This piece is part of a series called Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink. Here we try to bring films, that have been overlooked during their time or were (despite their distinctive and timely nature) somehow forgotten, back onto the radar. It’s an attempt at reaching into the dusty niches of time and fishing some true gems out of there. We hope to peak your interest towards some of these films, so they can be reintroduced into today’s film discussion.
I stumbled over Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Céline per accident on Youtube, soon realizing that its presence online borders on non-existence. The rather small amount of voices that I could find, seemed to show an unusually big admiration for the utterly forgotten 1992 Berlin Film Festival competition entry. Descriptions of the film struck a chord with me and how I felt at the moment, and I took a chance on it.
Cèline (1992) – directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau. All Right Reserved.
There is a rather simple base narrative at play here: A nurse named Geneviéve offers Céline – a young, distraught woman – a drive home. When they arrive there, Céline tries to take the first chance to kill herself. Geneviéve prevents her suicide and starts to take care of Céline. They start a healing process – together, as Geneviéve struggles herself.
It’s a premise that instantly grabbed me with intrigue, one that opens a promise that the film subverts and surpasses evenly, specifically in its intricate depiction of the process of psychological healing, which it arguable grasps better than any other film I have seen. That is especially evident in the character dynamics, where a realism, which is strangely ahead of the viewer in its way of introducing behavior, can be observed. This perhaps sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not necessarily. We don’t understand these people immediately, but we do understand that they have their reasons. Their behavior is inherently a consequence of their past. To me, the resonance of this crucial little narrative device was immensely strong. In phases of turmoil, days where nothing makes sense, it can be reassuring to see characters who seem to feel the same. Brisseau allows for a kind of unexplanatory flow that paces towards the future and clears itself up by distancing itself from the past, not wallowing in it.
On a formal level, the transition from the entrapment in ones psyche to the eventual state of peace, is visually palpable. The dark and narrow interior of Céline’s house, with all the past trauma that is attached to it, is contrasted with the warm, open presence of the nature surrounding it, and thus, mirrors the characters. The aesthetic plane of the film seems inconspicuous, but the beauty in which cinematographer Romain Winding captures nature in particular, is undeniable. It’s a flawless counterpart to the narrative as it radiates beauty, but it’s not an easy beauty. It’s a complicated, uneven, at times distant beauty. But it’s an undeniable beauty – the beauty of life, with all its complexities, edges and convolutions.
The film starts out with a voiceover-ed showcase of Egyptian mural paintings, which show a part of the mythical, posthumous journey of the pharaoh – one of many references to ancient mythology that inhabit Céline. The theme of the past, specifically in connection to death and his certainty, works as some sort of hidden arch under the ostensible storyarc. While the characters try to move away from their past and their wish for death, there’s always a strange, perpetual closeness to it. But there is also hope in the past, the hint at an everlasting balance, repeating itself over and over again. After trauma, after the death of your old self, there is the possibility of something new.
Brisseau introduces the concept of an afterlife on earth – in your own body, in the same vein as the pharaoh lives on in his after death. I felt a deep appreciation for this thematic device, even though it does feel clunky and undercooked at times. But as someone who is, as the characters, seeking for a way to escape trauma, it truly feels reinvigorating to think about it. It gives hope and it rekindles the spirit, because the observations feel accurate. In the end, healing psychologically means to overcome our current, trapped state of self, which reduces us to our past, and to grow a new one out of it.
Not to say that is an easy task in the slightest, it is rather a battle – with yourself. Céline struggles a lot, before she manages to overcome herself and start to heal. But especially Geneviéve is walking a difficult, lengthy path in that she tries to heal through giving. Her task to help Céline, gives her a new, real purpose, as she feels essential to something as important as a human life. It spins a deeply intimate thread that ties her to Céline and purges her from her loneliness. But it’s also a temporally finite thread. As the time comes when Céline doesn’t need her anymore, she gets hurt immensely, since her attempt to healing stems from a dependency. Wanting to be needed and the need to be loved, remain, because she is still not in accord with herself. She is certainly able to love, but love alone does not heal. She now needs someone to take care of her.
It’s a bold statement on psychological dependency, might it be in love or somewhere else. It’s certainly a hard pill to swallow, since it contradicts the claustrophobic, overburdened headspace that mental illness or trauma, or other psychological deficiencies in terms of self-perception, introduces. But I feel what the film says to ring true, and I feel it has had an impact on me in the last days, which is after all, one of the biggest achievements a film can be credited for. Brisseau ends the film on an undoubtedly optimistic note. In this world, there is so much pain, but there also is hope. The peace, the purpose, the place, which we all crave, will come eventually. It’s out there, and even in the bubble of the western world, it will be unbearably hard at times. But the afterlife is out there, here on earth.In retrospect, it’s perhaps not a coincidence that this film has been forgotten. Céline is incredibly introverted, never tries to explain its characters directly and rather asks for full empathy from our side. It has a message that unfolds itself in one’s head after watching and internalizing the experience. This perhaps made critics dismiss the film rather quickly during the busy festival schedule. There is no place for hastiness here, it takes time and space to realize how much nuance is crammed in this seemingly so slight film.