Unconsciousness of despair is like unconsciousness of dread: the dread characteristic of spiritlessness is recognizable precisely by the spiritless sense of security; but nevertheless dread is at the bottom of it, and when the enchantment of illusion is broken, when existence begins to totter, then too does despair manifest itself as that which was at the bottom.
-Kierkegaard, from The Sickness unto Death
What is a life without faith? Is it possible for such a life to sustain itself? The history of film is replete with stories of characters wrestling with who they are and what it is they truly believe. We don’t get tired of such films, if they are honest, for that struggle is deep within each of us as well. Our souls resonate with that struggle. Maybe it’s because we all know something about the dread at the bottom, even when we construct lives designed to deny it.
In Kunal Mehra’s new film The Wind Blows Where It Will (2007), Phillippe (played by Josh Boyle) is forced to confront the very foundations of his life. Phillipe’s life is one carefully constructed of his own making. He lives a spartan existence of work, art, limited relationships, and few things. He is fastidious to an extreme. He likes to have everything in its place. He is also quiet, soft spoken, and thoughtful. But his carefully constructed world is as much an illusion as it is real. In the beginning he does not realize just how fragile is his world.
We get a hint that all is not well early in the film when Philippe waits for Jeanne (played by Wendy Harmon), his girlfriend, to arrive by train. As he quietly waits in the half-light of the station, Philippe is alone and longing for Jeanne’s arrival. [Note: for some reason my screengrabs are much darker and less rich than the DVD.]
When the train finally arrives he watches the passengers exit the platform.
But when Jeanne finally enters the picture she comes from a direction Philippe did not expect.
One could consider this slight miscue as being merely the subtle differences between two people, or even the differences between the sexes. But is it not in the little things that the world turns? Philippe will soon find out how deep the differences are.
Once they arrive at his apartment Philippe tries to get close to Jeanne.
He tries to kiss her, to physically connect, but she denies him. Like Philippe we don’t know why, but she has her reasons, and her reasons are not part of this story. The next day Philippe must begin to face a future without Jeanne. What we have here is the beginning of an unravelling, and that unravelling what the remainder of the film explores.
Since I am an honest sort, I will say that this is not truly a review of The Wind Blows Where It Will, for I am not a critic or film reviewer per se. My interest is not so much in the what, but in the how. And more specifically, I want to explore the idea of a contemplative cinema with this film as one example. I have written elsewhere on the topic of contemplative cinema here, here, and here. I have to say my thoughts are still in the formative stage, and may always be.
The stylistic heritage of The Wind Blows Where It Will is rooted in films like Pickpocket (1959) or The Sacrifice (1986), in which the arch of a soul is foregrounded over and above the machinations of plot. This difference is often the difference between contemplative film and other forms. Here we have a rather simple story on its surface; a man’s girlfriend decides she must leave him, he tries to sort out what this all means, meets some friends along the way, wanders through the city, and then makes a fateful decision. However, it is not the surface that the film is concerned about, it is the interior life of Phillippe. But how does a film convey that interior life? There are a number of choices, such as voice over narration, or by having the character explain his thoughts to another.
Another way is through observation, that is, point the camera at the character in question and let life play itself out. In this case the camera becomes a kind of sociological/psychological recording device that searches for clues as to what must be going on inside the character. This is the primary method of The Wind Blows Where It Will.
One can see this process at work in this single shot. The scene is Phillippe and a former girlfriend exiting a restaurant where they happened to run into each other. They exit the building, stand outside, talk, hug, talk a little more, and then walk away in opposite directions. We can hear the sounds of traffic and even their footsteps, but we do not hear what they say.
What is interesting is that this shot is in long shot the entire time and the shot lasts for almost a minute, much longer than a more conventional film.
Another example comes after this scene when Phillippe goes back to his apartment carefully hangs up his coat, changes in pajamas, pours himself a glass of wine, waters his plant, and then this…
He stands against the wall with his wine glass, thinking. Then he exits the shot.
We hear classical music begin and he then re-enters the shots and goes back to where he was.
He hears sounds of a television switched on in the apartment next door.
He exits the shot again. We hear the classical music stop.
He returns but does not get his wine. Sounds of the television continue.
He lowers himself down to the floor.
He sits there thinking.
This whole episode lasts nearly two and a half minutes. There is no dialogue, and we have not heard any dialogue in the film for a couple of minutes prior to these shots. What is happening here? As far as plot is concerned very little. As far as Phillippe’s inward state, maybe quite a lot. But what exactly? Discovering that is what the film calls the viewer to do, to participate in.
This sort of story telling is not about the exterior, but the interior. The film’s style calls attention to itself by using long takes and little dialogue. But that process of distancing is not to push the viewer away, but to call the viewer to a different experience than merely a train ride through a series of plot points. The viewer must slow down and take in the process – both of Phillippe and of the viewing experience. It is an opportunity for the viewer to plumb the depths of her own soul. This is one key aspect of contemplative cinema.
Both the strength and weakness of this method of storytelling is that it leaves a lot up to the audience. Such films rely on what the viewer brings to the viewing process. In other words, the old adage that one gets out of the film what one brings to the film is critical here. For example, it might help to know the title of the film comes from a famous verse of Christian scripture (John 3:8):
The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
It might also be worth noting that the full title of Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) is Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut, where Le vent souffle où il veut is from the same Bible verse.
The reason I say it might be helpful to know these things is because with a contemplative film one often has to make one’s interpretive case, has to argue for one’s position as it were, because the film’s meaning is not obvious. Therefore clues and connections become particularly important. Given the fact that the crux of Phillippe’s personal battle with himself revolves around the question of faith becomes even more interesting in light of both the Biblical and cinematic connections derived from the film’s title. A question to ask is whether the film’s conclusion is also an escape for Phillippe.
I said this is not a review, but I feel that I should offer up some kind of evaluation. The Wind Blows Where It Will does not rank with the likes from Bresson or Tarkovsky, but it is a good film, and it portends good things for Kunal Mehra’s directing future. I look forward to his next film. The acting from all cast members if very good. Josh Boyle is particularly wonderful as Phillippe – keep in mind that Josh was in every scene and in virtually every shot. The digital camera work by Aron Noll is also quite excellent. What I find most promising and fun to consider is how a quality feature film like this can get created these days with limited budget, a small crew, and far outside of the Hollywood landscape, and yet seem to carry more than its own weight. I am also excited to see filmmaking like this occur just down the road from me. My own production experience has taught me that just making a film, let alone one of this quality, is a difficult and challenging undertaking. I commend Mehra’s obvious tenacity as well as his desire to make films that seek to understand the soul when so many filmmakers seem to avoid it.