The subtlety of the narration, the use of multi-layered metaphors and beautiful intertwining of dreams and reality add to the ambiguity in Un Soir Un Train.
Lovers of surrealist cinema are acquainted mostly with the names of Bunuel, Tarkovsky and at the most that of Cocteau and Has. However few people can profess to have heard the name of Andre Delvaux (1926 – 2002), a celebrated Belgian filmmaker, in this regard.
I had the opportunity to watch his 1968 film Un Soir Un Train (A Night in the Train), based on Johan Daisne’s book De trein der traagheid and was enthralled by the subtlety of the narration, the use of multi-layered metaphors and the beautiful intertwining of dreams and reality adding to the aspect of ambiguity in the movie. It is a very demanding film and requires multiple viewing to make sense out of it. A brief synopsis of the film is as follows.
Mathias (Yves Montand) is professor of linguistics in a Belgian university, at a time when Belgium is plagued by Walloon movements. He is a writer of Flemish plays as well and is morally opposed to the cause of Walloons. Although middle-aged, he is unmarried, but has a mistress, Anne (Anouk Aimée), who is a Frenchwoman, working as a costume designer for a theatre. It is revealed that she is currently working on the production of Mathias’s play ‘Elkerlyc’.
Their relationship looks as if it may be coming to an end. Anne feels alienated in her Flemish surroundings and is also further aggravated by the fact that Mathias shows no inclination to formalize their relationship.
After a passionless dinner together, Mathias and Anne board a bus which would take them to the railway station, since Mathias needs to catch a train to a town where he is to give a lecture. Anne wants to accompany him on the train, but Mathias is uncomfortable about introducing her in his circle. This sparks a heated debate among them.
After alighting from the bus, Anne resolves to break off their relationship and declares that she would be leaving Mathias forever. However, on the train, Mathias is delighted to see Anne enter his compartment, in spite of his initial reservations about Anne accompanying him.
The couple find themselves incapable of speaking to each other and Mathias falls asleep. He has a series of dreams. Through multiple jump cuts, we are shown a flashback of the couple’s tour of England, the previous year, Mathias watching Anne stand by the window of the train, a scene in the woods and finally overlapping images of a train accident and Mathias and Anne lying beside each other.
Mathias awakes from this dream to find his train has stopped and Anne has vanished. When he leaves the train to investigate along with an old colleague Professor Hernhutter (Hector Camerlynck) and an ex-student Val (François Beukelaers), the train continues on its way, leaving Mathias and the other two men stranded in the open countryside.
Under nightfall, the three men make their way to a nearby village which is strangely silent. Throughout the journey, Mathias recounts the circumstances under which he had met Anne. When they finally meet the locals, Mathias and the others are unable to recognize their language.
They go to a nearby restaurant and are served food by a beautiful waitress whose name is later revealed to be Moira (Adriana Bogdan). The band stars playing a tune and Moira tries to engage them in the dance. Val succumbs in spite of Mathias’s warning. After the dance gets over Mathias is unable to find either professor Hernhutter or Val. He confronts the waitress and suddenly goes into a fit.
The scene jump cuts to the site of the train accident and Mathias wakes up from the fit. He finds the lifeless body of Anne in the barn along with Val and breaks into tears.
The acting in the movie is top grade, especially in the roles played by Yves Montand and Anouk Aimée (she appears in quite a contrasting avatar compared to her role in Fellini’s ‘Eight and Half’). The music by Frédéric Devreese blends perfectly with the enigmatic tone of the film. The treatment by Andre Delvaux is very effective, with a straightforward narrative towards the beginning, intended to disarm the viewers and make them unprepared for the non-linear imagery that follows in the latter part of the movie.
Let us now look at the film from an analytical angle. A principal theme of the movie is the linguistic barrier between the Flemish Belgians and the Walloons (French speaking Belgians), which has a long history in Belgium.
The relationship between Mathias and Anne becomes a metaphor for this linguistic barrier. The fact that they are unable to speak on the train is a further hint of this situation.
However, as the synopsis reveals, the latter part of the movie is exceedingly complex since it becomes difficult to gauge the transitions between dream and reality.
On closer speculation, multiple interpretations spring up, imparting an ambiguous nature to the film.
On first viewing, it seems that the scene of the train accident shown earlier is not part of a dream, rather a real event demarcating Mathias’s first dream from his second. Mathias passes out due to the accident and dreams of the two other people, the village and his experiences out there.
However, on repeated viewing, several aspects take on new proportions and hint towards other possible interpretations. Early in the movie, the actors enacting Mathias’s play hold a discourse about the appearance of death. They debate whether death should be represented in the traditional getup according to middle age texts or should be inconspicuous (As Werner (Domien De Gruyter) puts it, “In Mathias’s adaptation, death is among thousand other things which could occur”). This discussion becomes relevant if we concentrate on the following facts.
Firstly, the name of the waitress is Moira, which literally means fate. Secondly, when Mathias warns Val about dancing with her and says, “You don’t know what game she is playing”.
Val replies, “Her name is Moira. I understand her language. It’s a miracle”. Later Mathias finds Val’s corpse along with that of Anne’s.
These observations hint that Moira could be the personification of fate or death (indistinguishable from any normal person unlike the death in Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’). According to this interpretation, the village can be thought of as a transition state between life and death. Hence, the language barrier between Mathias and the villagers act as a double metaphor, one being the symbolism for the linguistic barrier between the Flemish and the Walloons and the other being the barrier between life and death.
Val understands Moira’s language when he submits to her, thereby crossing the barrier. Mathias escapes her and comes back to life from this near death experience.
Yet another possible interpretation could be considering the whole sequence of events after Mathias getting on the train as a series of multi-layered dreams (in the same lines as ‘Inception’), from which he does not wake up within the span of the movie.
Though this interpretation is a bit ambitious, certain facts like the entry of Anne into the compartment in spite of their previous heated argument and the two of them being unable to communicate, somewhat supports this conclusion.
Moreover, the final sequence of Mathias breaking down into tears beside Anne’s corpse is reminiscent of the image of the two of them lying beside each other, which was a part of the first (in this case the first level of) dream, which is also suggestive of the above interpretation.
According to this interpretation, flashback of the England tour, the other overlapping imagery and the train accident are part of the first level of dream. Mathias relapses into a second level of dream where his interactions with the other two people and the experiences in the village take place.
On waking up from this second level of dream, he moves back to the first level where he confronts the death of Anne and Val as a continuation of the train accident. Mathias’s subconscious is troubled by his treatment of Anne, the fact of their breakup and fabricates the event of Anne’s death as an instrument of rebuke.
It is difficult to say if Delvaux wanted stress on any single interpretation. It is more likely that he wanted to keep the film open-ended, which follows from the fact that he had given equal hints for each of the possible interpretations.
Therefore, it would be unfair to impose any specific interpretation on this movie which aspires to remain ambiguous. This gem of a movie showcases Delvaux’s mastery in every aspect of his craft. It is immensely rewarding for people who enjoy surrealist, enigmatic, ambiguous and intellectually satiating cinema.
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