Ostensibly framed as a restoration of a degraded found film recovered some 70 years after the sudden and unexplained death of its creator, a Parisian attorney and amateur filmmaker named Gérard Fleury at a lake in the village of Le Thuit in Normandy, Tren de sombras (Train of Shadows) is a dense, sensual, and richly textured exposition of José Luis Guerín’s recurring preoccupations: the nature and subjectivity of the image-gaze, the permeable borders between truth and fiction, the role of architecture (and landscape) as palimpsest of hidden histories. By placing the discovery of Fleury’s last shot footage of his home and family within the context of the ambiguity surrounding the circumstances of his death after a seemingly innocuous scouting trip early one morning to find suitable lighting conditions to incorporate into his home movie, the found film becomes both a curious artifact of the early days of cinema in its informally staged performances that suggest the whimsical, created illusions of Georges Méliès (in a performance of dancing ties and magic tricks), and also a non-fiction, historical record that can be deconstructed, reconstituted, and re-analyzed to glean further information into the real-life mystery.
The dual nature of film is similarly suggested in the multilayered transitional shot between Fleury’s footage from 1930 and modern day Le Thuit – the image of a caretaker sweeping leaves at a sidewalk corner overlooking a cemetery as schoolchildren cross at the intersection, a folding billboard advertising a cinémathèque program featuring pioneering filmmakers propped against a lamppost on the edge of the frame – visually repeating interchangeable themes of decay (fallen leaves, graveyard, film nitrate) and renewal (children, film revival, the act of sweeping). Interweaving depopulated, still-life compositions that alternately show ethereal images (casted shadows, lake mist, clouds, rays of light poking through occlusions, reflections on mirrors and windows) and physical objects (landscape, architecture, framed photographs, clocks, period furniture, camera equipment), Guerín further expounds on the idea of film as a medium of materiality and immateriality, where filmmaking itself becomes an act of creation (in capturing images that do not physically exist), destruction (in the chemical degradation of the medium), and transformation (in the projection of material into light). Moreover, by introducing sequences that overtly demonstrate the image manipulation of Fleury’s unfinished film (with the apparent motive of finding hidden clues to the mysterious death) – splicing damaged footage, matching cuts that illustrate parallel gestures and expressions, freeze frames and zooms that provide detailed observation – Guerín not only reflects on filmmaking as a godlike process of suspension and reanimation, but also on the inherent responsibilities (and limitations) that it enables in creating permutations of the story, where truth is arbitrarily defined by editing, and the idea of closure to a story is negated by the competing idea that the same film can be rewound, reconfigured, and re-edited into a plurality of equally valid, alternate endings. It is this open-endedness that is reflected in the film’s long take, closing shot of a dead-end street intersection in Fleury (a recurring aesthetic that also surfaces in Guerín’s En Construcción and In the City of Sylvia), where people momentarily pass into and out of frame – each passerby representing another open story, each passage, a corridor leading to new, alternate angles of perspective and (re)discovery.
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