Idle in Ireland: Albert Serras Singularityby Samuel Adelaar
Albert Serra’s Singularity is a sublimely scaled narrative film in the form of a five-screen, six-sound-channel installation. Serra’s films have been categorized as slow cinema, a subgenre of arthouse film perhaps best distinguished by its slack rhythms. His cinematic output is also infamous for its iconoclastic renditions of literary and historical figures. His most recent theatrical work, The Death of Louis XIV, for example, is a ridiculous, humbling portrait of the titular French monarch’s last days.
Singularity’s sensuously luxurious, episodic story is set off by the purchase of Lluís (played by one of Serra’s muses, Lluís Serrat), a heavyset, easygoing slave laborer, by another Lluís, an elderly yet spirited mine owner (played by the filmmaker’s other muse, Lluís Carbó), from Sebastien, a feeble business rival. Love animates this exchange: the one Lluís purchases the other so that the two may embark on a romantic relationship. The rotund Lluís also comes to co-own and run his partner’s mine, which extracts gold from the mountainous terrain of rural Ireland. The film’s other inciting event is the opening of a brothel by the Lluíses, in alliance with Imma, a friend of the couple. The women who work there, substituting one form of exploitation for another, are former laborers in Sebastien’s mining enterprise. Upon this narrative backbone, Singularity addresses a wide-ranging set of themes, including intimacy, the vagaries of personal and heteronomous relationships, idleness, and sensuality.
Within the darkened, cavernous space of the gallery at Toronto’s 99 Sudbury in which the film was exhibited, a spectator of Singularity first comes across a screen looping a brief work that serves as an introduction to the installation as a whole. This preliminary part is a montage of moments from the work, thematically emblematic images including a painting of a coy nude, onto which gold dust is speckled, and voiceover speaking of the relationship between “man [sic], machine, and matter.”
Singularity’s narrative unfolds across four synchronized screens for roughly three hours. Considered from an overhead view, the screens are arrayed in the form of a kind of folded octagon, each screen in the position of every second side of the plane figure. In terms of the installation’s schema, if the spectator stands at a particular “absent” side of the octagon, they are afforded an omnipresent, albeit somewhat oblique view of each of the four central screens for the duration of the film. Alternatively, from within the virtual octagon, the spectator can take in each screen on its own, sharing out their attention between the four.
This design conditions the spectator’s experience of the differential qualities of Singularity’s settings as a kind of spatial montage. Specifically, this apparatus reveals that the film’s built environments are distinguished by a pictorial polarity, one which is eased by its natural setting. At one end, there are the narcotic hues, the forgiving, soft lines, and the formal declension of the brothel’s living and dining room; at the other, the drab-in-the-daytime, inhospitable-at-night colors, the geometric edges, and the verticality of the mine. Through this formal taxonomy, the film suggests that the brothel is the space most proper to the state of being—namely, idleness—towards which the film’s characters seem to be collectively inclined.
To get at how the pictorial qualities of the brothel’s domestic space are imparted, it’s worth offering a partial litany of its mise-en-scène: there is a suede wall hanging, a mirrored black coffee table, a leopard print blanket, a ruby-red flower arrangement, a green velvet liquor bottle, an emerald lamp, a brown and tan dressing screen, and a chartreuse and ochre pendant light overhanging a mahogany dinner table, which brushes the entire space in an incandescent, amber light. One can add to this the sex workers’ intimates, which include a fur coat, a sheer slip, and a black dressing gown embellished by a flower print. In short, the brothel’s décor is more anaesthetic than lust-inducing.
By contrast, the daytime beige and grey of the mine’s equipment, and the geological material extracted from it, express the mine’s bland functionality. However, by the onset of night, the mine takes on an alien quality, in part conveyed by sickly yellow and harsh fluorescent lighting. A formidable shot imparts both this quality, as well as the upward thrust of the space’s form: silhouetted figures talk business before an otherworldly red landscape of mining equipment jutting towards the sky.
This stylistic dichotomy is tempered by views of a tranquil lake, a gentle stream and the misty, damp hills, colored in subdued, earthy tones, which border them. In this landscape, Sebastien prospects for gold, and female miners fish and undertake domestic chores.
If the sex workers’ garments can be listed alongside the brothel’s décor, it is due to the women’s bodily idleness. Just the same, the other occupants of this space are equally idle. In this corporeal leisure is the space’s formal gravity, in the sense of the weighing down of bodies, which one might say is caused by the force of decadence. That the film lingers on repose is indicative of its overall de-emphasis of actualization. Despite the fact that the brothel is a work site, sex is never pictured, although the spectator sees the sex workers’ labors of enticement. In general, actualization is substituted for promise, as in the potential commercial relationships sought after by the Lluíses.
Within its interiors, Singularity stages a careful portrayal of habitual intimacy. Exemplary here is the romantic partnership of the Lluíses. Their affection for one another shows in both public and private, but it is in clandestine conditions that their expressions of love are most poignant. One of these private moments finds the pair waking up in bed together. As the rotund Lluís struggles to put on a sweater, his partner reaches over to pull the stubborn article over his back. Sweater properly donned, Lluís reciprocates by brushing his partner’s hair. A sincere familiarity of love comes across in these mutual acts of care, and it’s emphasized by the scene’s insular form. The men’s room is sparsely sketched: it comprises just a single bed, a bedside table, and a portion of white wall adorned with a crucifix. This framing, and the fact that the scene is brightly spot-lit, evokes the film work of Andy Warhol, especially Chelsea Girls. The performance style in Singularity is also comparable to that of Warhol’s monumental film. The spontaneity, hesitancy, and recursiveness of gesture and speech in both works speak to an indulgent directorial style shared by the filmmakers.
Through its depiction of the Lluíses’s history as a couple, Singularity figures relationships as potentially mutable. At its onset, heteronomy, a kind of relationship in which one of the involved parties dominates the other, qualifies the Lluíses’s involvement. In fact, the condition under which the heavyset Lluís decides to accept his elderly admirer’s invitation to buy him is coercive. At this point, the slave laborer’s affection for the mine owner feels genuine. At the same time, the wisdom of the film’s world confers a semblance of rightness to the elderly Lluís’s offer—after all, this romantic partnership will free the rotund Lluís from toiling in Sebastien’s mine. In the outcome of the couple’s history, the film suggests, its corrupt origin is redeemed. In contrast to the Platonic view of the ontologically destined lots of ruler and ruled, the elderly Lluís apprehends in his heavyset partner untapped potentials of thought and action. More concretely, prior to their relationship, Lluís is “just” a manual laborer. But ensuing from its formation, he is revealed to have business acumen. Nonetheless, Singularity is far from proposing a universal suspension of heteronomy. The Lluíses remain capitalists and, whether laborers or slaves—their condition is unclear—the sex workers remain subjected.
Resonant with its depiction of intimacy is the film’s persistent focus on sensuality. Not only do the inhabitants of the brothel pursue sensual gratification. Eroticism also distinguishes Imma’s affairs with the female miners. The film’s most carnally intense moment, in which Imma and one of the female miners fuck, portrays the women absorbed in arousal for one another. This mitigation of theatricality means the scene is more a seduction of the spectator’s eye than a potential stimulation of their libido. As might be apparent, the dynamic of passion and dominance that characterizes Imma’s romantic relationships is akin to that of the Lluíses. The film’s detailed depiction of these relationships shows how economic and personal relations can shade into one another.
Reflecting on how one might model an emancipated society, Theodor Adorno writes, “It is not man’s lapse into luxurious indolence that is to be feared,” but rather the body politic’s understanding of its vocation to be “a blind fury of activity.” Singularity simultaneously centers on and largely brackets off a representation of profit-driven, expropriative production. It also lovingly dwells on idleness. Thus, echoing Adorno, the film salvages the value of indolence from a world it nevertheless acknowledges as enamored with making.
Singularity was featured in the Wavelengths program of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
SAMUEL ADELAAR is a writer living in Toronto.