Pallieter – a film about modernity and nostalgia

Posted on March 30, 2012 by

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A few days ago I went to watch Pallieter at the Cinematek. I am ashamed to admit that despite having spent almost three years living in Belgium, it was my first foray into Flemish cinema. The film is an adaptation of a Felix Timmermans novel of the same name. The film is a romantic and nostalgic portrait of Flemish country life before the Great War, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Pallieter, a loveable bon vivant. It depicts a crucial time for Europe, when the continent was on the cusp of dramatic societal transformations. The languid, rural life evoked in the film was already on the verge of extinction by the forces of progress, modernity and urbanisation. The war, like an ultimate death knell, symbolised the lost innocence of a continent rushing headlong into competing visions of modernity; liberalism, communism, fascism and yet more war. These are the main issues of the film, which is in essence a paean to a lost Flanders; a Flanders buried forever under the motorways, chemical factories and suburban sprawl that would go on to define the Belgian landscape after frenzied construction following the Second World War.

The film is a tale of modernity and freedom, order and humanity, with the protagonist representing an organic freedom and the spontaneous joy of living, increasingly constrained in a rapidly mechanising world. Pallieter spends his days blissfully roaming a Brueghel painting; eating, drinking, skinny dipping in the river and visiting his mute friend Franso, a painter living in a windmill. Within his pious rural milieu, Pallieter is seen as a non-conformist heathen. Indeed, his lifestyle is akin to the Grantchester Neo-Pagans of the same era and he is more suited to the grassy banks of the Granta river than the flat fields and waterways of deeply Catholic Brabant. Yet, for all his earthiness and hedonistic indulgence in the joys of the flesh, Pallieter is an otherworldly character; an impossible fairytale, whose combination of rebellious resilience and childlike naïvety set the tone for the fantastical feel the film exudes. The cinematography is slow and oniric, conjuring depth and drama out of the flat, listless landscape. The camera movements, unrefined, jerky, and unstable, mirror the anarchic freedom and frivolity of the protagonist’s deeply humanistic approach to life. The glowing luminosity that suffuses the al fresco images and long landscape tracking shots introduce a rare, almost Mediterranean pathos to the scenes, picking out the unique beauty of the Flemish landscape.

There are many possible readings of the film’s central messages and themes, which essentially explore the path of the unstoppable juggernaut of modernity, as it reshapes, orders and destroys everything in its path. Pallieter, if not quite a noble savage, is an instinctive Jean-Jacques Rousseau, enjoying the grace of natural freedoms. His firm belief, to quote Rousseau, that ‘the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’ is at odds with the prevailing winds of capitalist consolidation and progress, sweeping through Belgium at the time. The earlier Industrial Revolution, to which Belgium was the first continental country to succumb, seems to have passed Pallieter by and he is incredulous at the local landowner’s scheme to divert the natural course of the waterway for faster shipping. Perhaps his unexplained financial independence free him from entering into exploitative capitalist contracts. He is, thus, an unusual remnant of Marx’s pre-industrial artisans, the freest class, prone to anarchic sympathies, that finally disappeared with the consolidation of industrial capitalism and the emergence of the urban proletariat as the majority socio-economic class. Free from the constraints of others, he is able to gaze on the impending modernity with horror, fearing the decadence wrought by the subjugation of the countryside. Echoing the enclosure movements that dismantled the English countryside and forced people to seek work in the burgeoning industrial cities, Pallieter dreads the encroaching human control over nature. His, so far, is a world without the relentless standardisation of the machine; before the triumph of geometry over biology. His angst reminds us that, contrary to our largely teleological and self-congratulatory vision of progress and freedom, modernity benefited some but enslaved others.

Tensions between the old ways and the new order, or the analog and digital way of living if you will, manifest themselves also through Pallieter’s encounter with Hungarian gypsies. Nomadism and pastoralism, are one and the same, after all and the Gypsy trope cunningly illustrates modernity’s difficulty with ambiguity. Roaming the countryside, playing music and dancing, the Gypsies see no need for national borders or regulations. As Pallieter says of himself, the fields are his living room, the sky his ceiling. This attitude clashes with the Belgian state in the form of a policeman who interrrupts a spontaneous dance en plein air because the musician has no licence to play in public. Pallieter, whose anti-authoritarian ingenuity turned him into a Flemish national symbol, outwits the logic of the state, by unmasking its arbitrary absurdity in the face of real life. This is why the Gypsies are still perceived as a threat in Europe: they are a remnant from another era in the human story, when time was an internal construct, marked by human needs and the workings of nature, rather than an external construct, measured or imposed by manmade clocks.

This basic dichotomy between the organic and the abstract, leads me to discuss the most interesting feature of the film, in my opinion; namely what it contributes to the discussion on urbanism and contemporary architecture. What can a rural film tell us about the contemporary city? Well, quite a lot. Are the best cities not essentially nurturing environments for the organic interactions of strangers? At the film’s opening, Pallieter, in fact, resides in the city, drawn to it, no doubt, by the same ambivalent relationship bohemians have always had towards the city; a place of freedom and anonymity, new ideas and free thinkers, yet simultaneously a concentration of wealth, power and all the horrors of the dehumanising force of industrialisation.

Pallieter falls very ill after the suicide/drowning of a girl and he escapes to the countryside where his convalescence takes place. Reborn, almost spiritually, in the bucolic surroundings of his family home, Pallieter becomes an environmentalist avant la lettre. His respect for the natural life force of the trees and the organic course of the river betrays an animist attitude to the natural world. Is there not, though, a certain spirituality in today’s political green movement, with its prelapsarian vision of a pre-industrial Eden? All this contrives to make the film seem anti-urban, but this would be too simplistic. Are we not all, even the most ardent urbanists, such as myself, prone to a little nostalgia for the Garden of Eden we never knew. There is an instinctive appeal to the evocations of pastoral simplicity and merriment, à la Poussin. Even the cosmopolitan, coastal civilisations of ancient Greece were inclined to sehnsucht when reflecting on the nomadic simplicity of the Arcadian shepherds in the interior.

Some of the world’s greatest cities derive their flair from the arcadian beauty within their midst. Can one imagine Rome without its green hills, olive trees and lush gardens or Stockholm without its patchwork of islands delicately perched at the confluence of two seas. What’s more, the built environment itself mirrors nature and echoes its organic curves. The charm of medieval cities lies in the winding lanes and sinuous streets, that speak of their long and slow evolution, crafted almost individually by human hands, on a human scale. When, suddenly, the meandering alleyways give way to a perfect square, built on rationalist principles, it is the dramatic counterpoint that creates the grandeur. The artistry consists of building within nature, not against it. Le Corbusier’s mistake, a misunderstanding tragically repeated mindlessly in cities across the world, was to detach architecture from landscape, converting building into sculpture, while forgetting the humility of Michelangelo in declaring that the statue emerges from within its marble block. So too, the best architecture must rise out of its landscape, not appear, like a misplaced spaceship, and dominate its surroundings. Pallieter covers his country dwelling with mirrors so that it reflects the trees and greenery around it.

The city also is most convincing when it emerges from the surrounding countryside in harmony. There was a time when cities faded away slowly into nature, when the peripheries of large cities were semi-rural farmland, a liminal zone of exchange and transfer and site of weekend villégiature for crowded tenement dwellers. Instead, the contemporary city is usually clearly delineated by an arterial highway, another binary division in our digital world, after which follows an endless succession of suburban housing, shopping centres, business parks and industrial estates. Pallieter’s land is threatened by the expansion of the railways; in retrospect, a quaint incursion when compared with the six-lane motorways and interchanges that blight landscapes everywhere. The railways, however, did manage to exact a final blow on Brussels, immediately preceding their global peak and pathetic decline in favour of the automobile. Huge swathes of medieval Brussels were literally torn down overnight to pierce a subterranean connection through the heart of the city. The centre was irreparably cleaved in two, leading to three decades of stagnation in the city centre. An environment eked out over centuries by human habitation was sacrificed in favour of speed and modernity, driven by the absurd logic of abstraction. To speed up journeys between place A and place B, the two places must be destroyed, hollowed out into non-places, nodes of a journey.

Flying on an airplane to see the river from above, Pallieter is distraught at the chemical refineries and factories that he sees for the first time. So do we, instinctively recoil at the necessary evil, the ugly corollary of industrialisation and progress. Standards of living for the majority have undoubtedly soared, but is this the only way to advance? Could there be another fork in the road that we didn’t take? Let’s spare a though for what we have left behind or callously and thoughtlessly destroyed on the path that we chose, or had chosen for us. Let us not forget the everyday pleasures sacrificed on the altar of modernity, and the beauty and peace that we traded among each other to secure our vast wealth. Industrialisation is over, yet the orthodoxy of our architectural establishment continues to create industrial places that reek of mechanisation and inhumanity. Why do we need demand human environments, places that are places and fulfil our natural needs and desires, places that make us happy, not alienated. We must begin to fight for this before it is too late. Pallieter took his family on the road, cast out of his Brabantian Eden by social forces beyond his control, he went in search of unspoilt Arcadias. If we don’t act soon, perhaps there will be nowhere left

We build it in the name of progress and modernity and standards of living and wealth for the majority have undoubtedly soared. But, is this the only way to achieve such advancement? Is there another fork in the road that we didn’t take? While it is default to revel in all that we have achieved, let’s spare a thought for what we left behind or callously destroyed, for the everyday pleasures that we have sacrificed on the altar of modernity, and the beauty and peace that we have traded for wealth. Pallieter is a film infused with nostalgia, for a lost Flanders and a lost way of life. Beneath its undoubted romanticism and rose-tinted retrospection, lurks an important message for us all to contemplate.

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Posted in: Cinema