Fictionalized Familiarity

In his influential book Camera Lucida, French theorist Roland Barthes explores of the power of photographic images, and their relationship to and with the viewer. Barthes’ book has been on my mind recently, as I race to watch my way through my filmography before I begin my graduate program in a week. Yesterday I re-watched a Québécois film that I first saw several years ago. The film profoundly affected me, as it did then.

Les ordres (1974), directed by Michel Brault, concerns the impact of events of the 1970 October Crisis  – namely the freedom that the War Measures Act gave police in arresting and holding citizens indiscriminately ““ on a range of Montréal residents.

In his book, Barthes defines his concepts of studium and punctum: two relationships to images. Studium is the generally understood relationship to an image; the cultural and political understanding that is widely shared. Punctum, on the other hand, is personal, fuelled by the intimate relationships that link a viewer to a photograph’s contents.

Les orders concerns events that occurred over 40 years ago, and which I learned about long after the fact. But nonetheless, this film evokes in me a feeling of nostalgia, a sense of familiarity and knowing. It makes little sense. Somehow, in watching this film, the images blend the standard studium ““ readily known details such as dates, political atmosphere, important figures ““ with an intimate, yet imaginary, punctum. I have not lived in Montréal. I have not experienced these events. Moreover, though based on interviews with residents, the characters in Brault’s film are fictional. And yet somehow I feel a sense of knowing, of remembrance.

Barthes writes that the photograph “becomes a bizarre medium, a new form of hallucination: false on the level of perception, true on the level of time: a temporal hallucination, so to speak, a modest shared hallucination.” While the events of the October Crisis are temporally true, their presentation by Brault, and reception by myself, is a fictional ““ and false ““ perception.

Is my reaction simply a sign of an excellent film, which Les orders most certainly is? After all, the vast majority of the films I view are fictional, and very few evoke these feelings (and even fewer for their entirety, though some evoke similar feelings for brief moments or sequences). Is the film so authentic and engrossing that it becomes falsely familiar? Can a film create an echo of remembrance, and express a sense of déja-vu that is emotionally experienced but cannot be rationally explained? Have you ever experienced similar reactions to films you have seen?

Leave a Reply