The story about Martin Scorsese’s After Hours is that nobody involved with the film could figure out how it ought to end, until Michael Powell, who was then living with Scorsese’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, said that the main character should end up back where he started. The story about all of Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s films, really, is of an airtight, rhyming structure, with dramatic symmetries paying off just right. Even when not fable or fantasy, their stories take place in self-contained worlds.
In 1940’s Contraband, Powell and Pressburger’s gift for structure is both dramatically satisfying and pleasurably ticklish, appropriate for the genre of the British wartime thriller, where clockwork suspense technique frequently blended with a tone of upbeat, bluff whimsy. Contraband’s ending picks up threads laid out over the course of the narrative—life jackets, indigestion, a pocket watch—and ties them together in a final refrain. It feels musical—and would even if the pocket watch did not also play a Danish naval anthem that becomes increasingly familiar as the action progresses.
Music, in fact, provides multiple plot points in the film, and by looking at the editing to music within an individual scene, we can see how sequences share the satisfyingly shipshape structure of the whole. In their films together, Powell and Pressburger’s collaboration was so comprehensive that it seems foolish to trust the division of labor implied by the credits; and this soup-to-nuts control also gives the whole construction a cohesiveness, so that it’s hard to tell where writing ends and editing begins.
A key scene two thirds of the way into the film opens on a close-up of two pairs of bound hands, pulling out to reveal Danish seaman Captain Andersen (Conrad Veidt) and his not-as-she-seems passenger, “Mrs. Sorensen” (Valerie Hobson), tied up in a spy-ring headquarters in some London basement. Hans Andersen (even at war, Powell and Pressburger couldn’t resist a hint of fairytale) has been following Sorensen through London after she stole his shore pass, and their conversation now, after an evening of guarded flirting, shows them united in understanding for the first time. A banjo is playing, only slightly audible, under their dialogue.
As close-ups establish their bound body parts, Mrs. Sorensen draws attention to the upper window through which their guard, one of several introduced as the “Brothers Grimm,” is watching them; as the window lights up in the center of a cutaway long shot, the banjo music cuts out, to scattered applause. Grimm comes down to check on them; after he leaves, the two resume discussing their escape, and the banjo starts up again, now accompanying a singer. In alternating medium shots—they are tied back-to-back—Andersen and Sorensen two try to identify their location based on sights, smells and sounds picked up on the way in; there is a sharp cut, on the rhythm of dialogue, when Andersen breaks in to quiz Sorensen, “Hear anything?” Continuing in his medium shot, the two remember hearing “God Save the Queen” from a nearby cinema concluding its program; we cut back to her, in close-up now, as the two realize that the sound of the banjo player and nightclub singer, which they’ve now noticed, is coming from a different direction, which helps to place their prison: beneath a cinema and a nightclub.
The singer gives way to an instrumental break as the guard’s window brightens again in another cutaway, and resumes as the two struggle and break free of their bonds. Andersen, free now, takes in the room as the song approaches its conclusion, and faces to Sorensen, in a medium close-up over her shoulder, to describe his plan and promise to return. He steps back within the shot and pauses; there is a cut to her face, smiling slightly in close-up; and a cut back to him as he leans back towards her—these last two cuts come on the beat of the string section, playing out the song in eighth notes. His close-up, over her shoulder, is held for an extra bar, the last of the song, as they kiss; we cut to a close-up reverse shot of her smile, as the crowd applauds faintly.
A whole passage in the film’s final third is set to diegetic songs, as Andersen and reinforcements go club-hopping in search of the banjo player and singer. Music is the engine of the plot, and the characters’ actions are timed to it in a narrative sense, just as individual scenes unfold to its rhythm.
Contraband’s editor is John Seabourne, who edited four Powell and Pressburger films (and suffered a breakdown in the initial stages of editing The 49th Parallel, leading to David Lean taking over). Often, when we single out individual editors for recognition, it’s on the strength of their work as a collaborator: to pinpoint an editor’s signature, we look to his or her history of work with a particular director, attempt to associate the editor with a recognizable style. Think of the fearlessness and momentum of Schoonmaker’s cutting for Scorsese, for instance, or the precision and improbable balance Sally Menke helped Quentin Tarantino to achieve. Certainly, Seabourne deserves credit for executing the effortless tightness of Contraband—but it’s also the case that this effortless tightness is central to the appeal of Powell and Pressburger’s entire body of work, from their original stories all the way through to their production-company logo. Perhaps we might best say, in deference to Powell and Pressburger’s own collaboration, that the job of the editor is to achieve a kind of symbiosis.
To demonstrate this point further, I want to look at how another director’s approach is encapsulated in a scene cut to music. In fact, symbiosis—coming together on the same intuitive wavelength—is a recurrent theme for Claire Denis. In her films, sublime bodies, sensitive lighting and mood music conjure a sense of physicality that is celebrated, whether its promise of wordless understanding is fleetingly fulfilled or ultimately betrayed. “Tactile” is a word that gets used a lot in discussions of her work, with credit also apportioned to her regular director of photography Agnès Godard; as well as to her diverse cast of favored actors, whose faces and bodies become objects of contemplation—as well as contestation.
The editor of 35 Shots of Rum is Guy Lecorne, whose work here and on three Bruno Dumont films demonstrates his aptitude for drawing out a moment, in concert with filmmakers known to favor long takes and slow-burn sequences. I want to focus on the film’s most famous scene, frequently cited as one of the best, period, of recent cinema. In the “Nightshift” sequence, the much-vaunted tactility of Denis’s cinema is rapturously present. But the thrill of it comes, in part, because Lecorne and Denis achieve a tenuous, tense balance between in-the-moment sensory immersion, and narrative information heavy with long-term implications.
In this scene, father Lionel (Alex Descas) and daughter Joséphine (Mati Diop), along with respective once and future love interests Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) and Noé (Grégoire Colin) take refuge in an African restaurant, all but closed up for the night, after being caught in a downpour. They towel off; Denis and Godard are attentive to the textures of damp hair, and the shine of artificial light on wet skin.
Two close-ups of Gabrielle’s shoulder blades, as she sits at the bar, may or may not be from Lionel’s point-of-view as he sits next to her: Denis’s camera placements, frequently in the midst of the action, often feel subjective without necessarily being aligned to a particular character’s perspective, and there’s not a clear eyeline match as Denis and Lacorne cut from her back to his face to her back. The link is more associative; and the shot-reverse shot rhythm is quickly disrupted by a jumpy cut from Josephine in close-up to the two of them dancing in a tight, agile two-shot. The sound on the restaurant sound system plays continuously through this shot sequence—Denis is not tightly bound to real time, as Powell and Pressburger are. Nor does the length of her shots necessarily correspond to the amount of information contained in each—many of the wider shots, especially, stick around luxuriantly.
Later in the song, Gabrielle steps aside to let Joséphine dance with her father, but the music changes to “Nightshift,” by the Commodores, and Noé walks into the shot to cut in. The shot starts wide, framed squarely against the back wall of the restaurant, but moves in closer. Over the course of a lovely, lingering take, both actors put across the elusive, uncertain body language of two people moving together, closely but definitely not symbiotically. It’s beautiful to watch, but also a little nerve-wracking.
Twice, we cut away to Lionel, watching with interest, and perhaps melancholy, as Noé moves closer. The first time we return from a cutaway, the two have changed position in the shot; but the second time Lacorne and Denis cut back to the dancers, after Lionel looks away, their position, with Noé’s hands in Joséphine’s hair, seems fairly continuous—time, or at least our experience of time, may be slowing down as Noé gets ready to go in for a kiss.
We stay in the shot as she breaks off, sits down, and then pulls him over to sit next to him, and the song continues as the rest of the world returns. The restaurant’s proprietor begins bringing out plates—earlier, she had been the focal point of a couple of shots that were more clearly from Lionel’s p.o.v., but these were easier to miss, amid the crosscutting between Lionel and Gabrielle, and Noé and Joséphine. Now, though, she walks from a long shot into a medium close-up, revealed, in the reverse shot, to be Lionel’s p.o.v. We cut back to her and then, quickly, to another close-up: Lionel has taken her by the hand, and the camera pulls up and out as they begin dancing, Lionel and his partner’s face again in intimate two-shot. We cut away to a crestfallen Gabrielle, back to the dancers, and then the scene ends, abruptly, the singer of the Commodores’ smooth voice cut off mid-word by a shot of Noé looking dejected on a bus. The moment’s passed—both for us and for the characters, the scene has been an interlude of closeness that can’t last forever.
The timing of the scene, and the selection of caressing close-ups, emphasizes the incidental pleasures of being with these particular people at this particular time, and gives moods and emotions time to build up, crest, and fall away, rewarding our sustained engrossment. But Denis and Lacorne also cut away, throughout, to almost bluntly informative reaction shots—conveying Noé’s nerves, Joséphine’s indecision, Gabrielle’s unrequited affection, Lionel’s fatherly fear of abandonment and unreflective bachelor’s charm—so that our involvement in the pure physical present of the scene is compromised, ruptured, by knowledge of the interpersonal baggage that will play out over the remainder of the plot. Sensual experience is offset by complex, interlocking but inharmonious perspectives. It’s pure cinema—for its gorgeous light, sound and movement, and for the deft technique through which the spell is broken and its magic dispersed into narrative.