- Netherlands, 1971
- Director, Writer, Cinematographer: Frans Zwartjes
- Sound: Frans Zwartjes & Michel Waisvisz
The movie: Zwartjes’ masterwork and his most favorite film. “Living has an uneasy, indefinable atmosphere. This strange swaying of the camera and the music that keeps going on and on”. Living demonstrates the cinematographic mastery of Zwartjes. He is the main character of the film and handles the camera himself, pointing it towards himself with his hand held out. Zwartjes: “I was as strong as a bear in these times.” The film is part of the series ‘Home sweet home’, in which Zwartjes explores the house in The Hague he had just moved into at the time. His wife and muse Trix plays the other role. The two characters move restlessly through the house. The film was made using an extreme wide angle lens (a 5.7), which gives the image a strong sense of estrangement.
The director: Frans Zwartjes is a very peculiar, extraordinary filmmaker. His film all seem to exist completely disconnected from the real world. While one can assume this is at least partially due to the fact that he almost exclusively shoots interiors, the few times that his camera deviates into the outside world his unique lens still shows the world in utter disconnect. I spent a weekend watching 14 of his films (thirteen shorts and one feature), and at the end I felt like I had experienced the uncanny. Often times while viewing a Zwartjes film one gets the feeling that they’re not supposed to be watching the film, that their act of viewing is transcending simple voyeurism and actually attaining violation. And this is why Zwartjes is amazing.
Living was my introduction to Zwartjes, and to this day it remains not only my favorite Zwartjes film, but also one of the most powerful films that I’ve ever seen. The film introduces a simple concept: Frans and Trix, Frans’ wife and muse, walk around the freshly-painted empty living room of the house they have just moved into. The two arrange miniature furniture on a floor plan, crawl on the floor, and aimlessly look around. This is the entirety of the action in the film.
What makes the film so powerful is the incredible atmosphere. There is a large series of windows on one wall of the room, but Zwartjes exposes the film so the panes are filled with nothing but a sublime white, totally removing the room from the outside world. For all the viewer knows, the house could be located in outer space. This detachment helps to enhance the idea of Trix and Frans in total isolation from the rest of the world. Zwartjes also shot the film with as wide of a wide-angle lens as he could get without having to shoot a fish eye lens, and this decision extends the atmosphere of isolation that has already been established by the empty room and detached pervasiveness.
But what brings the film together is the brilliant soundtrack. Discordant, errant organ permeates the viewers ears as the ghostly-pale faces of Trix and Frans wander around their space. The soundtrack is some of the most hauntingly beautiful music that I have ever heard in my entire life, and the affect that the score has on the images is utterly remarkable; a testament to that inherent aspect of cinema, the marriage of sound with images.
Along with the uncanny mood of isolation, Zwartjes also manages to implode a remarkable sexual tension. This tension briefly rears it’s head via brilliant montage. The pace of the majority of the film is calm and studied, but several scenes explode into hyper-quick, very short, cuts of Trix’ breasts and underwear as she lounges around the empty space. Zwartjes himself remains stoic in his hushed countenance, constantly biting down on a handkerchief as he continues to examine the space around him, occasionally stealing fetishized glances at his wife.
Gaston Bachelard, in his Poetics of Space, remarks that “[…] it [is] reasonable to say we ‘read a house,’ or ‘read a room,’ since both room and house are psychological diagrams that guide writers and poets in their analysis of intimacy.” With Living, Zwartjes not only reads the room himself, but allows the viewer to do the same. Within the isolation, an obsessive relation between Frans and Trix is fully apparent. These rooms not only keep the outside world from spilling in, but also keeps lust and obsession from spilling out.
Aside from everything else, it’s worth noting just how beautiful Zwartjes’ aesthetics are. It’s not something that’s unique to this film particularly, but Living is one of the most amazing films to look at out of Zwartjes’ films that I’ve been lucky enough to see. Zwartjes processes his own film, which allows him to push and pull his images: this lets him saturate his images in a singular way. The frame is permeated with blinding whites, grayish blue hues, the deepest greens, and occasionally, a shockingly intrusive red. The color palate itself adds to the overwhelming abject sense of the uncanny in the most beautiful way imaginable. Not only are the colors wonderful, but the camera work is an amazing feat in itself. All of the film is shot by Zwartjes himself, and Zwartjes himself is in the frame for most of the film. His shots are hand held, and he handles the camera in disorienting swooping motions so well; there’s not a shake to be found.
It’s no surprise, given the power of the film, that Zwartjes himself calls it his favorite. It’s an unmatched examination of architecture and physical space representing a poetic emotional state, and it’s a testament to a personalized sense of aesthetics.