Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Les Années Lumière

Les Années Lumière (Light Years Away) stuck in my mind for 25 years after I accidentally saw it on late night television when I was a teenager.
It was possibly the west of Ireland landscape and the mystic elements of the plot (although at the time I had no real interest in mysticism) that made it stick in my mind.
It took me a long time to track it down, eventually securing it via an online Spanish retailer, under the title A Años Luz – which is in English with Spanish subtitles.
Apart from the landscape there is very little in this film to define it as Irish. It is based on a novel by Swiss writer Daniel Odier, who also writes under the name Delacorta on whose novel the film Diva was based. Les Années lumière was directed by Swiss director Alain Tanner and its main characters are played by English actors Trevor Howard, whose character is called Yoshka Poliakeff, and Mick Ford who plays Jonas.
I don't think the original novel is available in English so I can't say if that is why it was set in Ireland. The opening scenes were filmed in Dublin and although the city is never named it makes no attempt to disguise the cityscape along the banks of the Liffey before the days of the Point and the International Financial Services Centre. We even see Jonas sleeping in a bus shelter with ‘SLF’ graffiti scrawled upon it.
The rest of film looks as if it was filmed in Connemara and most of the supporting actors speak with Irish accents.
We are told that Yoshka's father was Russian but that is the only reference to nationality in the film. He is obsessed with his ‘life’s work’ but is secretive about it, kicking out his former lover, Betty, 10-years earlier because she tried to find out what he was doing. She and Jonas subsequently become lovers.
Jonas travels to Yoshka's derelict filling station set on an isolated road beside a scrap yard where the old Russian sets him a series of pointless tasks.
He stands by the petrol pump for days waiting for a customer - a new road has diverted traffic away from the filling station. When a customer eventually comes Jonas discovers that the petrol pump doesn't actually work.
Yoshka then asks Jonas to clean up the scrap yard but when he does so tells him that he hasn’t done it right and tells him to put it all back the way he found it.
When Yoshka is injured he gets Jonas to dig a hole in the ground and bury him up to his neck and leave him there for three days. When he is dug up again all his wounds have healed.
The scene with Yoshka buried up to his neck and the desolate landscape in which the two central characters torment one another, perform pointless tasks and wait around a lot has clear Beckettian parallels.
Yoshka is like a Zen master whose tasks seem to be aimed at setting Jonas on a higher path and eventually they begin to discuss meditation and dreams.
“Every human being is a universe,” Yoshka tells Jonas.
The younger man’s apprenticeship is eventually complete and Yoshka reveals that he has spent his life studying birds in an effort to learn the art of flight but that he needs an eagle to complete his studies.
Jonas heads off into the mountains ¬- stopping at a 1980s disco where he gets into a fight over a girl - to trap an eagle and bring it back to Yoshka.
He completes his task and the old man tells him that he plans to fly off ‘beyond the galaxies’ on the wings he has been working on. However, before he can do so the eagle escapes and kills all the other birds in the shed where Yoshka has spent his life working.
On a stormy night he takes off but the next day he is discovered dead in a field, his eyes plucked out. Perched nearby, Jonas sees the escaped eagle.
Les Années Lumière is an intriguing film with some great scenes and intriguing characters and but somehow it doesn’t really come together in the end. Like a Beckett play you get the impression that there is something else going on at a deeper level but it never really becomes clear what this is.

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