It’s funny how certain credible films can almost vanish off the face of the planet. To be honest, I’m not sure what causes it, although in a lot of cases it seems like the film was misunderstood upon its original release. That’s certainly the case with recently unearthed films like Teruo Ishii’s magnificent Horrors of Malformed Men and Allen Baron’s woefully underappreciated noir Blast of Silence. And I’m pretty sure that’s the reason why the films of Jack Bond and Jane Arden are just now seeing the light of day. Their first collaboration, 1968’s Separation, was so misinterpreted that it was almost universally panned upon release and was banned from Ireland’s Cork Film Festival a mere 10 minutes before show-time (with most critics agreeing with the decision!) It’s great to see the film has been given a second chance, as while it’s not a masterpiece, there are some interesting and insightful things to discover for those willing to put in a bit of effort.
Separation tells the fragmentary story of a woman named Jane, who is obviously having a bit of a mental breakdown. Her marriage hasn’t gone as swimmingly as planned, and while they still see one another on occasion, the relationship is painfully strained. Her husband also appears to be her psychiatrist, yet no parallel is ever drawn between the two via conversation, so she may very well just be seeing her husband within her doctor (or vice-versa). Jane has also recently met a young man who she’s taken on as her lover, yet she continually seems to be haunted by the death of her mother as well as memories of her younger days. As the days wind on, Jane’s ability to separate reality from fantasy becomes increasingly more difficult.
Heavily inspired by the French New Wave (especially Fellini and Resnais) and avant-garde tendencies, Separation is a tough cookie to crack. The performances are extremely cold, so much so that I can definitely understand why some people were (and probably still will be) put off by it; the film isn’t particularly inviting. The stark black and white cinematography, which reminded me a lot of Cronenberg’s meticulous and clinical early films like Stereo and Crimes of the Future, is a perfect compliment to the emotional separation that nearly ever character involved in the film is experiencing. There’s so much of a detachment going on that none of the character have names, outside of the main character Jane (and that could almost be biographical, the actors calling Arden that out of habit). In many ways, it feels as if we’re dissecting the mind of Jane, seeing a flurry of her thoughts and emotions in quick succession, something we probably should have no business being involved in.
One of the more telling moments in the film, one in which it’s easy to see where the trouble initially began for Jane, is a pretty impressive mostly single-take scene where Jane and her husband have a bite to eat at a restaurant. While the scene goes on for a bit too long (a gripe I had with a few other scenes as well), it’s quite telling when attempting to figure out the nature of their relationship. When either tries to spark up conversation in regards to personal matters with the other, they stammer and seem almost pained about conjuring up a response. Yet when anything else is brought up, such as the world itself or philosophy, they can rattle on uninhibited. The conversation ends with Jane asking her husband what should be expected from a partner. Her husband responds back with “Semi-Contained, Semi-Detached”, with Jane replying “I just wish someone had told me.” Yes, if she had known, she may have spared herself years of anguish and heartache.
Separation at times is a little too abstract for its own good, making it hard to defend against those that would proclaim it “pretentious” or “artsy-fartsy”. The fragmented fashion of the narrative can be daunting, and there were numerous times I felt absolutely lost. For every moment like this however, there’s a brilliant one, like the colored scenes that are sprinkled throughout the film, which I took to symbolize Jane’s “happy place”, a corner of her mind where everything is fine. Of course even that isn’t safe anymore, as scenes from the actual film play on a screen in this room, and they’re slowly burning away, showing that reality will soon come knocking. The ending is a bit obtuse, and almost slapsticky in a way. The proceeding jaunt through the woods is magnificently shot, but the reversal at the end, which was reminiscent of Haneke’s Funny Games in that “Oh, you’ll never be one-up on us” sort of way didn’t quite work for me. No, I didn’t fully grasp the meaning behind it; although with Jane’s mental state at this point, her thoughts taunting her and pulling her in multiple directions (as evidenced by her husband and lover speaking in opposite ears, finishing one another’s sentences), maybe we aren’t meant to understand it in full and rather be pulled further down the rabbit-hole with Jane.
Many point to this film as an early feminist effort, although I honestly don’t see it that way. I’m sure it could be taken as such, but for me, a feminist film deals with women being equal to men, having the same sort of power and presence as their male counterparts. I find Pinky Violence films, as much as some may disagree, a form of feminist cinema, as while the women certainly are put through the ringer, they always stick it to the man in the end. Here though, Jane is only put through the harsh stuff; she doesn’t really rise up or escape from her predicament. I found Separation more a portrait of women (and Arden herself) being looked at as a rung lower than men and the instability it could cause if not rectified than a loud cry that’s fighting against the power. It gets bogged down at times in overly-artistic drivel, but its message still rings clearly for those interested in this type of challenging cinema. It’s rife for rediscovery, because as Arden’s character states at the beginning of the film, this one originally came around “much too early.”
BFI continues their effort to bring interesting and forgotten films to the Blu-Ray format with Separation, their first of a trilogy of Bond/Arden releases. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen at 1080p, and looks breathtaking. This is only the third black and white film I’ve experienced on Blu-Ray, and I’m officially a believer of older films coming to the format. Depth is amazing, a light natural grain covers the print giving it a wonderful film-like look, and the sharpness is stunning. I guess sometimes when a film is forgotten and barely shown, we can luck out with phenomenal visual presentations like this. The audio is available in uncompressed PCM 2.0, and for the most part sounds great. Some dialogue is a bit lost at times, but the included English subtitles resolve those instances nicely.
The main included extra is a commentary from director Jack Bond and moderator Sam Dunn. It’s a free-flowing piece with both guys talking about the evolution of film and a few informative anecdotes on the film itself. The other notable extra on the disc is short film called Beyond Image, directed by Mark Boyle and Joan Hills. It’s touted as a “rare liquid light film”, which boils down to its like looking into a lava lamp. Bits and piece of it are running in the background during the color sequences of Separation, so it’s here in its full form with music from The Soft Machine. A trailer for Anti-Clock, the third Bond/Arden collaboration being released by BFI rounds out the disc. A fully illustrated booklet is included, with a number of essays, bios on Bond and Arden, and some news clips about the banning of the film and its original critical reception. Overall, a wonderful package for a lost film worth discovering. Oh, and did I mention the Blu-Ray is region-free?!
*The clickable screenshots on the left are from the Blu-Ray, although scaled down to 720p to conserve bandwidth.
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