Something waits in the back of our mind, a moment where all rules snap and bridges rupture. Most of us keep this disaster at bay. We keep our body the right way up, and life goes on. But May has left the planet. We listen to her monotonous voice recounting, ana-chronologically, the events that seem to have provoked an irreversible departure …from the norm.
We are introduced to a mundane interior, yet the psychology of this character (May) infiltrates every scene, and those who cross her path. These people exist, in each of us; we know this, we have a gut reaction, we want to look away, we remember certain details in our own backyard, on the shelf, in the corner of a friend’s bedroom…we recognise the ‘symptoms’, the unlucky charm of melancholia. Regarding the latter term, the presence of the terrestrial orb looming too near the edge of the stratosphere inevitably hints at the eponymous movie by Lars Van Triers.
Yet, whereas Von Triers concentrates on the accentuated irrationality of isolated figures who appear to have lost all sense of proportion and bare no relation to ‘circumstantial emotion’, drowning their interpretation in a swamp of symbols mostly derived from western religious culture, Fanigliulo circumnavigates the mind of her subject from the inside out with no specific reference other than the context in which May evolves, wonders, loses herself, drags her lover with her into perdition. We get an inkling of her ‘previous life’ on Earth, this being approached throughout the film, suggesting May is in exile de facto, although we are uncertain whether this was the result of a sentence passed or the result of a personal decision, or both for that matter. We are put in an unstable position by a series of confusing clues that indicate the uncomfortable traces of a pivotal incident. But even the ending does not really clarify the full outcome of what happened, because the nature of the event is never explained, nor should it be. The revelation resides less in the conclusion than in the progression of the character’s situation and state of mind. In a way, we as viewers, accept, by witnessing it, this passage into a form of universal annihilation in the guise of a contemporary pretty girl letting weird habits take her over what society estimates as a reasonable margin of behaviour.
Spaces are defined through her eyes. We encounter nature although it is impregnated with tears; we walk through the streets filled with people although walls and gutter collide leaving no space for human life. We often follow her, yet we feel someone else is there, behind her, an invisible stalker obstructing the motion of her limbs. There is a past, but it is inaccessible, and she proves to become a terrible mystery to the person closest to her. This indeed is the land of depression filled with anxiety, unforgiving, unpredictable and pervasive. But it is never that simple and rather than illustrating the ailment through cliché propaganda promoting the infallibility of medical diagnosis itself covering a latent collective moral condemnation of the ‘patient’, the director attempts and mostly succeeds in evoking the organic disarray of a self at odds with a life increasingly alien to it.
The character shifts between a worldly position and a spectral solitude. On the other hand, a detail keeps jumping out, jolting our memory, pulling strings that open and shut contradictory possibilities; a scar on her cheek. This acts as a sort of leitmotiv, occasionally giving the impression of a resolution, but deliberately failing to save the viewer from cinematic indulgence and convenient certainty. Slowly, we are also driven to the edge, right up to the bath tub, and all wish to see this as a merciful ending, away from the sinister denouement of Repulsion by Roman Polanski, far from the bathroom horror of Jacob’s Ladder by Adrian Lyne, erasing the thought of Cindy Sherman’s lugubrious post murder images such as Untitled (#153), hoping to evade Marcel Duchamp’s nightmarish vision, (Given: 1. The Waterfall /2. The Illuminating Gas), and unable to forget the seductive corpse in Stanley Kubrick’s The shining.
It is then we also become aware the lighting has affected our viewing, not only the drama, the characterisation, the music, or the script. We have accustomed ourselves to the cool bloodless light of a shattered soul; the atmosphere has been drained of sunlight.
Despite planet earth orbiting this land that could be equated to Dante’s Purgatorio, a blurred reflection of urbanised existence, instilling an aura of supernaturalism, Maria Pia Fanigliulo contains the fantastical element within the fragile shell of our own illusory reality. It infers the hypothetical parallelism of a dimension perceived or suffered, ignored or embraced depending on factors that evade scrutiny and defy empirical analysis, factors also influencing the neurological enigma of our species. Where is May? Is she a ghost? Is she trapped in the remains of her memories? Is she the only one alive, henceforth suffering…or in her dead body, retracing her steps through thwarted emotional cues? Is her boyfriend real? Is he an alter ego? Are they two halves of the same being torn apart as once in the Garden of Eden? Was she ever alive? Is Earth the dark side of planet Trillaphon or the opposite? More questions pour in.
The character grows on us like a rumour, for she is not a scream or a statement. She is a metaphor haunting the back of our mind, a form of sadness the origins of which have not found a translation in language, taking form and collapsing before our very eyes, an anima fallen from a grace that was nothing but the suspension of disbelief or a belief in everlasting suspension.
It reminded me of long dark winters back then, and like the protagonist of the story by David Foster Wallace, I too was dispatched voluntarily to Planet Trillaphon, his anagram for the drug Tofranil, in place of the drug Phenelzine he was prescribed in the last years. The images that came to my mind, as elegant psychiatrists probed my introverted spirit, were unpalatable to them, and seemed to induce an implosive panic attack that ironically shortened their consultations, to my great satisfaction. I understand the writer and recall the sense of a broken skeleton held only by thin threads that could snap any time a stray word hit the side of my mind although mine was a silent trip in the art of explorative self-destruction. His reference to Sylvia Plath is poignant and the film echoes the burdened inhabitants of the planet he lives on, since his narrative springs from his own experience, a sense of suffocation and imponderable weight, like being asphyxiated in your mother’s womb.
The director cleverly switches characters and modifies certain details while still keeping the coherence of the story. But I almost wished, after reading the text that May had remained male because of a persisting prejudice continuously rearing its ugly head: ‘the hysteric woman’ syndrome. We recall for example Betty Blue by Jean-Jacques Beineix, or Frances by Graeme Clifford or the Piano Teacher by Michael Haneke. We are still besieged by pre-conceptions and misrepresentations of women and mental illness. This movie despite and because of its relevance, its sensitivity to the subject and its raw depiction of the illness of depression may fuel the fire by highlighting the condition under the sign of Venus. There were other patients of course of mixed genders and backgrounds, but May is the one we will remember, and she seemed, contrary to David, lost beyond hope. Yet, life on this planet reveals what Pia shows after all, choosing electricity as a means to an end, perhaps pointing to the electroshock so called therapy David received, rendering any following chemical treatment totally ineffective, thus opening the way for a drastic and irrevocable solution.
It should be seen again.
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2015