Terence Davies’s Counter-Séance

I Heard a Fly Buzz

A Quiet Passion and Karl Marx City.


You might describe it as a counter-séance. A Quiet Passion, the eighth feature-length film by Terence Davies, doesn’t pretend to recall the skeptical spirit of Emily Dickinson to the land of the living but rather projects you into her departed world, which folds itself almost tangibly around this poet of worldly departures. Everything is odd here: the geometric decorum of family gatherings in the parlor, the formal mode of address mixed with epigrammatic banter, the blanketing hush at evening, the endless play of candlelight and shadow, and most of all the behavior of Dickinson herself. She may put you in mind of a wraith, with her elongated frame and painful trembling, but there’s nothing delicate about her: not her refusal to sit in church or kneel in prayer at home, not her crockery-breaking fits of temper, and certainly not her way of thanking the editor of the Springfield Republican for having published her work. When he presents himself at her home, she insists on remaining at the top of the stairs, so she can berate him from on high for having altered her punctuation.

You cringe at the affront to a man who seems well-meaning enough, if dim; you ache for the fresh wound that Dickinson has now inflicted on her already enfeebled hopes for literary recognition; but you also understand that this bitter complaint over a few dashes and commas is one more instance of the “rigor” that her devoted sister Vinnie admires in her. Dickinson rejected convention in a spirit not of rampaging freedom but of exactness, the better to leave the reader a trail of meticulously selected pebbles and bleached bones that would lead, by a short but deliberately irregular sequence, to revelation. Davies, too, has been exacting throughout his career, refusing himself the easy norms of exposition and transition; but in his best films (such as Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes), he’s practiced a paradoxically liquid rigor in which each epiphany flows lusciously into the next. In his deep love of Dickinson, Davies has now adapted his smooth and coloristic style into something closer to her jagged tactility, so he can touch on the truth of what he calls A Quiet Passion—a title that at first sounds like it belongs on the cover of a less-than-marketable paperback bodice-ripper, but that actually makes a Christ out of Dickinson, who by her suffering and death redeemed all who read.

Of course, there is no plot here. People who let themselves lapse into cliché may speak of an individual’s life as a story (or, even worse, a journey), but as Psalm 90 reminds us, there’s no more narrative to it than you’d find in a blade of grass. Allow me to recommend, just in passing, the setting of Psalm 90 by Charles Ives, another uncompromising New England artist, whose music Davies has chosen for the end of A Quiet Passion. At the movie’s climax, Dickinson is lowered into the grave, having been accompanied to it by a geometric cortege, Ives’s chilliest orchestral strains, and a soundtrack recitation: “Because I could not stop for Death….” Throughout the rest of the film, while you await this foregone conclusion, you get to see the deaths or distancings of the people Dickinson loves. There’s your “story.” Nothing else happens of any consequence, except for a few brief shots of the poet scratching at papers in the dead of night and stitching the sheets into tiny booklets by day—but that’s everything.

Part of the mystery behind this everything is how a young woman born into the culture of 1830s Amherst could have made herself into the poet Emily Dickinson. The biographies document an education and social circle that were considerably more ample than Davies allows; but he knows these factors cannot explain the transformation (since others drew on the same resources without becoming geniuses), and so he slashes them away. With the concentration on religious bullying that has characterized his films, he begins with the very young Dickinson at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where in the face of her evangelizing headmistress’s wrath she stands steadfastly alone as the sole self-proclaimed “no-hoper” in her class, confessing neither to an immediate conviction of her sinfulness nor to an aspiration to be saved. Davies does not pretend to show how Dickinson mustered the courage to refuse, in public, demands in which she did not believe. He merely assumes, from the start of the picture, her capacity to say no, then moves on quickly to other moments.

Played in this early part of the film by Emma Bell, Dickinson seems to differ from her sister Vinnie only in the degree of her candor, her more vivid sensitivity, and her desire to be allowed to write poetry in the wee hours, when she won’t disturb the household and it won’t disturb her. To the question of how this young Emily matures—which is to say, how the lively, clever, and conventionally pretty Emma Bell turns into the intellectually piercing and severe-faced Cynthia Nixon—Davies in effect gives the one-word answer that is faithful to his materialist work: photography.

Davies re-creates a family portrait-sitting session (and in so doing provides one of the film’s few moments of levity, when the famously overbearing paterfamilias Edward, played by Keith Carradine, barks at the photographer, “I am smiling!”), then dollies in on each image, morphing the subjects one by one into their older selves. As the cliché has it, this is the magic of the movies—but the whole point is that no magic is used. You see only a physical process, which is nevertheless impressive to watch, and which prompts questions—about matters such as the motions of the soul—that are not going to be answered.

Even Dickinson, whose powers of imagination and insight far surpass those of anyone around her, cannot understand how she becomes the person you see in the later part of the film: someone bitter and reclusive, and so judgmental that she’s apt to provoke quarrels even with her beloved Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). Part of the reason for the change, surely, is the long-term effect of the constraints imposed on women, which she feels keenly and does not shy from denouncing. Another reason: Her physical maladies wrack her more and more terribly.

Dickinson’s debilitating fits, filmed and acted with impeccable precision, arouse a natural pity and terror in you; meanwhile, her eloquent attacks on male privilege and female submission elicit an almost automatic assent from a 2017 audience. Emotional money in the bank, you might say, well-earned but not mysterious. And yet, despite whatever skepticism you might share with Dickinson and Davies, there is a residual hint of magic in A Quiet Passion. You find it in the inexplicable circumstance that Davies’s artifice, though blatant, comes to seem less obtrusive as the film goes on, while your engagement with Dickinson’s character grows deeper even as she becomes more off-putting.

I’d say your acceptance of the artifice is less a matter of habituation—I never did get used to the arch dialogue—than of your coming to feel how thoroughly the film is steeped in Dickinson’s poetry. Early on, for example, when a pious aunt advises Emily not to be afraid of death, you very distinctly hear a fly buzz. Or to take another example: When Emily first holds her newborn nephew (played by the dullest, lumpiest baby the waggish Davies could find), she looks him in the face and coos, “I’m Nobody. Who are you?” As with the passing incidents, so too with the compositions: Davies repeatedly arranges his figures the way Dickinson carves out her stanzas, sculpting the actors into solid, steadily observed groups of two and three.

As for the way Dickinson becomes increasingly compelling, some credit must go to Davies, who has proved himself over the years to be one of the great directors of actresses, but most is emphatically due to the extraordinary Cynthia Nixon. Like any good performer, Nixon knows how to play a subtext. Unlike all but the very best, she can show you layer upon translucent layer, until her character’s states of mind take on the clarity and complexity of a polyphonic texture.

When she shouts at the servants, you feel Dickinson’s impatience at their clumsiness, recognize her terror at her own sudden infirmity, and see how she blames herself for being physically weak, all at once. When she dares to put one of her little sewn books into the hands of the Rev. Charles Wadsworth, you sense her deep need for intellectual companionship and respect, mingled with fear of being dismissed, reserves of anger (held ready in case of dismissal), and semi-suppressed sexual longing. Nixon gives as detailed, and yet as unaffected, a performance as you could hope to see, even when the words drop away and her acting is entirely physical. During Dickinson’s final illness, when she’s shaking uncontrollably in bed, it’s undecidable whether Nixon is wearing the expression of someone staring in horror or caught up in ecstasy.

This is how materialism and doubt may triumph in poetry, and do triumph in A Quiet Passion. You see Nixon’s face framed in the crack of a shadowed door—Dickinson is listening with misgivings to a soiree in the parlor below—and the word “stricken” comes to mind, as if to sum up what you’re seeing and so allow you to move on. But as Davies holds the shot, and Nixon holds the pose, it becomes obvious that those two explanatory syllables fail the facts that are before you: the skin’s pallor, the neck’s cords, the grooves running down either side of the nose, the unblinking eyes that stare into nothing. “Stricken” cannot cover all that. You realize, as you do again and again in A Quiet Passion, that only the particulars matter—the pebbles and bleached bones, laid out (as they are here) in an order that’s made just for them and is just right for this moment.

So teach us to number our days.

Among the remarkable people I learned about through Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s documentary Karl Marx City is Dr. Udo Grashoff, a lecturer in modern German history at University College London who has developed a specialty in suicide notes. Early in the film, Epperlein consults this gently understanding man to help interpret the letter, at once casual and strangely formal, that her father sent her in 1999 from his home in Chemnitz (or Karl-Marx-Stadt, as this now-crumbling industrial center of East Germany was known from 1953 through 1990), just before he hanged himself.

There were other letters too, anonymous ones, which made their way to Epperlein’s mother not long after the suicide, accusing her husband of having been an informer for the Stasi. Karl Marx City documents Epperlein’s return to her birthplace 15 years later, camera crew in tow, to investigate whether this damning allegation was true, and whether it might have had something to do with her father’s death.

There are many questions to confront, not least of which is whether Epperlein really needed the crew. The Stasi recorded everybody, all the time, so she is able to piece together a disconcertingly complete picture of her childhood using spoiled, overripe color footage dug out of the vast Stasi archive. For explanatory purposes, she also pastes in materials like excerpts from Stasi training films, which illustrate methods for surreptitious shooting in the streets and parks, and surveillance video from an interrogation room. As if to underscore the omnipresence of the Stasi and its informers—and the omnipresent anxiety that everything might be known and no one trusted—Epperlein sometimes shows herself retracing the steps the agents would have taken through the city. You hear sounds recorded covertly in decades past, as Epperlein, wearing professional headphones and a leather coat, openly carries her microphone and recorder through the same snowy, now-deserted plazas and streets.

You might already know Epperlein’s work from the excellent 2004 Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace that she also made with Michael Tucker. It was, so to speak, a hot documentary, filmed in the midst of combat, but it offered the nuances of wartime surrealism (having been shot, in large measure, in the ruins of a Hussein family mansion) and the unfiltered voices of US soldiers. Karl Marx City is a cool documentary, reflective and self-distanced, despite the urgency of Epperlein’s questions about her father. It begins by asking what she reliably knew about him, then goes on to ask what she knows about herself, what the citizens of the former German Democratic Republic choose to acknowledge or forget, and what people in the rest of the world care to understand or ignore about the GDR, if they ever think of it at all. Ghosts hover in Chemnitz: memories of the dead, like Epperlein’s father, and audiovisual shades of Karl-Marx-Stadt that history has otherwise wiped away. You might say that Epperlein picks up their signals as she trudges about with her microphone. She reminds us that they don’t come from the world beyond, but from ours.

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