The last film I saw in the cinema before lockdown was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I’d booked the Valentines Day screening from LA, where I’d been living away from my girlfriend and son while I saw out a job for a company whose grip on film is as unassailable as it is contentious.
I’d seen Celine Sciamma’s film at the Arclight in December. At the end, the woman beside me (also alone) gave me a tissue and we sat together in silence, two snotty little islands. Later, I texted a friend whose opinion I respect and who said, yes, it was great, but did it need that final scene?
The final scene is of Adèle Haenel’s character in a theatre, listening to some Vivaldi which Noémie Merlant played to her way back when. By chance, Merlant is at the theatre too. From a seat opposite hers, Merlant watches Haenel relive their affair: she sobs, laughs, transported, as the camera pushes closer and closer before cutting to black at the perfect moment.
My friend thought that the penultimate scene was more powerful. Merlant moves through a crowded gallery, toward a portrait of Haenel and her child. In Haenel’s hand, her copy of the Metamorphoses lies open at page 28. Before they parted, Merlant had drawn a self-portrait for her on that same page. This coded greeting hit Merlant — and me, and the woman beside me — the way Vivaldi bulldozes Haenel.
But I don’t think this is a hat on a hat. The film is from Merlant’s point of view. It’s about her point of view, how it evolves: the game of possession and renunciation. In the theatre, Merlant is shown to have become the empathetic observer with a touch of the voyeur — the ideal artist. Had the film finished in the gallery, meanwhile, Haenel would remain a picture on the wall. Instead, Haenel is flesh and blood and, I felt, totally unselfconscious for the very first time, right before we cut to black.
In this disastrous year for the movie business, I’ve been thinking about watching films. And the greatest pleasure that cinema has to offer is, I think, the realisation that a film is about to end — just before it ends. I love that feeling: of a narrative showing its hand, of a shape becoming entirely visible for just a second before it vanishes.
Frank O’Hara told the “Mothers of America | let your kids go to the movies!” The cinema is fecund, fungicultural: “it’s true that fresh air is good for the body | but what about the soul | that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images.” It’s where you send your kids “for their first ever sexual experience | which only cost you a quarter.” Now, I was never adventurous enough to make of the Cineworld Swindon O’Hara’s low-lit utopia. But it’s where I took my feelings, where I surrendered myself, and where I received my education, which is scary when you think of the monsters who made movies in the 1990s.
My earliest childhood screen siren was the girl from The Secret Garden, directed by Agnieszka Holland. Then young Mary Lennox was rather abruptly superseded by Pam Grier. In 1997, I was going on 10 and you could still get parents to book your tickets over the phone, going off no more information than the movie’s title printed in the uniform font of newspaper listings. Of the empty daytime screening of Jackie Brown, I remember the music, the jarring sex scene, Robert de Niro’s death, Pam Grier’s lipstick, her blue suit. It was also the first and last time I ever ate nachos in the cinema.
In America, the latitude of Rs and PG-13s felt transgressive enough. In the summer of 1997, at a Regal on Long Island, I saw Men in Black, Liar Liar, Air Force One and My Best Friend’s Wedding. In New York that Christmas, I conned my dad into taking me to Scream 2. The cinema was packed. The film itself began in a packed cinema, for the premiere of Scream surrogate Stab. Watching Jada Pinkett-Smith being butchered in what felt like the seat beside me was too much. We left during the titles.
Twenty years later, back in New York, I saw Last Year in Marienbad. The most violent moment comes with a dolly move repeatedly thrusting at Delphine Seyrig who greets us with a wide smile. We are occupying the point of view of Giorgio Albertazzi, her rapist. The image is heavily overexposed; Seyrig looks like a star of the silent age, torn from a Murnau, or Feuillade’s Les Vampires. This assault wasn’t ‘cinematic’. It was cinema. Our fantasies have never found a more receptive and forceful medium. To me, aged 32, cinema felt bone-deep and frightening. But I think the moment would have lost its power had I not seen it in with some strangers in a darkened room.
Some people are impervious. I’ve gone with three friends to see Alien in the cinema and each of them has fallen asleep. How? What I would give to have seen Alien on its first night, knowing nothing. Surely that was the last time a film had the ability to change you on a biological level, to affect the lizard part of your brain the way trauma shrinks the amygdala. Why would I want that? It seems that I’m particularly susceptible to the desire to be changed.
I don’t believe one video nasty has the power to turn you into a serial killer. But I have struggled to overcome the way great films taught me to look at violence and to look at women, and forgave me for looking. This is on my mind because I have a son. Should I let him go to the movies — that is, if cinemas survive the pandemic?
During a summer of meteor movies, I became obsessed with Saving Private Ryan. My grandfather fought on D-Day, but that was only part of it. I’d read about how hard it was to shoot the opening battle, which appealed to the little bro in me. Serious films, I knew, need to be made in agony. Eventually, my dad said he’d take me on the baffling condition that we also saw The Thin Red Line, which is how I came to see Woody Harrelson blow his own ass off in my very first Malick movie.
Double bills must have fashionable when I was 14, 15. I went to a Valentines Day showing of Solaris and Stalker — by myself — at the Electric Cinema. I saw a double bill of The Dreamers and A Bout de Souffle there, too. I saw Before Sunrise and Before Sunset and loved them. Hawke and Delpy seemed so old in the first one, impossibly so in the second. Now they’re younger than me in both. I was made to feel grown-up by My Summer of Love, and very young by 2046. I knew nothing about love, except what it looked like. That spring, I must have seen The Dreamers four times, not always by myself. I remember it for Eva Green, of course, and for the cut from Freaks to Queen Jane Approximately. I’m absolutely certain that I don’t want to see it again.
In lockdown, I longed for the physical, the communal experience of suffering in the cinema. I’ll never forget seeing Caché at the Riverside Studios. When a certain character dies, a woman in front of us started crying and did not stop. I remember squirming through Funny Games. Watching Silence and hearing my sister groan every time Andrew Garfield wouldn’t tread on Jesus’s face. Hungover, sweaty, leaving Snowtown and coming face to face with the killer — I didn’t know it was a Q&A. Someone’s Curb Your Enthusiasm ringtone cracking us up in Amour.
I saw Things to Come in the rain, sat on the cobbles at Somerset House. By the end, I felt I could look Huppert in the eye. I saw Synecdoche New York the day a friend was killed in Bolivia. That day, all Philip Seymour Hoffman taught me was how to shave. I saw X-Men III in Graz and kept asking myself, I’m 18, I shouldn’t be in Austria. I bought tickets to War of the Planet of the Apes in Sarajevo without realising the monkeys would be subtitled in Bosnian.
Since having my son, the majority of movies I see, I see alone. I saw Personal Shopper and Cold War by myself at the Curzon Soho. Guadagnino’s Suspiria, too. Argento’s at the Prince Charles. Le Bonheur for £1 there the day after Agnes Varda died. In LA, I watched Chabrol’s La Ceremonie next to a couple devouring burgers. I wanted Huppert to turn the shotgun on all of us. But Ashes and Diamonds at the Castro in San Francisco restored me by, I thought, collapsing time.
By chance, my friends and I went to see the last Star Wars movie on the day it came out. I am not a Star Wars person, but everyone else was. At the beginning, the crowd whooped every time a certain robot or whatever appeared onscreen, but you could feel the movie losing them. By the climax, at the would-be tragic kiss, everyone just laughed. The sheer improbability of JJ Abram’s failure was impressive. Instructive, too. This film was two hours in search for an ending, while being a product of a multibillion dollar exercise in not knowing when to stop.
In 2020, I’ve daydreamed about these trips. I dreamed about the comfortably uncomfortable seats at the ICA; I relived the euphoria of Playtime, the adrenaline of Victoria, the hysterical sadness of Toni Erdmann, the scene with the baby in Cameraperson. I yearned to cycle home from the BFI on a summer night after seeing Notorious, Some Like it Hot, Casablanca, Kind Hearts & Coronets; cycling home the same way I went after seeing Prometheus, past the weird H.R. Geiger-ish facade of the church on Kennington Road where I stopped and said aloud, ‘wait, what the fuck?’
Having a child, I’ve had to let things go: I’ve let go of friends, of live music, of reading, even, because there just isn’t time to be present and be myself. When I was young, movies were an entryway to the wide world. Now my life has pulled focus. I have realised that, beyond family and friends, cinema is the one thing I couldn’t live without.
In this uneasy summer, I joined small crowds of furtive people in face-masks to watch Close-Up, 35 Shots of Rum and Memories of Murder. Two lockdowns and a Tier 4 Christmas later, it’s unclear to me: should I have gone at all? How could I justify taking a not-particularly-calculated risk? I was supporting the cinemas, but it was more than that. I needed to see those films end.
The other day, Alice and I talked about why we love coming-of-age films. When you’re young, every day there’s this possibility that you’ll come across an idea which will change your life. You wake up, read Politics and Experience — or try to kiss someone who’s read Politics and Experience and who doesn’t want to kiss you but does want to tell you all about insanity — and go to bed changed. That’s why, in movies, teenagers don’t need to clear their name, pay for that operation or pull off one last job. We get the stakes.
Now I’m old, I don’t get that coming-of-age feeling anywhere, except for sometimes in the cinema. That feeling is the same feeling I’m talking about, when you suddenly know that the story will stop. That this is the last shot. In that moment, I’m totally present in both the film and the cinema.
My awareness of the narrative and of my environment are at its height — but not in conflict, in accord. I’m in two moments, in the film and about a minute in the future, when I’m walking out with friends or alone in a crowd. I know I’m about to leave, but not quite yet. The whole film is contained within this moment and I am with the filmmaker as they gesture to their editor: ‘perfect.’
It’s the feeling that, if you could only tear your eyes away to look, then you’d see Varda, Sciamma, Kiarostami, Kurosawa, Denis, Rohmer, Clouzot, Coppola, Hitchcock, Scorsese, Tati, Ozu, Ophuls, McQueen, Pawlikowski, Linklater, Wilder or Love opposite you in the theatre, watching you.
What I think is this: every time a great movie ends, you get a second chance. You get to go out into the world again. When I realise that the movie is about to end, when part of me is already standing up and dusting down my jacket, I feel like this moment of double vision is really one of clarity. It’s a chance to consider how I might change the life I’m about resume. How I might change the way I cast it, frame it, cut it. And if the possibility of real change is only an illusion, then it’s still very beautiful. Rejuvenating.
I think about the last shot of The Green Ray. My God, to go on holiday now, even with Delphine. To be in the Neus Off cinema on Hermannstraße in Berlin, the Vista on Sunset Boulevard, the IFC, the IFI, or the Wiltshire church where I saw Steamboat Bill Jr while the organist provided a lethargic but monumental live accompaniment.
What I would give to be with Alice in Paris, watching The Killing at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. Buried in exhausted velvet seats, her morning sickness at its height, with everything ahead of us.
After 2020, I long to be reunited with friends and strangers in the dark. I hope cinemas survive. Streaming is not a substitute. I need to be enraptured. But for now, here’s to the lady who sat right next to me in an otherwise empty 11am screening of Moonlight with two vodka martinis — and then gave me one.
Here’s to the woman with tissues at the end of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
Here’s to the hope that this boring and utterly devastating movie will end one day.