A Commentary on The Departure
The Departure (1967) is a Belgian romantic-comedy directed by one of Poland’s most-acclaimed directors, Jerzy Skolimowski. A high-energy, ecstatic film about a young man obsessed with cars is widely considered to be Polish cinema’s response to the French New Wave, released near the end of the groundbreaking cycle of French films. After watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Féminin (1966), Skolimowski was very interested in working with Jean-Pierre Léaud and Catherine Dupont so he cast them for this film in the roles of Marc and Michèle. Skolimowski’s response to the New Wave is an inventive and exciting film that is just one testament of many to Skolimoski’s skill as a director. What follows will be a loose commentary on The Departure, highlighting the way Skolimowski’s various techniques for creating this deceptively simple but dense narrative which ultimately becomes an exploration of the film image as such.
The first image in the film is Marc with a turtle-neck over his head. Marc appears first as a subject without a face, obscured by his sweater. Marc is shown in a freeze-frame until Skolimowski lets the film roll and Marc reveals himself to the camera, looking straight into the lens as if it were a mirror. This introduction is at once playful and informative, signalling how the film treats Marc as a disconnected, unstable subject that wears different masks depending on the situation he is in.
Marc is a young man trying to find something that will anchor his identity to the world. He appears to be completely convinced that he wants to be a race car driver and does everything he can to compete in an upcoming rally race. His struggles to acquire a Porsche comprise the entire plot of the film. But, like many of Skolimowski’s other characters in his cinema, Marc’s identity can never be secured or fully complete. In fact, he openly takes on roles, puts on masks, and pretends to be something he is not. When Marc is working as a hairdresser assistant during the day, in one exchange with a client he stands with his back straight, looking distinguished and proper, speaking in a low, monotone voice, acting like a polite, upper-class subject. This mask is the way Marc distances himself from his material conditions; he creates a fictional ego so he can play the role of a snooty hairdresser assistant and then take that mask off when he is off the clock. It is not the “real” Marc that is working as a hairdresser assistant but a fictional identity that Marc inhabits.
Outside of work Marc is an impulsive, joyful mess of a man, sometimes laughing and screaming for no reason at all and he never gives too much thought before acting. When Marc and his friend visit the car dealership they impersonate a Middle-Eastern prince and his translator. Marc plays the translator, behaving as a caricature of what a polite translator for a prince would be like or last least what Marc believes a translator would be like. Folding his hands in front of him, speaking slowly and deliberately. Marc is performing; taking on another subjectivity rather than being himself. These roles that Marc puts on are not simply used to distance himself from work he does not like but they are also used to allow him to enter spaces outside of his social class. The car dealership represents a place that is not available to him as a lower class worker. He cannot afford to buy an expensive fast car but he desires to be a race car driver. When Marc enters the upper class spaces he takes on what he believes to be an upper class persona; he puts on a performance, hiding his identity and gaining an upper class subjectivity for the short time that he has to use this space to get what he wants.
Like the wonderful comedic performers of the silent era, Léaud’s acting is primarily physical, using his body and facial gestures to insert comedy to otherwise mundane scenes. Marc jumps over fences when someone has already opened the gate for him, bounces around on the floor and railings in an apartment while waiting for an elevator, chases a bus down the street, and frantically paces back and forth during an argument following a minor car accident.
In the street argument, Marc is still in possession of the Porsche he is test-driving from the dealership. Right before the accident Marc visits the race organizers office to see if he can enter the race with a different car and gets blown off which makes him even more anxious. While driving he is cut by a man riding a motorbike which results in Marc rear-ending him. He slowly gets out of his car to inspect the scene. Take a look at this expression above in the first screenshot. Marc looks confused, bewildered, and surprised rather than worried as if he is seeing something he does not understand. Like Chaplin and Keaton from the silent era, Léaud’s physical gestures bring another comedic moment to an otherwise normal situation. This subdued moment only lasts for a short time and Skolimowski moves into a strange, hyper-kinetic scene that plays like an ode to silent cinema.
Skolimowski begins the sequence with a wide shot with Marc and the motorbike rider at the bottom of the frame, slightly off-center with their vehicles in the background along with billboards and tenements which dwarf their bodies in the frame. Moving from a static wide-shot to handheld close-ups of Marc getting thrown around as he yells at the biker, which offsets the previous shot with kinetic, moving camera shots. Skolimowsky does not use any diegetic sound in the beginning of this montage but overrides the soundtrack with the jazz score. There are brief moments where Skolimowski uses diegetic sound, for example, when Marc is explaining to some bystanders that have interrupted the fight what happened, but then he abruptly cuts back to the jazz score. This scene is cut and shot as if Marc’s erratic, rambunctious personality was directing the diegesis. In this sequence, Skolimowski achieves perfect synthesis between form and content.
Using this scene as a way into Skolimowski’s narrative we might also notice the hard cuts to the drawn figures of happy, smiling people on the billboards. In start contrast to the conflict below, the figures on the billboard are serene, blissfully driving their cars, and idealized images perfect for advertisements. Marc’s personal experience as a driver, or rather as a subject in desperate need to acquire the product advertised in the billboard is entirely different from the images Skolimowski cuts to during this montage.
The final image of the scene foreshadows sequences involving Michèle. Later in the film Marc and Michèle hide out in a car show after hours and sit on a spinning car display that is cut in half. This sequence breaks the realist form of the film and plays like an advertisement.
In contrast to the earlier scene discussed above where the advertisements were juxtaposed to the squabbling people in the street, Marc and Michèle sitting in the two halves of the car, staring at each other with a mixture of longing and indifference on their faces transforms them into subjects of an advertisement. They are sitting in place like models for the car on display It also plays like a parody of a love scene, marking the beginning of this strange relationship and the beginning of the derailment of Marc’s obsession with becoming a race-car driver.
The music in the sequence continues as Marc and Michèle leave the car display roomand ride on his moped together. The framing of their faces must change because of the change in vehicle. They are no longer able to stare each other like they could in the luxury car but must sit single file on his moped, another contrast between the upper-class life that Marc wants to enter which explains the physical abuse of his moped throughout the film. Whenever his bike fails him he yells at it and kicks it but would never treat a Porsche that way.
Michèle joins Marc on his quest to acquire a car for the race. But every time they catch a break another obstacle gets in their way. While all this is happening, their feelings for each other develop considerably, even though they have only spent a short amount of time together. Their quest for a car doubles is also a romantic journey which has its own obstacles as well. Later in the film they steal a car only to discover that the owner’s dog is in the back seat and Marc cannot leave the dog alone so he returns the car. After that, one of Marc’s rich, female clients offers her car to him if he has sex with her.
Léaud’s performance in this scene perfectly depicts Marc’s horror at the request. It is quite an unsettling scene because Marc is essentially a man-child and this elder woman seducing him feels a bit taboo, like seeing an adult taking advantage of a child. Léaud’s facial gestures are perfect for this moment and provides the right mixture of comedy and terror in this pivotal scene. Marc denies her request and thus cannot use her Porsche for the race.
This decision to stay true to Michèle foreshadows the ultimate end of Marc’s quest for a car. He will end up choosing Michèle over his obsession with racing.
They finally get a Porsche and decide to rent a room to sleep a few hours before the race. In the room, Michèle is wearing a brown wig that makes her look like the elder woman that propositioned Marc earlier recalling the failed sexual attempt. Marc is wearing a blond wig so as to disguise himself as woman so that they can stay in the room together.
Marc takes a shower while Michèle lays in bed waiting for him. When he gets out of the bathroom he lays on the floor in front of the bed and tries to fall asleep. Anxious, he bounces back up and starts talking about this driving skills, making car noises and pretending to counter-steer on the floor. She tells him to stop fooling around and get in bed.
Marc keeps on distracting himself while Michèle ignores his ramblings and tells him to turn off the light. She dries him off, taking care of the terrified Marc, getting him ready to lay with her. Marc’s quest to enter the race ends with his unconscious quest to be with a woman, a woman that loves him despite all of his eccentricities and quirks.
What happens next is another twist that Skolimowski introduces. Instead of sleeping together Michèle projects family photographs of herself onto the wall opposite the bed. The first image is of her as baby, naked on a blanket, “So you can see me naked” she tells Marc. The entire film has been centered on Marc’s consciousness with Michèle being a trusty sidekick on his quest. Now it is time to show her history, her story, and her consciousness. She overtakes the narrative, the images (literally) in the diegesis.
The final image of Michèle starts to burn. Marc looks over to discover that she has fallen asleep. Skolimowski cuts to the sounds of the race happening outside of the hotel. Marc overslept the race. He tells Michèle to get up so they can leave. Depressed and solemn, Marc stares at himself in the mirror in the bathroom. When he comes out Michèle is under the covers, without the brown wig, her blond hair overflowing onto the pillow. Marc tells her to get up again and pulls off the covers. She is naked and Marc quickly averts his eyes. He has avoided being with a woman throughout his quest but now that he has failed there is nothing left for him. Marc has a beautiful woman that loves him and wants to be with him. He gives up his juvenile fantasy of being a race-car driver and becomes an adult which in this film means being with a woman.
Marc begins as a subject without a face, literally covered by his sweater in the first image of the film. The final image repeats the burning photograph from the night before. Skolimowski literally burns the final image of the diegesis so we are left with nothing but smoldering celluloid.
The image, like Marc’s unstable subjectivity, is fragile and ephemeral.