ready by society, made willing by our own private loneliness, and made violent by the sheer gall of life’s empty absurdity.

What sets his characters off is often nothing more than a moment’s glimpse at anything real, pure, or supernatural. Often, that is all it takes for them to no longer operate in the norm, drawn instead to dismantling, dismembering, and self-extermination. To see, as a second-time viewer — the young man in Cure, wandering the beach dunes, talking to himself, and to know what will come next - is to feel an almost invasive sickness coming through from Kurosawa’s vision of human depravity. In Pulse, he shows us something more real, more likely, and more lonely.

Is anyone there?

Or are we all already gone?

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