Yearning At Both Ends


The over-rated ‘Atonement’ features a cumbersome episode on the beaches of Dunkirk. Had the episode been excised before shooting then the movie would immediately have become a low-budget costumer. As it was, a large proportion of the inhabitants of Redcar got to stand on the beach dressed as Tommies waiting for boats and Joe Wright, the director, was able to stage a complicated exercise in logistics that probably qualifies him and Seamus McGarvey, the Director of Photography, as safe pairs of Hollywood hands.

Directing a war scene is possibly as demanding as directing a battle but the hotels are better. On the basis of a long, ambitious, logistically challenging scene that makes its point in two minutes, Wright’s hotels can only get more splendid.

There’s much to be said about ‘Atonement’ – the woodenness of Knightley, the cleanliness of the costumes, the televisualness of the non-battle scenes – that I don’t want to get into. The battle scene, though, put me in mind of a very different film: ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ (‘The Wanderer’, also ‘The Lost Domain’) made in 1967 by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco. Based on the eponymous Alain-Fournier novel (1913), it

follows the book’s account of 17 year old Augustin Meaulnes, a newcomer to a village school in the Sologne district in the Loire Valley. Big Meaulnes, much admired by his younger school fellows, goes missing for three nights. When he returns, he tells an extraordinary story.

Meaulnes had got lost in the countryside and wandered into the grounds of a mysterious country house where a grand and magical engagement party was being prepared. Passing himself off as a guest he met Yvonne de Galais, the sister of Frantz, for whom the party was being held. Meaulnes was transfixed by Yvonne’s beauty and when he returned home, vowed to see her again. Despite searching obsessively he was never able to find the house – the lost domain – and spent much of the rest of his life pining for the woman he had only met for a few minutes.

Albicocco’s cinematic rendition of the country house fete is extraordinary. Shot through heavily vaselined lenses, Meaulnes is seen weaving from one dreamlike setting to another, encountering rooms hung with lanterns and swathes of brocaded cloth, through which a gambolling Pierrot leads crowds of revellers in fancy dress. Compared to the drab flatlands in which Meaulnes lives, the place is almost unbearably exotic and comes to represent all that is unrecoverable about experience. The novel and the movie both set benchmarks for the melancholic, elegiac celebration of nostalgia and lost youth.

Alain-Fournier 1888-1914

‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ counterpoints an expressionistic – albeit dated (a little vaseline goes quite a long way) – film style with the restrained, naturalistic palette used for the scenes of school life, searching and yearning. The film is, in fact, a masterpiece of yearning and manages to give this doomed and solitary practice a good name. The most talked about episode in ‘Atonement’, however – the epic Dunkirk beach scene – is, in addition to being almost superfluous to the film’s concerns, a covert vehicle for a far less attractive yearning.

The Dunkirk section is shot through with so much carnivalesque romance that it made me want to dash to the seaside in an itchy outfit and die among the ferris wheels, grand abandoned hotels, beached boats and battered bandstands. I would ride on the back of a long tracking shot through the superb carnage, dying frequently, waking up time and time again with my tragic Tommy muckers, hoisting foaming, pillaged tankards with blind and half-blind ordinary heroes, shooting stallions regretfully, howling, weeping and laughing at the sheer heck of it all and adjusting my scarf. Tapped on the shoulder by a curious passerby I would declare “Yes, this is what I have yearned for and only now have I found it!”
“And what’s that, dear?”
“What men want, old lady! A ferris wheel turning as my dreams of democracy collapse only to be revived by community singing! The nobility of having one leg! The admirable servility of the Cockney soldier towards his betters reduced only slightly yet quite understandably in times of extreme privation! In fact, yes – the closeness of men, the openness of wounds, the fun of hell, the hell of heck, the death of death, the picturesque, the picturesque!”

I’m sorry. I became over-excited.