Full Bloom is a series, written by Patrick Holzapfel and illustrated by Ivana Miloš, that reconsiders plants in cinema. Directors have given certain flowers, trees or herbs special attention for many different reasons. It’s time to give them the credit they deserve and highlight their contributions to cinema, in full bloom.
Think of the manifold ways wherein Nature hath lent to our feelings
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Anyone who has looked at a field of flowers long enough knows that if you are not loved, it is difficult to grow. In Pina Bausch’s and Chantal Akerman’s work, the fear of not growing is palpable in every second. We should consider ourselves very fortunate to have a television work that documents the meeting of those two extraordinary artists: In Un jour Pina a demandé, Akerman tries to capture the effect Bausch’s performances have had on her.
The filmmaker follows the choreographer and the Tanztheater Wuppertal, the company of dancers Bausch has worked with, on a tour through Italy, Germany and France. The film is a collection of impressions, short interviews and forms an intimate approach to beautiful and delicate movements, with bodies expressing so much that can’t be said. Along with Komm Tanz Mit Mir (Come Dance with Me) (1977), Walzer (Waltz) (1982) and 1980 (1980), glimpses of Bausch’s performance Nelken (Carnations) (1982) can be seen in the film. The famous piece takes place on what Luke Jennings has called “flower-strewn battlefields of human misunderstanding.” This is meant quite literally since the stage is covered with thousands of pink carnations poked vertically into the ground. They are surrounded by patrolling German shepherds and populated by dancers searching for love. Those flowers become an atmosphere. They change how the dancers move and breathe, they give color and depth to the stage and create an image that defines emotions.
Dance, love and plants meet here in a subtle play of repetition and variation. They inhabit an eternal state of coming and going, appearing and dissolving, exposure and containment. There is a feeling of hopeless tenderness and desperate resistance to the piece. Whoever has experienced how an embrace can suddenly feel wrong will understand the movements in this performance, as well as the dances and many other elements that appear in Akerman’s work. I think there is a line connecting the impossibility of finding words, the impossibility of making the right movements, and the impossibility of truly feeling what we long for. What remains is bodies and ruins, bodies in ruin.
In one shot of the film we see the dancers, exhausted by emotion, resting in chairs while the artificial carnations seemingly dance to a distant music. Suddenly, the flowers are the performers and the dancers are part of the production design—they portray the seasons while it’s the flowers who live. For a moment we can see them as humans with their feet in the ground and heads in bright colors. Here we might remember what every child knows and many adults tend to forget: Flowers are bodies in motion. Body parts are easier to comprehend because, with a bit of practice, we might determine the common parts of all flowers: peduncle, receptacle, sepal, petal, stamen, anther, pistil, stigma and ovary. As much as this knowledge helps us describe the plants and enrich our understanding of what we see in front of us, it is not the essence of the flower. The essence lies in the movement or, as Goethe labeled it in his famous poem carrying the same title, “the metamorphosis of plants.” Everything about a flower can be written in the past or future tense. It is forever becoming or growing or turning or dying. The present is just a fleeting stop, too shortly lived to be described or, as Pierre Bonnard, a great painter of fleetingness and carnations once said: “The moment I say I am happy, I am not.”
Bodies exist in movement and change. This includes blossoming as well as decay. All the times we long for an embrace or kiss to last forever we already knew that the petals will begin to fall, autumn will come and it’s never sure we will grow again. Change also includes the meaning we attach to certain flowers. Generally, Dianthus caryophyllus is related to revolutions and the labor movement. However, such a metaphorical meaning might change (and has already changed) over the years and maybe all these carnations circled by Alsatians, swimming in dark ponds of blood, decaying stuck to forgotten jackets tell a truer story about the life of bodies on Earth than the utopian symbolism we attach to them. The flower industry has made the carnation, native to the Mediterranean area, a worldwide superstar of kitsch. Baby and spray varieties of all colors penetrate the surface of the world, synthesized smells such as Calvin Klein’s Eternity or Estée Lauder’s Youth Dew haunt our fabricated desires. Yes, it’s no coincidence that the flowers in Bausch’s Nelken are made of silk. It doesn’t make a difference, they are still more beautiful than what we have, aren’t they?
Why do we still love is one of the pressing questions to be found in the oeuvres of Bausch and Akerman. In Toute une nuit (Akerman’s film closest to Bausch) the desire to spend the night with someone knows no future or past. It’s a necessity for all people transcending time and really touches on the present tense. The moment we don’t want that kiss or embrace to stop is the same moment in which we might experience what it means to be alive here and now. To be confronted with a flower might give us the same sensation. We just have to learn to look at them again, maybe even hug them, smell them, touch them. These are all bodies in time trying to live.