Scarred Hearts (2016)


First time with Radu Jude. Apparently blends the director’s own biography with the titular semi-autobiographical work by Max Blecher, a Romanian writer who associated with the surrealists while writing from an extended and terminal stay at a sanatorium.

Most obvious strength is the use of fragments from MB’s writings (idk whether from Scarred Hearts itself or from other texts) as intertitles illustrating or undercutting the film. The way they provide commentary on scenes and snapshots is vaguely comparable to Notes on Blindness in the uncertainty of whether text illuminates visual or vice versa. In general, Emmanuel (as he is named here and in SB the book, I believe) does follow a vaguely Magic Mountain trajectory of immersion in the sanatorium’s rhythmic society, while his notes detail the psychosomatic trajectory of his deterioration. This play between the often bleak and psychologically harrowing texts and E’s more colourful and fulfilled physical life often surfaces in eddies and incongruities in the film: a prophetic fragment from Shelley on sinking and expiring, traced reverently in MB’s real notebook (we presume) over the credits, is later echoed warmly by a drunken song shared between patients, then later still in MB’s notes when he imagines the entire sanatorium drifting away into the sea and sinking like Atlantis.

The striking 4:3 framing with rounded edges comes over rather twee initially, especially since it’s mismatched with true-colour HD visuals, rendering the impression of old-time photographs (there’s a montage pre-credits) incomplete. However, the meditative camerawork and editing does suggest the fixity both of long-exposure flashbulb photography and of E’s straightjacketed immobility in his cast: he is often framed centrally and at mid-depth, while more mobile patients or orderlies bustle at the fringes or in the background. Coupled with notably repetitious adoption of fixed vantage points throughout the sanatorium, this visual stasis does lend to the sense of hauntological anachronism which is maintained by the often Caretaker-like literary fragments: “the impression that nothing is real” “the feeling of immense abandonment“. Evoking Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward or Haneke’s Amour, E’s (MB’s) sense of human physical fragility grounds the film in a patient (geddit) study of illness and failed convalescence: “he felt very glued together” is a succinct evocation of his delicacy and the importance of the doctors who seem to have assembled him. When syringes extract shocking quantities of pus from an abscess, E screaming, “a claw sank in” as if he were Prometheus undergoing daily torture. Not all the reflections are so traumatic; again, they often communicate the erosive tedium of hospital life: “The washed out day goes on, boiling with illnesses, trifles and discouragement.” Think I prefer E’s perspective to Hans Castorp’s: “There’s nothing more stupid than the pride of suffering.”

I like the way weighty real-world conversations float through the narrative, snagging on E’s quite romantic and lyrical but still attractive perspective: heated discussions about nascent “hitlerism” and Emile Cioran, debate over the significance of the afterlife to piety, disturbing sketches of political turbulence in Romania whose evocations of civil unrest and rife antisemitism make the sanatorium seem an attractively amniotic haven. Amniotic except E will not be born, rather he is slowly fading; a visit from his parents who proudly boast to a nurse of his prodigious childhood writings is particularly poignant.

Not a film with great peaks or troughs; casts its spell over a full two hours with some restrained performances and an emphasis on rhythm and flow. Notable shots are often momentary: late on, when E’s life is diminishing fast, nurses tuck in him under a duvet which they accidentally cast up over his face like a shroud before hurriedly folding it back. The initial encouragement of his father, mocking his own impending infirmity in old age with an impression of delirium, hangs over these later scenes with increasing absurdity.

A distinctively poignant portrait of a writer and his time.