february 10, 1998
film: form and signification
t. kaori kitao
the opening few minutes of lina wertmuller's swept away are more dogmatic than the three other openings i watched (orlando - picturesque opulence, entre nous - gradual and seductive, vagabond - immediate and stark). all were compelling beyond five minutes; ms. wertmuller's was far and away the most politically stated.
that does not eliminate the poetics of the framing - indeed, the filming was nuanced and engaging. viewed the first time, and especially as the relationships began unfolding, the film seemed to be making some serious statements, or raising some serious questions immediately, and quite directly.
the film opens with an almost hazy shot of a sailboat gently rocking on water in a temperate looking climate. pleasant music drifts by, it is a pastoral scene at sea.
we zoom into the boat, and past it towards now a beach ringed by cliffs. from a long shot we see two bathing suit clad boaters disembarked, scampering benewath the cliffs. the framing of the shot has the mountain looming over the vacationers (as we safely assume by now), with a large cave behind then. they are positively dwarfed by the shot - the human figures are the only movement underneath a threatening outcropping of stone, and behind an abyss awaits.
the next shot features some swimmers in the background, with their large bright yellow boats looming large out of scale in the foreground, shot from a high angle. the implication here is that of people dwarfed by their toys, or their technologies. the scene is not entirely pleasant, despire the apparent meditteranean weather and crystal blue water - in the first few minutes characters have been dwarfed or surrounded.
the nearly heavy-handed juxtaposition of leisure and either insignificance or pending doom sets the tone for a dramatic picture - confirmed by the first shots of the characters. we meet a black bathing suited woman in a black cap rubbing her body with suntan lotion. she shrilly decries italian communists's relationship with the pope at a swimming man beneath her. her assuredness and literal self-stroking make her appearance an indulgence while the man's inability to respond appropriately with anything other than escalation (shouting and gestures) or avoidance (ducking away under the water) is another failure. these are people excited, self-involved and out of touch, literally: we have little sense of their physical relationship to eachother - she is pictured only from the midriff up, so we have little sense of her standing. her argument partner is constantly afloat, paddling around in crystal waters, his hair sloppy. the focus on both of them emphasizes their solitude - they are well lit, speaking profusely, and alone - never shown at a distinguishable distance with other characters or each other.
my background approaching this film's first five minutes was that of having never seen ms. wertmuller's films, but hearing of her as a nazi documentarian. i saw the dwarfed beach figures and ensuing arguments in a distinctly political light.
for example the film entre nous, staged during the holocaust, opens with a busload of women being taken to some kind of a camp. we learn slowly, deductively that it is a camp related to the german occupation - a camp for jewish people. the politics of the film are buried beneath the facial expressions and halting reactions of the lead redhead to the situation she is presented; to us, without preceeding context. in ms. wertmuller's work here, politics are almost too obviously presented - perhaps they are a red herring, the film will make no definitive statement. but the film unshyly engages large questions immediately: the characters are adrift in a sea of fiercely stated politics.