Dreams of Leaving
Interactive Weather Map
There is no comfort. Our lives dismay us. We have dreams of leaving and it is the same for everyone I know.
– George Orwell, 1984
Dreams of Leaving is “a film for television” written and directed by David Hare (Plenty, 1985) for a “Play for Today” series on BBC, originally broadcast in January 1980. I encountered it as a fixture on the syllabus of an Australian university media curriculum into which I taught during the mid 1980s. It’s one of those works I didn’t spontaneously respond to warmly at first as a viewer (it was too British High Art for me at the time!), but that I found interesting to discuss once I dug into it analytically. What follows are the reconstructed notes of a talk I gave at a “media camp” for new students entering at the start of the academic year of 1985.
The elements of a film – its style, form, aesthetics, mise en scène – can be expressive. Expression, in this sense, is more than a mechanical “making of meaning” or “signification”. It’s not a matter of codes, but of eloquence. Expression, when it’s achieved, is a gesture, a performance. It’s the embodiment of something, the real-time shaping of it into an indelible, replayable form. That something is thus “caught” and communicated – often a complex balancing of meaning, mood, attitude and idea. This is a mysterious process – it can seem magical when it really comes off, when it grips you or amazes you as a viewer. It can hit you like an epiphany.
That description suggests another way of putting it: I propose that a film is an experience. And that experience has a shape, an itinerary – it’s a kind of journey, in the sense that it is unfolded across a specific passage through space (the multiple spaces and places traversed by a film) and in time (the length of the work, which is itself a concatenation of many temporal levels).
Imagine (a little fantastically) a fully interactive weather map. It is colour coded and, as you pass your hand over it, you are able to feel the different zones and climates indicated, its modulations and sudden changes: hot, cold, wet, dry. Viewing and hearing a film is a bit like that. And it is through our imaginative projection, our “sensing” of the zones and taking them into ourselves, that we inhabit and travel through the various contours of the filmic experience.
However, none of us simply project automatically, indifferently, onto any old thing. A film has to seduce us, to earn our imaginative response. Personally, Dreams of Leaving did not seduce me on first glance; it did not seem to be working hard enough to win me over as a viewer. However, on studying it, I got to another level with it. Any film, finally, rewards whatever close attention we can pay to it, regardless of whether we initially (or ever) like it. There’s always something to dig out, something to discuss, some intriguing context into which it can be placed.
Returning to the matter of style in cinema – style as the amalgam of material expression and imaginative projection – we can posit two broad modes, two essential “temperatures” on our weather map, if you like.
On the one hand, there’s a Hollywood model: this is based on energy, tension and release, co-ordinated across a broad range of places, situations, characters (major and minor) and moods. That goes for everything from (just to cite two recent viewing experiences of mine) Gone with the Wind (1939) to the American remake of Breathless (1983).
On the other hand, there’s a style that is cool, reduced, minimal, that magnifies its “chamber drama” details (such as appears in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films). Note that this is not meant as a distinction between Entertainment and Art. Entertainment can work minimally and art can work maximally! Think, for example, of how Stanley Kubrick spanned both modes that I am suggesting here. Nor are the modes mutually exclusive within any individual film.
Any decently realised film creates a texture or volume: a pattern that is also the picture (or map) of an imaginary world, as well as the graph of an experience.
What is the texture of Dreams of Leaving? Here we have the dominance of detail over plot. Things are condensed and exaggerated, with little forward movement (that drive which is characteristic of the other, Hollywood model). Note the pointed use of stillness and silence, heightened colour and lighting effects. Hare as director does a lot with dead, unused or “negative” space in his compositional frames; and with the unclear or totally lacking overlap-connection between these frames as they cut from one to the other. The film thus deliberately destabilises our spatial orientation within the fiction – something that is, by contrast, always pretty clear in the Hollywood model.
As with the movement from shot to shot, also in the transition from scene to scene: there is quite remarkable work on the dramatic compression of every scene, and its evident disconnection (or, at best, ambiguous connection) with the scene that follows.
The acting performances are similarly and appropriately stylised to fit the overall feel and mode. Perhaps the most demanding part of directing diverse actors (in any performance-based dramatic medium) is the necessity of blending them into an ensemble, whereby individual differences become part of a coherent, integral, homogenous whole (or – on the contrary – the heterogeneous differences are emphasised and made to form a jagged, jarring configuration). Here, an arch, theatrical manner is conveyed in the acting gestures and the spoken delivery of lines by the central players, Bill Nighy, Kate Nelligan, Andrew Seear, Mel Smith and Charles Dance (some aficionados of UK TV will immediately spot here the possibly brave mixture of dramatic and comedic actors).
A more general question: what is it all about? I deliberately started with style rather than content (of characters and story), because style affects, shapes, inflects content – indeed, I would go so far as to say it makes the content, expressing it in the sense I evoked above. But let’s now get into what are usually called the themes of the piece: the ideas it poses and explores through its drama and style conjoined.
A first theme I’d nominate is alienation. A weighty and ominous word, for sure, but give it a fair go. The world presented by this film is overwhelmingly shot through with, and governed by, alienation. What does that mean? Alienation here refers to the separation between people and their activities (such as jobs), and eventually between people and their own feelings, their very selves. Everything thus becomes distant, separate, fragmented like the space- and scene-related connectives. Worse, emotions become objectified or reified as a type of commodity that can be exchanged, traded, bought and sold. Hare shows us (as one might say in a review) a cynical world ruled by consumer spectacle (see, for example, the scene of the band singer in prison).
This theme is especially developed in relation to: the presentation of the art world (market value, “price by square inch”); and the brothel photos (used by the band) – “brothels are great places”, the motif of being clothed/dressed, the objectification and commodification of sexuality. In general, it is a film devoid of affection, touch, contact – as evident in the asylum. There’s an emphasis on boredom, and a discussion of “making love to strangers”.
But, in a more specific way, how does this mood of alienation mesh in with the narrative aspect? The film makes itself difficult to grasp easily, because it offers several, simultaneous levels, each of which projects a different attitude toward the story events; and also because the epilogue hands us a strange and excessive mystery-switcheroo. Let’s take the main body of the film first.
The role of the past and the present – a passage from naïveté to knowledge: the film constantly plays on this contrast. Retrospectively, through voice, William (Nighy) understands – or thinks he understands – the events, with a certain cynical wisdom achieved in hindsight. However, in the moment that he lives these events, he is a wide-eyed innocent (“I love you” / “Well … yes”).
“I lost my opinions, and the power of my eyes”. Rather conventionally, Dreams of Leaving is about the apparently terrifying prospect of losing your self in another person. In this telling, that means succumbing (succumb and succubus have the same linguistic root!), being made into a dupe, a pawn, a victim – like in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984). Because William is fairly blank or alienated to begin with, desire makes him all the more so – he loses all his powers, on every level.
You may well detect a note of gendered sexism on this plane. It’s a particular scenario of sexism common to many stories in many media – especially in this tradition of, shall we say, “bourgeois drama” (sometimes highly stylised) where, in the UK film and television context, Hare, Stephen Poliakoff and Dennis Potter thrive. To wit, men “lose themselves”, their sense of self and identity, to a certain kind of woman: beautiful, fickle, treacherous, scheming, always performing … in short, a trickster or chameleon who tantalises men by always showing a different side or their aspect of their lives, holding out the promise of a full picture, complete knowledge … but never delivering on that promise (death, of one or another or all, usually intervenes!). This is the femme fatale of film noir. Take a close look at the telephone scene: Caroline (Nelligan) is dark and inscrutable, while the man is reduced to tears. It’s not really a matter of rich, individualised psychology; we are more in the realm of mythic archetypes and/or cultural stereotypes here.
In this regard, note the motif of the eye, at the start and in the spying scene. Also the idea of being overtaken by another person, as reflected in William’s speech on this subject.
There are two possible (and likely) attitudes toward William. Conventionally (as per the commonplace sexist scenario outlined), we might be asked to identify with his superior position of knowledge and (eventual) wisdom, thus condoning his moral judgement of Caroline, and congratulating his “recovery” of self. (An intriguing comparison can be made with Ingmar Bergman’s haunting and underrated The Touch .) However, there might be another level: the film as a commentary on William, installing a critical distance in relation to his words and deeds.
Is Dreams of Leaving thereby an ironic work? Because of its spare stylistic (non-Hollywood) mode, we are not, perforce, locked into the hero’s mind or his opinions. Another way of seeing (and judging) him beckons, or at least suggests itself.
Which attitude to William are we meant to take up? For starters, he’s a pretty silly guy. Next, he clearly romanticises and idealises Caroline – that’s evident from his discourse. Also, he’s cruel: he accuses her of not moving or touching, but it’s his failure to do so (on every level) that, in part, sends her crazy. It will be intriguing, in 1986, to compare this tale with Jean-Jacques Beineix’s screen rendition of Philippe Dijan’s 1985 novel Betty Blue, which contains some similar elements.
Now to the ending (without entirely giving it away for the uninitiated!). It sounds a note of regret, of second thoughts. Security and domesticity surge forth as the true, genuine source of fundamental alienation. William strives, all throughout the story, to get out of (sexual) danger; but, once settled, he craves for this thrilling experience of escape once more. Caroline is now re-seen, “recoded” not as a threat but as release from the prison of the Self (and Family). So, in the dying moments of the epilogue, regret re-expresses itself as a desire. Is this itself a sentimental reflex, a “grass is always greener” cliché?
If I were composing a critique rather than an introduction to Dreams of Leaving, I would hone in on a few other pointed questions or areas for discussion as well. I have the feeling that the film is somewhat confused in its premises, and also a bit thin on the ground in its realisation. Are there any actually positive values – of any kind – acknowledged and supported in it? (This is a question regularly posed by Robin Wood as his chief evaluative criterion.) Or has the ambience of alienation snuffed out, at the outset, any possibility of representing joy, happiness or progress in any but a fleeting, ephemeral, sterile way?
I recall the damning words of Jean-Pierre Gorin (as reported by Raymond Durgnat in a 1980 Film Comment essay) regarding the characters in Fassbinder, who form “a flat encephalogram. Each line, each life is drawn straight and shallow, and it doesn’t take very long before it falls in on itself. Fassbinder’s problem is that, once he’s constructed his first few visuals, he’s said it all. He has nothing in reserve but all the obviously depressing moves”. That is somewhat how I feel about Dreams of Leaving.
To return to my initial scepticism as a viewer in the face of this film, I still find it relentlessly arty, and too contrivedly so. (All films are contrived, but some contrivances work better than others!) Where is the emotional depth beyond social constraint, and beyond the choice of a stylishly cool aesthetic to portray that system of constraint? Is there life beyond this “living death”? (In Fassbinder, contra Gorin’s opinion, there most certainly is – however hard it is for his characters to come by.) It’s true that, in the dinner party scene, the chatter offers us disconnected pearls of political wisdom – but they register as mere embellishment, not genuinely rooted in this essentially (supposedly) “timeless and existential human story” of frustration, entrapment and desire.
All up, Dreams of Leaving strikes me as an example of what can be called alienation chic – in an artwork that is itself alienated from its most productive potentialities. It finally turns into one of those up-market commodities, like the paintings it targets. I temperamentally reject its miserable view of life and of the world. There are no dreams, ultimately, and certainly no effective leaving that is not a wan illusion. According to Hare (and to cite a Fassbinder title), “love is colder than death”, indeed!
© Adrian Martin January 1985