Cinematic Dreaming

Pia Strandbygaard Frandsen

Woman meets man - with the use of these three simple words it is possible to summarize Unni Straume's short film Avsporing. (Derailment). On the surface the story is simple and easy to grasp: A woman enters the subway. She takes a seat in the train opposite a sleeping man and closes her eyes. In a dreamlike sequence the woman and the man meet. As the train stops, they both wake up and the man eventually leaves the train. The screen turns black and we hear the sound of quick footsteps.

Seen from the outside not very much happens between the woman and the man. The clear cut story is, however, endowed with a profound and rather abstract content. In the shape of an accidental meeting between two strangers, it seems, that the film sets out to explore different levels of reality, which are normally hidden from the naked eye, but which nevertheless are as much a part of the world as any visible phenomenon. Instead of unfolding a complex story over time, Unni Straume dives into the moment, expanding time and space in order to investigate deeper strata of signification.

The film is a small gem - a fascinating condensation of image and sound. The content is unfolded through an almost minimalistic aesthetic strategy, which endows the film with a significant sharpness as well as poetic beauty and distinct intensity. The story is anchored in a classical narrative structure with a clear beginning, a middle, and an end. As such the formal structure of the film reflects the fundamental clarity and simplicity, which characterizes the film. Instead of a traditional dialogue-based narrative strategy the film depends on the immanent expressive powers of image and sound as well as a highly suggestive montage. The consequent use of black and white, the extensive use of close-ups, as well as the subjective camera, and slow, smooth camera movements are some of the bearing visual means of the original aesthetic strategy, which adds a strong expressive dimension to the film.

Speechless relations
The two main characters, the woman and the man, never exchange a word in the film, nor do their eyes meet until the last sequence when they wake up. Nevertheless we are left with the unmistakable impression that they develop an intimate relation during the journey. A strong sexual undertone is created through three close-ups of the woman's bare knees as she gently presses them in between the thighs of the sleeping man. The sense of intimacy is first and foremost created by the suggestive montage of a series of close-ups of their faces. The very montage establishes the two of them in an intimate, interrelated space.

In addition to the extended use of close-ups and the suggestive montage, the camera itself plays a crucial role in creating this strong feeling of intimacy between the two. Generally it dwells on the faces of the characters for a long time, providing the film as a whole with an intense, emotionally charged atmosphere. Except from the first three establishing shots it seems as if the camera is literally speaking placed in the middle of the action. At first as an agent for the woman's gaze and later that of the man. Provided by its smooth, sliding movements the camera acts almost as a physical extension of the woman's body and her unspoken desires. It constitutes a tactile gaze, which seems almost to physically caress the face of the man. In the last sequence the tables are turned. Now the man is the owner of the subjective gaze, which 'touches' the knees of the woman and wanders further over her body to her face. As a substitute for the gazes of the characters the camera offers a privileged subjective point of view, which allows us to experience the unspoken 'action' between the two of them from the inside, so to speak - from an emotionally charged point of view.

A passage
The passage from the 'real' world into the 'dream' world goes through a highly suggestive and ambiguous image, which possesses a special intensity. Both as image as such and as far as it points to a distinct significance in regard to the film as a whole. The image consists of a close-up, which shows the man asleep in the train with his head leaned against the window. A reflection of his face is seen in the window. The shot is almost identical with the first time the sleeping man is presented to us earlier in the film, only this time his 'real' face has moved very far out to the left of the frame placing his mirror image in the centre of the picture. Light and shadow flicker across the faces adding a strong imaginative dimension to the scene.

The image has two sides to it: an actual and a virtual. It is a double image, which shows the actual man as well as his virtual double i.e. his mirror image. The constant exchange between actuality and virtuality, which constitutes the image, eliminates the boundaries between the real and the imaginary, the physical and the psychological, and present and past in favour of pure presence and expressive intensity. It marks an opening towards other levels of experience and points to different layers of meaning than those, which arise from the actual action in the train. From the double image the idea of new possibilities and hidden structures develop. The image not only condenses the intense atmosphere of the moment but also the essence of the film into a strong and concentrated visual form - a crystal image. [1]

The 'dream' sequence, which is preceded by the crystal image, is clearly detached from the actual action and the 'realistic' environment in the train. The sounds from the train, which have provided the film with a hypnotic sound track until this moment, continue, but are reduced to a distant noise. The scene is bathed in bright white light, forming a sharp contrast to the dim interior of the train.

In the 'dream' we find ourselves outside - in front of a building. Inside, in a white room, light transparent curtains move gently in the breeze from the open windows, embedding the scene in a poetic atmosphere of weightlessness. In the white room a close-up presents the woman as she looks directly into the camera from a lying position. She smiles and turns her head to the side, apparently to meet the gaze and the smile of the man from the train. He seems to lie down beside her. The next shot shows a broken plant on the floor with soil astray between the white curtains. It is followed by a close-up of the woman's face as she turns her head toward the camera again and looks directly into it. The sound of her deep sigh mixes with the grinding, still louder sounds from the stopping train, marking the transition to the 'real' world. Back in the train again the man wakes up and looks intensely at the sleeping woman. Both awake, they smile at each other as if they share a deep secret.

The sequence forms a decisive moment in the film. It constitutes a qualitative change in the relation between the woman and the man, whose relation seems to have changed on the other side of the 'dream'. Paradoxically the sequence possess a vacuum-like character, which is underlined by its significant brightness and quietness. It is clearly disconnected from linear, chronological time and inserts a pause in the causally progressing chain of logically interrelated events. It unfolds the moment vertically, so to speak, as a series of disconnected frames, which express states of mind and emotional intensity rather than physical action. Time is no longer the measure of action but is set free as an independent significant element. The mere presence of the characters on the screen as well as the very duration is the essence of the sequence.

Cinema and dream
The 'dream' sequence marks not only a pause - or a derailment - from the progressing story line, it also visualizes the psychological 'derailment', which the characters of the film experience. Furthermore it can be extended to include a discussion of cinema as such, that is, of cinema as a place for experiencing both emotional, psychological, and bodily 'derailment'. A place where you can literally lose yourself.

As if in a dream the protagonists are isolated from the crowd and seem to experience a feeling of bodily depersonalization. From the very beginning the film establishes a strongly imaginative atmosphere through the setting in the dark subway and the centering of the action around the underground travel. The monotonous, hypnotic sound of the train, the flickering play between light and shadow, and the lack of dialogue intensify the dreamlike atmosphere, which penetrates the film as a whole. Through a clear visual and auditory strategy the film delivers an intense experience, not unlike what we are able to experience in our dreams. The journey through darkness into light is like entering a world of imagination, of possibilities, and of sexual tensions, just as it is often the case in the dream. As in the dream the unconscious, the emotional, and the irrational is set free, and chronological time is suspended.

Avsporing. demonstrates cinema's unique power to perceptualize aspects of the world which cannot be perceived by the naked eye or by logic. It visualizes non-explicit bodily and mental levels of meaning, and focuses on the irrational forces which are generally subordinate to explicit action in dialogue-based traditional cinema. As such the film challenges the usual order of perception as well as the traditional way of creating cinematic meaning through causality and logically progressing action. In a clear and convincing way it embraces the immanent power of image and sound as the constituent elements of cinema.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2, The Time-Image., The Athlone Press, London 1989. Translated from the French Cinema 2, L'Image-Temps., Les Editions de Minuit, 1985.

Hammond, Paul. The Shadow & Its Shadow.. City Lights Books. San Francisco, 2000.

1 The crystal image applies to certain kinds of concentrated images, scenes or sequences, whoose constituent characteristic is their 'double' nature - their complexity of actuality and virtuality. For a further description of the crystal image, see Deleuze Cinema 2, The Time-Image. (London: The Athlone Press, 1989), pp. 68-78.

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