On the liberating power and creative potential of the ‘vacation film’
The philosopher Vilém Flusser, in his essay ‘Taking Up Residence in Homelessness’, used Hegel to describe the double-bind of our ‘unhappy’ consciousness as a metaphorical dithering on the doorstep. To be within a space that is known and curated, a home or homeland, is to be in a state of self-actualisation. And yet, this inner composure requires being lulled by habit and starved of the world and its boundless reserve of new relations, encounters and stimulation — experiences needed to grow and to throw into relief what is often taken for granted, our very selves and the society we live in.
Holidaymaking also possesses this tension. It’s an act of departing the familiar for brand new or rarely visited territory, of suspending the habits and expectations of any old day in exchange for a temporary but new and potentially invigorating handle on living. At the same time, it is an experience which can just easily be scripted, packaged and hierarchical. The same could be said for cinema, which has varyingly been described as a medium uniquely predisposed (and so, potentially morally obliged) to depict reality, and as an escape hatch where the real world and its inconveniences can be left at the door. The writer Jean-Louis Schefer saw this dialectic as more muddled than cut and dry, describing cinema as a facsimile, populated by “mutants and aliens” who resemble real-life human beings but who can never fully be accepted as such. On the other hand, he rejected the Plato’s Cave analogy of cinemagoing as an act of falling for smoke and mirrors.
The pursuits of holidaymaking and cinema have long been closely linked, in a relationship that in fact began near the time of their respective inceptions, for modern, widespread tourism and moving images were both children of the Industrial Revolution. And whether in the form of early-cinema’s travelogues or as the setting of many star vehicles and arthouse films, cinema has frequently functioned as a holiday’s facsimile. However there are also filmmakers who, by homing in on the regular rhythms of a trip abroad or designated ‘holiday spot’, find the ‘vacation film’ fertile ground for extrapolating an informal, hole-and-corner sociology.
French director Guillaume Brac is one such filmmaker, to an unusual degree. He follows in the footsteps of that ardent practitioner of the vacation film, Jacques Rozier, with the ménage à cinq in Rozier’s Du Côté d’Orouët (1971), whose motivations are as temperamental as a flickering flame, being very much a bellwether for Brac. The majority of his films take as their root the device of one or many individuals on holiday, where the characters’ inchoateness and the setting’s laxity mesh to form an open net of dramatic possibilities. L’île au trésor (Treasure Island, 2018), for him a rare case of an out-and-out work of non-fiction, is a panorama of characters and encounters found in Ile de Loisirs de Cergy-Pontoise, a popular water park in the Paris region. Brac and crew wind their way around the area, collecting observations from patrons and employees young and old. This overall structure and the rhythm of the editing are mimetic of a holiday mindset: episodic and going in no particular direction, open to the gently inoculating effects of the sun’s rays and a devil-may-care contagion. There are some recurring characters and themes, with one of the most prominent topics being the park as the circle of life, pedagogical through play and prurience.
Throughout the film, very young children explore this strange new world, inquisitive about every detail. Bands of pre-teen boys, attempting to dodge the fee or the parental guidance requirement for entrance, breach the park’s perimeter through various means, most of them ham-fisted and easily foiled. They are being denied a rite of passage, a place open to those just a generation or two ahead — older kids and young men and women for whom the space is a battleground of sorts, a concentrated site of horniness where young men with roving eyes strut around, peacocking, trying to woo young women who are either put off or join in on the game.
The film’s relaxed but deep insight into the complexities of human behaviour, as well as its humour, are bound up in these scenes, which show identities and social skills being forged, honed, or blunted. One kid with a particularly sledgehammer-like approach to chatting up women bungles his show of bravado. An ambitious attempt to impress with his finesse on a water jetpack sends him plummeting down into the water, over and over, leaving him floundering, red-faced. Meanwhile, another young man has better luck. He has the advantage of being more ‘classically handsome’, conducts himself with a certain swagger which seems natural to him and, crucially, is an employee with the keys to the castle. A patrician of the pleasure ground, he’s able to interest two young women and bring them, along with a group of friends, to the park after hours.
Brac takes clear enjoyment in capturing these little comedies of manners, and the surfeit of pleasures offered by the park more generally, though there is also a less positive, more systemic underbelly that he is similarly astute in depicting. One recurring strand takes place in the head office, where two managers fret about the running of the park. The austerity of these scenes, with its pale blues and greys, its constant and rigid two-shot set-up and the sober, slightly dour demeanour of these two middle-aged men, stand in comical contrast with the look and feel of the rest of the film. There is also a sense that this is where the sausage is made, where people get down to brass tacks doing all the number crunching and worrying required to upholster the surface equilibrium. One of their gripes is that some employees, like the aforementioned womanizer, are putting their privileges to personal use. The park’s on-the-ground staff, most of whom are brown or black, are saddled with the unglamourous burden of maintaining a buffer zone between holidaymakers and management. They give a performance of politeness, no matter the situation—whether it’s trespassing children or older patrons attempting to swim in forbidden spots—in order to cover up the fact that this place of leisure is a regulated business.
Good conversation and company course through the veins of Danses macabres, squelettes et autres fantaisies (Danses Macabres, Skeletons and Other Fantasies, 2019), an experimental work of non-fiction and filmed conversation whose scale is simultaneously minute and massive. Rural, sunny Portugal is the stage for an intellectual voyage shared between Jean-Louis Schefer, a philosopher, art historian and one of film theory’s most distinctive thinkers; and a few of his friends, in a film whose subject and subtext is several centuries worth of Western European history and image-making.
It begins with Schefer, the guide, addressing his main audience and facilitators, namely filmmakers Rita Azevedo Gomes and Pierre Léon. He describes the act and art of conversation as being like a novel that will never be finished. But as he begins to speak, a wider world encircles them, butting in. Cats and goats mill around, offering a screaming accompaniment to Schefer’s aria. A woman strolls by, carrying one of the goats, which catches Schefer’s attention. Amused, he refers to her and her charge as a bit of history walking by. It’s a moment that finds its complement in the ending, where Schefer, while gazing out at the sea, admits that their conversation has become a shaggy dog story, curtailed only by the pull of the place they are in. Nature and the gift of having the time and space to leisurely experience life act as nourishing agent. They push people like Schefer and his companions out to embrace the world around them and so make their intellectual mission a lithe and live entity, rather than a sealed-off world.
The film’s kernel and jumping off point is the danse macabre, a genre of painting developed in Western Europe, common in France in particular, during the 15th century. Its main feature is the depiction of a cadre of animated skeletons leading different members of Medieval society, low and high, from the pauper to the pope, towards that great equaliser — death. According to Schefer, the received wisdom on the origins of this peculiar form is usually limited to a mere Christian cautionary tale, reminding everyone of their inevitable fate, laid low to oblivion under the auspices of God almighty. The other theory is that it’s a collective expression of trauma in the wake of a devouring century, since events such as the Black Death made the 1300s an inordinately deadly era in human history. For Schefer, the genre’s emergence on the cusp of modernity bears the sign of a more expansive, less clear-cut narrative, with its subversive allegory of a levelled social hierarchy, along with other tendencies, marking the collapse of the highly stratified medieval cosmology and the birth of a bourgeois dominated society, with its associated forms of artmaking and mores.
This is how the conversation begins, setting the stage and discussing the qualities of specific examples, but soon, the talk proliferates. Schefer, a sweeping and rebellious thinker, moves onto many inquiries, general and specific, prompted and on his own initiative. There’s the fluctuating purpose and importance of the image in society (a long-running field of interest for Schefer); cinema; the art of curating, appreciating, and filming paintings; the topography of the Coa Valley, where they are staying and where most of the film takes place; and ancient art, among many subjects breached. This omnivorous curiosity triggers wild swings in the time scale of the film, which reels forward and back, up to the 20th century and back to the Palaeolithic.
Schefer’s mind is not the only mobile element. Gomes and Léon are intent and adept at making the film move in concert with him and in keeping with the notion of it being a democratic and pleasurable endeavour. The experience progresses from bucolic surroundings to a visit in two museums in Lisbon, from scenes populated only by a combination of Schefer, Gomes and Léon, where the conversation is more focused, to group dinner scenes where other individuals are drawn in and the topic at hand alights and transitions at a quicker clip. And through it all, the filmmakers are not only intelligently framing and editing these scenes, to help viewers understand Schefer’s mini-lectures, they are also careful to remain truthful to the conditions under which these lectures take place. The film therefore maintains a convivial and leisurely atmosphere, where everyone is attuned to each other’s company and to the present time and place, even as they are involved in the concerted act of constructing a film and a historical narrative.
The non-hierarchical nature of this kind of trip is evident straight away: there is no directorial credit — the opening titles designate the film as a conversation with Schefer, filmed by Gomes and edited by Léon — and the apparatus and rituals of filmmaking are never concealed. The images are consistently framed and cut in such a manner that Schefer does not appear pontificating in an effective void. Instead, the filmmakers are careful to incorporate both the location and Schefer’s partners, therefore emphasizing the art of listening as much as the art of speaking, and evoking the particular timing of every exchange.
An especially beautiful moment in the film’s marriage of the intellectually expansive and the casual arrives early on, with a brilliant cut. A lengthy scene where Schefer discusses the function of images, starting with the quote “Is the function of an image to resemble or to replace?” brings us from semiotics and anthropology to a close-up on a deeply personal written note, with Schefer recalling how, following the death of a close friend, their person became embodied in a memento left to him. The film then switches to a rare scene of no dialogue, only music, sunlight and tenderness, as Gomes and Léon sit together on a windowsill, eyes closed, enjoying the day given to them and their own company.
Treasure Island also finds it fruitful to mine the intersection between politics, holiday making and conversation — a dimension which arises whenever it breaks away from its Wiseman-esque observational style and incorporates direct accounts from some of its subjects. Early on, one patron, a moneyed man in his 70s found bathing alone by the water, gives an account of a very recent, non-sexual affair between himself and a much younger woman. In comparison to the younger men, he, an elder statesman in these love games, indulges in a different kind of braggadocio. He states that he was under no illusion that she was interested in him for anything other than his wealth, but that this didn’t bother him. Whether the impression of total, smug confidence he gives out is genuine or not is not important. What matters is the image he projects, of a man of means, at ease and in power. Later in the film, we hear from people further down the totem pole, for whom the park is less about social status or even recreation, but a necessary escape. One employee, met while locking up, reveals that he was once a teacher in his home country of Guinea, during the regime of President Lansana Conté. Shot like a noir in miniature, from the passenger seat of a slow-moving car with only the harshly bright headlights lighting up the darkness, he recalls the Kafkaesque story of how a perceived slight against the Minister of Education led to his imprisonment and the subsequent, systematic dismantlement of his entire life. He was eventually forced to flee to France, where this victim of a great injustice, deprived of his vocation, family and social standing, has been left in this nowhere-land of a water park, in the double isolation of being a work-a-day-immigrant and dealing with irreconcilable memory.
This refugee tale is followed by another, but with a more hopeful edge. An Afghan man and woman on holiday with their family tell of their own harrowing background of displacement, followed by a slow and rocky period of acclimation. The key difference, however, is that the juxtaposition of their story and the family enjoying themselves gives the impression of an uneasy but precious peace. Rather than being stuck in a state of exile, they have found a relatively stable, safe harbour — or, as Flusser wrote, they have embraced the “hard-won freedom of homelessness” that a day-out in the park represents and that the ‘vacation film’ has the potential to mine and reveal.