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Hopefulness, Healing and its Contestation in Film    

Davina Quinlivan


Writing about the place of breath in cinema, the instances in which we might register the sight or sound of the breathing body of a film’s protagonist or the silences and stillness in film which correspond with a kind of rhythm of the film’s ‘breathing body’, I started to think of this embodied state of being as a phenomena intimately connected to emotion. (1) Here, a scene from Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1994) perfectly calls attention to the breathing body of Bess, the film’s heroine, the viewer’s ‘empathetic’ breaths and the film’s material ‘body’. As Bess sacrifices her life in order to save her lover, the film reveals to us in close-up her quickening breaths and exhalations, an outward display of her emotional fragility and nervousness. Then, we can detect a shift in the composure of the image: its focus dissolves momentarily as if the image’s blurry perception of Bess is synchronous with her consciousness. When clarity is restored to the image, it seems as if Bess also gains composure, soothed. It is difficult not to become more aware of our own breaths as we watch this scene, utterly distraught and ravaged by Bess’ harrowing story.



1. This was the subject of my book The Place of Breath in Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). This study was especially led by the philosophical writings of Luce Irigaray and her conception of breath as an intersubjective and embodied aspect of human subjectivity – a more recent facet of her seminal work on sexual difference.  

My father died of lung cancer as I wrote. A wise friend had encouraged me to focus on the syntactical and grammatical dimensions of my project, embracing the safety of words rather than the subject I was thinking about. But this predicament haunted me. (2) I needed to write because I had to finish. In the end, the writing took shape as a weird form of meditation; as my tracking of the cathartic dimensions of film viewing developed, the process was itself a kind of salve. Years later, looking at Bess in Breaking the Waves, I have come to think of the sound and image of those breaths differently. That shivering image of her blurred body is like a little relief from the trauma of the film: it tends to engender a necessary hope. I realise that this is what I want to think about now. This new enquiry might lead me back, sometimes, to thinking about breath and its affective power, its sonic and visual dimensions; but it is film’s gestures of hope to now pursue. 



2. I had started to feel panic most of the time. A family member gave me their elderly dog because of the therapeutic benefits of stroking animals. When not writing, I dawdled down country lanes and walked as far as I could, exhausted dog in tow.  




Ideology collapses, utopianism atrophies, but something great is left behind: the memory of a hope. (3)

Emotions are very much part of our ability to analyse – that is to say, to mobilise a text. If we wipe them away or compartmentalise them, we end up reproducing the view from above and from nowhere. (4)


3. Henri Lefebvre, ‘On The Theme of the New Life’, in Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes, September 1959-May 61 (New York: Verso, 1995), p. 91.  

4. Giuliana Bruno, ‘House’, in Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film (New York: Verso, 2002), p. 412.  

There is Hana (played by Juliet Binoche) in Anthony Minghella’s love story, The English Patient (1997). A young nurse embittered by the horrors of war, a shell whose delicate hands tend to a burned man, his physical wounds an inverted image of her inner turmoil. Hana is led into a derelict chapel by Kip, a Sikh sapper in the British army. Quickly, smoothly, smoke-encircled flares illuminate a beautiful fresco. They climb hoists and move towards the shadows above them, into the crackling light and then out again. Gliding to and fro, Hana’s face is lit like a Caravaggio. She is all contours and highlights set against the dark gloom of night, skin as luminous as limed plaster. Smoke, dust and heat swirl about the image. Smell the sulphur. Hissing flares on the soundtrack. Now Kip is a conjuror, transforming grief into joy. Hana looks on in wonder or, more specifically, in hope.


In Minghella’s conjuring of delight, surprise and joy, Hana’s hopefulness is restored. Absorbing Hana’s delight, our perception of this moment awakens our sense of being. We are viscerally inscribed within the motion of Hana’s emotion. (5) It is this imbrication of hope within a traumatic context which interests me most, its strange alchemy and its attraction, its brightness in the gloom. The distraction of colour, beauty and the miracle of re-found art holds Hana’s gaze, as it does ours, a look that is both restorative and open to some kind of futurity. At the end of the film, Hana is driven away from the villa that housed her dying patient and the camera travels up into branches and towards sunlight. So, like an echo of the revelation in the chapel, something brighter blooms. Hana moves onwards and away, her face resigned and composed, a subtle smile spreading across her features.


5. Ibid., p. 2. I have in mind here Bruno’s use of the term motion and its emotional ‘pull’.  



How can a look be invested with hope? By this I mean a cathartic pleasure in looking which throws into relief the trauma it originates from, very much like the crackling light of Kip’s flares. I consider this through a series of moments in film and other moving image media; these images are brought together here in order to call attention to the treatment of healing and responses to trauma in film. They are linked by their visual connotation of the drive towards renewal, the desire to mediate pain.


Film theory offers up numerous analyses of cinema’s conception of traumatic subject matter whose disturbing images linger on in the mind of the viewer, affective and uncompromising in their brutal truths. (6) Hopefulness is not often something discussed in the field of Film Studies. Most recently, there are inflections of hopefulness in the concept of the ‘astonished soul’ at the heart of Kristi McKim’s book Love in the Time of Cinema; and in the lucid reckoning with cinema’s palliative dimensions in the work of Emma Wilson in Love, Mortality and the Moving Image (7). But the notion of hope as the restoration of goodness, as the awakening of being, rediscovered – and its uniquely filmic articulation – is what is at stake here.


Conversely, the opposite of hope is richly suggested throughout the films of Michael Haneke. Indeed, Haneke invests his films with a particular way of looking which comes to stand for the absolute contestation of hope. His work is important here because it helps me to understand what exactly a filmic gesture of hope might mean, in its registering of relief and pleasure. Haneke’s work is, here, the dead zone, the black hole, a point of devastation through which I navigate in order to trace the contours of more enlightened spaces. A consideration of Haneke’s audiovisuality is vital in order to go on to explore its mirror reflection in other kinds of cinematic maps of emotion, to recall Giuliana Bruno’s incisive exploration of affective cinema and its resonant topographies.


6. See, for example, the work of Cathy Caruth in her book Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).  

7. See Kristi McKim, Love in the Time of Cinema (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); and Emma Wilson, Love, Mortality and the Moving Image (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).





While Caché (2005) presents the undoing of ideological values and a veneer of calm, order and morality, Funny Games (1997) is structured by a sadistic ‘terrorism’ which even the film cannot escape, rewinding itself in order to entrap the viewer and mock their hopeful sentiments when a happy ending is cruelly undone in the edit. Yet, most memorably and alarmingly, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989), which tells the tale of a family planning to commit suicide together, adopts an unnervingly bleak and austere visual style in order to reject any sense of compassion which might unsettle its careful sculpting of protagonists as animate objects opting to disappear from the material world they inhabit. We see daily routines and domestic activities, all inertly played out. The family is arranged like wax dolls, cut up and objectified by Haneke’s framing. Their home is a mausoleum, barren and devoid of intimacy or pleasure. Hope is irrelevant here: death is infinitely mapped on to the image like a grainy video whose magnetic surface has been recorded over too many times.

See their hands laboriously preparing food. Remnants of orange juice in a highball glass. Crumbs on a plate. No one speaks. A family around a table, framed by doorways and a corridor, in limbo, adrift within their own home. Blank expressions. Still and motionless. Nothing is said or done. (If I could smell these images, I imagine they would bear the waxy resin of soap and burnt toast still sitting in the toaster.)

What have we missed? What has happened here? We want to leave. They want to leave.



Haneke’s film is most jarring during its acute tracking of everyday gestures: hands turning off alarm clocks (for they are about to enter an eternal slumber) and preparing food, as if mechanised bodies work to merely process and slice their way through space and time. Haneke’s tight framing of hands renders them disembodied objects, uncannily resembling the things being assembled and operated. The coloration of the images emphasises tones of skin as beige and opaque, flat and synthetic like the plastic objects they manipulate.

If Hana’s gaze in The English Patient constitutes her recognition of a moment which makes her feel alive, Haneke’s protagonists are long dead and soulless, depicted as if in a perpetual existential crisis of embalmed existence. In another scene, the family assembles around a table and eats breakfast, arranged like props in a theatre awaiting employment. Touching is inconsequential; the members of the family are like satellites drifting through the vast spaces of their family home.



Sometimes we have to avoid thinking about the problems life presents.
Otherwise, we’d suffocate.
(Her, in Hiroshima mon amour).


Unlike the visual representation of hope in The English Patient – an expression found on the face of its protagonist – hope and its implications for healing, for mediating trauma, is strongly suggested through the opening images of Alain Resnais’ black-and-white feature film Hiroshima mon amour (1959). Set after the devastating effects of the Hiroshima bomb, a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) embark upon an affair and recall their personal histories, memories textured by the tragedy of Hiroshima. Indeed, the very fabric of the film is entwined around conversations during the lovers’ time together in which they discuss Hiroshima as both an event lived through and imagined.

Hiroshima mon amour’s opening sequence, in particular, configures death and love, the one enmeshed in the other, in order to propel both towards some sense of hope embodied entirely by the materiality of the film. We view the lovers writhing naked beneath a sea of ash, a glittering torrent of dust. Close-ups of two bodies, skin to skin and entangled. The ash is shiny like little constellations of stars dotted about the mise en scène, floating like a ghostly topography over the dense materiality of the lovers’ bodies. Such macabre confetti celebrates the union we witness while the discordant soundtrack evokes the awkward, wriggling and writhing passion of the lovers’ embrace.




The most controversial aspect of Resnais’ adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ prose, the opening sequence prompts feelings of desire and revulsion precisely because its erotic symbolism is charged with death. His use of a monochromatic colour palette emphasises the differences between the textures of smooth skin and the raining ash which mottles and indents the places it touches: abject matter distorting flesh, prescient of the abject shadow of Hiroshima which will loom over their love affair. As the sequence unfolds, a medium close-up reveals two arms locked in an embrace, one more daubed in starry, sticky glitter than the other. This, too, recasts the lovers as contaminated survivors of Hiroshima, infected and malformed. Conversely, the gelling of surfaces calls to mind the particular plasticity of clay models, flesh becoming one, sculptural, ossified in time like the victims of the bomb.

The act of love-making and its caresses – the gestures of love contained within this opening sequence – function as the greatest marker of mortality, not quite disavowing Hiroshima’s existence, but rather mediating its presence by the most hopeful gesture we can become: love. In this, Henri Lefebvre’s thoughts are especially resonant. His discussion of hope as a memory left behind after the collapse of utopianism (the dream of love) and ideological conceptions of culture and history (irrevocably altered by Hiroshima), relates closely to the juxtaposition of decay and vitality suggested by Resnais. It is apt to suggest, then, that the memory of a hope is projected on to these opening images by Resnais.



  Looking in the mirror staring back at me isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament. (George in A Single Man [Tom Ford, 2009])    

Love and death are also ambiguously interwoven in Ford’s adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man (1964), which tracks the daily rituals of a suicidal college professor. The intention of George (Colin Firth) is to shoot himself at the end of his working day. For George, the prospect of imminent death irrevocably alters his perception of everything he sees and touches. Unlike Haneke’s cool, distancing effects which permit us little empathy or intimacy with his protagonists, Ford evokes George’s state of consciousness through lingering shots of faces, objects and environs newly appealing to his senses. George’s embodied being is thus synchronous with the film’s evocation of objects as existential phenomena.

In extreme close-up, we see George’s eyes, framed by dark-rimmed spectacles, and another pair of eyes – of a blonde girl whose face is partially overlaid by a wisp of smoke. Then, we cross-cut between the two faces, the bridge of her freckled nose, the symmetry of her eyes heavily lined with make-up, his head slowly turning: an acknowledgement, or perhaps a tiny move closer. Here, a micro-movement connotes George’s new-found appreciation and attentiveness to the world around him. Elsewhere, we catch glimpses of bleached-out, black-and-white close-ups of George and his recently deceased lover, Jim (Matthew Goode), basking on sand, grains of it stuck to his beloved’s arms and legs. Charley (Julianne Moore), George’s best friend, sways to music with George, the images imbued with a melancholic yet boozy lull. Charley’s red hair brushing over George’s shoulder as they dance. Giggling. A young college student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), enamoured of George, wears a white mohair jumper, its fuzzy edges bristling against the collar of a buttoned-up shirt.



Towards the end of the film, George swims with Kenny. We see George’s body plunged into blue and red tinted water, abstract and dense with kinetic energy, rather more akin to a baptism than an erotically charged encounter. We see George’s slightly wrinkled skin and pasty pallor wrestling with the waves, turning and somersaulting. Feet kicking out and pushing against the waves. After the invigoration of the swim, George experiences an awakening, realising there is hope for a future beyond the pain of losing Jim. Collectively, the everyday gestures and intimacies accumulated over the course of twenty-four hours are transformed into fragile objects of hope, vital and ordinary, now extraordinarily beautiful. Ultimately, George’s sudden heart attack at the end of the film is dramatic irony of the highest order or, more likely, it is the heavy price he pays for such knowledge.

Throughout the film, colour plays an important part in its affective mechanisms; it moves chromatically from beige and cream to deeper yellows, blues and reds as if each of George’s varying moods were tinted. The beige-browns of the earlier scenes possess a flesh-like quality, while the more abstract reds and blues are heavily emotive, building as the film plunges into the depths of George’s unconscious mind (the swimming sequence feels both real and imagined).

It is a kind of hopefulness, then, which pervades the images of A Single Man. Close-ups of objects and faces, textures of smoke and sand, drawing us into a microcosm intimately connected to George’s consciousness. It could be said that these images come to stand for George’s unconscious desire to resist suicide, a dimension of his survival instincts. These close-ups literally ‘cling’ to life, reviving George’s perception and resuscitating his vision. Indeed, viewing A Single Man requires a slowing down of breath, a different rhythm which accords with the stillness of life that George begins to appreciate. In the film’s closing minutes, we hold our breath as George contemplates using the gun. Then, we sigh out when we register George’s joy, overcome by the myriad of sights he has encountered throughout his day. Thus, hopefulness finds acute expression through the drawing of breath and its exhalation.


A different rhythm of breath pervades the final sequence of Les quatre cent coups (The 400 Blows [François Truffaut, 1959]), in which the race to the coast is filmed as an (almost) continuous take. (8) A boy, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), escapes beyond the walls of a reform school. The ambient sounds of ball games being played within the school drift off into nothingness and are replaced by the noise of Antoine’s flight. We hear the crackle of twigs and leaves beneath his feet as the boy sprints through a semi-rural location, a rhythm of shoes against the ground, onward, onward. A steady rhythm pervades the soundtrack, a noise which comes to stand for Antoine’s state of mind, focused and determined, impassioned:  this is the film’s articulation of a kind of hope fuelled by resistance. Soon, there is a dissolve to indicate the passing of time. Tiring, Antoine’s pace slows down and he begins to jog. A lone figure framed by sky and land. He reaches the edge of the coast and then we hear pebbles beneath his shoes. Suddenly, the patter of movement ceases. He stops at the shoreline. The camera focuses on the boy’s face and he glares at us in freeze-frame. Confronted with this for the first time, I shrink away, just a little. It is not the end I was expecting.


8. For a fuller analysis of Truffaut’s film and its contextualisation as a key example of the Nouvelle Vague, I recommend Richard Neupert’s A History of the French New Wave (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2007), pp. 177-187.






Face to face with Antoine, we become his future, his potential for goodness. Truffaut offers up a close-up of a gaze which unsettles us from our comfortable position as passive spectators and posits us as witnesses to this boy’s unhappy childhood: an ethical turn which disrupts the conventions of dominant cinema. We seem to be responsible, now, for this youth. You, he seems to say (no matter how many times I watch this sequence), cannot forget me. Here, the ideological implications of Truffaut’s iconic contribution to the Nouvelle Vague, especially the narrative’s indictment of the reform system, are made utterly transparent. Léaud’s face in close-up, stalled forever in time, demands an openness to the potential for change, hope for a better society, for a revolution that is, as history tells us, certainly on the horizon.

The move from imprisonment to a wide-open space demarcated by the sea is also memorably contained within the last scene of The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994). Despite its conventional approach to style, its employment of classical editing techniques and narration, and its generic subject matter (heavily marketed as a prison drama), the film breathtakingly counters the oppression and grief felt by the protagonist Andy (Tim Robbins) in its concluding images. After a Houdiniesque escape from prison, following decades of physical and emotional abuse, Andy’s only friend, Red (Morgan Freeman), is released and walks toward Andy, now a free man happily restoring a boat by the ocean. The camera pulls back, as if to allow their reunion its own intimacy. Above all, Darabont pulls off a brilliant trick in order to fully evoke the particular sensation of freedom: throughout, the oppressive asphalt grey and brick red colour scheme emphasises the claustrophobic atmosphere of the prison and its monotonous rigour; even when Red is released back into the free world, it is tinted with the same hues found within the prison walls, blue-grey, drab and alienating. As Red drives out of the city and enters a pastoral landscape, something shifts. The film is filled with light and air. Into the blistering heat and onto the sandy shores, Red finally feels free. The closing image of the two friends on the shore, unhurriedly moving towards each other, never fails to move me. It is undoubtedly an image of hope, as Red’s letter to Andy reminds us. In anticipation of their reunion, Red writes:


  I find I’m so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.    

At last, the blue Pacific stretches out beyond the frame and the film seems to ‘exhale’ – as we do, too.


One final image (I always smile when I see this one). A young woman struggles to bear the weight of a man who appears to be suffering from exhaustion, partially clothed, sinewy arms drooping and limp. Patience. Her eyes are set on the dimpled and exposed chest her arms carry: a chasm of musculature and bone. The man does not return her gaze. He sleeps. There appears to be no sound but, if I listen very carefully, I think I can hear this pair breathing, slowly gathering strength; their chests move with the fall and rise of exhalation. I hold my breath. Will she drop him? I start to breathe with her. I notice her feet are strategically positioned so as to afford her the best chance of bearing this weight. Yet, the young woman’s muscles do not tense. It is as if he is floating. The sinuous chest at the centre of the image contracts a little. The woman’s hands do not move. I fidget a little. The spectacle of this image begins to lose its gloss. A kind of intimacy is engendered as I sit in my seat and watch her sitting on the steps.

This kind of portraiture is, no doubt, characterised by duration. For nearly two whole minutes, the couple loom on the staircase and I wait for something to happen. Will she turn and abandon him on the steps or will he reach up and touch her? Patience.

Sam Taylor-Wood’s Self Pietà (2001) is a reworking of Michelangelo’s depiction of Christ and the Madonna with Robert Downey Jr in the role of Christ. His much-publicised rehabilitation from drug addiction, coupled with Taylor-Wood’s recovery from cancer, feeds into the logic of Self Pietà and its evocation of redemption, healing and endurance. The celebrity status of both artist and actor plays a special role here: we are more comfortable with the idolatry associated with popular icons than with religious figures. Taylor-Wood channels the grace and affirmation of Michelangelo’s figures as if to absorb its power: her film is a ritual of hope and redemption.



How can a look be invested with hope?

Think of Hana’s face as she looks up at the mural. Two lovers entwined in ashes. A man’s final day on Earth. A boy by the ocean. A reunion between friends. A modern-day Madonna and Christ.

Such a look might be constituted by absorption, by the shapes and textures of an image propelling us towards a more restorative kind of engagement with art. Or, the filmic diegesis might tend toward representation, thematically conveying a cathartic story. Emotion as conveyed by affective images might open up questions relating to the nature of selfhood and survival. Hope might also be a spiritual emotion, tending towards the transcendent and divine. Above all, film matter – that is, its aesthetic style and material evocation of the world around us – holds the potential to be transformative. 


The author wishes to thank Dr Sarah Cooper, JC and ABR for their support and encouragement of this new project, which will take the form of a forthcoming book with Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. Some of this work grew from seminars held during the MA module ‘Place and Identity’ at Kingston University.


from Issue 5: Shows


Davina Quinlivan 2014.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.