Further Beyond (2016)
Dir: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy
Starr: Denise Gough (Christine), Alan Howley (Joe), Jose Miguel Jimenez (Ambrosio O’Higgins)
Mubi have done a tremendous job this year of picking up festival films that genuinely deserve a wider audience and would have otherwise fallen through the myriad cracks in UK distribution (potentially the worst in Europe). Further Beyond is the latest film – a deconstructed documentary – from Irish filmmaking duo Lawlor & Molloy. It is one of the funniest, most moving and stimulating films I have seen this year. I must confess that I hadn’t seen any of their previous work, but the excellence and ingenuity of their work here has certainly whetted my appetite for further exploration.
Exploration is in fact at the heart of Further Beyond, which sets itself up as a film about the failure to make a film. Lawlor and Molloy had become fascinated with the remarkable story of Irish tenant farmer Ambrose O’Higgins, who left County Sligo and hopped on a boat to Cádiz in his thirties. From Cadiz O’Higgins rechristens himself Ambrosio, adopts the noble identifier of the 1st Marquis of Osorno, learns Spanish and travels to the New World, where he becomes governor-general of Chile. The two filmmakers had initially wanted to make a feature film about the subject, however, they were not interested in what was already known about the O’Higgins story, but rather the circumstances of his departure for, and arrival in, Chile. This proved an unattractive proposition to potential film backers, so Lawlor and Molloy do a peculiarly thrawn thing, they go ahead and make a film about the failure to make the film they wanted to make.
Working with a paltry production budget Lawlor and Molloy have managed to put together a fascinating pseudo-documentary about memory, knowledge, land, history, heritage and the way in which we can become dislocated from all the things that define us and give our existences meaning. I do not think it too far of a stretch to compare Further Beyond to great works of Irish literature, such as Flann O’Brien’s infinitely digressive work At-Swim-Two-Birds (1939), Laurence Sterne’s masterwork of significant insignificance The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1767) or Francis Stuart’s unsettling and slippery part-memoir Black List Section H (1971). Like all these novels Further Beyond is primarily concerned with the construction of meaning, and begins with an ostensible goal of finding out what takes a poor tenant farmer from Sligo, to Cádiz, and then on to Chile. This goal is soon subsumed by digressions, divertissements and formal deconstructions, that cumulatively seek to undermine contentious ‘commonplace’ ideas of historical narrative. By its end this isn’t just a film about the failure to make a film about Ambrose O’Higgins, it has become a deftly developed exploration of how mutable meaning is, especially the more it is probed and interrogated.
The opening sequences of the film places O’Higgins (as played by Jose Miguel Jimenez) upon some high Andean peak. The shot framing favours the long shot, or a medium shot from behind the actor, thus strongly suggesting a distance between audience and subject. From off this lofty mountain peak the film will force O’Higgins to descend, until at ground level, in some Sligo field, we will be able to scrutinise his story far more carefully, with as little of the romantic affectation as possible. Yet the descent from legend to life proves fraught with the vertiginous unsettlings and displacements that belong to any complex articulation of history, Lawlor and Molloy are merely allowing us to see behind the screen, to look in to the construction and artifice of filmmaking, and by extension any attempt at storytelling.
Further Beyond was the second film of 2016 that demonstrated the power of foregrounding narration as a specific, and particular instance of performativity in film, and one that by its aural nature normally goes unseen. At this year’s Berlinale I was fortunate enough to see Ruth Beckermann’s hypnotic film Die Geträumten (2016) about the recording of a radio production of the erotic and romantic correspondence between poets Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. What was most remarkable in this film was the way in which the performance of the narration and recitation associated with the radio production highlighted the manner in which the actors working upon the piece began to construct, as if unwittingly, a physical interpretation of the character’s they were playing. This then fed back into and inflected their equally constructed screen personae, lending a degree of genuine uncanniness to the carefully framed, and entirely fictional, proceedings of the film. Lawlor and Molloy perform a similar trick in utilising the voice actors Denise Gough and Alan Howley to inhabit self-reflexive screen versions of themselves.
This decision to foreground the performative aspects of narration leads to one of the most powerful sequences in the film. Howley, as Lawlor, introduces a recording of his mother doing a rendition of Sylvia Sidney in City Streets (1931), the first film to utilise what we would now call voiceover narration. This rendition is preparation for part of an aborted television production of The Playboy of the Western World, that Lawlor had been working on. As part of this performance he asks his mother to fire a gun at the camera, then catches her look of surprise when the gun actually goes off. Lawlor and Molloy, by this stage, have already successfully revealed to us the mechanics of image construction and manipulation, for narrative and emotional effect. Every element of what is shown in Further Beyond becomes something to be questioned. This, though, only makes the narrative reveal all the more affecting, when we are informed that this footage is from the mid-nineties, and Lawlor’s mother has since passed away. The way in which this footage is interrogated and recontextualised as a binary strand of the film’s concerns with exile makes for one of the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying cinematic moments of the year.
The sheer chutzpah of Lawlor and Molloy’s project of aborted projects that have gone before, expresses itself most effectively in the interstices between word and image. It is a film that constantly seeks its audience to reconcile itself to how little we can truly know of other people’s lives. Working from the grandiose tale of Ambrose O’Higgins through to the trans-Atlantic upbringing of Lawlor’s own mother, it discerns an exilic quality in all attempts at understanding. Just as people physically journey across borders and boundaries, simultaneously looking to discover and escape, so the film presents the audience with a series of visual conundrums, sites in which slippage of meaning is all that can truly be located. These sites of mutability and instability come together as a testament to L.P. Hartley’s notion of the past as a foreign country. They also serve to accentuate the remoteness of ‘the other’ – the camera, despite its very best efforts, can never allow the audience more than a fleeting sense of intimacy. Finally, this approach evokes James Joyce’s direct attack upon his homeland, which stands as one of the twentieth century’s strongest articulations of estrangement and exile: “No one who has any self-respect stays in Ireland, but flees afar as though from a country that has undergone the visitation of an angered Jove”.