In Darkness, a short film by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne commissioned for the Cannes Film Festival's 60th Anniversary in 2007, a girl watching a film at a cinema is moved by what she sees onscreen, and accidentally clasps hands with the young boy angling to steal her purse from the seat beside her. In the space of three minutes, the Dardennes manage a double-nod to Bresson (the film-within-the film is Au hasard Balthazar; the “real-life” action mimics Pickpocket) and also to distill the unique sense of immersion that accompanies theatrical viewing—the way that projected images can hold our attention to the exclusion of all else.
If Darkness is my favorite of the short films collected for the omnibus project Chacun son cinéma (To Each His Own Cinema)—a collection that also includes vital work by auteurs ranging from Hou Hsiao-hsien to Lars von Trier (whose entry ends with the director bludgeoning a rude audience member at Cannes with an axe)—it may be because it activated a fond and vivid memory of childhood filmgoing. When I was nine years old, I went to see Edward Scissorhands at a friend’s birthday party in a theater in Toronto and during the flashback where Edward's inventor—an old, Universal-style mad scientist played by Vincent Price—dies of a heart attack in his beloved creation's arms, I held hands with a girl my own age for the first time.
The dark irony of this scene in Edward Scissorhands is that when Edward tries to cradle the man who gave him life, he ends up cutting him to ribbons, and just as quickly as my seat mate had reached out her hand, she yanked it back into her own lap—an instinctive response tied to the gory turn of events in the movie. Years later, in my MA program at the University of Toronto, when we read scholar Vivian Sobchack’s essay “What My Fingers Knew”—a phenomenological gloss on the opening shots of Jane Campion’s The Piano linking the author’s physical identification with an abstract blur to theories of the embodied spectator —I thought of that girl watching Edward Scissorhands and responding so viscerally; what felt at the time like a rejection was in fact a confirmation of how deeply she was engaging with the story being told in front of her. In both the grasping for connection and the pulling away, I was entirely incidental.
In the 25 years since that screening of Edward Scissorhands, I’ve had plenty of other physically felt experiences in movie theaters (including not one but two full, large fountain drinks accidentally spilled into my lap right in the middle of horror movies), as well as ones that live in recollection as out-of-body—like when I saw Kill List at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 and realized afterwards in the press lounge that I couldn’t remember walking out of the auditorium. When I got married, it was in a (converted) movie theater, and the already surreal experience of being featured in a wedding was heightened during dinner by the knowledge that I was seated facing out from roughly the spot where I’d fixed my own gaze so many times, at everything from Lawrence of Arabia to True Lies—as if I was finally inside the movie screen, even as the gathering of friends and family within my line of sight resembled nothing so much as a widescreen establishing shot.
Like all of the Dardennes’ films, Darkness ends on a note of hopeful ambiguity; the girl's (sightless, tactile) discovery of a hand to hold could be taken as a literal “gotcha” punchline—the thief caught red-handed—or also as one of their typically double-edged grace notes: in losing the prize, he has connected with another soul, or maybe even a kindred spirit. There are great films about the romance of film viewing, and the madness as well; what Darkness channels—and despite its modest dimensions, gloriously enshrines—is the utter vulnerability of what happens when we do, in fact, surrender to the screen.
Adam Nayman is a film critic and author in Toronto. His book It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls is available from ECW Press.