FILM / The Last Detail

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Consider a scene, not the only one of its kind, from Damage, Louis Malle's forthcoming adaptation of the Josephine Hart bestseller. It begins with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche making love; continues with a shot of Irons dressing; another shot in which he and Binoche exchange glances as if about to say something; then fades to the following scene.

Consider now a scene from Our Betters, a rather wordy adaptation of Maugham's comedy of manners filmed by George Cukor in 1933, which I recently chanced to see on video. Constance Bennett has been caught in flagrante with Gilbert Roland, by the latter's mistress and Bennett's own dearest friend, Violet Kemble Cooper. The two women frostily confront one another; Bennett nonchalantly remarks to Roland, 'I told you it was too risky'; and, before anyone else can speak, the image fades to the following scene.

What have these two fades in common? For me, above all, the fact that they frustrate my desire to learn what happened next. I realise quite well that such ellipses constitute the most basic element of film grammar and that the essential difference between cinematic and real time is that absolutely nothing in life ends up on the cutting-room floor. (When I fly to America, I have to endure every minute of the six-hour flight; when a movie character flies to America, the flight time tends to be reduced to three brief shots: take-off, mid-air and landing.) I realise, too, that what most probably did happen in the Damage scene (to the extent that anything 'happened' that wasn't filmed) is that Irons and Binoche made idle post-coital chat before going their separate ways. I know all that - yet the most acute frustration of a lifetime of movie-going has been wondering what happened after scenes were faded out.

And I now wonder whether one should think of filmic narrative, not as unreeling in an eternal present tense, but in a recollected past. Movies, in short, remember rather than relate their plots, sifting out, as one's own memory does, all but the most crucial scenes.

For even if I have to endure the six hours of a transatlantic flight, what I afterwards recall of it tends, oddly enough, to be those same basic three 'shots': take-off, mid-air and landing.