3.1. Memory, Time and Cinema
Together with co-writer Eskil Vogt, Trier’s declared ambition is to explore the structure of thought as it relates to time and memory. Discussing his admiration for filmmakers such as Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman and Nicholas Roeg, Trier comments:
So there’s that sense of sliding time and association, the way the mind works. It’s that kind of more fragmented, but more real, way the mind works. They’re movies of the mind. Hiroshima mon amour is a great example, or Tarkovsky’s The Mirror—time and time again you get into the phenomenology of memory, like how the mind perceives the past and the present in a very jumbled way, which you can do in literature as well, but cinema has its own way of doing that.
Taken together, these principles allow for sequences which are meta-cinematic in the sense that they evoke the medium-specific potential of film to gesture to memory as process. Put differently, the sequences often seem to explore how cinema remembers, as well as how the characters remember. Trier’s interest in memory on the film shapes the narratives themselves: “direct images of time present contingent narrations” (Rodowick 1997, p. 95
). In other words, by exploring how past, present and memory are thought, narrative chronology and cause and effect are, inevitably, destabilized; furthermore, memory is thematised, so that form and content turn back on themselves.
All four films emphasise and explore the paradoxes of time and memory which Deleuze sees as the domain of time-image cinema: “making visible those relationships of time which can only appear in a creation of the image” (Deleuze 2005, p. xiii
). A central concern for the films, and for the current discussion, is how they “make visible” the process of remembering, or, as Trier says in the above interview, “the phenomenology of memory”. Certain tactile visual tropes which carry affective power recur in the readings of the films offered below: the hands, water, shattered glass; sound, too, is important in the films’ laying down (or unveiling) of memories. In envisioning memory, Trier suggests, cinema “shows you space and light and the process of that, which are fundamental elements of how humans perceive things” (Weston 2016
). Fundamentally, Trier regards himself as a filmmaker who is attuned to the material world, one who will pay attention to “the wind in the trees” and who wants there “to be more of a smell to what I do” (Heeney 2017
On the other hand, confronting memory demands an engagement with the abstract. Deleuze’s Cinema
books are at heart a grappling with Henri Bergson’s theory of time and memory, which Deleuze summarizes thus: “the past coexists with the present that it has been; the past is preserved in itself, as past in general (non-chronological); at each moment time splits itself into present and past, present that passes and past that is preserved” (Deleuze 2005, p. 80
). Or, re-phrased elegantly by David Rodowick: “Rather than a chronological and successive addition of spatial moments, time continually divides into a present that is passing, a past that is preserved, and an indeterminate future” (Rodowick 1997, p. 81
). The past co-exists with itself non-chronologically; it is “a virtual archive wherein we leap to link memory with an image that could represent it” (Rodowick 1997, p. 99
This conception of the past chimes with Trier’s remark during the “Sublime Image” discussion that he regards image-making as driven by the urge to represent fragments of the past (Nasjonalbiblioteket 2017
). It is surely no coincidence that one of Trier’s greatest influences, Alain Resnais (Weston 2016
), is identified by Deleuze as one of the few filmmakers to achieve a direct image of time, by structuring his narratives (for example, Last Year in Marienbad
, 1961) as “sheets of past” and “peaks of present” (Deleuze 2005, pp. 100–1
). In such a film, distinctions between real and imaginary, actual and virtual, and subjective and objective are made, but the categories are reversible; they are “incompossible”. Trier’s films each engage with time and memory in different ways, but in doing so, they also echo—or remember—each other. As Trier himself puts it, “Different songs, same album” (Weston 2016
3.2. Reprise (2006)
From its first moments, Reprise announces itself as a narrative in the future conditional. Two aspiring writers, Erik and Philip, push their respective novel drafts into a postbox, and the voiceover recounts a chain of events that “would have” happened. This conceit is repeated towards the end of the film, by which time the viewer is uncertain what has really happened, or will happen, or would have happened in a different version of the story. This kind of non-linear narrative is further complicated by flashbacks, by back-story vignettes explaining how various characters met, by diegetic and non-diegetic countdowns from 10 to 0 heralding events, and by a plot element which involves Philip deliberately re-enacting the Paris holiday during which he and his girlfriend Kari fell in love.
Embedded in the plot is a clue to how the film thinks its own narrative structure: the first novel by a (fictional) writer worshipped by Erik and Philip, Sten Egil Dahl, is entitled Krystall (Crystal). Whether we take this as a simple metaphor or an allusion to Deleuze’s crystal-image, it provokes reflection (pun intended) on how stories and memories oscillate between the real and the imaginary in Reprise, and how time seems to fold and refract.
Deleuze’s conclusions about the crystal-image towards the end of Cinema 2
resonates with the undecidability of the status of the parcels of time in Reprise
. The crystal-image, he writes, no longer gives us
the empirical progression of time as succession of presents, nor its indirect representation as interval or as whole; it is its direct presentation, its constitutive dividing in two into a present which is passing and a past which is preserved, the strict contemporaneity of the present with the past that it will be, of the past with the present that it has been. It is time itself which arises in the crystal, and which is constantly recommending its dividing in two without completing it, since the indiscernible exchange is always renewed and reproduced.
The Parisian sub-plot in Reprise is particularly illustrative of the film’s refusal to privilege past/present, or reality/fiction. While Philip and Kari’s first holiday is shown only in a single shot during a “would have …” montage, the holiday redux is shown in some detail, but in ways that layer the first trip onto the second, or vice versa. The plane tickets are purchased for the same day of the year as the first holiday, the lovers visit the same places, and Philip tries to reproduce the smallest details of photographs he took the first time round. Their conversations concern the first holiday: when did they each know they were in love with the other, were they happy, which night did they first have sex. Repeatedly, the dialogue is relegated to voice-over or voice-off, not synched with the shot-reverse-shots and two-shots, such that it is unclear whether the conversation and/or the place emanates from the first holiday or the second, and thus belongs to both.
Another notable element of style is handheld extreme close-ups during such conversations, of faces, hands, legs, the nape of the neck. It could be argued that this attention to the flesh roots the image in the present, with an invitation to kinaesthetic empathy. However, as we know from the work of Laura Marks and others, cinema “appeals to contact—to embodied knowledge, and to the sense of touch in particular—in order to recreate memories” (Marks 2000, p. 129
). The camera’s lingering on the skin in the present conjures up the feel of those same bodies in the past, further elaborating the incompossibility of the two holidays.
In a sense, the story of the repeated holiday anchors time in Reprise. It is the plot point most obviously related to the film’s title. The notion of present time folding back on itself to duplicate a past event is viscerally graspable as Philip and Kari’s bodies writhe entwined in the hotel room—and it is coitus interruptus that viscerally pulls the two apart.
The rest of the film feels like a shattering of crystal in process. The metaphor is rendered literal by Philip’s first episode of psychosis, during which he smashes a window, leaving deep cuts in his cheek and hands (fulfilling the promise of the hand-on-window shot described above). The resulting scars are fleshly reminders that in biological time, at least, a before and after can be marked. The film’s ending also suggests a temporal absolute marked by a bodily event. A sequence late in the film shows Philip, by now depressed again, eyeing up a multi-story building and ascending in an elevator as a voice-off counts down from 10 to 0 in a litany we have come to associate with Philip. Rather than throw himself from the roof, it transpires, he is there to visit Kari, and he is institutionalised again after a psychotic episode in her workplace. The end credits of Reprise, however, begin with a similar countdown over a black screen, the end of which coincides with a dull and meaty thud and the appearance of an emphatic “SLUTT” (THE END) on screen. The affective force of this unseen, unconfirmed event brings the real and virtual story-vectors to a visceral ground zero.
3.3. Oslo August 31 (2011)
, the title of Trier’s second feature is suggestive of an acute interest in time and memory. The interest is made explicit in the opening montage of Oslo August 31
. Five stationary shots of deserted city streets are voiced over with fragments of memories: “I remember the first dip of the year in the Oslo Fjord”; “I remember driving into the deserted city”. This is a compelling opening to a film which establishes the city as a character, and one with a memory. In Bliss Lim’s words, “[p]laces have long memories; space is neither static nor solid but vibrates with both permanence and becoming” (Lim 2009, p. 37
The tone of the images in this sequence, and the recollections, changes with the observation: “I remember thinking: I’ll remember this”. Thereafter, the montage alternates between home video clips and footage from different eras (as suggested by cars and the fashions worn by passers-by). In its juxtaposition of film stocks and periods, the montage makes the case for cinema as the analogue repository of personal and collective memory, here erupting into the film as “peaks of present”.
Indeed, the end of the same opening montage doubles down on this suggestion. The sequence ends with video camera footage from the demolition of Philipsbygget, the Philips Building, in the Majorstuen district of Oslo in April 2000 (Wikipedia 2018
). “I remember when they demolished the Philips Building”, an anonymous voice muses, and the camera goes down with the office block in an overwhelming hissy rumble. Given that the building shares its name with the main character in Reprise
, whose life may or may not have ended at the foot of another office block, Oslo August 31
seems also through this echo to declare itself qua
film to have a memory.
Like its predecessor, Oslo August 31 works with editing and sound design to imbue encounters between characters with a temporality that merges event and its remembrance, present and past. An extended walk and conversation between the main character, recovering drug addict Anders, and his best friend, Thomas, at first places the friends in parks and side streets around central Oslo. That the film elides their movements between their stopping places gives the sequence a fragmentary air which is compounded when they are about to say their goodbyes. While the audio of the dialogue continues, jump cuts replace footage of the moments of speaking with images of Thomas looking at his friend with fondness and concern. Edited into the conversation as it takes place, then, is Thomas’s memory of his last moments alone with Anders; the transitional remark in the opening montage—“I remember thinking: I’ll remember this”—could just as well belong to Thomas.
While this memory can reasonably be attributed to Thomas, the film’s closing sequence returns to the sense of a non-attributable memory that could variously belong to Anders, the city, or the film itself. In the early hours of the morning of August 31, Anders has gone to a public swimming pool with three others he met at a party the night before. The girl on whose cycle he has piggybacked through the city in clouds of fog from the fire extinguishers they have picked up jumps into the pool in her underwear, and beckons him to follow. Anders smiles, considering. There is a jump cut, and he is gone. He heads to his parents’ empty house in the leafy suburbs, and takes his own life with an overdose of heroin. As Anders lies sprawled on his parents’ bed, a needle hanging out of his arm, the camera moves infinitesimally outwards and away from him, breaking a pattern of very slow zooms and dollies into the mise-en-scène. The movement reverses with the next few shots, which each depict a place where Anders has visited over the previous 24 h: a park bench, a balcony, the pool, all of them now empty.
If we were to try to pin down the owner of these recollection-images, it would be possible to argue that they are associated with Anders, his life flashing before his eyes as he passes away. As Trier says, an important implication in the film is that Anders “revisits the places of his past, perhaps for the last time” (Heeney 2017
). Or we could associate them with Anders’ friends, who have spent time with him in these places, and will soon be mourning and remembering him. Or with the city itself, its spaces imprinted with the microscopic traces of the bodies and stories that have passed through them. Or with the film itself, reasserting its power to preserve and to overwrite images and thus memories. Or even with time itself, the cycle of the days: the title of the film, significantly, is the new day that is dawning as Anders takes his life—the day he will not live to see, the day after his last day. In this context I think we need not—must not—decide. We can also usefully appeal to Lim’s term “immiscible”, by which she means “traces of untranslatable temporal otherness…multiple times that never quite dissolve into the code of modern time consciousness, discrete temporalities incapable of attaining homogeneity with or full incorporation into a uniform chronological present” (Lim 2009, p. 12
Such stagings of the sublime of memory are connected in Trier’s other films to the image of the crystal, rendered literal. In Oslo August 31
, there is no shattered glass to play this role. However, there is a sequence which can be read as a variant on this trope. On the afternoon of his interview, Anders sits alone in a café, listening to the voices around him. The café is spacious and light, walled on two sides with plate glass. This encloses Anders in a kind of crystal, from which city life moving vibrantly outside as well as inside can be glimpsed. Exquisite sound design tracks how his attention shifts between conversations: fragments of teenage chat about Kurt Cobain’s suicide, or mothers comparing stories of their children. A young girl reads a ‘bucket-list’ from her computer screen. It is a laughably long and ambitious litany of her desires for the future, and encompasses single events and lifelong projections, ranging from swimming with dolphins to staying in a long and happy marriage. The temporality is dizzying, and arguably a quotidian expression of a Bergsonian conception of time: “Just as the past may be considered simultaneously all of the past in general, as distinct layers of regions, or as contracted entirely into the moving point of a present passing, the present fragments into a present of the future, a present of the present, and a present of the past” (Rodowick 1997, p. 100
Meanwhile, attention wanders to two passers-by. One man crosses into the nearby park, tracked by the camera, and sits down on a bench in despair. A woman in work-out gear is on her way home via the supermarket. The camera follows her into the aisles and back to her apartment, where she slumps, depressed, over the kitchen counter. These two abortive routes out into the world both wash up against walls of melancholy. There is no deciding whether they are slices of real life or the trajectories Anders imagines for the passers-by: they move off into the “present of the future” while the voices around him in the glassy box weave their own times. He is in the city, and the city is in him.
3.4. Louder than Bombs (2015)
In its title and in its central iteration of the immiscibility of memory, Louder than Bombs
gives us the sublime “explosions” that Deleuze and Guattari call for (Zepke 2011, p. 81
). The film’s central character, Isabelle, already deceased, was a war photographer and mother of two sons, Jonah and Conrad, and married to Gene; the mystery that undergirds Louder than Bombs
is whether her fatal car accident was a suicide. The accident itself is envisioned as one amongst a broader set of questions and conflicting memories of Isabelle, both quotidian and more existential (did she see Conrad that day in the garden when they were playing hide-and-seek? Was she having an affair?), as well as other questions of perspective on events.
A sequence centering on the apparently troubled behavior of the younger son, Conrad, arguably does most to establish the film’s agnostic approach to how memory and cinema visualize events. Conrad is in school, listening to a piece of creative writing being read aloud. The words trigger his imaginings about how his mother died. First there is the moment of impact itself, imagined side-one, so that Isabelle is catapulted forward amidst a slow-motion sea of glass shards. In Louder than Bombs, the shattered glass has graduated from the detritus on the floor that bears witness to Philip’s destructive rage in Reprise; here, the crystals are in flight, forming and re-forming a sort of prismatic screen behind the screen. The reverie continues as Conrad imagines versions of events: perhaps she drifted off to sleep? Isabelle is seen behind the wheel, her eyes growing heavy. She nods off, swerves, and finds herself in the path of a truck. A second version has her swerving to avoid a deer on the road, the truck headlights bearing down on the windscreen, which explodes. A third perspective is from the roadside, as the car is flung into the air on impact and spins almost gracefully, Isabelle’s distinctive auburn hair and face frozen in shock visible through the side window. The stream of images is balletic, bloodless, and sublime. (I remembered this sequence as being repeated in the film, but in fact it occurs only once—and sticks).
Conrad’s reconstruction of alternative versions of the crash is situated within a longer sub-plot which explores his relationship with his father. Before the car crash reverie, Gene had followed Conrad after school, observing from a distance while he sat alone in the park, gestured puzzlingly with his hand outside a coffee shop, and wandered to the graveyard where his mother was buried, only to throw himself violently onto the grave of an unknown man. After Conrad’s imaginings about the car crash are revealed, his perspective on the after-school walk plays out: the same phone call from his father in the park, and the same visit to the coffee shop and graveyard, but now with the knowledge that he had glimpsed his father tailing him in a reflection on the coffee shop’s gleaming counter. The brief shot which reveals that Conrad has seen his father is a kind of map of the crystal image: it shows Gene in miniature, watching, surrounded on screen by reflections from within the cafe, the cafe window, the waiter behind the counter. Though less geometrical than the polygons or multiple facets of a ring that Deleuze identifies as the ultimate expressions of the crystal-image, in a similar way, this shot of a banal situation leaves Gene as “no more than one virtuality among others” (Deleuze 2005, p. 68
). Later yet, when Jonah reads Conrad’s diary, it is revealed that though his hand gesture is a fantasy of being able to affect the world materially, throwing himself on the unknown grave was a ploy to confuse his father.
As in both previous feature films, sound is used to de-couple memory from one subject and one time. Conrad’s reverie in the classroom is triggered by a literary text read aloud by a classmate, which poses the question: what was this person thinking in extremis, when she realized the accident was inevitable? Later on, there is an echo of this device in the montage sequence that accompanies Jonah’s reading of his brother’s piece of creative writing—a mash-up of random memories and facts about him—the text of which is heard in Conrad’s own voiceover.
The self-conscious play with perspectives and versions unfolds against the backdrop of Isabelle’s career as a war photographer. Conrad remembers how she explained to him that cropping a photograph could transform its meaning, and this is demonstrated in the stream-of-consciousness montage that accompanies his diary. That Isabelle’s work is now being prepared for a retrospective curated by a man who may be her former lover contrasts the sturdy analogue indexicality of her war photographs with the shifting uncertainties of her family entanglements and the mysteries she left behind. Conrad, too, discusses her photography in the same breath as he details his interest in how dead bodies decompose in different climates. Jonah finds a tiny glimpse of visual evidence that his mother was having an affair only by enlarging a digital scan of one of the photographs. The physical, sensual relation connection to the lost mother that Barthes retrieves from her photographic image in Camera Lucida
is here torn to shreds (Barthes 1980
A shimmer of the reassurance of the indexical image is recapitulated, however. Half an hour from the end of Louder than Bombs
, Isabelle seems to emerge from the crystal of her husband’s and son’s memories of her, and looks directly into the camera for just over thirty seconds. This is a pure affection-image; her face in close-up is slightly off-center so that an undefined dark space can be seen behind her hair. There is silence. The camera is slightly unsteady and clearly handheld. In fact, it was held by Joachim Trier, whose regular cinematographer, Jakob Ihre, felt it was important that the director take this shot: “I was sitting on a little wooden box facing Isabelle and filmed her for three minutes and she didn’t blink” (Weston 2016
). This is not just a detail of the production story; there is something symbolic about the director committing to analogue film the extended moment in which Isabelle comes into her own as subject in her encounter with the camera and viewer. In this encounter, we enjoy, as Thain puts it, “the suspension of action that accompanies the intensity of affect itself” (Thain 2017, p. 34
3.5. Thelma (2017)
Shattered glass is also at the heart of Thelma. Traumatized by her realization that she is in love with another young woman, Anja, the eponymous main character inadvertently makes the object of her desire disappear through a plate glass window in a vortex of glass shards, leaving only a strand of dark hair trapped in a crack in the reconfigured pane. This power to affect the material world is also manifested in Thelma’s apparent ability to reanimate dead birds, call people to her, move buildings as if by the force of an earthquake, and heal the lame—her mother regains the ability to walk at the end of the film at the touch of Thelma’s hand. However, because her abilities are driven by her desires, as a child, Thelma had killed her baby brother by moving him telekinetically to the middle of an ice-bound lake—under the ice. And her troubled, co-dependent relationship with her controlling father, Trond, meets its resolution out on that same lake, as he spontaneously combusts.
For much of the film, Thelma does not understand her own power. The first sign of trouble comes in the intense hush of the university library. A murmuration of black birds forms in the sky outside, and Thelma falls to the floor in the grip of what seems to be an epileptic seizure, as birds crash into the library windows. Medical investigations can find no obvious malady. It transpires that Thelma has inherited a condition from her grandmother, who has spent much of her life drugged in a nursing home; a kinder fate than being burnt at the stake, as an on-screen Wikipedia search reveals had been doled out to medieval sufferers of the condition. Remembering how she had used her powers as a child, and coming to terms with her actions, is the key to controlling her ability to manifest her desires.
Thus, while repressed memory is a key plot point in Thelma
, this film’s concern is not so much to explore the sublime ambiguities of memory, as in Trier’s earlier films. The turn to a “gaze from somewhere else” discussed earlier seems congruent with a non-human force, the same realm, perhaps, from which Thelma’s otherworldly powers emanate, and into which Anja is sucked. This gaze, like Thelma’s power, is ungraspable—and thus sublime—and conceived as such by the filmmaker himself. We could read it in terms of Lim’s discussion of the “immiscible” temporalities that often obtain in fantastical films, making other times heard, seen and felt. Such temporalities are “multiple times that never quite dissolve into the code of modern time consciousness, discrete temporalities incapable of attaining homogeneity with or full incorporation into a uniform chronological present” (Lim 2009, p. 12
). While Lim’s concern is with the temporalities of other cultures, Thelma
’s exploration of queer love and the repression of women’s witchcraft places its “gaze from elsewhere” somewhere other than the dominant culture.
The set-pieces in which Thelma (and Thelma
) literally move(s) the world can be read as stagings of cinematic affect. As noted previously, Trier’s films often make recourse to affection-images and close, sensual encounters with bodies when a remembered event seems to be oscillating between one sheet of time and another. The extreme close-up, handheld camera work and the interest in flesh continues in Thelma
, particularly in the tentative sensual encounters between Thelma and her lover. But this is a genre film, under the rules of “body-horror” (Stolworthy 2017
), and as such, the cinematography is not restricted to naturalism. Thelma’s arousal and desire are transmediated into physical effects on the world. The most memorable such set-piece takes place in Oslo Opera House, a recently-completed landmark on the harbor front (Operahuset 2018
). Invited to a contemporary dance performance by her lover and her mother, Thelma is enraptured by the choreography, and distracted by Anja’s hand caressing her thigh. As her arousal and shame build, the monumental architectonics of the opera hall ceiling begin to sway. Like massive Viking ships, the acoustic structures up above form a slow, powerful counterpoint to the frantic writhings of the dancers on stage. In this cross-cutting, the deep seismographic rumblings of arousal overhead are set in relation with proprioceptive rhythms of dance performance. Two on-screen temporalities are choreographed with the intensity of related affects that are produced in the moment of viewing.