This screening was presented as part of the ongoing celebrations of author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair’s 70th birthday. It’s a film by his colleague and friend Chris Petit, who has made some excellent films and documentaries over several decades (some with Sinclair), and I hardly wish to go on at length about a film I found disappointing, especially when it’s a film that is relatively obscure and unavailable. Therefore I shall keep my comments brief.
Petit’s film, his third feature following his excellent debut Radio On (1979), is built around a mystery involving a woman, Susannah (played by Tusse Silberg), though it’s never quite clear what she’s involved in. We are introduced to her being taken from her German hotel to be interrogated by police agents, by whom no more than teasing hints are dropped as to what’s happened, before the film flashes back to her arrival in Berlin. Susannah meets up with her sister, and then, giving an assumed name, falls in with a handsome young Scot, Jack (Ewan Stewart), at a cafe. He has followed her from her sister’s workplace, and it turns out that he, the sister and the sister’s husband are all wrapped up in something shady — again it’s never clear what. There’s also a sense that Susannah is running from her past, as her husband Nicholas (Paul Freeman) is in pursuit of her, though he never quite catches up. And then there’s Eddie Constantine, who just shows up as himself (an American-born French actor), as part of the sister’s circle of contacts.
I suppose my problem with the film is just that the narrative is so oblique about what has happened to the protagonist, that it becomes difficult to retain attention for long stretches of the film. It doesn’t even feel as if any significant hints are given, and perhaps in fact this is part of the film’s strategy, that it’s more about the character’s journey than in what exactly she is trying to escape. There’s certainly a feeling that this is some steely mid-80s play with narrative conventions, but if so it’s one that hasn’t aged particularly well, like the haircuts and the clothes.
That said, the cinematography has a cool cleanliness to it that still retains a high gloss and stands up well 30 years later. There’s also some nice framing, as in a scene where Susannah and Jack are on the phone to one another, the compositions mirroring one another as each shot shows a second figure lurking in the background listening in. There’s also some ancillary pleasure to be had in observing Berlin of the 1980s, before the fall of the Wall.
And yet the discursive way the film is structured makes it a difficult watch. There’s a bit of play with images (the sister is a photographer), with scenes of her developing photos suggesting some deepening of the mystery à la Blow-up (1966), but that, like so much in the film, is a red herring. The protagonist may be in flight but we never quite find out why or from what. It’s a film of hints and suggestions, but the lack of resolution makes it ultimately frustrating.
Director Christopher Petit; Writers Petit and Hugo Williams (based on the novel Strange Days by Jennifer Potter); Cinematographer Martin Schäfer; Starring Tusse Silberg, Ewan Stewart, Eddie Constantine, Paul Freeman; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at Goethe Institut, London, Tuesday 11 September 2013.