The seventh entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
At the beginning, we know nothing. And some smart filmmakers (among them Fritz Lang and Samuel Fuller) like to keep us in the dark for the whole of a movie’s opening sequence—often a wordless sequence. There is time enough for verbal explanations in the following, catch-up scene.
We know nothing: where we are, what is happening, or who exactly these people are. There are no opening captions, no prologue. We are thrown into a fiction abruptly, driven headlong down a country road, barrelling through a tunnel, entering a city’s limits. Who is at the wheel, exactly, and what is their destination? When the director is Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick or Roman Polanski, we will find out soon enough, because we are already wedded to a character’s point-of-view, even before we clearly see their face; if it’s Leos Carax, we may never see the driver again. But either way, the space of the story, its environment, has been introduced. And sometimes, we will also exit the story, at film’s end, in an exactly inverse movement.
There is a structure to these opening sequences which is as old as cinema itself, built on a technique we often associate directly with the memory of silent cinema in all its Griffithian or Keatonian glory: alternation. The simple cutting back and forth, back and forth, between two different actions in two distinct places. We do not know their geographical relation to one another, whether they are close or far. We do not know if there is any prior relation between these distinct people or groups. But we feel—everything in the drive of cinema makes us feel—that there will a connection, an encounter...perhaps a cataclysm.
Two points will meet, in time and space. This is all that’s needed for a story to begin.
Often, there is the comparison of two rhythms, two speeds: one frenzied, the other calm. Someone who is an outsider, an intruder entering or passing through a community; and someone who is a local dweller, taking their sweet time with a daily activity—and unaware of the drama about to erupt. Cross-cutting (how editors must enjoy manufacturing these scenes!) also juxtaposes two beds of sound: motor noise versus children at play; or two kinds of starkly different music (as at the start of both versions of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games); or sound against silence. Music borrowed for such sequences has never been so strikingly or chillingly anempathetic (to use Michel Chion’s term) as here: whatever happens, the symphony on the car radio, or the mechanical tune from a child’s toy, grinds on regardless…
In this audiovisual essay, we do not retain all the intercut sides of the masterly alternations that kick off Claude Chabrol’s Que la bête meure (a.k.a. The Beast Must Die or This Man Must Die, 1969), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), Carax’s Les amants du Pont-neuf (1991), and Funny Games (1997 version). As in our 2012 piece Intimate Catastrophes, we knit together a species of ‘imaginary scene’ that both combines fragments into a single narrative event, and yet seeks to retain the different stylistic emphases of each film used. Our search for opportune echoes, rhymes, and cutting-points serves as a homage to the skill of the original filmmaking teams, and as well opens a door on a particular shared figure or trope of cinema language in its broadest extension: the brutal, spectacular seduction offered by a good opening sequence.