The Disappearance of Finbar II

By Sean Cubitt

d. Sue Clayton, Pandora Film/Channel 4 Films, UK/Ireland/Sweden, 1996, 100mins.

‘People disappear all the time’: this elegantly ambiguous line of dialogue opens out an otherwise quirky but unambitious comedy of observation into a full-scale commedia of loss, regret and self-destruction. The boy Finbar, given the persuasively pretty petulance of Robbie from Take That in Jonathan Rhys Meyers’ performance, is already vanishing under the weight of others’ expectations when he plummets off the end of a half-built flyover. The battered pebble-dashed housing estate, with its scrap iron, felt-pen graffiti, the occasional horse and the constant small fires and their desultory knots of recalcitrant schoolkids, catches the rain-streaked hinterland between Roddy Doyle’s Dublin and the rural romance of Hear My Song and Into the West, the Ireland of the Common Market, trade expansion at five per cent, and seasonal labour turned into long-term unemployment.

You know that these kids will only visit the faraway hills beyond the grey houses on school trips, and that the practised cynicism of the jaded schoolteacher is not the ebullience of the language of Synge and O’Casey, but the bitter last revenge of the depressed. Here the elegantly-handled depth of field denotes not the opulence of Citizen Kane and neo-classical Hollywood, nor the entwining communities of Renoir’s 30s movies, but a world bounded by its slate-blue sky, its repetitions and its structureless mess. The in-weaving of Celtic design has become a teen nightmare of involuted flirtations and casual sex: Kate uses Finbar’s mate Danny as bait, but Danny prefers Sinead, who has Finbar, but will get engaged to Simon, because she can. The unfinished flyover, the road to the void, beckons as the only way out, and Finbar takes it.

Clayton and co-scriptwriter Dermot Bolger, the respected writer, touch this dead-end with the grace of humour and a cuteness which, even when it involves four-year-olds, never gets out of hand. But even the whimsy is constantly tinged with yearning for a past or a future that never happens: the Roscommon Cowboys sing of life on the mythical range, granddad dreams of his lost seafaring buddy and the great exit routes of the poor, sport and music, fail to make it across the dual carriageway to freedom. In six minutes of screen time, the film has established the closure of its world, in fifteen the plot premise, and over the next thirty, watching through Danny’s eyes the unravelling of the opening’s communal and familial warmth, a sly, droll but ultimately tragic sense of what the lad’s disappearance means. The unctuous priest, trained in finding hope in the figure of a vanished god, discovers a unification of the community in its loss, just as the camera catches the increasingly grey-skinned, vacant face of Finbar’s bereft mother. The solidity of that pain anchors the whole film: escape is not without its consequences. With something of the tone of Pagnol’s Marius trilogy, when Danny leaves to track down his lost pal, the comic routine between his mother and her admiring police inspector has a poignancy like Raimu’s barroom abuse.

The film manages its transition from Ireland to Sweden at the midway point with little jarring, despite the low-budget requirement to use an almost wholly different crew. If anything, the blue-toned daylight that dominates both locations becomes even more powerful in the second half, even more rarely punctuated with the warm glows that suffuse the opening country & western number. The Stockholm bureaucrats are as coldly lit as the abandoned shipyards of Aachen Closee. Pulling on the threads established by the sailor’s yarns, grandpa tells of his Swedish mucker Torsten, Danny finds himself adrift in a snow-blasted landscape where the strains of the tango, as unlikely as Irish country, accompany his journey through the perpetual Northern twilight to the Arctic Circle. As the narrative patterns begin to link up over one another, patterns of people trapped, betrayed and abandoned, the stray elements of the music track begin to coalesce into an arabesque as carefully woven as the plotting. A Chinese couple sing a forlorn and homesick air; the C&W is turned into Swedish disco, and off-duty miners sing an old English Eurovision ditty. Music forms a second horizon to the landscape, a horizon of dreamt-of possibilities and reparable losses, a harmony of completion that the story seems to move towards.

But as the film moves towards its conclusion it becomes apparent that it will not stitch together its loose ends. There will be no healing for the abandoned mother, and the other mothers and grandmothers as they appear, each with their tales of loss. It is not that Clayton is brutal towards her women, or that the boyish charms of her leading men lead her astray, but that the women’s various modes of suffering are intrinsic to their senses of ageing and growth, something that among the men is only paralleled by Grandpa’s devotion to the memory of Torsten. In fact, that memory, lit in the glow of the buddy-movie subtext of what might quite easily be read as a road movie, becomes warmly homoerotic, not least as Danny discovers companionship along the way from the kilted barman Carl in Stockholm and the cast of sinister eccentrics at the polar tango bar, lost between Kaurismaki and My Own Private Idaho. Micronarratives lead outward from the central plot, echoing it with formal polish, but leading to other possibilities. Carl wistfully sympathises with the search for a lost friend, but finds his own way, standing still behind the bar while the world washes by. The grandma and granddaughter at journey’s end share a Godotesque wait, a humanising parody of late Bergman’s blue-washed gloom. The boys in the barroom, one carving his arm with a Bowie knife, are no less dead-ended than the estate kids, and no less redeemed by the rituals of singing and dancing, where a look and a gesture tell a tale of hopeless love.

The last line of dialogue in the film evokes ‘that deep and inescapable sense of home’. But the context, ambiguous to the end, is not of return but of a fantasy of return, and Danny’s fantasy of Finbar’s return at that. This ‘home’ is a fiction, and it is a great strength of Clayton’s film that it constantly weaves that sense of the impossibility of home into the most anodyne of passages: in the political memory of a Chinese take-away, or in the Swedish immigration office, where the camera pans uncommenting past an African couple’s worried, questioning glances. The Babel of tongues and musics belies the specificity of the visuals with a broken but permeable sense of ethnicity and culture, and at limit points, where, as it does quite often, dialogue information has to be carried by gesture, mime and acting-out, the sense of the ridiculous is heightened by a greater sense of the necessity of translation, even when there is nothing to say, perhaps most of all in the dreadful pun that enables the final act.

Finbar makes a virtue out of exactly what we are supposed to fear: the Euro-pudding. To a cynical observer, this is a broken-backed flick, a film of two halves, led from one to the other by Eurimages more than logic. Some of this fear is pure Norteamericano propaganda, and some premised on a classical aesthetics which cannot do justice to the new Europe of the diasporas. What it will miss, among the wit, affection and sadness of The Disappearance of Finbar, is its respect for the randomising factors of communication, their tragedies and their revelations, the leakiness of any culture cut from whole cloth. The apparent hiatus in the narrative is not a break but a hinge, a fold where the experience of emigration so central to the Irish, the Swedish and the European experience mirrors two worlds mappable one onto the other across the articulation of distance.

Each section is punctuated by a similar chiasmus marked by moments of the Chinese diaspora, globalising the film’s world. The simultaneous fatalism and liberation of chance is reprised in the modulation of the images of community and escape when – in memory? As trope? – the two infant cowboys of the opening scene tumble spread-eagled towards the camera at the end. That loss and betrayal are the condition of culture should not surprise anyone who has worked in British cinema. But for Finbar they are brought back, not by facile and sentimental plaiting of loose ends, but in the joyous randomness and eccentricities of trickster humanity – grandma’s dance, grandpa’s memory, the motif of miming horns – illuminating the narrative with the unearned payoff of laughter. In Clayton’s picaresque is that refusal of destiny which turns Lumière’s mechanical perception into Bazin’s redemption of reality: that refusal is cinema, and this is cinema.

Sean Cubitt teaches at Liverpool John Moores University