Clio Barnard’s Dark Glass opens with two narratives, one delivered in images, the other in sound. As the film fades in and we see reeds swaying in the wind, a detached female voice asks in voiceover: ‘Tell me what it is you’re seeing at the moment.’ The camera pans to a young girl, as a woman replies, wistfully, to the question: ‘I think it might be an image from a photograph. She’s in sunglasses and a headscarf, sitting on a beach… she’s kind of concerned… sad.’ When asked about ‘your sense of her,’ the woman answers: ‘It’s a bit of performance.’
This describes not the child on screen, stood in a field, but the woman’s mother, who is absent. The dialogue is a reconstruction of a hypnosis session that Barnard underwent, with Robin Weaver delivering Barnard’s lines, and Jenna Russell as the analyst who directs Weaver/Barnard’s monologue. Throughout the film’s nine minutes, the pictures – shot in one continuous take – and the voiceover slip in and out of synchronicity. Sometimes, they seem to be in tandem, but key details do not match, leaving the viewer to wonder how stable is the ‘truth’ being told by the narrator.
The separation of clients from their previous selves has been structured into psychoanalysis from its origin, when Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud began to treat ‘hysterics’. Under the influence of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who taught Freud in Paris, they characterised hysteria as a form of divided consciousness, particular to women, believing it was caused by childhood events rather than by ‘weak nerves’, or hereditary causes. Freud brought his idea of a ‘talking cure’ into the hypnosis that Charcot used at La Salpêtrière mental hospital for women, often leading his patients to recall deeply repressed traumas.
Positioning these memories as pivotal moments, Freud and his followers would help patients to construct personal stories – most famously in the case study of ‘Anna O.’ Breuer began to treat Anna in 1880, encouraging her to recreate a particular memory that might have led to a symptom of hysteria, with the resultant catharsis leading to its disappearance. This suited the analysts, who built up case studies that helped to develop their practices; for the patients, these narratives constituted attempts to fix a stable sense of self.
The camera phone used to film Dark Glass, made as an entry for the UK Film and Arts Council Single Shot competition, was state-of-the-art in 2006, when the conventions for shooting on such devices were still being set. Its low resolution recalls the Dogme 95 movement – with its manifesto banning tripods (as well as optical work, filters or special lighting) – but the medium’s jerkiness suits the content. The narrator’s fragmented recollections only just hang together, stopping as she reaches for repressed memories and then recoils from exploring them further, or decides to pick up the story elsewhere.
When the analyst establishes that her client would ‘prefer to find another’ image, the camera moves towards a garage. The woman describes her closest friend when she was ten years old, and what we hear is what we see: a girl with brown hair and eyes, smiling – a happy memory. Then, the camera moves forward as the woman drifts further back in time: she talks about being aged six, naked in the garden of the house where she grew up, with her siblings as her mother cuts their hair. Here, Weaver/Barnard says that her mother (played by Valerie Edmund) was happy, just before she left the family to become ‘a performer’, and that this happiness was ‘not a performance’.
Here occurs the most disorienting schism between Barnard’s words and images. As the woman describes the scene, we see a boy and a girl, presumably her brother and sister, fully clothed; after they race towards the mother, the head of another child becomes visible. This must be the woman, but for most of the film, it has seemed that the camera portrayed her point of view – if this is her, then the sense of continuity between the narrator and her representation is lost. By making this split so clear, having suggested it at the start, Barnard raises fascinating questions about the reliability of memory and the nature of subjectivity.
In Giving an Account of Oneself, first published in 2005, Judith Butler theorised that a need for resolution was still the primary reason that individuals sought various forms of ‘talking cure’. The point of going to analysis, wrote Butler, is to ‘have someone receive one’s words’, but being someone unknown, the therapist becomes ‘an allegory for reception’, whose primary use is to provide ‘the general structures within which a particular life could be understood’. Such efforts at coherent, chronological explanations have clear limits: Butler talks about the problem of forgetting something crucial and feeling unable to weave it back in. Doing so successfully would mean becoming self-sufficient, and losing the relation with the Other to whom the story has been addressed, and on whom it sought to act; failing would force the client to re-live the overwhelming dependency or abandonment at their narrative’s core.
For Butler, another limit lies in the fact that the ‘I’ seems to provide the foundation of what is recounted, but is actually ‘the most ungrounded moment in the narrative’. This is partly because many crucial experiences occur before the subject becomes capable of conscious memory, or language, but also because the ‘I’ acts performatively – by identifying patterns, or moments of recognition, the narrator is not just describing the past, but also enacting the self that s/he is trying to describe (or wishes to be) in relation to a real or imagined audience.
The simultaneous emergence of film and psychoanalysis at the fin-de-siècle encouraged people in various fields to experiment with structure, chronology and perspective, and made it possible to draw a link between the analysand and the artist, who also attempts to draw experiences, actual or invented, into coherent shapes for the benefit of an (unfamiliar) audience, and for themselves, as catharsis. As the cinema assumed the classic novel’s function of describing the material world in detail, modernist authors incorporated ideas from Freud, and began to focus on the interior workings of their protagonists, whose first-person accounts could not always be trusted.
In his essay on Dark Glass, critic Jonathan Romney notes that Barnard has incorporated this technique, and casts doubt upon the narrator’s distinction between moments when her mother is genuine and when she is not. He suggests that everything here is a performance, displaying ‘the primacy of acting and re-enacting within the supposedly authentic and unmediated act of remembering’. The lesson is that the past can only be accessed through ‘stagings of that past – through descriptions of old photos and commentaries on what they evoke, or restagings (in the mind’s eye or before the camera) of lost original moments that were perhaps imaginary.’
But what does the narrator achieve through these restagings? She accesses her past, but seems no closer to understanding it before the hypnotist tells her to leave the image and return to ‘a safe place’. The woman is just beginning a process, far from moving beyond the sense of primal abandonment that Butler mentions, and we sense that it will be some time before she feels able to empathise with her mother’s decision to leave. This would be a vital step towards greater stability, even if Barnard’s film rejects the aim of creating an account that satisfies a traditional structure with an incident that launches the narrative, a set of actions in pursuit of a goal, a climax and conclusion.
This means that for the viewer, Dark Glass remains a mystery. We still cannot be sure of the relationship between the narrator and the images by the time that she is told to open her eyes and return to the room, as her obvious yet oblique statement that ‘It seems very bright in here’ closes the film. We are offered such a tiny fraction of her analysis, let alone her life, that it feels impossible to even imagine that she might find whatever resolution she has sought – we must leave her to unify herself beyond the work’s temporal boundaries.
Dark Glass represents one of the most direct combinations of cinema and analysis since the 1920s, when Freud’s colleagues Karl Abraham and Hanns Sachs worked on Secrets of a Soul with G. W. Pabst, and authors H.D. and Bryher – who wrote for avant-garde journal Close-Up and made films with Kenneth MacPherson – underwent analysis with Freud and Abraham. It demonstrates the limits of hypnosis and therapy as much as their possibilities, seeming to agree with Butler that the nexus of our own personalities, our selves, will always remain elusive: in a world where we can never be sure of what is ‘performance’ and what is not, our identities might approximate the truth, but they can never reach it.