Seeing and Feeling: Visual Presence in THE LAST SEPTEMBER
4 March 2012
Deborah Warner’s 1999 film The Last September opens with the line, “This is the story about the end of a world.” Adapted from the 1929 novel by Elizabeth Bowen, Warner’s film attempts to visually represent a moment in Irish history when a “tribe” of people silently met their end as a result of great cultural and political change. Exceedingly different in plot details from Bowen’s book, Warner aims to rely strictly on what cinema can offer the narrative, the visual in movement. The Last September is understatedly experimental, with echoes of a silent expressionist film, and while it never makes quite enough noise to command attention, it does create a moving and clever cinematic experience.
Set in County Cork Ireland during 1920, The Last September follow Lois Farquar (Keeley Hawes), an adolescent girl ‘coming of age’ and learning about life, love, loyalty, and tragedy. Lois lives with her aunt and uncle, Lady Myra (Maggie Smith) and Sir Richard Naylor (Michael Gambon), who reside in a large yet isolated country estate called Danielstown. Lois finds herself caught in a dangerous love triangle between Gerald Colthurst (David Tennent), a British soldier, and Peter Connolly (Gary Lydon), and Irish rebel, during a time increasing tension and violence between the Irish and English in Ireland. Danielstown gets visited by houseguests who all bring into the narrative their own trials and tribulations, particularly Marda Norton (Fiona Shaw), who inspires the rebellious side of Lois to emerge, which, figuratively speaking, results in the “end of a world.”
The opening shot of Warner’s film, which occurs during the opening credits, is Sir Richard getting a light bulb lit. As he stands alone in the darkness, which has a distinct blue wash over it, he almost magically illuminates the room with the onset of light. This brief opening sequence is significant for primarily two reasons. First, it reinforces the opening titles which informed viewers this film will be about “the end of a world.” Electricity was still relatively new in 1920, therefore Lord Richard’s lighting the bulb alludes to the changing time and new ways of doing things. And, with this change, comes an end to the old, now outdated, ways.
The second thing this brief opening sequence does is symbolize Warner’s film will attempt to cast light on a silent moment in Ireland’s history. In lighting the bulb, the audience’s perception of the scene, and symbolically the film, becomes clearer. Warner is making a moment in Irish history visually clearer for cinema viewers so they can bear witness and somehow understand the demise of a forgotten world.
That said, Warner’s attempt to make this moment clearer for audiences does not mean she will use simple, uncomplicated shots and camerawork. To make something clearer is to offer someone and understanding of it, which, cinematically, is not necessarily done through a paint-by-numbers set of moving images. On the contrary, Warner quite intentionally distorts the visuals of her film frequently by shooting a character or action through a reflection, thick trees and brush, or heavily shadowed area, which blocks the audience from seeing the character or action fully. What becomes understood in The Last September is perspective and perception are everything. How the characters see themselves, the others around them, and their historical moment is, essentially, what progresses the film. In all, the characters often misunderstand what is around them, and many are avoiding and ignoring any historical consciousness, which is screaming “the end” has arrived.
Thus, Warner intentionally distorts the audience’s clear view of the characters and action to help put the audience in the character’s shoes. As narrator, Warner’s camera resists an entirely omniscient role; the camera does not allow the audience to see everything, the same way the characters are not able to see everything occurring in their own lives. One strong example of how Warner distorts the audience’s visual clarity and experiments with perspective is during Lois’ first kiss with Peter. Lois has her telescope in hand and during the kiss, which both excites and terrifies her, she lifts her arms up. Warner cuts to a shot of the two kissing through the bottom end of the telescope; that is, Warner shoots through the telescope the opposite way one typically looks through it. A telescope is designed to make things faraway look closer and clearer, but in Warner’s reverse use of the telescope she brings the action, which is already close, further away and makes it more difficult to see. In doing so, Warner helps the audience appreciate Lois’ perception of this moment; it is confusing, exciting, and difficult to understand. In some ways, altering the visual perspective actually brings the audience closer to the character, which seems to be Warner’s attempt with distorted shots such as this. If Warner can make the audience feel the same emotions Lois feels by distorting viewer’s visual perception of the scene she accomplishes something remarkable.
Additionally, one thing the Warner does make clear, through repetition, is how restricted and trapped these characters are in their time. Warner achieves this by consistently filming the characters through windows, in doorways, and behind objects. In many cases, these are the very things distorting Warner’s shot and block the audience from getting a full view of the characters and action. However, what this also does is show how enclosed and stifled these characters are. The characters are suffocated within Warner’s frequently cluttered shots, symbolizing the difficulties and restriction people faced during this fatal moment in Irish history. The film contains a few shots of the vast land and rolling hills Danielstown rests on in the green, spacious Ireland; yet, these shots are few and far between, and rarely contain characters in them. These infrequent shots are there in juxtaposition with the confinement of the characters; glancing briefly at the vastness and spaciousness of the setting immediately calls attention to how confining most of the shots are, thus how restricted the characters in those shots are.
Habitually, Warner selects colored objects to shot through, using this color to represent emotions. For example, Warner shoots Marda and Hugo (Lambert Wilson)—another of Danielstown’s houseguests who is married to Francie (Jane Birkin) but infatuated with Marda—through a red balloon at the party because they lust over one another. There is a great deal of palpable passion between the two, so shooting through a red balloon, which washes the whole entire scene in red, represents the desire they feel for one another. Moreover, when Lois is told the news of Gerald’s death, the camera shoots through a stained glass window and the color washing the scene is blue, representing Lois’ sorrow and regret over her suitor’s untimely death and the role she played in it. The colors are not particularly difficult to decipher, however they lend and emotive and affecting visual quality to the film.
The Last September concludes in the only way it can, by eliminating the audience’s ability to see clearly. Just as the film began with Lord Richard turning on the light, the film must, figuratively, turn off the light, and lay to rest the historical moment in Irish history that viewers were given a brief moment to observe. The final shot of the film is a hand-held camera spinning around on the tree swing in the yard. With the swing spinning so fast, it is impossible for the camera to focus, representing the disillusionment and devastation of the characters; thus, all clarity is lost and the moment of profound yet silent historical change we, the audience, were given to bear witness to has ceased.