Amongst the varied line-up at Looking In Looking Out festival, the event that excited me most was a talk by Sophie Mayer and Dr. Lucy Bolton on the phenomenological impact of Andrea Arnold’s films. As the programme put it, they sought to analyse “how the raw and intense interactions her films stage between human and animal, between human, landscape and weather, and between the viewers’ and characters’ sensory perceptions turn our experience of cinema inside out.” This talk appealed to me so much because my own discovery of a phenomenological approach to cinema has very much turned my relationship with film ‘inside out’. Phenomenology is a largely derived from the work of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and brought into contact with film by film theorists such as Vivian Sobchack and Laura U. Marks. Merleau-Ponty (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception) theorised that perception is a whole body experience: “My body is the fabric into which all objects are woven, and it is, at least in relation to the perceived world, the general instrument of my comprehension.” Extending this concept to film, theorists like Sobchack and Marks argue that the relationship a viewer has to a piece of cinema is responsive and embodied. As Marks puts it: “film signifies through its materiality, through a contact between perceiver and perceived.”
Though Mayer and Bolton did not engage directly with the works of these theorists, their discussion was fascinating. Bolton asserted that phenomenology is the concept that our experiences of the world are bound to our bodies. She stressed that the physicality of ‘being in the world’ is crucial to our understanding of the world and is central to an experience of one of Andrea Arnold’s films. She opened by quoting Arnold’s comment to The Guardian in October last year: “My films don’t give you an easy ride. I can see that. The sense I get is that people have quite a physical experience with them. They feel afterwards that they’ve really been through something.” From here, Bolton and Mayer proceeded to analyse Arnold’s images and their affective impact.
Mayer delved into the structures of power that are created and depicted in Arnold’s films, the way binaries of class, race, gender, culture and nature are both utilised and problematized. Her feminist perspective and discussion of filmmaking ethics was refreshing and enlightening. But I want to focus specifically on the phenomenological film analysis offered by Lucy Bolton and then to also offer some of my own.
Bolton focused specifically on Arnold’s 2009 feature Fish Tank, talking persuasively about the visceral impact of the film, with a particular emphasis on the creation of the main character Mia (Katie Jarvis). Bolton presented the idea that for the duration of the film we are simply ‘spending time with Mia’. She elaborated:
This approach is really a phenomenological one, by this I mean that [the film is] attempting to articulate how Mia lives her life, or lives out her positioning in social, familial, societal structures and to look at the opportunities and the constraints that she faces. This phenomenological approach is the idea of physical bodies acting or experiencing specific social and cultural contexts; being bodies in situations. The term for this is the ‘lived body’.
Bolton analysed the opening scenes of the film, what they tell us about Mia and, most importantly, how a sense of her lived experience is created and presented to the viewer. As she walks with “determined aggressive footsteps” (Bolton) the camera creates her energy, shares her energy and lets the film viewer absorb that energy. Bolton argued that though we might not have a psychological or moral engagement with Mia, we are thrust into her embodied world, forced to share it. We do not just observe Mia’s life, to some extent we experience it.
Bolton was particularly interested in the relationship between Mia and Connor (Michael Fassbender) and used a clip of an ambiguously physical scene between them, when Connor carries Mia on his back. This moment struck me as particularly taciturn for the viewer; as Mia jumps onto Connor’s back the film slows ever so slightly, their physical proximity is emphasised by a tight framing and the sound of their breathing is exaggerated on the soundtrack. All of these formal choices draw the viewer closer to the image and into an almost physical engagement with the bodies on-screen. This scene also recalls some scenes in Wuthering Heights (2011), (or visa versa) which I will return to later. Many of the elements that Bolton observed about the structure and the form of Fish Tank are also evident in Wuthering Heights. For instance both films play frequent attention to small animals and other superfluous ‘natural’ elements in close up – from a hamster in Fish Tank to a bird skeleton in Wuthering Heights. These inserts texture the films with little bodies, less complicated lived experiences, and images of death which create a patchwork of the life around us in ordinary situations. Bolton’s analysis was extremely engaging, but I would have liked to hear more from her about the body of the viewer. After all, though Mia’s specific body was inhabited and performed by Jarvis and captured on film, in some senses it doesn’t exist. But my body – and those of the viewers who sat around me watching clips of Fish Tank at Conway Hall, and who sat around me in the cinema watching Wuthering Heights – very much exist. I am interested in what these films might have meant, or might have felt like, for those bodies. So following on from where Bolton left off at LiLo festival, I want to examine some of this sense of embodiment in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.
Wuthering Heights is an intense, arresting viewing experience; there is a stark restriction of depth focus, a proliferation of hand-held camera and a certain beauty and coldness created by high-definition visuals. Indeed, the sound and imagery is sometimes quite difficult. Dialogue is minimised, as Arnold instead uses detailed audio design that exaggerates tiny sounds into haunting rumbles; the wind rages constantly, whistling past windows and blaring on the moor, breathing is often loud and ragged and a foetus’ heartbeat pulsates audibly for a moment. If the literary term ‘pathetic fallacy’ can be applied to film then it should be applied liberally to Wuthering Heights: as harsh sheets of rain batter Heathcliff there could be no better visual depiction of his emotional turmoil than his drenched figure against the unforgiving moor. As Amy Raphael wrote in her review of the film for Sight & Sound “The stormy weather constantly reflects and predicts their emotional turmoil.” Moreover, raindrops on the camera lens and a shallow depth of field threaten the viewer with the same weather and the same intensity of feeling – the rain and the heartache soak through the screen.
The film is richly sensual, particularly in the depiction of its central relationship, that of Catherine and Heathcliff. Their friendship is heavily bound to their surroundings, specifically the moor to which they escape the difficulties of their farmhouse home. The intensity of their first trip to the moor is compounded by sensual experiences; Heathcliff feels the horse’s fur beneath his hands, Cathy’s hair is blown into his face by the wind. Heathcliff’s point of view shot sees Cathy’s hair filling the frame, flapping gently and kindly, as though a friendship gesture which Heathcliff readily accepts as he breathes its scent. The focus on sensual images suggests a submission to the senses, marking their trip to the moor as an intensely physical experience for Heathcliff, Cathy and the viewer. However, while the joy of their relationship is intensely bound to nature and to the moor, nature is also the tempest which threatens to pull them apart. On their rock outlook they are bathed in rare sunlight but they are also battered by the elements; Cathy’s inviting hair is whipped harshly back and forth and there is no sound but the winds that rage around them. Cathy and Heathcliff’s visceral engagement with each other and the world around them establishes the intense spark between them. As Cathy teaches Heathcliff about feathers her tactile engagement with the objects informs his reception of them, fingering each feather as she gives it to him.
One of the particularly affecting elements of Arnold’s dense sensuous imagery is through its repetition. The constant cycles and movement from place to place and back again, and the film’s limited colour palette saturated with harsh greys, muddy browns and murky greens create a world which bears down upon its inhabitants and creates a sense claustrophobia for the viewer. As Bolton said at LiLo of Fish Tank, Arnold creates a “rhythm of relations”, an “intersection of time scales and time spaces” in which the time which we have been encouraged to share with our protagonists is protracted and interfered with. Likewise, the sadness and structure of Wuthering Heights are tightly interwoven. Indeed, repeated locations and frequent flashback, especially in the second half of the film, create cycles of pleasure and pain that arise from the same moments, from the same objects. As adult Heathcliff recollects his youth with Cathy, flashbacks, by turns, mirror present events and contrast with them: Cathy licks a scratch on her arm and Heathcliff recalls that she once did the same to whipping wounds on his back; a graphic match compares Cathy’s childhood hair tossed in the wind to hair tied down by adulthood; Nelly’s advice to Cathy not to run provokes a flashback to a time when the two youngsters would run breathlessly together across the moor. For Heathcliff, these recollections are like a wound, kept open by remembering. Indeed, Heathcliff’s memories are explicitly figured in terms of self-injury as he hurls himself at a wall and viscerally bashes his head on the hard floor.
The intense visceral sensuality of the film is engaging and emotional. Moreover, it lends itself to an individuation of film experience; the bodily experience of viewing the film evokes recollections of touches and smells which will take spectators to many different memories. Which brings me back to the transformation of my own relationship to cinema. I cannot help but see this phenomological drive inherently in the cinematic viewing experience. There is something of a paradox of pleasures at work in cinema spectatorship; at once a giving over of the body to light and sound in the darkened hush of the cinema and an ownership of the image, a combination of one’s own thoughts, feelings and being with the meanings onscreen. Though there isn’t actually psychical contact between the viewer and the images on the screen, at times there might as well be.
Bolton also quoted from another interview with Arnold in which she pondered: “What if I did a whole film where I just did one takes? Something very real and raw could happen.” Bolton emphasised that ‘something very real and raw’ is already a good way to describe Arnold’s films. I would argue that the realness and rawness of Arnold’s work lies in the invitation to the viewer to experience.