"I am a traveler of both time and space": Jean-Claude Rousseau's "Faux départ"

Rousseau's stone-faced magician, a mix of Méliès and Keaton, shows us even the simplest of spaces have the possibility to surprise.
Alex Hansen

A man sits alone in a hotel room. That he is wearing his hat, coat, and scarf tells us he is waiting for the time of his departure from this transitionary moment. Yet the mundane appearance of Jean-Claude Rousseau’s short film Faux départ is merely a way to lull us into missing the sleight-of-hand happening before our eyes. Rousseau plays the role of a stone-faced magician, a mix of Méliès and Keaton, and toys with the conventions of how space and continuity are created and maintained through editing. He shows us even the simplest of spaces have the possibility to surprise.

The bulk of the film’s runtime consists of a shot containing the bed, table, and chair. We watch as the man (Rousseau) sits, waits, and wanders about the room, idly killing time. A trip to open the room’s window motivates the first cut of the film. The spaces depicted in the two shots are connected by his movement from one to the other. Holding the empty frame of the empty chair for a moment before cutting allows Rousseau time to cross the unseen distance between the table and the window, giving the impression that the time we are observing is linear. He exits the shot of the window; and again an empty frame is held for a moment. Yet, once we return to the opening shot, the nucleus of the film and of its space, we find it is empty and there’s another beat before Rousseau re-enters and sits back down. With the edit, we have crossed the abyss between the depicted spaces faster than he has. Time still appears linear, but the distance between the center of the room and the window has increased. In some films, an edit will reveal a hidden emotion, a character's love for another, say, or a twist of the plot. Faux départ applies the same idea to space, one of the only concrete realities of a moving image.

Rousseau wanders in and out of frame. The combination of his shadow on one wall and his reflection in the glass of the artwork on the other wall clues us in that the window isn’t as far away as the edits would lead one to believe. The reflection of the billowing curtains in the artwork’s glass confirms Rousseau’s construction of a non-existent chasm between the two spaces. The next round of cuts lets him tip his hand towards the existence of a hidden chamber between frames.

After wandering the room a few times, drawing our attention to different portions of the frame (particularly the bedside table with the clock) and bringing in a backpack from off-camera and leaving it on the chair, Rousseau stands in front of the artwork, looking it over as we have his frame. Something outside catches his attention and he looks towards the window. There’s a cut to the window, motivated by his POV, but the edit doesn’t offer the conventional payoff; we do not see what he sees, merely the same shot we’ve seen previously. What’s happening outside of the window draws our attention, rouses our curiosity, keeps our attention away from the sleight-of-hand at work. The clock’s alarm sounds, creating a bridge between shots, linking them in linear time, maintaining the facade of continuity. However, it also serves as a distraction from the continuity “errors” upon returning to the nucleus. The bag on the chair and Rousseau have both disappeared from the frame, but we don’t notice because our attention is drawn to the bedside table by the sound of the alarm. We must have crossed paths with Rousseau in the momentary darkness between spaces during the cut since he enters the frame from a position beside the window.

The next cut is Faux départ’s first overt manipulation of time and space as it jumps from Rousseau circling around the table to him once again standing before the piece of artwork. He exits towards the window; space once again is disrupted by his appearance on the “wrong” side of the frame, from the side opposite where his exit from the previous shot would place him. Rousseau's closing of the window sends us to a shot looking out from a moving train. The viewer can finally breathe a sigh of relief; the time of departure has come at last.

Just as we begin to settle into this new space on the train, thinking of what might be next on the film’s dramatic agenda, an edit suddenly returns us to the hotel room. Rousseau in his familiar spot, sitting in the chair, looking in the direction of the camera. With this edit, he creates a kind of inversion of how the Kuleshov effect is typically used. Instead of the contents of the preceding shot seemingly influencing the emotionless look on his face, it’s our reaction to the false departure that he seems to be responding to, as if he was the one watching the film. “Did they actually think they were going to go somewhere? That something actually happens in this film?” The ‘truth’ of his look doesn’t matter in the slightest, as he’s looked towards the fourth wall at two different moments earlier in the film and there’s no real change in this look from the previous. The true pleasure and magic comes in the possibilities this last look towards the camera contains, the potential within a simple glance, and the self-awareness it stirs in the viewer. Stretching the minuscule to reveal unknown depths is one of the moving image’s greatest powers, and Faux départ shows Rousseau as one of cinema’s greatest magicians. He used his powers to manipulate time and space, right before our eyes, and we didn’t even think twice about it.

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Jean-Claude Rousseau
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