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Observations on Filmic Miniatures

Kitchen Stories (Bent Hamer, 2003)


Prologue. When thinking about ‘everydayness’ for this article, one image came to my mind. In a Norwegian film called Kitchen Stories (Bent Hamer, 2003) based on real-life experiments held in 1950s Sweden to modernize home kitchens, a series of inspectors were sent in people’s kitchens to carefully observe and write detailed reports on the bachelors’ everyday gestures and behaviors. If I was not able to remember the specific intrigue of the film, some shots have remained of anonymous and strangely identical men taking notes, perched on high wooden chairs placed at the corner of the kitchen. They kept quiet but were overtly and awkwardly present, apparently capturing the essence of everydayness – a succession of non-events, of small gestures endlessly repeated. I remember wondering, like the observed characters – what the hell are they writing? And what meaning will they give to all these small gestures in their reports?

Of course, it is one thing to observe (like I will try to do in this article) and another to actually represent ‘everydayness’ – what many film directors are doing nowadays, sometimes in very different ways, through their films. My choice for this paper is to examine women’s filmic perception of this ‘everydayness’ – a term in my mind first associated with images of interiors, domestic life, endless repetitions but also, on a more narrative level, inducing the refusal of clearly definite actions. More specifically, I would like to explore the idea of miniature – an art form notably analyzed in all its complexity by, among others, John Mack (The Art of Small Things) and Susan Stewart (On Longing).Mack J. (2007) The Art of Small Things, London, British Museum Press & Stewart S. (1993) On longing – Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham & London, Duke University Press One idea, developed by Stewart in her book, struck me as a possible resonating surface to the films that I have seen during several editions of the International Film Festival in Rotterdam and that I wanted to revisit in this article: “From the privatized and domesticated world of the miniature, from its petite sincerity, arises an “authentic” subject whose transcendence over personal property substitutes for a strongly chronological, and thus radically piecemeal, experience of temporality in everyday life.”Stewart S. (Ibid: 172) For this paper, I will then borrow Stewart’s vision of the miniature, a concept that she applies to art objects, novels and other cultural forms – everything it seems, but cinema.

The filmic miniature. For Stewart, the miniature is “a metaphor for the interior space and time of the bourgeois subject” that she opposes to “the gigantic, the metaphor for the abstract authority of the state and the collective, public, life.”Stewart S. (Ibid: xii) Stewart not only applies this idea of miniature to different arts, but she also considers it as a literary method or style. On this perspective, she quotes Solomon Grildrig: “It is not for me to attempt the bolder strokes, and nervous outlines which the pencil of Raphael exhibit, nor can I expect that my portraits should glow with the vivid coloring which a Titianmight express. My attempts will follow the style of the Miniature, and while the touches are less daring, while less force, and richness of imagination may be conspicuous in the following sketches, they may perhaps derive some merit in a humbler scale, from correctness of design, and accuracy of representation.”The quote comes from the introduction of Grildrig S. The Miniature: A Periodical Paper. Edited by Rennell T., Knight H.C., Canning G. & others, Windsor, C. Knight, 1804.

Just like elaborating a miniature can be seen as a literary method, it can be, in my opinion, considered as a filmic method for many contemporary women directors. The films that I will mention in this article all work as filmic miniatures; seizing down the world to limited spaces and territories (a town, a mountain, a house, a kitchen, a table) and time (three days, 24H, 90 minutes), reducing reality to their protagonists’ height/scale and restricted eyesight/horizon, they encapsulate small and coherent universes, perfectly and meticulously mastered microcosms, that respond (rigorously or more loosely) to the rules and representations of everyday life (even though it may sometimes be other than ‘bourgeois’) – relativizing actions, causality and proposing instead a string of events, in a ‘hallucination of details’, that sometimes even avoids closure. In these filmic (moving) versions of miniatures as I see them, succession of small gestures and peripetia indeed play a significant part, as well as experientiality as it is defined by Monika Fludernik: a “quasi-mimetic evocation of ‘real-life’ experiences.”Fludernik M. (2005: 155) “Experientiality” in Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative History, Herman D., Jahn M. & Ryan M.-L. (eds), London & New York, Routledge. But the way women directors like Jiayin Liu, Julia Murat, Julia Loktev, Valérie Massadian, or Kelly Reichardt filmed (each with their own personal mode) these miniature worlds also echo Grildrig’s depiction of miniature style: minimalistic yet terribly accurate, avoiding ‘bolder strokes’, un-dramatic, humble.Many other examples could have been chosen like the work of French Lucile Hadzihalilovic (Innocence), Iranian Mania Akbari (20 Fingers, From Tehran to London), Argentinian Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, The Headless Women), Peruvian Claudia Lhosa (La teta asustada) or even some of Japanese Naomi Kawase’s films.

Back to the core. Contrary to what it may sound, the opening example of Hamer’s film was far from being a simple anecdote; kitchens have been at the core of women’s everyday lives for decades (if not for centuries) and somehow encapsulated their pre-feminist destiny of insignificant routines. Yet, not many (masculine) directors have represented these enclosed miniature worlds with their repetitive chores and repressive impact. Women artists and filmmakers have, as historian of art researcher Veronique Danneels has brilliantly demonstrated in her PhD thesis.Danneels V. (2012) “The Repercussion of the American Feminist Movement on the Art Production and Art Critic from 1968 to 1975 in the United States of America” (VUB – unpublished) In 1975, Martha Rosler filmed Semiotics of the Kitchen, a ground-breaking performance: ironizing Julia Child’s famous TV cooking show, she stood in an anonymous kitchen, facing the camera and presenting one by one the threatening tools of a housewife’s day, from A to Z. The same year appeared one of the first and most striking filmic examples of a ‘miniature world’ shaped by a woman director – Chantal Akerman’s famous Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Many film critics and theoreticians have commented on Akerman’s three days in the life of a single mother (Delphine Seyrig) living with her son. But maybe we have not yet rightfully measured its long-lasting impact on contemporary feminine directors.

Many of its essential elements relate to the art of miniature. As the latter, Jeanne’s (bourgeois) domestic interior is a closed, self-sufficient world in which Akerman films the systematic and almost unbearable repetitions of Jeanne’s day routine (sign of her alienation) through a succession of fixed-frame shots creating a closed spatial cartography (with a few exceptions) inside the walls of her apartment. The second element relates to the body. As in Stewart’s definition of miniatures, Akerman brings in Jeanne Dielman a powerful argument – everything is a question of scale: “The body is our mode of perceiving scale and, conventions of symmetry and balance on the one hand, and the grotesque and disproportionate on the other.”Stewart S. (Op.cit.: xii) The scale is set by the body (in this case, Jeanne’s body), which triggers questions about many dualities: inside/outside, visible/invisible, transcendence and partiality of perspective. Jeanne’s miniature world is measured both by her systematically trapped body (inside the camera frames but also door frames) and her repetitive gestures.

Jeanne’s obsessive behavior and gestures allow her to survive her double life – as an interior mother and as a part-time prostitute. Everyday gestures (peeling potatoes, cooking schnitzels, dusting, closing lights, doors, reading a letter or receiving one of her clients) mostly filmed in real-time and transformed in self-imposed rituals, for Jeanne and the spectator, clearly settle something different about time and narration in cinema, leading to a long string of non-events. Real-time is of course an essential element to Akerman’s film. Yet, contrary to any obvious interpretation, it does not only relate to reality. Once again, it can be linked to miniature time: “The miniature does not attach itself to lived historical time. Unlike the metonymic world of realism, which attempts to erase the break between the time of everyday life and the time of narrative by mapping one perfectly upon the other, the metaphoric world of the miniature makes everyday life absolutely anterior and exterior to itself. The reduction in scale which the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday life-world, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its “use value” transformed into the infinite time of reverie.”Stewart S. (Ibid: 65) In other terms, Akerman’s film echoes the “capacity of the miniature to create an “other” time, a type of transcendent time which negates change and the flux of lived reality.”Stewart S. (Ibidem) If this hypothesis is undoubtedly shaped by the routine in the first part of the film, it is completed by the final shot of the film: Jeanne, sitting still in her living room chair, unable to move, literally petrified in her interiors.

Akerman’s film sets many characteristic features of the filmic miniature that will be later invested and reshaped by more contemporary women filmmakers. The refusal of conventional narration by the representation of ‘small’ or apparently insignificant gestures; the repetition of these gestures, showing the implacable routine of the character’s life; restriction to enclosed locations or limited environments (kitchen, houses, town or a specific landscape); real-time representation (or very long shots) of these gestures (duration) that imposes a new temporal relation to the gestures. If all are not systematically staged in every film, many still appear as recurring and essential elements. What basically remains at the surface as a classical, linear narration, is nevertheless reshaped by different imperatives and by moments of counter currents that impose a renewed rhythm to the progression of the narration. Even though one absolutely needs to take into account the national specificities and sometimes the auteur’ touch of each film in order to fully grasp their meaning, some common trends or recurrent concerns and patterns seemed to structure the films and link one to another, allowing an echoing and interweaving reading. But what is also striking is their aesthetic diversity – how they invest the miniature in many filmic ways.

Around a kitchen table. After Akerman’s first innovative step, many women filmmakers have developed a specific relation to narration and temporality, keeping at a distance narrative efficiency and action in order to create strings of non-events. The use of enclosed spaces, slowed down pace and highly detailed gestures have engendered many new filmic miniatures in contemporary cinema. Daring and radically innovative, Chinese director Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II (China, 2009) is such an example, a perfectly encapsulated filmic miniature, experimenting duration through the use of fixed frames in a minimalistic mise-en-scène. Like in her previous film (Oxhide, China, 2005), the young Chinese director mixes reality and fiction. She films herself and her (real) parents in their apartment, in an apparently documentary style but actually detailed and crafted set up in which we follow, step by step and (once again) in real-time, the meticulous making and eating of dumplings by the three protagonists while we learn, in casual pieces of conversations, about the dramatic work situation of the parents’ bag shop. In this film produced with the help of the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival of Rotterdam, Liu uses nine fixed camera positions that revolve clockwise around the kitchen table – the vital center point of the claustrophobic family life. Liu sums up the guideline herself: “Compared to the normal films, a fixed space and continuous time would be a limitation to film, but this limitation trigger out more possibilities” and “If observe in a very detailed way, a trivial change could be a dramatic one. A piece of hair could block the sunlight, a small movement, a tiny little look, could be a climax.”Liu Jia Yin in the Press Kit of Oxhide II Both remarks clearly link Liu’s film to the miniature.

The film clearly belongs to a long-time tradition of experimental filmmakers who have questioned the duration in film, and it is obviously difficult to write about this kitchen-related representation based on real time shooting and claustrophobic fixed frames without evoking (again) Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Yet, Liu’s rigorous and almost mathematical mise-en-scène brings another type of filmic experience. Contrary to Akerman who, responding to a strong feminist context, insists on filming Seyrig as an entire feminine body inside domestic interiors, Liu lingers on the hands and precise gestures of her protagonists, leaving the spectator facing fragmented, incomplete and sometimes faceless beings yet fully understanding the transmission of ancestral knowledge and experiencing the tension, arguments, tenderness or love that the family share. The gestures she films and that delimitate the frame and length of the shots, refer to the deconstruction processes of documentary filmmaking in the ‘cinema direct’ tradition. Once again, and maybe more than ever, the idea of miniature gesture is at the core of the filming, capturing every detail in the dumpling making; but the exhaustive process also leads to revelation – revelation of the family’s crisis.

In terms of setting, and as David Bordwell pointed out on his blog, everything is organized around the table – or more exactly, the main subject of the film is the table. Once again, the question of scale comes back, since the table becomes a transformable ‘micro-landscape’ belonging to a miniature world, the only element we constantly see throughout the process. An extremely rigorous approach is chosen by Liu, at all levels: “Liu has filmed the table from a strictly patterned arc of camera positions, dividing the space into 45-degree segments. These unfold in a clockwise sequence around the table. What could seem an arbitrary structural gimmick is justified by the fact that each setup proves ideally suited to each stage of the process.”Bordwell D. “Wantons and wontons” (Online) Available: (9 May 2014) The way the father works the leather at the beginning of the film or the way the family makes the dumplings, echoes in the extreme and mathematical precision with which Liu is filming. At this level, self-irony is also present; when she steps in to help her parents with the dumplings, Liu has to take care of shopping the chives. When her mother gives her the advice to make a four millimeters cut, she fetches a ruler and measures each branch. “You might consider this as some kind of torture, or some kind of threat” explains Liu of her extreme filmic projects; yet, rarely has anything like the creation of dumplings been more fascinating or, to stay close to the idea of miniatures, precise.

Petrified horizons and cyclic repetitions. Not unlike Jeanne’s last shot in Akerman’s film, other examples relate to petrifying repetitive patterns. “Stories only exist when remembered” (the translation of Julia Murat’s film original title Historias que so existem quando lembradas, Brazil/Argentina/France, 2011) easily enters this category. In an interview, Murat explains that “in the dialogue, one of the characters of the village explains to someone else “some stories only exist when they are remembered” and another one answers “yes, one remembers only by closing their eyes”. It brings the film to the level of ‘fables’, like a magical idea that passes from generation to generation.”Interview by Maylis Etchart with Julia Murat in March 2012 at Cinelatino, Rencontres de Toulouse (my translation) Set in a highly delimitated landscape, Murat’s film rely on the idea of an everlasting repetition of gestures, things and trajectories, in daily routines that seems to allow characters to escape time. Yet one day – a change comes (through apparition of a bird, or a girl). In an isolated village in the Brazilian mountains, where time seems to stand still and where only the tracks of the train remains (but not the trains themselves), Madalena (the amazing Sonia Guedes), an old yet very gracious woman, repeats the same gestures every day; she gets up, makes bread for Antonio’s old coffee shop before sun break, crosses the abandoned rail tracks, cleans up the gate of the locked cemetery, goes to mass and shares lunch with the eleven other members of the village. Alone, she lingers on the past by rereading the letters of her dead husband. Her life (as well as the one of the whole village) changes when Rita (Lise E. Favero), a young and wandering student who photographs ghost towns, stops at the village and forcefully establishes a change in the habitant’s melancholic (or ghostly) moods. As the villagers warms towards her and get interested in her pictures, she investigates the village and its locked cemetery, discovering that strangely nobody seems to have died since 1976.

The film plays on an apparently petrified universe, a liminal and closed world, between life and death that relies on everydayness. Yet, as Jay Weissberg noticed “Though never explicit, the picture is suffused with a sense of waiting, as the elderly inhabitants go through their unchangeable routines in patient expectation of approaching oblivion.”Weissberg J. (Sept. 2, 2001) « Venice Days » in “Variety”. Murat’s film shapes temporality according to a specific principle of suspended time, in relation to the experiences of waiting and, more specifically, longing. Indeed, the characters do more than just wait, they literally long for something specific (a party, a house, an encounter), or to reach a certain state. At the beginning of her book, Stewart proposed several definitions of the word ‘longing’, all in direct relation to narration. One of them defines ‘longing’ as a “yearning desire”, first for immortality then for native country (or ‘home’), “the direction of force in the desiring narrative is always a future-past, a deferment of experience in the direction of origin.”Stewart S (Op.cit.: ix-x) Even though she seems to accommodate with reliving the same small gestures everyday, Madalena in Murat’s film is somehow thrust by this yearning desire, and is thus dependent of a clash between her past and her future. Stewart also underlines that longing characters are– literally – ‘walled-in’. Through delimitated territories but also isolated bodies, the idea of confinement is clearly displayed in this film (as it was already in Jeanne Dielman or Oxhide II as a token of the miniature), thus engendering a ‘craving’ for something they could reach for. The ‘suspended time’ of the waiting or the longing is clearly articulated through the narrative principles: the characters of these films are put in a position of waiting, stuck (deliberately or not) in a transitional temporality, a parenthesis, an in-between that clearly indicates two stages/borders in their identity. This waiting is also delimitated spatially or geographically, most of the characters being confined (symbolically or not) in restricted areas that are perfect landscapes for their still journeys. Keeping the perfection of the miniature in place is a only a matter of replacement; after Madalena who devoted years of her life, hiding away her longing for a freeing death, it will be Rita’s fate to be held in the tiny realm of the village and the frozen time of everyday routines.

Waiting & longing. As they are waiting and/or longing, trying to escape their situation or cope with physical restraints, the characters wilfully engage into a series, a stream,of miniature events or gestures. If, at first sight, action seems to be frozen in time and space, these miniature events, occurring at a slowed down pace, progressively shape new identities. Far from Akerman’s tragic vision of home confinement in which her character can only be petrified, and contrary to Jeanne who is building her whole world on a set of routines that only lead to an obsessive circle that a glitch can blow up, other films’ characters pile up a stream of miniature gestures in order to escape their former situation and transform into new beings. The use of the word ‘stream’ in this context is, of course, far from being innocent and refers to Virginia Woolf’s ‘stream of consciousness’. As I have already suggested above, it is the idea of flow or stream, no longer of consciousness but of chronological fragmented miniature events, that prevails.

Films can then capture the ‘in-betweens’, the moments when time is, for one reason or another, literally suspended. Some films go even further into the actual suspension, leaving behind any obvious traces of a narrative structure. Second film of the director after Play (2005), Alicia Scherson’s Turistas (Chile, 2009) focuses on 37 years-old Carla Guttierez (Aline Kuppenheim) who, riding on her way to vacation with her husband, reveals to him that she aborted their unborn baby without consulting him. Hurt and enraged, he leaves her at the side of the road and she begins a journey to go back. The journey is made of hazardous encounters in a beautiful Chilean nature reserve with seven waterfalls where she meets, among others, a (fake) Norwegian backpacker Ulrik. The reserve, a perfectly delimited area, reflects a mini-society in which peace is only apparent. Even if we know that she will end up back home in Santiago, the path she takes during the narrative time of the film is never predictable and follows the impulses of her constantly changing mood (she always changes her mind, saying ‘yes’ then ‘no’ or the other way around). Carla is clearly refusing her past condition and longs for something else; yet what she longs for is uncertain and remains uncertain at the end of the film even if it is clear her identity has changed through the experience.

Turistas (Alicia Scherson, 2009)

The suspended time is translated here by visual equivalents like beautifully crafted shots of rolling tin cans, blurred visions (the character’s subjective view without her glasses) and, more significantly, shots of insects. Graduated as a biologist before studying film-making, Scherson uses her background as a nature observer to entangle the temporal flow and bring the spectator into a contemplative state or, more exactly, into the uncertain, frozen and puzzled state of her heroine. Yet, the puzzling is not restricted to her journey in the reserve and even if she goes back to civilization with a different look on things and people, we have the feeling that she will remain mainly uncertain.

Miniature Gestures. Telling us the gripping story of a four years-old little girl who survives alone in the woods when her young mother mysteriously disappear, Valérie Massadian’s Nana (France, 2011) maybe illustrates a more direct idea of a miniature world by proposing a compelling journey at the little girl’s height. With the help of the Centre National du Cinema (CNC) which gave Massadian the money to direct a short film, she made a short film (Ninouche, 2011) but also a long-featured film (Nana) with the same budget, the same main actress and a restricted crew of technicians. Massadian’s eclectic past as model, photographer and assistant to Nan Goldin, brings an interesting aspect in her representation of reality. Setting her simple story in a rough countryside and woods (where the mother’s house is located), where farmers (in an extremely long, fixed and disturbing opening shot) slaughter pigs in front of almost stone-faced yet a little bit scared children, where the grandfather explains to Nana (the extraordinary Kelyna Lecomte) what to do with dead things, where there is no hot water or electricity, Massadian follows the almost mute journey of Nana whose sulking and isolated mother disappears one day without leaving any trace. Just like the little children of famous fairy-tales, Nana goes on with her life during her mother’s absence; she repeats alone the systematic gestures she did with her mother, washes and dresses herself, eats, sits on the couch to read stories (Boulgakov’s Dog Heart), goes for a walk and takes home a dead hare that she burns in the middle of the living room like her grandfather told her to do with dead animals. Throughout the miniature gestures of Nana, we enter an enchanted and cruel world where children naturally continue the course of their lives, beyond their parents’ disappearance or death. What is striking in this particular case is the un-extraordinary, non-dramatic (contrary to the dramatized turning points of fairy-tales), naturally fluid transition between the two situations (life with and without her mother). Once again, the world is reduced to a limited space, but since the main character is a four-years old child, her world is even more seen as a real miniature, “distanced, diminutive, clearly framed.”Stewart S. (Ibid.: 44)

Nana (Valérie Massadian, 2011)

Massadian’s film is short, yet paradoxically playing on a sometimes extremely slow pace, set by a restricted series of scarce and long fixed shorts in which capture young Nana’s insignificant gestures but also places her inside a larger environment. She meets the economy and concision of fairy-tales, articulating her filmic representation around the image of the forest; refusing to play on an eerie atmosphere, Messadian depicts mainly a down to earth world in which only a few shots, showing happy times with the lost mother, pulls the films out of its realistic representation. The director clearly refuses the spectacular and relies only on small, spontaneous and almost insignificant gestures in order to build her (extremely restricted) story.

Happenings in peaks and valleys. The idea of waiting and longing seems sometimes to be replaced by a constant yet useless movement, always through the scope of miniature gestures, or by a nearly complete petrification (translated by fixed frames and very long shots); characters are trapped in situations or territories and their fight to escape them usually tastes bitter in the end. The outcomes of the narrations are mostly sketched, and like an unfinished drawing, never clearly defined. Yet, at the end of the film and however painful it may be, most characters will have confronted the object of their longing; but nothing is definitive and if some seem to be able to move on, others will be longing for something else or left in a state of uncertainty despite an obvious identity change.

Just like in her previous fiction film (Day Night Day Night, 2006, which documented 48H in the life of an anonymous 19 year-old girl in her journey to become a suicide bomber in Time Square), Russian-American director and video artist Julia Loktev builds The Loneliest Planet (Germany/USA, 2011) around her characters’ loss of innocence, throughout a rough journey where illusions violently slip away to lead the way to a cruel state of awareness. Like in her first film, every gesture is carefully set in place to lead to the expected (in Day Night Day Night) or unexpected (The Loneliest Planet) life-changing moment. Loktev’s film is an adaptation from Tim Bissell’s Expensive Trips Nowhere, published in God lives in St Petersbourg,a series of stories about rich Westerners travelling in poor, beautiful landscapes. In a grandiose (yet delimitated) landscape, childlike backpackers, Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Nica (Hani Furstenberg), start an adventurous experience. The couple goes trekking in the Caucasian mountains before their wedding, led by a local guide, Dato (real mountaineer Bidzina Gujabidze). The film follows their long and quiet journey, through incredible and imposing landscapes in which they appear as tiny dots, until, in an unexpected way, an incident happens (what Seymour Chatman calls a happening– an unintentional accident by force or nature or chance), dynamiting their playful and tender relationship, testing then violently threatening their bond and taking away their playful complicity.

The film starts with a display of misleading sounds on a black screen; banging on metal and heavy breathing induce the coming vision of a sexual act. Yet, when the image fades in, we finally see the body of a girl, cold, wet and naked, jumping up and down on a metallic pan, waiting for her boyfriend to come back and pour hot water on her. This scene establishes the characters’ playful relationship, which will be systematically confirmed during the first half of the film. Once again, the scale is set on a childhood mode since Nica and Alex are seen as children, barely adolescents, playing with other children, running around empty buses, or chasing sheep. The use of photography, that Nica practices during the whole film, could seem to be an irrelevant detail but it is instead highly symbolic in its narrative function; if she is taking pictures of their happiness, Nica also captures, petrifies their relationship, which will be stricken by a chance meeting. The contrast is also expressed between the three characters, continually set in motion, and the fixed frames, large and long shots of nature in which they appear to be tiny moving dots.

The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, 2011)

Loktev’s tour de force is to tumble down a whole strong and explicit world (the huge and mesmerizing landscapes, the extraordinary and powerful contrast of colours of the green grass and Nica’s red hair, the natural joy of the childish couple) by one single, dazzling and almost insignificant ‘happening’. What indeed happens during the encounter with the three men in the mountain (as one of the men points his gun at the couple, fearful Alex uses Nica’s body as a protective shield) is finally the only real event, the rest of the film relying on a series of chronological miniature gestures encapsulated in the journey itself, or the conversations of the couple with Dato. Yet, a tiny gesture, again, dramatically changes everything in their relationship and even in the representation of the world; as Dato explains in the last conversation he has with Nica, “you can understand everything in the mountain”. More than anything else, Loktev with The Loneliest Planet proposes a miniature huis-clos in an extraordinary landscape and a violent passage from innocence to bitter awareness.

Building new (and complex) identities. If the characters seem stuck, waiting and longing to the eyes of who surrounds them, they are in fact changing, at an extremely slow pace, taking small steps through a deceivingly immobile and hard journey. Yet, the outcome remains uncertain. Kelly Reichardt’s second long independent feature after Old Joy,Wendy and Lucy (USA, 2008), her second opus in the Oregon trilogy, proposes a radically alternative vision of temporality in the realm of American action-related screenplays, in which the time of the waiting is overwhelming. Wendy (an amazing short black haired Michelle Williams) travels with her dog Lucy in her car and longs to go to Alaska; but one morning, in the middle of a small Oregon town, her car refuses to start and she is blocked, obliged to wait for her car to be repaired; after a series of incidents, her dog disappears. Even if Wendy has strongly defined narrative goals (in this specific case, repairing the car or finding her dog in order to go on with her long-time prepared journey), the way the film narrates her quest is very different from the usual active goal searching since we will never know exactly where she is going and why. Time seems to have stopped, petrified in the little Oregon city. Movement is never far, like a perpetual temptation; cars and trains are present from the beginning of the film (and also during the narration by the train’s sound in the background), but it is an immobile journey that we are actually witnessing. Wendy is caught up into an endless series of miniature gestures; except for the chance meeting with a sympathetic guardian who helps her, she is alone and acted upon by fate, entirely dependent of external small events (the garage or the refuge to reopen, the people to call to say if they have seen the dog, etc.).

Reichardt’s radically un-dramatic way of filming brings us once again to the miniatures and the way they mirror but also act upon the world even though they appear to be tiny: “the writing of miniaturization does not want to call attention to itself or to its author; rather, it continually refers to the physical world. It resists the interiority of reflexive language in order to interiorize and outside; it is the closest thing we have to a three-dimensional language, for it continually points outside itself, creating a shell-like, or enclosed, exteriority.”Stewart S. (Ibid: 45) Indeed, by focusing so closely on detailed non-events, Reichardt points out to exterior dimensions – a threatening image of a petrified America where kindness of strangers is restricted, only leading to disappointments. It is a place where Wendy cannot exist: without a job, a fixed address, a phone, a car, she seems to have lost her identity, a feeling strongly reinforced when she looses the only element that truly defines her, except for her humming and her looks – her dog, Lucy. Reichardt’s uncompromising film is finally anchored in the hopelessness of the situation (Wendy’s car is definitely broken) and demands from Wendy to take one heart-breaking decision in order to continue her journey: to part from Lucy, leaving her in a happy and secure environment, and take the next train away.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

If Wendy and Lucy presents a certain kind of closure, Night Moves seems to step away from this idea as Jesse Eisenberg’s character, Josh, freezes in the eye of the surveillance camera. Miniature gestures have led to a decisive (yet non-dramatically filmed) action (the explosion of the dam) that forced the character to reconsider his identity. Yet the consequences are unclear, indefinite, even though they impact on reality – like the sudden skin reactions on Dakota Fanning/Dena’s body. No closure is set, leaving him (and us) uncertain. The decisions taken and the deeds done that should give way to maturity and independence finally have a sour price, even though new and multiple configurations have appeared. Even if they are seen through miniature worlds, where everything is seen in a highly detailed but downsized way, they allow us to expand our perception of the world through a renewed complexity.

Photo credits: International Film Festival Rotterdam