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This article was originally published in Architectural Review Asia-Pacific magazine #128: New Civic Realms.
Above: Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, 2010
In the prologue to the sublimely delirious French film Holy Motors (2012), a man suddenly wakes up in his hotel room, as if disturbed by some mysterious presence (other than the dog who sleeps beside him). This is, in fact, the film’s director: Leos Carax. In his pyjamas, of course. He begins to slowly make his way around the room: we see a view of the nocturnal city through a large window, a laptop, an ashtray … and then some very odd wallpaper of trees adorning the whole of one wall. Carax explores this wall, finds the trace of a hidden door, tries to push it open. His finger, now morphed (David Cronenberg-style) into a key, gives him access. He walks down a corridor and finds himself, magically, in a darkened cinema where people sit like zombies before the projector’s light beam. Carax looks around, curious. Suddenly the film cuts: there is a large, white, modern house that looks a little like an ocean liner, with a little girl sitting forlornly inside a window.
All three spaces (hotel, theatre, house) are linked by a common, overlaid sound, the source of which is never glimpsed: the dull murmur and regular horn blasts of a shipping port. We have the surreal sense of being
submerged into some strange aquarium, where public and private merge into one another, where every step of a character, and every edit of the film, drags us into a radically enlarged or reduced space. Transformative space, phantasmagoric space: this is the true meeting of architecture and cinema.
Many books and articles have approached the relationship between architecture and film in rather conventional ways, stressing the exterior, panoramic images of buildings and cityscapes, real or imagined, that we find in films such as the many versions of King Kong, Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991) or King Vidor’s extravagant revenge-melodrama of a wronged ‘visionary’ architect’ modelled on Frank Lloyd Wright, The Fountainhead (1949). Particular attention has been given to prominent examples of such ‘big city’ classics as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) – indeed, science fiction has become, almost by default, the preferred genre for commentators in this area. Some of the films in this field took a clever, low-budget approach: while Jean-Luc Godard in Alphaville (1965) used well-chosen architecture of his time to signify the dystopian, technocratic future, the recently deceased Chris Marker used photographs of long past wars and devastations to convey a post-apocalyptic condition in his La Jetée (1962).
But Holy Motors, and many films like it, brings architecture down to a more personal, intimate scale. Carax’s movies, as was the case with his earlier masterworks Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991), treat spaces and places strictly in terms of the human – and sometimes superhuman – passage through them. Each step brings not only a new angle or perspective, but also a new mood, a new plot possibility. Influenced by Situationist theories from the 1950s of psychogeography and ‘drifting’ – to which much current architectural theory pays lip service – Carax really puts his money where his mouth is, finding not only the known landmarks, but also the unknown, yet to be cherished ones.
Indeed, as Carax’s strange hero in Holy Motors – Denis Lavant in multiple roles – glides from appointment to appointment in his chauffeured car (itself an inner space given to miraculous expansion and contraction), we realise that the film as a whole is a peculiarly modern re-envisioning of the genre once known as the ‘city symphony’: an extraordinary number of unusual, out-of -the-way or effectively secret locations (factories, laboratories, back streets, the interior of the gutted Samaritaine department store) knit together to form an indelible, singular portrait of Paris – half-Romantic, half-Gothic.
Analysts of architecture in cinema often make the distinction between films shot on location, in real, available settings, and those built on sets, taking advantage of the full panoply of movie artifice (just shift a wall if you want a better angle…). This distinction usually draws a severe line between directors who command the resources to build or re-build entire city blocks (from Marcel Carné in Les Enfants du Paradis in 1945, to Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, via Carax’s surrealistic vision of Paris’ Pont-Neuf), and a movement such as Italian Neo-Realism after World War II where, as legend has it, filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini (Germany Year Zero; 1948) and Vittorio De Sica (Bicycle Thieves; 1948) simply took their cameras and often non-professional actors out into the streets and bombed-out ruins.
In fact, this distinction turns out to be less than useful. Just as the most brazen artifice can lead to stunning effects or atmospheres of reality in cinema, the seeming documentary impulse of many contemporary filmmakers has led, inexorably, to its own careful stylisation. The French director Éric Rohmer once put it very well: ‘They say that I and my comrades in the French New Wave swapped the mise-en-scène of the studio for the chance spontaneity of the street. Not so. We simply learned how to see our mise-en-scène already there, in the street.’
Take a look at a master artist and craftsman like Roman Polanski. Few filmmakers have investigated the expressive possibilities of the built environment with such rigour – whether he is recreating the to-and-fro movements of a boat on a movie set (Bitter Moon; 1992), or plunging his cast into the grimy, real-life bars and shops of a run-down London (Repulsion; 1965). In The Ghost Writer (2010), we see both the realism and expressionism of Polanski’s approach in equal measure: due to his ongoing legal problems, he painstakingly recreated British and American locations within the Babelsberg studios in Potsdam, Germany. Yet once we are inside the politician’s home that is the main setting for the plot, Polanski uses every trick up his sleeve to dramatise proceedings: reflections to double and triple identities, huge windows to blur the distinction between inside and outside or private and public, backdrops that can at one moment be ornately baroque, or at another starkly bare.
The final two shots of The Ghost Writer are like Polanski’s manifesto as a filmmaker. In the penultimate set-up, an incriminating note is passed, slowly and methodically, from hand to hand, from the bottom of a large room to the front: the camera stays with the letter and traces its passage. In the final image, a perkily triumphant Ewan McGregor strides out into the street: once he is out of the static frame, however, we hear the thud of a sudden car accident and watch papers scatter indifferently across the screen … Here Polanski demonstrates to us, magisterially, that film is, above all, the drama of space and place: closed, open, visible, invisible, audible, inaudible. An intimate metamorphosis.