What I Have Written
By the mid 1990s, it was not much of an advantage for a movie, in many parts of the world, if it looked, sounded or moved or anything like a so-called “typical arthouse film”. It was inevitable, in such a climate, that some ambitious, intriguing movies would suffer, and sometimes die, from this brutal designation. But just because a movie is untreated unfairly out in an insensitive marketplace does not automatically mean that it is good. This is the thorny ground on which we must tread if we wish to take the measure of What I Have Written, directed by John Hughes (not the teen movie John Hughes, nor the USA film critic active in the ‘70s) and adapted from John A. Scott’s 1993 novel of the same name.
This is the kind of film that is never treated exactly straight by its reviewers. Some overpraise it as a brave, different, exceptional, unusual kind of Australian movie – which, from one angle, it surely is. Others reflexly dismiss it as a wannabe European art film, since it features kinky sex, Paris and a whole barrage of highly foregrounded stylistic effects – about a third of the story is told in freeze-frames. Others, who entertain an honestly mixed opinion, may simply choose to keep silent, so as not to endanger its commercial chances. (That kind of strategic silence happens a lot.) But I have one of those honestly mixed opinions about What I Have Written.
Like Robert Lepage’s The Confessional (1995), which it resembles on several levels, What I Have Written is an art film mystery story – with the mystery/investigation aspect far more upfront than in the novel. At the centre of this plot is a manuscript left behind by a university lecturer, Christopher (Martin Jacobs) who lies dying in hospital. It’s a steamy little manuscript indeed, which appears to be some kind of autobiographical confession about an erotic relationship between the writer and a woman he met in France, Catherine (Gillian Jones), while travelling with his wife. This erotic relationship is in fact mainly a matter of desire: letters exchanged subsequently between Paris and Melbourne. This is the part narrated in freeze-frames, stills that tremble on the edge of movement and sometimes cross over into it (reminiscent of a crucial moment in Chris Marker’s La jetée, 1962).
In Scott’s book – which I will confess to liking more than its screen adaptation – this manuscript is presented to the reader upfront; after that, we discover the consequences of its effect in the world, on two people who read it and have a special relation to it – the devastated wife, Sorel (Angie Milliken) and the writer’s friend, Jeremy (Jacek Koman). The latter is a rather wily and intense art historian: he gives a suggestive reading of a Da Vinci painting while casting deep, suggestive looks at his female students. This Iago figure becomes, in many ways, the central character of the story, its fairly chilling emotional centre. Where the book keeps the stories, thoughts or traces of these three characters relatively distinct, the film chooses to mix them up in a jazzy alternating/intercutting technique – Hughes admits to the prime influence of Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) on this structure.
If you’re wondering where the mystery resides in this story, it involves the exact correspondence between the incidents recorded in the manuscript, and whatever actually happened in reality – that’s what Sorel seeks to crack, and it leads her down unexpected roads. The exact plotting of this investigative thread gets a bit creaky, obvious and mechanical – although it’s better done here than in the far creakier UK shocker of equal artistic ambition, Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991).
I had some doubts about Scott’s original novel – its impact tended to dribble out for me as it wore on – but it contains themes, moods and images that I found haunting and indelible. The theme, for instance, of a man’s secret life of desire, his imagined or “existential” infidelity to his partner (as Hughes has well described it). Or the theme, deeply woven into the texture of the novel, of the intimate, even vampiric relation between writing and daily life – particularly where acts of autobiography, confession or loosely fictionalised reality are involved. The sexual aspects of the novel, which are graphic and powerful, are essentially lost in the film adaptation, and I found that disappointing.
Like The Confessional, What I Have Written is undoubtedly a serious film, and also a frequently felicitous one – Dion Beebe’s cinematography deserves special praise. But because there’s such an evident gap between the spirit of the book and the spirit of the film, I find myself asking: what exactly is Hughes serious about? In his interviews, he likes to link his film to a certain tradition of political, radical cinema – the tradition with which he is most identified as a documentary and essayistic filmmaker. He stresses that, for him, What I Have Written is about modes of representation and reading, the vexed question of truth, and of the widely different positions from which people construe the truth of a text or an event. I quickly become restless intellectualising the film in these somewhat dry terms; I care about these issues, too, but they don’t really register, for me, as the core of Scott’s tale. Representation, reading and truth are general problems we could apply to literally thousands of films at random; not themes arising from the singularity or specificity of the novel’s depictions of a particular, knotty human network.
In a way, I suspect that Scott is spiritually and aesthetically closer to the European art film tradition than Hughes himself. The novel reminds me especially of the great films of the Alain Resnais, like Mélo (1986): that same blend of an exquisite and severe avant-garde formalism with a strong, deliberately “repressed” undercurrent of intense emotion (involving erotic desire and anguish). All throughout What I Have Written, I kept thinking of films like Mélo or François Truffaut’s The Soft Skin (1964) or the work of Philippe Garrel, unashamedly about life-and-death questions of desire, doubt and yearning – whatever else, on a more transpersonal philosophical or political plane, they may also be about.
What I Have Written is not, for me, in that league – but, on behalf of the much maligned tradition of art cinema, I do recommend that you seek it out.
MORE Hughes: One Way Street: Fragments for Walter Benjamin
© Adrian Martin July 1996