It was once described by its own producer as “the most boring film ever made” and was banned in its country of origin for 20 years.
Yet one fan claimed to its director to have seen it 60 times and a certain Boston professor used it as an antidote to recurring feelings of suicide. It is, as Jonathan Rosenbaum said of Vigo’s L’Atalante, a work whose greatness “rests on the simple gratitude it makes you feel for being alive” and remains one of the secret best films ever made.
The set-up couldn’t be simpler – a musician visits his old classmate in the country and volunteers to play with the local orchestra. The film follows the 24 hours leading up to the concert, and is in itself a delightful “pastoral symphony”, switching between passages of bucolic beauty, as the city slicker and his trendy girlfriend discover the countryside and its charming denizens, and slower interludes when the quiet desperation of rural existence becomes apparent.
Above all, it is a rare film of embarrassment, delighting in the awkward moments that arise in everyday life – a child turning shy when introduced to an adult, then later raising hell over a chicken dinner. Or a chicken nesting under a car. Or an old buffer needing a pee at the church wall. At one point, the grizzled veteran of a funeral band declares that people find it easier to cry than laugh; this movie chooses to laugh, finding the absurdity in small-town manners, but preserving the undertow of sadness beneath.
What is remarkable about Intimate Lighting is the way it portrays community as a body of individuals utterly isolated from each other, but searching for connection. In one superb edit,
Passer cuts between a lone female gardener, raking grass in her bikini, to an elderly lady (perhaps the woman she will become) gyrating with the same movement of the hips, but this time to the tune in a dance hall, as she weaves alone through the crowd. She is lost in her own world, as is the drunk who cuts across the band’s trumpets to belt out a half-remembered song. Throughout the film, characters find true communication through music, which drowns out the petty sniping and arguments that erupt between them. And the music takes many forms – a houseful of snoring suggesting the commonalty between old grandfathers and sexy young girlfriends better than any dialogue.
The movie ends in a freeze frame – a dinner party caught raising their glasses and waiting for the liquid to reach their lips, a still life of people trapped in dead-end lives waiting for the miracle of release. But if that makes it sound pompous or lugubrious, nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, this shot is the final link in a chain of gentle Monty Python-esque vignettes. Director Ivan Passer has said he wanted the film to be something that is re-visited, rather as one revisits parents or relatives; you know what they’re going to say, what they’re going to ask about you, the same rituals recur again and again, a routine preserved in aspic – but it’s so comforting and so nourishing.
Second Run’s typically superb Blu-Ray package comes complete with essays by Trevor Johnston and Phillip Bergson, an interview with Passer (who seems amusingly bewildered by the film’s success) and the director’s first short film, A Boring Afternoon, a little gem which shares all of the attributes and pleasures of the main feature.