Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

USA

4*
Directors:
Maya Deren
Alexander Hamid
Screenwriter:
Maya Deren
Director of Photography:
Alexander Hamid

Running time: 14 minutes

Though she directed it with her husband Alexander Hammid (credited as Alexander Hamid), Meshes of the Afternoon has come to be firmly associated with Maya Deren. An amazingly solid surrealist film, it easily inhabits the space that is usually filled with the pompous ego of Un Chien Andalou.

From the outside, Meshes of the Afternoon seems to tell the tale of a slightly disturbed woman, perhaps with suicidal tendencies, who goes to sleep in a chair (it what might or might not be her own house) and proceeds to dream an equally disturbing dream, before, well, it’s not clear at all what happens at the end of the film because over time the apparently clear distinction between dream and reality is elided to the point where Inception would be straightforward.

A few symbols, most prominently the key and the knife, are constantly evoked over the course of this 14-minute film, and it is the way in which they feature and the way Deren and Hammid make them manifest onscreen that turn everyday objects, inanimate as they may be otherwise, into objects of uneasiness. A few jump cuts (and remember, this was 15 years before À Bout de souffle) are used to great effect to unnerve the viewer and another impressively staged sequence involves the main character slithering through the air, or perhaps across the ceiling on her back, in ways that seem possible in a dream.

The film is silent and it goes not for visceral horror, as in Buñuel and Dali’s film, but for a sweet darkness that plays with light and shadow, has an appearance by the Grim Reaper whose face is a mirror (another symbol that will reappear towards the very end of the film) and drags us ever deeper into the hole of uncertainty regarding the clean separation of realities. A bizarre number of close-ups involving feet are also there to interpret as you wish.

What is most admirable about the film is its deft transition between points of view and its seduction of the viewer by making us comfortable with one kind of reality while positioning us to accept another much less definable reality almost immediately. The film certainly succeeds in holding our attention, though towards the end, after shards of a mirror abruptly fall into the ocean (though, unlike the end of Un Chien Andalou, the action does not suddenly shift to the seaside), the film does become slightly less compelling.

The use of the camera is astounding and such simple motions as rolling it from side to side to simulate the sensation of being on a boat, even while the action is inside the very stable confines of a house, is perfectly suited to the material and evokes a slight nausea that is useful if not essential to the viewer’s experience.

The film has more shadows than actual characters and the lack of character names is a fact as interesting as it is significant. The well-known image of the central character looking out of a window, seemingly trapped by a transparent sheet of glass, has been used by many subsequent films and is one of the rare images where the intention and the meaning seem to be apparent.

Meshes of the Afternoon is a rabbit-hole film that would be endlessly fruitful for discussions of the subconscious and the way in which our light and dark desires can manifest themselves in our dreams, not only in images but in movements and most importantly in atmosphere.

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