Sarah Miles is a British experimental filmmaker who began making films in the 1980s. Her films are characterised by an interest in narrative combined with experimental montage techniques, and they generally focus on female rites of passage. They range from I Love You (1992) (16mm, black-and-white, 1 min.) which was funded by The Arts Council of England and stylistically echoes the pop video, to the hybrid autobiographical/documentary style of A Bunny Girl’s Tale (1998) (16mm, colour, 13 min.), which was funded by the British Film Institute. Her most recent film, the feature 2001: A Family Odyssey Ophelia’s Version (2002) (video, colour, 51 min.), is the most autobiographical to date and uses a range of complex digital imaging techniques to communicate the difficulty and impossibility of excavating one’s family history.
The following text is an attempt to write with rather than about one of Miles’ films, Love’s Secret (1994) (16mm, colour, 19 min.). It was originally circulated as a handout commissioned by the Arts Council of England to accompany a screening of Miles’ films at Tate Britain, London, on March 14 1999. It uses citations from Luce Irigaray’s The Marine Lover as interludes that run parallel to the film. Although not mentioned in the text, Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image inspires my reading of Love’s Secret.
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Girl meets boy – he knocks her off her bicycle by accident. Chance encounters being propitious to romance – they fall in love. They are happy together until the arguments set in. Girl loses boy. He becomes invisible. Girl is beside herself with grief. She searches for him everywhere. She descends to the depths of her being. When she finds her way back to herself, boy reappears. They are reunited. They live happily ever after…
This is what Love’s Secret would be if it followed the linear trajectory of romance fiction. However, while the narrative of Love’s Secret does indeed pivot around the above scenario, the film distributes this narrative formula across a complex array of visual and aural effects that derail any linear reading of the film – particularly, the shots of blue that repeatedly cut into the diegesis.
These shots of blue punctuate the narrative into sequences of varying duration that weave in and out of one another irrespective of chronological time, a filmic syntax that mirrors the dynamics of the protagonists’ relationship (1). As the protagonists, Susan and Jeffrey, weave in and out of one another’s lives, these almost abstract shots of blue generate an emotional density that would be occluded by a linear presentation of events. In this sense, Love’s Secret is a film less about a relationship than it is the hallucinated projection of the feelings that surround a relationship.
Between the Sheets of Blue: The First Series of Punctuation Shots – Translucency and Opacity
The choreography of the first series of shots of blue, shots of the sky and the sea, breaks the film into narrative sequences that encompass the total range of temporaneity. Fragments of the long-ago past, the present, and the recent past link and collide producing a disjunctive temporal shape that exceeds the film’s linear sequencing.
The first shot in Love’s Secret – of a translucent blue sky – is a unique and fleeting segment that is quickly superseded by a shot of a patch of painted blue sky belonging to Titian’s Bacchas and Ariadne.
This initial, non-narrative shot of the sky is not seen again in the film. All the other views of the actual sky in the film relate to events in the narrative, either as part of the female protagonist’s past experiences or as part of her present fantasy life. However, while this initial shot of blue sky is barely linked to the other shots of blue in the film, one could say that this fleeting glimpse of something translucent and purely there motivates the chaotic interweaving of Susan’s and Jeffrey’s stories. It is the pivot around which these stories circulate. It intimates a sense of something desired and beyond reach.
The second shot of blue – the fragment of Titian’s painted blue sky – is the most opaque shot of blue in Love’s Secret. The camera identifies Susan with this blue segment at the beginning of the film as it cuts from her looking at the painting in a gallery to zoom in on a close-up of its sky. This close-up of the painting’s sky signifies Susan’s’ desire to penetrate opacity. It continually interrupts the film’s narrative, usually being accompanied by the non-synchronous sound of carriage bells which infer an image at odds with the on-screen image, mirroring Susan’s psychological inability to coincide with herself (2). The fact that this sound is appropriated from Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), another film about female desire and fantasy, further extends the disjunctive shape of the film (3).
Susan listens to the gallery guide on a Walkman as she looks at the painting. Susan’s memory of meeting Jeffrey is immediately triggered, the painting acting as a backdrop to their love affair. As the guide recounts Ariadne’s tale, the film cuts to a beach where Susan, draped in a red towel resembling Ariadne’s robe, goes down to the sea and swims out toward the horizon, the meeting place of sky and sea.
Shots of underwater blue are intercut with shots of the painting and shots of the opening sequence where Jeffrey knocks Susan off her bicycle. This underwater blue is the space of love. In an underwater boudoir, Susan and Jeffrey make love.
Jeffrey delivers a monologue on the translucent symbolism of the colour blue. His words are emblematic of the separate spheres the lovers occupy. The blue underwater space of love cannot reconcile Susan’s emotional opacity and Jeffrey’s emotional invisibility.
She is your labyrinth, you are hers. A path from you to yourself is lost in her, and from her to herself is lost in you. And if one looks only for a play of mirrors in all this, does one not create the abyss? Looking only for attractions to return into the first and only dwelling, does one not hollow out the abyss? Unless difference is affirmed, the inclusion of you in her, and her in you, spins off into a labyrinthine mourning for desire (4).
Susan and Jeffrey argue. Susan is abandoned by Jeffrey as Ariadne was by Theseus, the tales of lovers repeating themselves across time. She swoons and he disappears into the blue, the space of his desire. The camera roams over Titian’s Bacchantes. Animal sounds bellow off-screen, the intensity of the noise highlighting the excessive nature of Susan’s internal desire. Wild love, she wanted to abandon herself. Howling, braying, wailing, the Dionysian orgies dismember what had never been a unity in the first place. There is pain and freedom in this severing of parts.
After the break-up of their relationship, Susan remains in the bedroom, which has transformed into a barn. She descends to the depths of darkness like Persephone to the underworld. This watershed sequence lies between the first series of blue punctuation shots, the sky and sea, and the second series of blue punctuation shots. In this watershed sequence, the oblique angles and edgy camerawork signal the presence of Jeffrey’s gaze as his invisible aura surrounds Susan in her destitution.
Since, in some measure, Kore-Persephone escapes perspective. Her depth, in all its dimensions, never offers itself up to the gaze, whatever the point of view may be. She passes beyond all boundaries. Withholding herself from appearance, even without Hades. Whence the veils which she is supposed to cover herself with so that she may give herself out to be – what she is not… If she deceives, it is because this show doesn’t suit her, cannot manifest her. Even if she were to be wholly assimilated in it? (5)
Blue Mourning: The Second Series of Blue Punctuation Shots
If the first series of blue punctuation shots has to do with the impossibility of obliterating the horizon line, which separates the sky and sea and parallels the incommensurability of Susan’s and Jeffrey’s relationship, the second series has to do with reconciliation. The shots in the first series, which are also intermittently relayed in the second series, tend to be brief, whereas those in the second series, of the cobalt blue housepaint that Susan uses to paint the flat and the luminous blue lit shopfront that she happens on in the street, are longer. These durational variations make the internal states of the protagonists palpable.
Flashbacks are scattered throughout the film, suggesting that events, whether belonging to the recent or more distant past, are occurring simultaneously. Earlier, the argument scene in the bedroom had been intercut with a flashback of Jeffrey, aged four, reading a comic in the dark wearing headlights, and also one of Susan aged 15 playing bridesmaids. These flashbacks to the protagonist’s childhood and adolescence emphasise the differences between them, the divergent pathways of their desires. The images remain unintegrated in the narrative, as neither Jeffrey nor Susan seems to be recollecting them. By contrast, a flashback of Susan aged four is more intensely linked to the recent past of Susan’s story.
Susan, upon waking from the underworld, takes out a bundle of papers and letters from the freezer, one of which is a flat, blue painting, The freezer here acts as a storehouse of past memories. The film cuts to a flashback of Susan aged four drawing with a blue crayon. This flashback is one of the few scenes in the film where sound is integrated with the image. Consequently it seems to have special significance. The scratching of the crayon on the paper, the deep breathing of the infant, signifying her bodily concentration, create an extremely palpable sensation which invades the surface layers of the juxtapositions that comprise the film thus far. This sensation resonates with Susan and propels her forward. It generates further narrative events.
Susan paints the flat and everything in it cobalt blue. There is yet another flashback, this time to Susan aged ten, her hair blowing in the breeze from a car window. She is framed against an azure sky. The voice-over belonging to the recorded gallery guide intervenes here and speaks of the dichotomy of pain and freedom that the colour blue represents. Love’s Secret moves towards the reconciliation of this dichotomy.
The camera zooms in on a segment of newly painted blue wall. It lingers on the blue surface, imbuing it with a strange presence. Unlike the underwater blue of Susan and Jeffrey’s lovemaking, this blue space is not infinite and unlike Titian’s blue sky, it is not symbolic. Blue’s infinite recess is here trapped in surface pigment. Jeffrey’s presence suffuses this claustrophobic space. He haunts it like a ghost.
And you had to lose all sight of me so I could come back, toward you, with an other gaze. And, certainly, the most arduous thing has been to seal my lips, out of love. To close off this mouth that always sought to flow free. But, had I never held back, never would you have remembered that something exists which has a language other than your own. That, from her prison, someone was calling out to return to the air (6).
Susan escapes the claustrophobic, haunted flat. She catches sight of her reflection in a glass shopfront, lit from inside by a luminous blue. The camera, no longer attached to Jeffrey’s gaze, frames Susan and her reflection in a fixed blue shot. In this moment of revelation, Susan becomes translucent, leaving her opacity behind to join Jeffrey in the space of freedom intimated by the colour blue. Now the lovers can be reunited in a deep blue space that erases the difference between sky and sea, translucency and opacity. That this space is other than on-screen contributes to the ambiguity of Love’s Secret‘s ending.
In Love’s Secret, the real and the imaginary are continually interwoven and intercut. This is as true of the ending as it is for the rest of the film. In fact, Love’s Secret has a double ending. By necessity one ending has to precede the other, but they can both be read as occurring simultaneously in the overlap of reality and fantasy that constitutes the film.
In the first ending, Susan returns to the flat and lies on the bed. Jeffrey’s hand reaches out towards her. Her voiceover says, “I didn’t see you”. “You shouldn’t go so fast”, he responds. Their dialogue is intercut with shots of their initial meeting when Jeffrey knocks Susan off her bicycle while crossing the street. Susan reaches out towards Jeffrey’s outstretched hand and disappears. The blue, which allows them to be together, is elsewhere than on-screen.
In the other ending, which in linear terms occurs after this moment, the film cuts to Susan again in the gallery in front of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. As she turns to face the camera, her voiceover says, “Jeffrey and I are getting along fine”. This final intercutting of real and imaginary times and spaces links up with all the other disjunctions by which Love’s Secret has unfolded: the series of blue punctuation shots, the temporal discontinuities aided by the flashbacks, and the out-of-field use of sound.
In effect, the secret of love is that it can only exist in an hallucinatory space where fantasy and reality, past and present, dream and memory, are indistinct. In other words, a space that is always only to be recalled.
- This derailing of chronological time is characteristic of Miles’ oeuvre in general, especially Damsel Jam (1992), in which sequences of a group of women recounting their memories of being twelve are intercut with sequences of twelve-year-old girls, both sequences occurring in the same space, a white Talbot Avenger, lined with red velvet. For a discussion of how past, present, and recent past co-exist on the same plane in this film, see my “The Audio-Visual Contract and the Production of Fragmentary Narrative in Sarah Miles’ Damsel Jam” in Graham Coulter-Smith (ed.), The Visual-Narrative Matrix: Interdisciplinary Collisions and Collusions, Southampton Institute, Southampton, 2000, pp. 117–121.
- Jeffrey also has a signature sound or in his case a tune, the song The More I See You by Chris Montez.
- Miles often references other films in this way. The argument scene in Love’s Secret references sounds from the disaster movie The Towering Inferno (John Guillermin & Irwin Allen, 1974), and elsewhere in the film sound effects are culled from James Cameron’s blockbuster The Abyss (1989). Miles’ short film I Love You references the sound effects and camera angles in the scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) where a low-flying plane attempts to kill the protagonist, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant).
- Luce Irigaray, The Marine Lover, trans. Gillian C. Gill, Columbia University Press, New York, 1991, p. 73.
- Irigaray, p. 115.
- Irigaray, p. 3.