London: I Sat Glued to the Screen

By Bambi Ballard

As a Londoner who has just returned after spending ten years living in Paris, I immediately warmed to this film, for it showed a London I felt knew and yet did not know at all, having visited only one or two of the places shown.

london-patrick-keiller.jpgLondon, dir. Patrick Keiller. Photo: BFI Film and Video distribution

Paul Scofield’s beautifully modulated voice tells the story of a man who has also returned to London after a long absence, and who visits the city with his friend Robinson. He tells us that Robinson is anchored in an aesthete’s romantic world that never was, attempting to rebuild London as if the 19th and 20th centuries had never existed, but the images belie his words, for it is precisely 20th-century London that we are shown.

This London becomes increasingly exotic and unique with each reminder that Reynolds and Johnson lived in what is now garish Leicester Square, that Apollinaire loved and lost his landlord’s daughter in a sordid, crumbling, undistinguished building, that Montaigne taught French in a school now surrounded by porn shops.

I have just spent ten years working on the œuvre of Abel Gance, and his films contain much more than they appear to do on the surface, but they are always driven by a strong story line. For me a film has to contain suspense, drama and narrative, and seemingly, this is just what London does not have. But it managed to carry such a strong feeling of suspense, of something about to happen, that I sat there glued to the screen as if I was watching a thriller.

This was achieved by contrast between the text and the images. The series of beautiful shots that drift across the screen with no pertinent story to tell, and the elegant pastiche of an 18th-century diarist would be banal on their own. Together they create this sense of drama.

London is a romantic film, and as the narrator says, quoting Baudelaire ‘Romanticism is not situated in exactness, but in a mode of feeling.’ This was the strength of the film. Robinson’s search led me to constantly expect something to happen, for Robinson to find something, or even to see Robinson and his friend the narrator. None of this came about. Instead something happened to me. I began to understand the dramatic meaning behind what Abel Gance called his ‘indescribable memory of the future’. I felt projected into my own future memories of London, with a sense of personal loss, a nostalgia for a past that never was, a sense of missing something I never had, never saw, that never even existed. And thus, within the space between the London of the image and the London of the text I created my own private London.

Bambi Ballard arranges orchestral performances of silent films for the French Ministry of Culture and worked on the restoration of Napoléon and other films by Abel Gance.