Vincent O’Sullivan on a film of Mansfield’s An Indiscreet Journey.
Biographers make rather a lot of Mansfield’s brief affair with Francis Carco, the New Caledonian who worked as hard at cutting the figure of metropolitan littérateur as did, for a while, Mansfield herself at playing the exotic outsider with London sewn up. In 1915 Carco was serving in the lower ranks of the French army at Gray, and Mansfield was thinking of calling it a day with Middleton Murry. She took off to visit Carco in the restricted military zone, set up the elaborate story of a sick aunt to get past the authorities, and spent a night or two with her “petit soldat”, an adventure that could have landed him in serious trouble.
Mansfield wrote up the meeting in a notebook, wrote about it to Frieda Lawrence, and drew on those few days for a very good short story, certainly the best of those she decided not to publish in her lifetime. That quick and not especially rewarding love affair incidentally provided her with material for a witty and poignant description of how ordinary people experienced wartime. Violence is hinted at rather than displayed, although as Antony Alpers picked up, the story includes the first details in literature of how the recently introduced chlorine gas affected its victims. As a woman coldly notes of a shambling and involuntarily weeping soldier just back from the Front, “C’est un peu dégoûtant, ça.”
“An Indiscreet Journey” is war from an odd angle, a sequence of vivid scenes with fragments of religious symbolism, maudlin camaraderie, evocations of wartime bars and hazardous travel, and from the sum of these, the gaiety of the moment in the larger setting of absence and grief. As she wrote in a notebook at the time, the actual lovemaking seemed “almost incidental”. But the story that came from it is Mansfield at her finest, a narrative superbly under control, as it seemingly ambles along.
Olivia Lory Kay is a young film-maker, a graduate of Ilam in Christchurch and the National Film and Television School in London. She was living in Berlin when she and American Michael Henrichs boldly took on the Mansfield story, funded partly by Creative New Zealand, as well as German grants. This is unashamedly art-house film-making. It is also splendidly engaging, preserving the story’s mood and emotional leaps, but entirely on filmic terms. The young directors are compellingly confident that when a written text is turned into film, something quite different is called for, a rich imaginative sculpting, as it were, of images in time, where originally there were words in sequence. In less than 20 minutes, they convey the rhythm and tone of Mansfield’s story, but with the emphasis of their own craft.
The film begins and ends with the narrator/Mansfield, calmly portrayed by the subtle Kate Elliott, working at her desk. She gets up from her writing to enter the story, she leaves it at the end to return to what she writes. In an obvious sense both writer and character “dress up” as they go off, where they perform, as all adventurers do, a role that is assumed. This is life playing at games, the writer as actor, reality merged into make-up. And so all the men in the story, from the silent passport officials to the boyish lover, to the inebriated soldiers the young woman meets up with in strangely moving scenes, wear similar, and similarly over-large, grey overcoats that are vaguely military, even vaguely monkish. For the men too are performing parts.
The curious feeling of distancing, of dream-time becoming part of waking life, reinforces that there is something staged and unreal, as well as dangerous and defining, in the acting out of war. The fine camera work consistently picks up on this sense of normal reality left behind, an aspect of the film reinforced by the spare, careful scripting where languages swap about in ways that are both natural and disconcerting, with silence as that more expansive “language” encompassing those others. The settings of deserted farm buildings, a bedroom which is also a roofless white yard, a passport office on a second floor, yet its back-opened wall taking one directly to a stubbled field and a waiting lover, underline that, yes, all this takes place, but as and when it occurs, it is not as you would expect it to be. If we could dream and be awake at the same time, the strangeness could be something like this.
This is the kind of feeling the film brings off so impressively. The concierge in a hotel, the bereaved and faintly repellent grieving woman in a train, a tartish owner of a bar, are distinct characters. Yet the same actress playing each serves notice that things are not as they seem. The lover is abandoned, almost forgotten about, as he was to some extent in Mansfield’s narrative. The longest exchange of dialogue is with the half-drunk, amiable soldiers the young woman meets by chance. It is refined down from the original story, but remains pure Mansfield, slightly off-the-wall, groggily logical. And although she says so little, the writer remains the centre and focus of the film, enigmatic, controlling, making all this her story. How things are occurring is also how they will be remembered, and what fiction makes them.
The score reinforces the visual mood. Part of it is a chanson written by Carco and popular in the 1930s. But as much as the music, one hears the clubbing of distant gunfire, and the insistent scratching of a nib on paper. There is a splendidly chosen quotation, not from the story but from a Mansfield notebook, delivered as a voice-over, a signature of what the camera has been telling us all along: “Anytime one leaves anywhere, something precious which ought not to be killed, is left to die.”
This transferring of story to film brings off what no other Mansfield adaptation has managed to do. It preserves that hard-edged, almost steely sadness that is there in so much of her fiction. Or if “sadness” is too old-hat a humanist word for you, then call it an existential pressure that faces up squarely to what is inevitable, and yet knows, at the same time, this is not quite enough to suffice. Brief as it is, the film has found its own way to transpose a literary mood to a cinematic sequence, words to images, lexical resonances to visually rhythmic forms. That’s more than enough to put us in Olivia Lory Kay’s debt.