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Nina Menkes' surrealist film, Phantom Love, starts without any hint of stillness. Black and white images. Beautifully framed. Body parts, moving back and forth. Like a mantra. Hypnotic. Are they moving, or are they being moved? (As might corpses swaying to the rolling motion of a train, for instance.) The camera pans back slightly. We see they are lovers. But the woman's eyes are distant. She gazes over his shoulder. Eventually, she closes them.
The long opening sequence has already put the viewer in a contemplative mood, in spite of its carnality. Lulu, the main protagonist, subsequently draws us into her self-observation. We travel down her psychological corridors to experience pain, then resolutions. Exquisitely composed monochrome. Brutal police. TV footage of Iraq. The woman silhouetted with her cat against the window.
Using psychological symbols presents a filmmaker with a dilemma. Dismantle conventional linear narrative too much and the viewer can become perplexed or alienated: do it too subtly and they may miss the point. Bunuel's ants escaping from a hole in the hand (Un chien andalou) can seem offputting or obscure. But a similar suggestion (that decay is just beneath the surface) in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, can easily be missed because audiences focus too much on the story. Directors like David Lynch (Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway) have helped wean audiences towards surrealism and the opportunities offered by cinema to explore subconscious worlds. Cinema-lovers tire of formulaic films and find more interest in the challenges presented by works like Phantom Love.
But Menkes has two strong advantages. Firstly, her poetry is beautiful to watch. Any distressing representations - those of ordinary life - the endless stresses and struggles of relationships, difficult family ties, even the noise of the TV - are gradually transformed and overpowered by the hypnotic, dreamlike images of her inner consciousness. Secondly, the process, unlike the negative message of surrealists such as Bunuel, is transformative. Like Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, Lulu is finding a goodness inside ugliness, rather than expending vast effort to prove the emptiness of the bourgeoisie, society or the Church.
Phantom Love is a voyage. A woman's journey into the depths of her being. What was it Jung said about other people: Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. And the 'others' in Lulu's life are just that. Her sister is medicated to the point where we wonder why she isn't already institutionalised. Mother is intrusive. Probably gets it from her dad. Even Lulu's lover, although a bit of a stud, is a sh*t.
Lulu works in a casino. But pressures are becoming too much to bear. She files her nails obsessively - the same nails, so impersonal at the roulette table, that rest gently and kindly on the sweat-beaded shoulder of her vigorous lover. As she examines elements that screw up her life, Lulu makes the inner journey to resolve them.
I asked Menkes where the idea for her film had originated. She told me of months working with a shaman in Israel. Using lucid dreaming and trance. She had to experience the cleansing of her own psychological demons - an exhausting business by her own account - before she could express the process in her art. "I was quite ill, physically, for much of the seven months," she says. But the result is an intimacy with the process and images that seem to have a subconscious impact.
She says: "People who are willing to watch the film and endure the pain, and the duration of the pain, and the darkness, will themselves experience a sort of mini version of my process: the film will 'vibrate' with the areas in the viewer that are blocked and painful and the viewer can then work with that in himself, or not." I don't know what Menkes went through with her shamen, but the process is believable, both for Lulu and for us. Modern neuro-linguistics stresses that, 'the map is not the territory' - in other words, if you don't like what you perceive, start by changing your perception of it. The ancient Egyptian and Tibetan 'books of the dead' talk of similar processes to transform monsters into benefactors - much like Beauty and a Beast.
Menkes urges us to stick with it and claims, "those who do will have an experience that is meaningful and lasting." Strangely, among the welter of films I am watch in the course of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, it is the images from Phantom Love that continually haunt me. Why? Even if you just take stills from this movie, there are fantasy scenes that could earn a place in any art gallery. Levitation and explosion into light. A snake in a repeating corridor. A bridge she always tries to cross.
Menkes' stuff is hard work. And demands to be taken seriously. But somehow it does feel like time very well spent. Phantom Love is the sort of work that keeps cinema alive. Uncompromisingly. As art - and not just as the digestion aid for popcorn. Is it possible to identify with Lulu who eventually achieves the stillness inside she yearns for? Evocative, challenging and very rewarding, Phantom Love gripped me with such intensity I probably would have jumped if a pin had fallen.
The title recalls a line from Resnais' classic, Last Year in Marienbad. The woman 'A' says, "You're like some phantom waiting for me to come." In Resnais' work, whether the protagonists find fulfilment is a decision of interpretation by the viewer, or perhaps the male protagonist. For Menkes' Lulu, it depends on herself.
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