Giuliana Bruno likens the experience of watching a film in the cinema to taking a journey. For women at the birth of cinema, it was also an opportunity for them to adopt the role of flaneuse (or female flaneur) – a role denied them by their gender because the nature of the flaneur was a male figure given to spectatorial pleasure, a wanderer whose gaze ordered and controlled and codified the world around him. And so for women, flanerie, the act of leisurely walking without purpose, observing and absorbing, was denied them. A female flaneur was merely a streetwalker, with all the negative connotations that this brought with it. However, for Bruno, “cinema provided a form of access to public space, an occasion to socialise and get out of the house. Going to the cinema triggered a liberation of the woman’s gaze”:
“Moreover, the cinematic situation made it possible for the female to experience a form of flanerie, as film, triggered by a desire for loitering, offered the joy of watching while travelling. The ‘spectatrix’ could thus enter the world of the flaneur and derive its pleasures through filmic motions” (Bruno, Streetwalking on a Ruined Map)
Likewise the train journey. Think of the experience of viewing the world through a window on a train, an experience likened to the experience of watching a film. Outside, still images move along the strip of film created by the train’s motion; images come and go, move along a temporal and spatial line. As Bruno writes, “a voyage is produced by an apparatus of vision, as the spectator travels through and along sites in a perpetual machine ensemble” and more tellingly, “in a move theatre, as in a train, one is alone with others, travelling in time and space, viewing panoramically from a still sitting position through a framed image in motion”.
Watching The Girl on the Train last night at the local Odeon, I was struck by the ways in which Rachel’s (played by Emily Blunt) experiences mirrored not only the experience of watching a film but also the way it enabled her to recreate her fantasies, and to live vicariously through the figures that inhabited the imaginary world that existed on the screen that she had created for herself. Just as watching a film, according to Bruno, “provide[s] access to the erotics of darkness” so too it opens up a world for Rachel to inhabit, a world from which she has been alienated and which unfolds its mysteries before her.
Rachel’s obsession with her past drives her to repeat the same train journey each day so that she might maintain contact with the world from which, due to her divorce from Tom (Justin Theroux), she has been expelled. Each day she passes her old house where she observes her husband’s new life with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby; however, Rachel also becomes infatuated with the lives of her old neighbours (Megan, played by Hayley Bennett and Scott played by Luke Evans), fantasising about their lives even as she sips vodka disguised as water from a plastic bottle, her own life descending into a haze of drunken flashbacks which only remind her of what she was and what she has lost.
Michel de Certeau likens the train to “Durer’s Melancholia, a speculative experience of the world: being outside of these things that stay there, detached and absolute … being deprived of them, surprised by their ephemeral and quiet strangeness” (Railway Navigation and Incarceration). Rachel might say “I used to live here once” but she also lives there again and again through the re-imaginings she creates for herself. She experiences the dramas of the scenes in front of her as spectatorial pleasure. Denied the physical and tactile pleasures of her past, she views the lives of others through the cinema screen that is her train journey. She can encounter the erotics of darkness denied to her by her alienation from that world. As a passenger, she fills in the blanks, re-enacting through memory, dreams and her drawings a fantasy of another life. She watches, constructing new stories within the enclosed world of broken memories that she inhabits.
Bruno calls the cinema “a heterotopic space, “a space capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several possible incompatible sites as well as times”. The train for Rachel becomes the cinema. It triggers fascinations, desires, imagined experiences, alternative histories, false and real memories. It is a site for the pleasurable and the phantasmagoric.
The film is an exploration of mobility as well voyeuristic pleasure and pain. Whilst she remains on the train, Rachel is trapped in a non-world, a place which is between other places. With no fixed centre, Rachel’s existence threatens to spiral out of control. Interestingly, it is when she gets off the train and re-engages with reality, immersing herself in the tactile embodied world around her that she can begin to reconstruct her life – even if it must be deconstructed first. Her vicarious flanerie – watching the world from the train – is replaced by a physical one. Her experience with the world takes on haptic dimensions – blood, skin lesions, – she feels the world around her. It is a violent world, it is dark but it is real. “Thrown into the rhythms of the metropolis” writes Bruno, “the body is affected … The subject becomes a fragmented body in a desiring machine”. Rachel’s recollections of her past, along with the fragmented nature of the narrative itself, echo the instability and the unreliability of memory, but they also reflect our own desire to reconstruct narratives from our own past (even as I write this, the film’s images dance around my mind – not in a temporal sequence but a series of random moments). It is flawed, it creates more questions about the passivity of female characters (although the denouement clears some of this up!) but as a contemplation on the power of cinema it is thought-provoking indeed.