(Allison Chhorn, Australia, 2015)


I once read a meditation on cinema which mused that whenever, in a film, the camera concentrates on a blank, white sheet – usually bedsheet or table cloth, perhaps hanging on a clothes line in the wind – it’s possible to witness the birth (or strategic rebirth) of the medium itself: born flickering from pure whiteness into the first traces of fiction. Michelangelo Antonioni (in Identification of a Woman, 1982), Philippe Garrel (Liberté, la nuit, 1984) and Jean-Luc Godard (La femme mariée, 1964) are among the directors who have given us this exact vision and sensation: think of those de-individualised hands sliding on and off the crisp sheets that fill an otherwise featureless frame …


The idea returns to mind while watching the fifteen, black-and-white minutes of Allison Chhorn’s Unslept – with the difference that, this time, the sheets are always crumpled, lived in, disarrayed. Just like the human flesh that is glimpsed in immaculately decentred frames: creased, wrinkled, worried (in the way that one actively “worries” a talismanic object). Chhorn always seems to begin her work from the slight or vague tremor of something that is disturbed: a life, a place, a relationship, a situation.


As in the films, videos and installations of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (an admired reference point for Chhorn), these primordial or historic disturbances are picked up on, followed along, and perhaps, ever so slightly, ironed out in the course of a semi-fictive/semi-documentary audiovisual montage with its sympathetic resonances and poetic correspondences.


Here we trace, in particular, the action of fingers: tapping, twisting, typing. As in her Last Time (2018), the images are carefully deframed; off-screen space haunts whatever is on-screen; focus is shifted from clarity to blur (or vice versa) and back; and the soundtrack is a pleasing bed of atmospheres and noises: birds, passing cars, the running water of a shower.


There’s a trace of Chantal Akerman’s Je tu il elle (1974) in the basic set-up here: a woman in her room, trying to sleep, receiving phone messages … Something may have recently ended in the past; someone may be coming over in the present: it’s hard to tell, and it’s not finally important to know. What Chhorn works on is the fine, formal suspense of waiting: time passes, small gestures accumulate, and the body angles itself variously in relation to wall, corners, sheets, pillows – accommodating itself to a space that it seems both controlling of and controlled by. As Bérénice Reynaud once said of Akerman’s film (and of Éric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris [1985]: a woman’s “room of her own” is also the space that dispels her, alienates her, keeps her in a mild state of hysterical agitation …


The Plastic House

(Allison Chhorn, Australia, 2019)


The Plastic House is the most demanding of Chhorn’s films to date – demanding of our attention and concentration over a slowly unwinding span of 45 minutes. It’s easy to tag its style and manner with labels like minimalism and slow cinema but, as usual, what Chhorn does inside this broad framework is distinctive and detailed. It elaborates an intermingling of documentary and fiction elements that (the director has stated) is not strictly autobiographical, but involves elements drawn from her lived experience. In particular, several fugitive details point to the significance for the filmmaker of her mother’s and father’s involvement and influence.


It’s hard to decipher the narrative thread, beyond the fact that there’s a greenhouse – covered in plastic – that needs to be tended (mostly by a single individual: Chhorn herself), and which may be a family business. Snatches of conversation are laid into the soundtrack, which (as is typical of Chhorn) is mainly a fine-grain rendering of acoustic atmospheres and tones. The greenhouse itself is a riot of vertical structures, framed either as a disorienting tangle (again, some masterful work with sharpness and blur), or in relation to the horizontal tracks of the lines of plants. Mood is all-important here, taking prominence over narration in any strict sense.


Yet there is still a certain kind of narrative development at work; I was reminded of Vivi Tellas’ fertile idea (in modern “Reality Theatre” practice) of a “Minimal Threshold of Fiction”, involving another kind of readily available-to-hand documentary/story intermeshing. Like in Chantal Akerman’s classic Jeanne Dielman … (1975), the absorption in everyday duties and gestures of work creates its own, unusual kind of tension – as well as its own unfolding drama. Early glimpses of cracks in a wall and a tear in the plastic, and early periods of mild rain, prepare the way for a full-on storm that appears to wreak devastation upon at least part of the greenhouse: the plants and the plastic equally decimated and whisked away.


Throughout all this, there are glimpses of the central female figure (never filmed in full-face close-up, always turned away, decentred, fragmented into body parts) in her room – during the storm, covering her books and DVDs with plastic – and in a car: two “species of spaces”, interior and private, that recur in Chhorn’s work (as in Unslept and Last Time). Which of these visible and felt structures, finally, is the “plastic house” of the title? Greenhouse, room or car? Probably all of them, poetically. Sleeping, waking, dreaming, driving, walking, working: all tend to swim together in The Plastic House, as underlined by a filmed quotation from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying about being “emptied for sleep”.


© Adrian Martin November 2018

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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