When a person is stuck within their own mind (as we often are), one’s perception is all we have to understand the world that surrounds us. Memories past mutate with time into a soup of fabricated connections, leaving the present moment to be the only real thing we will ever experience. This is part of what makes dreams and the subconscious so fascinating, apart from their elusive subject matter – what does it all mean, and what is real? Perhaps the thoughts swimming against a current of time is our way of dealing with our past in a way our conscious mind logically cannot. I am not trying to stall in an interpretation of Don’t Look Back – indeed, this will be one film I will be considering for a very long time, and may never be sure what it meant. The less you know about this feature prior to viewing, the better. The most basic description is that two of the most skilled actresses of our generation – Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci – do an extraordinary job of conveying desperation of a mind careening somewhere between sleep and consciousness in a philosophical work that examines how one comes to grips with past trauma. The approach is visceral and places the viewer in the center of the confusion to drown with the character in the film. Spoilers below, so return with your own conclusions.
Jeanne is a successful writer, and has done very well with biographies. Now she is hoping to write a novel, and her publisher hates it. It is too cold, full of details but no emotion. Jeanne makes it clear this story is about her, and a childhood she does not remember since experiencing amnesia at the age of eight. Already this makes no narrative sense. A novel that is an autobiography? This is not a flaw, but an introduction into a story that has no plot or direction, and one character that is actually two, played by Marceau and Bellucci. Bunuel made a classic with the same choice, as That Obscure Object of Desire used Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina to play the central female character. This worked well due to the main character’s perception of the volatile nature of women. In Don’t Look Back, a shifting self-perception is the reason for this inspired choice. The reason for it becomes somewhat clearer over the course of the film. For the majority of time, however, the viewer is kept in the dark.
Jeanne appears to be losing her grip on reality; she cannot seem to recognize her own flat, things are not where they should be, and she suspects someone is manipulating her. Fortunately, this is not the work of some dopey conspiracy cooked up in the fevered mind of a shit screenwriter. She does appear to be losing it. The director shows considerable skill with fucking with the audience in creepy and subtle fashion without resorting to ‘gotcha’ moments. As she walks through previously familiar territory, the furniture changes, the identities of her husband and children change, and finally her own face undergoes an alarming shift. Meanwhile, we steel ourselves for some pathetic plot twist that would explain it all in the most retarded way – this moment never comes. I was relieved to see that there is no real explanation, and we are left to our own interpretations.
At first, I considered neurologic disorders (hemineglect and facial blindness cause real symptoms like this, of which the person has no insight) or medication side effects; then events began to resemble a waking dream state. In the several minutes before we rise, the mind struggles with memories and recent events, and these can occasionally combine into frightening visions. Or perhaps the subconscious mind attempts to come to terms with horrific events. As Jeanne appears to become someone else (who she likely was the entire time), she digs deep into the trauma that led to her amnesia. It turns out an accident that rattled her young mind left a deep scar. I will not explain further, but the resulting process seemed to me a way to rationalize a random and cruel moment that cut out a part from her forever. One always seeks meaning, if only to apply reason and structure to a chaotic and indifferent existence. So who is Jeanne? Is she Marceau or Bellucci? I guess this is in how a person views themselves – perhaps her character copes by imagining her ‘other’ by her side, filling that empty space in spirit.
The dream state feel of the film is lent a psychosexual edge. Her husband as remembered becomes her brother; her mother becomes a stranger; her children are someone else’s; her husband becomes a rapist. Thoughts of incest and violation have no place in our mannered world, and so are captured only in these confused dreams where memory heads into unexpected places. How much of Don’t Look Back is real? Not much, but as we are inside the mind of Jeanne (or someone else entirely), we do not get to know what rests on terra firma. All we know is what she is thinking, some of which is predictable, and none of which is reliable.
Don’t Look Back premiered at Cannes, and eludes conventional description. Its pulsating center involves us closely while keeping us at arm’s length with a lack of any useful perspective. For once, I was glad to be set adrift at sea with no reference point to call solid land. My only guide(s) were Marceau and Bellucci, and their towering presence attest to not only the genius of casting, but their extraordinary talent in rendering a mind in transit.