ESSAY | by Lauren Collee
In The Sea-Wall (Un barrage contre le Pacifique), a 1952 semi-autobiographical novel by French author Marguerite Duras, the protagonist—a young girl named Suzanne—dreams of spending her whole life at the movies. Upon her first journey to the cinema in town, Suzanne goes to an afternoon screening and experiences something that is profoundly nocturnal. In the “vast dark room” of the cinema theatre, she finds “the night of lonely people, an artificial and democratic night, the great equalitarian night of the cinema, truer than any real night”.
Over the course of the film—the first of many Suzanne will see throughout the novel—she is bowled through the many states that night represents: sanctuary, rest, solitude, communality, sexual pleasure and an experience akin to dying . A lover’s kiss unfolds on screen as a violent process of “reciprocal disappearance and absorption” in which “you see their lips facing, half open, open still more, and their jaws falling apart as if in death”. When Suzanne emerges from the theatre, she finds that “night had come during the show and it was as if it were the night in the theatre which went on, the amorous night of the moving picture”.
Here, cinema is more than just a boundaried pocket in space and time: it is something fundamentally transformative, a portal through which one emerges to find the world changed, and oneself changed within it.
In his published lecture on “Devotional Cinema”, the filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky dedicates a whole chapter to the post-film experience. He records a similar feeling—to Suzanne—upon emerging from a screening of Rosselini’s Voyage to Italy:
“We entered into the darkness at twelve noon and came out hours later at 6:30. As the last film ended, the green metal side doors opened into the late-artificial light, and we walked up the alley onto the street. I remember having the oddest sensation. The texture of the sunlight seemed strange, and people’s voices sounded distant […] Quite suddenly, the normal things that were my usual reference points, everything that had been familiar to me in my hometown, all its archetypes and icons, became eerie and questionable”.
The strangeness of emerging from a cinema theatre into daytime hints toward the seriousness of cinema’s effect: it is not merely the strangeness of passing from a dark room to a bright world , but has something to do with the fact that cinema, like the night-time, is a force of de-familiarization which rearranges the normal relational order of things. When I was young, I had an intense fear of the dark; I couldn’t understand how the comforts of my bedroom could become distorted by the absence of light to the point that they seemed suddenly unknowable.
The line of affinity that connects the cinematic to the nocturnal has less to do with visibility / invisibility than it does with a liquid force that is both internal and immersive, disrupting the stability of any distinctions between mind and world, between audience and screen. This is also a quality of dreams and of love, two other experiences at home in the realms of the cinematic and the nocturnal, both of which lead us to confront the degree to which the world can bleed into us, and the degree to which we actively build the realities in which we live. They force a recognition of the external world and the self as subject to mutually constitutive processes of magnification, distortion and mutability.
In films, dream sequences often serve to mirror the experience of going to the cinema itself, just as—for Duras—the film space within the novel becomes a dream-like realm in which the unconscious and unspoken desires and fears of her characters are brought to the fore. The on-screen dream offers a period in which the temporal and spatial logics of the world the film has built are temporarily suspended, just as film itself provides a suspension or rearrangement of the temporal and spatial logics of ‘real life’. If going to see a film opens up a night within a night, then a dream within a film—like a film within a book—is analogous to the trope of the ‘play within a play’; a Russian-doll arrangement of portals, each of which calls into question the reality of the last.
There are many filmmakers that use dream sequences in this way, but perhaps none so explicitly as Bi Gan in his 2018 film Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Originally marketed to audiences as a “romantic epic”, the film broadly follows the protagonist, Luo’s return to his hometown, Kaili, in search of his long-missing ex-lover, Wan Qiwen. Halfway through the film, Luo finds a karaoke parlour where he is told Wan Qiwen will be singing that night. It is dusk; the club doesn’t open for another hour, so he goes to see a movie while he waits. Inside the theatre, he puts on a pair of 3D glasses and promptly falls asleep, ushering in an extraordinary fifty-nine minute dream sequence, shot in a single unbroken take, for which the film itself shifts from 2D to 3D.
The film is, in part, an homage to film noir, a genre that depends on the nighttime interplay of light and darkness and of their respective symbolic worlds. As literature and film scholar Elisabeth Bronfen points out, narrative in film noir also operates according to the peculiar logics of night: it is a world of desire and fear, games and bargains, haunted by the spectre of fate.
The dream sequence of Long Day’s Journey unfolds via a series of game spaces. When Luo agrees to a game of table tennis with a young boy in an underground mine, a door is removed from the wall and used for the table, revealing a passageway; and when he first encounters the woman named Kaizhen—played by the same actress as Wan Qiwen—she is playing the pokies in the side-room of a billiard club that she operates.The russian-doll effect is a gamified one, but the rules of the game are unstable; Luo unlocks portals that - in allowing him to gradually move closer to his lover—also open up worlds subject to increasing distortions and mutations. By the time he finds Wan Qiwen, she is someone else entirely.
Upon finishing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, I found I could recall the dream sequence in almost frame-by-frame detail, whereas I could remember next to nothing of the first half. The dream sequence unfolds in a way that is so closely attuned to how images embed themselves in memory, whether dreamed or lived, that the process of inscription and recall is almost seamless. The sequence creates the illusion of requiring no re-arrangement; it begins to feel like a memory that was generated organically (in The Sea-Wall, Duras writes of the “truer-than-life dream-paths of the silver screen”). For this reason, and despite the impossibilities of the dream-world (in which, for example, Luo and Kaizhen are able to fly), there is a realism to it which is the peculiar realism of dreaming, fear, and love; experiences that carry truth even as they distort realities, and which do not fade the instance we ‘wake up’ from them.
Bi Gan’s journey into night epitomizes what might be seen as cinema’s overarching experiment: to bring the logics of nocturnality into the conscious realm of the day. Like the night, cinema is a kind of force of insanity that refuses to stay within its allotted bounds. For Dorsky, the power of cinema makes it “something to be feared”: It wreaks havoc on our sense of self and world.