Hell / L'enfer (Danis Tanovic, France/Belgium/Italy/Japan, 2005)
‘What is most hellish about hell?’ This is my first question. I am nervous and I do not have a tape recorder, as Danis Tanovic points out in the first few seconds of our interview. The Bosnian Director is sullen, moody and hungover. ‘It is us,’ he answers, stretching back in his leather chair. I can tell he wants to make this meeting uncomfortable for me.
‘I thought Sartre said that hell was other people?' I reply.
‘No, hell is us.’
And so he proves his point, and so the story begins.
Tanovic was born in 1969 in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He studied music, engineering and film there until the war broke out in 1992. His first feature, the academy award winning, No man’s land is the tale of three men trapped in a trench between Bosnian and Serb lines by the mine that is primed under one of their bodies. There are no trumpeted battle-scenes or, as Tanovic has put it, ‘yee-ha heroism.’ The film is dark and funny and Tanovic manages to catch the absurd tragedy of war, as the three men fumble with the clutches of their fate.
In L’enfer Tanovic takes us to a different hell and again to three central characters, this time sisters, who are struggling with a trauma buried in their family’s past.
The first sister, Emmanuelle Beart is a desperate Sophie, waking to the realisation of her photographer husband’s infidelity. She trawls spiral staircases in hotels, her ear to the walls, listening for the sound of them fucking. She slowly strips off the leaves of her houseplants as she stares at him through the window while she forces him to leave. The look in her eyes is as if her internal organs are being slowly pulled out of her mouth.
The second sister, Celine (Karin Viard), is an insomniac. She only sleeps on trains. Celine passes the time reading absurd facts from the Guinness Book of Records to her paralysed mother (the longest surviving headless chicken -18 months, for example). It is the paralysed mother’s wheelchair which squeaks.
The youngest, Anne (Marie Gillain) has been spending an indecent amount of time in the Acropolis with Professor of Greek Classical Literature (Jacques Gamblin). He specialises in tragedy: she is asking for trouble. When he finishes the affair abruptly, she feels drained of her life. It is only when he touches her that she feels alive.
And this secret, central sadness which they all share? The mysterious stranger (Guillame Canet) ghosts into Celine’s life and with him Tanovic takes us back to the trauma, reliving the painful moments which led the sisters’ father to leap out of an apartment window onto an uncompromising pavement too many floors below. Their past, we all realise, was not as they had imagined and their father’s life was lost in vain. Tanovic ratchets up the tragedy but also lets through a chink of hope and a promise of redemption as the sisters gather together with the chance to rebuild their lives.
In Hell Tanovic gets to the heart of the human condition and asks big questions about the limits of choice and the construction of meaning. It is an accomplished film, precision-directed, put together as one reviewer commented, ‘like a Swiss watch,’ or another, ‘a puzzle box.’ Plotlines, lives and images slide into one another and the characters seem as lost in their lives as we are, never quite knowing what is coming next. Lovers provide dangerous anchors in the chaos of their lives.
The film is based on the second part of a ‘Heaven-Hell-Purgatory’ trilogy by the screenwriter Krysztof Piesiewicz and the Polish filmmaker Krysztof Kieslowski, acclaimed for his Three Colours films. At first Tanovic had his eyes on Purgatory, a war movie, but having completed ‘No Man’s Land’ and having become a father, he says his focus changed and he was drawn to ‘hell.’
A few scenes have struck me and grown roots. One of these is the image, or violent shattering of image, of the mother being thrown by the father into a giant mirror. She slides down it unconscious to the floor and pretty soon after he has splattered himself on the pavement.
The kaleidoscope returns throughout the film, cutting up the screen, refusing to let us settle. At times, through the kaleidoscope, we see intricate beauty emerge, but at others we rage against the stubborn blindness of reality.
‘We have no choice,’ Tanovic is keen to tell me. Perhaps he is right. But I think the real tragedy is, as the Sorbonne Professor (Jaques Perrin) puts it, to be caught between God’s and human acts, struggling for a lost unity in circumstances beyond our control.
Hell is also only hell for its memory of heaven. Which is why, in the end, despite the Director’s cynicism ‘hell’ retains its beauty, and its hope. I do not think even he could deny it.