The story takes place in the Paris metro. Our main female character is in her thirties. She is standing on the platform and as the train arrives she enters a crowded carriage. In her search for a place to sit she spots a man of the same age sleeping against the window. She edges slowly round people and places herself on the empty seat opposite the sleeping man. Her legs slide in between his as she squirms into a comfortable position looking intensely at him. In his sleep the man slips further down in the seat and puts on a satisfied expression. She continues to look at him, leans against the window and closes her eyes. The story jumps to an apartment in what seems to be a deserted block of houses. The balcony doors are open and long white curtains dance in the wind. We see her in a frontal shot, lying down and she slowly turns to the side with a tender look on her face and smiles. We then see the 'sleeping man' awake, lying in the bed, and returning a satisfied look. A broken flowerpot is revealed behind the curtains. She turns her head around and looks intensely into the camera. We now return to the metro, where the man opens his eyes, notices her legs touching his and smiles. Then she wakes up returning a faint smile but freezes as he gets up and she looks away. On his way out of the train he glances at her, this time making eye contact. He walks through a tunnel as we hear the doors closing and the train leaving. He stops just before the tunnel turns, looks back and continues to walk. We hear determined steps of high-heeled shoes coming closer, the screen turning black as the steps get even louder.
How does Derailment tell its Story?
The most prominent element in the storytelling of Derailment is its pace. The story simply takes its time. It is approximately 5 minutes long and consists of only 30 shots which results in an average shot length of no less than 11 seconds! This slow rhythm contributes to the very special atmosphere and stresses the film's disregard for time. It is almost as though time does not exist in the story; as though riding the train is rather a condition than a journey. The story is thus situated outside of time in a poetic sense - something that the black and white images also seem to stress. Being shot in 35mm black and white adds two other connotations as well. First it reminds us of old movie classics and especially of the aesthetics of the French new wave. On the other hand it also connotates a documentary style. We therefore consider the black and white a very clever and deliberate choice in order to shut out colours. This helps keep the viewer's attention focused on the two main characters instead of, say, noticing the multicoloured clothing of the other passengers on the train.
Derailment is also characterized by many close-ups which enlarge the important details. The film is in many ways a story about details and the centre of the film is the familiar unwanted - but inevitable - body contact which causes the derailment of thoughts. It is about stolen glances, about seeing without being caught seeing. That the man is sleeping offers the woman an opportunity to study him in peace - which in turn triggers the dream sequence. Here we physically leave the train, but the sound keeps the story anchored on the shrieking rails, thereby transforming this usually unpleasant sound into a form of background music in the bedroom.
A social understanding of Derailment
As people enter crowded places there are certain rules to be followed. Our encounter is varied, fascinating and highly complex. These face-to-face relations are a part of what Goffman called the "Interaction Order" which is the techniques, methods, understandings, and expectations we use to make sure we don't violate or exploit the working consensus of encounters, not only to "save face" on behalf of others, but for fear that they, too, might be placed in a similar situation at some future time. The interaction order itself provides a protective membrane for the self, since interaction and the social self by nature are fragile. In this film the interaction between our two main characters is essential and sensitive; here is a step by step attempt to understand the thoughts of our characters.
What happens when we enter a crowded train? Our boundary for what is an appropriate distance to other persons is crossed and hence we are extra cautious about which signals people send us and how we react to them. In this case the meeting starts when our female character searches for a place to sit. As she enters the carriage she looks only briefly at the passengers to avoid paying undue attention. She sees the male character, sits down in the opposite seat and squeezes her legs between his. It is important for the meeting to continue that he is asleep so neither of them is embarrassed about the close contact. She sits quite still, afraid to wake him up, and feels the heat from his legs as she stares intensely at him, letting her thoughts fly. She pulls down her skirt to be decent, contrary to her thoughts. She closes her eyes and forgets about time and place, and her dream begins. She lies on the bed, trying to control her breath. They are still two strangers to each other lying at an appropriate distance from one another. There is a mirror in the window - perhaps a metaphor for the way she sees herself, just as the broken flowerpot might evoke a ruined relationship she once had. The dream ends, the man wakes up, looks at her, smiles at her, maybe because of the way their legs are 'melted' together, or maybe in recognition of his dream. Might they have shared a common dream? She can feel that he is looking at her and senses the restlessness in his legs. She opens her eyes and looks at him, smiles back and then looks away. She is embarrassed because of her thoughts. It could also be out of disappointment over his leaving. She gets up now and looks at him. As he turns she knows that it is now or never. When he is about to enter the tunnel we hear her footsteps as she follows him.
A woman breaking the norm
The film contains several gaps. Even though we do not doubt that the story is about the woman's flow of thoughts, it is a shot of the man's head that frames the dream sequence. We do not see them in a two-shot in the dream, which could imply that the vision takes place within both of them. So far there has been no conscious contact - only a hinted mental one. Not until the man leaves the train do they - by exchanging glances - become obviously aware of each other's presence. The woman pursues her vision and the man, with a single turn of his head, teasingly leads her on. The footsteps at the end of the film clearly indicate that she follows him. On the whole, the classic gender roles have been turned upside-down in this film; the woman initiates the contact by intruding her legs between his, she smiles at him, and finally she follows him when he gets off the train. She becomes an active character who makes things happen.
There is an atmosphere of melancholy in this film, yet we pick up signals that are cheerful in a very subtle way. In a situation in which we isolate ourselves as much as possible, despite the fact that we are surrounded by people, the main female character breaks the solitude. Whether the dream sequence anticipates future events or remains a dream is not important. The point is that for a short while common behaviour is 'derailed', spontaneity praised, and an encounter between strangers may offer an interesting experience on a train, in bed or maybe just in thoughts of derailment.
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