Ostensibly framed as a postwar melodrama that loosely evokes Leo McCarey’s Love Affair in its story of a shipboard encounter between two emotionally unavailable people, Joseph Morder’s L’Arbre mort is also a tone piece that seeks to reconcile the space between love and death, history and memory, documentary and fiction. This duality is suggested in the diffused opening image of Jaime (Philippe Fano) abstractedly looking out into the open waters from the deck of a ship that plays out against an asynchronous, voiceover narration describing his long-awaited return to South America after completing his medical studies in Europe. With little to do on the transatlantic voyage home, Jaime strikes up a conversation with a fellow expatriate named Laura (Marie Serrurier) who has left her husband behind in Paris (played by Morder) to visit her widowed aunt and belatedly mourn the unexpected deaths of her parents during the war. Connected by a sense of ambivalence over their delayed homecoming, Jaime and Laura spend their idle time in each other’s company before going their separate ways when the ship reaches its destination. But having returned to his seemingly idyllic, privileged life with his family and his beautiful fiancée, Sofia (Rosette), Jaime begins to grow more aimless and distant, wandering the streets in an attempt to recapture Laura’s memory (and who in her desolation has, in turn, begun to search for a former lover who disappeared during the war). Fatefully meeting at a grand ball on the eve of revolution, Jaime and Laura soon find themselves at an intersection once again, torn between grief and rapture, past and present, home and exile.
In its brooding, elliptical tale of loss, separation, and displacement, L’Arbre mort shares kinship with Marguerite Duras’s India Song and Jonas Mekas’s diary films, where the impossibility of returning home is sublimated in a haunted quest for an elusive object of desire. Similar to Mekas’s cinema, Morder’s use of silent, Super 8mm film in conjunction with a separate narrative and musical soundtrack creates a disjunction between image and sound (which Duras also incorporates in India Song) that reinforce the distance and impreciseness of human memory. This disjunction is further reflected in Morder’s rapid cut framing that reveal Jaime’s disorientation and uncertainty over his alienating homecoming (most notably, in his isolated shot during the family reunion and subsequently, standing at a gateway in search for Laura). Ironically, it is in this state of disorientation – a descent into the unknown that is implied in the image of their Orphic journey down a winding staircase – that Laura is figuratively liberated from the realm of the dead: shedding the ghosts of an irretrievable past to emerge in the light of an uncertain, new dawn.
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