P:O.V. No.7 - Three Recent Short Fiction Films, COME

Identity, inference and recollection in COME

Paisley Livingston

Samuel Coleridge once noted that very short works of art ease the cognitive burden on poet and reader alike. Limiting the number of lines in a poem, he contends, allows the work 'to acquire, as it were, a Totality' which allows the reader's mind to 'rest satisfied'.[1] Anyone who has strained to grasp the overall pattern of some massive novel, film, or musical work can readily appreciate Coleridge's point. And yet insofar as a film or poem is a temporal work of art, the parts of which are manifested only consecutively, its Totality - be it an ever so small one - is never directly presented to us all at once, and its acquisition, as well as the satisfaction such an acquisition can provide, requires a feat of memory. A film, like a life, may have a brilliant, simple order and a deep and powerful unity, but the presentation and realization of such a totality is something that takes place in time, something that requires an experience of temporal unfolding - something that requires the work of a mind capable of thinking through and recollecting the temporal relations between the parts of the whole. So that while Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen's Come (1995) is a perfectly unified gem, a satisfying totality that presents itself to us in just four and a half minutes, we must nonetheless live through its unfolding to discover the coherence of its parts. One of this film's central themes is precisely this kind of process, namely, the constitution of personal identity and togetherness, in and through time and memory. What follows is just one story that may be told about an elusive process that no doubt takes very different forms for different viewers.

About twelve seconds into Come, the shots of the pensive face of the old woman (played by Ruth Gurholt) with which the film began are followed by a shot of a young woman (portrayed by Gry Olsen Ulrichsen). We have first seen the old woman sitting serenely, then we see a young woman standing outside in a rocky coastal scene. We see the young woman approach a group of young men wearing clothes, the fashion of which indicates that these events have occurred at some time in the past (clothes similar, in fact, to those worn by the man depicted in the old photograph that hangs on the wall behind the old woman). The spectator may infer, somewhat automatically, that this abrupt change of scene (from interior to exterior, and from some present moment to a time in the past) is meant to show us the contents of the old woman's reflections. We have seen her gaze thoughtfully at the pocket watch she is holding, musing perhaps, over time, her times and experiences. The cut is, then, fairly obviously a flashback.

Shot 7

Shot 8

Yet another question is raised here, and though many spectators may again answer it for themselves quickly and somewhat automatically, the implicit reasoning this time is less obvious. Who is this young woman about whom the old woman is thinking in her moment of recollection? Is it herself, or some other figure from her past? One may think that it is perfectly natural to assume that the old woman must be reflecting on herself, and thus that the young woman we see must be herself in a youthful manifestation, yet a little more reflection in fact reveals that the conclusion is not so straightforward and compelling. After all, at this point in the film we do not know what is going to happen. We may conjecture that as the story unfolds, the young woman initially shown to us in the flashback will encounter another young woman, and it could be the latter who will turn out to be the figure doing the recollecting. We may remember as well that flashbacks do not always function in the same way, for even if they begin with some one person's recollections, they can be presented as more or less 'objective' retellings of story events, as opposed to events recounted from someone's first person perspective. Thus it need not be the case that what we see and hear is something that the person doing the recollecting experienced directly or in the first person. Sometimes a flashback is organized around someone's narrative, and includes story events that this person did not experience and only later surmised. And of course there are radically deceptive flashbacks as well. So if we are right to imagine that what we see is what the woman remembers about herself, then this is a conclusion that must be supported by additional evidence, and that evidence is simply not available to the viewer early on in a first experience of the film.

Consider as well some additional grounds for uncertainty at this early point in a first experience of the film. Even without waiting to see the credits, we may reckon that two different actresses have played the old and young woman, and that if they are supposed to portray the youthful and aged appearances of the same person, they do so only by means of a well-known cinematic convention, and not by virtue of some kind of immediately perceptible physical identity that would compel us to identify the two as manifestations or stages of the same person. If we are somewhat experienced film viewers, we know that this convention is a tricky one. Sometimes it is stretched quite far, especially when the practical problems of casting cannot really be solved. How can one find an adolescent who can convincingly portray a younger manifestation of a character who, when grown up, will be acted by Robert Redford? One cannot, and the failure to do so stretches the casting convention to the breaking point in A River Runs Through It. Experiences of movies like this teach spectators that to go along with the story, one must sometimes simply accept that one's make believe about the story need not be guided directly by what the images literally depict. In the case of Come, there is no obvious problem with the casting: the old woman we see depicted could have looked like this young woman when she was young. Yet experienced spectators know that this does not suffice to settle the matter. They know that film makers sometimes play with this convention, and can use it to play tricks on us. Part of the genius of Le retour de Martin Guerre is its exploitation of our uncertainty in this regard: we see very well that Gérard Depardieu does not look like the young man who left the village, but suspense is maintained, partly because we know that by convention personal identity in fiction can be maintained across radical differences in casting. And uncertainty can be further motivated by our knowledge that one performer can embody two or more characters, as when one actress plays twins or look-alikes, so that even the most perfect physical resemblance does not automatically carry over to identity of character or person. And personal identity across long stretches of time is hardly, in life or in fiction, a simple matter of continuity of physical appearances!

My point in evoking these vagaries of the casting convention here is not that viewers should conclude that the old woman and the young girl in Come are not the same person in the story. Far from it. Rather, I am suggesting that if we reflect over our possible inferences during the film's first minute, we may realize just how complex these matters are. Uncertainty concerning the use of the casting convention alone gives us grounds for not committing ourselves with any great conviction to those immediate inferences about identity that may in fact occur.

Instead, the evidence falls into place a few minutes later once the images return to the initial time and setting in which the process of recollection began. The lovers' initial caresses, the youthful exchange of the pocket watch, are intercut with similar gestures performed years later. The first couple - the young girl and the old woman - have a counterpart, it seems, in the young man and old man who, so to speak, join them at the end of the film. The woman's early utterance of 'Come' is echoed, years later, yet its repetition carries a warmth, familiarity, and shared awareness that makes of it a very different utterance. And yet we know that in some strange sense - a sense, finally, that none of us truly understands or can explain - this is a repetition of the same utterance, by the same person, who is speaking to the same man she singled out on the beach years earlier, and who sits by her side in the present, in a joyful and almost magical triumph of unity and identity across time and difference. And so in the very unity that this film encourages us to recreate, through memory and inference, across the brief time of its own unfolding, Come exemplifies and recounts the unity of a person's life, a unity created in part through a similar sharing of memory and experience.

[1] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Complete Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley (Oxford: Clarendon, 1966), Vol. II, p. 1139.

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