Emma has been lured into capitalist excess by a variety of business men. But at the other side is also a man, the bailiff, who comes to take inventory in vie of repossessing the house. Today, many people loose their homes in exactly this way, whether or not they have fallen for an excessive spending craze or simply never made enough money to begin with. The poignancy of such officialdom entering a private home and treating it and its inhabitants like financial items to be ticked of, is especially visible when Emma’s little daughter Berthe silently witnesses the goings-on.
The child as witness: for our practice of filmmaking, this is an extremely important function. Children don’t understand everything, but they see, and imprint on their souls what they see. Their vulnerability makes such social harshness unbearable. When the bailiff kneels down in front of Berthe’s rocking horse, he notices that it is a valuable antique, and writes it up for removal. Berthe only looks. There is also the adolescent, Justin the pharmacist apprentice, who is the only character demonstrating solidarity with Emma. But he is just as powerless.
On the next screen we see one of the possible outcomes of such a situation. Emma swallows arsenic. All the men in her life have, in one way or another, contributed to this desperate act. All except the young Justin, and tragically it is he who is forced to facilitate Emma’s access to the poison. In a gesture of powerlessness and despair, he scratches his neck. This suicide leads to a gruesome and poignant death scene on the third screen. This scene sums up what is at stake in aesthetic experience. Ming Cho Lee saw in the space of the stage an arena to encounter, and wrestle with, issues of “values, of ethics, of courage”. These issues, for us, are inherent in the aesthetic; they are the point of aesthetic work. In the end, it is the ethical question and the way it intersects with aesthetic, narrative, and broadly cultural questions that lies at the heart of our project. This is where all the issues mentioned so far – voyeurism, (dis)empowerment, performativity, irony, ridicule, identification, social control and blackmail, and sentimentalism – join. And it is the constructed fictional space of the immersive exhibition that demonstrates the effectiveness of the audio-visual medium of showing those intersections.
The death scene is an inquiry into ethically responsible visual storytelling. Four issues form the background of our conception of the scene of Emma’s death. They concern ethics, morality, knowledge, and emotion. Together, these issues form the substance of cultural life; hence, they are the substance of the social domain in which culture functions.
Death poses an ethical dilemma. Is our act of looking at death supportive or exploitative of the dying or dead? On the one hand, sufferers need witnesses, to not be alone in this ultimate moment; to keep knowledge of what happened to them alive, perhaps to benefit others. This is the more urgent when the death is violent, or invisibly triggered by what we can call vehemence, such as Homais’ hysterical fit somewhat coquettishly and self-indulgently acted out. The young boy Justin should be the witness but is the target; Emma is a witness turned victim. And Homais himself, who never touches the poison that kills Emma, is nevertheless still a perpetrator of sorts. What is lacking is an uninvolved witness whose aim is to get involved. So, the slot for witnessing remains the reserve of the viewer.
Not all unhappy people end up committing suicide. Other endings are, of course, possible, and we offer the following dilemma: how to end a no-exit situation such as this? We imagined a kind of 1950s ending, with the protagonist being confined to a psychiatric hospital. How many films have we not seen with such a story, such an ending? When Emma, in despair, throws herself into a lake, Homais is quick to call an ambulance. Charles comes home when the ambulance drives off - end of story. This way of packing up people who seem to be a disturbance in the smooth surface layer of the social fabric and confine them to invisibility because we cannot bear their presence: this was the subject of our previous project, A Long History of Madness. This ending alludes to that work, and the great social ill that underlies it: the denial of social violence that causes madness, and thus makes society as a whole responsable for it. Because such cruelty to “deviant” people is not limited to the 1950s, the anachronism of the ambulance equipped with contemporary machinery only suggests the perennial tendency to eliminate difference. Again, little Berthe is a silent witness. She sits on a rock, remaining alone after her mother has been taken away.
In our time, this can still happen, although an ending in divorce is more likely. But then, how likely would divorce be in the case of a woman who has never learned to support herself? Or, if she manages to divorce, how happy will she be afterwards, lonely, poor, and equally bored? The poignancy in is Emma’s statement to the lawyer: “My husband is a good man, but I don’t love him”. Love - the first and last requirement, fails even in the face of goodness.
The two final screens of this row of possible endings suggest that, in spite of a certain historical “progress”, we are still not free from the constraints of the combined lure of capitalism and romantic love where the operative word, “possession”, is the common ground, and the promise of that contradiction, “enduring excitement”, continues to mislead.
This final row of endings, all equally sad and upsetting, will be installed in such a way that a visitor entering the exhibition already gets a glimpse of it. And thus, she or he is free to begin, rather than end, with the ending.
8. The End
How to end? Walking towards the entrance-cum-exit of this imaginary version of the exhibition, we encounter a long wall with five screens that present us with moments of reckoning. The financial ruination of the family becomes the primary site where the no-exit occurs. Emma tries to find money, but when even the wealthy Rodolphe refuses and her debtor tries to abuse her despair sexually, she has to face the seizure of her house and furnishings.
This installation consists of a row that inexorably leads to the end - of the show as well as of the life of Emma. At the same time, visitors can sit in front of any of the five screens, in any order they choose, spend the time they wish with any of the five very short pieces. They each present an ending of sort, raising the question how to end? How to end a routine of spending money and incurring debt? How to end a life without exit? How to end life, period? How to end sanity and seek refuse in madness? and, more simply, how to end a marriage?