There is a natural tension that permeates the Anglo-French relationship: two countries that have intertwined histories, have fought wars as both allies and foe, and even within the political sphere of the European Union tensions have continued to endure as if they are a natural formation. So the short but sharp tongue lashing from François Truffaut – “There’s something about England that’s anti-cinematic” – seems part of the natural course of Anglo-French relations. And if one also recalls that Truffaut was labelled “the gravedigger of French Cinema” for his remarks against his native cinema and its filmmakers, then any pretence of injury sustained from his verbal criticism is softened.
On reflection Truffaut’s criticism contextualises an important aspect of the identity of English cinema, at the heart of which in the 1960s was the Kitchen Sink or social realist dramas. These films, by diluting the cinematic sought, to create an authentic representation of reality through social realism. Such motivations would of course ironically serve as a proponent of Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote: “Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.” These films would become an exploitation of the cinematic art form to create a sense of feeling and perspective that was real. They were rawer and less cinematic than the realist works from the continent, including those in the Italian Neo-Realist tradition, and those of the Nouvelle Vague, which would include Truffaut’s Les quatre cents coups (1959) and Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie (1962) that merge the stylization with realism.
But where does John Schlesinger’s non-social realist Darling (1965), that finds itself being treated to a dual format re-release, fit into this discussion?
At around the mid-point of the Kitchen Sink drama’s lifespan, Schlesinger and actors Dirk Bogarde, Julie Christie, and Lawrence Harvey collaborated to create a film which asserts that British cinema of the sixties had an identity. British cinema at this time was actively exploring itself as filmmakers grappled with the medium as though it were fabric in their hands.
One of the intriguing narrative aspects of Darling is the relationship between the characters and their narrative world in juxtaposition to the character and audience. As Darling opens with Diana Scott (Christie) looking back on her life for a magazine interview, we sense that a kind of autobiographical cinema has begun. Is it voyeuristic in the same way as a Hitchcock film where the characters are not presenting their lives as open books, unlike Diana, who is almost communicating directly with us? Although, in the Darling scenario we ponder who she is really speaking to: the audience of the fictional world or us. In one instance we are innocent spectators and in the other we are implicit in the voyeuristic act where a character’s dramas become our entertainment.
Darling should not be overlooked as just another entry in a group of films that introduced the then fresh Christie to the cinema-going audience. In three short years, 1963-65, Christie starred in three eclectic films that took her from the realist laden Billy Liar (1963) to David Lean’s sumptuous Doctor Zhivago (1965), which saw her deliver a breakout performance and two years later became a BAFTA and Academy Award Winning Actress for her portrayal of Darling’s Diana Scott. Looking ahead to her then starring roles as the young aristocrat Marion/Lady Trimingham engaged in a scandalous liaison in The Go-Between (1970), to the entrepreneurial Constance Miller in Robert Altman’s anti-western McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) before culminating in the grieving and angst ridden wife and mother in Nicolas Roeg’s aesthetically and sensually jarring psychological thriller Don’t Look Now (1973), what unfolded in front of the camera was Christie the maturation of an onscreen persona, which evolved from a youthful to a worldly mature woman.
Whereas Peter Sellers transformed physically and through the manipulation of his voice, with Christie her eyes are her defining feature as they connect her characters through an enduring and unchanging gaze. Christie’s performance in Darling infers an intimate relationship she shared with the camera. From glances that she directs towards it, there is an intimate connection that is shared between woman and machine, which one could surmise an almost erotic and lustful flirtation. These youthful flirtations with the camera are telling, as Christie is an actress who would continue to explore a erotic and sensual relationship with the camera and the screen as the medium evolved and itself became more comfortable with an openness to eroticism and sensuality.
Returning to the earlier pre-occupation of the anti-cinematic, Darling is perhaps a film caught between the pull of two currents: the past and the future. At a time when cinema was attempting and even succeeding in its revolt against traditional cinema to refit it anew, there is an awkwardness in Darling where one can sense the camera wants to be freer though is still conventional and conforming to established expectations of how a film should look and be shot. Perhaps Schlesinger’s film conveys that as a language, film can only be experimented with and manipulated to a point, at a given time. Ultimately we all tap into a common narrative language that has its limits in terms of originality, and at some point refuses creative revolution or experimentation. But Darling counters Truffaut’s assertion by showing a British film that did have a cinematic identity, was self-conscious and contributed something of value to the cinematic heritage of English and international cinema.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.