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Culture

ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Souvenirs intimes de Liverpool

by Jean Roy

Intimate Memories of Liverpool : “Of Time and the City”, by Filmmaker Terence Davies

Translated Tuesday 27 May 2008, by Isabelle Métral

"Séance spéciale" (special show) at Cannes: halfway between a diary and memoirs, Terence Davies’s latest film reveals its author quite openly, and immodestly.

It’s been seven years since Terence Davies has made a film; and how regrettable this has been for our reviews, having endeavoured to illustrate the beauty of his previous films in l’Humanité, films such as : Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes largely compensate for their deadly atmosphere and the sustained attention demanded of spectators. They are quite singular too, being a far remove from the formatted staple fare: they show their author to be the most original of British filmmakers, along with Peter Greenaway.

Peter Davies is back with what must be called a documentary, a portrait of the city where he was born in 1945 and to which all his works relate. This film can compare with one film only, namely Porto da Minha Infância tThe Porto of My Childhood), directed by Manoel de Oliveira in 2001, which offers a similar perspective.

If Liverpool did not exist, one would have to…

The film opens with something that resembles the raise of a theatre curtain which, thanks to a series of changes à la Meliès (numerical tricks, really), eventually make way for a movie screen on which black and white archive images are projected. The voice-over has the director’s unmistakable thick accent and sounds like a grating speech from beyond the grave. This voice, which will seldom give way to another, this being a private diary, declares that if Liverpool did not exist one would have to invent it. This opening takes place in a majestic building in the Roman style with doors bearing the initials SPQL (the senate and the people of Liverpool, we may suppose), to the kind of solemn music associated with the majestic pomp of royal ceremonies.

Then comes a setting that evokes a church, with a great organ, an altar, niches and stained glass: all of which an electronic magic wand suddenly changes into a trendy restaurant. The voice-over says: “We decry the places where we live, then spend our time trying to retrieve them.” This is typically Terence Davies, though he will often hide behind explicit quotations, by Joyce, Shelley, T.S. Eliot, and others. The style of the commentary is extremely precious; it is a monologue of the highest literary quality which betrays the old cultivated artist’s refinement as much as his pederasty. The equivalent in painting might be a meditation on ruins à la Hubert Robert or a lamentation; or in other artistic forms, memories carved out of the marble of memory.

But Davies, who was born into a working-class family near the harbour, makes no secret of his proletarian roots. A quotation by Engels accompanies archive pictures of beaches with crowds of working-class people. The director reminds us of how he discovered the cinema through the signs of the big movie theatres that used to be the cultural temples of mass-consumption; in one of those he saw Singing in the Rain for the first time at the age of seven. He also shows his fascination for wrestlers, their tight pants, and the sweat from their combats. While the next shot shows the park nearby, of which Davies says: “This is where I bade farewell to my girlhood.”

“I have lived under Clitoris the Umpteenth”

This inevitably draws a smile, as will, on other occasions, the typically British touch : the sudden shifts from the most elevated style to the most impertinent and vile. As with Liverpool, suddenly propelled to the worldwide musical scene with the arrival of the Beatles, assimilated to “a provincial solicitor’s office”. Or, of the director’s tortured relationship with religion: “I have lived under Paul VI, John-Paul II and Clitoris the Umpteenth.” Or, again, of the decadence of the British Empire, the pomp of the monarchy while the common people are starving: “The problem with being poor is that it keeps one busy all the time; the problem with being rich is that it keeps other people busy.” The closer one gets to the present time, the more acute becomes the sense that a city has disappeared. The present is summed up in the urban architecture of company headquarters in the tertiary sector and in monuments that are as lifeless as they are glorious.

That film is simply prodigious.


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