Closing images

Advance warning: the post that follows necessarily reveals the resolution of both Éric Rohmer’s Conte d’automne (Autumn Tale) and Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet.  If you haven’t seen either and would rather do so without spoilers, save this for later.

I’m convinced that at some point in the 80s a law was passed forbidding the making of pictures without twist endings (or, the more the merrier, a final twist to the twist; usually one twist too many).  This was already questionable when confined to genres that might more obviously benefit (mystery, suspense, horror); but it has spread everywhere, to far less interest far less often than filmmakers seem to hope.  A recent example of an otherwise enjoyable film messily impaling itself on its final twist was Tom Ford’s A Single Man, which managed a quadruple whammy: it was facile, it was pompous, it insulted the audience’s intelligence and, astonishingly, betrayed everything that preceded it by keeping the original end. I’ll explain: the structuring device Ford invented to hang his film on was clever, strong, very believable and very moving. Unfortunately, it also completely undermined the conclusion of Isherwood’s source novel, which, by following on from said device, fell from poignant reminder of life’s unpredictability to cloying, pseudo-profound “message” on the (cheap) “ironies” of life. In other words, what had been a twist in the novel turned into a waste in the film.

This is not to say that final twists should be banned and any perpetrators tarred and feathered; but these things need to be earned. They do not obey to formula, which should be obvious from their very nature; but you’d be surprised. However, when properly used, such devices throw new light on all that came before them and open the door to new, more exciting readings. A good final twist has the effect of extending the film beyond the end of the screening and into conversations that will go on for weeks afterwards. Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom is a spectacular example, in that it is a caper movie, where convoluted endings are a given, and still manages to use the very predictability of its genre conventions to convincingly throw everything up in the air and have you juggling multiple possible endings long after the fact.

But it doesn’t have to be about fireworks, it doesn’t have to be dramatic, it barely needs to be noticeable. I have here two films which, on their very last frames, offer, rather than revelations or surprises, confirmations and insights; which are so subtle you may miss them, especially if you’re the kind of viewer who rushes out as soon as the end credits start rolling.  (But if you were, you wouldn’t be likely to be watching these two films in the first place.  Or reading this, for that matter.)

Both films close on images that clash with, or at the very least sit very oddly next to, their respective endings, raising awkward questions about the harmony of each film’s resolution.  Both are comedies, both follow the classical tradition of solving every conflict, reconciling all the virtuous characters and pairing off all the couples (there is no punishment of villains, because neither comedy has any). Right until the final frame, that is; then, look at the images.

Conte d’automne

Isabelle (Marie Rivière)’s daughter’s wedding party. Isabelle is having a double celebration: for her daughter, and for her best friend Magali (Béatrice Romand), whom she has finally managed to pair up with Gérald (Alain Libolt), a suitor she found via petits annonces – behind Magali’s back, as Magali loathed the very idea – and who, in the great tradition of such comedies, she had to court herself, impersonating Magali. It must be observed that she did not remain entirely disinterested on a personal level. It was a fleeting thing, though; everything is again under control, after some mild embarrassment. Magali and Gérald have left the party together, and Isabelle dances, gaily, with her husband Jean-Jacques (Yves Alcaïs) and the newlyweds. The credits start to roll while the party continues. The end.

A happy end, fully in keeping with tradition: were it not for two, let’s say, hiccups: one, Magali’s son Léo (Stéphane Darmon) is in love with Rosine (Alexia Portal), who clearly doesn’t care for him and has not got over her ex-teacher Étienne (Didier Sandre). Far from being resolved harmoniously, the situation remains open, and all three characters remain frustrated (though I suppose this could be the “punishment” of each character’s flaws, Léo’s being, presumably, foolishness, as he knows full well how Rosine feels for him). Two, well… here is the final frame before we fade to black. Look at Isabelle, and tell me if this is a happy woman:

Screen capture from "Conte d'automne" (1998, ph. Diane Baratier): Isabelle dances with Jean-Jacques, but how much is she really there?

Apparently, this last look was an unscripted invention of Rivière, found by Mary Stephen while trying out various edits of the dance footage. Rivière would have had a hard time to convince Rohmer to use it, and he would have been adamant about having the end credits appear before it. This could be seen as an attempt to disguise or neutralise that last look; on the other hand, Stephen says Rohmer loved her edit once he saw it and he is on record about the great importance of that last glance, having even instructed cinemas not to turn the lights up at all until projection was truly finished. The placement of the end credits may have rather been a strategy to highlight that closing image.

None of this makes any difference, of course: however this end was arrived at, Rohmer showed tremendous wisdom in accepting it and indeed enhancing it so carefully. Conte d’automne would have lost much of its poignancy if it had ended with unambiguous happiness. Not only that, it obeys the flow of the seasons: Isabelle’s last look prefigures the winter to come.

The Wedding Banquet

Mr and Mrs Gao (Sihung Lung and Ya-lei Kuei) are going through the security checks before they board the plane that will take them back to Taiwan. They had a mission in New York: their son Wai-Tung (Winston Chao)  must marry, the wedding must be duly celebrated and progeny must follow. All of this has been accomplished (we know a child is on its way), albeit not precisely on ideal terms. The Gaos were forced to accept a decidedly unusual matrimonial arrangement and learned more about their son than either of them – certainly Mrs Gao – might have wished to know. The wedding banquet, organised by an old friend who understands and respects the old ways, was the one unambiguous achievement. Much compromising was required of the Gaos. Bear in mind they are a very traditional couple from a very traditional culture, who hold on to weighty, centuries-old beliefs, rites and conventions, and to whom no compromise in such areas can ever be a trifling matter.

Nevertheless, compromises were made, and with good grace. (Mostly.) This is a comedy, everything ends well, everybody who was in conflict with someone else is reconciled, moral and emotional lessons are learned, and although no bond was strictly speaking false to begin with, all bonds evolve into more genuine versions of themselves.

And yet: look at the final frame. It is grim. An aging couple, their backs to us, the husband with his arms held up, submitting to a body search by an airport official. His graceful, swooping gesture as he lifts his arms – echoing previous scenes throughout the film where he was seen exercising – does not in the least compensate for the awkwardness of the situation; on the contrary, the meekness with which he submits to this ritual (which, unlike those he believes in, is demeaning) makes the scene poignant. The sliver of a profile we get from his wife shows patience and resignation, but also sadness. If we had wandered in at this point, we might easily assume this scene belonged to a bleak drama: the happiness of this couple doesn’t look secure at all. From this we fade into black.

Screen capture from "The Wedding Banquet" (1983, ph. Jong Lin): Mr and Mrs Gao yield.

The Wedding Banquet is very concerned with the role of hypocrisy in papering over the differences between people (particularly the differences people would rather weren’t there), be it in close familial quarters or in society at large. It understands this role as essential, something that cannot be discarded without structural damage. It doesn’t really question this strategy – perhaps the screenwriters (Ang Lee, Neil Peng and James Schamus) believe in it, perhaps they are just pragmatic. No: it is as it is, and one plays along if one is to play at all. An alternative title could have been The Art of Overlooking.

And yet (again): look at the final frame. There is a price to overlooking things that make you uncomfortable: Lee leaves us with a striking reminder of that price, and a hint that it may be dearer than we imagined. This is more than just stating that not all is well in Paradise; it reminds us that it’s up to us to make it well, which is not always easy to do. No deus ex machina is at hand to reconcile, and any epiphanies – if they can still be called so in such circumstances – must be earned. Acceptance requires discipline.

P.S. – as usual, WordPress won’t let me add links to the captions, so Diane Baratier and Jong Lin were left without, above. Here they are.

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