“The Left-Handed Woman” is an unlonely story of being alone.
In a scene from the opening ten minutes of Peter Handke’s “The Left-Handed Woman,” Marianne picks up her husband, Bruno at the airport after a business trip. He gently bows into her at the top of the escalator and she supports his leaning body. In the parking lot, she gets in the driver side and leans over to open the passenger door for him without a prompt. On the ride home, he speaks of his time away, of the weather, of not knowing the language where he was. It is night and the scene is dark, the two are just silhouettes in the car. But there is nothing eerie or mysterious, even as Marianne stays quiet. The dark is cozy, insulating the scene.
Instantly, the warmth of their relationship is palpable, it is deep. Through their gaze, you can easily envision the history of their relationship like a prequel film — images of her smiling and giggly when they first met, him sitting with friends telling them about her, the birth of their only son. When he speaks of the weather in the car, it is not to fill silence. It is because there is nothing urgent or prying in the space between them.
Much of “The Left-Handed Woman” is quiet like this and it’s difficult to put into words exactly why I enjoyed every moment of it, why I would recommend going to see it tonight at the Northwest Film Center or watching it whenever you can. It was produced by Wim Wenders, the legendary German director known for “Wings of Desire” and “Kings of the Road” and it screens as part of a 14-piece retrospective tribute to Wenders’ work, Portraits Along The Road.
Peter Handke directed “The Left-Handed Woman,” in 1977, based on a novella he wrote and it was the German film entry for the Cannes Film Festival in 1978. The story is set in Paris, and we follow Marianne for most of it, after she decides she wants Bruno to leave her alone. Edith Clever’s performance as Marianne is still sitting with me. I guess it would be easy to feel lonely or baffled watching her turn away Bruno, but I didn’t. Marianne surprises throughout the film without ever shocking. At some point in the movie, I gave up trying to know who she was and the result was genuine closeness and confidence. I wonder if I did this because she indirectly asks us to. At one point she says to herself while looking in the mirror, “the more you think you know me, the freer I am of you.”
Bruno, played by Bruno Ganz who is also in “Wings of Desire,” is portrayed with such unsorted humanity and translucency that is delicate and rough, that I fell in love with him myself, not just his struggle for her. There is not much dialogue in the film but when there is, it is communicative and concisely poetic, many of the affecting lines coming from Bruno in his accessing everything from banal moments to grasping what Marianne is thinking.
I don’t know what Marianne wants or is looking to find in her time alone. I am careful not to use the word separation here, it’s not in the way I think we’d popularly construe that — it doesn’t feel like anything is splitting.
It’s been called a feminist tale too but I am not sure how it fits this description either. Check out the movie and tell me what you think, how her freedom translates over time and overseas, to the “brutal understanding, and meager reasoning” of women everywhere. I guess it is a story of liberation, but mostly because she wants to break free of defining anything.
I started to think that no relationship could possibly be the same, although the same vocabulary is used universally to define them, employ the same conventions to function in them, and set the same parameters to help ourselves to understand where we stand and to measure them. It seems lonelier to be frozen in the parts we know of ourselves and each other.
The characters paddle through lonesome day-lit hours. The shots — the still images of corners of a room, the train rolling past, the brick house in which Marianne lives, the sky — are like the slow-mo blinking of an eye, and the experience of watching is sweetly visual, like moving through a painting or being on a walk. This footage is calm and meditative, and the sounds of the train and birds are lulling. Much of the film is lit in that soft, blue early morning light and this culminating backdrop seems to become a pillow for the contained madness of love and humanity to rest, and it makes you grateful for everything outside of you.
There are times she seems a fully realized woman, and then there are other scenes, ones when she is interacting with her boy when you’d expect her maturity and assurance to shine through in this motherhood, that she appears more like a child then ever, like she longs for that again. Marianne’s desire to be alone may not be what we think it is, or mean anything at all. Maybe she wants to pause. Maybe it’s different for everyone.
“The Left-Handed Woman” screens tonight at 7 pm at the Whitsell Auditorium