Directors' cuts

Afternoon tea with Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman and Jeanne Labrune.

3.40pm: I emerge from Green Park tube station clutching my interview notes and walk down Stratton Street to the May Fair Hotel. I know the way after last week's "Film-maker Afternoon Teas", which I attended hoping to talk to Chadian director Mahamad-Saleh Haroun about his new film A Screaming Man -- one of the highlights at this year's BFI London Film Festival. He never turned up. But I seem to have better luck this time round: having taken the precaution of booking more than one set of interviews, I'm about to get two interviewees for the price of one, not once but twice.

3.50pm: I nibble at a scone and sip pearl-jasmine tea, while waiting for my interview slot in the plush interior of May Fair bar. "This is how they lure them here," a woman sitting next to me says. Last week, she interviewed the Irish director Tom Hall who had just stepped off a plane and was surprised to find cameramen and journalists when he'd only been asked to tea.

4.10pm: The film-makers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are ready to see me at last. They've barely tucked into their tea. It's not often that two people have a hand in writing and directing a film; beyond telling me they like to bounce ideas off each other, Epstein and Friedman are at pains to explain how their double act works in practice. They have jointly researched and written Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, whose sexually explicit poem of that title gained notoriety through the obscenity trial that followed its publication in 1955. Epstein and Friedman admit that the nature of poetic inspiration -- a subject that the Cannes winner Lee Changdong turns to in Poetry, also featured at the BFI festival -- interests them less than the poem's social and political charge. One of them claims he doesn't even like poetry.

4.20pm: There's time for one final question as the interview draws to a close. Howl strikes me as a hybrid, generically speaking: its interweaving of colour with black-and-white sequences, of filmed footage with animation, gives the film an experimental edge. To my mind, Howl shares this quality with a number of features shown at the BFI festival this year, notably Eyad Zahra's The Taqwacores, Errol Morris's Tabloid, and Clio Barnard's award-winning The Arbor (reviewed by the NS's Ryan Gilbey here). Do documentaries lend themselves to experimentation more than other, more straightforwardly narrative films? Epstein and Friedman, though they come to film from a background in documentary film-making, see this distinction as spurious.

4.30pm: I hardly have time to collect my thoughts when someone motions me to another table, where French writer-director Jeanne Labrune is sitting with her interpreter. Tea for two once again gives way to a triangular scenario. We start by musing on the film's English title, Special Treatment, which doesn't carry the sexual allusions of the French original, Sans queue ni tête. But much besides the title may be lost on its new, non-French audience. Special Treatment, somewhat surprisingly billed as a comedy, draws parallels between the professional realms of psychoanalysis and prostitution. The film's basic premise, as well as its reliance on linguistic puns, may strike English-speaking viewers as somewhat heavy-handed, despite wonderful performances by Isabelle Huppert and the Belgian actor Xavier Demestre.

4.45pm: I compare notes with another interviewer who spoke to Jeanne Labrune before me. The idea for the film apparently first came to Labrune by chance when she picked up a book that fell off the shelf and stumbled on the word "la passe" (meaning "trick") used in a psychoanalytical context.

5.10pm: Fortified with more tea, I leave the May Fair bar and drift towards Piccadilly.

5.25pm: My wanderings take me to the White Cube Gallery in Mason's Yard, where Christian Marclay's The Clock is currently displayed. There's no getting away from films, it would seem. Marclay's clever montage of cinematic moments, featuring clocks, watches and the passage of time more generally, is synchronised to show exactly what time it is from the moment you arrive until you leave. Watching countless clock faces makes for nerve-racking, if strangely hypnotic, viewing. Increasingly aware that I should be on my way, seven minutes into a film that goes on for 24 hours, round the clock, I reluctantly pull myself away.

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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution