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"What Is An Iceberg?": Close-Up on Teresa Villaverde's "Trance"

How the Portuguese director opens her 2006 feature.
Cristina Álvarez López
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Teresa Villaverde's Trance (2006) is showing from February 22 - March 24, 2017 in most countries around the world.
I’d call the beginning of Trance (Teresa Villaverde, 2006) poetic, but in a way that has little to do with the overpowering, declamatory voice of an individual character, and even less to do with the transposition of such a voice into images. Rather, the poetic quality of this opening is to be found in the associative chains of ideas built up over the unpredictable progression of shots, in the rhythms and echoes performed by a polyphony of voices, and in the sudden slippages, enjambments, and halts of the sound/image relations.  
Villaverde’s mise en scène and montage put in crisis the very idea of a scene or sequence, by conspiring against the unity and cohesion these terms presuppose. In Trance’s beginning, I distinguish three distinct sections. These sections, however, can perfectly well start or end in the middle of a scene, cued by a dramatic gesture, a new camera set-up, or a line of dialogue. Moreover, the clusters of images never exactly coincide with the clusters of words. We could describe Trance’s opening with the same words used by Godard in relation to his Passion (1982): “It’s the beginning of the movie, and your foot is not yet inside your shoe.”
After the credits—accompanied by a harshly blowing wind—the sound is abruptly broken by an equally harsh silence, heralding the brutal close-up of a woman. She’s Sonia (Ana Moreira), the protagonist. Extremely pale and dehydrated, almost unable to keep her eyelids open, she’s already half- dead. Then, as if issuing from her weak breath, the image of an altar boy appears on the screen. Dressed in white, caught in a medium shot, he stands at the mouth of a monastery-like corridor, facing the camera. The dark, indefinite background of the previous shot contrasts with the strong, linear perspective and deep focus of this new image. Over the boy’s head, successive arches of light, inscribed one inside the other, extend toward the vanishing point where the walls of the corridor converge. Between these two shots, there’s a pictorial and narrative violence that seizes the viewer.
First example of Villaverde’s poetry. “You know, an iceberg … Do you know what an iceberg is? Do you know what ice is? It’s the desert of cold.” By tiny operations of repetition, addition, and subtraction, one sentence gives birth to the next, creating an hypnotic effect that is accentuated by the fact that this child’s voice—seemingly belonging to the altar boy—is not in sync with the image. At the end of the third interrogation, there’s a cut to a new shot: Sonia, turning her back to the camera, stands on a large, frozen extension of snow. We started in Portugal, the lowest point of Sonia’s descent into hell; now we are in Russia, where her trip begins. The bridging voice of a little boy has worked the spatio-temporal leap that sets the film in motion.  
In this second section, we begin to witness Villaverde’s unusual mise en scène. Here, she stages a conversation between Sonia and her boyfriend (Andrey Chadov) in the least conventional way. Their dialogue is developed over eight shots, but the figure of the man won’t be revealed until the last of them. Across sound and image, there are all kinds of strange insertions, insinuations, imbalances, and breaks.
We begin with three fragmented shots of Sonia. First, the camera is at her back, as the man calls her. The second shot is a prefiguration of their verbal confrontation: a church bell rings and Sonia’s hand, slid into a green glove, holds an icicle as if it were a sword. Then, a close-up of her as she utters a sentence (“Every Prince Andrey died here”) that will be repeated, in the following shot, by a child’s voice. Several images of landscapes are unexpectedly interpolated. An almost abstract shot, drenched in white, with a fuzzy, brown line horizontally crossing the lower part of the frame. A more definite image presents a very similar geometrical disposition: a brown line of tree tops against the blue sky. Later, the screen will be divided into two equal halves: below, the aegean blue sea moving slowly; above, a foggy, immobile extension of land. During this lengthy shot, the silence between question and answer will be broken by the groaning sound of what could be a suspension bridge, or a cracking body of ice.
This seemingly disconnected dialogue between man and woman unveils, in a highly stylized manner, a profound breach between two conceptions of the world. Merging and overlapping historical, cultural, and legendary allusions—Prince Andrey’s death, soldiers in wartime, red flowers blooming from the blood of beloved ones—Sonia’s utterances are contested by male, paternalist rationality. The childish stubbornness and rebellious non-conformism of her nature are counterposed to a typically adult logic that points out factual incongruences and offers answers built on plain causality and common sense. To her rage and pain over an amnesiac present, over the untraceable memories of deceased ones (“So why are there no red flowers here?”), he answers with a forthright declaration (“It’s because it isn’t spring”). In the last shot of this section, the man is finally shown, standing behind Sonia. She kisses and pushes him away.
In Trance, Sonia’s physical descent into the sex-trafficking market of globalized Europe is presented through an ambiguous, elliptical narrative in which certain ideas and motifs keep reappearing, expanding their implications, forming charged chains and constellations. In this sense, the construction of Trance resembles another voyage-film, Claire Denis’ L’intrus (2004). In both cases, the backstory of the central character weighs heavily, but is never spelt out. The directors draw a dense map whose coordinates cannot be reduced to simple, reassuring meanings. Already, this second section of Trance’s opening displays some of the subterranean threads that will traverse and circle the entire film.
By suggesting that the world is immersed in a perpetual state of war, the film establishes a continuity between Russia’s past and Sonia’s present. The parallelism between those soldiers sacrificed in war and Sonia’s via crucis across several European countries develops another variation on this notion of lineage or relay. Sonia’s fondness for the figure of the soldier will return throughout Trance, and in a sublime manner. The references to Prince Andrey from Tolstoy’s War and Peace also work to connect Sonia’s cultural background with the nation’s history. But Tolstoy’s shadow looms still larger: like several of the novelist’s characters, Sonia will inhabit a limbo between life and death, holding onto a thin line between physical disintegration and spiritual redemption. A place where the body’s pain, humiliation, and degradation banish the soul to a state merging hallucinations, memories, visions, and instants of enlightenment.  
Comprised of only three shots, the third section starts with an unorthodox close-up: Sonia is in profile, but we can barely see her face, only her hair against the white, snowy background. Suddenly, she turns toward the camera and says: “We’ll meet again in two years. There, where you stand. There.” We understand, retrospectively, that what we’ve just witnessed was also a farewell scene. Then, in an aerial shot, the camera moves over a huge sheet of ice where a thin crack has started to expand. A male voice that we haven’t previously heard before replies: “Two years is much longer than it actually is. Everything must hurt for a thousand years, for a thousand times. It has to repeat itself.” 
As the ice crack grows wider, other smaller cracks begin appearing everywhere. A child’s voice asks about poetry, and the man answers: “It’s all that exists on Earth.” The crack grows larger and overflows like a river; large pieces of ice detach from the primary sheet and, pushed by the water, collide. This shot brings to the mind the aerial, black and white images of chaos, waste, and destruction in Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986). Similar pregnant, existential questions are posed here, replacing the father’s monologue in Tarkovsky with a question/answer dynamic. The last image of this section is a fixed shot: a landscape in the mist, a frozen desert crowned by a thin layer of water with patches of snow. To the question, “Is the planet to be destroyed whenever we want?”, the man’s voice answers: “Yes.”
Like all the climatic and geological allusions, the shots showing the formation of icebergs are not just a vague geographical reference. The iceberg is an image of unrootedness, of forced detachment. From the sound of a suspension bridge to the dramatic crack in the ice, this opening prefigures Sonia’s drift. But her drifting has already begun long before she travels to Europe. In Russia, she’s already dispossessed, in a country that she doesn’t know anymore—without money, without friends, and a son whom she isn’t allowed to see. Repetition, loop, continuity between the wars of the past and the present. Blood and ice, red and white, the substances and colors of fear: to dissolve without leaving a trace, to die without anybody knowing, far from everything, without being remembered.  
The iceberg is a fine image of Trance itself, for another, final reason: just as the largest part of an iceberg remains submerged below the water, so too will Sonia keep part of herself hidden, even when she’s exposed to the greatest misery, slavery, and degradation. Hence her refusal to speak or to tell her name. This interiority—which remains unknowable, unreachable, and untouched by those who use and sell her body—is profoundly treasured by the film. This is what constitutes the precious, subterranean core of the iceberg that is Trance


Teresa VillaverdelongClose-Up
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