The untranslated, partial English title of French photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Raymond Depardon’s first feature film, Empty Quarter: Une femme en Afrique provides an early clue into the nature of its indirect structure. Serving as a silent, but perceptive, omniscient, and inalterable translator for the unseen filmmaker’s retrospection, the camera functions as a voyeur as well as a subjective filter through which he searches the residual aftermath of a failed relationship in the resigned desire to make sense of it. Proceeding in voiceover commentary, the film chronicles the journey of a displaced, globe-trotting filmmaker who offers a spare bed in his hotel room to an aimless, jilted young woman (Françoise Prenant) – a shared accommodation and co-dependency (if not emotional intimacy) that would inevitably lead her to become his constant companion, erstwhile muse, and eventual lover as they travel on an extended road trip from Djibouty to Alexandria. Hiding behind a perpetually recording camera, the unseen filmmaker becomes an existential paradox of presence and absence, directness and evasiveness, estrangement and intimacy, as the young woman begins to fill the empty silence with mundane, passing thoughts, attempting – often in frustration – to communicate with him through the opaque veil of a refracting camera lens (note the recurring images of her silhouette through translucent muslin curtains and mosquito netting). Rather than using the camera as an instrument of direct truth, the object serves as a safe obstruction for the silent filmmaker. But can the camera conceal the implication of his gaze? Perhaps the key lies in his filming of the young woman at a zoological exhibition where her image is captured, not directly, but through her reflections on a series of glass enclosures. Indeed, Depardon’s theme of perspective and reflection can be seen in both the temporal and psychological framework for the film, as the cumulative footage of the trip not only serves as a visual chronicle for the failed love affair, but also as a translating mirror for the enigmatic filmmaker’s unarticulated desire – where lingering shots of the contours of the young woman’s body, her sleeping form, the nape of her neck, and her disembodied legs wading in the water reveal an intrinsic sensuality, melancholic wanderlust, and ache of longing within the intranscendable, empty spaces of the human heart.
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