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Through the Looking Glass

Thoughts on a film: Petria's Wreath (1980)


To see the memory of a life through a window-frame is a presentation inherently cinematic. It plays into the natural association of the window as something to be looked through; a window not just looking out into the wider world from the perspective of the inhabitant within, but a window looking in on a new world from the contrasting perspective of the attentive voyeur. A private world full of characters and stories that are different but also recognisably the same.

The most obvious example of this - one that I've returned to several times in the context of the blog - is the Alfred Hitchcock directed masterpiece Rear Window (1954). Here, the central character, bound as he is by injury, finds himself cast as the aforementioned voyeur; his window-space becoming a surrogate for the cinema screen; each adjacent room and apartment presenting a new scene, story or, apropos to television, a "channel." Actuality is transformed here by the subjective gaze into a murder-mystery of the character's own conception.

Rear Window [Alfred Hitchcock, 1954]:

However, a window, if lit correctly, can also become a mirror. It reflectsthe thing in front of it; giving us the image not just of the small (or great) drama occurring on the other side of the screen, but the reflected image of the observer projected upon its gleaming surface. An example of this can be found in the Fassbinder film, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), where the long-suffering character Marlene watches with a resigned desperation as the object of her affection is seduced by a love that isn't her.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972]:

Here the window - which both reveals and obscures the act itself (as well as further representing the idea of objectification as a symptom of romantic desire, even obsession) - is also a reflection of everything Marlene wants but is unable to achieve. Her emptiness - or position as someone outside of the conventional parameters of an equal partnership - is represented by the imprisoning blinds and the dead space that seems to overwhelm the right-hand side of the composition, creating an even greater reflection (or projection) of the character's distance and isolation.

The fact that she, in her separation, is the one literally behind the glass, shows how Marlene herself is objectified by her own submissiveness. The window, in this presentation, is less a portal to another world than an emotional or psychological barrier; something that keeps the character from connecting to the pleasures and sensations of life itself.

The same aesthetic ideology once again refers back to Hitchcock. The scene in Vertigo (1958), in which the well meaning but painfully naive character Midge - the would-be romantic foil to the film's obsessive anti-hero Scottie Ferguson - sees herself alone and dejected following an attempt to impress her disinterested protagonist, and becomes - for only a brief moment - a sad reflection in the window pane of a studio apartment.

Vertigo [Alfred Hitchcock, 1958]:

In this small moment, the character is finally confronted with the reality of how the protagonist sees her; effectively invisible, transparent and incomplete. Like an insect trapped behind a pane of glass in a museum - to be viewed by the curious as an example of something no longer living - this Midge (the name alone analogous to that of an actual bug; a "pest") is barely visible, opaque, indecipherable; a phantom lady hovering lonesome-like over the city. This backdrop itself mocks the character with a vision of life, vibrancy and adventure, which, given the particular context, seems forever out of reach.

These windows become mirrors to their respective characters conception of "the self"; reflecting a self-image that is all too painful to embrace. However, they also provide a mirror for the viewing audience, who project on to them, Rear Window-like, their own impressions of a story; one based on their own subjective point of view.  Do I, as the viewer, see the pain and frustration of these characters because that's what the filmmakers intended, or do I project such feelings onto the images because of my own experiences and beliefs. As ever, it's a bit of both.

The use of the window in Petria's Wreath represents a combination of the three points of view expressed herein. At the most immediate level, the window is a portal; a means of looking back on something that occurred many decades ago from the perspective of the present day. It's also a part of the self-reflexive aspect of the film; specifically in how the scene is framed by the appearance of a photographer, who captures the old woman's image and then, through old-fashioned editing techniques, transformers her into a younger self. In this sense the photographer could be seen as an on-screen avatar for Karanović himself, creating, through the portrait of Petria, the story we're about to see.

The composition of the earlier image - Petria posed for the photographer - is interesting in this respect. If we think of the presentation of the window as a frame within a frame, then it creates the impression of a kind of diptych. On one side a portrait of the photographer, camera on tripod, lining up a shot; on the other side, the photographer's subject; the young woman, solemn and composed. Playing around with the dimensions of the frame, this right-hand side - the portrait of Petria - suddenly becomes a prelude to the film in miniature.

Petria's Wreath [Srđan Karanović, 1980]:

Detail - "Petria's Portrait" [edited by the author]:

While the rest of the film will soon settle into a more conventional narrative, as we follow the journey of this young woman through a series of emotional hardships - such as marriage, children, war and revolution; all seen against a backdrop of significant moments in the history of Yugoslavia during the pre and post-war periods - it is this one image that seems to evoke the very essence of what the film is about. The reflection of the past as a still vivid memory; a life recalled by a character who becomes, through the presentation of this memory, like a living embodiment or personification of the country, its struggles, histories and ideals.

In presentation, it's an act of turning the character into an icon. Something that becomes much clearer during the subsequent credit sequence, in which the image of the elderly Petria, as captured by the photographer in this first scene, is made youthful; another example of Karanović using the appearance of images to suggest a passage through time. It will also act as a self-aware acknowledgement of the filmmaker's own role in the creation of this story, as the depiction of cameras and photography become an important part of documenting the story we're about to see.

Like the emphasis on the objects and mementos that defined the elderly Petria's house in the first part of this sequences, the significance of the portrait is about memory; about how certain objects, passed down through the generations, hold stories and emotions that speak to the ghosts of the past. I'd like to talk more about the portrait and its self-reflexive role in the film at a later date, but for now let's consider this moment, viewed through the kitchen window, and how it pre-establishes a lot of these ideas relating to the window as shorthand for cinema, about the objectification of a character as personification of a particular time, place or state-of-being, and what it suggests about the relationship between the viewer and the viewed.


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