Desire and Its Discontents

Desire and Its Discontents

Reviews of Syndromes and a Century, Private Fears in Public Places, Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis and Stephanie Daley.


Life isn’t a meaning, said Chaplin, but a desire. I may be quoting inaccurately, but given the sentiment, who cares? Chaplin was so precise in his art that he could roller-skate blindfolded to the edge of an abyss; and yet, true to his words, he seemed to love the audience’s giddiness a little more than his own supreme poise, the image of an open road more than the certainty of “The End.”

Giddiness, openness, poise, desire: These words may do as well as any to suggest the life you find everywhere in the inexplicable but wondrous Syndromes and a Century. Written and directed by Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (or Joe, as he’s often called in the West), Syndromes and a Century is a work of immaculate craftsmanship, but one that is impossible to summarize, any more than a wind-sown arboreal orchid (one of the film’s main props) could be brought to ground. All you might say, in a pinch, is that the movie consists of scenes in and around two present-day hospitals, one somewhere in the countryside and the other in Bangkok.

o story links these two places; and since a separate stretch of movie is dedicated to each–first the rural hospital, then the urban one–you might even say that the running time sets them apart. Nothing crosses this divide except a Cheshire-cat smile. A woman called Dr. Toey (Nantarat Sawaddikul) and a man called Dr. Nohng (Jaruchai Iamaram) appear in both halves of the film, but I can’t say whether these figures are meant to be the same people working in different places or whether the hospitals are staffed by identically named look-alikes. Incidents recur, too–a soldier awkwardly declares his love for Dr. Toey, an elderly monk recounts a troubling dream about a chicken, a young monk undergoes dental treatment–but with variations that alter the tone of each encounter. (The outcomes can’t be changed because there aren’t any, cause and effect having been suspended as airily as the orchid.) On a higher level of variation, motifs including exercise classes, public recreations and renditions of pop music are enacted in rural and urban versions, cheerfully but to no apparent purpose.

Do these doublings mean anything at all? In statements and interviews, Joe has spoken of them as expressions of his belief in reincarnation. But since the film’s monks have the best lines about that topic, I will concentrate on Joe’s explanation that his parents were doctors “who raised us kids in a house provided by the small-town hospital where they worked.” This place has now changed so much, he says, that “the landscapes and hospital buildings that I remember simply don’t exist anymore.” Unable to recapture his memories of the past, he has taken pleasure in recapturing the feelings evoked by his memories. Beyond that, he says, Syndromes and a Century is “an experiment in re-creation of my parents’ lives before I was born,” with the movie’s first half focused on a figure ostensibly representing his mother and the second half on the father figure.

Plausible. But if Dr. Toey and Dr. Nohng are supposed to become Joe’s parents, they don’t make any progress on it in this movie, where their sole encounter is charming, brief and entirely official. There’s plenty of desire in part one, but it flows from a lovesick soldier (Nu Nimsomboon) toward Dr. Toey, who can respond only with a diagnosis; from Dr. Toey toward a botanist (Sophon Pukanok), who seems in recollection to have been more interested in the arboreal orchid than in her; and from a pop-singing dentist (Arkanae Cherkam) toward an object of romantic interest who is unattainable, being a monk (Sakda Kaewbuadee).

In part two, desire is better satisfied, since Dr. Nohng gets to neck in the hospital corridor with his girlfriend (Jarunee Saengtupthim) before slipping with her into a basement office. Yet gratification, O Noble Siddhartha, may not add up to happiness. The girlfriend wants Dr. Nohng to relocate to some Brutalist development zone (she’s got construction photos, which are not encouraging), as if his hospital were not sufficiently cold and fluorescent. In Part One, by contrast, even though love goes unfulfilled, the characters live in a lush and sunny place that is itself both solace and sweet mystery.

The notion that the jungle can spring beautiful surprises on you just as readily as it tosses up tigers or sorcerers has been a part of Joe’s work since his first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000): a quasi documentary in which he began telling a story and then went around Thailand having different individuals and groups continue it, at one point in full-scale folk opera performance. As in any cadavre exquis, the gaps, incongruities and wild transformations could strike you by turns as humorous or grotesque, suggestive or uncanny. The difference in Mysterious Object was that they also seemed communal and revelatory: glimpses into a startling inner life shared by people all over Thailand.

So, too, in Syndromes and a Century, unexpected marvels keep popping up in everyday circumstances. That charming meeting between Dr. Toey and Dr. Nohng, for example, is a personnel interview, which she conducts when he reports for work at the hospital. It’s a perfectly normal occasion, except for her asking questions such as, “Which do you prefer to draw, circles or triangles?” The answer, in this movie, has got to be circles. Dr. Nohng delivers it with the same quiet thoughtfulness that he accords all of Dr. Toey’s non sequiturs, and she accepts his response in the same spirit, as if nothing he says could be wrong. “What do the initials DDT stand for?” she asks, apropos of nothing. After a moment’s hesitation, he replies, “Destroy Dirty Things,” and she, following a pause, writes the words down.

This spirit of acceptance seems to me to be the key to the movie’s doublings. However Joe might explain them, they come off simply as alternate possibilities, which arise in no particular order and need be given no absolute value. Of course, you might prefer some to others–there are plenty of disappointments in the film, along with aggravations, failures and disabling maladies–but since all of them could be real, they all seem equally alive, and miraculous.

How so? Look at the endlessly delightful compositions that Joe gives you, with the characters often grouped toward one side and the other left unpopulated, so the frame is ripe with potential. Look at the light, which can be paradoxically strong in the distance and shadowed in the foreground. (Nature, in this movie, makes no assumptions about which part of the picture is important.) Watch how freely your point of view changes–now showing you one angle on a scene, now (for no special reason) a different angle that’s just as good, and now wandering off to study something irrelevant but lovely.

Or listen as the crooning dentist gets closer to his beloved. Standing on a veranda in the night, the dentist recounts the tragic death years ago of his brother, then wonders if that long-lost boy could have been reincarnated as this monk.

“No,” says the monk, with a broad-mindedness typical of Syndromes and a Century. “In my last life, I wasn’t human.”

Half a century ago, before Joe was born, Alain Resnais was already rearranging time and space to suit his fancy. Now the old master, fresh as ever, has done it again, following six characters as they intersect (but don’t necessarily meet) in Private Fears in Public Places.

Adapted by screenwriter Jean-Michel Ribes from a play by Alan Ayckbourn–another relocation, which puts Paris in the place of London–Private Fears in Public Places is a very sad and loveless romantic comedy, filmed in the medium of snow. Snow falls in the streets, on TV screens, at one point inside a home and always between the scenes, which smoothly shift with each new flurry. If there is any central location, it would be a nightmarishly fashionable hotel bar presided over by Lionel (the gravely impeccable Pierre Arditi), who observes the coming together and splitting apart of three other characters. This makes him almost as omniscient as the camera. But Lionel cannot see himself, so he doesn’t know that a fourth character of his acquaintance, the devout Charlotte (Sabine Azéma, off her rocker again), leads a triple life: in his home at night (nursing his aged and demented father), in a real estate office during the day (renting apartments and arousing the fantasies of a co-worker, André Dussollier) and on video, where she looks a lot less pious.

The other “public places” of the title are no doubt the real estate agency’s empty apartments: mazes in which some of the characters disconsolately wander. The other actors are Isabelle Carré, Laura Morante and Lambert Wilson. Sorry not to have mentioned them earlier. They’re perfect. So is the film.

Only the maddest love could have moved Mary Jordan to assemble her documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. Why, you practically have to prize scraps of Smith’s films from the claws of the Roc, ransom Ali Baba’s treasure to pay for music rights, harrow the crypts of a vanished Underground to interview the specters–and then what have you got? Not just a critical biography of a protean artist, who seems in retrospect the most central of all marginalists; not just an excavation of New York’s queerest avant-garde, 1953-89; and not at all, thank God, an imitative baroque mishmash that nobody would have watched without being paid for it. Unlike its subject, who wanted to make art “for everybody” but by the end was priest of a one-man cult, Jordan’s Jack Smith has the popular touch. It’s clear, brisk, informative and touching, even at moments of going evocatively gaga.

Did Fellini really need Smith’s example to make Juliet of the Spirits? Did Warhol actually steal his ideas from Smith? Do half of today’s music videos look like Smith’s work (and would he have been proud of it, if they did)? No, no, no and no, despite what various yakkers tell you in the film. That’s the flaw I can point out in Jack Smith. (So could anyone who knows the symptoms of infatuation.) The greatest virtue: It’s done, complete, against all odds–and if you’re in New York, you can still catch it at Film Forum, through April 24.

Hilary Brougher’s script for Stephanie Daley is so deft, and Amber Tamblyn’s performance in the title role is so deeply, unsettlingly persuasive, that the full devastation hits you only with the film’s final lines. A teenager in upstate New York is under indictment, charged with murdering a baby she claims she didn’t know she was carrying. Over her head hovers an adult world populated by people who will judge her but who may be lost themselves. Around her is a fully credible teenage world of shame, religiosity and boiling hormones. These two come together a bit uneasily under Brougher’s direction, mostly because the chief adult, a forensic psychologist, is played by Tilda Swinton at her most brittle and posturing. So concentrate on Tamblyn instead. She’ll pull you into a mystery as dark as murder itself.

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