There are spoilers in this essay about the French film Le temps de l’aventure, also known as Just A Sigh, which I viewed on DVD without the benefit of English subtitles. And so you should be warned. If you have seen the film, then you will understand where I am headed in this analysis. If you have not, perhaps you should come back later once you have. I find it impossible to discuss the film without sharing some of its most intense moments. So now you are warned.
Please proceed with caution!
This film evoked so many feelings in me. It touched my heart and my soul. I can’t remember feeling so many different emotions at one time while watching something on a screen. Wait. Oh yes, I can. And the same actor was responsible, as it happens.
There may be parallels between the characters of Paul Weston in In Treatment and Douglas in Le temps de l’aventure and I could probably write an essay on this topic. But what these two characters actually have in common is Gabriel Byrne. And whatever it was he did when he played Paul–and I’m still trying to figure that out–he accomplished once again in this new role. Only this time he condensed it, boiled it down to its essence, and created something so intense, so strong, so unforgettable that I have still not recovered from it.
I want to write about that.
Le temps de l’aventure is primarily a duet, with two gifted and sensitive actors in the lead roles. It was choreographed and conducted, as Gabriel Byrne describes it, by an imaginative and very focused writer/director. The cast, the director, and the film deserve their own review. Here I will focus on one player and one character in this touching and tragic romantic fantasy that broke my heart over and over again.
There is a lot of Gabriel Byrne in Douglas, the character he plays in the film. I do not know how he got there, but he did.
Here is what Mr. Byrne has to say about the role (from the DVD interview):
Because it was very ethereal in a way, he was almost like a ghost, I felt. So, how do you act being a ghost? I tend, as an actor, and I don’t mean this to sound pretentious, but I tend as an actor to work on instinct. So my instinct was: it doesn’t matter whether the audience perceives him to be real or not real. Because the story takes place over one day, every moment of that day counts. It doesn’t really matter, in a way, what comes before it and, in a strange way, it doesn’t matter what comes after it, because that’s where the audience concocts the beginning of the story and where the story might end. But while the film is happening, it’s over those hours, when an entire life is lived in one day. So, to be absolutely in the moment, and to not, in a way, carry any narrative from the past and not have any expectation of the present. So it was different from the way you normally approach a character…In terms of the acting of it, it had to be moment to moment with Emmanuelle.
And regarding his method:
I tend to think about it. I’m one of those people who believes in the unconscious. Writers will sit down to a page, a blank page, and they’ll start to write and sometimes they’re amazed at where the narrative came from. And it’s true also, to a certain extent, of acting. You can do research–but I find when you think about it, you let it dwell in the unconscious, your life experience will produce certain thoughts about it. And that’s kind of the way I work. And if the script and the director and the other actors are good, well then. You just have to surrender to them.
Mr. Byrne’s colleagues shed some light on the role and its actor, with writer/director Jérôme Bonnell observing in his interview at Gaffermag.com [this article is no longer available]:
I didn’t write the male part with any particular actor in mind but when it came to the casting, of course Gabriel Byrne was the first choice for this English professor. Apart from his immense talent, he is one of these actors who can tell a story with a single glance before he speaks a word. A big secret surrounds him and at the same time a deep sense of trust. Offering him the role of the stranger on the train I could perfectly imagine a woman following him though she knows absolutely nothing about him.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, when asked what it was like to work alongside Gabriel Byrne, Emmanuelle Devos notes:
It was interesting. He had an approach to the part where he lived it all the time, and he was suffering a lot. He said that he couldn’t imagine anybody else playing that part but him.
And finally, Ms. Devos tells us at Paris Normandie.fr:
It is a cliché. Actors lie–it was Diderot who put it in people’s heads. Absolutely not. Players, when they play, are closer to the truth… Of course, this is not our life, our history. It is still our words, our feelings. To tell you, when I was shooting this film, I thought…“I will die …” Because it put me in a state … I feared a heart attack. All the scenes with Gabriel Byrne, my heart beating, beating, as when you fall in love with butterflies in the stomach. The feeling of love, something bigger than me grabbed me completely.
And the Gabriel Byrne Effect? She says:
Gabriel, he is beautiful, he is beautiful … it is unbelievable. He has an incredible presence. There’s something romantic, mysterious … He is from a novel by Emily Bronte…
So, his partners in this romantic fantasy see Mr. Byrne in specific ways and they recognized him to be perfect for the role. But if the role is that of a ghost, as he asserts, well then. How do you play a “ghost”?
I am not suggesting that Mr. Byrne portrayed himself in this film. He is an actor. He plays characters written by others. It can be noted, however, that, despite his desire for privacy in his personal life, he seems to be drawn to roles that require him to be self-revelatory, that connect with him on a personal level. This is ironic, perhaps, but the impulse is our gain. At the beginning of the film, the Douglas he crafts has a distinct British accent. He is professorial in his appearance: neat hair, clean-shaven, suit and tie. This Douglas has an austere quality, his manner quiet and gentle. An academic, yes, but with an added air of muted refinement–no frumpy professor. As the film progresses, we see more facets of Douglas, in response to the woman he meets, but at core he remains controlled, restrained, and elegant. So the exterior vessel is a construction, as we can see. But Mr. Byrne is a truthful actor and that means putting aspects of himself–his life experience, as he says–into play in this particular kind of art. And if one is playing an empty vessel, albeit one with an elegant exterior, a “ghost,” as he suggests, then what is there to fill up the emptiness except oneself?
The outlines of the role and the beginning of the fantasy are laid out: a professor, at a painful time in his life, meets a younger woman, Alix, played by Emmanuelle Devos, on the train from Calais to Paris. We already know something about her: she is in a state! And she seems to be his opposite somehow. Yet, she awakens something in him. He responds. The fact that he responds is not miraculous. He himself arranges the possibility for it. He wants it. We know this because we watch him create a trail for this young woman to follow, if she will, and he knows, along the way, that she will indeed. In their very first encounter on the train, this apparently quiet man, silently enduring some unknown pain, maintains the eye contact that she initiates. He does not hide his tears and then he does not hide his interest in her. His gaze is intense and unblinking. What is he seeing? He is watching her sleep. Already they have shared a double intimacy: tears and slumber. And he makes the first overt connection by asking her for directions. He does not approach anyone else on the train. He wants her to know where he is going. He expects her at his hotel room door, his tie and coat already on the chair. He knows she will follow. And yet, later, he must ask her.
Why did you follow me?
Because you seemed sad. Because I wanted to.
Really? Is that all?
I didn’t follow you. I went and found you. It’s very different.
So, she has found him. But what has she found? A ghost? No.
Gabriel Byrne has a public persona, as one would expect of an actor who writes books and book reviews, produces films, supports causes, and speaks out on issues of importance to him as an individual. Those of us who have watched his interviews, read his book and other writings, seen his films, and listened to his passionate speeches about culture and history know something of this persona. How did he use this persona in the creation of the character of Douglas in this film? Did writer/director Bonnell build all of these aspects into the character as he was writing him? Or did the fit between actor and character become so close, as Mr. Byrne describes his method of working, that the alchemy of becoming someone else could result in revealing oneself?
I don’t know. Here is what I do know.
Mr. Byrne has always been willing to express intense emotions on screen and, especially in some of his later roles, to have his characters talk about their feelings. His emotional displays always feel true and honest. Tears are not an obstacle for him. His part in the film begins with his character, Douglas, openly weeping on the train. Later, at their first real exchange of words, Alix asks “How do you feel?” His response: “Pretty devastated. But calm.” She hesitates: “Do you mind me asking?” and he replies quickly: “No. No, not at all.”
Gabriel Byrne loves to tell a story. And he believes that sharing stories is a critically important component of any culture. Story-telling is a way to connect to another person and a way to share truth, he has said. The meeting of Douglas and Alix at the entrance of his hotel provides the first story in the film. “When I was 5 or 6 years of age, in Maidstone…” Douglas begins and we see him delight her with a story that not only instructs but helps her feel less vulnerable and afraid. He tells another story later about his lost love which opens a way for the two of them to share more and engenders her trust–she can see that he is a man who feels deeply and who has loved deeply–and then, finally, he makes it possible for her to tell her own story.
We have experienced Gabriel Byrne being vulnerable and shy, in interviews on film and in print. We’ve seen him overcome this when it mattered to him. In the film, his character turns away from Alix after they first touch physically and he moves to stand before the hotel room window. He has admitted, as she has, to feeling scared and now he separates himself from her. But she will not have it. Her response to this vulnerable man standing almost helplessly before the open window is warmth and compassion. And her overture succeeds. They connect at last.
We know that Mr. Byrne has the ability to express emotions without the need for words. We have seen him do this many times in other roles. There are so many examples of this art in the film that it seems overwhelming to choose only one, but there is a scene outside, in the streets of Paris, during the music festival, in which his character and Alix are listening to two young men play Alpine horns. The music is haunting, to be sure, but suddenly we are presented with the face of Douglas, who has become quite still and whose face displays an array of emotions that indicate the turmoil he is experiencing: sadness, regret, loss and yes, love, and loneliness too, are all there, sliding by, as Douglas becomes a pinpoint of solitude in the hubbub all around him. It is an astonishingly powerful and touching moment.
Have you ever seen Gabriel Byrne laugh? He puts his head back and, with a sense of abandon, just laughs! Despite his reputation as a dramatic actor and all that seriousness, he has a good sense of humor and he uses it well. This film is full of humor (especially surrounding Alix, which is why some call it a “dramedy,” I suppose), but the best humor is based on the shared experience of these two people. Humor to lighten the tone, to deflect, to dissemble. And also to engage. To laugh at their shared predicament. To stop tears. My favorite example: at the cafe, in the midst of their shared turmoil, Alix touches Douglas’ arm and looks at his watch. She is thinking of the train she must catch. “Are you going to turn into a pumpkin?” he asks in a soft, almost lilting voice, and even in the dark you can see his eyes sparkle. He displays a delicate grace here as well. More on this later.
In the last decade or so, Mr. Byrne has exhibited an empathy for others and a desire to understand that is profound. He has taken us along on some of his quests for meaning and enlightenment; some of his journeys are private. Douglas, too, is capable of empathy. After their second physical encounter, Alix tells her story. She is full of emotion but also thoughtful. He is so responsive to her words. He listens with care, he counsels, he tells her what he knows. Not what he feels about her, but what he knows about her. They are connected now in a way that moves the film from simple romance to a deeply emotional love story. How is all of this possible, in one day? The empathy of which both characters are capable makes it possible.
Douglas: What are you afraid of?
Alix: To lack courage. To lack serenity.
Douglas: Nobody expects you to have serenity. And as for not having what it takes, I know that you have more than enough. You’ll be happy.
Douglas is a professor of literature. He is not an engineer or a businessman or a lawyer, although any one of these could be intellectually rigorous and philosophically-inclined, of course. But his training and one presumes his passion focuses on the words and meaning of others and ways to include them in the prism with which he views life. Gabriel Byrne is a well-educated man who has read widely and who writes and speaks out about the things that matter to him. There are many examples of this. He might not call himself an intellectual, but we have seen him at the podium, in the spotlight, speaking intelligently and thoughtfully. We know he feels at home in the room with the closed door, writing. We’ve seen this. So when his character, Douglas, says goodbye to Alix and leaves her with a philosophical statement: “We’ll do better in another life, with other gods to watch over us,” such a lyrical and deeply-felt affirmation does not seem strange at all. There is nothing sentimental about it. It is an expression of love and hope. And Alix responds in kind: “This life is long, isn’t it?” And all Douglas can do is nod his assent.
Part of this philosophical aspect is a desire for honesty and truth:
Douglas: Actress! You’re an actress. You see, now I don’t know whether you’re telling lies or telling the truth.
Alix: I could say the same thing to you.
Douglas: No, I say it because you’re an actress.
Alix: I said it because you’re a man.
Douglas: Ah! Touche.
Alix: Answer a cliche with a cliche.
And the look he gives her then is one of surprise. He has a new understanding of her now and he sees her differently.
There is a sadness in Gabriel Byrne. No, that is not accurate. There is often a sadness in his expression. Perhaps this is the result of the natural arrangement of his features. Perhaps this is the audience reading what it wants to read. Despite his assertions that he is not “brooding,” there is something about his visage that is introspective and melancholy. A sadness. He seems to understand pain, suffering, loneliness. It is in his face. The character Douglas is dealing with pain and he states it outright near the beginning:
Doug: Today’s a painful day. I’m not very good at pain.
Alix: Who is?
And when, much later, standing outside, listening to a raucous band playing very spirited music, Gabriel makes his character’s loneliness and pain in the midst of all this celebration unequivocal. He is alone and he knows it and it is becoming clear to him that this will not change. She is standing right beside him but it does not matter. He also manages to project an acceptance that this is what it means to be human, to be alive–we are alone, even when faced with the possibility of connection. And there is the beginning of a desperation in his eyes.
Douglas expresses an intriguing physical duality: he seems uncomfortable in his own body, yet he possesses a physical presence that emanates from him in a powerful but controlled way. He is masculine and sexual, but seemingly unaware of it. He wears a shirt in bed in the beginning of the story and offers a flippant reason why. We see the other side of him in the scene in the cafe again, when he kisses Alix with so much passion that her head spins and she can only ask “What’s happening?” The desire and the tension that come rolling out of him are overpowering. So Douglas controls himself, with the reserve and the restraint that are the core aspects of his personality. Where is Mr. Byrne in this? It cannot be easy to portray such passion on screen and to be truthful to it. A series of complex and delicate emotions played out with one’s physical being, in the moment, before a camera–the magic and skill that is being brought to bear here takes my breath away, too.
Finally, we come to an aspect of Douglas, and of Gabriel Byrne, that is elusive and yet central: grace. In the early reviews of the film after its showing at the Tribeca Film Festival, this quality was described as “tragic dignity,” “playing the compassionate listener with rigor and elegance,” and “all restraint and elegance.” Chekhov defines grace more concretely: “When a person expends the least amount of motion on one action, that is grace.“ And when you watch Douglas throughout the film, you will see that there are no wasted gestures, no useless movements. Every motion has a purpose and an end, a meaning intrinsic to it. Deliberate, thoughtful, considered–and yet there is a sense of deep emotion constantly being held in check. Reserve, restraint, a gentleness, an inward stillness, gravitas–grace. It seems to me that this is an aspect of Mr. Byrne as well. We have all observed him in interviews and discussions where he exhibits this quality–but he is usually talking with his hands, too!
Mr. Byrne’s performance as Douglas is perfectly modulated and always in sync with his partner, to whom I have given short shrift, I’m afraid. It is as though they are dancing, sometimes slowly, sometimes a bit haltingly, sometimes breathlessly and with abandon. They do not ever falter. Until the end. And even then, there is a thread of hope remaining…
So, it would seem that this is a way to play a “ghost.” And in playing him, Gabriel Byrne made him real and we believe in him, as we come to believe in Alix, too. Mr. Byrne calls this movie “a beautiful fantasy” and something in him seems to want to discount it somehow, as though to take it too seriously would be silly. And yet. By making Douglas real and, as I have tried to show, by instilling aspects of himself into the character, he made him the calm still center of the film, around which Alix flits and flutters, looking for an answer. She turns in the widening gyre, but he is a center that can hold, if she will stop, just for a moment. That she does not is what moves this story into the bleak realm of tragedy–perhaps only just to the edge of it, but still near enough to break our hearts.
It is clear to me that it takes a great deal of courage to do what Mr. Byrne has done in this role–not only the courage to “suffer,” as Ms. Devos observes, but also the courage to be so vulnerable, so real, and so exposed on screen. The line between art and life becomes quite pale here; I can barely discern it and yet I know it is there. I am, after all, sitting before a flickering screen in the dark. I am not in Paris, on a train, in a hotel room, on the streets listening to music, looking at my lover’s watch to see how much time we have left to be together. He is so adept at making me empathize with his character, I also find I’m not standing in a plaza in Paris, with music all around me, feeling alone and lost and longing for the woman standing next to me. That is a powerful accomplishment, to create such an imaginative journey and to make it authentic and grounded in real experience. We are very lucky to have an artist who is willing to take such risks. As someone who is interested, not in psychology, but in the qualities of character and soul that make us human, how our experience molds and shapes these qualities, and how we embody and choose to express them in our lives and in art, I want to honor his achievement and acknowledge its strange and wonderful hold over me.
Will Alix and Douglas meet again? Who can say? But to those who consider this film, as some have said, a trifle, a sweet romance, a French remake of Brief Encounter, and perhaps even to Mr. Byrne himself, who calls it a “beautiful fantasy,” E.M. Forster says this:
But the poetry of that kiss, the wonder of it, the magic that there was in life for hours after it–who can describe that? It is so easy for an Englishman to sneer at these chance collisions of human beings. To the insular cynic and the insular moralist they offer an equal opportunity. It is so easy to talk of “passing emotion,” and to forget how vivid the emotion was ere it passed. Our impulse to sneer, to forget, is at root a good one. We recognize that emotion is not enough, and that men and women are personalities capable of sustained relations, not mere opportunities for an electrical discharge. Yet we rate the impulse too highly. We do not admit that by collisions of this trivial sort the doors of heaven may be shaken open. — from Howards End
Many thanks to all of you who helped me with translations of the text of this film. You can purchase the DVD of the French version of this film at Amazon.fr and an English-subtitled version of the DVD is due to be released soon!