SPOILERS for PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, PLAYTIME, and L’ECLISSE …
Barry Egan is insulated. From his no-spill coffee mug to the massive rolls of bubble wrap that deck his warehouse walls to the (he hopes) unbreakable fungers he peddles. Yet the walls of his warehouse are exposed brick, andit is through this chink in the armor that Emily Watson finds him.
After she finds him, watch him take quick, nervous sips from the insulated vessel. But, when curiosity gets him and he steals away the harmonium, the vessel rattles atop the instrument, in danger of falling. But this thing he struggles with – what is it? He doesn’t know, but it’s worth something,if only for the struggle.
What is distant on the photographic plane becomes close. Barry to the harmonium. Lena to Barry. Barry with the harmonium to the warehouse. This optical distance works on the level of the emotional distance plied by the unlikely like minds of two directors in their key works: Jacques Tati’s PLAYTIME and Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’ECLISSE.
In PLAYTIME, the distance between characters on the film plane is a joke. Hulot waits around the corner of a long hallway and hears an executive’s footsteps sounding down the hall, intending to meet our hero. The footsteps grow louder – Hulot rises for a polite greeting, but the uniformed doorman waves him down, not yet. The dance repeats. These areunending footsteps. People are not as close as they appear.
Antonioni’s signature emotional distance is supposedly reflected in affectless characters carrying out their banal lives in a grid of anonymous glass and concrete boxes. Tati uses this architecture to comic effect (ha ha, the same banal office box appears in travel posters for every country); people lose each other in reflections and cubicle farms. As Tati revels in the long shot, his Hulot is content merely to observe life. He is content to encounter people only by chance. He affects those around him, but is mostly unaffected by them. He never gets close to people – he never gets the girl. Antonioni’s camera gets right in people’s faces, which reveal an inner anguish and passion that they may not be able to express, but which visibly ache with their inarticulated needs. Imagine – you get close to people, and they turn out to be complicated! What a to-do! Comedy happens to other people; when it happens to you, things are not so strictly choreographed, the technicolor ballet of slapstick artgives way to the inconistencies and blemishes of life.
The closing sequence of PLAYTIME, in abstract, is frankly bleak: a woman opens a package from a stranger she’ll never see again and finds a forget-me-not; cut to forget-me-not shaped streetlights, (these are among the few close-ups in the movie! objects!) which begin to illuminate at dusk; a longshot of the city lit at dusk autos and buildings still visible, then blam: nothing but abstract lights. Sure there’s jaunty music, but imagine that music under the stunning final sequence of L’ECLISSE; with the issued dissonant, abstract music, it’s a dissonant, abstract, bleak sequence. Try to imagine the end of L’ECLISSE with the music from the final sequence of PLAYTIME – it kind of works! So: is therejoy to be found in this banal modern world; or is there only loneliness?
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE strikes me as a kind of bridge between the perfect labnotated dance – to be seen from a distance; and the unpredictable mess of improvisation that makes people up close people.
The first of Jeremy Blake’s animated transitions is an overture to this: the perfect stripes, the rorshach in fuschia; the music underneath it expreses the tenor of the whole movie: the disonnant percussion, the harmonium, Shelly Duvall, Hawaiian guitars. It’s allthere, diverging voices in beautiful imperfect unison.