A young, careworn-looking woman takes off her hat and sighs; when she looks up, she breaks into a smile; a young sailor is grinning at her in anticipation. Each face is held in close-up, shots alternating between the two so that we are invited to view each almost through the eyes of the other―almost, but not quite, because the camera is positioned just to the side of where a truly subjective placing would be. The woman starts to undress; the man looks to the side; there is a shot of a bed. The man turns his head back towards his companion, but the following shot is not of the woman’s face but of her legs and hands as she unlaces her boots. Returning to the man, we see his gaze tilted downwards, his expression a picture of lust. The next shot of the woman is of her head and shoulders, which are now naked; her back is towards the camera, and she slowly turns her head to meet the man’s gaze. We see him regarding the object of his desire before turning his head towards the bed again. A shot of the bed ends with a fade-to-black, suggesting eyes being closed, but before the screen turns entirely black, there’s a cut to the next shot: the woman turning her head away and closing her eyes in apparent pleasure. At first, cued by the turning of the man’s head, we might assume the shot of the bed to be his subjective view, but by ‘rhyming’ the fade-out with the woman’s closing her eyes, the film opens up the possibility of it being her subjective view. The next cut is not to the young man, but to the woman’s leg as she removes her boot and lets it fall; this time, as her arm swings for a moment by her side, her movements seem less seductive than exhausted. There’s one last shot of the bed, but the camera has moved closer to it this time. The last shot in this sequence is again of the woman; she winks, at the young man, and―almost―at the viewer. As the camera holds her in shot, her gaze maintains it focus, but her expression subtly changes: she purses her lip, shifts her lower jaw, and smiles somewhat shakily. While can read all sorts of things into this final close-up if we choose―bitterness, resignation, weariness, cynicism, sexual desire, love―no definitive reading is insisted upon, or possible. The camera’s playing with subjectivity and objectivity, with the sexually charged gaze of the man and the gaze of the woman as she observes that gaze, involves us closely with the characters yet also holds them at a distance, not allowing us to arrive at a settled response to them. The sequence of shots is further disrupted by the insertion of documentary footage of homeless men entering a shelter, a shot of a window, a doorbell etc., things bearing no obvious relation to the small human drama in the bedroom.
This scene takes place near the end of Alberto Cavalcanti’s luminous masterpiece Rien que les heures/Nothing But the Hours (a.k.a. Nothing But Time, 1926). Our experience of watching it is complicated by information conveyed by previous scenes. First, the young woman is a prostitute―something made clear near the beginning when we see her unsuccessfully trying to attract a potential customer. Is, then, the young man a paying client, a lover, or something else? His being a sailor might argue against a close attachment, but this is not something of which we can be sure. Another earlier scene showed the pair gazing at each other in apparent adoration at a dance hall―an image of contented romance contrasted with the intense expression of jealousy on the face of another man also present at the dance hall. Jealousy is, at least, the most obvious explanation for the intensity of this man’s expression (an earlier scene showed the same man kissing the same woman), but it’s not an explanation the film confirms. Do we see the dancers in a subjective shot from the other man’s point of view? Perhaps, but we can’t even be sure that he is looking at them, for the three are not shown in shot together. They do in fact share the screen at the same time, but it’s a tripartite split screen with the dancers in the middle, the intense-looking man on the left, and an accordionist on the right. Cavalcanti refuses us the grounds to be sure of the spatial relationship that exits between these characters (are they even in the same dance hall?). The dancers are framed in such a way as to suggest a proscenium arch; multiple exposure creates several copies of them dancing at once. A subjective shot conveying the emotional state of an observer? But both the intense man and the accordionist are facing away from the ‘proscenium’. A close-up of the intense man is followed by a second two shot of the dancers, the image in extreme soft-focus, which again suggests the emotional subjectivity of an observer. But then we return to the split screen, which disrupts again the connection we have drawn between the dancers and the intense man. Our attention might also be drawn to the fact that the sailor and the prostitute are not the only dancers in the middle portion of the screen; there is another, unrelated couple. What are they doing there?
The other complicating factor is that, before her meeting with the sailor in the bedroom, we have seen the young woman apparently acting as an accomplice to a crime resulting in murder. In this scene, she stands watch while, in an alley, the intense-looking man from the dance hall robs and then kills a newspaper seller (another recurring character, whose death had been foreshadowed by an encounter with a fortune teller). Indeed, it is the sailor’s inopportune arrival that causes the prostitute to lead him away from the crime scene and to the bedroom. When we later watch the young woman undressing, the not-quite-subjective shot underlines the fact that we do not see her through the sailor’s eyes because we have information about her he does not share, information that affects our response to her. At the same time, we have information that she does not share, for she is unaware that the planned robbery ended with an unplanned homicide. We are not granted a position of privileged knowledge, however, because there is much we do not know, much that remains puzzling. None of the characters is given a name; the prostitute is introduced with a title card referring to her as ‘la fille’. The nature of her relationship to the intense man, and the degree of her complicity in his crime, is unclear; her relationship with the sailor is likewise not elaborated. Can we even be sure of the chronology of events? The film gives us merely the fragments and hints of a melodrama, declining to provide us with enough detail to enable us to arrive at a stable understanding.
One of the claims often made of Rien que les heures is that it inaugurated the movement or genre known as the city symphony film, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Dziga Vertov’s extraordinary Man with a Movie Camera (1929) being the two most celebrated examples. Others include the Études sur Paris (André Sauvage, 1928), São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis (Adalberto Kemeny and Rudolf Rex Lustig, 1929) and Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle (José Leitão de Barros, 1930), as well as the shorter works Twenty-Four-Dollar Island (1927, Robert Flaherty), Skyscraper Symphony (1929, Robert Florey), Rain (1929, Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken) and À propos de Nice (1930, Jean Vigo). Manhatta, directed in 1921 by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, might be thought of as a kind of precursor. But what is a city symphony? Do the films share enough common features for us to consider them a coherent group? It’s certainly a very varied bunch. Skyscraper Symphony runs for under ten minutes; São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis for an hour and a half. Études sur Paris is almost entirely documentary in approach, fictional vignettes being absent except for one brief scene of a thwarted assignation. At the other end of the spectrum, a title card at the beginning of Lisbon, Anecdotal Chronicle denies that the film is a documentary at all, preferring the term anecdotal chronicle on the basis that it features several famous actors (although it is clear that many of the people who appear on screen are not professionals). The films of Ruttmann, Kemeny and Lustig, Leitão de Barros and Vigo are avowedly portraits of individual cities, their names included in the titles, while Vertov’s city is a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and Kharkiv, and Rain seems only incidentally to be about Amsterdam (it could just as easily have been filmed in Rotterdam). The frenetic montage of Man with a Movie Camera is not in the least like the leisurely grace of Études sur Paris; Vigo’s droll mockery of Nice’s wealthy tourists could not be further removed from the boosterish qualities of São Paulo, Symphony of the Metropolis. Many of these filmmakers were associated, to one degree or another, with left-wing politics; stark scenes of urban poverty in the films of Vigo and Cavalcanti highlight the miseries suffered by the losers in a capitalist economy. The poor, by contrast, are largely absent in São Paulo and Lisbon, neither of which is interested in offering an overtly political critique―indeed a disturbing strain of militaristic nationalism is evident in both. Also absent from São Paulo are non-white faces; a few are featured in Lisbon, but with no acknowledgement of the violence of Portugal’s colonial project. Some features are common to most city symphony films, notably a fascination with industrial machinery (plenty of shots of factories) and modern transport (ships, trains, cars, trams, chaotic or smooth-flowing).
One of the things that elements distinguishes Rien que les heures from the other city symphony films is the development of its fictional elements into dramatic story lines (oblique and elliptical though they may be) integrated with non-fiction scenes, the emotional power of melodrama combining with the truth-value of documentary (then a relatively recent concept) to give the work its sense of fullness and depth. In addition to the recurring characters already mentioned, another important figure is an old woman who staggers through alleys and across building sites, perhaps in search of food or shelter, or perhaps simply driven restlessly by despair or mental disturbance. This woman stands for all the ignored, disdained, downtrodden citizens of Paris, the ones who are usually left out of the familiar glamorous, romantic, sophisticated representations of the city, which are explicitly rejected near the beginning. Title cards announce that we are to be presented not with the fashionable and elegant life, but the daily life of the humble, the low-class (although the film does in fact include scenes of the fashionable and elegant life). To demonstrate the point, a shot of chic young ladies is frozen into a photograph, the image ripped up by a pair of hands into implausibly numerous small pieces. Next, a swanky car transforms by dissolve into a tired donkey and cart laden with bags. Such bold, even crude, transitions and contrasts are characteristic of the film: shots of attractive flowers and vegetables at a market are intercut with shots of flowers and vegetables discarded in bins; a well-dressed young man eats a steak while, framed by his plate, we see a scene at the slaughterhouse. Alongside effects such as these, there are beautiful shots of clouds moving across the sky, the rising and falling of a woman’s chest as she sleeps, morning light streaming through a grille, smoke ascending delicately from chimneys.
Rien que les heures is a collection of disparate fragments: fragments of a seamy melodrama, of a socially conscious record of the lives of the poor, of a rapturous and impressionistic cine-poem. As well as the Parisian setting, another thing these fragments have in common is an ever-present awareness of the inexorable passage of time, an awareness that adds poignancy to the brief, ecstatic moments of captured beauty; to the fleeting pleasures of alcohol, the swimming pool, the carousel, that provide relief from the grim routines of work; to the embracing lovers; to the consideration of the fragility of life (the murdered newspaper-seller) and the onset of old age (the wandering woman). ‘We can fix a point in space, freeze a moment in time,’ proclaims one title card; a bit later comes the reply, ‘but space and time both escape our possession’―an observation both tragic and charged with wonder. It’s also an observation made in the shadow of Einstein’s upending of the old certainties of physical reality, and the shots that occur between these two title cards play with this temporal and spatial disorientation. On a spinning globe, only two cities are marked: Paris and Peking (as Beijing was then known in the West), linked by a shared first letter, but in different time zones. We see postcards of Peking landmarks, referring back to the film’s opening statement that all cities would be identical were it not for the monuments that distinguish them. There follows a strange little scene featuring a Chinese woman being chased around a room by a Frenchman. In the background there is a folding screen decorated with images suggestive of contemporary European art, an ornamental blend of two cultures. The man and woman enter screen right, the woman apparently anxious to get away from the man. They exit screen left, but then immediately enter screen right again; this impossible circuit is repeated.* When we next see the spinning globe, it is first rotating at tremendous speed; there’s a slow dissolve to an image of oscillating back and forth hesitantly, the speed reducing until another dissolve shows an unmoving map of Africa and Eurasia, with Paris marked at one end of the screen and Peking at the other. During the second dissolve, a ghostly Paris is seen adjacent to Peking, as if the two cities were about to merge. Time is distorted in the next shot of a clock face, its hands turning at heightened speed; the image dissolves into one of the clock hands swinging like a pendulum. Next, the clock is physically reordered, the numerals in a horizontal strip at the bottom of the screen, the face shattered into multi-screen fragments, each showing a different scene. One of these scenes is of the city’s traffic; after a dissolve, the whole screen is taken up by this traffic, except that different shots are superimposed, so that cars appear to be travelling into each other at tilted angles. The confusion and disorder that Cavalcanti sees as the key condition of metropolitan modernity is viewed ambivalently: there is the scandal of crushed and thwarted lives, the violent, brutal underbelly of the clichéd falsities of the city of light, but here, in confusion and disorder, might also be found a breach in the defences of society and the possibility of reform or revolution. I don’t know whether the film is pessimistic or optimistic about this possibility, or whether its pessimism and optimism can be disentangled, but its freshness and fascination lie in part in its commitment to boldness and freedom of artistic expression as part of the social struggle. It is only 45 minutes long, yet the richness of its aesthetic and political radicalism is treasurable.
*Is the woman in danger? So we might think, but we are wrong-footed when the woman sits down laughing on a sofa in the foreground; this is light romantic comedy rather than grim melodrama.