Wednesday, 30 June 2021


Split Ends

UK 1968 Directed by Jack Bond
BFI Blu Ray Zone B

Separation is a 1968, mostly monochromatic film (with occasional shots of colour peppered throughout) directed by Jack Bond and written by the lead actress (and his frequent collaborator at the time), Jane Arden. And it’s one of those ‘so edgy but not quite so naively quaint’ movies which the British excelled at during the 1960s and which seems to be a completely lost art nowadays. You just couldn’t get away with making a film like this today and, if you could somehow raise a budget for it from someone, I can’t imagine it playing on general release anywhere in today’s less than visually diverse marketplace... which is a great shame.

Now, admittedly, when it first started rolling and revealed its lack of hard narrative and it fragmentary nature... which literally throws out the idea of a binding story unless you really let it take you over and allow your brain to decode it in a more relaxed manner, I thought to myself... okay, somebody here is a Richard Lester wannabe then. And yes, it’s a little like watching something like A Hard Day’s Night or The Knack And How To Get It (reviewed here) in a way but, with a lot less linear story elements than even those movies. It has almost trademark scenes such as people just running around or riding a bike for no real reason etc but... I just found out that Jane Arden used to work with Lester in their early days too so, yeah, it’s probably more to do with the mood of the times than any deliberate stylistic imitation, for sure.

Starting with a truncated shot of a hammer banging a clock (which we see properly later in the picture), we go right into an image which is held for a little while, which isn’t that easy for the mind to decode at first, as the credits play over it. It’s basically two or more city landscapes rushing away at angles which then reveal themselves to be views through windows plus the reflections of other views in a car, as a character played by Jane Arden (in one of a couple of guises) is being driven by her chauffer who, in a younger incarnation (and bearing in mind he’s not aged at all), is her lover. She is the only character who seems to have a name, Jane, while everybody else seems to be referred to, at least in the IMDB listing, by their function rather than a given name... so Husband, Lover, Girl etc.

David de Keyser plays her husband, who she is separated from... and Iain Quarrier plays her lover. And the narrative, such as it is (and it isn’t) revolves around dialogue exchanges between two or more of these characters, often in a fragmented or unclear way. I finally realised the split rushing landscapes in the opening shot were a deliberate visual metaphor for the opening split in Jane’s mind, as the film seems to describe an ark which may or may not be, depending on what baggage you yourself bring to the movie (I suspect), involving former and future incarnations of herself (although all taking place within the same time setting, as far as I can work out) and presented as an almost surrealist pudding of muddled encounters.

And the film accelerates in this manner, taking on a certain tone which threatens being ‘almost coherent’ while continuing to celebrate, sometimes quite indulgently, it’s own attempts to sabotage and derail its scrutability. So we have pulled in dialogue fragments presented as background noises and whispers. We have various characters, both fleeting or with larger parts, suddenly addressing the camera to tell a monologue or story which may or, often, may not prove to be a helpful way into the central figure. Or the director will stage two different conversations in the same narrative space so the juxtaposition of two, argumentative but unrelated scenarios, rub together and almost start invading the space of the other and making a tenuous relationship.

Another thing is to use sound as both background furniture (I love hearing those old ‘neenaw neenaw’ police sirens from my childhood in these kinds of movies) and as an audio cue as to the mental state of the central protagonist. For example, when she is desperately trying to find her lover in a street market (it may well be the Portobello Road), we hear an old World War II siren on the soundtrack and it’s obviously there to signal to the audience her alarm as it cuts out once she catches sight of the object of her desire.

And what we are left with is a disorienting and jumbled placement of narrative fragments which, in a way, conditions (or batters) the audience into acceptance without questioning the nature of the piece. Which is probably the best headspace to be in to view it.

There’s also a certain charming surrealism built into the film in certain sections too. Such as a naked lady by a pool in a roomful of naked women, being massaged by a guy and revealing intimate details of her disappointment with sex while simultaneously being slapped in the face and made to cry by a guy kneeling in front of her. Or we might see someone running around but the whole shot is a reflection of it in a puddle.

There are also textual puns in the movie too. Such as when someone asks Jane how she felt and then we hear her contemplating whether the person was asking her about her feelings or whether they were talking about a piece of felt cloth (which makes no sense in the context of the scene, for sure). Add to this an uncredited appearance by a young Michael York (for a few seconds), a Procol Harum song and a double edged ending which is as ambiguous in its decoding as the final shot of Antonioni’s Blow Up... and we have a movie which is almost impenetrable in its prognosis, other than to say the central character is a basket case. Indeed, despite the staged scenes involving deliberately surreal content (like two people on a bed watching a back projection of a giant eye which then burns up in the projector), it’s the more humdrum elements in terms of content which, when edited together as almost non-sequiturs, provide the truly surreal elements of the film.

All we can know, I think, is that the separation from her husband is cracking her up and that we may or may not be seeing other fragments from her life play out but, ultimately, it’s hard to call. Surprisingly, though, it holds the interest and it’s eminently watchable. It’s also presumably shot through with a certain ring of truth because it’s said to be an autobiographical piece in some ways, as Jane Arden had also recently been through a break up. Indeed, I can’t vouch for the artist's mental state but, fourteen years after this film was released, she took her own life. Which is a shame as I suspect we lost a truly great artist.

So, yeah, Separation is exactly the kind of film we are missing from today’s cinematic landscape and it’s a shame that something like this would not get made today with a mind for a commercial release (there is stuff out there but it’s hovering in the shadows of micro budget, independent film maker collectives and I’d be surprised if that stuff ever got a proper physical release). I’d recommend this film to most cineastes though, if you can stifle your initial reaction and accept the journey of the film makers as it begins to weave its spell on you. I know I will be seeking out more of Mr. Bond and Mrs. Arden’s movies going forward. And on that note, it turns out that I have already reviewed one of the director’s much later works, the Pet Shop Boys movie It Couldn’t Happen Here, right here.

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