Empathy is Quiet, the Sea is Dark

Film Club #5

Playing out a film’s final scene while the end credits roll over is a ballsy move. When it’s not done perfectly it creates an awkward wait for the real FADE OUT, but when it works — I’m thinking Michael Clayton, Good Time, and Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (of which my enduring memory is desperately needing to pee but remaining ensnared in that last moment) — the moment hangs in the air like a ghost. Or rather, hangs within you like a ghost. Without the clear boundary of conclusion, it follows you beyond the film. It haunts.

So who would have thought the final scene of Swallow — credits over a simple shot of women entering/exiting a public bathroom set to Alana Yorke’s “Anthem” — could be so wrecking-ball powerful? What came dressed as Polanski-esque vice of body horror drops the disguise to reveal a battle cry for women’s determination over their own bodies, both in the Roe vs. Wade way but also more than that, as shown in the final scene — a hymn to the ceaseless quotidian task of self-care.

In saying that, singing praise for Swallow gives me a slight and unwanted unease. A perusal of the film’s reviews shows a competition for who can most cheer the film’s intent. It makes me want to scream out that intent is most certainly not what I felt in that final scene. It makes me want point out that the writer-director is male, as if this would short circuit the pretension of what we’ve come to call “virtue signalling”.

But… ugh. I really dislike that term. Its ugliness is in the implication that the signaller does not in fact possess the virtue being signalled — if our virtues are contingent upon their recognition, they’re not virtues, they’re vanities. So pointing out someone’s “virtue signalling” becomes an insult. And insulting someone for allegedly not possessing the virtue they evidently value is its own kind of ignobility.

I think it’s more innocent than that. I believe that the discourse participants do in fact hold a strong sense of sympathy for the problems that exist behind the intent, but what we end up seeing is a conflation of this sympathy with empathy — more precisely, a belief that empathy is just louder sympathy.

But empathy is quiet, not loud. Empathy, like love, does not insist upon itself. It seeps in. [Insert oblique reference to Corinthians.] This is the haunting power of the final scene of Swallow. Stripped of intent, it is both elegantly quiet, while overflowing with empathy.


The films I’m watching this week…


And Life Goes On…

(aka Life, and Nothing More, Abbas Kiarostami, 1992)

Continuing to peel the onion of Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy.

I ran into a friend after seeing Through the Olive Trees at GoMA last week and — similar to how I imagine it is for people invested in Marvel — we shared in some excitement of spotting references to other films of the trilogy. OMG it’s the same balcony!

I think my reversal plan will pay off.


It Felt Like Love

(Eliza Hittman, 2013)

I think we’ve all looked out to a darkening ocean horizon and recognised within the finality of something. For me it was my first love — we went on a trip together, we went to the beach, it was over. In cinematic terms, my touchstone is one of the most indelible moments from my all-time favourite:

It’s hard not to imagine De Niro’s character here catching sight of his own fate.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always was the first Film Club 2000 film. It Felt Like Love is the writer-director’s debut, which, at least in one scene, features a teenage girl gazing out to a Stygian ocean, and I must assume recognising the finality of her own something special. And based on the title, I’ll embrace the assumption that here too it is first love.


Purple Sea

(Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed, 2020)

My favourite avant-garde documentary is set aboard a fishing trawler and comprised mostly of footage from a waterproof camera swimming in the dark sea, with glimpses of fish guts and apocalyptic armies of seagulls (Leviathan, 2012). So as the refugees struggle to get out of the current collapsing Middle Eastern country, I’m turning to this documentary, comprised of footage from a waterproof camera strapped to the wrist of a refugee, whose boat capsized on the journey escaping the previously collapsing Middle Eastern country.


Three films I keep thinking about:

  1. Swallow (2020)

  2. Stillwater (2021)

  3. Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)